COMMUNICATION OF THE 50s AND 60s in Muar Town (Part One)

telephone of the 60s

Have you ever imagined travelling back in time to a not distant past, only about fifty years back in time. How life was then and how society coped with the slow pace of development and they never complained. The wonderful period when technology was already alive in the western world but in a small town of Muar, television was unheard of, cars fitted with air-condition  was unthinkable and smartphones were meant for Martians.

How would one born in the 90s and above comprehend that a ten cents coin could fill your empty stomach with a bowl of mi curry and a bottle of soda? When a one dollar note could provide a good dinner for two? Those were the days when life was so wonderful, when the sun took its time to set at the western horizon and a day took quite a while to end. I’ve been there, not in the western world when many things had begun to change and transform but in a small town somewhere near the southern state of the Malayan Peninsular; Bandar Maharani or Muo (Muar) to its local population. Come and follow me and lets take a closer look how communication shaped lives in the 50s and 60s in this small town.

Fasten your seat belt, we are travelling back in time some fifty years down memory lane. Observe, and take some notes and when you are back to the future, tell your family and friends that they have no reason to complain about the reality of living.

Death of a family member

Hashim’s (fictious name) father had just passed away of old age. It was almost 10.00pm, sometime in the year 1960. If that happened today, all he needs to do is to press some buttons on his mobile smart phone and immediately all family members, relatives, neighbours and close friends no matter where they stay will be informed, even as far as Canada or down below in Australia. Funeral preparation and all other necessary works likewise can easily be done by using the mobile smart phone and within minutes his house will be filled with relatives, friends and neighbours ready to extend their helping hands. But fifty years ago this was unthinkable. Hashim had to sit down with his siblings and to think what had to be done immediately.

They lived along Jalan Joned not too far from the town center; about twenty minutes of cycling time. They would have to divide their job functions. His mother would stay put inside the house to get ready for the necessary items to prepare for the funeral. Hashim had a younger sister and she was assigned to go around the neighbourhood to inform them of their father’s unexpected death. His younger brother would have to cycle to some parts of the town to get the message across to few relatives. For Hashim, he had a bigger responsibility. The first thing he had to do was to cycle to the town Post Office where the Telecoms office was situated to send some telegrams to his older brothers, sisters, uncles and aunties and other close relatives who were staying in various parts of the country. They must return home immediately as it was customary to bury the deceased body of a Muslim within twenty four hours after his death. By the time he was on the road cycling as fast as he could, it was already 10.30pm. At the Telecoms’ office he would request the person in-charge to send the telegrams to the names and addresses of the recipients. It would normally read like this:

Ayah meninggal dunia. Balek segara. (Father passed away. Return home immediately).

For each word used, the telecom would charge twenty cents per word and so to save money the message would be as brief as possible. The telecom office would immediately send the telegrams to all the names given by Hashim. For instance, if the recipient resided in Johor Bahru, the Muar  telecoms office would send the telegram to the Johor Bahru office. Once they received the telegram, a postman would be assigned to send the telegram to the recipient wherever the address was given. Receiving telegrams those days would send shivers down your spine. Most telegrams received contained bad news and it could be even worse if it was received in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning.

Those having telephones at home  could easily be counted. Even having a phone at home could be useless  because you could only call someone with a phone at home and so your telephone would end up being a decorative item. Once in a blue moon the house phone would ring and the whole household would scramble towards it with few ended up quarreling. The ringing sound of the house phone could be heard by the immediate neighbours and within seconds, heads would appear in every window with most showing their ‘inquisitive’ eyes. If the phone rang in the middle of the night, the house owner could get a heart attack. The neighbours would be so curious to find out that some of them would be at your doorstep before the sun could rise to light the earth and you’d better tell them who the caller was and what was the call all about.

Having done his business at the telecoms office, Hashim would have to cycle to the ‘Rumah Pasong’ (Police Station) to get the death certificate. Only with the death certificate could he get the green light to bury his father. The only Muslim burial ground of that period was at the 1st Mile of Jalan Bakri.

