This Is How I Think It Began

I don’t remember being particularly fond of tagging along on road trips with my parents, or of being made to memorise the names of good men who were saving the world or bad men who were fanning the flames of war in faraway places… but I guess these things must have made some kind of impression.

Road-tripping with my parents, Malaysia, early 1990s.

It might dismay my mum and dad to hear this, but I think it’s them I have to thank for my tendency to wander. The books I later devoured did the real work in firing up my imagination, but it began with them.

For one thing, my mother’s hands-on methods of worldly education weren’t the conventional kind. She’d had me memorising the capital cities and flags of countries, and even the names of the founding fathers and heads of state around the world before I was seven years old. I imagine that the combustibility of such names as George Washington, Deng Xiao Ping and Saddam Hussein, uttered in the same breath and exotic to a child, added a sense of international intrigue to my interior world — though I had nothing on these kids. My parents also got me my first little red book — the Malaysian passport — when I was just five months old. Admittedly it was a limited passport which permitted travel only across the causeway to Singapore, but it means I’ve been travelling even before I knew what the word “travel” meant, before it became an action committed, before it took on an outsized significance that would stop my parents with anxiety every time I alluded to it.

The road trip of the popular — American, I suppose — imagination is associated with unfettered individual freedom, but the road trips we took were usually directed by family ties and responsibilities. Mostly, we travelled to visit relatives peppered around the country like an intricate web of loyalties (and the occasional feud). Travel, back then, had simply meant the act of going from one place to another, not so much a vacation in the determined sense touted by travel companies, nor the semi-permanent way of life it’s become for modern-day digital nomads. When people ask if I have always wanted to travel, I always tell them no, that it didn’t happen until I was at university in London and would take advantage of budget airfares to Europe for the summer with friends — because as a child riding in the backseat, I hadn’t always been a willing passenger.

So it surprised me when, rummaging through a box of memorabilia recently, I came across a three-page letter I had written my mother when I was, I think, about eleven. We had argued about something and she had said something to me that had hurt my feelings and made me mad and, as you do, I wrote it all down but never gave it to her. I won’t bore you with the details, but there was a line in there that went something like, “When I’m old enough I’m going to travel the world and be free!” Mercifully, for the sake of my older self’s dignity, it was written in mostly elegant script, devoid of screaming caps. I guess I had caught the travel bug a little earlier than I had thought.

With family friends who had come to visit at our old home in Ipoh, Perak state, Malaysia, early 1990s.
Kota Tinggi, Johor state, Malaysia, early 1990s.

In those days, we hadn’t yet made the move to Kuala Lumpur. We were still living in Ipoh: the capital of the northern state of Perak that still wears a faded colonial prominence from the tin-mining boom of the nineteenth century. Most often, we would drive south across the straits into Singapore: that little country so similar to and yet so different from ours, which had been cleaved from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, prompting uncharacteristic tears on television from Lee Kuan Yew. Most of my mother’s side of the family lived in Singapore, and on the way to visit them we would also drop in on my grandparents in Johor, the closest Malaysian state across the causeway that links both countries, in a town called Kota Tinggi. It would take about five to six hours to get there, and I remember how I hated having to wake up before dawn so we could beat the traffic.

As a child, I associated Singapore with a certain tedium: the imperative of greeting all my relatives by the right titles in the age-determined pecking order — First Uncle, Second Uncle, and so on; being dragged along while my mother and my aunt shopped the annual sales with a certain aggressive determination on Orchard Road; and whiling away time in hospital waiting rooms as my grandparents had their medical check-ups, because the doctors were said to be better in Singapore. As for Kota Tinggi, I had thought of it as a backwater town which would have had nothing to recommend it were it not for my grandmother’s tea-and-kaya toast ritual and vivid Japanese Occupation stories, the fireflies on the river at night, and the ability to tap into Singapore’s airwaves for Channel 5, the English-language channel, until my monopoly was over and I had to turn it over to my grandmother at 7 p.m. for her Chinese-language serial dramas. The perpetual noise of mahjong tiles being scrambled together by adults who had to shout to hear themselves, though, made it hard to watch anything on TV; and often, there was no internet service, or it didn’t work, since this was back in the dark days of dial-up. As these things go, I didn’t begin to appreciate Kota Tinggi and Singapore until I was much older, when I could look back on them and chart the myriad of ways they had burrowed into my psyche. Then, I started to appreciate the memories they contained that, with time, went from unremarkable to illustrious, part of the family myth.

For whatever reason, it was a different story with Sitiawan—my father’s hometown, and where I was also born. I always looked forward to going back, perhaps because it’s just an hour’s drive away from Ipoh, back when long journeys still felt like a chore for me (these days, even eight hours on the road is a breeze). Sitiawan is a town known for its foo chow heritage due to the wave of immigrants from Fuzhou, China, in the early twentieth century, which is evident in the food, such as mee sua, a soup of vermicelli noodles and chicken cooked with red rice wine, and less common, musical surnames like mine: Ding, Ting, Ling. Its claim to history, though, might be its most infamous local son: the late Ong Boon Hua, who is better known by his nom de guerre, “Chin Peng”: former leader of the Malayan Communist Party, who was exiled from his birthplace to Thailand until the end of his life, and who was denied his last wish to be buried in his homeland.

The aunties and uncles stand for a portrait with the mermaids at the “Sitiawan house”, Perak state, Malaysia, early 1990s.

I loved Sitiawan for the bungalow with the indigo roof and imposing gates, which, according to family lore, was once scaled by a cousin’s jilted girlfriend in the depths of despair. It was a big house, since three of my father’s siblings lived together under one roof, which meant that I always had a brood of cousins to play with. When it was time to leave, I would wrap myself around the stair bannister, would have to be dragged out to the car. I remember the house had labyrinthine hallways and nooks perfect for hide-and-seek, and a large, open field at the back where we could run with my other Second Uncle’s Dobermans and which, for a time, housed a large cage with two peacocks in it — a slightly surreal manifestation of some of our family’s eccentricities. The house’s most distinctive feature, though, was a peanut-shaped pool — often more exciting when it was empty because then, it became an inverted stage for our mischief. And next to it, you could climb a pebble “hill” adorned with reclining statues of bare-breasted mermaids, which looked theme-park kitsch and frankly, a little bizarre, but was great for projecting our pirate stories onto. The “Sitiawan house”, as we called it, was a place capable of taking on the dimensions of our overactive imaginations.

But here’s what I remember most about these road trips: my parents taking turns at the wheel of that beat-up Range Rover, my father’s never-changing playlist with its usual suspects of Lobo, Rod Stewart and Air Supply, and my mother’s floral gloves that covered her from wrists to elbows to protect them from the sun while she drove. As for me, I would lose myself in a book before drifting to sleep, curled up on a tatty mattress my parents had laid out for me in the boot, folded in two to fit. The faulty air-conditioning outlet would leak in steady drips from above, and I would wake up thinking I had wet the bed.