by Sharmilla Ganesan
Ipoh: A city in the northern part of Malaysia, the state capital of Perak. Owes its growth to the tin mining industry in the early 19th century, which saw an influx of Chinese workers into the state. Was the country’s second administrative capital under the British rule. Its declining importance following independence has led to it retaining a small-town charm, and is now often associated with retirees and quiet living. Ipoh is best known today for its food, where strong Cantonese and Hakka influences are abundantly on display alongside Malay and Indian fare.
It all began with duck rice.
Alright, it all actually began about three months before the duck rice, with an unplanned kiss on a long train ride back to Kuala Lumpur from Johor Bahru. To this day, he swears I kissed him first, but I’m absolutely certain he leaned in just enough to make sure I knew exactly what he had in mind.
My little sister had been fuming, relegated to a different row, her seat usurped at the last moment by my unexpected travel companion. And we, oblivious – at least, he was; I could read my sister’s expressions – played Truth Or Dare, though the Dares didn’t really amount to much in the confines of our carriage.
Over duck rice, though, was when I had realised I was in love with him. Baking under the Ipoh sun, the surface of the plastic stool cleaving its texture onto the underside of my thighs, as he held out his fork speared with a succulent strip of dark meat, his lips shiny with grease, I knew.
“Shiva, I’m too full! I can’t eat anymore!”
“But… It’s duck!” he said, edging the fork closer to my mouth, face affecting a confused expression.
“Hello, we just had three whole plates of chicken rice! Why you didn’t say something about the duck?”
“I forgot about the salted duck shop until after we had finished lah! Besides, who was the one who was all like ‘Who knows when I’ll come back to Lou Wong? Let’s just order another plate,’? he said, puffing his cheeks out and speaking the last two sentences through pouted lips.
I hit his arm with the back of my hand. “I never said that!”
Truth was, I had. My first authentic Ipoh chicken rice experience had converted me. I had considered myself quite a chicken rice connoisseur up till then, well-versed in the wheres and hows of the best locations for the dish in the Klang Valley. But in comparison to what I had just wolfed down – firm, juicy slices of chicken, steamed so perfectly that the skin was a tissue-thin top layer just tinged with buttery fat, and flavourful rice cooked just so, accompanied by a giant plateful of fat, crunchy, salty bean sprouts – I was obviously but a fledgling.
Lou Wong was a bit touristy, Shiva had said as we took our seats right next to the preparation area, where the chef unhooked the hanging birds and chopped as if on clockwork while his underlings busily scooped rice or ladled hot soup.
“But this is your first time, so you should try here,” he added.
We hadn’t realised though, that we, or rather he, would be tempted again so soon after. Immediately after, in fact. As we stepped out of Lou Wong, he grabbed my shoulder.
“Do you see what I see?”
I was used to his drama by then. “What?”
“Salted duck! It’s calling to me!”
And then he had proceeded to half-drag me, as I pulled in the opposite direction rather unconvincingly, into the shop across the road for a second lunch.
Our mutual passion for food had been my inadvertent initiation into Shiva’s tightly-knit group of friends. I had walked up to them in the college cafeteria, his being one of the few familiar faces, to ask for directions to the LRT station, and had landed in the middle of an argument instead.
Somehow, this ended with him and I heading to Puchong in his car for dim sum; the point of contention had been whether that was worth cutting class for, and I was the only one he had been able to get on his side.
I opened my mouth and allowed him to stuff a too-big hunk of duck in. And realised that somewhere between the car make-out sessions outside Titiwangsa park, the all-night phone calls, the sci fi movie marathons and the many, many food jaunts, I had fallen in love.
I reached over with my foot and ran it up his calf, and despite the many times I’d done it before, he gave me a startled grin while blushing, his day-old stubble standing in stark relief against the red glow of his face.
“Hey, wanna go Kellie’s Castle after this?” he asked.
“But you promised to take me to the best crème caramel in the world after lunch!”
“You said you full right!”
I half-wrapped my leg around his under the table, my bare calf warm and slightly damp against the coarseness of his jeans.
“There’s always room for dessert,” I said with a wink and husky voice, going as far as to lick my lower lip. Later, when we had started sleeping together, he claimed he could tell when I was turned on by when I licked my lower lip – I never had the heart to tell him that it was an affect I had perfected because he seemed to enjoy it.
Shiva snatched his leg away, glancing around to make sure no one had seen my brazen move.
I gave up and started laughing. “Come on lah, I want crème caramel!”
Face even redder than before, he reached across the grey plastic tabletop and placed a slightly sweaty hand on mine.
“Ok, how about this? Let’s tapau the crème caramel, and we can eat it at Kellie’s Castle.”
“Yay! Ok can,” I replied.
Truth be told, crème caramel or not, I’d have agreed to almost anything he suggested. I had been buzzing to see him since I’d arrived in Ipoh the night before. Having made do with a few stolen hours here and there back in KL, I could hardly believe I had him to myself for a whole day.
He’d come to pick me up from my aunty’s house in Lim Garden, whom I had to cajole and convince to let me go out with my “friend”.
