I was probably 4-6 years old then. I'd be sitting sideways on the bar of the bicycle, between Dad on the bicycle seat pedaling away and the bicycle's handle-bar that I clutched.
It was one of those large Raleigh bicycles that the padi farmers would employ to load their gunny-sacks of padi to transport to the rice mills. But Dad's bicycle had no rear seat or anything to put gunny-sack or my butt on. We rode from our house to Bukit Merah town for my haircut every month. Bukit Merah town was and is a one-street "cowboy town", we would say. The road was a small dirt road. The 5-mile journey was very bumpy, but I felt safe and comfortable on the bicycle bar with him. Never once did we fall.
The bicycle was the only vehicle he ever owned. This bicycle was provided for his work and when he finally retired, the bicycle was his own -- yes, the same old faithful! Not that he ever needed a car initially. The dirt road could only take bicycles and motorcycles then. I remember that if we came to Bukit Merah from my Grandpa's house in Parit Buntar, it would be by train. The train ride past Bukit Merah train station to Taiping was and is on a scenic narrow causeway on the Bukit Merah lake. On the bicycle ride, I noticed the long stretch of railway line over the water, and I thought it was going to sink. At that time I never had a chance to take the scenic ride because we alighted at Bukit Merah station. Then we'd ride a boat to our house. One of the boats was named "Belibis" -- I'm sure that's a bird. Or a fish? Boats were parked in a boathouse, then we'd walk 500 yards to our house.
But even when they built tarred roads in Bukit Merah, Dad could never afford a car. He had a family with 8 children to feed. He had a small salary as a Junior Technician in the then DID (Drainage and Irrigation Department). But he was the overseer of the lake. It was and is indeed a huge lake. I thought he was a very important man. Because he had many labourer workers under his charge who'd have the various duties to take care the lake. I would watch him every morning giving instructions to the assembly of workers on the tasks for the day. In the late afternoon, they'd regroup in front of him and they'd do a de-brief.
I was fascinated by the huge water gates of Bukit Merah lake which Dad was responsible for -- the gates that needed to be opened when rain might swell the lake or when water was to be let out to irrigate the padi fields when it was padi planting season. The water gates nearest our house was gigantic. I'd watch agape when Dad supervised his workers to open the gates -- the trickle of water when each gate started to open grew into a loud and high avalanche of water as the gate opened fully! Then when all 6 gates opened, it was a deafening roar and gush and rush of the angry lake wanting to be let out to quickly fill the river, or really man-made drain, then becoming white water as the rush hit the rocks.
Yes, my Dad was an important man. He had to make sure the lake was at the right level -- there were posts which were gauges -- markings of height of the water like enlarged rulers planted into the water. Dad had to make sure the water level was within some acceptable range.
Unlike those water gates nearest our house which were opened only to regulate the water level, the set of gates further away were always open -- the water downstream not only provided irrigation water to the padi fields, but also was channelled to a filtration house for drinking water to the whole Krian district. My dad. Source of water to the padi fields and to the humans needing to drink. My Dad -- source of life.
We drank from the same lake. Piped water did not come to our house till much later. So Dad would push-pull push-pull push-pull the lever of a pump that fed water from the lake to an overhead tank that provided water through pipes and taps. In the house there was a large cylindrical porcelain contraption about one-foot in diameter and 3 feet high. Dad filled it with water by uncovering the lid on top, and clear water would flow from the chromed little tap at the bottom. Then Mum would boil it. From time to time Dad would lift the lid, take out the rows of cylindrical rods within it which would be brown in colour, clean them and put them back into this neat filter device.
I always thought he was a responsible Dad. He did not speak much to us his children. But he seldom shouted at us. The thing I am most proud of him is his ability to support all his 8 children to go through school. He had a little note-book, we called it the "buku tiga lima" (three 5's book) because the little book had 555 on the cover. He was meticulous to note every cent of his expenditure into the book. When he bought any item, he'd write the date of purchase on a small rectangular piece of paper he'd cut with scissors and stick the paper on the item. Every battery (then called a "dry cell", that cylindrical Eveready battery) had the paper with the purchase date gummed on it before he placed the batteries into the boxy radio -- I watched he do it every time.
When TV first came out, he bought one, placed it in the part of the house where with one large window open, village folks would come in droves and squat on the hill over the window to watch the only TV (black-and-white) in Bukit Merah. The hill would be packed on Thursday night because the TV program was Wrestling. Dad was the biggest wrestling fan, even when years later he found out that it was all staged. Only in his last few years of life when he had heart problem he stopped watching wrestling.
Dad was also a fan of western (cowboy) movies. He would have watched every John Wayne movie at Lido Cinema in Taiping town which once a month he'd visit. The most exciting thing for us whenever he returned from Taiping was to get satay that he'd never fail to buy from the "cashier market" in Taiping.
When it was schooling time at 7 years old, all his children left Bukit Merah to stay at Grandpa's in Parit Buntar to go to English-medium schools because he wanted us to get English education which Bukit Merah could not provide. But he and Mum would visit us every month, and we'd go back to Bukit Merah during school holidays. Dad could never afford real holidays/vacations away from Bukit Merah. And today... people flock to Bukit Merah for vacation.