In a normal weekday formal schooling and the afternoon mengaji lessons would take up to around 4pm. There would then be house chores and errands to do. After that, and during weekends and school holidays I had a lot of free time.
Like most of my friends in the 1950s we were active children and we always had something to do to keep us occupied. Those days there were no internet and computer games. There were no televisions. Our activities were largely confined to day activities. They included playing a number of children games, wandering around the kampungs including the bendangs or padi fields, fishing in the canals and catching fighting fishes in the parits or small streams, and a host of other activities.
Main bola (football)
Some games like main bola ( football) and rounders were played almost the whole year round in the evening when the weather was fine. There was a small field in front of my house and we would play football in the evening whenever somebody brought a soccer ball to the field. Soccer balls at that time were expensive. A leather ball cost around $10 depending on the quality and so outside the school it was difficult to play football. The soccer balls that we bought from the shops at that time were of very low quality, mostly imported from India. Leather pieces were hand-sewn together by thick jute threads which often snapped when wet, and our playing fields were often wet. As a precaution we usually put grease on the thread lines and dried the balls under sunlight to strengthen the threads. Every ball had a rubber tube which we inflated by using a bicycle pump. And the balls were seldom completely round as we see today. Anyway, that was a ball which was good enough for children to kick around barefoot. Yes, we played barefoot. Shoes were not allowed as it might cause injury to those without them. Some used ankle guards in place of shoes.
Skill in playing football was defined by the ability to dribble right to the goalmouth, and to score. Among the children those who could kick the ball harder were considered better players. On a lighter side, I remember an instance when I was still in Malay school in the mid 50s when our school team played against a very weak visiting side. At half time the scoreline was almost double digit. The football master at half-time proudly remarked to the team , “Sapa belum score gol lagi?” (Who has not scored a goal yet?). To him all players, probably except the goalkeeper, were expected to score goals. It was his brand of football strategy. No 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation as we have today or anything like that. It was a 0-10 formation. Every player other than the goalkeeper should attack and defend and every player should score goals. This style of play was similar to the ‘Total Football’ strategy used by the Dutch world cup team led by Johan Cruyff in the 1974 World Cup!
Rounders was a game similar to modern day softball. There were two sides in a game; one side will be fielding and pitching and the other side will be batting. We used a small hard rubber ball and batsmen used wooden bats. This game was played by both boys and girls.
Some games were seasonal. There were seasons for main guli (play with marbles), main kotak (play with cigarette boxes) and main gasing (tops spinning). I will describe them briefly.
Main guli (marbles)
Guli or marbles were of two types. One type was made of limestone and was the size of a golf ball. Every player had one guli and the game was played over three small holes about three feet apart. The game required skill of the fingers as each player tried to roll his guli into all the holes using fingers only, and at the same time to knock other players’ guli away fromm the holes. The player who completed the game first won. This was a boys game.
A second type of guli were glass marbles. Each marble was about one centimetre in diameter. Players would put in one or two guli each which were spread across a certain line drawn on the ground. The first player able to hit an assigned guli as a target wins and collected all the marbles. The winner ended up having many marbles, while losers would have to look for new supplies.
In those days cigarettes were sold in boxes of tens. The inner part of a box could be taken out leaving the rectangle shaped outer cover. These outer covers were the collectors item and children played a game to win them.
The most common cigarette box at that time was the ‘Rough Rider’ brand. Some children at that time referred this brand as ‘koboi menembak’ (a shooting cowboy) because the box pictured a cowboy firing a rifle while riding a horse. This box had a nominal value of one. The light blue Players cigarette box was assigned a value of two boxes since it was less common, probably because it was more expensive. The Torchlight brand had a value of three boxes. But, the most sought after was the gold coloured State Express box with its 555 sign. This was assigned a value of five boxes.
Each player would contribute an agreed number of cigarette boxes according to value. The boxes would be arranged to stand up like a building on the ground. From that position each player would throw away his ‘tagan’ which was a small flat piece of concrete or rock. From those positions each player, starting by the furthest position, would aim to knock down the boxes. He would collect those boxes that were hit.
