This is a story narrating a relationship between my family and the Engchoons, a relationshiop that stretched over a hundred years, transcending three different centuries, three or four generations. The setting was Bagan, a village in Batu Pahat, a kampong that preceded the town itself.
Eng Choon operated the kampong “commercial hub “. It was a sundry shop he inherited from his father, we fondly called Apek Tiau. It was a “Commodity Exchange of sort”, a Chinese sundry shop in a Malay agricultural heartland. The Malays were the landowners. The produce were betel nuts,copra, coffee, rubber in that sequence.
I am putting this narration on record because the relationship was more than a relationship between producers or farmers and the middleman. It was a symbiotic relationship between men of diverse background and belief systems but with the common desire to survive and raising families.
Eng Choon’s corner sundry shop supplied the needs of the whole kampong, from rice to sugar to dried fish. They were also the bankers, providing credits for wedding feasts and the advances before the coconuts or coffee were ready for harvest. They were the buyers of the kampong produce. The only thing Eng Choon did not meddle in was the building materials. The Toh or Teo family supplied the timber and cements.
My Great grandparents were the biggest landowner in the whole of Bagan. Being Javanese, land was everything. The swampy wetlands of Bagan was transformed into plots producing betelnuts, coffee, coconut and later rubber. They produced and the engchoons were the buyers.
This relationship started in the middle of the 19th century long before Eng Choon’s.
EngChoon’s father, Apek Tiau was the supplier of the household sundries to both my great grandfathers. My 84 year old mother could remember that Delivery of bulk orders would be by Prahu direct from Singapore literary to their doorsteps.
When my great grand parents passed away, just after the first world war, they left over 150 acres of land. Asignificant portion has already been disposed to build the Kampong mosque. While the Javanese were concenterating on land accumulation, Apek Tiau and gangs were happy to control the commerce.
The relationship continued . My grandfather inherited The Ancestral Home and a few plots. The difficult time began. The Second generation syndrome setting in? The dynamism of the second half of the 19th century could not be sustained. Was it the Depresion? The worst was about to come, the second World War, followed by the Bintang Tiga Period and the Emergency.
Life was tough, for everybody. For the Chinese, the Japanese Occupation was even harder. Apek Tiau and my father was huddled up in a store. China ? Melayu? The manner you answered determined whether you were let loose or ended up bayonetted. My father was let loose, Apek Tiau escaped but with a skewed arm. Pok Seng’s wife was raped by the Japanese. So was nyonya Sinseh. When the Japanese left, My dad and the other kampongites helped.
Apek Tiau survived but with a hunchback, a limp and a skewed arm. A new ‘peribahasa’ was created. One who fit that description would be called apek tiau.
When the Japanese left, except for the few Bintang Tiga culprits, the symbiotic relationship continued.
It was especially tough for my father. A catty of Rubber was cheaper than a catty of rice. Engchoons provided the lifeline.
I remember sewing the gunny sacks full of Copra for sale to Eng Choons. It was a time when the measure was picul and kati or catty. My brother was telling me that he would stop at eng choon to collect his daily pocket money before beginning the 6 mile cycle to Batu Pahat High School. I remember the dose of tamban and cencaru kering provided by eng choon to accompany the turi and belinjau vege. I remember my late father sending to Eng Choons, not so matured bananas and Eng choon would obligingly provide the liquidity.
Life was not easy for eng choons too. This we could see. The children were so scruffy and unkempt that we have a saying “anak eng choon” for those with runny nose, unkempt hair, scruffy looking lads amongs us.
It was not about racial stereotyping. We have another term “cucu eng Choon”. The term was reserved for the orphaned grandchildren of my father. My late father was so grateful to the lifeline provided by Eng Choon that his grandchildren became EngChoons grandchildren.
The corner shop is still standing. After he died, the daughter took over but not for long. The eng choon family moved. They moved on to do other things. One became a teacher. The other built a sawmill. The last visit to the Eng Choons, my father, and mother accompanying, was during the last Kongsi Raya.
Yesterday, the second day of eid, when I was buying the newspapers, it was Ah Chai ,Eng Choon’s eldest son manning the stand. He must be about 65. His son operated the new sundry shop. To him I am Salam Kia. We talked about old times. We talked about how our fathers were brothers.