Ah Tniao

Oh Chin Eng

Mention Penang Hill and what comes to mind is the funicular train, the cool weather and of course its new attraction, The Habitat. Penang Hill is definitely on the “to-do” list of those who visit this island. Since young though, I have been always curious about the residents of the little huts perched on the hill. Some houses are visible from the main roads, while many are secluded and hidden from view.

“A Tale of Two Hills” offered me an opportunity to collect stories of people who live on the hill. I wanted to discover why they were there, how they travelled up the hill and from where they originated. They could be monks or caretakers of the temples, residents or the farmers. While it is challenging to access these groups, I had a perfect candidate to approach – my uncle whom I call Ah Tniao.

Ah Tniao was born and bred in an attap/zinc house on the hill. The house was built over 100 years ago by his grandfather. Today, it has been upgraded according to modern styles. The fourth generation lives there and nearby are vegetables, herbs and fruit trees planted by earlier generations. Interestingly, as a resident at the hill, he is a farmer (of the land behind the house) and also works at the nearby famous Kek Lok SI Temple. While a man of few words, he is always composed and calm. Collecting his stories enriched my own life in unexpected ways. I was inspired by his discipline, dedication to work, his skills and knowledge and filial piety to his parents.

For many mornings before sunrise, many evenings before sunset and many nights after his dinner, I followed him for hours, observing and documenting his life. Thus, this series of visual documentation aims to give you a glimpse of his existence, one of the innumerable people who made their lives on the hill. In the process, I was reminded that Penang Hill is more than just a tourist spot, it was also rich with tales of people that are yet to be told.

Morning Routine

“Ah Tniao, I see you tomorrow at 6.30 am ya?” “You can wake up ah?” “Hahaha I try la. If you don’t see me, means I can’t wake up.”

While many of us are still asleep, Ah Tniao is already awake by 6.00 am when the skies are still dark and the temperature is as low as 20 degree Celsius; chilly, at least to me. His house, surrounded by trees and fields of produce, is located on a hilly terrain near the famous Kek Lok Si Temple. There are less than 20 families living here, not far from Penang Hill. As a photographer and a researcher, my task is to shadow him and observe his day. But as his nephew, it is a chance for me to have closer view of his life.

By 6.30 am he’ll start his morning, riding his Honda EX5 to the nearby Air Itam Market to sell the lemongrass he harvested a day earlier. There’s one particular stall that he always sells to. If he manages to harvest more, he’ll take them to another stall. Sometimes, Ah Tniao will have other produce such as yam/taro, papaya, pineapple, wintermelon. From my observation there is hardly any lemongrass being sold. Ah Tniao said selling lemongrass does not earn him much. He sells a bundle of 10 pairs (3 lemongrass) for RM5 while the market price is between RM0.60 to RM0.80 per pair. However, for other produce, the market price can be more than double Ah Tniao’s price. The farmer thus earns a meagre income. In 2015, it was reported that small scale-farmer in Penang often had to rely on a second job to supplement their income, especially due to the large profit margin by the middle-man.

As a family man, Ah Tniao, 60, buys fresh ingredients from the market for dinners at home. After he is done, he’ll head home. His daily routine is fixed. If he has time to spare, he’ll take a short nap before doing his father’s laundry, then head out to breakfast at Air Itam Town. By 8.30 am, Ah Tniao is already at work at the Kek Lok Si Temple, setting up the fairyland-like temple for Chinese New Year, a job he’s been doing for the past three decades.

Farm life

Farming requires knowledge, time, patience and love. These are the values Ah Tniao possesses. He has embraced his family’s tradition by farming on a little plot of land behind his house. Farming is in his family’s blood. More than 100 years ago, his grandfather came from China and settled down on this hill. This farm sprung from the sweat and toil of at least three generations. Being a farmer is not an easy job due to long working hours, physically demanding manual work and low returns.

“I can’t tend to this farm anymore when I get older. No one will take over lah. Hahaha, no way asking him (my son) to do farming, collecting only about RM20 a day compared to a salary of thousands of ringgit every month.”

Once he finishes work at Kek Lok Si, Ah Tniao will change into his yellow boots to go to his farm at 5.30 pm. Ah Tniao will harvest the lemongrass before watering his farm. If the other fruits he planted are ripe, he would collect them too. He has papayas, bananas and passionfruit which I got to savour for free. I also saw him harvesting a huge yam/taro. Chinese New Year is a busier period for him as his “Bali Ong Lai”, or Bali pineapples can be harvested as prayer offerings. The pineapples grow on higher ground and carrying them down the hill is not an easy task under the scorching sun.

There are also medicinal plants surrounding Ah Tniao’s house. Some, he said, were used to hasten healing from Covid-19. Other leaves are good for fever and coughs. During one of my visits, he climbed up the coconut tree to pluck some for his son who was then having a fever. I took two coconuts home and I must say they tasted so good. Perhaps it was harvested with love by Ah Tniao.

The mosquitoes love me, maybe because I am a city boy. They bite me all over on my trips to the farm. While busy documenting Ah Tniao, I was also busy scratching! I felt clumsy while walking along the narrow paths, some covered with bushes. One time I stepped on and broke a waterpipe running from the hill to Ah Tniao’s house. I was awed that, with little tools from his house, he fixed it within minutes on the spot.

Family Man

Just as it was getting dark, around 7.00 pm, he would be back to his house. After washing, cleaning and tying up the lemongrass to be sold the next day, he would then focus on his family members. He bathed his aged father with patience and tenderly. While it was awkward for me, I found it so heartwarming. Ah Tniao is now doing what his father did for him when he was a baby. He also made a ramp at home for his mother, who is now using a walker to walk after falling down early this year. He would not send them to a nursing home despite the challenges of caring for them.

After completing this task, he would have a bath and sit down for a dinner prepared by his wife. As their sons work till late, dinner is usually just two of them or sometimes, just Ah Tniao on his own. Before Chinese New Year, his wife would make cookies to be sold. Ah Tniao would always lend a hand. I noticed how focused he was in the whole cookie-making process.

Ah Tniao is a man of few words, composed yet shy. However, occasionally he would tease his wife and they would both burst into laughter. When Ah Tniao is finally done with his daily routine, it is my turn to sit down and talk to him. But it is not easy at all to dig deeper for stories from someone related to you, especially when Ah Tniao is not chatty. Still, being with him the past two months; following him many mornings before sunrise, many evenings before sunset and many nights after dinner, his presence made me think of my father who passed away in 2015. Father and Ah Tniao are family men who always put family first, both worked in manual labour often under hot sun and in rain. Their wish was for their children to study hard so that they would have a better job and life.

I didn’t get it before this when he said he was busy, but now I can see why. He dedicated his time after work for family matters and on the farm. For instance, during the short 1-hour break at 12 pm, he would quickly go to the nearby coffeeshop to tapao food for his father, serve him, before having his own lunch. I believe that by devoting himself to the farm is also a way for him to continue the legacy of his parents and pay honour to their hardwork. Thus, time for him is precious, to care for the people who mattered for him.

When I asked Ah Tniao why he never thought of living elsewhere such as high-rise building, he told me that “there’s freedom living here; living in a flat is like being caged, but here I can move around easily.”

Ah Tniao’s story is just one of many hidden untold stories of people living on or around Penang Hill, making the area their home for generations. Although nearby, Ah Tniao has forgotten when he last visited Penang Hill, let alone stepped into The Habitat.

As night falls, Ah Tniao finally has the time for his own pastime. He scrolls his phone for news around the world before going to bed, to rise to yet another early day tomorrow.

*Ah Tniao is the husband of my aunty who is the sister of my mother

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