Wednesday, December 1

Romance in Kuching

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Those of us who know better tend to feel a little sorry for the gaggles of girls and boys hunched over handphones, supervising the romantic problems of one of their group. – AFP file photo

Auntie DI

NOSTALGIA, anyone?

Then let’s leaf through the yellowing pages of Sarawak history, and look up Ranee Margaret, the second White Rajah’s Consort. During one of her sojourns in Kuching, the good lady took it into her head to organise writing classes for the wives and daughters of Kuching’s Malay society. Much fun was had by all — but one high-born matron objected.

What was the use of teaching literacy to girls, asked the stalwart old lady.

‘They’d use their new-found skill to read and write love letters, from and to unsuitable young men – it being understood that suitable young men, having papa’s blessing, don’t need to fritter away their time with pen and paper!’

Romance in Kuching has progressed since Ranee Margaret’s day. For a while, Police-Band-assisted courting was the order of the day. The regular Sunday afternoon concert on the Museum Gardens was much frequented by the eligible youths of the town, who strolled around in segregated groups. They were in the park to hear the music, of course – strategic benches were occupied by grannies, aunties and related matters who kept an eagle eye on developments.

Constabulary harmony and the occasional little note, passed clandestinely from his best friend to her best friend, did the rest.

The Police Band concerts were a thing of the past; the population of Kuching has obviously reached what planners would consider a sustainable level. The brass band can now be redeployed for other useful purposes.

But during ‘the era of the stroll in the park’, the furtive glances and the secretly-passed love letters lasted — what fun it was! Those of us who know better tend to feel a little sorry for the gaggles of girls and boys hunched over handphones, supervising the romantic problems of one of their group.

It’s Facebook, it’s Instagram, it’s TikTok, it’s ‘Whatsoeverlink’. The secrets of the heart are no secret any more, as they are broadcast for the whole world to see, AND to comment!

‘Jimmy Loves Mary’ is no longer carved on a tree trunk, as it’s sent out on social media, or should that be anti-social media?

As soon as the secret is available to the eagerly awaiting online community, Tommy would let loose scathing comments about Jimmy, and Timah would publish trenchant criticisms of Mary’s face, figure, hair and crooked teeth.

Supporters and detractors on all sides would weigh in.

Much fun is had by all, but what happens to the secrets of the heart?

Poor kids – would they grow out of childhood and into matrimony without ever having written or received a love letter?

A whole art form is based on the love letter! Who hasn’t seen those beautiful films, Indonesian mostly: ‘A poor but honest maiden comes down the sun-dappled path through a rubber garden.’

‘She carries a pail on her head if she’s on her way to the well, or a basket on her arm for picking up firewood, but when she knows she’s out of earshot (the wicked rich man lurks behind an incongruous rose bush just within camera range), she reaches down into the front of her ‘kebaya’ and pulls out a folded piece of paper.’

‘Of course – the love letter!’

‘The number of things a competently-scripted maiden in poor, but honest, designer’s rags can do with a love letter is staggering. Well yes, that’s one of the things she can do – she can stagger and collapse in a graceful heap on the rustic footpath; this probably means that the villain’s treacherous wiles have temporarily worked, and the letter contains proudly angry farewells.’

‘If she’s a lass of spirit, she’d trample upon the hapless paper, she’d tear it into little shreds (for the villain to find later, and laugh: ‘Haw! Haw! Haw!’), she’d crumple it and fling it deep into the thicket.’

‘But maybe this letter contains the immortal words. She weeps glycerine tears over the blissful paper, she clutches it to her heaving bosom, and presses it to her cherry lips…’

Now could she do all or any of the above with a handphone?

Could she chastely kiss it?

No way, she’d smudge the touch-screen with lipstick. And if it was the kind of letter best trampled underfoot, would she smash the phone with the heel of her ‘poor, but honest’ slipper?

Considering what these gadgets cost, I don’t think so!

All right, not everybody uses Facebook and Instagram. There is always the live phone call. Adapted to handphones, the producer engaged the best creative talent to re-write the scene: ‘The maiden comes down the sun-dappled path through a rubber garden, rustic basket dangling from her shoulder.’

‘Brrreep-brrreep!’

‘Something goes..brreerp-brrreep!’

‘In the noonday heat of the secondary jungle, could it be a little tweety-bird? A cicada?’

‘Brrreep-brrreep.’

‘The maiden reaches into her basket and pulls out a handphone.’

‘Eh? Eh? Oh, sayang… Eh? Eh? Oy… Oy! Kuat sikit – eh?’

‘The camera zooms in on the black instrument as it starts to Blip! Blip! Blip!’
‘The screen reads: ‘Low Bat’, then fades.’

‘The maiden collapses gracefully on the rustic path, not before having flung the handphone hard against the nearest rubber tree. The broken pieces float to the ground, slow motion.’ ‘Haw! Haw! Haw! The villain guffaws, at the very edge of camera range.’

‘Handkerchiefs appear in the semi-darkness of the theatre…’

Of course, film shows are very old-fashioned nowadays, nearly as old-fashioned as love letters. But I do hope that – whispered, written, texted, or audio-messaged – romance never dies!

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