AUSSIE SKETCHES FROM NUSANTARA 2: Oyster Omelettes, Hitchhiking, and Pots and Pans

I hitch-hiked from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur in Malayisa, and then on to Ipoh, in 1970. This though wasn’t my first venture into hitch-hiking.

I started hitch-hiking when I was in high-school. I was a young boy living in the western suburbs of Sydney who read adventure stories, the best of which were, of course, this by Robert Louis Stevenson. But I read stories from the 20th century also. Hitch-hiking was the closest I could get to an adventure. I hitch-hiked around New South Wales sleeping over mainly in youth hostels. It was fun. There were no really big adventurous moments, although a few things do still remain vivid in my mind. I saw my first fully naked woman on one trip. I got a lift for a long stretch of driving coming back into outer western Sydney. The driver was a merchant sailor who had just visited his parents in the country and now he was on his way to see a friend. Perhaps, I thought, the kind of friend that a sailor has in every port. It turned out that the lady friend in question lived in a caravan park. We parked near the caravan and the sailor-man entered straight into the caravan calling out his friends name. She appeared wearing a gown that was obviously very deliberately open. She wasn’t aware that her friend had a 16 year old hitch hiker with him. Anyway, she did up her gown and we the three of us sat down around the caravan table and had tea and biscuits. I then got a lift from the same driver to the nearest railway station and caught the train back to Fairfield.

Blayney, NSW
Ipoh, Malaysia

Perhaps the weirdest little incident – well maybe a little weird as being a little incident – was hitch-hiking in winter and arriving in what was considered one of the the coldest towns in New South Wales.  It was just too freezing and raining to boot. Camping out on the side of the road or in a paddock as I had planned was going to be impossible. There was a small hotel in Blayney but as an under aged kid I wasn’t sure that would take me in. The owner publican was okay though, and gave me the room at a cheap price. He did give me what was a weird and embarrassing warning: “Remember it is against the law to masturbate in a public hotel.” Well, it was so cold no such temptation was to cross my mind. It was so cold I couldn’t even brave going out of my room during the night to relieve myself. Si I engaged in what I later learned from Frank Hardy’s very enjoyable novel, But The Dead Are Many, was an Australian tradition: I pissed down the sink that was inside the bedroom. God, was it freezing that night. (The only other experience of such cold was when I stayed in a friend’s house in Amsterdam in the middle of winter. The Dutch turn off the heaters at night. The only way I could survive the cold in the bathroom at 1am in the morning was to steam up the room by turning on the shower and steaming up the room.)

There was no problem with the cold, of course, hitch-hiking from Johore Bahru to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or hitching from K.L. to Georgetown across from the island of Penang. The tropics, of which I had read about in Somerset Maughan and already experienced in Indonesia and Singapore during the previous several weeks. I hadn’t originally contemplating hitch-hiking in Malaysia but some of the gang of Australian and English backpackers I had been hanging out with in Singapore had set off to do that. So why not, I thought. I stayed longer than anyone else in Singapore. I loved the melting pot atmosphere. For an 18 year old suburban Sydneyite, it seemed to concentrate all the feature of an exotic adventure location. For the 18 year old, it was somehow more “Asian” than Indonesia. Perhaps the “Orient” in the 18 year old suburban mind had been too closely welded to images of Chinese temples and other things “Eastern”. Indonesia, with the exception of Hindu Bali, had less of the “orient” about it, despite the Borobudur and Prambanan. Street architecture had little character, and 50 years later, that is still the case. But searching for the Orient no longer has the same weight for the 67 year old politico as it did with the 18 year old “adventurer”.

To be honest, however, apart from in the culinary arena, there were no great adventures in Singapore. Just colour and life. (Colour and life were not a highlight feature of a Sydney suburb.) Colour and life and food: and these three were often fused. Something simple, for example, the oyster omelette scenario in Racecourse Road often still springs to life in my mind even fifty years later. As was common back then, much hawker food was cooked on the footpath. The customer would sit inside the café and buy drinks from a kiosk inside: beer, coffee, tea or chocolate soyabean milk. Food was ordered from a hawker on the footpath. I was a regular ordering an Oyster Omlette from “Uncle Lee”. He told us he had been cooking oyster omelettes, and only oyster omelettes, for 17 years and that his father had done the same. He reminded me of Chinese hawker cooks – giant wok wielders – that I had across in Chinatown in Jakarta and Jogjakarta. Gaunt but sinewy from wielding the heavy wok over great heat. And the omelettes were like heaven to eat. Who knows what flavourings were mixed in to add to the lusciousness of the oysters and the smooth savouriness of the eggs. To my 18 year old mind, influenced by the “orientalist” imagination of adventure (actually just a reaction to the boredom of Australian suburbia) even just watching that old man cook, ordering chocolate soya bean milk and chatting with backpackers and with the locals in the little Malay I knew was at least a little adventure with the “East”.

