Book cover of Seberang Perai Stories From Across The Sea
Seberang Perai; Stories from Across the Sea is about the hinterland across the sea from Penang Island. The narrative on Penang has been predominantly on the island, and this book seeks to present the lesser-known half of this northwestern state in Peninsular Malaysia.
We are telling the Seberang Perai story through its people, the everyman and everywoman whose lives are anchored to this land. Through individual accounts and images, we portray the peoples’ journeys, experiences and aspirations.
Their lives may be different from each others, and may even be remote to some, but the themes are universal – making a living, transcending the mundane, seeking meaning, strengthening communities, hoping for a brighter future. Though localised in Seberang Perai, these are stories that will resonate with Malaysian everywhere.
Change is perennial and threads through the narratives. Collectively, the stories depict Seberang Perai’s history and heritage, developments and progress, and its future direction and aspirations.
This book is a tribute to the people of Seberang Perai.
AN EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK
Sungai Bakap: Longest serving barbers
OUTSIDE, the blazing afternoon heat is merciless. But it’s cool under the whirling ceiling fan, and customers are content to lie back on the barber’s chair for some pampering. They will get their hair trimmed, their face shaved and their ears cleaned – all for RM8.
It’s an old-fashioned men’s grooming package, done just like how it has always been done at Kg Valdor’s oldest barber shop, Toh Wah. Cheng Toh Ni, 85, and his brother Mu Ming, 76, wield their scissors and shaving razor with sure unhurried hands.
The older brother has been the village barber for 65 years, almost as long as Kg Valdor has been in existence. His was a path closely intertwined with the village’s beginning.
In 1951, Toh Ni – then 20 – was working in a farm when soldiers rounded up the villagers and segregated them in guarded camps.
It was part of British general Harold Briggs’ plans to defeat the Communists by cutting off their supply and support from the general Chinese population. These ‘forced settlements’ would become known as Chinese New Villages, but they were also virtually concentration camps where residents’ movements were curtailed.
Toh Ni recalls that in the early days, there was nothing for villagers to do. They were at first afraid. After awhile, they became restless. Toh Ni couldn’t earn a living as he had been forced to abandon his crops. So, he learnt to cut hair and became a barber.
“When I first started, I was so scared. I was worried I’d cut my customers. But I slowly learned,” recalls Toh Ni whose memory seems as sharp as his eyesight. He doesn’t even need to wear glasses.
“That’s because I just did my laser eye surgery a few months ago,” he announces with a big grin.
Mu Ming apprenticed with his brother when he was 16, when “I was still not tall enough to reach the customers’ head to cut their hair.”
They moved to their present shop in 1961, and the Cheng brothers have been the barber of at least four generations of villagers here.
There is always a steady stream of customers who wait patiently on the wooden benches, barely glancing at the walls plastered with posters from decades back. Some customers prefer to have their hair cut by the older brother, some the younger one.
Mu Ming, immaculate in his white shirt and tucked-in white polo t-shirt, says most of their customers are older men as younger ones prefer to get their hair styled in newer salons.
Two women came in with a baby and immediately got priority treatment. The customer already seated at the barber chair agreed to wait good-naturedly and they all watched as Toh Ni gently shaved off the child’s hair while he sat contentedly on his mother’s lap.
Toh Ni quietly enquired about the lump on the baby’s left jaw, nodding sympathetically as the baby’s mother explained the child’s condition. They have all been neighbours here for many generations, and it’s only natural for the old barber to show his concern.
There are other salons but the Cheng brothers’ Toh Wah is an institution in the village.
Kg Valdor, with its 20 streets, is the biggest Chinese New Village in Penang, and the third biggest in Malaysia. It used to be an estate owned by a Frenchman who called it val d’or, which means valley of gold.
There are 800 households here, and Kg Valdor is also known for its poultry and pig farming industry. There are two schools and a thriving commercial centre with shops, eateries, temples and a community hall.
“There are two other men’s barber and four women’s hairdressers in Kampung Valdor,” says Cheng who has five children. His eldest daughter is 62, and has retired from teaching.
“But we won’t be retiring yet.”
This book is available at major bookstores.