Memories of Raya past – Food, friendship and racial harmony


Hari Raya 2022 gathering hosted by University of Technology Sarawak vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Khairuddin Abdul Hamid (standing), with guests (from right) Consul General of the Republic of Indonesia in Kuching Raden Sigit Witjaksono and his wife Lucy Octavia Witjaksono, Datin Dayang Mariani Abang Zain, Datin Dona Drury Wee and Dato Richard Wee. — Photo courtesy of Datuk Khairuddin

I REMEMBER well my first few Hari Raya spent during my early childhood in the mid-1950s in Kuching, visiting friends and staff members of my parents and my aunts. In my family, we all had a great many Muslim friends (as I’m sure it is with other families too) who were celebrating Ramadan.

During those years, in the 1950s and 1960s right up to as recent as the turn of the century, there was no necessity for family and friends to extend any formal invitation for their respective festive seasons insofar as that the Chinese would hold open houses over Chinese New Year all day long, followed by the Muslims during Hari Raya and the Christians during Christmas (maybe slightly more formal for this festival).

Gawai Dayak was not celebrated as a public holiday until June 1, 1965.

Other religious festivals, due to the smaller numbers in the community’s population, were not as ‘universally’ celebrated; for instance Deepavali, Thaipusam and Wesak Day.

My early memories were of festive-looking houses on stilts adorned with bright kerosene-lit lamps, coloured-bulbs buntings and flags as well as sparklers and fireworks and the intermittent letting off of firecrackers (these were later banned after the period of ‘Confrontation’ in the 1963-1966 era).

The whiff of the scent of curries and rendangs being cooked in the kitchens as well as chicken and beef satays being grilled on open barbeque pits would weave through the night air as Dad drove us kiddos around and around the then-Datu’s Road and the Malay ‘kampungs’ (villages) around the Satok area, as well as Green Road and other enclaves in town that were populated by Muslims.

Huge residential housing estates like Kenyalang Park or MJC did not appear until the late 1970s. Poh Kwong Park and Batu Lintang were two of the earliest housing estates in Kuching.

All five of us, together with Mom in the front seat, squeezed into the black Opel Rekord (non-air conditioned) as Dad drove at a slow, leisurely pace, weaving among other cars along the narrow kampung roads – there must have been no less than a dozen wooden bridges over these main roads then.

Our usual ‘I-spy-with-my-little-eye’ game then had involved deciding which house had the best-lit kerosene lamps in their gardens; most creative neon-light buntings adorning their balconies and of course, the best overall!

You’d be surprised that the competition was keen for all these top-prizes as the entire kampong was really beautifully decorated and every household had tried their best to outdo each other!

Kids were seen running around their gardens and the older ones on bicycles would stop by the road to gaze at the passers-by.

Dad would visit his personal Malay friends and his co-workers and this would normally take two to three days. It was always such a thrill to enter the homes of Dad’s friends and to receive such warm and genuine welcome.

The best of all were the food and drinks laid out – there were delicious curries, satays, ketupats, colourful ‘kuih (cakes) and aerated bottled sweet sodas with brands like ‘Aeroplane’, ‘Southern’ and ‘Green Spot’.

The kampong folks were so friendly and their neighbours would send word for us to visit them after we had finished our visit with the original house — and this would continue until we found it impossible to complete our own ‘must-visit’ list of those we had originally wanted to call upon.

My aunt Mary Ong was the Girl Guides Commissioner and she worked at the Social Services Department and together with her younger sister Rosalind (my godmother who worked at the Royal Customs and Excise), they would take me to visit their many friends.

I remember that at around 10 or 11, I must have been well-behaved and had given a good impression as these friends of my aunts were already trying to match-make me with their daughters or nieces of similar age – or even younger.

I must have blushed myself silly, but felt rather flattered as those ‘potential future brides’ were all extremely pretty and attractive.

There went my chance of being married into some big politico family way back then!

Then came our schooldays and the teenage years – the visiting during festivals had intensified, but by then we had become more selective and as our numbers were small, we could pick and choose as to whom and how long we would plan our festive house visitations.

By age 16 or 17, our choices for homes to visit were more dependent on proximity, food and other attractions. Usually the ‘other attractions’ became prioritised if our friend happened to have someone – a sister, a cousin or even a young aunt – who was attractive and appealing, and known to be single!

Yeah! Teenage boys and their raging hormones won over curries and rending!

Personally, I recall fondly visits we had made during our schooldays to my dear and good friend Abang Affandi Anuar and Bujang Abon; also to our current Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg at their family homes and spending much treasured time paying our respects.

An archive photo, courtesy of Premier of Sarawak’s Office press secretary Ambrose Cheng, shows Abang Johari greeting the guests during the Hari Raya Aidilfitri Open House in 2017.

However, I cannot recall having visited any of the VVIP open houses; for instance, those of the Governor and/or CMs (back then) or any politicians at all. We were not much into that sort of thing.

Once we made our own ways into higher learning and started our individual careers, most of us got separated and apart from a few class reunions over the years, we seldom if ever caught up with each other.

Hari Raya visiting during my working years was pretty exhausting and intense, and it felt like there was a competition going on.

I recall that it was standard procedure for the head of the company to visit all the VVIPs, the members of his board of directors, his principals and all his Muslim staff.

My good friend and fellow colleague Shookry Gani once recorded a visit to 32 houses during one hectic day – just staying long enough for a greeting, a small drink, some tidbits and off again to the next house on the list!

Only during the evenings could we manage to actually call on either close family members or good friends so we could spend a bit more quality time bonding and talking. Stressful, yes, but it was also vital and important that this was done as most of the time it would be the only time once a year that we could actually manage to catch up as our busy and chaotic working lives had made us drift apart over time, over different varying interests, as well as priorities and lifestyles.

The columnist (facing camera, left) and other guests helping themselves to the sumptuous spread at Shookry Gani’s Hari Raya open house in 1974. Seen, from right, were Borneo Agrichemical Sdn Bhd executive Boniface Sii and its general manager George Teo, and Borneo Company Ltd branch manager Ong Tiaw Sian.

In recent years, although the tradition of open houses and festive visits are still commonly practised and most homes would be ready to receive any number of guests and visitors on any given day, it has slightly changed in the sense that it tends to be more organised.

Dates and times are allocated and invitations are formally sent or given out to all those considered close enough to attend.

Due to the ease of social media and WhatsApp, these are usually sent out via chat groups or individually with an RSVP attached.

Simple courtesy demands a reply.

In the kampongs and where ‘the Internet is not king’, the old system still carries on – just drop into any family or friend’s house if you see the front door open and there are shoes and slippers spread out at the threshold. No invitation is required.

So it has been in Sarawak – and so will it continue to be for a long time to come. A good friend who had lived half his life here and had migrated and now return periodically, told me that in all his travels throughout the world, and in almost every society or group of people or community that he has known, he has never yet seen the likes of anyone like a Sarawakian.

Sarawakians are friendly, down to earth, accommodating, helpful and would go out of their way to make you feel at ease, at home and treat you as an equal – no matter the colour of your skin, the faith that you practise, or the politics you believe in.

Sarawakians are unique that way, and that is the way we would always be; Praise be to God!

May I take this opportunity to wish all my Muslim family members and friends wherever they may be: Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!

Stay healthy, stay safe and be blessed always.