Once Upon A Time There Was Sugarcane 往日甜蜜甘蔗情

It was in 1960’s; my family house stood in a government housing neighborhood by the train station of the city of Chia-Yi, a small town in the south of Taiwan. The house was free for the employees of Taiwan Railway Administration, which Chiang Kai-Shek regime inherited from the Japanese government After WWII. The compound, I estimate now was probably built 50 years before that time. The neighborhood was kids’ playground. When we were not in school, bare-foot and rag-clothing boys roamed through the alleys that winding through black wooden Japanese houses. They were knights and villains, soldiers and rivals. They cursed loudly in obscene Taiwanese language while searching one another or fighting with sticks. Girls, who were naturally not welcome by boys, or self-excluded from the war zone, playing houses, sandbags, or Scotch Hopper under the shades of long beard big Banyan (Ficus) trees.

With the extended canopy of Banyan trees shading the black clay tile roof, summer was still like a grilling pan. Kids had no ways to reduce their heated body but let their sweat keep oozing out of their tan skins. The name of “the refrigerator (电冰箱)” in Chinese was not created yet, and we never saw real ice in any forms. We discovered popsicle (枝仔冰) the first time when we started to go to school and found a factory on the way.

No water bottles existed, but who needed it? We picked things around us to curb our thirst. The seed of Banyan tree covered all over the ground, but quickly we found out it tasted disgusting and heard that it had poison. So, we stomped on it, instead of sucking the juice out of it, and believing we were diminishing the public enemy. Then we plucked out good reputation hibiscus’ long and thick stigma. Their sweet nectar elated us. Now we spotted the berries on the wild Mulberry trees. Their black tart juice lessened our exhaustion playing the game of war or tag. We enjoyed plenty of natural resources and never were told that we were the competitors of birds and bees in the ecosystem.

Fruit seemed the best supply of sweetness and liquid at the time soda or bottled juice didn’t exist. However, they were scarce. Banana and pineapple were mass produced on the farm, but instead of for consuming, they were the main export goods. For adults, fruit were luxury items to offer; but for kids, they were handy as long as the ownerships were not a concern. The Dragon’s Eyes (龙眼), guava (芭樂), and green Mango (芒果) were on the tall trees at the alleys or over the fence. We grabbed them after climbing the branches, or knock them down with long sticks. Sweet and tart juice fulfilled our petite desire. We didn’t mind if the theft succeeded or failed because it was thrilling enough already.

Luckily, we had sugar cane. Those days in Taiwan, sugar cane was the second biggest farm produce next to rice. When we traveled to other cities by train visiting relatives, we would see tall sugar cane crowded in the field. In summer, farmers would cut down the stalks and pile them up for small trains to haul them into the sugar factories. The street vendors would gather a big bunch for sale. It became people’s daily snack. My parents often chose some long and thick stalks with shiny dark purple barks and long sections from a vendor in front of our house. Using his long heavy, sharp knife, the vendor would cut a small ditch on the stalk, then slashed the bark down through the end. The slashes might fail in the middle, but they would pick up the action immediately. It took 5 or 6 cuts and slashes, faster if the vendor was more skillful, to reveal its cream color flesh. They chopped the stalk into several foot-long sections for the customers to take home. The whole process was such a spectacular stunt for me that I was always a loyal audience who forgot the time.

There weren’t any refrigerators to store the purchase, so we would quickly consume all of it. Here is how we ate it. First, we had to have solid teeth. Young kids or old people often lost their teeth when biting it. Healthy teeth could separate apart the big piece into the small piece of flesh, then chewed on it until it was juiceless. Secondly, watch out what happened in our mouths carefully. Or, we would bite our tongues or lips and swallowed the juice with blood.

Images like this never faded out from my memory: my Mother kept chewing, then spit out the juice in a bowl. When the bowl was full, she fed it to my toddler siblings with a spoon. My little siblings were excited to taste the sweetness, but they had to suffer the wait. Because my Mother couldn’t chew fast enough to feed them, they groaned and cried. My mom had a solution for this: she chewed and saved the juice in a big bowl whenever she had time.

The older kids like my brothers and me held the sugar cane and ran away. We played game with it and stained it with our dirty fingerprints. Conveniently, many times we used it as our fighting weapons. At last, we spit out the bagasse on the ground without having the concept of littering.

Nowadays, this first real organic juice I consumed half century ago is rare in Los Angeles. I do see tall sugarcane stalks decorated in many San Gabriel Valley’s residential gardens in front of some Mediterranean or Spanish style mansions. Their owners, who I guess are mostly from Southern Asia, must be very homesick for all of the plant contains– the sweet juice, the land it rooted, and the stories that grew out of it!

1960 年代我們住在嘉義火車站旁的鐵路局宿舍園區。那是一大片日本宿舍,國民黨政府從日本接收過來的,在當時大概也已經有五十年的歷史了吧。我們孩子們就在黑木板牆,黑瓦屋頂的宿舍群裡玩耍。不上學的日子,赤腳破衫的男孩子就成群結隊地在窄小的巷弄間穿梭奔走。他們火熱地演著官兵捉強盜,好人追殺壞人這種勇士們的戲,他們無掛無礙得一邊嘶叫著台灣三字經,一邊棍棒交加。女孩們呢,當然不受男生的歡迎,再者也不屑於玩那種暴力的戰爭打鬥,就只占著樹蔭底下,玩跳房子啦,跳繩啦,丟沙包啦,扮家家酒啦等等專屬女孩的遊戲。







我和哥哥年紀大些,就拿著甘蔗跑出門,邊吃邊玩,也不管乳白甘蔗上總印著烏黑的手印。這段甘蔗還有一個方便的作用,就是剛好充當我們打鬥的武器。最後,甘蔗渣全都被我們吐到地上了─ 我們還沒有學到不可亂丟垃圾的概念。

這種五十年前我享用過的最真材實料的有機果汁,現在在洛杉磯卻很少見。我確實在一些古色古香的地中海型或西班牙豪宅的花園裡,看到一小叢高聳的甘蔗梗。我猜它們的主人大部份都來自東南亞,主人們一定懷著濃濃的思鄉之情而種植了它們 ─ 為了它們那甜蜜的果汁,它們植根生長的土地,還有從它們身上長出來那些所有的故事!


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