Charming chamber pots

Spittoon seen at Lukut Museum, Negeri Sembilan
Romance of the wedding chamber pot

AT the Lukut Museum in Negri Sembilan, I saw a brass spittoon among the exhibits that was quite unlike the spittoons I remember seeing under marble tables in old coffee shops in downtown Johor Baru.

Way back when people enjoyed chewing tobacco and public spitting was an accepted part of the lifestyle, coffee shops provided spittoons that were stout aluminum receptacles with wide mouths and broad bases, probably for easier aim and less risk of tipping over.  Since the 1980s, spittoons have gradually disappeared.

I remember cringing at the sight of the spittoons in old coffee shops but could not resist taking a curious peek inside. It usually contained some water and floating cigarette butts.

I used to recoil at the thought of how many people had spat into it. If there was a spittoon under the table, I would squirm in my seat and try to keep my feet far away to avoid accidentally kicking it.

I am, however, very familiar with its cousin, the chamber pot, which the Cantonese call tham thong which literally translates as phlegm pot.  My earliest memories of mobile toilets and portable potties must be that of the traditional chamber pot that I used at home and in our ah kong's (grandfather's) house.

Enamel coated chamber pot seen in the
Pinang Peranakan House in Penang
When my siblings and I lived in ah kong's house, we had a nightly ritual of collecting the chamber pot from the bathroom downstairs and taking it upstairs to use as a urinal in our room.  Like most buildings in those days, ah kong's house at 154 Jalan Ngee Heng was not designed with attached bathrooms or toilets.

At night, it was a challenge for us children to find our way through that double-storey bungalow to the toilet downstairs.  So, if we forgot to bring the chamber pot upstairs, we had to grope our way in the semi-darkness and through several locked double doors before we reached the urgently needed toilet downstairs.

Using the chamber pot came quite naturally because like most children, I was toilet-trained on it. I remember how my mah jie used to whistle to coax my little bladder to relax and release any urine. (A mah jie is a member of the sisterhood of Chinese domestic servants or amah, usually identified by a dress code of white sam-foo blouse teamed with black trousers.)

Today, potties are ergonomically designed in plastic and come in bright colours, usually with some cartoon or picture applique on it. These modern chamber pots come in several sizes to fit different ages and are so lightweight that they can be discreetly packed in a bag or put in the car for travel.

Items among the traditional Chinese
bride's wedding trousseau
I remember grandma had plain aluminum chamber pots, one for each room, which she used to scrub out regularly and dry in the sun. By contrast, the chamber pots in our home were plain on the inside and enamel coated outside with raised designs of pretty painted flowers.

I asked my mum about our traditional potties and was pleasantly surprised to learn that they are still in our storeroom.  It may just be for sentimental reasons but I was thrilled that we still have these museum pieces at home.

They are now a rarity and that's why I was fascinated to see some displayed in the Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant at the Singapore Night Safari Park. There was a charming chamber pot on a ledge above the modern toilet in every cubicle in the ladies room.

At the Peranakan Museum in Penang, I learnt that while the portable chamber pot served as a very handy privy, it was an essential item for a Chinese bride at the start of her married life for yet another reason.

The Chinese word for what goes into it is translated as "yellow gold" so if the bride brings a chamber pot to the groom's house, they will be blessed with wealth. That was why the all-important chamber pot was among several items like basin, jars, trays and a wooden washboard in her wedding trousseau.

The chamber pot is part of the toilet deco
at Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant, Singapore
In bygone days, the chamber pot played a significant role in family life. For instance, a new daughter-in-law was assigned the daily chore of emptying her mother-in-law's chamber pot.

There's something repulsive about stagnant urine and how the daughter-in-law carried out her daily duty, whether joyfully or miserably, would determine her future relationship with her mother-in-law.

Today the chamber pot may still be in use for ceremonial reasons. I remember when the wedding entourage returned to Uncle Arthur's house, young cousin Derek was asked to pee into their new chamber pot so that the newly-weds would be blessed with a son. 

All eyes were on poor Derek as he was coaxed with all sorts of whistles to persuade him to perform, and after a tense wait, he finally did. Incidentally, Uncle Arthur and his wife had their first-born son Kevin.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 14 April 2011

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