The mode of transportation of Muar town in the early fifties and sixties were mainly the town buses and the beca (trishaws). However, town buses were operated on a small scale as population was not that high and Muar residents went around doing their daily business by bicycles. Riding a bicycle in Muar town is never tedious as the town is so flat and you can hardly find any hilly places for at least within 20 kilometers in radius. However, not everyone own a bicycle and since waiting for the hourly bus service can kill the time, the only substitute of transportation was the beca. Muarians of my time called a beca a teksi.
A mile ride of my time could earn the beca man between thirty to forty cents irrespective whether one or three passengers occupying the vehicle. The maximum passengers a beca could carry were four passengers provided two of the passengers were small children. Two elderly passengers could enjoy the ride sitting on the nice small sofa while the small children would squat at the front portion of the beca. During rainy days, these beca men wouldn’t mind peddling while soaking in the rain to earn their honest living.
Although we had never looked down upon these beca men, somehow they felt emotionally ashamed for what they were as noticed from their facial expression and body language. They felt degraded and a disgrace to society but they had no choice because peddling was the only source for them to fill the stomach of their families. One beca man I knew made sure that his children would not suffer the same fate as his and went around peddling day and night to earn extra income so that his children could have good education. Today all his four children became successful in their own field but sadly they could not repay their father. At the graduation of his first son, he felt sick and passed away while on the way back to Muar town. The son is today a close friend of mine.
I can safely assume that there were at least a hundred beca operating in Muar town during my time. While these beca men kept peddling to find a plate of rice for the day and feeling degraded, there stood a man who changed it all and would soon make every beca man peddling their beca with great pride and with a sense of belonging. That man was our late lagendary Tan Sri P. Ramlee.
It was in 1955 when P. Ramlee then a young and promising actor was given the task of directing his first Malay movie. Of the many interesting stories that could have reached his table, he chose a story on the plight of a beca man (trishaw man) with him taking the lead role as the beca man himself.
Two weeks before the show began, flyers began to circulate in every housing areas much to the delight of the Kacang Putih seller who would later collect as many as he could. There wasn’t any need to look for papers for the time being to fill the products of his trade. The caption was in bold spot colour “AKAN DATANG…PENAREK BECHA”, featuring all the main casts and a synopsis of the whole story and what made the flyer more catchy was a picture of P.Ramlee as Amran the Beca man holding his beca.
Words began to spread like wild fire that pretty soon the Rex cinema would be screening a Malay movie called Penarek Becha (Now spelled Penarik Beca). Everyone was excited because we seldom had the opportunity to watch a Malay movie; a movie we could understand from the beginning till the end. Otherwise we watched only English and Hindustani movies and would only enjoy them when there were fighting scenes and knew that we had to close our eyes when the hero kissed the heroine. At the end of any English movie we had no clue what was the movie all about. A cowboy movie would provide us with some clues; that cowboys were good people and the Red Indians always the villains. If the movie had no Red Indians, then the handsome guy must be the hero and the not so good looking the bad guy.
Now we were going to watch a Malay movie where we could understand every word spoken and would know what was the story all about. So you can imagine how excited everyone was. We had no television then, in fact we never knew what television was.
Malaya was still under British rule and the Union Jack could be seen flying in every government buildings and schools. This film was first shown in Singapore in 1955 and arrived in Muar town about a month later. When it finally arrived, the whole Malay community was awakened like as though lightning had strike the main grid. In every conversation among the Malays, they would surely slot in on the coming movie. I was six years old and was equally excited. I even told my beca man Pak Malek to watch this movie after which he replied, “Pak Malek dah tau lama dah” (I knew this a long time ago). That was the beauty about being Muarians of my time. They would never play second fiddle.
Our maid-servant Mak Yang would be our guardian to watch the movie. In fact she was even more excited than any one of us when going to movies and we would on the other hand became her guardians. It was his son ‘Mat Siput’ who was assigned to get us the tickets, It was priced at 40 cents per seat. He managed to get the tickets for the third day show. And those going with Mak Yang were Kak Shidah, Kak Arah, Kak Fuzi and me. We all walked to the Rex cinema, approximately about one and half miles from home and began our journey about six thirty in the evening. While walking we began speculating what to expect in the movie. Of course by now, three quarters of the beca men in Muar town were likewise heading to the Rex cinema bringing along with them their families.