There were of course certain rules attached to the game. For example, when my friends and I played the game we disallowed the usage of iron chain as a ‘tagan’. We considered it to be an unfair advantage.
Main Gasing (Tops spinning)
Wooden tops or gasing were fitted with pointed steel nails. A player would wound up the top with a thick cotton rope and forcefully smashed it on the ground to spin it.
The game was basically a destructive game. The objective was basically to chip off or break another player’s top.
A group of boys would draw a circle on the ground and then agreed who would place his top first as a static target in the circle. All the other players then would take turn in smashing their tops on the target with the objective of chipping or destroying it. But when a player spun his top into the circle he risked having his top becoming a moving target by the other players as well. If his top failed to roll out of the circle after his spin ended then his top would be kept in the circle as a static target until it is knocked out of the circle.
Wooden tops with fitted nails were available in shops. They were factory made using soft wood. But some oy us kids, myself included, preferred to make our own tops. The preferred wood were kayu limau (lemon) and kayu nangka (jackfruit) which were difficult to chip off but they were light in weight. The best wood was kayu jambu batu which had good weight and was very hard and strong. The problem with kayu jambu batu was that it was difficult to carve into a top due to its hardness.
When there were no games to play we had other group activities. We often wandered around in the kampung. The kampung included the house, the bushes and the trees around them, and the bendangs or padi fields. We climbed trees, and learned to recognise the animals and plants.
Most of us then would have a home- made lastik or catapult to shoot at mango fruits on trees and even birds. Yes, many children had a destructive tendency during those days. Until today I could not reason out why many chose to trap birds or to shoot them down with catapults just for the fun of it.
The bendangs or padi fields in Bagan Serai always fascinated me . During planting and growing season you could see vast acreages of flat green padi fields. The green padi fields stretching to the horizon gave a sense of peace and tranquility which even the golf courses of today could not match. During harvesting season when the padi ripened the field would have dried and would change from green to yellow.
During planting time you could see men and women young and old planting padi in the bendang. During harvesting time the planters and their families were in full force cutting the plants.
During those time in the 1950s mechanisation was not known. Almost everything was done manually. The effort these village folks put in would not be easily understood by the generation today. Hard work definitely has a different meaning today.
I enjoyed the harvesting season. The bendangs were then dried up. We used to play on the high ground between each lot of padi fields. In some fields the farmers planted mango trees there and their fruits usually ripened close to the harvesting season.
Fighting-fish (Ikan Semilai)
This breed of fish were found in the parits or streams of water, the edges of the bendangs or anywhere where there were plants growing in water. These fishes were very small and often dark in colour. These fishes get excited when they see another of their kind. And when that happen their fins would open up and glow beautifully. I do not know its scientific name but in the local language then we called it ikan semilai. We normally caught and put them into individual jars, separated by a paper or board partition. When the partition was lifted the fish in one jar would see the other in the other jar and they would get excited. Sometimes, some children would put two into a jar to watch them glow and fight. The loser would end up getting its beautiful fins damaged: another destructive sport of the time?
Menimba in Malay means to remove water by using a timba or pail. During the dry season the parits tended to dry up and fishes were there to be caught. What the bigger boys of those time did was to block off two sides of the parit trapping fishes within a 20 to 30 feet area. Then the hard work began. They would get down barefooted into the parit and start removing the water using pails, hence the term menimba. They would continue until the water level was minimal and the parit became very muddy. Then they would start catching the fishes with bare hands.
Two types of fishes were normally caught. The haruan and the keli. Both were dangerous. The haruan is a big fish in muddy water. It is brown in colour and thus sometimes difficult to detect in the mud. It doesn’t bite, but it is a big and strong fish and can hurt the catcher through its struggle. The keli or catfish is famous for its fangs. It is not as large as the haruan but its sting can really hurt. Remember, these fishes were in their own territory of muddy water and the barefooted boys had to be extra careful.
Well, there were of course other creatures in the muddy waters. Water snakes for example. But to the boys, this was a minor occupational hazard.
