It is a childhood sport many will fondly remember playing on the streets with friends. Badminton was a game that children would play on the streets; they didn’t need properly lined courts or even nets. Yet, badminton is hardly associated with traditional games and sports.
But that Olympic sport came from a shuttlecock game which originated from ancient civilisations in Europe and Asia some 2,000 years ago.
One version, known as Battledore And Shuttlecock, was a popular upper-class pastime in Europe in the 17th century. Badminton, as we know it today, took on its contemporary form from an Indian game called Poon. British officers in the mid-1800s apparently took this game back to Britain where it was introduced to the guests of the Duke of Beaufort at his stately home, Badminton House, in Gloucestershire.
The game quickly caught on and took on the name of the Beaufort manor, and badminton soon spread to the rest of the British colonies.
“One fan was none other than founder of Penang, Captain Francis Light, who brought the game to Penang,” says Lim Chung Wei, one of the curators of the upcoming George Town Heritage Celebrations. The event is to mark the eighth anniversary of George Town’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage site. “In George Town, badminton was not only a popular pastime, the community even had street tournaments.”
Like in the rest of Malaysia, badminton is undoubtedly a big part of George Town’s living heritage, and that is why it has been included in the historic city’s heritage celebrations this year.
Themed “Mai Main: Traditional Sports & Games”, the three-day celebrations beginning from July 7 feature traditional games and sports of the diverse communities of the northern state.
“Like our earlier celebrations, we want to show that heritage is more than buildings, artwork and performances. We also have our living heritage, which is the intangible part of our culture that also includes food, language and other daily rituals. Play – games and sports – is also integral to our living heritage,” says Lim, who is George Town World Heritage Inc’s (GTWHI) community outreach officer responsible for managing, monitoring and promoting the Unesco world heritage site.
Lim feels traditional games and sports embody George Town’s multicultural spirit. “When we held our food-themed heritage festival last year, we realise people looked at their own culture before exploring it deeper. But with games and sports, you don’t immediately identify them as Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian or others. People simply remember the fun and joy of playing them.
“There are so many shared games and sports, like Toi (also known as galah panjang, it is a game where players have to cross a series of opponents positioned in a grid without getting touched or captured) which people remember playing with friends in school or the neighbourhood. The older generation who lives in George Town has good memories of playing with people from different races.”
Mai Main (“come play”) co-curator Kuah Li Feng concurs, highlighting that one interesting cultural element they discovered in their research of George Town’s traditional games is the shared game lingo. “There are some games that can be traced back to their origin or are culturally specific. But most of our folk games are commonly played by all. No community can claim to be its sole owner or we can’t tell what its origins are.
“These games are played by almost everyone and share common terms like mati (out), bunga (pattern) and chup (time out). That’s why we chose play for this year’s theme; we believe games and sports can bring people together, like it did in the past in George Town when children and older folks gathered on the gohkaki or kaki lima (street pavements), on the streets or at public squares and courts, to play together.”
Visitors to the George Town heritage celebrations can relive that yesteryear experience of just hanging out and playing in the streets of George Town – while reliving their childhood – at the festival’s showpiece on July 9, The Streetfest.
Following the trail mapped out by GTWHI, they can learn or play games such as gasing, guli, pick-up sticks, baling selipar, skipping rope, hopscotch, toi, pinball and handkerchief game at the designated pitstops around George Town.
They can pick and choose games from two categories – low energy and high energy,” says Lim. They can also get some tips from the community “hosts” at the different pit stops and even swap childhood memories with other visitors.
One game that will definitely trigger memories is batu tujuh (seven stones), or sottangal as it is known in the Chettiar community, which will be showcased by the Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh Pulau Pinang and the Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society at Lebuh Acheh.
Described as a “graceful game”, batu tujuh requires players to use a coordinated movement of hand and eyes to toss and catch a handful of stones with their fingers and palm.
