I’ve just finish reading Sarong Secrets by Lee Su Kim, the founding president of Peranakan Baba and Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and the author of the award winning bestseller Kebaya Tales. In Sarong Secrets, Su Kim tells more tales of passion and unfulfilled love, of innocence lost, greed and betrayal, of loneliness and the search for a sense of belonging, of a unique cultural heritage facing the challenge of modern times. Interspersed among her stories are pictures of beautiful sarongs and a brief history of sarong itself.
Sarong brings vivid memories to me because, as a baby till I was about 4, I was rocked to sleep in a cradle – a sarong attached to a clothes hanger shaped steel tightly hanged with a strong rope over the beam at my grandfather’s house.
However, what makes a deeper impression on me is actually seeing my boss trading his Brioni suits and Hermes neckties into sarong and pagoda T-shirts at home or hotel rooms. What a big contrast that he transformed into a chinaman from a smart looking gentleman in suits, I’ve always thought!
Halfway through the book, I texted him a message asking for permission if I can write about him in sarong because I find it very rare these days that man, especially Chinese, will don a sarong and he agreed to it without hesitation.
I first came to know of boss’s so call relaxing “uniform” - sarong and pagoda T-shirt when my colleagues and I visited him at his house to discuss about work. We were shocked that he greeted us in his blue and white checked sarong and Pagoda T-shirts. He must have been feeling very comfortable in them that he didn’t bother to change into other outfit. It was awkward at first but we gradually get used to his informal attire.
I remember an occasion when we were at his house for discussions. Boss appeared in his usual sarong and pagoda T-shirt but we all burst out laughing because from far, with his a bit tanned complexion and un-gel hair, he looked like a Bangla worker just out from shower.
You would have thought that my boss must be an old man in his sixties and belonging to my father’s generation but he is not. My boss is still very young and even younger at heart. Whenever he is at home, he will change into his comfortable sarong before he goes about doing his other chores. Even when he is travelling, he will change into them the moment he gets into the hotel room, he voluntarily told us when asked about his love for sarong and he proudly professed that nothing is more comfortable than wearing the sarong to sleep.
“What makes you stick to the sarong?” I asked. “Purely because they are so comfy” and jokingly added that “they are cooling in our humid weather”. What started as a try out of curiosity during a business trip to Jakarta more than 20 years ago became a lifelong liking, just like me and my mandarin collared jackets.
At the end our conversation, I jokingly told him that if a sarong and pagoda t-shirt ambassador is needed to revive the dying tradition, he can be one. LOL!
P/S: Pagoda T-shirt is actually a white singlet made of cotton with a Pagoda label sewn at its back. This type of singlet is much beloved by many for its comfort by the rich and poor alike. Henceforth referred to colloquially in Malaysia and Singapore as pagoda t-shirt even if it is of different brand.