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The following story is written and self-translated by Malaysian writer Zedeck Siew, detailing the layered transactions at a Bengali food van in his neighborhood of Port Dickson, Malaysia.

Jump down to read the English version here.
 
 

Tiap petang, kira-kira jam 6:30, sebuah van putih berhenti di pinggir taman permainan. Pintu tepi dan belakang van itu dibuka.

Di dalam van itu: botol-botol berisi serbuk jintan, serbuk biji ketumbar; kekacang, bawang putih dan timbunan halia; minyak masak. Disusun rapi atas rak besi. Sabun basuh baju, sabun mandi, berus gigi juga ada. Barang runcit keperluan harian.

Yang mengendali kedai bergerak ini ialah seorang lelaki berhias beg pinggang.

Yang menjadi pelanggan lelaki ini adalah sekumpulan laki-laki yang memakai sarung tapi tidak memakai T-shirt. Mereka membayar wang ringgit, lalu mengambil tiub-tiub ubat gigi atau buah labu dari perut van.

Pintu depan rumah mereka ternganga. Di pekarangan rumah itu, mereka sedang membasuh baju, membasuh nasi, bergelak ketawa. Lebih kurang dua puluh orang duduk serumah, agaknya.

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“Hello,” kataku.

Lelaki yang berhias beg pinggang seperti terkejut — “Ya?” — tapi cepat-cepat pulih. “Oh, ya, mari-mari,” katanya, selesa berucap mengikut irama si jurujual. “Banyak ada, banyak ada,” katanya.

Aku menunjuk jari ke arah rak rempah ratus dalam van. “Mahu try,” kataku. Giliran aku untuk masak, malam ini.

“Boleh masak!” kata lelaki itu. “Orang Bangladesh makan. Orang sini pun makan. Sedap!”

“Mana sedap punya?” aku bertanya.

Lelaki yang berhias beg pinggang berfikir seketika. Lalu mencapai sebuah kundur sebesar bola tampar. “Ini sedap!” katanya.

Mungkin tampak sedikit kemusykilan pada air mukaku. Dengan suara penuh sabar seperti guru mengajar kanak-kanak kecil, lelaki itu berkata: “Ini, you buang kulit, potong potong potong.” Dia meniru aksi sebilah pisau membelah buah. “Dalam tak payah buang.” Biji kundur boleh dimakan.

“Masak. Garam,” katanya. “Dan taruk ini.” Serbuk kunyit, satu cubit. “Cukup. Buat color.” Secubit untuk cukup warna.

Jika tak cukup warna? Tambahlah secubit lagi.

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Akhirnya aku membeli satu buah kundur (RM6.40), satu paket serbuk kunyit (RM4.60), dan satu botol serbuk biji ketumbar (RM5.40).

Serbuk biji ketumbar ini berjenama ACI PURE — jenama makanan berasal dari Bangladesh. “Sedap,” kata lelaki yang berhias beg pinggang itu.

Bersama aku, dia menggunakan bahasa Melayu pasar. Bersama pelanggannya yang lain, dia menggunakan bahasa Bengali.

Pelanggannya yang lain berbangsa Bangladesh. Rumah kediaman mereka ialah asrama pekerja. Tiap-tiap pagi, mereka membuka sarung dan menggenakan baju pekerja hijau-tua dan topi keselamatan. Jiran-jiran aku berkata laki-laki Bangladesh ini ialah buruh pembinaan untuk Loji Penapis Minyak Hengyuan.

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Rumah-rumah di taman perumahan aku kesemuanya banglo satu atau dua tingkat. Kebanyakannya dibina pada zaman 1950an.

Rumah yang kini menjadi kediaman pekerja Bangladesh dulunya kediaman jiran yang aku kenali. Masa Tingkatan Satu dan Dua aku pernah menumpang kereta bersama anak-anak jiran itu untuk ke sekolah.

Malangnya aku tidak ingat lagi nama mereka.