On the way home, he would have to stop at the Imam’s (priest) house for the funeral arrangement. He had to do this most discreetly as waking up someone in the middle of the night was a serious matter. Praying very hard that the Imam was snoring instead of having a wonderful time with his wife, he would utter quietly the greetings of “Asalamualaikum” (Peace be upon you) right at the front door of the Imam’s house. It certainly wasn’t a peaceful gesture greeting someone snoring in his bedroom in the middle of the night. Having met the Imam who was half asleep , Hashim would return home cycling as fast as he could. When he woke up in the morning, the Imam could have forgotten every word Hashim had told him and so it was time that the Imam had to cycle to Hashim’s house to find out.

The following morning most of the important things needed would have been looked into. Communication was done entirely by words of mouth and because it was done through human communication, there would be some flaws detected later. Like the cause of his death and the timing too. In spite of having sent few telegrams, there would surely be some other important names being left out. Few distant relatives would only find out in three or fours days’ time of the death of Hashim’s father and few demanded answers why they were not informed.

Those that had received the sad news through the telegrams last  night would by now be on their way home. Few would arrive late with valid reasons and by the time they arrived at the house, the burial ceremony was over.

Falling In Love

Falling in love in the 50s and 60s was fun but not with few stressing moments. Some Form Four students were already having girlfriends and few others had passed their marks even when they were in Form Three. In most cases, the boys from the Muar High School would woo those from the Sultan Abu Bakar Girls’ School (SABGS) and those from the Saint Andrews School would find theirs at the Convent of the Infant Jesus School as well as the Saint Terresa School. These two girls’ schools were mainly attended  by non-Malays with the Chinese girls dominating the scene. Some were truly pretty and they could be recognized by the colour of their school uniforms. When school was over, the front road of the convent schools would be filled with dashing Chinese boys in their school uniforms cycling up and down, over and over looking for their sweethearts. They would then cycle home together and parted when they reached the girl’s house. Along the way they could have arranged for a date later in the evening. The boy would then wait at the famous Kim Leng Restaurant at 5.00pm. If the girl could not get the approval from her parents, the boy would be spending the whole evening alone as there was no way the girl could communicate with him. He could only know the answer the reason why the next day. But he would never complain.

Malay boys from the Muar High School would prefer Malay girls from the SABGS which is situated along Jalan Abdul Rahman. When a Malay boy was seen frequently with the same Malay girl, they would become an item as far as the community was concerned. When this happened, it was called berendut in the Muar Malay language.

Ahmad (fictitious name) was deeply in love with Aminah. They were both in Form Four and both scored good grades in their Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) exams. Ahmad lived in Parit Raja Laut while Aminah was a town girl. Every day when school was over, Ahmad wasted no time cycling to the SABGS and Aminah would be ready to cycle alongside him. Sometime they would take their time cycling along the coastal cape of the Muar River known as “Tanjung” by the locals. At Tanjung, they would sit on the concrete bench facing the river and talked everything connected to their lives. They were head over heels in love with each other.

One day, Aminah’s male cousin of the same age from Kuala Lumpur came and spent a few days at Aminah’s house. That few days were like a thousand years for Ahmad, with sleepless nights, tossing right and left and by morning he would look like he had not slept for years.

On the same scenario but with today’s technology, the situation could be easily solved. Aminah could have received a whatsapp message from her cousin first and that same message could be forwarded to Ahamd and the three of them could have a good time together outing without Ahmad feeling anything suspicious about his new friend, Aminah’s cousin. Back in 1960, because of the poor communication system, the situation was disastrous.

When Ahmad sent Aminah home after their afternoon cycling rendezvous, he noticed a boy his age at Aminah’s house and immediately demanded an answer and it had better be good. She did but Ahmad was not convinced. He cycled home leaving Aminah speechless at his sudden childish behaviour. It was something she couldn’t understand at all.

During their berendut period, every time each of them wanted to extend some messages, they would each write something on a piece of paper and placed it inside an envelope. The envelope would then placed in between some branches of a selected tree in front of Aminah’s house. That night Ahmad wrote something very long and in a hostile text. Having done so, he cycled to Aminah’s house and quietly making sure nobody was around, he placed the envelope in between some branches. In the morning before cycling to school, Aminah knew that would be a letter somewhere in between some branches of a particular tree. She would only read the letter during recess and tears began to drop. During the whole remaining classes she understood nothing with her mind dancing all over the place. If a teacher asked her who was the first President of the USA, the name ‘Ahmad’ would come out from her mouth quite easily.