“I would bring along my lucky seven stones to each game, and I was proclaimed the Batu Tujuh Queen!” reminisces 57-year-old Widad Yusof Rawa from the Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh.
The stones are collected from the streets but expert players like Widad has tricks up their sleeve too. “There was an old belief that keeping the stones in salt water is the winning secret as it will make the stones smoother and rounder, so that’s what I did with my stones.”
For Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society’s Dr Punithavathi Narayanan, 68, her secret was simply practice, practice and more practice.
“We used to practise for hours to hit the top score. Looking back, I realise that the fun came not from the competition, but the time spent together with friends.”
Not to be missed are the forgotten or “lost” games of some of the communities such as the Indian Muslims’ pallangguli, and the Tamils and Malayalees’ traditional board game known as thayam or chukkini respectively, Pallangguli, which is very similar to the Malays’ congkak, is an ice-breaking game played by newlyweds in the past.
“Played using seashells, the pallangguli vessel is made of silver or wood and used to be a family heirloom passed down from mothers to daughters for the bridal trousseau. As the story goes, it was played on the wedding night to break the ice between the newlyweds,” says Kuah. Now it’s an almost-forgotten tradition; many families don’t even own a pallangguli vessel.
“The Masjid Kapitan Keling community had only one pallangguli, kept at the mosque as a historical relic. For the heritage celebrations, they had to commission a carpenter from Alor Setar to make six new vessels.”
The boards of chukkini or thayam, a strategic game of chance with Hindu origin that uses special dice and seeds, are also a rare possession among Tamil and Malayalee families these days.
For the heritage celebrations, the Penang Hindu Association and North Malaysia Malayali Semajam have commissioned new boards and dice from India.
Those interested in old-school toys like paper dolls and tikam-tikam can stop at Gohkaki Childhood Museum’s “play station” at Lebuh Armenian.
“These toys are difficult to get now as few are made – many say they cannot sell them anymore – so what we did is to commission friends who are artists or carpenters to make some and trawled other states to find them. Luckily, there are still a few craftsmen in George Town who can make some of the old toys like the paper dolls,” shares Gohkaki Childhood Museum co-founder Catherine Chang, who loved collecting paper dolls when she was growing up in Penang in the 1990s.
As part of the Mai Main celebrations, Gohkaki will feature gasing and guli (tops and marbles). “These cross-generational games look simple but they are really difficult to play. You need skills,” says Chang.
For top spinning, she says they have decided to showcase the girls’ style, which is faster to learn. “Some may not realise that there are different styles for girls and boys for spinning tops. In the boys’ style, you throw the gasing from overhead – like throwing a ball. For the girls’ style, it is a bit like bowling – you throw the top by rolling it on the ground.”
Chang, who is in her 20s, feels that there can be a revival of traditional games in the country as she has met peers and teens who are interested in old and classic games and toys.
“Some are into digital and online games, but many are interested in traditional games and toys because it is more fun to play with other people compared to playing alone on their tablets or smartphones.
“Many say they love the face-to-face interaction and learning to work in a team. When they win, their sense of accomplishment is greater,” shares Chang.
For the Mai Main Streetfest, some 350 people, mainly students and youth, have volunteered to learn the 23 different games and sports from the masters and community elders so that they can in turn train or guide visitors on how to play them.
“The good thing that has come out of the Streetfest preparation and ‘training sessions’ is rediscovering the traditional games and sports in different communities.
“It has also awaken their interest to revive the game at the old spots and gohkaki,” says Kuah. At Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh, there are already requests from its younger members to revive traditional games like sepak raga.
It is good news for the committee as one of its aims is to get the George Town communities to reclaim their living heritage and be actively involved in preservation efforts. “The communities are looking at what they should conserve and share with others.”
The Mai Main: Traditional Sports and Games Streetfest will be held on July 9 from 6pm around Armenian Street, Acheh Street and Ah Quee Street in George Town. Find out more at www.heritagecelebrations.info.