Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happy hunting grounds

Our family moved to Kluang circa 1947 when I was about four. Physically, the town had not changed very much when I finally left for the Pantai Valley Malayan Teachers' College in 1962.

It was in Kluang that I first saw the iron horse. She was pulled by a black, dirty and "noisy" head that spat fire, smoke and steam as she thundered along her narrow tracks, so I noted. Little wonder some call her (or should I say him?) a loco.

We children called her the "bubur kacang" train. Close your eyes, try repeating "bubur kacang" at a furious pace and imagine you're that behemoth tearing up the miles of countryside and you'll probably understand why we gave her this tag.

It was also in Kluang that I got acquainted with the motorcar as we called them then. We're lazier now and they are just "cars" and "boats" and worst, "motor" for motorcycles (in Malaysia at least). But that's another story, and going off the path a bit, sorry. Anyway, I picked up the different models of those squalid contraptions through observations and through friends. I was able to get close to many of them, since for some years, I got myself engaged as a ball picker at the all-white tennis cum recreation club at Jalan Renggam.

The club grounds displayed a good collection of mostly made-in-England Morrises and Austins, and Sunbeams and Vauxhalls and Wolseys. Then to spoil the party was one frog-like VW.

Kluang enriched me in other ways too. My interest in books started with Enid Blyton's works. They were prizes I won for doing well in my primary years. In the upper classes I discreetly got hold of some naughty publications mostly loaned to me by cunning but well-meaning seniors. I also learned about the birds and the bees but the formal and no-nonsense way - through the Agama afternoon school. So what's the furor over sex-education now?

The Straits Times provided me with my daily doses of chronicles from the time I was in Form Four. Though he didn't earn much and only on occasions bought himself the Utusan Melayu, my father saw to it that I had access to ample reading materials. I also got a good collection of old books all given away by children of his friends.

The two columns that attracted me in the Straits Times were "Man in the Street" and "The Straits Times Saturday Forum". Both were their readers' contributions. A certain Tuan Djek recorded some interesting jottings from an estate in Kota Tinggi. I looked forward to this Tuan's lively narrations because estate life and a kampung born share much in common.

On occasions I laid my hands on a rival paper, the Singapore Standard. I enjoyed their Sunday comic edition. Drop by at the little Mudaliar corner at the Klauang Railway Station and a surprisingly good selection of books and periodicals from the staid to the saucy await the patient browser. One I especially looked forward to was the "Wide World", a monthly adventure magazine, so fulfilling to an armchair roamer like yours sincerely.

Weatherwise, Kluang was not too hot a place. At least, relatives staying for a night or two with us dreaded the cold but rather mandatory morning baths they had to endure. The twin peaks of Gunung Lambak served as an early warning system to impending rain over the town. We would see the hills obliterated by rain clouds first, and folks, better rescue your wash from the lines pronto or else!

Floods were almost regular annual occurrences . From our house up the government office hill we could see the depression by the railway track dangerously waterlogged, resulting from the overflowing Sungai Mengkibol. Kampung Yap Tan Sah, Kampung Melayu, parts of Jalan Mersing and the villages around suffered the indignity of the dunking. The Chung Hwa primary school, also on low-lying grounds was likewise not spared and the water took quite a while to recede.

We had no clock tower but time was kept by someone at the Kluang police station thrashing mightily on a kind of round metal gong hung up above the corridor each hour. The resultant reverberation served a considerable coverage. Rubbish collection and removal fell onto the Town Board, conveniently called "tong bod" by us Malays probably owing to the role the "tong" (bin) had upon the overall setup of the service provided.

Still on services, I often wondered why someone would walk the drains carrying a kind of back-pack while squirting some liquid downwards. It was only in school that I learned about malaria eradication. Medical teams visited the school regularly but we children tried to shy away from any treatment whatever especially the bitter cough syrup and the stinging lotion for cuts and abrasions. Then of course there was the fearsome needle.

A place would be nothing without her memorable characters. One who caught my fancy was the smartly attired but non-smiling railway station master. I was so impressed by the power he seemingly wielded that I professed to be assuming his powerful position some day; stiffly starched uniform, upright collar, scowling face and all.

His equal was a cashier at the central Electricity Board office a mere five minute walk from our house. There sat a very glum and non-speaking zombie for whom I cooked up all sorts of excuses to avoid our inevitable monthly encounter.

Walking the dos is fine, but along Jalan Ibrahim, I occasionally ran into an old man towing a swine on a leash. I presumed the over-sized squealer was condemned for the slaughterhouse somewhere, not that the poor pink snorter was any wiser. H1N1? Have no fear. It was unheard of yet, for man and beast moved jauntily without any care.

On the lighter side, there was the ancient trishaw rider to whom life aboard his rickety three-wheeler drive was an ever uphill task. Kluang and more than her fair share of undulating terrain, that's why. Try the Jalan Hospital route or climb the killer government office incline and you'll get the idea. Any request this way incurred extra charges naturally. On one occasion, to rub salt to the wound, a passenger was asked to disembark for the difficult part. No choice presumably for his well-endowed better half chose to stay put. The best part was his willingness to volunteer with the heave-ho of the uncooperative antiquity. Talk about chivalry today!

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