Selepas jiran itu berpindah, rumahnya menjadi tadika. Aku tidak kenal guru tadika yang mengajar di sana.

Beberapa tahun kemudian, tadika itu pun tutup, dan rumah banglo tersebut menjadi rumah sewa.

Kebanyakan penghuni taman perumahan ini adalah pesara. Kebanyakan mereka mempunyai anak-anak yang kini bermastautin di Australia atau UK. Menghantar anak-anak ke luar negara — ke negara barat, negara maju — salah satu tanda kejayaan warga Malaysia kelas pertengahan.

Apabila pihak Hengyuan sampai, ia menyewa dua buah banglo di taman perumahan aku, termasuklah rumah banglo yang pernah menjadi tadika itu.

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Yang kini menjadi Loji Penapis Minyak Hengyuan hanya 200 meter daripada anjung rumah aku:

Sebuah bandar keluli disinari lampu sorot. Menara yang ditengkolok bebola api gergasi setiap 40 saat. Aroma berbaur minyak tengik dan tayar terbakar. Bunyi deraman yang tidak berhenti-henti.

Hengyuan tidak selalunya dekat sebegini.

Dulu, Loji Penapis Minyak Hengyuan dikenali sebagai Loji Penapis Minyak Shell, Port Dickson. Sejak dibuka pada tahun 1963, loji ini sering diperluaskan:

Mengeluarkan pseudopod paip besi, cerobong dan tangki-tangki, santai mengunyah pohon-pohon di zon penampan yang sepatutnya memisahkan bising dan baunya daripada mengganggu taman perumahan aku.

Pada tahun 2016 Royal Dutch Shell menjual saham majoriti dalam Loji Penapis Minyak Shell kepada Shandong Hengyuan Chemical (RM275 juta). Peralihan ini mewajibkan nama loji itu ditukar, dan projek perluasan besar dilaksanakan (RM700 million).

Pada hujung tahun lalu, Loji Penapis Minyak Hengyuan menegakkan cerobong apinya yang ketiga, berserta suatu reaktor besar.

Reaktor ini membolehkan Hengyuan menghasilkan produk yang mematuhi Euro5M, iaitu standard pengiktirafan Eropah untuk minyak petrol yang lebih mesra alam. Jika kereta anda menggunakan minyak petrol yang mematuhi standard Euro5M, paip ekzos kereta anda kurang mengeluarkan bahan sulfur.

Sulfur ini diperangkap semasa minyak petrol dikilangkan — di loji-loji seperti Loji Penapis Minyak Hengyuan, Port Dickson. Hanya 200 meter dari rumah aku.

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Api dapur bersiul. Kiub-kiub buah kundur berdesir dalam kuali. Aku seorang tukang masak yang buruk. Lagilah apabila mencuba hidangan baru. Kecoh.

Secubit garam, secubit serbuk kunyit. Dua cubit lagi. Empat cubit garam. Enam cubit serbuk kunyit.

Akibatnya: hidangan buah kundur aku serupa warna karat. Aku memaksa diri untuk makan. Bukan hidangan paling teruk yang pernah aku telan — tapi teruk lah. Lembik macam lobak putih. Masin seperti air laut.

Selepas makan malam, rasa haus pula. Ada hati menunggang basikal ke kedai 7-Eleven di kaki bukit, untuk membeli air.

Ada laki-laki yang melepak-lepak di sana sini — berdiri di bawah sinaran lampu jalan; duduk atas jongkang-jongket taman permainan; memakai baju kurta; memasang fon telinga; bercakap dengan telefon Xiaomi mereka dalam bahasa Bengali.

Berlatarbelakangkan loji penapis minyak, dan api penuh sulfur yang membara-bara.

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Zaman aku kecil dulu aku ingat lori-lori yang datang ke taman perumahan ini, menjual barang runcit. Lori yang diubahsuai khas. Datang waktu pagi, membunyikan hon, menarik hati suri rumah yang belum sempat ke pasar.

