By S.H. Tan | 16 July 2000
JAMES Bush, a friend, is proud to be called Teh. Some Malaysians spell it Tay. But, no matter how you spell it, in Hokkien it means tea.
Has James, or Jim as I call him, pulled a reverse take-over? A Mat Salleh (nickname for an Englishman or European) who believes that an Asian name is an asset? Any why not?
After all, if Ah Kow thinks that it would be to his advantage to be called Sylvester, why shouldn't Jim be called Teh, although, in his case, Belukar (Bush) would have been more appropriate.
"No," he says to that reverse take-over snipe. "It all started when I became friendly with my neighbour's daughter, aged four. She could not be bothered to be long-winded and call me Orang Putih (white man). So she shortened it to Teh. And Teh I am to all in the neighbourhood. "I like it. And especially when someone waxes lyrical and calls me. Teh-o (tea black or tea without cream or milk).
It may not have style, quality, excellence. But it is short and sweet. It beats being called Mat (short for Mat Salleh).
"Incidentally, do you know the origin of Mat Salleh?"
I do, Jim. As we all know, the Malays are fond of nicknames. They love to refer to a European, especially an Englishman, as Mat Kambing (Mat the goat. Goats are well-known for being averse to water. Or Mat who does not bathe - especially in winter), Mat Gila (who is bonkers), Mat Gendut (pot-bellied), or Mat Tajam (who has a sharp chopper).
But in this case, the tajam is not the chopper but the tongue. History has shown us that the Malays had been misled. The tongues of the Mat Sallehs were not tajam but licin (smooth) - they talked quite a few Sultans out off their inheritances.
Be that as it may, as these nicknames could cause offence, Mat Salleh became the most common and it was often heard when we were under British colonial rule.
As there were many grades of officers in the British Armed forces, the batter cultured (usually the senior officers) were Mat Sallehs and the others (other ranks and those not highly thought of) were Mat Samans.
Mat is the common denominator because if we were to address a Malay who is stranger and who is in our age group Mat, it is neither rude nor being supercilious. It is the same as Guv or Guvnor if he is a European, and especially English.
And so, meet a European (and this includes all Caucasians) and call or refer to him as Mat Salleh and it is being kind to him.
Mat Salleh, however, as with every nickname, should not be used in polite conversation. Now that there is less acrimony against the European, and especially the English, the Mat Samans have as good as disappeared from Malaysia.
Yet another version has it that the first Europeans to set foot on our soil were seamen. They could have been Portuguese, Dutch, or English.
The Spaniards gave us a wide berth as they found the Philippine Islands a more attractive proposition.
When the English finally landed in large numbers, first in Penang, and then Malacca and Singapore, they did not think much of the remnants of the Portuguese and Dutch settlers. So they dismissed them as "mad sailors".
In those kampungs, "mad sailor" was not only a foreign language, it was also not easy to remember and roll off the tongue. So "mad sailor" became Mat Salleh.
The Mat Sallehs, unwittingly, spawned ronggeng, another common word among the Malays. It means dance. But what is its origin?
When the Portuguese, and then the Dutch, were booted out of Malacca by the English, there was a victory celebration. After drinking, there was singing and dancing.
Some Malays approached one of the revellers and asked him what they were doing. The Malays said they had heard of the may pole dance and even the hula-hula. But the frenzy and leaping about like demented maniacs?
After one tot of rum too many, the Mat Salleh thought that the Malays were asking him if they could join in the fun. He was in no mood to harangue. Instead of saying "nah...you're not one of us. You guys belong to the wrong gang" he hollered "Wrong gang. Wrong gang."
From that day, whenever the Malays taged a dance, they called it ronggeng.
Hard on the heels of the Mat Sallehs came the Chinese. One day, they were having a barbecue. The Malays were fascinated - the Chinese had slaughtered chickens, cut them up, skewered three pieces to a stick, and roasted them over a charcoal fire.
The Malays asked the Chinese what they were doing. Neither side was fluent in the language of the other. The Chinese thought that the Malays were asking how many pieces of chicken to a stick. So one of them said: "S'ngar teh (Hokkien for three pieces)."
When the Malays were invited to have a bite, and they found it delicious, they were hooked.
When they went home, and told their wives about it, the wives realised that they had to do something if they did not want their husbands to go meandering whenever the Chinese had a party.
So, the next day, they chopped up chickens, marinated the meat, skewered it on sticks, and roasted it. To be one up on the Chinese, they concocted a gravy to go with the chicken. Their coup degrace was to simplify s'ngar teh to satay.
Satay has since become synonymous with Malay cuisine and a national dish.