“Aiyo, Amma knows him lah, Periamma! He’s come to our house so many times, and she’s always okay with me going out with him!”
Periamma had finally relented, but on one condition: he had to come in and have a talk with her first. That had been rather fun, watching him squirm on her gigantic plastic-covered sofa, sunken in until he was almost peering out through his knees.
Clutching a mug of her thick, generously-sweetened tea in one hand – he had taken a big first gulp, almost managed to hide his grimace, and resorted to taking dainty sips, coughing to cover a snort of laughter when Periamma asked if there was enough sugar in the tea – he stolidly answered questions about his family’s history in Ipoh.
He must have said the right things – or at least, she hit upon someone who knew someone who knew his parents – because she let us escape pretty soon.
“Okay boy, you take care of her ah. And no staying out late all, bring her back after dinner. We lock up here by 10 o’clock.”
And to me, in a hurried whisper: “I’m trusting you and letting you go ma, better be a good girl. I don’t want your Amma to come after me later.”
That had been back when Amma and Periamma were still on talking terms. Some time later, they had a huge, seemingly-irreparable fight – Amma had dissolved into tears as usual, Periamma had been cold and mean – over my grandmother’s collection of gold jewellery. They ended up dividing the pieces equally between themselves, but to my knowledge, the only thing the ornaments have ever graced since is the safe deposit box.
While Periamma was inspecting Shiva, my cousin Rubi had strolled in and out of the room, feigning nonchalance, curious about this male friend of mine. Earlier, when I told her I was spending the day with him, she had asked if he was my boyfriend.
“No lah, we’re just friends,” I had said.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell her. I had, after all, agreed to her idea of me coming to Ipoh for the weekend precisely because I knew he was visiting his parents there. Minutes before she called with the invitation, he had SMSed me: “I miss you baby. Just reached, and I’m already wishing I had you here with me.”
For that matter, I don’t know why we didn’t tell any of our group of friends, not till years later. Shiva had wanted to keep it a secret; our friends would find it awkward, he said at one point. We should be sure before we told everyone else, he said another time.
And the truth was, while I often acted huffy about it, there was a heady thrill to our clandestine activities: the secret looks we exchanged while hanging out in a group, the accidentally-on-purpose brushing of an arm or leg in public, the flirty SMSes deployed while seated right next to each other.
Which may be why I had introduced him to Rubi as just my college friend. Right then and there, she developed an intense infatuation with him, a crush that would result in them, several years later, making out drunkenly in the smoky corner of a club in Bangsar, and then not speaking to each other for almost a decade.
I had slapped him – harder than I actually intended to – when he finally told me about the incident, but more out of lingering habit than anything else; we were back on talking terms within a month. Rubi and I, however, have never discussed it.
Periamma and Rubi stood on the porch waving as we drove away in his Proton Wira. I waved back with my left hand as I pinched his thigh with my right.
As soon as we turned the corner, Shiva pulled the car over. Grabbing me by the shoulders, he smashed his mouth against mine. Taken by surprise, my teeth clacked against his, and I let out a loud laugh.
“Damn brave ah you! Why you never do in front of my aunty’s house?”
“You think I won’t ah? Tonight lah, when I send you,” he said with a grin.
“Ya ya, we’ll see. Talk only a lot, but just now in front of my aunty, like damn good boy only. Ok, so tell me, what’s the plan?”
“Well, because I know you’re going to be hungry in exactly 15 minutes, I thought we can go try some famous Ipoh chicken rice. And then, after that, I’ll take you for the best crème caramel in the world.”
Standing in front of the past-its-prime coffee shop, however, I had not held out much hope for my delicate custard dessert. Ancient Venetian blinds, missing more slats than I could count, hung unevenly just above a surprisingly solid black wooden sign with huge brown Chinese characters; ‘Thean Chun’, the Roman alphabets below translated.
Plaster walls and white tiles made up the décor of the space, which was deceptively narrow but went in quite deep, the dim light and smoky air within camouflaging both its size and the crowd it housed.
Shiva cackled at my expression as I eyed the smiley yong tau foo aunty at the front of the shop, with her merry assortment of plastic bowls and pails. Across the aisle from her, a tall serious-faced man was meticulously measuring translucent strands of kuey teow into a bowl.
“You purposely lied to me right!” I whisper-yelled at Shiva.
“Where got! You just wait here and see.”
Shiva went purposefully into the shop, strutting out a few minutes later with a pink plastic bag full of something. He thrust the bag out at me, a triumphant look on his face. Inside were four small round plastic containers, each with a trembling block of custard drenched in golden-brown syrup nestled within.
“Wah! So you were serious lah!” I asked. “And four! Who’s going to eat all that?”
“Trust me, once you try it, you’ll want more than just two.”
I hadn’t been entirely convinced, but having my first creamy-sweet mouthful while sitting in his car in the barren Kellie’s Castle parking lot, I was a believer.
“Oh wow, this is damn good!” I said, scooping a spoonful out of my second crème caramel in less than five minutes, and letting the thick, smooth dessert sit in my mouth, relishing the sour-sweetness of the viscous syrup as it trickled down my throat.