Perhaps an extra note on the haruan needs to be made. During those times it was just an ordinary muddy water fish and of not much value. Today, the wild haruan from the parit is highly demanded for various purposes: it is said that a haruan soup would heal internal injury faster than any western medication! This explains why people who have just undergone surgery take haruan soup!
This were some of my activities during non school hours. These were some of the pastimes of a child during my early childhood. There were of course other activities and two need special mention: the Main Wau (kite flying) and the Wayang Padang .
Main Wau (kite flying)
Kites were sold in shops those days, but I made my own kite. The frames were made of bamboo shafts which had to be dried up to ensure that they were light. Balancing the frame was important to ensure that the kite would soar up in a straight direction.
The kite was generally a toy for enjoyment, to see it soar into the sky was an excitement. But some of the bigger boys chose to turn kite flying into a destructive competition. The cord that we used was normally the Griffin Brand Number 10 thread. It was a strong thread. But some boys coated it with glass powder, made from crushed light bulbs. The glass powder was mixed with glue paste and would be coated around certain parts of the cord. Thus when two person were flying their kites and if their cords touched each other in the sky, then the glass-coated cord would cut the plain cord. The kite of the loser would be flown away and lost.
I kept away from anyone flying kite with glass-coated cord. Its easy to recognise it since the cords were usually coloured as compared to the plain white cord. But, why on earth would a person wanted to turn simple kite flying into a destructive pastime? I haven’t figured out the answer?
Wayang Padang (Open air movies)
Once in a while a car would pass through the road in front of my house announcing that there would be a movie shown in the town padang (field) that night. Yes. It was the wayang padang. These public screening of movies were usually sponsored by companies selling consumer products. The notable ones during those times were companies selling Brylcreem and beverages like Ovaltine and Milo. They would show the movies from a projector on a large truck to a large white screen on the field. Half way through the movie would be stopped to facilitate sale of the products. Sometime they gave free sample drinks. The show usually attracted quite a large crowd since people took this opportunity to have a night outing. For many people this was a rare treat. The movies shown were usually westerns which included lots of actions.
My parents seldom allowed me to be outside the house after dusk. But on the occasion of the wayang padang permission was usually granted. After all, many of my friends were there.
My day as a child in the 1950s was quite routine. In the morning, like most children, I went to a government school. At around 12.30pm the morning session of school would end and everybody would go home. I was fortunate never to have attended schooling in the afternoon session.
The Government English School, Bagan Serai was only a few hundred metres away from my house along Andersen Road and so I walked to school and back. When I reached home at around 1pm I was already very hungry. Remember, there was no real breakfast in the morning and the 10 or 15 cents pocket money, though a lot at those times, could not fill an empty stomach. But, food was always ready at home, thanks to my super efficient mother.
But after lunch a second schooling session would start. Although already attired in my khaki shorts and shirt, I would pick up my kain pelikat or sarong and my kopiah or songkok as we call it today and set for my mengaji lessons or Quran reading lessons. This was not held at a formal school but at the house of a religious teacher a few miles away. Again, I walked to the class and back.
During those times, Muslim parents wanted their children to know how to read the Quran properly at an early age. Apparently, the ability to read the Quran properly was a basic requirement of a literate Muslim. Understanding the meaning of the Arabic verses was a secondary matter; the primary requirement was the ability to read. If a Muslim could not read the Quran properly then he or she was considered to be not properly brought up. For a male, how was he to lead a prayer at least for the family if he could not recite verses of the Quran properly? For a female, the responsibility was even bigger for she might in later years as a mother be called upon to start Quran reading lessons to her children! In fact some parents even insisted that prospective suitors to their daughters had this quality before they could be accepted as sons-in-law.
As for me and my siblings we had our first Quran reading lessons at home, taught by our super efficient mother. We normally started by reading the Juz Amma which is the last chapter of the Quran. In this chapter the surahs are shorter and easier to read. We would then graduate to reading the full Quran.
