In the early days of the fifties, there was hardly a decent hotel in Muar Town. This is understandable as commercial activities were few and not many businessmen would include Muar Town in their list of potentials to promote their products and services. Muar is sandwiched between Malacca in the north and neighbouring district of Batu Pahat towards the south. These two towns command better locations for business promotions and more often, companies would choose Malacca as their southern branch to cover Muar Town. These two neighbouring towns were more vibrant during the night offering some entertainment outlets such as nightclubs. There wasn’t any nightclub in Muar town, except for the Grand Paradise which could not offer exciting night activities throughout the year. Only when the legendary strip teaser Rose Chan came to town would the town be visited by many outsiders from the neighbouring districts. For that reason, hotels in Muar town in the fifties and the early sixties were unheard of.
There were however, few lodgings could be found within the town center and these lodgings were mostly operated by restaurant owners with the upper floors being the supposed hotels. The rooms were merely wooden compartments fitted with a bed and a small cupboard. There would be a common toilet and you need to bring your own towel and other toiletries. It was in fact, just a place to sleep during the night. Some of these lodgings were brothels in disguise. The only decent and reputable place for outsiders staying for the night in town was the Rest House.
Muar of my time had two Rest Houses; one was situated along Jalan Othman, a walking distance to the town center while the other command a better location which was in Tanjung. The former catered mostly for top government servants and the first to operate while the latter was for the public. This Rest House is still in existence and the state government has alienated it to the holding company of Yayasan Pelajaran Johor (YPJ) to be responsible for its operation, services and maintenance.
The Rest House of Muar Town situated at Tanjung of the 50s and 60s was a far cry from today’s modern layout. The place in question was located at the far end of Tanjung towards the west. From the D.O’s residence, the road leading to the Rest House was a straight narrow road with tall and stout oak-like trees grew on both sides of the road. The branches of these trees touched each other and from afar it was very much like a long green tunnel. To the right facing the north is the estuary of the Muar river covered by mangroves. The left side was a piece of land that would eventually turned into a golf course in the mid 60s. Not far from the Rest House toward Jalan Joned was once a row of single-storey building of the Day Training Center (DTC) for would be teachers. These trainees were mainly from other districts in the Johor State as well as other states. The center catered for both males and females. In the evening, many local boys would cycle around the area hoping to ‘tackle’ some of these young female trainees. During the night, the area was so eerie that you could hardly find a lone cyclist.
The Rest House of the 60s as I remember was hardly visited by locals and those who stayed there were mainly government servants on assignment from other districts. Travelling salesmen too were frequent visitors but these salesmen were not in great numbers and so more often, many rooms were not taken up. Staying at the Rest House was obviously a good stay compared to the lodgings in town. However, when night fell, you might consider staying at these lodgings instead of the Rest House. Let me tell you why.
If you have read some of my earlier postings, I kept mentioning that Muar Town of the 50s and 60s during the night was spooky, particularly areas within the vicinity of Tanjung. The coastal area along where the Rest House was situated was covered by mangroves throughout stretching as far as the coastal area of Muar district. Many species of coastal trees and plants could be found in between these mangroves. There wasn’t any decent beach along these stretch and the shores were very muddy. The shores towards the south were slightly better and as it reached the areas between Batu Pahat and Pontian, you could find some decent beaches.
The Tanjung Rest House, like all other Rest Houses in the country were designed very much to the colonial taste of British designers and architects. The design was very much adapted to the tropical climate of the country. The reception area and the hall had high ceilings to accommodate more air to enter. The old design of the ceiling fans were very cooling when the blades started to circle and became even cooler when at high speed. The rooms too were very airy with each ceiling likewise was quite high. The bathrooms were quite the same as we have now except for the design with the bathtub always white in colour.
Once my uncle treated me for lunch at this Rest House and we both had oriental chicken chopped and the taste was truly superb. Its Mi Hailam had the taste the way it should be. Chinese cuisine of my time was just too good, maintaining its originality intact.
The entrance of the Rest House was linked by a small lane from the main road where the oak-like trees stood by each side. From afar, the Rest House looked very much of an English cottage with its surrounding of living greens. Sitting by the verandah in the evening was breathtaking, with the sound of the nearby waves pushing toward the shore entertaining the ears every minute. Strollers would enjoy their brisk walk, with most being the trainees of the DTC.
As the sun set slowly at the western horizon taking away its rays, the sky above would eventually succumbed to nature’s demand and the silence of the night took its turn. The call of azan from the town mosque situated quite a distance could be heard and would soon be replaced by the continuous howling of dogs. Night environment surrounding the Muar Rest House of the late fifties was so eerie and spooky that even passing by alone in a car would always be avoided, let alone cycling.
Tales of inexplicable happenings, strange encounters and weird sightings kept adding to the list of things shrouded with mysteries. Are all these tales creations of wild entertainment? Or did those who experienced these inexplicable happenings did not make them up? What did they see and were they simply tricks of the mind? The following anecdotes passed from one ear to the other reached mine when I was twelve years old. There are stories told to me about the mysteries happenings that once dominated the areas around the Muar Rest House. No cause for alarm please, these are all tales passed down with no proof to authenticate. Let us just enjoy the tales, after all they were supposed to have occurred sometime in the late fifties.