Hitchhiking from Johore Bahru to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Butterworth through Ipoh were little adventurous exposures to Malaya. I caught a bus from Singapore to J.N. I somehow got to thee dge of J.B. on the highway that went to K.L. and started thumbing for a ride. After only a short while, a Mercedes pulled up. There was a lone Chinese guy driving who said he could take me all the way to K.L. Thanks, I said, and hopped aboard. It was a pleasant ride in a very strongly scented luxury car. He asked me where was I from; why was I travelling and so on. Having been on the road for six weeks by then, through Portuguese Timor, Indonesian Timor, Bali, Java and Singapore, I had similar questions hundreds of times. I explained that I was a university student in the Department of Indonesian and Malayan Studies at the University of Sydney. I had finished one year of study and was making my first trip to visit the countries I was studying. I was one of tens of thousands of students from Australia and Europe backpacking through Southeast Asia at the time, but was also one of a very few who were studying the region, or trying to study it.

He explained that he was engineer, a road engineer, working on a project in Johore but that he was from K.L. He was very polite and never aggressive but he was also clearly a gay man. That this was the case only dawned on my gradually with a little hint here and a minor gesture there. But the conversation was interesting, about life in Malaysia so early on in its independence. He offered to make me to dinner, which I accepted and we ate Chinese in an outdoor food market area. Malaysian Chinese food seemed different from that in Singapore – perhaps less of a Malay and Indian influence? After dinner, Ii thanked him for the ride and the meal and he dropped me off at the hotel recommended by the International Youth Hostels Association.

I stood thumbing again on the road to Ipoh just outside K.L. It was about an hour before some somebody picked me up. It was a Volkswagen Beatle. There were three Indian men in the car.

“Where are you going?” one asked.

“I am heading for Penang,” I replied.

“We can take you to Butterworth,” another one said. “But we will stopping a lot along the way, at rubber plantations. Are you in a hurry? Would you like to see the plantations?”

I told them I would and so I got into the back seat with one of the men. It turned out that they were pots and pans salesmen. So we would stop in at a plantation and they would visit the houses of the Indian plantation workers. Usually it was just the wife who was at home. I would sit silently, eating the fried Indian snacks or sometimes rice cakes and tea that they served up. The men would set out to convince the mistress of the house to buy a new frying pan or a saucepan or both. Sometimes they succeeded, other times they would leave empty handed.

The drive in to each house usually meant following a winding road between rows of rubber trees. Sometimes you could glimpse the odd worker cutting into a tree or doing other chores. They were all Indian. Then we would come to the little cottage where the sales pitch would take place. I gathered from the chit chat in the car as they drove on, that these cottages were those used by the foremen, not by the plantation labourers.

“This is Ipoh,” the passenger in the front seat explained. “We will take you to lunch. Ipoh is famous for its Chicken Rice.” Chicken rice is not simply chicken and rice. It is slow poached chicken served with rice cooked in a strained chicken broth. That rice, with a little dark soya sauce poured over it and some freshly made chilli sauce, is delicious enough by itself to satisfy even the most fanatical foodie. Even today, I don’t understand the chemistry or physics of the poached Hainana Chicken. Of course, the flavour, assuming a quality chicken, of the most meat is delightfully and quietly delectable. But what has always amazed me the most is how the chicken keeps it shape and how the moist skin doesn’t seem to shrink away from the body. And my new Indian pots and pans friends were right: Ipoh chicken rice is probably number one.

I stayed in Ipoh for a night on a little hotel near the Chicken Rice café. The pots and pans gang bought me a packet of peanuts, still in their shells. “These are famous in Ipoh too.”

It was strange in some ways. As with much of my first experiences in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia as the eighteen year old sought adventure in the exotic orient, it turned out that people still sold and bought pots and pans. And, sometimes they couldn’t afford it. The pots and pan men were no less generous than the Mercedes driving engineer. And the Oyster Omlette cooked on the footpath was the best.

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