When I completed my Juz Amma I was sent by my mother to a Quran teacher. I was to begin reading the full Quran. In my case it was an elderly grandmother who taught a number of children how to read the Quran. We referred her as Tok as she was a grandmother. The students paid no fee. It was sheer dedication on her part, a quality we hardly see in present time. I am grateful to her for her dedication.
My Quran teacher lived with her daughter and family and conducted Quran reading lessons in the afternoon. A group of students would sit on the floor in the hall of the house . The house had a zinc roofing and no ceiling and as such it was very warm in the afternoon. We wore our kain pelikat and we put on our kopiah. We sat bersila or cross-legged on the wooden floor and read our own Quran which was placed on a wooden rehal (Quran stand). The standard routine in class was for each student to read his own Quran. We were all at different levels of progress and so the verses that we read were different.
Tok would sit at one end of the hall doing whatever she had to do but always keeping a sharp ear as to what we were reading. If she detected a wrong note in recitation then she quickly corrected it. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon we tended to get sleepy and our loud reading would be reduced to mere murmurs. Our Tok would then take her long cane and hit the floor with a cracking sound. She would at the same time in a loud voice said ‘baca’ or read. That was enough to awaken us to continue reading.At the end of the day we would be called , one by one, to read our assigned surahs in front of Tok. If we showed proficiency then Tok would allow us to progress and she would teach us how to read subsequent surahs. As class ended in late afternoon we would fold our wooden rehal and kiss the Quran and stowed them away. Class was then over. It was now time to go home. It was now play time.
When my mother approached the Quran teacher to enrol me as a student, she literally handed me over to the teacher to be taught in any manner the teacher deemed fit. As a rule, if I misbehaved in class then I was to be punished by the teacher. When that happened I was expected to take punishment quietly. It would be a grievous mistake if I were to report the incident to my mother at home. As a general rule if a child was punished by a teacher at the formal English school, parents were likely to be sympathetic to the child’s case. But, if a child was punished by his or her Quran teacher then it was folly to report to his or her parents. Not only would there be no sympathy for the child, in some cases parents would doubled up the punishment at home. This was the unwritten law of the time! In fact this was one main reason as to why the success rate of Quran reading classes was high during those times! The saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” was never more aptly applied. The long cane of a Quran reading teacher, especially its cracking sound when it hit the floor, was always enough to let students learn through sheer fear.
I never completed learning Quran reading from Tok. This was because in December 1960 my father was transferred to serve in a village near Bidor, also in Perak. I was to continue learning from my mother for a number of years. It took some time, but I eventually completed my lessons and attained my Quran reading proficiency.
The Special Malay Class
Studying in a Malay school in the 1950s will only take a person up to Standard Six. At a time when schooling was not really compulsory reaching Standard Six in a Malay school was an achievement. Some would drop out along the way to do other more urgent things like helping in the padi fields. Those who survived that long will then join a transitory class called the ‘Remove Class’ for one year in an English school. This was to enable them to pick up the English language. They will then move on to Form One in an English school after seven years of education. Students who joined an English school directly from Standard One will only have six years of schooling when they entered Form One. They were likely to be one year younger than their colleagues coming through Remove Class.
When I was in the Malay school in the early 50s I noted that there was no automatic promotion of students from one level to another. A student who did not make the grade in the examinations would be asked to stay in the same level. Exceptionally, students who were considered very bright were allowed to lompat or jump one level higher, like jumping from Standard One to Standard Three, without going through Standard Two. The decision was entirely up to the school teachers. I noted that when I moved from Darjah Out to Standard One, some of my colleagues who joined Standard One directly were retained and became my classmates. One result of the retention system was that you could have very old students in a class, if they had been retained for a number of times. This system of jumping and retention was changed by the Government some time in the mid 1950s, when automatic promotion was introduced until Standard Six. I recalled a situation, under the automatic promotion system, when a student who had been retained in a lower class for a number of years was suddenly moved to higher class because he was considered too old for the class. Today, a student only has evaluations at Standard Six and Form Three but no qualifying examinations. All students move up automatically to Form Five when they will sit for their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. That is their first real examination.
