I once used to have the kind of body that women desired – or, rather, the metabolism that came with it. In my teens and even into my university years, I could eat and eat and eat, and I wouldn’t gain weight!
Over time, it became a problem though. I was reasonably tall at about 176cm, yet even in my mid-20s and in my wet socks, I weighed only around 57kg.
I was skinny. I tried every weight-gain diet I could afford. I stuffed myself silly at every meal. But nothing worked. My weight remained the same through fasting or Raya feasting. In fact, I looked like I was permanently fasting.
Once, my friend Francis and I set ourselves a weight goal of 140 pounds (or around 64kg nowadays). He was supposed to come down to that figure, while I was supposed to rise up to it by gaining weight or even through constipation if that was what it took.
Neither of us reached that goal. But I finally did reach it over the years and in fact easily blew past it to the weight I’m at now, which is none-of-your-business kgs thank you.
A population at Large
I’m relatively healthy, which is more than can be said for the population at large. In fact, the population is mostly at Large, with Malaysia being one of the most obese countries in the region, a problem that’s only getting bigger if you’ll pardon the expression.
We were all skinny runts while growing up. Being fat was a sign of prosperity, an admirable quality. It’s the same with being fair-skinned, a sign you don’t spend your days slaving under the hot sun in the farm or at sea as the poor would.
We couldn’t afford rich food but we did eat pretty healthy stuff, especially fresh seafood. We ate lots of greens, too, because they were cheap and they were everywhere. We didn’t take much sugar because it only came from shops and cost money.
But we did like sweetened condensed milk. The most famous brand then was Nestle’s “Susu Cap Junjung”, named after the picture of a Dutch milkmaid carrying a milk urn on her head, with “junjung” being the Malay term for that action.
This had the benefits of being both milk AND sugar, both luxury items then. We’d spread it on white bread or crackers or put it in our coffee and tea. The milk also came in small sachets, useful when you don’t have a fridge to store it once open.
‘Invented in Singapore’ as always
In Malaysia, if you ask for coffee (“kopi”) or tea (“teh”), it’ll automatically come with sugar and milk. If you want it without them, you’d have to ask for “kopi O”, or “teh O”. It’s an old Malaysian food tradition invented long ago by Singaporeans, as always, but one that is actively being eliminated by Starbucks in favour of the names of their confusing (and expensive) coffee and tea.
I still take tea or coffee with sweetened condensed milk occasionally. The massive sugar rush makes me feel warm all over while the cholesterol and the millions of calories melt my brain’s neurons.
Back then, there wasn’t much junk food available. Fried chicken only happened when our hens got run over and were slaughtered. Hamburgers hadn’t been invented yet, and ice-cream was sold at only one emporium in George Town, which none of us kampung kids dared to enter.
Our chickens were actually kept under our raised wooden house. They woke us up early whether we liked it or not. Early to bed and early to rise in those days did make a man healthy, wealthy and damn irritated with noisy cockerels, though the occasional one did end up as fried chicken.
Every day was a working day in the kampung, and we didn’t have many leisurely mornings in which to sleep in and be interrupted by the clucking and crowing of poultry. So, it wasn’t all bad.
We had chicken, duck, goose and even quail eggs. Turtle eggs too, when they used to land on the beach. We only ate beef and mutton occasionally, usually at big weddings or the occasional treat or at Hari Raya.
We ate organic food, because everyone was too poor to buy fertiliser. We cooked with firewood, which did give great aroma to the food, even if it was rather bad for the environment.
The Industrial Revolution (version 1.0!) came rather late to us. The only telephone then was a public phone a few kilometres away. Electricity and running water only came in the mid 1960s, and the first car in the mid-70s.
Living an organic, chemical-free existence also meant living without proper hygiene, medicine, balanced diet or even safe drinking water. Cooking using firewood and later kerosene stoves caused emphysema and often set the wooden houses on fire too.
Penang’s forgotten people
The amazing thing about growing up in rural Penang then was that we had the sea and islands and padi fields and hills and swamps and all the usual rural idylls at hand, but yet were also only half an hour away from a modern city. We had the best of both worlds.
And the worst of both worlds too. While we lived close to parts of the good life, such as good schools and urban conveniences, they were often other people’s good lives, not ours. We were the forgotten people of Penang. We were there, but also, not quite there.
Life did improve over time, though for me, life deteriorated too. The kampung has become too crowded and too polluted. The swamps in those days still had live fishes and snakes and all kinds of fun critters. Nowadays, we don’t even have any swamps left.
I doubt if there’s any more turtles landing on the beaches either. The last time any did was in the 80s. We didn’t eat that many of their eggs, as what has happened to the leatherback turtles in Terengganu. The overcrowding and the pollution must have done them in.
Goodbye to all that
The beaches, while still looking beautiful in photos, now smell of sewage, especially at low tide. Soon the beaches themselves would be gone when the proposed massive redevelopment of the southern Penang coastal areas takes place.
Instead of having a neighbour 50 metres away, as in the old days, people there will soon have 50 neighbours a metre away.
A time-traveller from the 1960s would marvel at how well off people are today, going purely by their chubbiness. Almost everybody seems “prosperous”, and hardly anybody slaves in the padi fields or at sea any more.
Many are fair-skinned, too, because of that, and because of chemicals they smear on themselves. There’s plastic everywhere – nasi lemak in banana leaves are now found mainly in expensive hotels, while kampung folks use polystyrene containers instead, which are discarded everywhere and remain there forever, unlike the banana or yam leaves of old.
And it turns out, the really prosperous people nowadays are those slaving away at fancy gyms or on hiking trails or at half marathons in an endeavour to look thin and tanned.
Ah, the good old, bad old days.
Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, Maaf Zahir Batin wherever you are. Enjoy your Raya goodies, but watch your weight.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.