“Lai-lai-lai! Ikan segar, sa-yur, tau-fu! Lai-lai-lai!” kata pemandu lori-lori itu, dalam bahasa Cina. Apek Cina yang tersengih, sedia menaruh daya dengan makcik-makcik yang suka tawar-menawar.

Lama-kelamaan lori-lori ini pun kurang. Akibat suri rumah yang mula pandai membawa kereta. Akibat pasaraya besar seperti Giant dan Tesco. Akibat masyarakat kini yang makin hari makin kaya. Akibat anak-anak kita yang berpindah ke luar negeri.

Apakah maksud van baru yang menjual barang Bangladesh ini? Mungkinkah zaman lori-lori runcit sudah kembali?

Ada perbezaannya:

Lori lantang pada siang hari vs van senyap sebelum malam
Makanan basah vs barang kering
Pagi vs petang
Suri rumah vs si teruna
Bahasa Cina vs bahasa Bengali

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Jam 6:30 aku keluar rumah, sedia untuk membeli-belah. Beria-ia jumpa lelaki dengan beg pinggang itu lagi. Aku perlu melaporkan keputusan eksperimen memasak buah kundur kepadanya.

Ingin juga aku bertanya: “Mana lagi sedap punya?”

Aku ingin tahu pasal perniagaan van runcit ini. Bagaimanakah ia berfungsi? Apakah selok-beloknya? Apakah nama lelaki berhias beg pinggang itu? Apakah latar belakangnya?

Tapi van putih tiada. Tiada siapa-siapa untuk menjawab soalan-soalanku. Hanya ada seorang lelaki yang memakai sarung, menonton video pada telefon bimbitnya.

“Mana itu van?” kataku.

Lelaki yang memakai sarung hanya termenung. Aku gugup. “Van. Van makanan.”

Akhirnya dia mengangguk. Dia mengibas tangan: Van itu tiada, hari ini.

“Van tak datang hari ini?” tanya aku.

Giliran dia untuk gugup. “No, van. No. Hari ini.”

“Van itu ada datang hari spesifik ka?” Tapi dalam hati aku berfikir: Fahamkah dia? Perkataan “spesifik” ini agak rumit, untuk bahasa pasar. Lelaki ini kurang fasih bahasa Melayu. Dan aku langsung tak erti bahasa Bengali.

Rasa malu pula. Aku mengira hari menggunakan jari. “Van datang Saturday? Van datang Sunday?”

“Saturday” ujar lelaki yang memakai sarung. “Sunday.” Dia mengangkat bahu. “Ada. Maybe.”

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Ada antara jiran-jiran aku yang risau pasal pekerja baru loji minyak berbangsa Bangladesh ini.

Laki-laki pendatang. Duduk segerombol di bahu jalan, berbicara dalam bahasa asing. Penghuni di taman perumahan ini semua mempunyai keluarga. Kenapa laki-laki ini asyik berlegar hingga larut malam, bermain telefon pintar? Membuat panggilan entah ke siapa. Jangan-jangan mereka mengintip rumah kita!

Xenofobia ini amalan orang hipokrit. Corak gerakan penduduk di Malaysia lazimnya mengikut wang dan perusahaan golongan kapitalis dan kolonialis. Untuk bekerja di lombong timah; di ladang getah dan sawit; dalam pejabat kerajaan — nenek-moyang jiran aku merantau dari kampung, dari negeri India. Nenek-moyang aku datang dari Canton.

Begitu juga pekerja-pekerja Bangladesh ini. Jauh dari tempat lahir. Memerah keringat untuk hidup yang lebih senang. Rindu akan rempah-rasa tanahair. Membawa bahasa and makanan tersendiri.

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Keluarga aku mula menetap di Port Dickson apabila ayah aku mengambil kerja di Loji Penapis Minyak Esso.

