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Growing up in the 1970s, the writer found more natural ways to fill leisure time with friends.

BEING a kid in the 1970s was fantastic. I would know; I was one myself.

Although more commercially known for being the “Disco Era” wherein the likes of Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Stylistics topped the charts, and home videocassette recorders (VCR) had just begun to burgeon and thrive, the decade was all about nature for those of us who experienced childhood then.

I was born in a small village just outside Port Klang town.

Almost all of my earliest memories revolved around being in the great outdoors, because there was no such thing as the 24/7 distraction, signature of this Information Age we are living in.

As kids, my friends and I had mostly played outside after school; parks and backyards were literal landscapes in real life and not some visual concepts in a Facebook or Xbox game.

We had more natural ways to engage ourselves. Every day was different, and fun.

One day, we would go down to the monsoon drain nearby to catch fish, such as ikan betuk, ikan laga and ikan sepat. Occasionally, we’d come across the belut or even snakes, and we’d scamper for safety.

On some other days, we’d ride the bicycle around the neighbourhood or kick ball in the open field.

Our parents did not really know where we were, except that we were out playing. Life was much less restricted for children back then.

We also learnt to be innovative by using whatever material from the natural surroundings that we could get our hands on, like making the serunai from coconut leaves, or crafting a pistol gun from wood.

The idea of being hooked on pocket-sized gadgets in between school and bedtime was unimaginable, simply because technology as we know now did not yet exist and consumerism looked and meant differently from what it is today.

Homework, if it was ever assigned at all, was more about the practice of flexing out acquired wisdom, rather than a visible declaration of knowledge memorised at face value.

Solving long pages of math equations during month-long school holidays involved only the log table book and actual psychological focus, since scientific calculators were not yet around to help do the hard work.

And instead of looking up online content for artistic inspiration, creative entertainment was achieved and enjoyed via physical activities, such as cursive writing and penning thoughts in actual ink onto paper.

In hindsight, the 1970s was indeed an era of “being” rather than “thinking” for children, only because everything was much simpler and more natural. Even infantile worries were uncomplicated back then.

As a child, I had worried more about potentially stepping on a rusty nail than I would the idea of being bitten by Aedes mosquitoes.

And if I did end up in a medical cast from being too vigorous or eager at the playground, it would become a badge of honour for me in my social circle, and not a source of shame for my parents because I was “unsupervised” and, thus, “broken”.

As a father to a young daughter today, I find it hard to talk about the challenges of modern parenting without bringing up my intense fear and paranoia of the world as it appears today.

Thanks to the Internet and social media, the harsh realities and mindless tropes of the world are much easier to recognise upfront, but unfortunately, also more immediate in overloading the fear-prone human psyche.

The consistent exposure and access to such news, in and of itself, can be a trap for parents to overthink and overprotect.

Things were not always like this in the 1970s.

Aware as we were of criminals and serial killers that our parents would occasionally whisper about at breakfast, my friends and I simply learned to be more vigilant as we went about our days under the sun.

And because we spent most of our free time creating our own toys with mere sticks and stones instead of pushing our parents to get shiny store-bought ones, there was no way we could not anticipate nature’s occasional sharp corners, bumps, and papercuts.

Now, the point of my reverie is not to chalk up a cultural comparison between “then” and “now”, because doing so invalidates the chronology of evolution, and is ultimately pointless.

But there is something to be said about the struggles of a latchkey kid: they define one’s character and emotional resilience in a way that the millennial child’s digital savviness and book-smart prowess cannot quite vet out.

Growing up in a time when street peddlers like Hamid, who sold bread on his motorbike, and the kacang putih man (walking and balancing on his head various compartments of different types of kacang and muruku) were familiar sources of admiration and not unknown social profiles to be feared had allowed 1970s kids such as myself to just “be”, and eventually, “become”.

Port Klang then, as I remember it, was a small town with rows of shophouses, some of which were built way back in the 1930s.

Seafood lovers were spoilt for choice, as there were many restaurants to dine in.

There was one located near the jetty, where one could savour food while enjoying the cool, night sea breeze.

The town might be famous for its Hainanese food, but I grew a penchant for mee goreng mamak. Every time I went downtown, the mamak restaurant would definitely be one of my hangouts.

There was also the popular medan selera opposite the Port Klang bus station, which served such dishes as mee rebus, mee jawa, ais kacang, and satay (which cost 10 sen per stick). The jetty area was also famous for its laksa.

I also remember this one store which sold books and magazines brought all the way from England via ships that docked at the port.

That was where I got my dose of British comics, such as Beano and Dandy, and read about the footballing exploits of Roy of the Rovers.

I left my hometown in the late 1980s when I started working. Occasionally, I would return to visit family members and relatives on festive occasions, or for other important events.

I also would take time to catch up with old friends, and reminisce about the good old days growing up together and asking “remember when”.

So, while there is surely nothing like the innovative and informative present, we would do well to stop and smell the roses, a mentally flourishing virtue that can only be found and emulated by looking into the past.