In the north west of the State of Johore, lies a district with its own distintive features blended with the natural ambience of living greens. It is situated at the confluence of the Straits of Malacca towards the south adjoin to a river towards the mainland to the Muar River. The Malay Word for confluent is “Muara” and so perhaps the name Muar. The town is known as Bandar Maharani. During the days when I grew up, Bandar Maharani was a town so sleepy that it took time so much longer to last and we were never in a hurry to grow and life was not too serious.
Generally Muar town and its nearby surroundings of at least 20 kilometers in radius are flat as a plate. The town is divided by the Muar river; towards the south is the town, few sub-districts and small villages while the northern area after the river is known as Tanjung Agas. According to some old folks, the area from Tanjung Agas towards the north was part of the Malacca district. Sultan Abu Bakar had wanted to open a new town quite similar to London town where the River Thames flows. As he was very close to Queen Victoria, his wishes was granted and the areas around Tanjung Agas to Sungei Mati up to Tangkak became a part of the State of Johore. For connectivity, there was a ferry service for car owners and other commercial vehicles operated by local entrepreneur. And for walking passengers, two motor-boats would be in service costing 10 cents per person for a one way trip.
In the early and late fifties, the sight of cars were hardly visible and the modes of transportation were mainly the bicycles and the trishaws. Seeing a car or a bus passing by in front of your house was like seeing an airplane flying over your roof-top when everybody would turn their heads toward the moving vehicle. The bus station was situated near the site of the ferry providing easy access for travellers going on outstation trips. Taxis for outstation trips were likewise available.
Muar town of those days were filled with cyclists. Each house would have at least a bicycle and we had to pay a yearly road tax of 2.00 dollars per bicycle. The most famous bicycle maker was the Raleigh and there were two types. It was perhaps designed for males and females. As the Malay language is descriptive in nature, we call these two types as ‘Basikal Jantan’ (Male bicycle) and ‘Basikal Betina’ (Female bicycle). The ‘male bicycle’ would have a steel bar attached between the seat and the handle which proved useful to carry a passenger, while a ‘female bicycle’ do not have the steel bar which of course would be convenient for female cyclists wearing skirts or baju melayu. These bicycles were fitted with batteries placed near either at the front or rear wheel and would only be activated during night cycling. A small bell would be placed at the center of the handle, a pleasant sound to signal your arrival.
For public transportation within the town the trishaws were the most sought, able to carry four passengers; two elders and two young kids. In the Malay language a trishaw is “beca” (pronounce bay cha) but those days we called it “taxi”. A kilometer ride would cost between 30 cents to 40 cents. On rainy days it could only accomodate two people as the front portion would be used to cover passengers with a canvass. The rider wouldn’t mind soaking in the rain while peddling.
Those who owned cars were very few and they were mostly heads of government departments, politicians and businessmen. My grandfather was an administrative clerk and so he would cycle to office, a journey that would take him hardly five minutes since our house was near the government building. By the late fifties, quite a number of car owners began to take their turn to show-off. Whenever they passed by, they would surely grin at you and their favourite driving spots would surely be around the areas they had friends. Even having to buy a tin of milk through walking distance, they wouldn’t mind to spend a few gallons of petrol just to pass by your house. And it woould give them great satisfaction if any young females noticed. Their grin would be even more wider.
Town buses were operated on a small scale as the distance from the town to most housing areas were not too far. School buses began their services only toward the late fifties when the number of school children began to increase.
Once in a while, a bullock cart would appear out of the blue carrying stacks of chopped rubber woods for sale. These chopped woods were the most sought for cooking purposes. Although some houses were already using kerosene, there were still many others who opted for the chop woods perhaps for economic reason. More so during the festive seasons where cooking dodol, halwa maskat and other similarly cooked delicacies could only be done in a huge cooking pan placed on top of a burning fire using these chopped rubber woods.
There were quite a number of schools in the early fifties, most prominent were the Government High School for boys and the Sultan Abu Bakar Girls School for girls. Two other government aided schools were the St. Andrew and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Another school for girls was the St.Teresa. Primary school for boys was the Ismail School. For the Malay medium, there were the Sekolah Bandar which was situated at the town center and the Sekolah Dumpar, situated within a housing area of Jalan Juned which was near the coastal stretch of the Malacca Straits. The Chinese medium was the Chung Hwa High School which was quite near the Sekolah Dumpar and it was co-ed. The Indians too had their own school which was situated quite near the town.There was one private-owned called the Muar Hana School which was co-ed.
