Summary: The Concoction’ is a short fiction by Wynn Chng, about a Guan Yin ‘Ang Kong’ Temple in George Town, Penang. Edited for clarity by Ista Kyra.
Ah Beng is the protagonist of this story. Based on his name alone, you can already tell that he is not a posh person. The name is as common as they come, and the man who owns it, is just as ordinary – nothing remarkable to draw attention.
A temple stands majestically in the middle of George Town. You couldn’t miss it, for it has conspicuous red-painted walls.
A flock of pigeons nibble at some chicken bones on the floor within the temple square, an open space of the temple’s front area.
The beggars had scattered some of their leftovers to share with the pigeons. They now sit in the shade to avoid the glaring sun.
Near a tree, there is a small, red shrine. A statue of a tiny old man statue sits solemnly in it, smiling to those who offer him food.
Some of the beggars sit leaning against the tree, with their arms around their knees. They seem to be waiting for food to be served in the shrine.
It is only afternoon, foods from the altar can only be eaten after a certain time. No matter how hard they stare at the food, it is the god who has to be served first.
Different temples have different rules. In this temple, the food can only be eaten at sunset. Some say this is when the god has gone to rest.
When the temple opens in the morning, some of the pious islanders would come to this temple, seeking solace for every life matter.
Marriage, exam results, having a baby, health and all sorts of other things you could think of, that is considered within a god’s responsibility.
In the temple square, there is also a massive incense burner, its fullness with burning joss sticks, indicating its popularity.
Smoke from the burning joss sticks permeate inside and outside the temple, emanating auspiciousness. Combined with the sultry afternoon humidity, it can be quite unbearable but Ah Beng is used to it.
Ah Beng’s work uniform is his trusted white singlet and navy blue shorts; attire that is well-designed for the tropical climate.
He has been working at the temple for close to half a century, selling joss sticks to the devotees of the goddess, Guan Yin, widely reverred as the goddess of mercy.
During the war, it was said that the temple was protected from the destruction of bombs due to Guan Yin’s protection.
When the Japanese invaded and occupied Penang, a military aircraft supposedly dropped a bomb on the temple as it flew across the skies.
The bombshell fell through the roof tiles, leaving a gaping hole but causing no explosion. This incident circulated among the islanders, who concluded it must have been due to the temple’s goddess.
This tale also made the temple famous, and was told to me by my grandmother. I can’t verify if the story really happened but I can tell you that people on this island are not accustomed to raise questions about these types of tales and fables. If everyone believes it, it must be true.
Ah Beng definitely falls into this category of people. Especially, when he is talking to Auntie Lim, the candle seller next to his stall.
The gossip they spread is beyond imagination; belief in it doesn’t matter. In their minds, no one, not even Einstein, could prove them wrong.
“Ah Beng, I tell you ah, the ashes from the Guan Yin Ma’s incense burner can cure hair lost,” Auntie Lim remarks surreptitiously.
Ah Beng frowns at her. He looks skeptical about her view.
“I tell you, you better don’t listen to rumours, you look at my hair, nice or not?” Ah Beng retorts, as he combs his hair with his fingers.
She checks his head and nods her own in agreement. Ah Beng’s thick, gelled hair, glittered in the sunlight. He wears it combed to the back of his head.
“Quite nice, what you use?” Auntie Lim inquired, hoping to discover Ah Beng’s magical hair tonic.
“I tell you, this is other people tell me one, it works better. Some lemon juice, onion juice and some ‘ashes’…from that incense burner,” he whispered, pointing with his thumb at the massive incense burner for the Goddess of Mercy.
Auntie Lim nodded excitedly, expressing her complete agreement. She goes into her stall and took out a piece of paper to write down the ingredients.
“How many drops of lemon juice?”
“How many onions?”
“What is the best time to apply it?”
She asked questions incessantly, worried that she might get it wrong.
“Ey, don’t be so stress, the most important thing is ‘xim’, if got xim, every thing will work. Don’t worry,” Ah Beng said to calm her down.
Xim, in Hokkien, literally means ‘heart’. In this context, it also means ‘faith’.
Ah Beng explained that, regardless of all the meticulous procedures, the most vital part remains to be faith.
