Christmas to me is pure magic and has been until now and so it will be until the end. The magic of Christmas was ignited in my heart for all the wrong reasons and when my mother began to protect us from what she perceived to be immoral behaviour on the part of the servicemen and their wives and girlfriends but which to us children was totally exciting to witness. It became an annual tug of war between the few Indian children and their parents for about a week in December.
Christmas is not about the 25th of December.
Christmas is a feeling felt in the heart, that is heard by the spirit and finds its exit in carols.
Christmas is not about whether the government will allow you to go carolling or not.
Christmas is not about whether one group is trying to convert another.
Christmas is not about groups calling each other heathens and pagans.
Christmas is the magic that fills my heart every year.
Christmas is the jolliness that permeates the neighbourhood.
Christmas is the lighted up trees and the smell of fruitcake and cookies being baked.
The Indian parents and children knew it had arrived when the Caucasian neighbours came with bits of cakes, cookies and beer for us and told us that there would be parties and noise. Mum would accept the cakes and cookies, decline the beer with a sweet smile of thanks, turn around and tell us in a fierce whisper that bad behaviour was about to start in the neighbourhood! And we children tried our best not to display the excitement we had been waiting for.
During the days preceding the party there would be much hustle and bustle which we observed from our gate. Furniture would be taken out into the garden of each house one by one. Trees would be brought in and decorated. The men would be shirtless, beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from the lips. The women in their shorts and bikini tops. The Chinese amahs would be busy washing and cleaning. The carols would be blaring and we would all sing along since the nuns had taught us those carols.
There would be a difference in my house too. Mum would be very alert and make sure the curtains were drawn, prepare early dinner for us and tell us to go to bed by eight. She would come around the outside of the house to make sure our windows were all shut and that we would not see what was going on in the neighbour's garden.
Lorong 2B is a short road with six semi- detached houses on either side of the road. The land area of each house is about 5000+ square feet. Let me give you a picture of that area where I stayed from the age of ten till I married and left home and where my dad lives alone till today.
Jalan Abdul Samad is a long road which begins from the sea-front near the hospital and stops at the cross-roads junction where Jalan Sungai Chat intersects. It then goes on passing the turning to Jalan Nong Chik on the left, the palace on the left and Lorong 2 on the right, past Johore Specialist Hospital and Radio Malaysia on the left and finally ends at a T-junction with Foon Yew Chinese School on the right.
When you enter Lorong 2 there are three smaller Lorongs (lanes) on the left, starting with 2A, then 2B and finally 2C. On the right as you entered Lorong 2, there was a big Malay style wooden house with a workshop. It was a tukang-kayu workshop (carpenter's workshop) and that was the house of Musa Hitam's family. He was at one time our Deputy Prime Minister. Today the big house is gone, leaving us with memories of the sound of carpentry and the voices of the carpenters as they spoke and sang popular Malay songs. Today there is a very quiet nursery there and its distinctive quality is the silence that pervades the area and the chain-link fencing. But all of us old-timers to that area, still refer to it as tukang kayu's house. Whenever we went to catch a bus, we would take the short-cut through the workshop. Those were safe days.
When we first moved in there, as we walked from the Jalan Nong Chik junction to Lorong 2, on the left there were only 2 houses. The first one, a typical Malay house on stilts was the residence of the Penghulu of Kampung Baru. I used to visit his house and spend many afternoons there. His daughter Hanim Ahmad was my classmate. I recall a much younger sister and an older sister who was already working. Her parents were like all Malays, very polite and very hospitable. Much as I declined, I would be given a cold drink and some tid-bits.
The second house, a huge palatial bungalow was the residence of a Malay judge. He had a huge reputation as an honest, upright, law abiding person. His daughter Zaleha was my senior in the Convent by about two years. She was not friendly and never spoke to any of us from Lorong 2. I have only ever caught a glimpse of her father from a distance and her mother, never. It was known at that time that he was Malaya's first Malay judge. I am trying to authenticate this information. In front of his house was Lorong 2B on the right.
Lorong 2B where we lived is the only Lorong with two rows of houses on either side. All in all there are 24 houses in Lorong 2.
Lorong 2B in the 60s.
As you enter Lorong 2B the first house on the right was occupied by Tony and his wife and their two young children. Tony's wife often changed her hair colour and she was neither friendly nor unfriendly. The first house on the left was occupied by an Indian Iyer family.
