“OOOOOPS!“ I watch in dismay as the little brown envelope slips through the narrow gap between my book case and the wall behind it.
My right hand darts out in response to a reflex action. Everything happened so fast that before I could realise anything, my fingers had collided at full speed with the concrete wall, causing me to cry out in pain.
With my digitus medius still throbbing violently from the unfortunate incident, I sit down to weigh my options. Should I just leave the envelope in its new resting place or retrieve it?
After some contemplation, I decide to carefully prise the heavily-laden cabinet from its place against my bedroom wall.
Thankfully, the cabinet yielded without incident and I manage to cautiously slip my left hand through the narrow gap and reach in as far as I can.
Within a few seconds, I manage to successfully retrieve my prize. Impatiently dusting away the dirt that‘s stuck on the envelope, I pray fervently that it‘ll be worth the effort.
Overturning the document-sized envelope, about 50 vintage Hari Raya cards of various shapes and sizes come tumbling out.
I recall buying them off a friend whose passion for the cards had waned.
Memories came flooding back, transporting me to my younger days when mobile phones and the Internet were non-existent.
It was common back then for shops to start displaying a wide variety of Hari Raya greeting cards along the five-foot-way several weeks prior to the arrival of Syawal.
Interestingly, the sale of these festive cards was not confined solely to book shops. I remember seeing similar displays outside provision shops, departmental stores and even shoe outlets.
In those days, it was a common sight to see people standing by the display racks and browsing before making their choices.
Large packets bearing cards with similar designs were always placed right at the bottom, away from the line of sight.
These economy packs were the bestsellers no matter where they were displayed. The cost-conscious would buy these cheaper run-of-the-mill versions to send to their casual friends and distant relatives.
On the other hand, the more elaborately-designed cards were individually packed and placed where they could be seen easily by potential customers.
People spent the most time when selecting these pricier versions, scrutinising every printed word to ensure that the contents accurately conveyed their thoughts and feelings to their intended loved ones.
As such, buying Hari Raya greeting cards could be quite a laborious task but the sender knew that it‘d all be worth it when the recipient opened the card and read its content.
This laborious but yet very meaningful labour of love is poles apart from the impersonal instant messaging technology that we utilise today.
These days, it‘s more common for people to cut and paste messages that they receive and then send exactly the same wordings to their own group of friends and family members.
With apps like WhatsApp and Wechat, these can be sent out simultaneously and the “chore” can be over in just a matter of minutes.
EVOLUTION OF THE GREETING CARD
The earliest greetings in the written form were made by the Egyptians on papyrus scrolls some 5,000 years ago.
These were the world‘s first form of editable record-keeping texts. They were usually written on separate sheets of parchment which were later glued together at the edges to form a long continuous spread.
To read the message, the receiver needed to unravel the scroll slightly so that only one page at a time was exposed while the rest of the pages remain concealed either to the left or right of the visible section.
It took the world another 3,600 years before the first printed greeting cards came into existence.
The Germans invented woodcut printing around the turn of the 15th century. Soon after, personalised messages written on handmade paper with various imprinted designs began making their appearance in various parts of Europe.
Unfortunately, these early forms of conveying greetings were very expensive with their use confined only to wealthy merchants, nobles and members of the royal household.
Technological progress over the next few centuries began transforming the greeting card from an expensive handmade token of appreciation to a popular and affordable means of personal communication.
Among the advances made in the 1850s which enabled these once-out-of-reach greeting cards to be placed in the hands of the common people were improvements in printing and mass mechanisation.
These innovations, coupled with the introduction of postal rate reformation by Roland Hill, helped to popularise greeting cards like never before.
The earliest Hari Raya card in the pile in front of me is very different from those I normally see.
It‘s in the form of a black-and-white picture postcard featuring the magnificent Kuala Kangsar Ubudiah Mosque.
At the back of this 1921 card, the sender from Banting, Selangor conveyed her Hari Raya greetings to her friend residing in Segamat, Johor.
In her message, she duly apologised for not being able to make the promised trip down south during that festive season.
Picture postcards were first introduced in Malaya at the turn of the 20th century. Just like the Ubudiah Mosque card, it‘s possible that even earlier cards could have been used to convey Hari Raya messages.
It was certainly more convenient to send short festive messages on postcards rather than go through the whole rigmarole of writing on a letter pad and then folding the parchment to make sure that it‘s small enough to fit into the envelope.
With the post card, the sender only needed to scribble on the message section, write the address and stick the correct postage stamps before popping it into the nearest post box.
Another unusual item in my treasured ‘stash’ is a card that was sent during the Japanese Occupation.
It heartens me to see that people still made the effort to send Aidil Fitri greetings during those difficult and uncertain times.
Life was tough back then. Food was scarce and the Nippon Army could appear at any time to spirit away anyone whom they thought were enemies of the state.
The plain two cents postal stationery card overprinted with Japanese katakana was sent from a bookseller in Perak to a fellow businessman dealing in the same trade based in Kuala Kangsar.
The Jawi script message on the back conveys a simple but meaningful seasons greeting:
“Selamat Hari Raya. Maaf Dzahir dan Batin.”
DEMAND FOR CARDS
Although technical developments like colour lithography in 1930 helped propel the manufactured greeting card industry to greater heights, mass-produced Hari Raya cards only started making their appearance in Malaya after the Second World War.
Even then, most of these cards were printed abroad and shipped to Malaya for local use.
These foreign-produced cards had similar-looking designs like those of their December counterparts except that flowers were featured instead of snow-covered landscape.
The most sought-after cards back in the 1950s were those that had pop-up paper flowers. They gave the recipient an illusion of being presented with a floral bouquet.
Sometimes, the sender even made the extra effort to sprinkle perfume to give the card an added personal touch.
Sensing a growing demand, local printers in Malaya also jumped on the greeting card bandwagon in the mid-1950s.
However, with their limited resources and simpler printing machines, they were only able to produce less elaborate monochrome cards.
Based on the examples seen in the pile, it’s interesting to note that these shortcomings were countered by allocating blank spaces on the card for either the distributor or customer to affix photographs of their liking. This ingenious method proved to be an immediate hit.
Returning the cards back into their envelope, my gaze suddenly falls on a unique military Hari Raya card.
The card has an imprinted Islamic date indicating 1 Syawal 1384. Hastily making some rough calculations based on the Hijrah year, I realised that the sender who was based at the Singapore Guard Regiment sent the greetings to his friend in Pahang on Feb 3, 1964. Singapore was still part of the Federation of Malaya at that time! Singapore only left the Federation on Aug 9, 1965.
Determined not to let history repeat itself, I decide to put my precious cards in a more secure place. As a whole, they represent a part of our country‘s rich cultural history, silent reminders of what life was like during the good old days.
But for now, the more pressing matter at hand is to put the bookcase safely back into place!