Ah Beng is an optimist. Every hardship that he had ever faced, he accepted and put it down to either fate or faith.
“Haiya, the god will sort it out, don’t worry.” This was his common reply whenever he faced a problem.
Auntie Lim finished writing down the hair tonic ingredients and then proceeds to obtain a small container from her stall. She then walks to Guan Yin’s altar to pray.
As she is murmuring in front of the altar, it appeared as if she was a witch casting a spell.
As dusk approached, the heat diminished and the sun was less glaring. Ah Beng starts to pack up his joss sticks to stow them back at his stall. After folding up his table, he pulled down the roller shutter and prepares to head home.
The sunset hour is pleasant. The burning orb in the sky does not shine so bright to burn the skin anymore. A cool and gentle breeze blows over Ah Beng’s face, hardly strong enough to mess up his well-gelled hair.
He walks out into a street behind the temple, going towards his parked motorbike. He had kept it in the same spot ever since he began work at the temple.
There was no painted line on the tarmac road to indicate a parking lot, but Ah Beng never failed to park his motorbike there daily.
As he mounted his motorbike, he felt something wet and sticky at the top of his head. He reached up to touch and felt slime sliding between his fingers. When he put his fingers to his nose, he automatically let out a string of expletives.
“Chao Chee Bye, kena jiao sai,” he muttered under his breath, cursing at being the target of bird droppings (jiao sai).
Attempting to clean the pigeon poop from his hands, he rubbed them against the lamp post’s bar.
He then took out his phone to look at the time. ‘5.45pm’ shows on the screen. He selects his contact book with the press of a button. It is not a touch screen phone, so it beeps with every press.
“Hah, I’ve found it!” He exclaims as he hit the call button. The phone is dialling now. Someone picks up on the other line.
“Ah Chun, still can buy number or not?”Ah Beng asks.
“Can can,” came the reply.
“Help me buy 024, 10 ringgit small, 10 ringgit big….what month is it now? June, right? Like that four digits, 6024,” said Ah Beng.
The 4 digits lottery is a steadfast preoccupation for the ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia. To place a bet, you have to visit the shop before it closes at 5PM, however, if you use a private lottery market which is an illegal channel, your bet can still be placed.
According to a little book with numbers from 000 to 999, 024 represents a pigeon. For the faithful lottery ticket punter, every number represents something. This book tells them exactly what and how each event in their life could become summarily represented by a number.
Ah Beng hangs up his phone, starts up his engine, and nonchalantly drives back home, as if he would certainly win the prize when the lottery result is announced.
“Gao Sai! 1020, I buy pigeon, open crow!” Ah Beng exclaimed in frustration.
He held the day’s winning lottery results in his hand and cursed when he found out that the winning number indicated a ‘crow’ instead of a ‘pigeon’ according to the little book of numbers.
‘Gao Sai’, which means ‘dog shit’ is a relatively milder way of swearing aloud, compared to ‘Chao Chee Bye‘ which is the equivalent of ‘cunt’.
Ah Beng has memorised more than a quarter of the numbers in the little book. For him, referencing the book is a practice reserved for newbies to the lottery.
Auntie Lim, preoccupied with her reflection in the mirror, wasn’t paying attention. Her focus was on examining her thinning hair.
“Ey, Ah Beng, your method works or not?” she asked in frustratedly, running her fingers through her sparse strands of hair.
Ah Beng placed his lottery results down and came to inspect her hair.
“How many days already you applied?” he asked.
“Around 3 days…” came the reply.
“What?! Like that cannot work one. Need to do two days, one time,” he said with a sigh.
Auntie Lim turns to look at him with dissatisfaction.
“You should have told me earlier ma!” She raised her voice. “See! Need to start again!”
“Maybe like that also can, don’t worry.”
While they were exchanging comments on how frequently they should apply the hair concoction, a man at Ah Beng’s stall stood gazing with a confused expression at the joss sticks.
“Excuse me,” said the man, interupting Ah Beng and Auntie Lim’s exchange, as they turned to look at him.
“May I know are these joss sticks for praying?” the man asked.
The two temple stall managers were slightly unnerved by the unexpected presence of the foreigner in their midst. They were perplexed as to why a man with different skin tone and English accent, would want to purchase anything from their stall.