Ada dua loji minyak di daerah Port Dickson: Esso menjadi Petron apabila San Miguel membeli syarikat itu dari ExxonMobil pada tahun 2011 (RM614 juta); loji yang lagi satu ialah Hengyuan.

Aku membesar di Port Dickson. Kebanyakan rakanku di sekolah mengalami masalah sistem pernafasan. Aku sendiri menghidap penyakit lelah. Tapi penilaian impak alam sekitar tidak pernah dijalankan. Siapa yang sanggup berlaga dengan syarikat petroleum? Industri utama negara kita?

Lagipun ibubapa kita bergantung kepada syarikat petroleum ini untuk mencari nafkah.

Sakit lelah aku tidak lain dan tidak bukan harga hidup senang aku kini.

Bahan sulfur yang diluahkan loji minyak akibat standard Euro5M juga akan dipertimbangkan mengikut piawai yang sama, rasanya. Pencemaran sulfur akan menyulitkan hidup aku, suatu hari nanti.

Inilah harga sikap beransur-ansur yang membolehkan “pembangunan lestari” dan niat untung wujud bersama. Udara daerah Port Dickson dicemari bahan kimia, supaya udara di negeri lain bersih. Sebersih mana, agaknya?

Pada masa yang sama, industri minyak dan gas harus terus berkembang.

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Kesulitan yang paling susah ditanggung adalah bunyi bising.

Raungan — eee! — seperti enjin jet kapal terbang di landasan, sebelum berlepas. Tapi tak habis-habis. Sentiasa ada: saban pagi, petang dan malam.

Bunyi bising ini bermula apabila Loji Penapis Minyak Hengyuan menegakkan reaktor Euro5M. Tidaklah kuat sangat. Jika diukur dengan unit desibel, sekuat cicitan cengkerik sahaja. Tapi ia bukan bunyi semulajadi. Tidak boleh dimatikan, ditinggalkan atau diabaikan. Menjadi suara latar hidup kami.

Malam-malam, aku tak lena. Jam 3am, aku dan pasanganku terjaga atas katil, memandang cahaya cerobong api yang menebusi langsir bilik tidur.

Akhirnya kami menulis surat kepada pihak Hengyuan, memohon penjelasan rasmi untuk pencemaran bunyi ini. Adakah mereka mengambil langkah untuk menanganinya?

Bahagian Korporat Hengyuan memberi jawapan. Jelas mereka, bunyi yang dikeluarkan loji itu langsung tidak melebihi tahap yang dibenarkan. Untuk penerangan lanjut, suatu mesyuarat antara penghuni taman perumahan kami dan Pegawai Perhubungan Komuniti mereka akan diaturkan.

Selepas beberapa minggu, salah satu jiran aku mendapat tahu bahawa Pegawai Perhubungan Komuniti yang dinamakan dalam surat jawapan Hengyuan tidak bekerja dengan syarikat itu lagi.

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Sudah lama tak terserempak dengan van runcit putih. Aku ingin memberitahu lelaki yang berhias beg pinggang eksperimen terbaru aku: telur dadar, ditambah sesuap serbuk biji ketumbar ACI PURE.

Warnanya kurang menyelerakan — sedikit hijau kuning, seperti baju seragam tentera. Tetapi rasanya cukup sedap — berempah seperti kretek yang dinikmati penagih nikotin.

Sekumpulan laki-laki memakai sarung bergelak-ketawa di halaman asrama pekerja Hengyuan. Bukan laki-laki yang aku kenal. Mereka tidak berucap dalam bahasa Bengali.

Sebuah van putih berhenti di pinggir taman permainan. Pintu tepinya dibuka. Muncul laki-laki yang memakai baju pekerja biru-tua.

“Excuse me,” kataku. “Van jual makanan ada datang tak hari ini?”

