THIRTY years ago, a couple met for the first time outside the Park Hotel in Miri, introduced by a well-known Foochow match-maker.
The young man had come all the way by car from Sibu while the young lady had been working in a small restaurant in Miri.
Soon, they tied the knot and had a very happy marriage.
Asked where they met, they would unhesitatingly say at “a five-foot way (ngo ka ki or kali lima) in Miri.”
The term five-foot way describes the width of the sidewalk projected from the wall of the building into the street. The overhanging roof extension or the upper first floor provides a cover for pedestrians from the elements — so practical in our equatorial region when convection rain can suddenly come in the afternoon.
This extension, fronting the shops has many uses. The extra space provides room for additional coffeeshop tables and also functions as a corridor for people to window-shop.
Besides, florists can place some choice arrangements there to attract customers. Likewise, hardware shops can arrange wheel barrows, brooms and such like as advertising items while grocers display their boxes of fruits for sale.
One Chinese sinseh has a table for friends to read newspapers and have a chat. In fact, the five-foot way is virtually his living room!
Five-foot ways in Miri are not exactly five feet in width as some are wider, some narrower while some shops do not have them at all.
Bit of history
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was Lieutenant Governor of British Java in the early 19th Century. He also ordered sidewalks constructed along the main streets of Batavia (formerly Jakarta). They were to be of a certain dimension — one foot high by about five feet wide.
When he drew up the Town Plan of 1822 for Singapore which he founded in 1819, he integrated five-foot ways into the architecture of the city state — and also Malaya and Brunei.
Soon the concept caught on and five-foot ways also appeared in other cities and market towns in South China in the early 20th century.
Ngo ka ki or kaki lima is part of our Malaysian cultural landscape — a good sheltered walkway in front of a shop, recognised in the past two centuries as a safe place for rural visitors to meet up while in town.
In fact, previously, shopkeepers even let friends and relatives from the rural areas use their postal addresses — by hanging a letter box in front of their shops for the latter to pick up their mail when they came to town.
A Mirian, T Lim, told thesundaypost: “When I was young, my grandparents sold groceries in the old town. The Kayans and Kenyahs who were friends of my grandparents used to camp outside our wooden shop on the five-foot way for two to three nights and no one seemed to mind. It was part of life in those days.”
Another Mirian, known as Wee, chipped in: “I remember we had benches outside the shop for customers waiting for their business transactions to be completed.
“Elderly women would bring their grand- children to our shop and the kids would squirm impatiently on the benches. Five-foot ways during my childhood were ‘happening’ places.”
These days, as in the past, five-foot ways continue to be very much a part of the micro culture of Miri.
Cobblers have their own special corners. In fact, some of them are so well-established in Miri that they have become “permanent five-foot way fixtures.”
Many popular ngo ka ki steam bun hawkers continue to attract customers. Some towkays also make extra money by helping their older relatives set up a small stove and a steamer on the corridor outside their shops. Passers-by pick up some buns which they can eat along the way or bring home after marketing.
A few itinerant foreign hawkers sell sunglasses and reading glasses on the five-foot way. For a few decades now, a couple of Pakistani or Indian vendors, selling these specs, have become quite popular in Miri because their prices are fair.
“I can easily buy a pair of reading glasses from the Pakistani seller for only RM8. If I had one made by an optician, I might have to pay RM150 at least,” said Encik Liban, an elderly Mirian.
Once when he forgot to bring his reading glasses while having a cuppa at a downtown coffeeshop along Jalan Cina, he only had to go and get a new pair from the Pakistani vendor on the five-foot way.
At one special corner near the famous Senior Citizens’ Square in Miri is an old man who has been selling lottery tickets there for more than a decade.
He has a wooden box made for his business. When you stop for a chat, he will entertain you to a gamut of Chinese classical favourites from his CD player. And you will make his day by sitting and listening to the songs with him even if you don’t buy a lottery ticket.
According to him, his “business from a box” brings him “enough rice to eat.” Besides, it helps him pass the time, watching people come and go as he sits in his chair and plays his CDs.
Many promotional items can be selected from boxes placed on the five-foot way. There are fruits, special tin biscuits and lightings, dry noodles, seasonal products, handphone, and cushion casings, toys and even rice milling engines for customers to browse and buy even before entering the shop.
A few cigarette sellers display their choice items in trays near the pork market. Cigarettes are hot items which can be obtained in small stocks and are sold out every day.
Some hard-working Miri seamstresses have started out by collecting orders along the five foot way. Although piecemeal in nature, their business, occupying a small space with a sewing machine and a small table, could probably still earn them a decent living.
Alteration and repair of trousers cost RM6 and up to RM10 respectively. It is a small but quite common business in the Asian region.
Medicine men and women
Some itinerant medicine men and women continue to ply their wares – herbs, medicinal pills (for men and women), ginseng and torchlights, among others — along the five-foot way. They are usually from peninsular Malaysia or some foreign countries.
Many satay-men are doing brisk business as well, selling tasty skewed and grilled meat and ketupat. They attract customers into coffeeshops sharing the same pedestrian walkway. A win-win situation.
The images of old satay men roasting their sticks of satay on the five foot way have captured the hearts of many artists.
In the future, this “streetscape” might disappear as society develops businesses in different ways.
For many older Mirians, it would be hard to forget the kaki lima traders who have, over the years, provided simple, though valuable, and sometimes mobile and traditional services.
Folks will continue to seek the convenience of buying from these traders who often add some value to their customer service with warm thoughts and a kind word or two.
While writing this article, I could not help but remember how my grandmother, her village friends who had just arrived by boat from downriver, and town relatives stood along the five-foot way of Blacksmith Road in Sibu, exchanging their latest stories before going their separate ways. That was half a century ago.
Five-foot ways will continue to provide us shelter from the sun and rain but more importantly, they are a part of our social, cultural and architectural history.