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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The warmth and kindness of kampung folk

The lamplighter of Rantau Panjang

The Star
Lifestyle 15th September 2010

Story and illustration by

Wan Chwee Seng

The generosity of Rantau Panjang's villagers can evoke a lifetime of gratitude.

NIGHT crept stealthily with silent feet from beyond the surrounding countryside and suddenly the remote town became enshrouded in its dark mantle. Void of electricity, the town’s darkness appeared more intense and sinister.
In the dimming light of dusk, the lone figure of a lamplighter astride his rickety bicycle, kerosene can strapped to the carrier of his bicycle and a short ladder slung across one shoulder, could be seen moving from post to post to light the oil lamps that lined the deserted road. It looked like a scene from a Dickension novel. But this was not the Victorian era. This was Rantau Panjang, Kelantan, in the early 1960s.

I vividly recalled that morning in 1961 when I first arrived in Rantau Panjang. As the steam locomotive rolled and hissed to a halt at the town’s railway station, a waving hand caught my eyes.

The headmaster, Encik Salleh, who had waited patiently on the open platform, greeted me warmly and ushered me into a waiting trishaw while my luggage which consisted of a single battered bag was bundled into another. While the trishaws negotiated the laterite road furrowed by trishaw wheels and pitted with rain-filled potholes, I took in my surroundings.

A trishaw navigatng the furrowed road

Rantau Panjangg town in the 1960s
All I could see was a narrow road flanked by double-storey wooden shophouses with rusty corrugated iron roofs. Not a car was in sight as the town was only accessible by rail. Overhead, rain-bearing monsoon clouds were grudgingly giving way to the morning sunlight.

I felt a little apprehensive at the unfamiliar sight and the gloomy weather only added to my anxiety. It was only two weeks since I had left the cold winter of Kirkby College and the brightly-lit city of Liverpool and now found myself transported into the humid and unfamiliar town of Rantau Panjang.
With Pua in front of the school mural which we painted
The trishaws came to a stop at a nearby coffee shop and Encik Salleh introduced me to four elderly men seated round a marble-topped coffee table. They welcomed me to Rantau Panjang and wished me a safe and pleasant stay.
A few days later, I had a drink in the same coffee shop. At the next table, a few customers were talking in cautious tones. I strained my ears to catch the dialogue that was passing back and forth.
“Hey! I heard that the policeman who just reported for duty here was nicked on the back of the head by a kapak kecil.”
“Huh! Just a warning,” came an unsolicited reply from somewhere behind me.
The crisp voice sent a shudder of relief as I recalled my earlier meeting with the four seemingly innocent-looking men. I remembered what Encik Salleh told me as soon as we had stepped out of the coffee shop.
“You know the four men you have just met? They are the leaders of the kapak kecil gang of Rantau Panjang. You don’t have to worry about your safety now. Enjoy your stay here.”
The note of optimism in those words provided some comfort and nourishment to my flagging spirits.
However, on dark and lonely nights as shadowy figures strolled by with sarung hitched shoulder-high, I sometimes wonder what lay hidden beneath the folds of the sarung and lingering doubts made me look occasionally over my shoulders at the lurking shadows.
Encik Salleh had made prior arrangement with Ah Kong, the proprietor of a coffee shop, to provide me with temporary accommodation.
“You can stay here as long as you like,” the affable Ah Kong and his ever-smiling wife assured me. The couple not only provided me with accommodation, but treated me as a member of the family. I remember the special meal they prepared for me when I was taken ill and the Chinese New Year I spent with the family when I was not able to make it back home.
One evening, Phua, the only teacher in the school besides the headmaster and his wife, invited me to be his housemate as he had rented a fairly large house near the school. Not wanting to inconvenient Ah Kong and his family any longer, I agreed to join him. Late one evening, lugging my bag, we headed for the double-storey wooden house which stood stately among a cluster of low palm-thatched huts.
The moment I stepped into the house, I was in for a surprise. Not a single piece of furniture was in sight. There was only a mengkuang mat on the bare wooden floor, while a gas lamp hanging from a rafter provided the only light.
That night, while Phua snored away in one corner of the room, I gazed out of the window. Across the river, the night sky of the Siamese town of Sungai Golok was aglow with electric light and the night air carried the sirenic strains of “ramvong” music. Immediately below me, the dull yellow glow of oil lamps flickered from within dark wooden houses, while from the nearby countryside came the rhythmic throbbing of ceremonial drums.
As I took in the sight and listened to the poignant melody of the monsoon rain drumming incessantly on the window panes, a feeling of nostalgia stirred within me and I yearned for the company of loved ones and college friends.
Was I destined to finish my five years’ contract in this dismal place? Could I go through with it? With doubts still lingering in my mind, I felt into a deep slumber.
Dawn, the next day, brought another surprise. The need to answer the call of nature made me search frantically for the toilet.
“Where ... where is the toilet?’ I asked Phua, as waves of goose pimples rippled up my arms.
“There’s a floating one at the edge of the river. You can ...”
I did not wait for further explanation. I made the 200-metre dash for the nearby school’s toilet.
Fortunately, the arrival of two trained teachers, Kwok and Lim, who had come to replace Phua, brought an abrupt end to my stay in the “stately” house.
As we could not find a suitable house to rent, our new headmaster, Encik Mohd Zain, offered us the use of one of the vacant classrooms. So one evening, with broom in hand, we swept the floor, wiped the windows and dusted the desks. The metal desks were arranged closely to form a bed. A mengkuang mat was spread on top of

