In the 1950s the town of Bagan Serai basically stretched for about half a kilometre. Coming from Parit Buntar in the north the town stretched from the road junction to Alor Pongsu right to the Chinese school just before the old police station on the road to Taiping. As my family and I drove through the town on this visit the main road looked wider. There were new buildings but the changes were not beyond recognition. Significant development have taken place on other parts of the town.
I remember there was a cross junction along the main road as one travelled southward. On the left there was the Raja Syed Tauphy Road and on the right was the road going to the jetty. I could not remember the name of this road but it was then probably named Jetty Road. This small street brought many memories to me.
Along Jetty Road there was then a wet market, a place I frequented to do my regular chores of buying fish and vegetables for the family in Bagan Serai. Fish and vegetables were much lower priced then although I am not sure that they were relatively cheaper than now. One of the favourites of the lower income group was ‘ ikan rebus’ which was basically half-boiled ikan kembong and would cost about 30 sen a kati. These ikan rebus tasted very nice when fried and eaten with a bit of sambal belacan. Today I do not see them anymore in the wet market, perhaps due to higher standards of living now and that people today can afford fresh fish. There were good supplies of fresh fish in the wet market because Bagan Serai was near the fishing area of Tanjung Piandang and fresh sea catches were landed at the jetty near the market. Thus we had very fresh ikan kedera or belanak, bawal hitam and bawal puteh and senangin available. As today, the bawal puteh and senangin were priced higher and were consumed by a selected few only. My standard ‘bakul ikan’ or grocery bag would have some ikan rebus or very fresh ikan kedera, and occasionally some bawal hitam or ikan gelama. We enjoyed eating ikan terubok during its season then when they were very cheap due to over supply.
Meat(beef) was not much available at the market as it was expensive. Most families only buy meat for special occasion like Hari Raya. Otherwise, only fish (sea and freshwater fishes) were on the dining floor(sic) in addition to ikan bilis and ikan kering. I do not remember seeing slaughtered chicken sold at the market then. Many families including ours reared chicken around the house. They provided us with eggs and occasionally we would have them for meal. Of course, to have a chicken meal you would first have to catch it from the ‘reban ayam’ or the place where they were kept at night. Then you have to slaughter it according to Islamic rites. If you do not know how to do this, then you had to take the chicken to someone who could do this. You see, it was not that easy to have a ‘gulai ayam’ or chicken curry then!
The Batu Giling (Grinding Stone)
At a corner of the wet market there used to be some enterprising Indian ladies selling curry paste. They would bring their ‘ batu giling’ there and rolled curry seeds into a paste. In those days there was no manufactured curry powder in packets as we know today. Most houses would have their own ‘batu giling’ to roll curry seeds into a paste. The batu giling was a piece of solid granite slab measuring about one by one and a half foot and about four inches thick. Then there was a roller made of solid granite which was used to roll over the curry seeds until it produced a curry paste. After some use the batu giling would become smooth and less effective. Then you have to get the services of the ‘tajam batu’, the person who would chisel on the surfaces of the granite slab and the roller to make them more coarse and effective. Today the batu giling is a thing of the past and most probably has become a collectors item. Anyway, on some occasion during my marketing trips I would visit the Indian lady selling the curry paste at the market when there was no one at home to do the job. The gulai rempah was after all a regular item in the household menu! You cannot imagine the appetising taste of gulai rempah in those days, made from fresh curry paste!!
How Bagan Serai got its name
The jetty at Bagan Serai had a historical significance. When I was a child my elders told me that the word ‘jetty’ was an English word which in Malay was ‘Bagan”. At the jetty there were lots of ‘lalang’ or the long sharp grasses which created an unpleasant sight. The lalang growth implied lack of maintenance by the local authorities. As the jetty was an important centre for economic activity the town came to be called after it. Ideally the town would have been called Bagan Lalang, but the residents at that time preferred to call the town Bagan Serai, as the lalang looked just like the ‘serai’ or lemon grass which was a welcome plant around many houses. The name ‘ Bagan Serai’ was obviously more appealing.
The Todi Shop
At the far end of Jetty Road there was the famous ‘Todi Shop’. The todi was a fermented drink made from the syrup of the coconut. During the British rule days i.e. before 1957, the todi was a popular stimulating drink among the manual working group, especially estate workers. Some said that the todi gave energy to the workers to work harder the next day. The local authorities regulated the sale of the todi. Within stipulated hours, normally in the afternoon, the todi shop, which was heavily fenced would open its gates to consumers. By then there was usually a large crowd of people at the gates. They would drink their hearts out until they were drunk. The todi shop normally closed its gates in the late afternoon. I was lucky that my marketing errands were in the morning and thus avoided meeting those people coming home from the todi shop. Today, the todi shop is a thing of the past.
Kedai Pisang (Banana Shop)
From the junction going to Jetty Road there was a row of shops along the main road going south to Taiping. On the right were those shops which in those days we called ‘Kedai Arab’ because they were occupied by some Arab traders selling textiles. On this trip, I saw the shop signs but I did not stop to see what businesses were conducted. I was more attracted to the row of shops across the road on the left side of the main road. There used to be, amidst the block of double storey shophouses, a short row of single storey shophouses which in those days my family referred to as ‘kedai pisang’, because they sold a variety of’ ‘ pisang’ (bananas) among other things. In those days the kedai pisang was a row of single storey shops with zinc roofs. At one end was a small attap-roofed ‘kedai mee’ ( mee stall) operated by a Malay man. That mee stall was an important congregation point for some local Malay elders. It was also located almost in front of the ‘panggung wayang’ or cinema hall and the town mosque across the main road.
During my trips to town I used to stop at the kedai pisang for some errands. Beside bananas they sold a variety of sweets and biscuits which attracted children. From time to time they would also display the ‘Tikam’ boards, which were some sort of lottery very popular among some children.
In the local slang then the word ‘tikam’ meant to bet as in ‘tikam ekor’ ( to bet on the three digit lottery based on horse race results). The tikam was basically a kind of lottery on a cardboard. On the top half of the board were stuck prizes of various kinds, like toys and even cigarettes. They were all numbered. On the bottom half of the board were hundreds of folded pieces of paper glued in columns. For 5 sen you get to pull out one piece of paper and if the number revealed matched a prize at the top half of the board then you would get it. Five sen was a lot of money for schoolchildren then, and most parents would give their primary school children a maximum of about 10 to 15 sen to spend during school recess time, to cover for the missing breakfast at home. These tikam were very popular among small children because of the attraction of the toys. For many children this was the only chance to have such toys. Some people told me then that the attractive prizes displayed could not be won simply because their winning numbers did not exist among the folded pieces of paper. But, like the adults of those times many children lived on expectation of a lottery win to get their dreams fulfilled. Today I do not see the tikam anymore.