When we arrived at the cinema, it was so crowded and this time the parking areas were filled with beca. The Kacang Putih seller was doing brisk sales with the ‘Penarek Becha’ flyers filling his products and the Chinese hawker had to employ two extra helpers to cope with the great demand. The cinema hall was still bright when we entered and there were music and songs in the air playing the songs ‘Azizah’, ‘Berkorban Apa Saja’ and songs from other singers like R. Azmi, S.Effendi, Momo, etc. Others began to enter the hall and you could tell most of them were beca men with their families. Some wives carried their babies by using a cloth hung over their shoulders. Small kids slightly smaller than me could be seen running around the cinema hall like as though they were playing on a field. Their voices could easily drown down the melodies of the songs. Then it was dark and troublesome for late comers to find their seats. The ushers began their duties ushering these late comers to their rightful seats; like looking for durians in the undergrowth at night.
The advertisement slots began and there was silent. Smokers began to enjoy their puff every minute but the ceiling fans did a fine job brushing the smoke away. Then the excitement began and the hall suddenly turned completely silent.
The movie began with Encik Marzuki waiting for a beca. Marzuki is a rich man but extremely stingy. Then Amran the beca man appears with a cowboy hat and his shirt torn all over. Almost half of the occupants inside the hall clapped thunderously when the young P. Ramlee playing the role of Amran stops to pick Marzuki. He wears a checkered shirt torn here and there and even some parts of his trousers can be seen with sewed patches. So you can imagine how poor Amran the beca man is.
The movie centerd on four main characters; P.Ramlee takes the role of Amran the beca man, Sa’adiah Ahmad as Azizah his heartthrob, the daughter of Marzuki, Salleh Kamil as Ghazali the good for nothing kampung boy and Udo Omar as Orang Kaya Marzuki.
Ghazali the bad guy is the most hated person. I remember reading an article about the late Salleh Kamil who is Ghazali in this movie. When the movie was shown in one of the cinema in Singapore, Salleh the actor was inside the cinema watching it. When the show was over, most of the audience who noticed him threw disparaging remarks at him. One person was reported even spitting at him. So you can imagine how good his acting was. Salleh went on taking the role of bad guys and I must insist he was the best baddie the Malay movie industry ever had. The real Salleh Kamil was actually a very kindhearted man.
Azizah and Amran fall for each other but obviously their love affair are not blessed. Marzuki will not tolerate his daughter going out with a low class citizen but in spite of her father’s strong objection, she is adamant that Amran is the right man for her. I like the part when Azizah pleads with Amran to take her away from her family but Amran objects strongly. To this Azizah says:
“Kalau kau tak mahu bawa aku bersama, lebih baik saja aku mati” (If you do not want to take me along, it is best that I die). And Amran replies:
“Kalau kau inginkan mati, aku pun tak ingin nak hidup” (If you wish to die, I have no desire to live).
The audiences began sobbing and our maid-servant Mak Yang cried too and the three of us had to console Mak Yang who cried like as though his son was leaving her.
Like all love stories, the movie ended with ‘and they lived happily ever after’. Amran marries Azizah and will soon begin working for his father-in-law Marzuki. The famous P.Ramlee’s song ‘Azizah’ is from this movie.
When the curtain began to roll down, many beca men stood up and clapped their hands with some shouting “Terima Kasih P.Ramlee”. Now these beca men began to feel proud of what they were. After the show we decided to take a ride home on a beca and since we were all still very small, the beca could fit all of us. On the way home, the beca man sang the song “Azizah” and we all sang along.
The next Sunday when school reopened, I asked my beca man Pak Malek whether he watch the movie? He replied, “Pak Malek tengok tiga kali” (I watch the movie three times). Along the way to school, Pak Malek sang the song “Azizah” like as though he was P. Ramlee and I sang along too.
From then on, all beca men in Muar town rode their beca with pride, honour and dignity. They no longer felt degraded but instead very proud that their daily peddling contributed significantly to the transportation industry of Muar town and it was P. Ramlee who changed their negative attitude.