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.