The transfer of students from a Malay school to an English school was done at several levels. Students at Standard Three or Four or Five in a Malay school were allowed to sit for a special entrance examination to enter an English school. Those who passed the special entrance examination would be placed in ‘ Special Malay Class 1’ in an English school. This was equivalent to Standard Four in an English school. The next year they would move to ‘Special Malay Class 2’ and then to Standard Six where they will be put in the same classroom with those who joined the English school directly from Standard One. By that time they were expected to be able to converse in English with their teachers and colleagues.
Anyway, in 1956 while at Standard Three I sat for the special entrance examination. This was a rarity then as most students chose to sit for the examination at Standard Four. I was the only student from Standard Three in Bagan Serai to pass the examination. Thus in 1957 I left Sekolah Melayu Bagan Serai and joined the Government English School, Bagan Serai at the level of Special Malay Class 1.
I was among the youngest in the class since I came from Standard Three in a Malay school. The others had completed Standard Four or Standard Five.
Learning English at that stage was interesting. Classes were conducted in English and the textbooks were all in the English language. In fact most of the textbooks came from England and they were based on life in England. Most of the students in the class had almost no knowledge of the English language. Thus it was an uphill task for the teachers. How the teachers did it I really did not know. But the beauty of it was that we survived!
After two years in a Special Malay Class I moved on to Standard Six when all students including those who started Standard One in an English-stream school had to sit for an important examination. Those who passed would be promoted to Form One. That was considered to be a great achievement.
At Standard Six students learnt some interesting things. We learnt very little about our country but many things about Europe. Among others, I had to memorise all the major train stations of the Trans-Siberian Railway lines from Leningrad to Vladivostok although I did not have the slightest idea where those places were on Earth. I learnt that King Harold died by an arrow shot in his left eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066; he was defeated by William of Normandy. I learnt about Horatio Nelson’s remarks of ‘Thank God I have done my duty’ before he died at the Battle of Trafalgar, and I learnt that the battlecry was ‘Santiago’ when Alfonso D’Albuquerque attacked Malacca in 1511. Until today, I do not know whether I learnt the right things then and why they were considered important for students then. Were they real knowledge or just information? I never studied the geography or history of Malaya at that time?
Anyway, I sat for the important Standard Six examination in 1959. I did very well and obtained an ‘A’ grade with second highest marks in the whole school. I was awarded a book prize which was given by the headmaster at a school assembly. I remember the book was titled ‘The Wonder Book’ and it was a collection of children stories in Europe. The student with top marks was a girl. She was very clever in class.
A Short Note On Some Of My Teachers.
Although it was over fifty years ago when I was in primary school, some of the teachers who taught and guided me in and outside the classrooms are still in my memory and they deserved special mention. At the Malay school I remember very well the Cik Gu who taught me reading and arithmetics. He had that fearsome look and I was scared of him, especially that he was a good friend of my father. He lived across the road in front of my house. But I consider him to be an excellent teacher because I learnt a lot in his class. Until today I believe that teachers who exert authority in their classes are likely to impart more knowledge to their students! I had a few other teachers who taught and guided me well in the Malay school, including lady teachers. Some of them supervised games and athletics after school. I was a member of the ‘Anak Serigala’ or wolves, a club for those who were too young to be a Boy Scout. We had our own uniform including badges and cap. We had outings after school hours. Occasionally, we had camp-fires at night together with the older Boy Scouts. The teachers who supervised these activities were all dedicated but I could not remember their names clearly now.
At the English school I remember a number of teachers who I learnt to respect a lot. Miss Sarojini taught me during the special Malay classes and she must have had a tough time teaching a group of Malay students who could not converse in English. But I remember her to be very kind and patient. I remember Mr. Goh who taught me in Standard Six. He was rather soft spoken but exemplary in his patience in dealing with students. Then there was Mr. Sidek. He taught at the upper levels but occasionally came to my class at Standard Six. He was a disciplinarian and I was scared of him.
All these teachers, and some others were exemplary in their dedication. I will say more on my teachers including those at secondary schools later on.