An awkward silence hung in the air, with Ah Beng staring curiously at the man. He half expected some subtitles to pop out from the air to clear his confusion. Auntie Lim, meanwile, started rubbing her nose, she behaved as if something suspicious is bound to happen.
“What he said?” Ah Beng finally said, breaking the silence. Auntie Lim shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. She unceremoniously turned back into her mirror to avoid making direct eye contact with the Caucasian man.
She hoped Ah Beng would resolve the strange customer on his own. She had no desire to start up any conversation. Ah Beng had no choice now but to embrace the difficulty of communicating with the stranger.
“Yes, this, that one!” Ah Beng exclaims, pointing at his joss sticks then at the incense burner.
“Okay, may I know how much is this?” the stranger asked.
Ah Beng flashed three fingers to indicate the price.
The tourist forks out his wallet, flashing different currencies as he opened it. There were notes printed with the Malay King interspersed with notes printed with Queen Elizabeth.
He took a while to decipher the bank notes before pulling out three pieces of blue notes to exchange for a small bundle of joss sticks.
“Thank you very much,” the man says politely, smiling as he left. Ah Beng only nodded in reply.
“Now Ang Moh also pray god,” Auntie Lim quipped, using the Hokkien term “red hair” to refer to the Caucasian man. This term was a common label for foreigners with fair skin that easily reddened under the Malaysian sun, a reference to their tendency to sunburn. The nickname also alluded to the general perception that Europeans were hairier compared to Asians.
Ah Beng ignored Auntie Lim and continued staring at the curious foreigner, who had queued up to obtain a prayer candle. The white man was also keenly observing his surroundings to figure out his next move.
He carefully watched the actions of the Chinese couple standing in front of him. When his turn came, he took a step forward and lit the tips of the joss sticks from the middle candle flame, just as the couple before him had done.
He was visibly cautious to avoid burning his hands in the process. After stepping out of queue to give way to the devotee behind him, he lightly shook the joss sticks, letting the flames turn into a smoulder.
He looked around to see what to do next and imitated the actions of the woman next to him, who gently moved her joss sticks up and down and went to plant them into the incense burner.
The man however, appeared unsure how to place his joss sticks into the crowded and hot incense burner. The local lady had moved easily to place her offferings, whereas the man struggled and shuffled about to find a less risky spot for him to place the joss sticks within the incense burner.
Ah Beng and Auntie Lim stood watching all this in amusement, the latter still held onto a comb that was tangled with her hair.
“You don’t want go and help him ah? He looks like he needs help,” Auntie Lim remarked in a flat tone.
Ah Beng took the cue and precariously went to tap the man’s shoulders.
“Me help you” he said, taking the joss sticks from the Caucasian man’s hand. As Ah Beng dusted off the joss sticks, some of the burning ashes fell on his hand. He, however simple brushed it off from his skin, unbothered as if it was a mere mosquito bite.
“Amazing! Thank you very much,” the white man said in surprise, his eyes glowed with impression.
“Are you not afraid of burning ashes?”
“Hah?” Ah Beng went, perturbed by the Englishman.
“No Pain?” the man asked again.
Ah Beng tried hard to decipher the stranger’s meaning. In his mind, he was excavating all the English words that he had learned during primary school.
“Ah, pain? No pain, no pain. I do everyday, many many years,” Ah Beng said, when it clicked.
As he tried to express himself, he was making more and more movements to gesture with his body. He waved his hands to indicate ‘no’ and spread out his arms repetitively to emphasise certain words.
“Amazing! I cannot,” said the Englishman, crossing his arms and making a pained expression on his face.
Ah Beng laughed. The meaning was clear to him now.
“You are good,” said the foreigner, giving Ah Beng the thumbs up.
Ah Beng was pleased by the apparent compliment, however, in an effort to display humbleness, he waved his hands and said, ““No la, No la.”
The stranger smiled warmly, his eyes wandering around the temple, filled with curiosity about everything and everyone present.
“Ah, what a beautiful temple!” he exclaimed to Ah Beng, his tone filled with admiration.
Although Ah Beng did not understand all the words, he recognised the word ‘Beautiful.’