“Van?” salah satu laki-laki itu bertanya. Cermin mata keselamatan tergantung dari lehernya. Dia menyahut seorang lagi — seorang lelaki beruban. “Hey,” katanya. “Dimana van penjaja itu ya?” Dalam bahasa Indonesia.

Kemungkinan besar lelaki beruban ini pengurus pekerja-pekerja Indonesia yang baru. Dia memandang aku dengan wajah penuh sangsi. Dalam bahasa Inggeris dia bertanya: “What you want?”

Aku berkata: aku cuma ingin membeli bahan untuk makan malam.

Lelaki beruban ini memberitahu aku bahawa pekerja-pekerja Bangladesh sudah balik ke negara asal. “That van sells Bangladeshi things. My workers are not Bangladeshi, they don’t need that. Now, no more Bangladeshis, no more van. Okay?” Tiada lagi orang Bangladesh, tiada van menjual barang runcit Bangladesh.

“Thank you,” kataku.

“If you need to buy food, you go down the hill. There is a shop.” Ada kedai 7-Eleven di kaki bukit, katanya.

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Aku rasa, lelaki beruban ini tidak memberitahu aku cerita sepenuhnya.

Laki-laki Bangladesh masih ada di Port Dickson. Tiap hari, jam 7pm, aku nampak mereka pulang berderai-derai melalui taman perumahan aku, berpeluh-peluh dalam hangat waktu petang.

Mereka berhenti sejenak di rumah asrama yang pernah menjadi tadika itu. Berlaku suatu transaksi. Mereka muncul kembali membimbit beg plastik penuh barang makanan: sebiji labu; beberapa buku ubi kentang; sepaket minyak masak.

Mereka terus berjalan, mengambil lorong pintas yang kecil. Selepas perjalanan lima minit, sampailah pekerja-pekerja Bangladesh ini ke rumah kediaman mereka yang baru.

Rupa-rupanya Hengyuan ada menyewa banglo yang ketiga. Lokasi yang agak terasing, tidak bersebelahan mana-mana penduduk tempatan. Banglonya telah diubahsuai — diselubungi dinding tinggi seperti adang zink yang mengelilingi tapak pembinaan.

Setiap sudut halaman asrama baru ini tertutup. Hilang di mata, hilang di hati.

Mungkinkah pihak Hengyuan akur pada aduan masyarakat setempat? Pelaburan RM700 juta tidak boleh diganggu — itu sudah tentu. Tetapi warga buruh boleh dipindah, disembunyikan ke mana sahaja.

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Aku menahan seorang laki-laki Bangladesh yang baru habis syifnya. Yang baru saja menanggal topi keselamatan. Dia membawa seekor ikan, tergulung seperti huruf “U” dalam beg plastik.

Detik itu aku sedar akan perbezaan antara aku dan lelaki Bangladesh ini. Dua manusia — tetapi berbeza dari segi budaya; bahasa; kelas; hak perundangan. Dia tidak boleh memilih tempat tinggalnya sendiri. Kehadirannya tidak dialu-alukan, dalam masyarakat aku di sini.

Lelaki Bangladesh ini memandang aku dengan waswas.

Apa soalan yang boleh aku tanya pada lelaki ini, supaya dia tidak takut padaku?

“Um,” kata aku. “Van makanan ada datang ka, hari ini?”

Dia mengibas tangan. “New,” katanya. “Malaysia. New.” Dia pendatang baru ke Malaysia. Dia bengkok sedikit, lalu menyimpang pergi.

 

illustration by Sharon Chin


 

Evenings, around six-thirty, a white van is parked next to my neighborhood playground. Its rear and side doors are open.

Inside: metal shelving, lined with bottles of cumin powder, coriander; packets of beans and grain; garlic and ginger and cooking oil. Also laundry detergent, bath soap, brushes—life’s basic supplies.

A man with a black fanny-pack operates this mobile store.

His customers wear sarongs; otherwise they go topless. They hand him banknotes, and take away tubes of toothpaste, a melon. The gate to the house where they live is open. They are washing clothes, rinsing rice, laughing.

