Sandalwood

by Suyin Karlsen, Guest Writer

After their father’s death, George and brother Edward, named after English kings, had to forsake higher education. Edward joined the British Military. George purchased a coffee shop in Seremban, Negri Sembilan, British Malaya. The year was 1939, he was just 20 and clueless that a war begun in Europe would spread like cancer to their little archipelago.

Young, ambitious, and hopeful, his wake-up thoughts were only about the recently acquired coffee shop and the new responsibility of being sole caretaker of his mother. There were so many things he wanted to add on to the coffee shop—to sell things like sandalwood soap, face powder, perfumes, and assortments of teas from Ceylon—and stack them on shelves behind the cash register. The coffee shop acquisition was, in truth, also strongly sentimental besides being a good investment. The spot was a beloved venue of his father’s, a sociable man who enjoyed meeting friends and family there. He had a favorite table outside, beside a quietly gurgling stream flanked by giant bamboo trees that provided refuge from the equatorial sun.

Their big bungalow, with its admired ornate sandalwood door, had to be sold. There was no longer enough income to maintain that property and pay the servants and driver. Furthermore, it felt too capacious, the house without him, although he was not often at home. His work as a sea merchant meant traveling overseas. Literally – over the seas. He lived most of his life on a ship.

Before selling their home, the decorative door made from precious sandalwood was removed and replaced with an ordinary one. This door was special to the family. Firstly, it had been salvaged from a demolished temple in the hill country of Ceylon, their father’s place of origin. Therefore, it literally represented where their father had come from. Secondly, sandalwood trees were being overly exploited and diminishing quickly. Because the oils are also found in the big root system, whole trees are uprooted to maximize sandalwood oil production.

Providentially, a feng shui master had advised the family that sandalwood front doors bring good fortune, so it was better hung at the new business, the coffee shop, for good luck. Besides, orang putehs (white people) were going to move into their house, and they would not know feng shui from a dragon’s tail, he said. The family, already uprooted from so many changes in their circumstances were grateful for the feng shui master’s advice. In a million years, they never would have thought of bringing a front door with them on moving day.

Shortly afterwards, the sign, Sandalwood Coffee Shop & Provisions, hung above a rather magnificent door. Polished and gleaming, it looked so grand one thought an emperor lived behind it. It was the talk of the small town. Besides, customers were curious about the provisions part—the combs, sandalwood soaps, cotton towels from India, teas and spices from Ceylon, jade look-alike trinkets and mini Kuan Yin statues from China. The shelves behind the cash register looked like mini embassies, bearing products from nearly all the countries in southeast Asia. There were even handmade crafts from Indonesia and the Philippines.

One day, a beautiful Filipina came into the shop; her name was Florence. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, she would be our mother. She had heard about the sandalwood soaps from India. At the cash register was a young man with black wavy hair, smooth dark skin, and a straight elegant nose. He looked oddly out of place, this aristocrat standing behind a cash register. He was handsome; film star quality. But proud looking, she thought. She would just buy the soap and leave. But she changed her mind and sat down, ordering tea. He brought it to her. Strong orange pekoe tea with thick, sweet, condensed milk.

“Hello, are you new here? My name is George. I’m the owner and waiter too. Actually, I’m everything. Hope you like your tea, I made it strong and sweet, the way most ladies like it.”

“My name is Florence, but people call me Flo. Nice shop. And your door is a showstopper. In fact, a door stopper.” She smiled at him, shocked at herself for flirting with a stranger.

He laughed. Beautiful, he thought, and clever too. “So, what do you do?”

“I teach,” she said.

“Oh, that explains it. Your wit. Teachers are so smart.”

He didn’t seem so proud anymore. Every few days she returned for more sandalwood soap.

George’s mother said, “That girl sure bathes a lot. Buys so much soap!”

“She smells good though, mum! I think I am going to marry her.”

And he did, albeit some years later. The Japanese invasion of British Malaya on December 8, 1941, upturned and obliterated all normal life. But that’s another story.

The war years gave my parents a greater appreciation of each other and the peace that returned after it was over. Everyone felt beckoned to celebrate, to marry, to begin new lives, start new families. And so our father, George, married Florence, our mother, right after the war in 1945. They had nine children, and as my father would say, “You kids are more valuable than all the sandalwood in the world.”

Sandalwood is reputed to retain and yield its fragrance for decades. I like to think that it can retain its fragrance for generations. We nine children are now 31. And who knows for how many more generations mom and dad’s sandalwood story will continue to yield its fragrance.