“Beautiful, very beautiful” he repeated to the foreigner. The tourist’s interest in the place made Ah Beng feel obliged to share some brief history about the temple, but he was struggling to string together his words in English.
“Ah…this temple, Japan people, bomb, bomb, bomb. But, temple still beautiful.”
Despite Ah Beng’s rudimentary sentences, the man comprehended. He nooded and gasped at Ah Beng’s mention of bombs.
“Really? This is a beautiful story,” he replied concisedly.
“Ang Kong, take care,” Ah Beng said, as he gestured with his palms pressed together in
a prayerful gesture towards the gods.
“Ang Kong?” The stranger echoed, stretching the ‘O’ vowel into a diphthong unwittingly, shaped by his English accent.
Ah Beng pointed to the gods with his thumb, the respectful way, as using any other finger to point was considered disrespectful.
“Ang Kong,” Ah Beng repeated, this time slowly and enunciating more.
“Ang Kong…Ang Kong is god?,” said the foreigner.
“Got?…Yes! yes, god,” said Ah Beng. He knew the word, it just took time to surface in his mind.
“Come, come!” he waved with his hand, gesturing for the man to follow. Ah Beng was getting the hang of communicating and did not mind having more conversations with the Englishman.
Ah Beng led the tourist towards the temple interior, moving through the crowds and smoke easily. The unfamilliar visitor however, moved cautiously to avoid getting burned by other people’s joss sticks.
People usually held the burning sticks high up, but with the wind blowing, hot ash could still land and sear your skin.
The Englishman had to hunch his shoulders to squeeze through a narrow corridor and stood at the threshold before entering, to take in the sights.
Ah Beng, noticing the man on the doorstep, hurried over to dissuade him, “No, No. Bad Luck!”
The foreigner, startled by Ah Beng’s anxious reaction, hurriedly leapt off the doorsill, expressing his apologies for the inadvertent mistake.
“No sorry, no sorry. Never mind. Here, no stand, bad luck,” Ah Beng said, pointing at the doorsill.
There were three doors to the temple, with the middle entrance having the highest doorsill, up to knee height. According to the rules, the middle door is not to be used, reserved for the gods who never needed to walk and could levitate across.
Carved dragons spiral around the pillars and painted phoenixes spread their wings on the ceiling. All the vibrant coloured statues depict different stories in Chinese mythology. Every corner was delicately ornamented with gold and silver lining.
The Englishman, who had never seen such sights, stood admiring in wonder.
“I do, you do,” Ah Beng said, telling the man to imitate his actions before kneeling on the soft cushion in front of the altar.
The Englishman knelt on a cushion beside Ah Beng, who had pressed his palms together and bowed three times to the gods.
The foreigner followed suit despite not understanding the purpose of it. He did not dare to ask as Ah Beng seemed to be engrossed in the ritual.
When Ah Beng stopped murmuring his prayers, the man gingerly asked, “What are you doing?”
“Bai bai,” Ah Beng replied.
“Not bye bye…is bai bai, ” Ah Beng said, pressing his palms together again and bowing at the altar.
The Englishman furrowed his brows and pretended to understand. Ah Beng noticed the man’s quizzical expression.
“Wait, Wait…Do this, good,” he said, showing the thumbs up.
“For what?” the Englishman asked.
“For what? For….,” Ah Beng tried hard to think and looked around him for clues.
“Ha! For happy, do this you happy, I happy, everyone happy!” Ah Beng suddenly exclaimed, relieved to find the right English word.
The Englishman understood, putting his palm together and bowing. Ah Beng does the same.
The temple crowd paid no heed to the men, they went on their regular business with the gods. The beggars outside the temple had started to eat the food from the shrine. The sun is setting in golden gleams that flickered through the bushy tree. The pigeons were also staring in wait for the beggars to share some food.
Auntie Lim pulls down her roller shutter, she placed a pack of fried noodles as an offering for the small shrine and prayed for the gods to reveal to her winning lottery numbers when she went to sleep that night.
When she left the temple, the beggars and pigeons gawked at the food offerings left behind. They did not dare to touch the food although the time for the gods to rest had begun.
The food will stay there. They will eat it the next day at dusk just as they always did.
Cover image by sourced from JunJie Wong / Pexels. The copyright of ‘The Concoction’ belongs to Wynn Chng.