By the early fifties, the town had four cinemas namely the Rex cinema, the Asiatic, the Victory and the Grand. Towards the late fifties, another cinema was built named the Cathay Organization. These places were about the only places Muarians would go at night. However, the Grand cinema situated inside a fenced surrounding of about half an acre offered more than just movies. The whole area was known as the ‘Grand Paradise’ This place was the center of various attractions like staging a theater, live shows and even wrestling competitions. The name ‘Grand Paradise’ truly lived up to its name. It was in fact an amusement park.
HOUSES OF WORSHIP
Along the river bank of the Muar river stood the majestic town mosque named after Sultan Abu Bakar. Other places of worhip for Christians and Hindus were likewise available. A Chinese temple was right beside the Muar club and the town football field and one could hear clearly the sound of the beating drums. They normally beat their drums in the evening providing excellent soundtrack background every time a footballer tackled near the goal post.
The town would wake up as early as the call of ‘azan’by 5.45am. The natural wake-up call by roosters could be heard throughout every housing areas. By 7am, chorus of various tunes could be heard the voices of ‘nasi lemak’ sellers crescendo in the air. A packet of nasi lemak would be sold for 5 cents and 10 cents according to size. For a 10 cents nasi lemak, your stomach could last you even till late afternoon.
During school days, cycling students began their peddling by the numbers. Those staying not too far from school would begin their walk much earlier to catch the time. When class began, passing through every school one could easily notice an area full of parked bicycles and they looked alike. One may wonder how the owners could recognize their own. Half an hour later, the office workers took their turn to fill the roads with their bicycles. By 9.30am, the housing areas within the urban vicinity would be very quiet. And it was time for the fish and vegetable sellers began their rounds with fresh fishes and varieties of vegetables.
A typical fish seller was normally of a Chinese descent. His bicycle would be fitted with a big basket at the back filled with all kind of fishes. The vegetables would be placed at a small basket rested upon a steel extension at the front of his bicycle. One could easily hear his strong voice calling upon his customers plus the ringing tone of his bicycle swung with his hand. Those days we used ‘kati’ and ‘tahil’ instead of the present metric system. 16 tahils equal 1 kati and 1 kati is 1.6 kilos. Weighing was done by using a hand scale we called ‘timbang’.
By noon, most womenfolk began their kitchen routine and should be ready to serve lunch by 1pm. The roads would be busy again with students cycling home and some office workers whose houses were near their working places. And students of the afternoon session added the numbers.
By 2.30pm to 3pm, a kacang putih seller could be heard approaching from afar. Carrying a square wooden box of four compartments above his head, he would walk around the housing areas holding the wooden legs fitted at the box. His kacang putih would cost 5 cents for a small paper container and 10 cents for a slightly bigger one. Half an hour later, a rojak seller would appear. Both were of Indian descents. An Ice-cream seller would soon join in to woo the younger ones.
Between 2pm to 5pm, most housing areas were very quiet with most staying indoors. The elders would take a short nap while the younger females would be doing some knitting. Sometime they would cook some sweet delicacies in preparation for tea time.
By 5pm, Muar town would be slightly vibrant and life was actually about to begin. Teenagers of both sexes would flock to their favourite spots to chat. Within the vicinity of my area, Tanjung was the beacon. Cycling teenagers could be seen in every corner with some stopping by near the tip of the river bank to enjoy the evening breezy wind. They would normally spend their time here about an hour or so.
At the town center, it would always be busy but not chaotic. The shops would normally begin by 7.00am and the most sought were the coffee-shops mostly owned by Chinese. Satay sellers by then were ready to serve their customers and they would be given the priority by the shop owner to fill the front portion. The smoke of the burning satay would give the signal they were ready to serve. Malay delicacies for breakfast would be the ‘Lodeh’ and ‘Mi Jawa’. By lunch time, the favourite would be the famous ‘Muar Mi Bandung’. The shop owners would only cater the drinks and roti bakar. The non-Malays particularly the Chinese had their own coffe-shops to spend their time. These shops served pork forbidden to the Muslims.
The town would become quiet as the sun set. Except for the cinemas, almost all shops would be closed by 8.30pm.
By 10.00pm, Muar town and the housing areas began to slumber.