Pepper recounts his primary school’s race based football matches.
In the 1970’s my parents were transferred to teach in Kuala Lumpur. As a result, my brother and I found ourselves in a new primary school in Jalan Pasar, Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. I have many memories of this wonderful school, but the one which stays clearest in my head was when my class played football during P.E.
“P.E.” (Physical Education) were the most wonderful letters to hear during the week. My classmates would change into their P.E. singlets while chanting, “Pee eee, pee eee, pee eee!” Then we would troop down to the school field where the P.E. teacher would be waiting for us with a football in his hand. He would toss the ball to us and walk off. We would then automatically form two groups – what else can you do when there was only one football?
The Chinese boys would be in one team while the Malay and Indian boys formed the other team. Wait, this is not as racist as it sounds! Pasar Road was a predominantly Chinese area so half my class was Chinese boys. Malay and Indian boys made up the other half.
In our young minds, we thought it was easier to divide ourselves into teams based on our skin colour. The yellow skinned boys in one team while the brown skinned boys in the other. You see, it was not a matter of race but for reasons of practicality – we thought it was easier to spot our own teammates by skin colour. We were children and we had no notions of racism. We were only interested in playing football.
On the other hand, I always joined the ‘Malay and Indian’ team. Why? Because I could not speak Cantonese which was what the Chinese boys in Kuala Lumpur spoke. Being raised in Penang, I spoke Hokkien. When the Chinese boys shouted instructions in Cantonese, I was lost.
“Thek! Thek kor pin!” I would hear them shout at me without me understanding what they meant. So, it was simply easier for me to join the other team who shouted instructions in Malay which I understood.
I was not the only Chinese boy there. My best friend, How Chee Hong, also played in the Malay and Indian team. He was the goalkeeper.
Our team included Arif (the fastest runner in the school) and Juvinder Singh (a striker for the school team) whose jobs were to score the goals.
In defense were the worst footballers in the team: Nessie (a very large Indian boy), Chandran (a boy who disliked getting dirty), Rizal (an overweight softie) and me (another overweight softie). Our job, as our teammates instructed us, was to “kick the ball away from the goal”.
Kick it as hard as you can, they told us. Don’t worry about where it goes as long as it goes away from our goal, they said.
We did this to the best of our abilities. I learned new Malay words on the football field. “Rembat aje” means to kick the ball hard. “Alamak, bodoh!” means I just did something wrong and stupid.
I know stories of racism are often heard today but back when I was a child, we just played football and did not know what racism was.