It’s amazing what the human brain retains.

And more astonishingly so when these memories come back in the form of dreams, almost 30 years, and a lifetime, later.

When I was around six or seven, I used to live with my aunt from my father’s side. My Ku Ma, as I call her, is dad’s older sister and his only other sibling.

She owned a hair ‘waving’ saloon in the ’50s right up to the ’80s in what was then the bustling town of Ipoh, the capital of Perak, a mid-Northern state in Malaysia. It was called Lee Lee’s Hair Waving Saloon, this bright blue long shophouse built in the ’20s. where ‘open kitchen’ meant having to run for cover when the rains came.

I can remember only happy times at my Ku Ma’s saloon. The beehive wigs on mannequin heads on the twin display windows flanking the cowboy-style swinging doors. The noisy whir of the wall-mounted hairdryers resembling large, egg helmets that would blot out all manner of conversation once you placed them over your head, enclosing you in a coccoon of swirling warmth that would coax those tightly pinned curls into shape. The carts laden with hair styling things: Curlers, combs, brushes, hairpins and, most importantly, hairspray.

What I remember most clearly about my years in the saloon were the mornings. At around 5.30am, I would slowly and reluctantly rouse to my Ku Ma’s symphony of smells and sounds: A kettle of hot water bubbling over roasting charcoal in a clay oven. Someone’s cock crowing proudly. Wooden clogs knocking about on cement floors. Water running. And then, pretending to still be asleep, I would wait for my Ku Ma’s first call.

“Fer!! Wake up lor!” it would come at around 6am, as my Ku Ma banged loudly on the wooden door of the room my sis and I shared with the live-in shampoo girls as there were only two rooms in the shophouse.

I still remember the names of these ‘big sisters’. Ah Lin Che (sister Lin) and Ah Siew Che (sister Siew). Ah Mei Che (sister Mei), the ‘retarded’ girl from Menglembu, as the others called her, who would walk around with her clothes half undone because she could not fathom how buttons and their corresponding holes worked. She would speak to us in what she thought sounded like English, which was the only language my dad had strictly told my aunt that my sis and I were allowed to converse in.

“Nis!” she would call my sis, Eunice.

“Go sickk ffun, please!” she’d say, because she forgot what ‘eat noodles’ was in English and so she would improvise by enunciating the ‘ckk’ in ‘sik’ (eat in Cantonese) and the ‘ff’ in ‘fun’ (noodles). It’s probably how she thought Westerners would say those two words. It was pretty funny for a while, and I admired her for trying.

Another memory I have about life in the saloon was how my Ku Ma would get so angry trying to get my sis and I to sleep at night because it would be midnight and we’d still be giggling and playing all sorts of games in the room, such as ‘camping’ (blankets over umbrellas) or ‘sun tanning’ (umbrellas on blankets), all the while keeping an ear out for the familiar sound of my Ku Ma room’s door opening, clogs clacking noisily on the cement, metal chair scraping towards our wired window. And then my Ku Ma’s curly head would appear.

“You two monkeys! Still awake? Faster sleep lor! Tomorrow got school!” she would whisper angrily, this five-foot woman standing on a chair so she could tower over our two darkened, supine figures.

Life after the saloon, as I stumbled clumsily through my teenage years, must’ve lost its magic, because most of all I can remember are not as, well, memorable.

But that, as they say, is another story.


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