In the 1950s children went to school at an early age of five years. Some even entered school earlier, usually the children of school-teachers. I suppose it was a good way to get children out of the house and do something productive during the day!
Some time in 1952 when I was approaching five years old I remember my parents having some discussions about me going to school. Age was one criterion, but there was another!. They asked me to put one of my arm over my head and to try to reach my other ear. If my fingers could easily touched my ear then I was physically ready to go to school. I was physically small for my age and the physical test was a tough one for me. One day I passed the physical test. Hooray! I was ready to go to school.
I was admitted to Sekolah Melayu Bagan Serai in January 1953. The school was housed in a large wooden single-storey building, and it had several classrooms. Many of the classrooms were separated from each other only by wooden screens, and if you sit at the back you could always communicate with your friends in the next class. But beware! The male teachers at those times were fearsome or what we students termed as garang. Most students did not want to get into their bad books.
Just outside the school building were patches of vegetable gardens. Students in the upper classes were taught to do a little bit of gardening, including the planting of vegetables. It was good exercise and definitely useful education then!
The school offered only standard one through six. But, when I joined the school I found out that I and a few other children who were physically small were put in a special class called ‘Darjah Out’ (standard zero) and not Darjah Satu (standard one).
Going to school was exciting. I had to dress properly in the morning, in khaki shorts and short sleeved shirt. I had to put on shoes; yes, white canvas shoes which I had to clean every week and whiten them with liquid chalk. School was about a mile away and I was too small to walk that far alone. So my parents put me on a trishaw with two other children going to the same school. At school I sat on a bench shared with a few other children. Being in Darjah Out I had no books. All that I had was a ‘Papan Batu’ which was basically a carbon slate or board. We wrote on it with a pencil-like instrument made from a hard carbon material which we called ‘kalam’. I really don’t know where that terminology came from but I guessed it had an Arabic origin. School was half day in the morning and I spent my time writing the alphabets or numbers on the Papan Batu. At the end of the day my Papan Batu would be completely full with my work. The teacher would look at it and would give a long tick of approval across the Papan Batu as a sign of work well done. This was an achievement and I would take it home to show to my mother.
The Papan Batu had to be cleaned in order to be reused. I did not know what was the proper way to do it then, but what I and my friends did was to use the roots of a certain plants which we cut and used as eraser. The roots were watery and they erased the writings on the Papan Batu easily.
I stayed in Darjah Out for a year. The next year I was in standard one. The Papan Batu was discarded and I moved on to writing with lead pencil. I had an exercise book to write in. Lessons were then more substantive.
I stayed in the Sekolah Melayu until standard three. During that time I learnt to read and write Malay in both Rumi and Jawi. On reflection today, I must say that it was quite an achievement. I also learnt the ‘Kira-kira’ or arithmetic. We learnt how to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers. While addition and subtraction were quite easy, I found multiplication and long division being quite tough. Sometime we learnt the chongak or mental-arithmetics, where you calculate in your mind without writing on paper or even using your fingers. The learning process was good , partly due to the quality of the teachers then. At the end of standard three I could read and write Malay in both the Rumi and Jawi, and I could manage numbers including making mental calculations. I guessed I was quite literate by then.
Being able to read enabled me to read the Malay newspapers. Back then, my late father who served as a Penghulu was provided with the Government newspaper called ‘Warta Negara’ . It was in Jawi. Sometimes we read the Utusan Melayu also in Jawi. It was my role to read the newspapers occasionally to my maternal grandmother. She could not read very well but wanted to know the news. My mother needed no help then. Although she only had two years of schooling in the 1930s, that was enough to enable her to read and write and manage numbers. I guess education during those times were more effective in certain ways, but I would not want to get into a debate on this with the educationists of today!
A short drive out of town led us to a minor road on the left side of the main road to Taiping. This was Andersen Road in the 1950s but now has been renamed Jalan Matang Buluh. This particular area of Bagan Serai had always been referred to by the local residents as Matang Buluh, probably due to the growth of many types of bamboo (buluh) plants there, including the bamboo hedges around many government quarters. The narrow road was however named Andersen Road by the British authorities then. This road stretches for a few hundred metres from the main road to the irrigation canal just after the English school at the other end.
