It was the weekly ritual. As soon as twilight set in, there was the late night calling. With only a narrow window to satisfy any intense cravings, timing was utterly essential.
Sometimes I was appointed to appease this calling. I was more than happy to ride my rustic pedal bike to perform the “mission”. There was no fear of any danger, no need for bike helmets, no need for parental guardianship, albeit I was barely 12 years of age at the time. The “mission” was clear— “Get the chai kuai, tee mee and make sure you get him to fry me the special taw ghe with eggs. Hurry before he sells out! Oh, don’t forget, mom likes the pulut pangang, hopefully the Nonya lady is there tonight.” My dad’s militant assertiveness apparently excluded courteous manners taught elsewhere. In his defence, the cause was appetizingly noble.
With flashbacks of warm wind blowing in my face, I vividly recall the sense of urgency to get there on time. I remember pedalling fast. As soon as I got to the hawker stalls, the aromas would hit me hard from every direction. As always, I was instantly revived! The ambience was undeniably Kuching’s own, each stall luring me with their specialty of delicacies. I was often tempted to try something different, but regretfully limited by the fixed amount of ringgit I was given to spend. I dared not defy or I knew I would never hear the end of it. evertheless, there was the sugar cane drink stall that I would always stop at for a cold drink. It was merely 25 cents then, using loose change I could easily spare with. To this day, I swear it is the best thirst quencher in the world! No amount of slushies or slurpies can match this naturally sweet drink on a hot sweaty day. It made the ride home a piece of cake.
On other nights, I fondly remember devouring ghuhu eng chai, the best authenticsnack there is, again merely a few ringgit to purchase. I would savour every morsel intently, saving the best spicy soaked chewy tendrils and juicy jungle greens for last. Appetizers like calamari with tzatziki sauce just don’t come anywhere close! My other favourites include rojak, Kuching laksa, belachan bee hoon, sambal ikan bakar, midin, mali chai… the list goes on, one of which only a Kuchingnite can fondly relate. Night life in Kuching seemed endless. Often, we would go out for a drive with the family and dad would call it “ciak hong” but ironically that almost always ended up in hawker food stalls or Kuching’s Pasar Malam or great eateries at the Open Air Market or Palm Road food stalls. Yes, it was all about the food, the constant snacking and alongside that, the friendly fellowship amidst the cooler night air where a new burst of energy was kindled, bringing the night life into another culinary dimension. It has been 25 years of my being away. Although somewhat desensitized by sheer deprivation, I still hold on to very fond memories of Kuching’s night life, the hawker stalls and the intimate relationships we once shared.
Fiona Lao-Stuart immigrated with her family to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1988. She completed her post secondary education and obtained her BScPharm from UBC. In 1994, she moved further up north and worked in Fort St. John, BC for 12 years. She moved to Cranbrook in the East Kootenays of BC seven years ago, where she currently resides with her husband and four young children.