With the headmaster En. Mohd Zain and the Standard VI pupils
them and a piece of cloth laid on top to hide the unsightly table legs from prying eyes. That night and on subsequent nights, we slept on the cold metal desks and rested our weary heads on inflatable pillows.
One evening, the headmaster paid us an unexpected visit.
“I think all of you can shift into the headmaster’s house,” he said.
“Where are you going?” someone inquired.
“ Well, I have decided to commute daily from my own house in Pasir Mas. You know, I am rather scared of the light that I used to see floating from one end of the school field to the house.”
The familiar, mischievous smile crossed his lips.

The headmaster’s solitary house stood at one corner of the field. The house faced the field, its back covered with a tangled mass of vegetation, while its bedroom window overlooked a Muslim cemetery.
The house, however, had running water and was among the few houses in town which had recently been supplied with electricity. With those facilities and not wanting to show that we were easily intimidated by his attempt to strike fear into us, we accepted his offer.
But fear finally did get the better of me. It happened just after the term break. I had returned from Malacca a day before school reopened, and had expected Lim and Kwok to be at the house. They were nowhere in sight.
As the last train pulled in and rolled out of the station with no sign of them, a feeling of despair set in. I knew I had to spend the night all alone in the house. The story the headmaster told us about the ephemeral light added to my apprehension.
Darkness soon cloaked the place. I switched on all the lights I could find. Then I heard it. It was just a faint click ... a click somewhere in the dark recesses of the house. Then the whole house was plunged into total darkness. Who had switched off all the lights? With pounding heart, I groped about in the darkness to locate the switch. Then I recalled the headmaster‘s reminder.
“Don’t forget about the light. Don’t switch on all the lights at once.”
It suddenly dawned on me that the blackout was perhaps due to overloading, as the house was allocated only a limited supply of electricity.
Somehow I managed to switch off some of the lights and locate the trip button. That night as I lay awake and listened to the mournful sound of the monsoon wind that wafted from across the nearby cemetery, my mind started to conjure images of a ephemeral light that was moving closer and closer towards the house.
I must have drifted off to sleep for I was awakened the next morning by the sound of pounding on the front door. In a stupor I staggered to the door and was happy to find Kwok and Lim standing at the front door and happier still to note that their feet were firmly planted on solid ground.

With Lim and Kwok at the railway station

One evening the headmaster burst excitedly into the house“Hey guys, you have to move out of the house for a few days,” he announced.
“Why?” I inquired.
“The Deputy Prime Minister will be here to campaign in the coming election and he is going to occupy this house.”
We were unperturbed by the sudden announcement as we had decided to shift to a bigger house to accommodate four other teachers from the nearby school in Gual Periok who had decided to join us.
With their arrival and the arrival of some new teachers, our days were now filled with fun and activities. The local folks, too, often invited us to share meals with their families. Whether it was a sumptuous spread or simple fare, we were deeply touched by their warmth and sincerity.

One of the houses where we stayed

The years started to roll and tumble and Ifound that my five years’ stay in Rantau Panjang had come to an end.
On a December morning in 1965, lugging the same suitcase, I walked along the still unpaved road flanked by the same row of wooden houses, to the town’s small railway station.
The oil lamps, however, had been replaced by electric lights. The sight rekindled memories of the lamplighter who used to light the oil lamps. Just as he had helped to brighten up the gloom and darkness of the town, the many people I had come to know had helped to brighten up my life in my hour of darkness.
When I reached the edge of the town, I glanced back and bade a silent farewell to all those kind and generous folks. Perhaps, I had not expressed my gratitude in so many words then, but in my heart I knew I would be eternally grateful to them.

Jim Ed Brown: The old lamplighter