Most of the houses along Andersen Road then were government quarters, except for a few private houses. On the left side the first house was the house of the British engineer. Then there was the house of a Malay schoolteacher. There were then a few more government quarters before the school, then named the Government English School, Bagan Serai. On the right side of Andersen Road the first building was the ‘Sekolah Cawangan’ or a branch of the Malay School in the town centre. Then there was the ‘Balai Penghulu”, a government office. My late father worked here. A few buildings down the road was house number 313, Andersen Road. This was one of the many Government quarters along the road. My family temporarily occupied this house from 1949 to 1960 when my father served as Assistant Penghulu for Bagan Serai. Further on there were a few private houses until the irrigation canal. The school then was only on the left side of Andersen Road.
The British Engineer’s House.
In the 1950s the first building on the left side of Andersen Road was a huge double storey bungalow occupied by a British engineer, probably attached to the Public Works Department. As other large government quarters in those days it had a separate kitchen at the back, connected to the main building by a covered corridor. At the edge of the large compound were the workers’ quarters. They were the cooks and housemaids and the gardeners. The workers maintained the large garden around the house, including trimming the long bamboo hedges which made up the perimeter fences. Like other government quarters during those times, there were no gates to the house compound. Petty thefts were yet unknown at that time! I wander why things are so different today? When my friends and I played in the vicinity we would just stared with curiosity into the compound from the wide entrance, but none dared to be more inquisitive to enter. All that I knew then was that the house was occupied by an English couple and their dog. This was the residence of the person the locals referred to as the ‘Tuan’ or master. He had, after all, a large house with many workers, and he had a car. In those days the locals were sometimes referred to as ‘natives’ and should stay away from the ‘Orang Putih’ (white-man).
At this visit in 2010 this large house was no longer there, demolished and replaced by a newer building.
Next to the house of the British engineer was a small wooden government quarters. This was the house of a Malay schoolteacher, a respected gentleman in the community. He was a family friend to my parents. He was also my teacher in the Malay School, teaching me arithmetics or what we called at those time as ‘kira-kira’.
A few metres down and across the road was Government quarters number 313, Andersen Road. I lived there during my very early childhood.
313 Andersen Road
This was a standard design government quarters. It was a wooden house on concrete pillars. The kitchen was a separate building attached by a short covered corridor. This was the house where I spent most of my early childhood.
The house was on a large piece of land, probably over an acre. Behind the house were many fruit trees. I remember there were two durian trees, a setoi tree, a rambai tree, a machang tree and jambu susu. There were also two rambutan trees at both sides of the house. All these trees grew naturally from seeds and thus they were huge in size compared to present day grafted plants. There were also some pisang plants which we planted around the house. In short, the whole house compound was like a mini orchard.
The Fruit Trees
The fruits of the two durian trees were of very good quality. Thus my family seldom had to buy durians from others at that time simply because the fruits we had were not only more than enough but also of better quality the most others. During the durian season it was a practice among me and my brothers and sister to get up early in the morning to run to the back of our house to search for durians. There is one thing about durians: you do not pluck the fruits from the trees. You wait for them to drop naturally. Searching for durians in the early hours of the morning was a bit of an art. Imagine being in a ‘kain pelikat’ (night time dress for boys) and barefooted and moving about in the semak (roughs) looking for durians at dawn. During the day we normally studied the location of the durian fruits up high on the tree branches but when they dropped to the ground we had to estimate how far they would have rolled away into the roughs. One thing was certain: if in the early hours of the morning your feet stepped on something sharp then it was a pleasant feeling of pain! Most likely it was a durian that you had stepped on.
In fact during the fruit season my family had enough supply of good fruits. The only fruit that we liked but did not have around our house was the manggis (mangoesteen). Normally I got a lot of manggis from my friends’ orchard a few hundred metres down the road. It was said that when you eat the durian then you should also eat the manggis after that, simply because while the durian was heaty the manggis was supposed to be cooling.
