An Ordinary Opera of the Oppressed
There is no order, but the chaos of insides shine. Irreverently dressed, their lack of education shining through their very dull faces. They think noise is symbol of happiness, they talk loud, and even the Chinese Opera is set to the thumping House Music. The Brandy flows. Brandy is an after dinner drink, to digest, but here what needs to be digested is their everyday sorrow, the innate desire to be free that is inherent to any human being. Young and old alike, are chained to their culture of poverty.
The meeting of the Secret Society
The dinner was on the 30th anniversary of the Malaysian Association of Chinese Chefs... that title itself gives out their innard weaknesses... Would there be Malaysian Tamoul Society of Murtabak Makers? And the invocation and encouragement from the speakers were to be united and that it is the Big Brother that will help you, be a big brother..Trying to moralize about natural values... you cannot bring in caring about fellow human beings as part of a society membership.
They sat uncomfortably, uniformly they looked unhealthy and uncared for, their faces etched deep with sorrow and worry, the younger ones spared of the wrinkles. Eager to join the happiness circle, they symbolically stand up, in a circle and with some shouts, drain a bottle of Brandy.. drain, not enjoy the drink, the whole bottle has to be drunk. And there is the newly found camaraderie...edging each other on to drink more, drain as quickly as possible large glasses of brandy and water..
Noise, Noise, Noise everywhere. There is no finesse in this life, no attention to the details of the finer things in life.
Food arrives, systematically and quickly. Without civility, they dive in, procure for themselves their portion of shrimps, mushroom, baby pig, sea fish cooked to perfection, glutinous rice, jumbo shrimps that take an effort to peel, artificial cakes and lychee and water…
The serving of food finished at 10 45 pm and within minutes the place began emptying up. There is no reason to stay up, the food is finished, the stale jokes and friendly reminders of the society rules, they are all gone... men swaying like palms under a strong wind, and burly madams struggling to find their own directions. There were e young people, most of them bland in their appearance, trying very hard to find their footing in this conglomeration, staring at the blank space in front of them. Waitresses worked diligently, expecting no thanks, and no gratitude, plates full of food came and went. You do expect to eat well at the annual meeting of the Chefs..
The culture of Chef of Chinese Origin didn’t come through; each individual dish was as singular as the particular chef who produced it. The culture of poverty, came through, the state of poverty of their origins now obscured by their polyester clothes, and the bundle of dollars in their pockets. A good example of what one wit said: Money does not buy you class. Regardless of your financial and professional status, money cannot bring you into the upper class. Money cannot eradicate the crassness of ordinariness. I imagined the children of many of these people, now studying in Australia or some other western country, refusing to come home for the fear of drowning in the rigidity of this culture of poverty. They could proudly proclaim the genius proclivities of their offspring. In distant lands, the children of Chinese chefs, cease to become Chinese, they forget their Malaysian geography except on special occasions; now hanging in between the rejection of their original self and waiting for the acceptance of their new selves from their new country men. Culture is not a replaceable commodity, one builds on what one has, not pick and choose as if out there is a supermarket of choices. Those who reject themselves join the culture of shame, thus the children of chefs, give up their fear of the culture of poverty and instead choose the culture of shame, defending undependable beliefs which have no principles.
Back to the Secret Society
There was an entertainment of some sort but the majority of the invited people, customarily ignored those who were at the podium, but focused their attention to the food and the ever present Hennessey VSOP bottle, now strutted through the crowded on the feeble hands of a Chinese female barely out of her teens. Older women were joining their husbands or men of their choice, in a less lady like fashion, drowning the glasses in one deep draw... echoing the laughter of the men folk. They squatted on the chairs, with their legs widely spread, in their cheap Chinese made jean shorts or other attempts to cover the overflowing flesh. There was a smell of poverty about them, now cheapened by the strong fragrances made in China, sold at a fraction of the original price of fragrances from the west. Mimicry and copying, something everyone can do with a great deal of confidence. It is this confidence of mimicry, rooted fundamentally in the imagination of the migrant soul, a circle of desires to keep the daughters in proverbial chastity belts and darkness of a lack of freedom. Call upon the culture when it is convenient to you; insist to your daughters about the filial loyalty and the cultural norms of children towards their parents. Cut their wings, let them not learn to fly, keep them in the cages of the culture of poverty…
It is a great privilege for me to witness this, as a cultural anthropologist, to make note of the sad trends of the immigrants who are allowed to self perpetuate themselves since there is no majority culture, only this culture of poverty, no majority culture into which aspiring young birds with their wings cut off could escape to...
How wonderfully they have blinded their eyes, spoiling the desire to see beauty, damming up the flow of emotions. No niceties, no politeness, just secret and at times clandestine liaisons . and they grow old.
In this large reception hall housing hundreds, I was the only non Malaysian, and more over I was the only non Chinese, thus affirming the exclusive nature of this society of chefs, the Malaysian Minor Mafia, not worried about the rules and regulations of their petty government, existing as a separate unit within this well segregated and already divided country. There was not a single non Chinese, except this observing Anthropologist.
As with everybody else, we also got up and left. At the Car Jockey (Valet Parking), unsteady men got into larger and larger cars, with their wives firmly buckled up in front, off to the safety of their suburban homes. May the Spirits guard them, this salt of the earth... Bumi Manusia, as Pramoedya Ananta Toer would say…steeped in their materialism which has left them no time for individualized knowledge and the desire to know more...
Our car slid out of the garage of the Pudu Branch of Hai La Ton Restaurant, steadily made its way over to the house, past the villages where the immigrants from China had settled down, that now remains parchments of the experience of the Chinese immigrants, written with sweat the unending struggle, with no one to interpret their hieroglyphically lamentations..