The second house on the right was occupied by the Nair family and the second house on the left was our home. The third house on the right was occupied by Tony and his wife whom we called fatty Maureen. The third house on the left was occupied by June and her husband and child Graham. The fourth house on the right was occupied by a Maori and his white wife Angela and their baby. The fourth house on the left was occupied by an English family and their daughter Anne Marie. We did not know the names of the caucasian occupants of the other two houses on the left. The fifth house on the right was occupied by a retired Malay postmaster and the last house on the right by another English family with two teenage children: Norma and I forget the name of the serious looking handsome boy. The road continued after a bend with detached houses, all occupied by English servicemen and their families except for a couple of Indian families. So Christmas was in the air all around us.
The activities would become more brisk as dusk approached. Most of them put their children in one house and had an amah take care of them for the night. Each of the houses would host a party so we had a number of parties to enjoy from our bedroom window. Fatty Maureen's house was barely visible. June's house was next to ours. By about ten in the evening, everyone would be in high spirits.
Sulo who lived in front of our house had more freedom than we had. Her parents allowed her to watch the parties from her patio. One party stands out. The music, the smoke from the barbecue and the conversation set the tone. Then the dancing began. For me it was the first live dance that I had seen. It was movie come to life. They would change partners and the songs were all the latest songs. We used to sing along with the music.
There was a commotion of some sort. We peered into the darkness. There was a man and a woman behind the house next door. The tall man we recognized as fatty Maureen's husband. The woman he was hugging and kissing was too short and slim to be Maureen. Another movie scene. When the woman passed next to our window we recognized her as the other Tony's wife, the one who changed her hair colour. The Tony who kissed her stood for a while, leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette.
About four days before the party, she had come to my gate at about half past nine in the evening with a tray in her hand. She told me that her fruit cake had got burnt. It was edible and would I please take it. She was going to bake another one and her children were too young to eat it. It would only go to waste. My mother who was such a stickler when it came to accepting food had gone out with my father. My sisters and brothers came to the gate. I told them what she had told me, in Malayalam of course and asked them for their opinion.
Take it! They said unanimously.
What would mother say?
We will eat it all up before she comes home.
So take it I did.
It was a big cake and we could not eat it all. We kept it in the fridge. When my parents returned, we told them that she had brought a cake, that it was slightly burned and it was in the fridge. Mum looked quite pleased actually. The cake was very nice but rich and we could only eat it in small pieces.
It was 1965. The previous year Moira Boyd, her husband Clark and son George were our neighbours.
Moira was a steady sort of person, she was 24. Her husband had got into a drunken brawl and was sent back to Scotland. She was a good neighbour. She kept in touch with my mother for years, sending her pictures of Baby George growing up.
We wondered what was going through Tony's head. The party had taken another route and we weren't so sure if the feeling that we felt was disillusionment. Listening to the music, one by one we fell asleep. The next day my mother called us and told us that there was a big fight going on in Tony's house. And it was happening in the garden between Maureen and Tony. Then Maureen went over to the other Tony's house. Sulo's house stood in between. We never saw the two Tonys talking to each other again. But by evening Maureen and her husband were holding hands and walking down the road.
Dad was with the British Army and he made monthly contributions to a fund. At the end of the year, he would get lots of new presents for his children for Christmas. He would bring toys, books, biscuits, chocolates and cakes for us. Mum would apportion the food for us and each one of us would get our toy. This was an annual tradition and the last time he brought gifts was in 1969. The following year, the British withdrew from Singapore and took this tradition home with them.
The garden parties with the music went on until new year's eve. Then the neighbourhood would become quiet again. The people who occupied the house behind ours also had their parties but everything happened in the front of the house.
When the British army withdrew from Malaysia and Singapore, the servicemen left and the houses became vacant and most of them reverted to being owner-occupied.
Today, as I drive into Lorong 2 when I visit my father, the people who made up the exciting neighbourhood where I grew up are no more.
The Iyer family next door, sold their house and moved away. Their eldest son, Dato Ramachandran Viswanathan had retired as a high ranking naval officer of the Royal Malaysian Navy.
The Nair family in front - most of them are no more. Sulo went on to become Associate Professor Dr Sulochana Nair of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Malaya. The house is now rented to an Indian expatriate doctor.
Further up the road, Mrs Titus lives alone for a few months of the year. The rest of the year is spent with her youngest son Thomas a lawyer in California. It was her eldest son Abraham I visited when we went to Belfast. That visit caused a lot of anxiety to Mr Loh and I thank Mrs Lai for the support she gave me in my endeavour to meet him after almost forty years.
As I enter my house, there is our old faithful Min Chu - my mum's aging dog, my Dad and a Filipino maid. I can almost hear the footsteps of all of us who lived there so noisily and their voices echo in my head.
The neighbourhood settled down to becoming a very Asian neighbourhood with Chinese, Malays and Indians.
There are no more garden parties. The people going up and down the road are strangers. But I only need to look within and I can hear
Joy to the world
The party's begun
Let us enjoy the songs ...