Maybe two dozen of them live there, together.

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“Hello,” I say.

The man with the fanny-pack looks surprised I am there—“Ya?”—then quickly recovers. “Ya. Mari, mari,” he says: come, come. He settles into the groove of salespersoning. “Banyak ada, banyak ada.”

I point to the shelf of spice powders. “Mahu try,” I say, tentatively. To cook, to eat.

“Boleh masak,” he tells me. “Bangladesh makan. Orang sini pun makan. Sedap!” These are Bangladeshi foods. But people here eat them, too. They are good to eat.

“Mana sedap punya?” I ask. What is good to eat?

The man with the fanny-pack thinks a moment. He picks out a gourd the size of a volleyball. “Ini sedap!”

And I must’ve looked helpless, because he touches my shoulder, and says: “Ini, you buang kulit, potong potong potong,”—he makes chopping motions—“dalam tak payah buang.” Skin the gourd, cube it. No need to clean out the seeds; they are edible.

“Masak. Garam.” Salt. “Taruk ini,” he says, reaching into his van for a packet of turmeric powder. He mimes a pinch. “Cukup. Buat color.”

If there’s not enough color? He mimes another pinch.

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The gourd is a winter melon (RM6.40). I buy the turmeric powder, too (RM4.60). Also I pick up a bottle of coriander powder (RM5.40).

It is ACI PURE brand coriander powder. A Bangladeshi brand. “Sedap,” the man with the fanny-pack tells me.

He speaks pidgin Malay to me and Bengali with his other customers.

His other customers are Bangladeshi. The house they live in is workers’ housing. In the mornings they swap their sarongs for dark-green overalls and hard hats. My neighbors tell me they are construction labor for the Hengyuan Refining Company.

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Houses in my area are single- or double-storey bungalows. Most were first built in the 1950s. The house where the Bangladeshi workers now live—

When I was growing up, I carpool-ed to lower-secondary school with the kids who grew up in that house. I cannot remember their names. They moved away. In the interim, their house became a kindergarten.

Later, the kindergarten closed, and the house went up for rent.

Many residents here are retirees. They have children living overseas, in Australia or the UK. Sending your children abroad—to aspirational, Western countries—is the traditional marker of Malaysian middle-class success.

When Hengyuan arrived, it rented two bungalows in my neighborhood, including the former kindergarten.

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What is now the Hengyuan Refining Company is 200 meters from my front porch:

A sprawl of spotlights. Gas flares that ball into flame every 40 seconds. A scent like rancid oil and a tyre fire. A dull roar that never ends.

Hengyuan wasn’t always so near.

It used to be the Shell Refining Company. The plant opened in Port Dickson, in 1963. Since then, it has thrown out several expansions: pseudopods of steel piping and smokestacks and storage tanks. Slowly eating through its forested buffer, its sights and sounds and smells creeping in my neighborhood’s direction.

In 2016, Royal Dutch Shell sold its controlling stake in the Shell Refining Company to Shandong Hengyuan Petrochemical (RM275 million).

Following this transition was a name change and a massive new expansion (RM700 million). Late last year, the refinery added a third gas flare. It added a new reactor. The new reactor will allow the plant’s end products to be Euro5M-compliant.

Euro5M is the European standard for more environmentally-friendly fuel emissions. It means much less sulphur leaves your tailpipe, when you drive. That sulphur is captured in manufacturing—here, at the Hengyuan Refining Company.

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The whistle of the stove; sizzling cubes of winter melon, in my wok. I am a clueless cook, at best. Tonight, trying something new, I am worse. I over-season when nervous: pinch after pinch after pinch of yellow powder, of salt.

My melon dish looks like rust. I hesitate to try it, and have to force myself to finish the plate. I cannot even claim it is memorably disgusting; my nose thinks it is pure turmeric; my mouth is convinced it is turnip; my tongue tastes salt, only salt.