The manggis tree was easy to climb since the tree trunks had lower branches. It was not as difficult as climbing a rambutan tree. The rambutan tree, grown from a seed, normally grew high with long tree trunks. The branches were usually up higher from the ground and thus the tree was more difficult to climb. Also, there were sometimes the kerengga or large red ants on some branches, and their bites were quite painful. Some of my friends at that time splashed mud on their arms and legs when they climbed trees infested with kerengga. But, for the love of the fruit this was a minor obstacle! Today, rambutan trees are usually grown from grafts and the trees are normally smaller.
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.
As we entered Parit Buntar town I noticed the extent of development that has taken place since the 1950s. Many new buildings were noticeable, some replacing the old ones. But my mind was focused in identifying one particular building, at number 22, Low Road, Parit Buntar. It was once a large double storey brick and wooden mansion at the edge of the town padang. But, It was not there anymore, perhaps renovated to a different appearance or perhaps had been completely demolished and rebuilt!
The building which I was looking for was where I was born in 1947. It was then the official residence of my grandfather, Syed Abdul Hamid bin Syed Safi Jamalullail who was then the Orang Besar Jajahan Krian or the Territorial Chief of the Krian district. In those days before Malaya achieved independence in 1957 the Orang Besar Jajahan had a major role in the management of the district and thus he had an office and an official residence. I was only just over 2 years old when he died, and thus I have little personal recollection of him. But from accounts by my elders I concluded that he was aristocratic in outlook and generous to all. He grouped in his large house many members of his large family comprising his children and grandchildren. It was one very large family!
My grandfather had three sons and many daughters. I was born in my grandfather’s house and he gave me the name of Syed Jaafar, after his grandfather Syed Jaafar bin Syed Yunus Jamalullail of Teja, Perak. In those days it was not uncommon for people to name children and grandchildren after their ancestors. In fact my two brothers were named after our ancestors. Today this practice is less popular and modern families prefer new and modern names.
I am a member of the Jamalullail clan of Perak. To be more specific I am a fourteenth descendent (fithteenth generation) on the male line of Syed Hussain al-Faradz Jamalullail who came to Perak in the early 1500s. Historical records including palace records in Perak showed that he served in the court of Sultan Muzaffar Shah, the first Sultan of Perak in 1528. (For more information on the Jamalullails of Perak please see article written in Malay at https://sjaznan1.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/genealogy-jamalullail-negeri-perak/
It did not take long to drive around Parit Buntar, and soon we found ourselves on the old road to Bagan Serai. In the 1950s this stretch of road was was a padi growing area. Today, while some buildings have come up along the roadside I still see ‘bendang‘ or padifields in the distant background. I wonder whether they are still operating today? I wonder where some of the people who went to school with me in Bagan Serai are today?
We reached Bagan Serai quickly. This was the town where I spent my early childhood.
The year is 2010. I am now 63 years old. I have retired from active employment. The time to seek personal glory is past. Now is the time to reminisce and reflect. These stories are my memoirs.
The Journey …
Now that I have some extra time to spare I am less in a hurry than before to get to where I am going. Thus when my family and I drove south from Penang recently we decided to exit the highway and took the old road. I have lived in many towns and villages in Perak along the old road. This was therefore a journey down memory lane! We exited the highway to pass through Bandar Baru to visit Parit Buntar and then Bagan Serai.
As we drove on the bridge from Bandar Baru to Parit Buntar my mind traveled over half a century back. Parit Buntar was my birthplace.
I remember in the 1950s there was no bridge linking Bandar Baru to Parit Buntar. Children who lived across the river had to take a ferry to go to school in Parit Buntar. In a padi growing area it took some determination among parents and the schoolchildren to take this challenge. After all, schooling was often optional at those times, particularly during padi planting and harvesting seasons.
I remember many years later hearing the news of a ferry tragedy in the river. A ferry with adults and schooldren was swept by the river tide. It was only in the 1970s that a bridge was finally built across the river. Today the bridge across the river stands solid in concrete.