When school was over, she waited for Ahmad but he was nowhere at sight and so that day she had to cycle home alone. Immediately after lunch, she replied his letter explaining everything that could come out from her mind. Her male cousin was only visiting her parents as he would be leaving for overseas in a month’s time to further his studies. The letter was then placed at the same place in between some branches and Ahmad would later cycled along the road to pick it up. This letter writing between the two of them took some weeks to finally able for the two of them to reconcile. But that was the only available communication method they could think of; there were no other ways.

Many years later they got married and have children. One evening while waiting for Ahmad to return home from work, Aminah noticed her fifteen year old daughter so absorbed pressing some buttons on her smartphone. The speed of her fingers pressing the buttons was faster than any pressing machine found in town. Out of curiosity, Aminah asked her daughter with whom she was chatting with? It was with a boy she knew who was staying in Singapore. Aminah smiled and her mind began to rewind those period when the only mode of communication was through letter writing and to receive every reply would take a day but she had never complained.

Organizing a Party

Muar town of the 50s and 60s offered no entertainment outlets other than the cinemas. By 9.00pm, the town would be very quiet and shops would have been closed. Some closed as early as 7.00pm. However, a few shop owners decided to have theirs opened for twenty four hours and became known during my growing years as Kedai Siang Malam ( shops opened day and night). It consisted of four shop-lots; a coffee shop serving all kinds of drinks (including beers) and a special noodles known among Muarians as Mi Bandung; a bicycle shop to serve those who had punctured tyres, to replace dynamos, brakes failure,etc; a workshop for motorcars and and a shop selling essential items like toiletries. What a brilliant idea these entrepreneurs came out with. The coffee shop would be filled with customers even after twelve midnight. Sometime the stall selling Mi Bandung would serve Nasi Briyani. The workshop received endless customers during the night and likewise the bicycle shop too. Muar town of my time was a town for bicycles and each house would have at least a bicycle. These Kedai Siang Malam were situated along the busy road of Jalan Sisi.

Besides these shops was the famous ‘Grand Paradise Amusement Park’ with nothing to be amused with. The whole area was covered with wooden walls, many were worn out. The interior was filled with some shops mostly serving alcoholic drinks. There was a tailor known as ‘Mary Tailor’ whose owner was an elderly Chinese man with a front tooth missing. It would have been appropriate if he had named his shop as “Merry Tailor”. Further inside was a cinema and a theatre. This theatre was the place where the legendary stripteaser Rose Chan made all the cheeky men gravitate whenever she stopped by to perform. “Was your meeting last night successful?”, a wife would ask her cheeky husband the following morning.

We had wanted to organize a party and the venue was chosen…Ghandi Memorial Hall situated along Jalan Suleiman. Six of us had earlier decided to have a meeting at the coffee shop of the Kedai Siang Malam. We had agreed to meet at around 10.00 pm and everyone must be present. Ajis and Halim were already having their coffee when I arrived at 9.50 pm. We discussed about the fees to be charged, the food and drinks to serve and the cars needed for transportation.

In those days, getting girls coming to your party was like asking our grandmothers to dance the twist in a public place. So we had to offer them few incentives; free entry, transport provided and and they could eat as much as they liked. In spite of these incentives offered, only a handful gave a positive reply with a condition they must be transported back home by 11.00 pm.

It was almost 10.30 pm and the other three were still not at sight. Decisions must be made tonight because the scheduled date of this party was a few days ahead. The only way to find out was to go to their houses. I volunteered to look for Yem and Razak as they both lived nearby while Halim would look for Haron. Ajis would stay put at the coffee shop.

Half an hour later, I arrived with Yem minus Razak. Yem had a punctured tyre and the reason he couldn’t come earlier while Razak was already asleep as he wasn’t feeling too well according to his mother. A few minutes later Halim arrived telling us that Haron would be joining us soon as a far away uncle had come to pay him a visit. These unnecessary delays could have been avoided had the smart phones of today were at our disposals. But in spite of the poor speed of communication of that period, we managed to overcome many important issues.

The 50s and 60s may not be as exciting as today’s era, but it was a period of many happy moments and if I were to be given another choice in life, I would gladly wish to be transported back in time, some 50 years back when life was never stressful in spite of the poor speed of communication.

Have a wonderful day guys.




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