Old flame

Reception desk at Yong Heng
A torch for an old flame

When I was walking along Jalan Trus, admiring the ancient architecture and absorbing the heritage in this part of the city, I noticed a quaint little shop.  The display was not bright or attractive but I was curious about the bulky bags stacked with to one side of the shop floor.  From the signboard, I could not tell what they were selling but when I looked closer at the merchandise I saw they were bags of charcoal.

I guess people hardly think about charcoal today unless they were planning a barbecue party.  Even then, very few people know how to start a charcoal fire and keep it glowing consistently to barbecue meats or cook a meal.  This is proven by half-cooked or badly charred meats probably because they could not keep the flames under control. 

There was a time when every home kept a stock of charcoal because it was a basic necessity.  Before gas and electric appliances were common, charcoal stoves and irons were the norm in homes and with businesses like laundries, hawkers and restaurants.  In those days people used to buy charcoal or have it delivered regularly in five or ten kati bags by the supplier because these small, sooty black logs were the preferred fuel for making strong and smokeless fires to cook and iron clothes. 


Bags of charcoal stacked on the floor
at Yong Heng, located at No. 100 Jalan Trus
This brings to mind, a familiar figure I used to see around town – I named him, the Charcoal Man – wearing shorts and a singlet that was stained with soot and sweat, carrying a bag of charcoal on his shoulder and walking with an awkward gait, probably due to a physical deformity.  I used to be terrified by the sight of him, jumping to the wrong conclusion that he was a pervert.  But looking back now, I know that he was doing an honest day’s work, delivering charcoal to homes and businesses. 

I remember watching grandma using a pair of long metal tongs to break up the charcoal and pick up little logs to arrange them inside a ceramic stove.  This slow-burning flame was maintained by adding more charcoal as grandma believed in the value of slow-cooking to bring out the nutrition in her cauldron of soup.  I often tried to be helpful because it was just fun to handle the long tongs to add in charcoal and keep the flame smoldering.

Before electric irons were introduced, mum said she used to press clothes using a cast-iron charcoal-heated iron.  I vividly recall how clothes were scrubbed on a wooden washboard with a chunk of laundry bar soap – Axe or Palm Tree brand – and how white clothes had a final rinse in washing blue to make whites whiter.  I used to enjoy seeing this little cube of laundry blue, usually wrapped in a square of cotton fabric, being stirred in to turn the basin of water blue.  Clothes that needed ironing were also rinsed in a slimy starch solution so that they would yield smooth and crisp results when ironed.

Mum said using a charcoal-heated iron was hot and tedious work because burning coals had to be replenished in the hollow of the iron to keep the heat strong enough to press out wrinkles and create razor-sharp creases for shirt sleeves and trouser legs.  To keep the iron well heated, a stove with smoldering coals was kept nearby and long tongs used to pick the hot coals for regular refills.  This task not only needed a great deal of patience and skills but enough strength to hold the heavy iron and ensure that ashes did not fly out to stain mum’s damp uniform and Ah Kong’s (grandfather) white shirts, that were being ironed or it would mean another painful process to remove the ugly spots.   


Skewers of satay grilled over smouldering charcoal
When our family was living in Government staff quarters in Masai, I used to watch mum and our neighbours bake traditional Malay cakes like kueh bakar and kueh bahulu.  Cast brass moulds were heated over charcoal fires and I was fascinated to see how this mould cover was also topped with burning coals to bake the batter evenly.  I agree with food connoisseurs that any food cooked with charcoal is more fragrant and tasty but with modern ovens in use now, this traditional method is probably no longer in practice. 

One of the most powerful images I have of charcoal is how hawkers in the former Chinatown food centre at Jalan Ungku Puan used to cook their food with charcoal fires.  It’s easy to picture how stoves can be refueled for simmering soups and broths but fires had to be constantly fed with logs and charcoal to stir-fry noodles.  Fans of Chinese food know that there’s something distinctively appetizing about Chinese cooking when sparks shoot up from the sides of the stove and fire flashes into the wok!


Yellowed pages of order book at Yong Heng
So there I stood in the dusty charcoal shop, clearly a sunset trade in our modern metropolis, reminiscing about the humble but useful charcoal.  In the sparsely furnished shop, an order book was lying open on the desk and when I had a peek, I felt a pang of nostalgia to see the pages, yellow with age and printed with a six-digit telephone number.

As charcoal stoves are rarely used now and charcoal irons have become valuable museum pieces, the demand for charcoal has drastically dropped.  It follows that it’s only a matter of time before charcoal suppliers will also cease to exist.  But with the thriving demand from satay stalls, hotel restaurants and the two traditional charcoal bakeries in the city, there’s still hope yet for charcoal suppliers.  That’s because charcoal baked bread and roasted meat connoisseurs know that the best tasting bread and meats are those that are baked and grilled with a smoldering charcoal fire. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 28 September 2011

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