“See? I told you right,” Shiva said, his voice muffled as he drank the remainder of the caramel straight from the plastic container. “Best in the world.”
“Okay, maybe not best in the whole world, but definitely one of the best I’ve tasted. And for that price!” I said, scraping the bottom of the container with my white plastic spoon.
“Yeah yeah, sorry this isn’t the Ritz-Carlton lah, where the crème caramel is fed to you by little fairies riding on unicorns while mermaids hum in the background!” he said, opening the car door. “Is her highness ready for her castle? But sorry ah, this castle maybe not as awesome as the ones you’re used to.”
I got out of the car and gave his bum a hard smack, making him yell and giggle at the same time.
The next time I had those crème caramels ended up being 10 years later, when I went up to Ipoh with the college gang for Shiva’s wedding. Our group of about 15 – including various then-girlfriends and boyfriends now left to their own paths – had shrunk to just six, and none of us had met Shiva’s wife before.
On our way back from the wedding, despite tussling with my sweltering silk saree, I had insisted we stop at Thean Chun to take away some crème caramel. Luckily, everyone agreed that this dessert completely outclassed the disappointingly lumpy payasam we had been served after lunch.
Kellie’s Castle seemed practically deserted as we walked over the green grass towards its front entrance. Looming over us against the glistening sky, the mansion – or castle, if one was feeling grandiose – had an indecisive look about it, with its asymmetrical façade and varicoloured brick walls.
I’m not sure if Shiva knew then the tales about the place being haunted. Having grown up in Ipoh, he must have heard the shared-and-shared-again stories. Yet, for someone who was always skittish about ghosts and such, he had been remarkably relaxed when we visited. I knew barely anything about the place’s mournful history then, and so went along without the usual hesitation I have about supposedly-supernatural places.
As it turned out, that wouldn’t be our only foray into spooky sites that day. Later at night, we had been driving around in search of a secluded spot to park at, and Shiva suggested a playground near his Ipoh Garden housing area.
The first few kisses had us both falling apart in giggles; we could still taste in each others’ mouths the lingering spice of nasi ganja, courtesy of our heavy dinner at Yong Suan Coffee Shop. Some scrambling resulted in a lone mint and a squashed stick of chewing gum being procured from my handbag, paving the way for tastier and more heated kisses.
After about an hour of sweaty entanglements, during which various articles of clothing were twisted up and half-removed – never fully removed, just in case someone came by and we needed to make a hasty departure – we decided, only somewhat sated, that it was time to leave if I wanted to meet my aunt’s curfew.
Shiva’s car had coughed to life, and there, directly in front of us, lit by the headlights, were row after row of low, stubby stone markers, divided by grassy earth. This was no especially quiet corner of the playground, as he had assumed; it was one side of a Chinese cemetery. I don’t know which screech was louder, mine or the car tyres as Shiva stomped on the accelerator and zoomed away.
Our tryst at Kellie’s Castle, on the other hand, had been interrupted by something altogether more mundane: a noisy group of old-lady tourists in floppy hats, bug-eye sunglasses and cameras on neckstraps.
I had found a cool corner within the structure’s second level, and was gazing at the painfully blue, cloudless sky through an arched window, when I felt Shiva’s arms around me and his lips on my neck. I laughed and jerked my elbow backwards into his belly, pulling myself away.
“Hello, you didn’t see the signboard ah? They said no maksiat here ok!”
He pushed me up against the russet-hued wall, his mouth on mine as his hands moved around damply on my back under my t-shirt. His hips pinned me in place, rough brick rubbing my shoulders and bum painfully even through my clothes.
I clutched at his curly hair, feeling syrup-sticky lips on my throat as his fingers tantalisingly worked their way beneath my bra. I wedged one thigh firmly up between his legs, and was rewarded with a soft gasp.
His right hand had just managed to find its place on my chest – the left was already snug in the back of my shorts – when twittering voices rapidly approached. We broke apart just in time – we think; the aunties may well have seen us before we heard them – and stood as casually as we could at the window, supposedly absorbed by the nothing outside.
“It’s the maksiat squad!” he whispered, causing me to snort a laugh out as they strolled slowly through the room, peering at shadowy corners and pointing at the view from the window.
We walked back down the stairs of the mansion in a fit of giggles, Shiva chanting to the tune of the Captain Planet theme song.
“We’re the maksiat squad! You can be one too! ‘Cause savin’ our virgins is a thing to do! Groping and er, bermaksiat-ing, is not the the way! Hear what Captain Proper has to say: the maksiat… is wrong!”
“Dun dun DUN!” I ended, before collapsing on the stairs, screaming with laughter.
That had been my only time at Kellie’s Castle, and having since been apprised of its many supposed ghosts, I don’t foresee another visit. But as we drove past the large brown signboard announcing its existence on the highway, I suddenly heard the word “maksiat” echo in my head, and felt a mad laugh rumbling its way up from my belly.
To hide it, I quickly said to my husband, “We should go Ipoh sometime. The last I went was like five or six years ago.”
“Ipoh? Damn boring lah. Better Penang right, at least got stuff to do,” he replied.