A short break from writing about Shanghai: I’m in Kota Kinabalu for a week, the little city in Sabah, Malaysia, where my grandparents live.
Ever since I was little we’ve visited KK every few years. Usually these visits mean long, hot days spent lounging under the ceiling fans, reading Agatha Christie novels and watching Cantonese soap operas. But right now there are cousins and uncles arriving each day from places like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and every night is a family reunion. The big old house, usually empty, is full of voices shouting across each other in various combinations of Hakka and English and Chinese and Malay. There are at least ten pairs of flip-flops piled up by the front door.
Still, each time I come back, Popo and Gung Gung’s house is the same. It has high ceilings and hard floors and the windows covered in mosquito nets. The house is always full of echoes. It’s like the air here is so humid and heavy that sounds get trapped inside it. Even the tiniest noises downstairs can be heard from upstairs: dragonflies hitting the windows, oil sizzling in the wok in the kitchen, geckoes clicking and chirping from behind curtains. The geckoes get louder at night.
Sometime between four and five a.m., pre-dawn light sifts through the curtains and leaves a shadow-pattern of leaves on my bedroom ceiling. The distant song of the mosque’s morning call-to-prayer drifts into the room, swirls in the dark. I hear Gung Gung getting up, shuffling down the corridor, switching on the Chinese-language news. Gradually more noises float up the stairs, and more smells: toast, coffee, fried noodles.
We all wake early in the heat but I’m still the last to the breakfast table. Popo brings out the butter for my toast (from the toaster which, embarrassingly, only ever gets used when my dad and I are visiting). Gung Gung returns from the market with fruit and snacks for breakfast. Always the same pink plastic bags. Thick wodges of creamy durian, which my mum loves but no one else can bear. Fresh red papaya, yellow jackfruit, lychees, bunches of tiny bananas. Colourful glutinous rice cakes (known as kuih in Malay), some with bean or peanut paste inside: wobbly cubes in rainbow layers of cotton-candy pink, jade green, blushing red. Squishy coconut-white balls that leave a ring of powdered sugar on your lips when you bite into them.
Then there are the banana fritters, or pisang goreng in Malay. Gung Gung brings home extra when he knows I’m visiting. He tips the golden fried bananas onto an enamel platter, covers them with a tray to keep them warm and keep the flies away. The room fills with smells of oil, sesame, sugar, coconut.
A fresh banana fritter has a good crunch when you bite into it. The batter is almost savoury, in contrast with the sweet, fragrant fruit. When I take that first bite after years away from this place, I can taste tropical heat. I taste the slow hours spent sitting looking at the mango trees in the back garden. I remember the fierce sun, only ever bearable on days when we went swimming at the Sabah Golf Club pool and ate chocolate ice cream afterwards in the shade.
There are always those foods you keep coming back to for nostalgia’s sake. It might be the most boring, simplest snack in the world, but you’re obsessed with it. You can smell it from a mile away; you taste it and you’re six years old again. The closest thing you have to time travel.
On my long list of favourite childhood foods, pisang goreng is near the top. They’re almost better in the afternoon: softened but not soggy, when the batter has changed from crispy to chewy, somehow less oily than before. When leaving KK, we always wrap a handful of cold banana fritters in paper napkins and pack them in our hand luggage. We eat them with our fingers while sitting watching planes take off into the shimmering heat just visible at the end of the runway.
Banana fritters are usually made using ladyfinger bananas, the most common type of banana found in Southeast Asia (also known as sugar bananas, which is a lovelier name) much smaller than the ones I get every day in Shanghai. They have a sweet but tangy, acidic taste, a little bit like an apple, even after their skin has started to brown. They’re so small I could eat five at once.
We snacked on them the other day while driving up the winding road towards Mt. Kinabalu which stands just taller than the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 4096 metres. By the end of the day my aunt, uncle, cousins and I had probably eaten at least six each. Through the car windows, the rocky summit of Kinabalu disappeared and reappeared from behind dark rainclouds. Each time it appeared, we could see new waterfalls streaming down the steep rainforest – big ones and small ones, some beginning far above the clouds. It hardly looked real.
We visited Kinabalu National Park when I was little but all I remember is fog, humidity, and dark vines hanging over the road like something out of The Jungle Book. I also remember blue butterflies. Real live ones with iridescent wings that turned green when they caught the light, their wingspan bigger than my two hands put together. But I don’t think this was real; blue butterflies are rare and endangered, only to be found in enclosed butterfly aviaries or framed and pinned to the wall at the Sabah Museum. My six-year-old self was obsessed with the idea of seeing them, imagining them all day and night, pouring over pictures of them in the ancient, falling-apart copies of National Geographic that Gung Gung had collected since the 1960s and never thrown out. Like with most childhood obsessions, in this way they became real.
In Shanghai I’m often swimming in memories. Sometimes they block everything else out. This is the most I’ve written in at least a month. I've been thinking lately: the more we relive memories, do they become more or less real? How much of our present self unconsciously changes it? Why do we lose some parts of a memory and grab hold of other parts that don’t seem important at all?
The rain on the backs of our necks, so loud we could’ve been standing under one of those waterfalls. Water droplets clinging to the plastic leaves.
Right now I’m sitting on the balcony of our hotel room (there’s no space for us at the old house). It’s late evening. If I were at Popo and Gung Gung’s, moths would be starting to fly at the windows. We would light the mosquito coils and place them in blue-rimmed enamel bowls on the floor in the corners of each room. It’s warm and my skin is damp even though the rain hasn’t touched me. I can still smell the rainforest.
As we drove back down the mountain yesterday afternoon we were sleepy from the heat, and so full from all those bananas. A real tropical thunderstorm had started. So much rain we couldn’t see anything out the windows, so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves speak. The only flashes of colour: endless fields of banana trees. I kept looking back until they disappeared into the mist.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.