Mdm Lela would struck anyone as one who loved life and never shied away from an adventure. Mdm Lela was born on Lazarus Island and her family was one of the first few to shift to Singapore. She was 10 when her father got a job as a prison warden at Changi Prison and her family shifted from the island to the main island. Although she had to abandon life on the island at a young age, her heart never left the islands.
Mdm Lela’s adventurous spirit has always been brightly burning within her. As a child, she recalled tourists from Australia and Europe coming to the islands, unafraid of them, she and few other friends would become ‘tour guides’ and show the tourists around the island. Despite their limited English, they would happily bring the tourists around the village, the school and other amenities. “400 people, 44 houses” were what Mdm Lela and the other ‘tour guides’ would say to each visitor that came. No one actually did the calculations, to them it was just a truth passed from an older sibling or relative and no one questioned it.
During our interview, Mdm Lela also laughed as she revealed that she was actually very playful when she was younger. In Mdm Lela’s village, there is a village chief, everyone called him Tok Khairen. ‘Tok’ used as a term for respect for Tok Khairen was like a grandfather figure and representative of the village. Everyone in the village knew him and the children feared him. Tok Khairen was very fierce towards the children and he forbid the children from swimming in the waters under their stilt houses. Despite the warning, Mdm Lela and her friends would still go swimming under the extended part of the stilt houses. As noiselessly as they could, they would creep into the waters, swim past Tok Khairen’s house before they played around, laughed and shouted.
“Actually it’s for our own good. [But] last time we are carefree, we don’t care!”
After she left the island, her free-spirited nature was still evident. While living at Changi, she sometimes got island-sick. She would take her sister and sneak off to the beach nearby for a dip. The distance from the sea did not stop her from swimming.
It was also because of her love for swimming that she found her second love. After her husband passed on, she had a coincidental meeting with Mr. Ajumain, who happened to be an islander as well. Mdm Lela laughingly said that she vaguely recalled him playing with her brother but the memory was not very clear. It was only afterwards when they got to know each other better than they found out that they were actually both from Lazarus Island.
While Mdm Lela is carefree and adventurous, Mr. Ajumain was sporty and had a creative streak in him.
Mr Ajumain is the grandson of Tok Khairen. Under the iron fist of Tok Khairen, Mr Ajumain appeared to be more reserved. But after speaking to him, we realized that he, like Mdm Lela, loved the water. He showed us pictures where he represented his primary school Sekolah Rendah Sekijang Pelepah in multiple inter-school swimming competition and emerged as champions.
Other than swimming competitions, Mr Ajumain remembered festivals and games on the island fondly. At that time, there were not a lot of households that had television. Only 2 to 3 houses had them. Their parents also did not have excess money to buy toys for them. As such, Mr Ajumain and the other children would make their own toys.
“They put weights inside the sardine can and pull. Two to three people will run across the beach. The sand will fly at the back!”
“So many things we played. We used wood to make rifles by ourselves.”
Mdm Lela added on, “They use seed to make the bullets.”
During festivals, Mr Ajumain and the villagers would also use bamboos to make fireworks and played ‘greasy pole’ where they applied oil to the bamboo and took turns to climb to the top of the pole. There were also jong racing with participants from other countries like Indonesia.
Mr Ajumain also told us how the villagers used resources on the island creatively. Screw pines grew abundantly on the island. These plants produce individual fruits called a drupe, a large number of them would merge to form multiple fruit with a globular structure around 10-20 cm in diameter. The villagers would take a section from the fruit, pound the end of the fruit until their fiber turn into soft bristles. They would then use it as paint brush to paint their sampans.
Although Mdm Lela and Mr Ajumain missed the carefree times on the island, they never stopped having fun. The both of them would plan trips to Tioman and islands to relive their island life.