I lived on Pulau Bidong 1978
January 9, 2007
This morning some one told me that Malaysia isn’t an Island.
Then I did a Google search on Pula Bidong which turns up Binh Danh’s project. I didn’t even spell it correctly but Google was smart to suggest the correct spelling. I’m excited. It triggered some memories. I remember lying on the island during Christmas time. The PA system broadcast Christmas music. We got better treats from the Uni-chief organization. I can remember eating chicken in a can. Yeah, there were parts of chicken complete with bones stuffed into a can. I remember missing family, other normal Christmas where I got to play with my neighbor’s train track toys.
I remember the same god damn PA system announcing the names of people who would be selected to go and I would be jealous because my name wasn’t called. I can’t recall the elation of the moment when they called my name though. I drop everything whenever the PA spoke, and I listen attentively to every word echoing through the hills.
I learned to swim on the island. My mouth takes in liquid salt, the sea water. The pajama pants I swim in is thread bare.
The refugee’s boats beached and then the weather would eat it away until only a small hull is left where color fishes swim among feces. Once the Boat is beached, the inhabitants would tear away at the planks and salvage every bit of wood for fire or shelter.
To pass the time, the men usually gather around the bunks and deal out hands of cards. They wager in Crackers or biscuits, each shape with its own unique currency. In dire times, the residents of Pulau Bidong consult the oracles that are on the faces of the playing cards. They were sure there were ghosts to communicate with. They ask when they would leave the island. They ask the spirits to carry messages back to love ones at home in Vietnam.
The Wells-I remember waiting in long lines to fetch water from the wells. The people who came before me dug the wells for fresh water. The sandy soil is sometimes red like the color of cinder or lava. The refugees would build a square or round wall often three or four feet high. We used whatever vessels we could find to carry the water. Some of the water containers were made from empty biscuit tins.
The Falls – Sometimes we would fetch water from the water falls, but those were too far up the hill. People would wash their laundries and their bodies. The dirty run offs travel to the lower falls. If you want to bathe, you would have to find the highest fall in order to avoid the dirty run offs. As a boy, I witnessed the strange rituals of a public bath. Beautiful women nonchalantly bathe themselves in clothes. It was a strange sight. The clothes were second skins, wrinkled and shedding. When the threads are submerged in water, they become transparent to reveal the skin beneath. From the mixture of textile and skin a pattern emerged, a new creature emerging.
The Bakery – Early in the morning, my sister and I would go to the bakery. The man loads our cardboard boxes with warm loaves of bread, covers the top with a cloth to keep the heat. The steam rises in the glow of the sand ovens. Men stoke the fire, others knead the dough. We take them to the street and squat down to sell the bread on Vendor row. Sometimes we would have left overs. So my sister and I would open up a can of sardine, put it over a low flame. She slices the bread in half and I stuff the fish to make a delicious sandwich.
The Swimmers would gather at the rocks to journey out on a make shift raft to the merchant boats beyond. They would float back tins of biscuits, green apples wrapped in tissues, Coca Cola bottles. My Uncle bought a few of these merchandise and made my sister and me to sell it on the streets.
The Diarist-Every time I walk past his bunk, he would be writing some thing in a book or a letter. I wonder where he got the paper and pen? I suppose that image has stuck with me ever since and my affinity to write in journals or diaries. I had no scholarly obligations. What I experience I try to keep it all in my head. I didn’t have the luxury of pen and paper. The Diarist must have the fore sight to bring some along. If I did have a journal would I remember the details more clearly? Because each day it seems to have faded away.
The Bed-Sometimes, we wake up with tree saps in our hairs. During sleep, the barks of trees secrete their chemical juice, sticks to our clothes, pajamas, and skin. The men, usually, went into the forest with machetes to fall limbs and carry them to the place of sleep. They fasten the knotty limbs together into a platform, build posts and sink them into soft sandy grounds to support the bed.
The Skiff – In the evening, the metal skiffs mark the horizon. The twilight shimmering and reflected in the waves, marks the end of the day. The patrol boat crosses back and forth in the horizon.
The Cafe – At night, the scent of ground coffee beans brewing in the oceanic breeze. Lovers stroll hand in hand, their feet touching waves, sand creep between the toes. I will forever have an image of lovers sitting down, facing the ocean, an arm around a shoulder. The lanterns hanging from rafters, light the shop.
Bean Sprout – We cultivate mung beans into bean sprouts. We sow the mung beans into sandy soils, put up railings to protect the bed. Then cover the seeds to preserve the moisture. Slowly the beans sprout forth, like magic, like fables.
Some Related links:
http://timecapsule.yahoo.com/capsule.php – I decided to post this particular post in the time capsule under the category of memories with tags Palau Bidong. Years from now I’ll look back at it.
Images of Pulau Bidong found on the web.