Alfred Lim (fictitious name) was a travelling salesman for a company selling consumer products. He arrived at the Muar Rest House in the afternoon and having checked in, he began his round visiting local agents. Riding on his Lambretta, he rode along the coastal road of Jalan Petri passing by Tanjung towards town. This had always been his favourite route from the Rest House to town. Alfred would visit the town practically every month to service the local agents. He would ride on his Lambretta from the company’s regional office in Malacca to Muar town.
It was almost 11.00pm after he had supper with his local agents when he thought it would be good to return to the Rest House for a good slumber. It had been a tiring day and was looking forward for a good bath and to bed. Riding on his scooter, he rode back using the same route as he did when he rode to town this afternoon. It was a moonlit night with the sky brightened by the countless twinkling stars. Night life of the late fifties in Muar town was dull and most roads were free from any traffic movement. Along the stretch leading to Tanjung, Alfred could be the only rider that filled the long stretch. It wasn’t unusual for him as this had always been his route whenever he paid Muar Town a visit. He had been doing this routine for the past one year.
After having passed the town mosque, he rode straight ahead leading to the residence of the District Officer and eventually the straight road ahead to the Rest House. As he passed through the road, he felt a presence and he could sense like someone was sitting pillion. He turned his face backward to check but there wasn’t any and so he rode on. He knew something was not right but he kept on riding his scooter until the sight of the Rest House was visible. Then suddenly he sniffed something rotten, and it really smelled badly that could easily make him to vomit. He chose to ignore as he had always been a brave man, unfazed by any kind of nonsensical stories that didn’t make sense. When he reached the Rest House, he parked his scooter, took some of his belongings and headed straight to his room. There wasn’t anyone at sight as it had always been at this time of the hour. Halfway through, he heard someone calling his name, and as he turned back towards his scooter, there was a figure with unkempt hair wearing a long white robe sitting at the rear seat of the vehicle.
Animals have always been associated with the spirit world. They are said to sense the presence of ghosts and even see them which are unveiled to the human eye. The normal barking of a dog and its eerie howling sound in the night is an example. Cats too can provide some signal of a presence when suddenly it turned scared out of nothing and begin to run wild. Ahmad (fictitious name) was given this signal while having his dinner alone at the Rest House one night. A surveyor at the state Land Office, he had arrived from Johor Bahru to attend a meeting the next day. If any of my Muar contemporaries can remember, the dining hall of the old Rest House was beside an open space toward the sea, although covered by trees and the mangroves by the shore, we could still some small parts of the river particularly during the day.
A cat lover, he was giving a stray some of the crumbs while having his dinner. It was just after his maghrib prayer and was enjoying his rice with chicken curry. There were two other guys having their dinner in the same hall. Suddenly the stray which was eating the crumbs stood up and gazed towards the open space and gave a growling sound, an unusual act for a cat. He did not give much attention and continued his indulgence while still passing some crumbs to the cat. This time it did not bother another bite but just stood straight gazing at the open space. Then it suddenly ran towards the kitchen and this obviously made him wonder. He then looked at the open space and there stood a white figure facing directly towards him. Afraid at the dreadful sight, he called upon the two other diners and pointed his finger to the direction of the open space. The two heads turned to the direction and the three of them observed the white figure walking slowly towards the mangroves and disappeared out of thin air.
Three years later these stories began to wane although there were still stories of some other peculiar sightings circling among the population nearby.
It almost midnight when my friend Halim suggested that the three of us took a ride along the stretch leading to the Rest House. It was always him coming up with this ‘brilliant’ idea. Yem somehow liked the idea, nodded with a smile leaving me with no choice but to follow suit. The three of us began cycling like we used to, always looking for some ‘adventures’ in the middle of the night. We had done this twice before and had never encountered with any form of apparitions or sensing some weird presence. We have heard these stories so many times and we wanted to experience it ourselves. Three years had passed and the scene surrounding the Rest House had not changed a bit. We passed the Rest House and noticed only two or three rooms lighted. Maybe those inside were afraid of ghosts and preferred to sleep with the lights on. We then passed the small lane by the shore leading back towards the residence of the District Officer. Along this shore there had been stories of a swimming ghost taking a dip around this time of the hour. But throughout our night cycling at these spooky places, we had never encountered anything unusual or sensing any presence.
Fifteen years later in 1979, during the Hari Raya festival, I brought my wife and our two year old daughter for a night stay in Muar town. The house along Jalan Omri once I lived were full of relatives as it would always been during the festive season. So it was only right that we should stay at the Muar Rest House. When we arrived, I noticed a drastic change and the façade of the old Rest House was now a memory. The Rest House looked very modern, even some of the big trees surrounding the building were no where to be seen. I was glad to see the new setting and we enjoyed our stay. In spite of the new environment, one thing had not changed. The dark night of the surrounding area of the Rest House was still the same just as it was in the early sixties.
In early January this year, a Muar friend invited me for a drive to Muar Town on a day trip which I gladly obliged. When night fell, before leaving for Kuala Lumpur, I requested my friend to take a drive along Tanjung as well as the area where stood the present Rest House. It was only around 9.00pm but the scene was like as though it was already passed midnight. Except for the street lights, it was dark and gloomy with few cars passing by. As we passed the road along Tanjung heading back towards the town center, my mind kept displaying those moments when the Muar Rest House was once such a lonely place or was it? It may be free from human presence but we don’t really know if there was another dimension full of its inhabitants, right at the surroundings of the Rest House.