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Credit: Courtesy of Samantha Cheh

My Favorite Pillow Is Old, Tattered, and Smelly, and I’ll Never Replace It

published Aug 4, 2020
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Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.

A chaochao is not a thing of beauty. 

If you were to take a photo of my freshly-painted room with its trendy grey-iron bed frame and pristine sheets, the chaochao would stick out like a sore, threadbare thumb. Misshapen and worn in places where fabric meets skin. There’s also usually a smell attached to it, not quite body odor, but something of the body for sure. 

A chaochao is individual in its appearance, no two are the same.

Consider my chaochao: a lumpy thing with the vague memory of a bolster pillow, or as I call it, a “lumchum.” Its length is the distance between my hip and the ground (aka not very much), one end sewn flat from where it was most recently patched up. It has a “neck” from bring squished it against my body in the exact same place every single night for the last twenty-odd years. It used to be midnight blue, speckled with white polka dots and teddy bears. Now it’s brown patches, flowers and bells. The strings of its current bolster case mangled as though torn apart by kitten teeth. 

I love every bit of it.

The chaochao and I have been together for as long as I can remember. I was maybe four—five?—when my parents gave it to me as part of a child’s sleep set: blanket, pillow cases, sheets. The blanket was also very well-loved but had to be retired when its weave got so thin even turning over would rip open a new hole. The lumchum is, in many ways, the last man standing.

I can’t imagine that chaochaos are unique to Southeast Asia, though its names vary across the porous borders. The one I use—“chaochao”—is a bastardized Cantonese form of the more proper “suksuk.” Both literally translate to “smelly-smelly.” For Malay and Indonesian speakers, the term used is “bantal busuk.” There are probably other variations of it all across the Nusantara and Mekong regions, but they all refer to the same thing: a “smelly pillow” so beloved and essential that missing it even for a single night could spell the difference between eight hours of rest and eight hours of insomnia.

The name is mostly an affectionate joke. It’s “smelly” not because it actually reeks, but because your smell has seeped into its very DNA and god forbid someone try to wash it out. 

The closest Western equivalent I could come up with is a “lovey” or a “cuddly,” a soft toy given to a child for comfort in the crib. Like loveys and cuddlies, chaochaos are childhood artifacts that are rarely, if ever, replaced in adulthood. I like to think chaochaos tend to survive longer though; as pillows, they are not so nearly redolent of childhood as floppy bunnies and bears are. That being said, as I am writing this, my lumchum is encased in a bag covered in stripes and musical dinosaurs; I am sheepish but largely unfazed by this. A cursory survey of my friends and family has found that on average, chaochaos tend to stick around well into a person’s thirties, forties, even fifties. You never buy a new one because you want to, but because you are forced to. 

There is also no telling which pillow will do it for you. Much like love, it just happens. 

The chaochao also has no standard shape or form. They may be large or small pillows, bolsters long or short. Occasionally, they may even come in a combo. Take for instance my big sister and her beloved “koko-bearbear” pairing, which includes a small pillow (the “koko”) and a flat, bunny-eared pillow which, if you can believe it, used to be a teddy bear with a 3D body. 

Mine has undergone similar radical transformations. Reskinned three times, endlessly re-strung and re-stuffed with cottony kekabu, it maintains its bolster-esque form, but just barely. It begs the question though: is your chaochao still the same chaochao if everything that made it your chaochao has changed? What remains when everything that constituted its first form has gone? The leftover filling squashed flat? Or some scrap of its original skin sewn into the new? What is it about these remnants of childhood that inspires such deeply-rooted codependency? It’s hard to say. 

Credit: Courtesy of Samantha Cheh

As you get older, you begin to notice how much life changes: houses, beds, partners, governments, family members, wall color. For me, and many others I know, the chaochao represents a constant. An object of pure comfort, a portable piece of home.  When I moved to London for school, my chaochao was the last thing I packed and the first thing I unpacked. I took it on trips to the States and across Europe. After a major breakup, I looked up one day and realized I had changed everything about myself—my job, my glasses, my hair, my clothes, the way I drink my coffee, even my goddamned pillows—except my chaochao. 

How many times have I pressed my face into it, aching and looking for home? The fabric stained from the endless nights I’ve spent crying over terrible men into its soft warmth. I cling to it reading romance novels late into the night. It is my dependable Netflix buddy. 

Maybe I am being stubborn by insisting on holding onto an object long past its youth and beauty, but there is something sustaining and abundant in it. It reminds me that there is something fundamental about the self that cannot be extracted and the chaochao is its physical embodiment. It is comfort found within, and that is an anchor worth holding onto when you stop to account for the wreckage. Long after everyone has gone to bed and the lights in the house have flickered out, it’s still here with me.