Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jalan Station

Just call it Station Road if only to put to rest any uncertainty over its rightful spelling. In the mid-50s of the last dusty century, the road carried about it that extra sting that others in this small railway town could not lay claim to. The road starts from where it meets with Jalan Mersing and takes one to the station.

What set it apart was that attached exclusiveness it carried if a bit brazenly quite similar to what High Street was once to Singapore and Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman of course) to Kuala Lumpur.

Along the short stretch were a few, just a few select stores if I may still correctly recollect, dishing out some branded and quite fancy merchandise from clothing to crockery to the discerning smokers' needs. These shrewd Indian entrepreneurs, probably Sundhis, Gujeratis and Sikhs too, as were their counterparts scattered at all corners of this once mighty empire from Nairobi to Hong Kong saw and seized the opportunity of a lucrative venture plus the prestige that came with the dealership of such desirable items.

It was not just the 'tuans' and 'mems' from the colonial service, the Kluang military garrison and the surrounding plantations but also the better-offs from among the local populace who graced the scene at these upmarket outlets along the street.

England ruled the waves and pretenders were never wanting. Mufflers and cravats in our stifling weather? And why not? Just speak to the English-speaking gentlemen in attendance and you won't be disappointed. He wouldn't blink an eye and you'd feel like a very relieved Mr. Holmes out on a successful mission. Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary!

Products carrying English labels were deemed superior naturally and they came with an ego-boosting price tag to match too. That was no deterrent, no Sir! Rather, they became more desirable. Mess. Crocket and Jones as were Debenhams and the inevitable Marks and Spencers had every reason to smile all the way to Barclays given such favaourable environment.

To lend some authenticity to the English "feel" about the operations, these establishments held Grand Summer Sales! Summer, indeed! Take your pick, be it Tootal, Viyella, Old Spice (can't help figuring what the Spice Girls would look like at seventy - but pardon the rude digression), John White, Ye Olde English (a tobacco brand, I think), were no strangers to Jalan Station. Not exactly Piccadily. Still, enjoy your Xmas in Kluang, while you may, James! They stuff cotton for snow just so you won't be too homesick. Bless them!

Not to be outdone was a watch dealer along this stretch who offered some luxury timepieces from the land of the world's precision timekeepers. A friend flashes a 400 dollar automatic Swiss beauty that according to him would be a lifetime investment. He had a point there.

Fortunately for the plain Mats like yours truly, retailers of such high-end products weren't the only ones operating along the row. Among the lesser players I can vaguely remember were a harberdasher and a bicycle seller cum repairer. A songkok maker made up the other and together they held their own regardless.

Like the Batu Road of old, there had to be the mere mortals too. But a landmark that stood out in memory and significance to me surely was the one that served us as a watering hole for the poorer revellers of the little town come high noon. Simply billed as the Government Toddy Shop, it was a small building, detached from the rest of the typical two-storeyed prewar (my guess) brick and wooden structure that came with the protective veranda from end to end. There was a cherry tree within its vicinity, a rather big shady plant that could not quite effectively cool the jolly joint come its happiest and most boisterous hours.

It had never pretended to be any sort of a bar much less a pub but what the loyal patrons may lack in the sophistication in their brother establishments that serviced the throats of the upper crust of the Kluang notables, they more than made up with their equal or even better show of spirited light-heartedness.

By three o'clock and almost without fail, some now well-soaked, would spill onto the road to share their wit and wisdom with all and sundry who cared to lend an ear even momentarily. I might be guessing, but I'm quite positive the subject for discourse could range from domestic intrigues to international relations.

As a child I had this fear of being roughed up by these poor stragglers as they trudged away unsteadily. I needn't have worried though for they were more than preoccupied with steadying their moves than even bothering a glance at a little fellow on his errand.

A mere stone's throw away is the railway station and its delighted coffee shop. It has been a long-standing institution - much a part of the town as the Jalan, the fancy shops or the noted fermented juice distribution centre.

Old timers and the occasional drop-in sippers sing praises over the faultless toast, the sinfully sweet "kaya"and the inimitably thick steaming "kopi O" served in the typically robust chunk of massive china that could have easily stood the test of time and trial.

The black powder, some say, gained royal pleasure but you can always check it with the present operator. They are branching out - that's the latest to make the rounds in the Klang Valley as of late- everyone's raving about kopitiams, but they're plain kedai kopi to me. I'm not surprised given the near-legendary standing.

No visit to Kluang would be deemed complete without popping into that unassuming joint (I must admit I was last there in 2003) or packing off a sample of the celebrated stuff (now I can get them at the nearest outlet at Tesco Extra) for though I can quite clearly remember two other noted roasters of Kluang of the time, this one could easily hold its own.

Lest I am dismissed as a die-hard anachronismic, just give that rather rustic place a once-over should you ever pop by the town. Who knows, you might get hooked-up too. And while you are there, look across to the mountain - Gunung Lambak. My grandson believes a certain Mr. Bigfoot (he pronounces it 'bag-fut'') dwells there. That'll be another story of course.

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