FIRST BELONGING by Charlotte Hunter


A FEW MONTHS AGO, WHILE writing text panels for a local exhibition, I asked a friend to give them a quick once-over. He came back with something unexpected:
“…. the lives they established long ago as strangers in a strange land form the backbone of our present community.” Reflect on your use of ‘our’ in the last sentence – it’s something that you need to think about: I have a feeling that the word has sort of sneaked into your text semi-consciously – has it?
For the sake of objectivity, the word ‘our’ was changed to ‘the’, but the answer to his question was a resolute no. If I belong anywhere it is here in Sarawak, and so no, there was nothing semi-conscious about it at all.

On one hand, my claim to being a member of the Kuching community may seem tenuous. Though a daughter of a Sarawakian-Chinese mother, I am also a product of a Northern Irish father. Though there were extended visits to Kuching as a child and then shorter, more frequent visits from my mid-twenties onwards, I was born and raised in England, and English is my mother tongue.

However, in Kuching there exists for me a physical rootedness to my identity in the form of a traditional style shophouse on Carpenter Street, in the heart of the old town, from which my maternal family flows. My great grandfather migrated to Kuching from China’s Guangdong province at the turn of the nineteenth century, having apprenticed as a watch repairer along the way, and it was in this house that he eventually settled. Within it he worked and raised a son, my grandfather, to whom the trade and the house passed, and in which my grandfather raised a son and three daughters of his own, the youngest of whom is my mother. Upon my grandfather’s death the trade and the house were inherited by his son, my uncle, and it was in here that my uncle raised his own seven children. After his death two years ago, the trade went to one of his sons, my cousin.

You may ask why all this is so important to me. The answer may be that because my identity is split along the fault lines of race, culture, and continents, I’ve always felt a need for something physical, something definitive, to help me see in part who I am. This extends to the bricks and mortar of the house itself, to the blackened belian staircase as steep and narrow as an attic ladder, to the rusted iron frame of my grandmother’s bed, its dismantled parts now propped against a wall. It further extends to my aunt’s calligraphy desk, sable brushes in jar, to the black-and-white photo of my late uncle as a young man – hung now with the photos of his parents – to my cousin mending a customer’s watch at his work bench, eye loupe on, bent over his microscope as his father had done before him, and our grandfather before him, and our great grandfather before him … . ‘The poetry of the everyday’, I believe it’s called.

There’s a continuity present that stretches outwards to the rest of our quarter, in particular to the thin triangle formed between the family shophouse, Lau Ya Keng temple, and the food court. The coffee stall here has likewise remained in one family, in the same location, for generations, and is now operated by two branches of the family in two shifts. It has been a daily part of family life reaching back to my mother’s childhood, and during those extended visits, part of mine too. I now feel a deep-seated recognition of the smell of kerosene from the mobile cookers mingled with freshly brewed coffee, of the sight of boiling water ladled from one pot to another, while the sound of torrential rain pounds on corrugated metal roofs. This food court was where my uncle and I last spoke before his final Great Illness, where he whispered to me in his failing voice: ‘I used to bring you here for satay when you were a little girl, and now you are bringing me’.

One cousin tells me I have a tendency to romanticise life in these parts, and I fear she is right. After all, for all the familiarity there is the unfamiliarity – what the writer Amin Maalouf describes as ‘being estranged from the very traditions to which I belong’. I think about the metal grille across the front of the shophouse which, when the shop is closed, needs to be pulled back to let anyone in or out. I have never been able to manage it. Not because it is heavy or stuck, but like a mortice key in a tricky lock, it takes a sleight of hand gained through habitude to make it shift – something I do not possess. On more pensive, introspective days, it becomes a symbol for the alienation I know exists between myself and this society in which I both belong and cannot one hundred percent belong. I speak none of the local languages, without which no person can ever truly inhabit a society, and for all my extended childhood visits, ultimately I was socialised in England. The consequence is that there are social and cultural complexities within both my family and the wider community which I may never truly understand.

Nonetheless, the feeling of belonging is stronger than any sense of non-belonging. Were anyone to ask me where my first point of identity lies I would say right here, among these narrow streets and dark, dilapidated shophouses, in the chaos and in the heat. I would say I belong to one house in particular – the place where I’ve found the steadfastness I’ve always needed, the wellspring where four generations of my family have lived, worked, married, birthed, and died (five if you count my cousin’s wave of children now being born). When the time comes, throw my ashes in the back yard. I’ll be home.

Charlotte Hunter descends from a shophouse family in old Kuching. Dividing her time between Sarawak and the UK, she can often be found staring into space at Lau Ya Keng food court on Carpenter St. Feel free to buy her more coffee.

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