I am thirsty, afterwards. I want for a cool can of cider, from the 7-Eleven, down the hill.

On my bike, I cycle past young men about the neighborhood—under the streetlights, sitting on the playground’s seesaws, dressed in kurtas, wearing earphones, speaking Bengali into their Xiaomis.

Above their heads the refinery—its bright sulphur-laden flare.

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Dimly, I remember trucks selling sundries, from my childhood. Small modified flatbeds, coming about mid-morning, tooting their horns, drawing out the homemakers who hadn’t made it to the market.

“Come-come! Fresh fish, veg-gies, to-fu! Come-come-come!” their operators would call in Chinese—invariably blustery Chinese uncles, grinning and ready for spirited combat with bargain-hunting aunties.

Those trucks died out as the aunties began to drive; as the supermarkets and multinationally-owned convenience stores arrived; as we, our society, grew wealthy. As our children moved overseas.

And now, this van. I think: maybe it’s time has come again?

It is interesting to note the differences:

Loud flatbed, in daylight vs quiet van, before dusk
Wet vs dry
Morning vs evening
Housewives vs bachelors
Chinese vs Bengali

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Six-thirty in the evening, I walk out onto the street, ready to do shopping. Mainly I want to see the man with the fanny-pack again. Want to report on my winter-melon meal, ask him: “Mana lagi sedap punya?” What else is good to eat?

Ask him more about this sundry-van enterprise. How it works, how he got started. Ask him his name.

But the white van isn’t there, this evening, and there is nobody around to ask, except a sarong-ed man looking up from his phone.

“Mana itu van?” I say—but the man in the sarong looks at me blankly.

I stutter: “Van, van makanan.” The food van.

He nods, comprehending. His shakes his hands: the van isn’t here, today.

“Van tak datang hari ini?” I ask.

He stutters: “No, van, no. Hari ini.”

“Van itu ada datang hari spesifik ka?” Does the van come on specific days? But I’m realizing that this sentence is complex even for my market Malay. And the man in the sarong has little Malay. And I have no Bengali.

Shamed, I count the days in my head. “Van datang Saturday? Van datang Sunday?”

“Saturday,” the man in the sarong replies. “Sunday.” He shrugs, struggling too. “Ada.” Yes. “Maybe.”

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Some of my neighbors worry about the new refinery workers.

Dark-skinned men, foreigners, sitting in groups on the shoulders of our streets, speaking in a language we don’t understand? This is a community of families. Why do they loiter about, late into the night, talking into their phones? Who are they talking to? Are they watching us?

Xenophobia is nothing if not a species of hypocrisy. The migrations of Malaysian society have ever mapped to the flow of colonial capital. To work in mines, plantations, government offices—my neighbors’ grandparents came from the kampung, or Kerala; mine from Canton.

And so also with these Bangladeshi workers. They are far from where they were born. They earn wages towards an easier life. Hungry for a taste or a tongue from home, they bring their language, their foods with them.

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My family settled in Port Dickson when my father got a job at the Esso Refinery.

This district is host to two petroleum refineries: Esso became Petron when San Miguel purchased it from ExxonMobil in 2011 (RM614 million); the other is Hengyuan.

I grew up in Port Dickson. Many of my schoolmates had respiratory diseases. I myself was asthmatic. But there were never any environmental-impact studies. How could anybody fight the oil-and-gas industry? Our fathers worked in those refineries.

My asthma is the cost of the middle-class life I live now.

The sulphur spewing into the air due to the Euro5M expansion will be treated the same way, I imagine. It certainly means I will suffer, later on.

This is the cost of the gradualist logic that allows the profit motive and “a sustainable future” to co-exist. My air is dirtier, so somebody else’s air may be cleaner; meanwhile, oil-and-gas must continue to grow.

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The refinery whine is the hardest to bear.

A whine like jet engines, idling on the runway—always idling, morning to noon to evening to midnight to morning again.

