My great-grandmother on my mother's side was a nyonya lady. What this means is that I have Peranakan blood in me. And I'm proud of this lineage because the Peranakans or the Straits Chinese are a vanishing breed. My great-grandma (God bless her soul because I'd never met her or knew her name but only prayed to her ancestral tablet when I was small and still living in Seang Tek Road, Penang) must have been a productive matriach in her days because she begot seven children - two girls and five boys. So you see, on my mother's side, I have a rather large extended family of relatives.
Now, as nyonya ladies go, they like to latah a lot. Latah is a peculiar condition of hyper-startling usually found in adult women although I do know one or two baba men - again a dying breed - who are similarly afflicted. I don't know whether they are still alive. Nobody knows what causes a person to latah but it doesn't take much to set them off. You only need to poke them in the ribs - I said the ribs, not the boobs - or creep up suddenly behind them and they'll go off with their latah sessions. It was quite fun, actually, to my young mind. My grandma on my mother's side had a favourite latah expression. When startled, she would go with the incomprehensible "puki lok hai". It was such a natural reaction to her, the way she would lose control of her behaviour and said something funny.
However, I never heard my dear mum latah much. There were the odd times when she went Alamak but that was about all I ever heard. There were more frequent times when my grandma went Alamak. And I'm sure there were countless times when my great-grandmother went Alamak too. Occasionally, I would also go Alamak. It was all so cultural, all so in line with my Straits Chinese upbringing.
However, developments here in the country have placed a huge question mark over whether I, as a descendant of my great-grandmother, a proud, well-bred Chinese nyonya lady, can continue to utter Alamak with such gleeful abandon.
We, the Straits Chinese in Penang, bastardise languages a lot. That's why our Penang Hokkien is such a colourful dialect. For example, what is satu kupang in Bahasa Pasar is chit puat in Penang Hokkien. Puat, I would imagine, is the bastardised version of the Baht, the currency used by our northern neighbours.
So what is Alamak? What does it mean? Where did it come from? For sure, it's a word long used by the Peranakan community in the Straits Settlements and beyond. It is still used all over Malaysia and some say, Singapore and southern Thailand too.
Could Alamak be just the Peranakan way of saying Allah Emak or God's Mother? The expression is ingrained deep in our culture but nobody knows its exact origin. It's our way of life to say Alamak with perhaps a slap on the forehead for better dramatic effect.
Last month, the government warned a church in Sabah to stop printing a Bahasa Malaysia version of its newsletter because it was using the word Allah to mean the Christian god. Later, its printing permit for 2008 was issued without any pre-condition. Today, I learnt that the Cabinet has reaffirmed its stand that the church cannot use this word in its publication. It looks like a head-on collision between the government and the church, and its heading to the law courts for a hearing.
Even as a non-Christian, I am interested in this case. How it will be resolved will have wide implications in this country because the Christians will not accept any decision unfavourable to them.
Also, the very essence of Peranakan culture may be threatened. I don't want to have to check myself from saying Alamak. My forefathers have been using this word in an affectionate way for a long time. I want my grandchildren (when the time comes, that is) to continue using it for a long time to come.