It could be difficult to miss the Gaya Street Fair when you were in the heart of Kota Kinabalu city on any Sunday. It was a good place to stop by if you were hunting for some tacky souvenirs ranging from trinkets that had a feeble local flavor to them, to those items that could momentarily transport you back to times when you walked down the streets flanked by touristy shops in Bangkok or Bandung. If you were a keen people-watcher, the Gaya Street Fair allowed you to catch a glimpse into the ordinary lives of the local people or the predictable behaviors of tourists without being noticed.
As a matter of fact, you wouldn’t need a single specific reason to be at the fair. While the ceaseless chatter and chaos could be pretty daunting at times, it could be fascinating to feast your eyes on the wild assortment of items for sale at the Gaya Street Fair —ranging across the edible and the non-edible, big and small, sturdy and fragile, colorful and monochrome, brand new and decade-old. You would be bound to be surprised with what you could find at the fair.
I had probably visited the Gaya Street Fair a hundred times. As a young girl, the fair was a food sanctuary where I could indulge in assorted pickles, smooth chilled tofu pudding, traditional cakes, and the list went on. Years went by, and without much realization, I couldn’t even remember the last time I was at the Gaya Street Fair. I wondered what happened.
Perhaps the time had arrived for me to rekindle my relationship with the Gaya Street Fair. After all, a large slice of my childhood memory pie was founded there. A couple of weeks ago I finally went back to the fair after all these years.
It was quite a mix of feelings to be walking down the market street again. On the one hand, things were pretty much the same as they were years ago. There was still a wide variety of items one could possibly find at the fair, if not more. Crowds and their endless chatter were still a defining character of the fair. Tofu pudding and pickles were ever-present, though they seemed to have lost their gastronomical appeal to me. On the other hand, I sensed some changes, whether they were good or otherwise. For instance, I came across such keepsakes as elephant-loose-long-pants, dream catchers, wooden masks that seemed to have taken off along with souvenirs that were more reflective of the true colors of the Land Below the Wind.
There was something else that was new to me. Or perhaps it had always been there; it just didn’t pick up the interest of the younger me. It was that side of the Gaya Street Fair that witnessed the gathering of men and women from the Sabah Society for the Blind. I learned that they would be at the fair every Sunday to offer their affordable, said-to-be-effective foot and shoulder massage therapy.
I decided to give my sore feet a moment of pampering. After all, RM25 for a 30-minute foot reflexology would probably be a worthwhile investment knowing whose pocket the money would go into. I awkwardly picked my massage therapist — a woman in her late 40s. I sat down on the plastic chair across from her and, as instructed, put my feet up on the wooden low stool placed between us. As if doing some sort of preliminary assessment, she asked if I had previously done foot reflexology to which I answered “yes, many times”. She then wrapped my right foot in a towel, applied lotion to my left foot and began to rub, knead, push and massage pressure points on the bottom, top and sides of my left foot. When she sunk her fingers into my foot arch, I gasped in agony which soon faded to a dull throb. As foot reflexology was an ancient healing practice based on the principle that there were reflex points on the foot that corresponded to the body’s different organs and glands, could my sore arch mean my kidneys were in need of some kind of medical attention? A thought that sent chills down my spine.
My massage therapist was friendly enough to start a conversation. I was not in a cheery mood for it but what would be ruder than being ignorant to someone apparently trying to be nice? I learned her name was Lina, from the small town of Malangang, had grown-up children whom she had not seen for who knows how many years, and that she had been with the Sabah Society for the Blind for a long time. It was such a pleasant conversation that I began to divert my attention away from the pain of the foot massage.
When we were not talking, I took the liberty of stealing a glance at her and her belongings — her black flat shoes, blue collar t-shirt, thick sunglasses, hair tied back in a ponytail, visible wrinkles on her face and hands, her seemingly battered sling bag, her packed breakfast of fried noodles and milk coffee. Suddenly I felt a hot flush of embarrassment flooding my face. What was I doing? Looking beyond Lina’s role as my service provider, I began to see her in different lights — someone’s mother, sister, daughter, friend. At that very instant, my heart was softened for her and questions started pouring in — what happened to her, where her children were…how life had been treating her.
I paid greater attention to my immediate surroundings. I listened more attentively to the conversations going around me. An elderly massage therapist probably in his 60s, who was sitting just a few feet away from me, caught my attention. He was making a joke about something that happened in his morning, which apparently made his friends laugh and to which they responded by intensifying the joke. They then all burst into laughter. When he was not making a joke, he would be calling for the public’s attention by yelling out “come, come, massage, massage”. The way he said the word massage — ma sa ji — was the cutest sound to my ears that morning.
Watching them, a sense of calmness and inspiration coursed through me. I got the impression that these men and women from the Sabah Society for the Blind shared a close bond with one another. They could have known one another for a long time, becoming family-like. One might mistakenly presume they sought sympathy from the public, but they struck me as some of the strongest, most independent and most dignified individuals with whom I had crossed paths. They worked hard to financially support themselves. They certainly didn’t ask for handouts. It might, too, be a mistake to assume they were sad, pathetic and suffering because they had some form of visual impairment. Nevertheless, judging from what I had seen and heard, they seemed happy and content with what they had. They connected. They told stories. They made jokes. They smiled. They laughed. What was their secret ingredient of happiness, if such thing even existed? Would it be appreciating and making the most of what one already had? I wouldn’t and couldn’t know for certain. Nonetheless, if they were judges of the day, they could have easily charged me with the crime of ingratitude, a crime that an 18-century philosopher David Hume described as “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing”.
Suddenly I felt a repetitive tap on my right ankle, awakening me from my deep thoughts. It was Lina signaling the end of my session with her. Feeling embarrassed that I might have taken her time longer than I should have, I hurriedly paid her. I did feel a bit more relaxed and lighter. As I was getting up to leave, I gently squeezed Lina’s left hand and said “I will come back for more, Aunty Lina”.
Will I come back for more, to Lina or to the Gaya Street Fair? I thought as I made my way back to the parking lot. I might have fallen out of love with the fair a long time ago. Could I, however, find a reason to fall back in love with it?
Perhaps I had already found that reason — the down-to-earth side of the Gaya Street Fair where, despite being surrounded by strangers, I felt I was already home —relaxed, connected, inspired, and most of all, grateful.