It began around the same time the Euro5M expansion arrived. It is not ear-splitting; in decibel terms it is as loud as the nighttime crickets. But it is an unnatural, interminable tone that cannot be tuned out, that accompanies our life.

It keeps us awake. At 3am my partner and I watch the gas flare light the curtains of our bedroom.

We wrote a letter to Hengyuan, asking for an official explanation about the noise pollution, asking how it may be mitigated.

Corporate Affairs thanked us for our letter, but insisted that there was no noise exceeding permitted levels. They informed us they would arrange a meeting with their Community Liaison Officer.

One of our neighbors would later tell us the person named as Community Liaison Officer no longer works at Hengyuan.

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I set out on my bicycle. I have not seen the sundry van for many days.

I want to tell the man with the fanny-pack how I added ACI PURE brand coriander powder to the omelette I made, for lunch. It did not look appetizing—it was an army-olive-drab color—but it tasted like how clove cigarettes feel to a nicotine addict: delicious.

There are men in sarongs, laughing in the driveway of the workers’ hostel. They are not the men I remember. They are not speaking Bengali.

A white van turns onto the street. It isn’t the van I’m waiting for. Its sliding door opens. Men in dark-blue overalls jump out.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Van jual makanan ada datang tak hari ini?”

“Van?” one of them says. He has safety glasses hanging from his neck. He calls to a greying man wearing a brown sarong. “Hey,” he says. “Dimana van penjaja itu ya?” This is Bahasa Indonesia.

The greying man seems like an authority figure—a foreman, maybe. “What you want?” he asks, in English, suspicious.

I explain to him that there is a van that comes by, selling sundries. I was hoping to do some shopping, for dinner.

The greying man tells me that the Bangladeshis have left. “That van sells Bangladeshi things. My workers are not Bangladeshi, they don’t need that. Now, no more Bangladeshis, no more van. Okay?”

I thank him for his time.

He tells me: “If you need to buy food, you go down the hill. There is a shop.”

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The greying man in charge of the Indonesian workers hasn’t told me the full story, I think.

The Bangladeshi workers are still around. At 7pm they still come streaming through my neighborhood, sweating in their dark-green overalls.

They stop by the house where they used to live, the house that used to be a kindergarten. Some transaction happens, indoors. They come out again with plastic bags of food supplies: a gourd; some potatoes; cooking oil.

Then these men trickle away, slipping into a footpath between fences, continuing on a five-minute walk to where they live now.

Turns out Hengyuan rented a third bungalow. This location is more isolated, not as sequestered in residential neighborhoods as the previous two. It has been renovated—surrounded entirely by blank-blue, corrugated-metal hoarding, tall enough so nobody can see in or out.

Maybe the refinery does listen to complaints? And, while its RM700-million investment is inviolate, the labor used is easily moved around, hidden away.

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I waylay one of the workers, coming home from his shift. He has taken his hard hat off. He carries a red plastic bag, in which a whole fish is hammocked, curled like a “U”.

A moment of acute awareness of the differences between us. The distances of culture and language, of class and legal rights. The idea that he has no control over his place of residence. The idea that my community does not like him, here.

The man eyes me very warily.

What question can I ask him, that will not make him fear me?

“Um, van makanan ada datang ka hari ini?” I ask. Will the food van come, today?

The man waves in my direction. “New,” he says. “Malaysia. New.” New to Malaysia. He swerves to avoid me, and continues on.

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Zedeck Siew and Sharon Chin

Zedeck Siew is a writer based in Port Dickson, Malaysia. He has been a journalist, essayist, editor, and game designer. He writes short fiction in English and translates from Malay. His first book, Creatures of Near Kingdoms, was published in late 2018. zedecksiew.tumblr.com

Sharon Chin is an artist and writer based in Port Dickson, Malaysia. Her work has been shown in museums and galleries within Malaysia and around the world. www.sharonchin.com

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