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Monday, June 25, 2012

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: Bittersweet moments of reminiscence

Rantau Panjang - Sungai Golok: Bittersweet moments of reminiscence
Story and illustration by Wan Chwee Seng

As soon as dusk set in, we heard it, and our spirits sank. The distant blare of a horn was followed by a growing rumble, the screeching of brakes and a stuttering hiss. The familiar sound  heralded the arrival of a train _the last train of the day to  Rantau Panjang, Kelantan. 
At the railway station
L to R: The writer, Lim, Kwok

Pak Duk's coffee shop where eight of us teachers stayed in the early 1960s was located strategically at one end of the town. The town's railway station was within sight, however, a clump of trees and a makeshift stall obscured it from our view. From the first floor corridor we watched forlornly as the train chugged past below us, rattled the old iron bridge, before heading northward towards the Thai border town of Sungai Golok.
The bridge to Sungai Golok
L to R: Kahar, Kwok, the writer, Syed, Hassan
  “Ah! The last train to Gun Hill,*” a long sigh of resignation rose from within the dark recess of a room.
 The town folks and the neighbouring villagers  relied mainly on the train for their transport, as the town was  inaccessible by road. During the day,  pedestrians and cyclists could cross over to the Thai border town of Sungai Golok by using the narrow walkways that flanked the tracks of the  railway bridge.  A small immigration post, manned by an officer, stood at the Rantau Panjang’s end of the bridge. Local residents who were mostly familiar  to the officers  could move freely across the bridge, but visitors were required to present their border passes or passports.
The Sungai Golok River which acted as a natural boundary between the two towns also provided  a convenient and expedient way of accessing both towns . Although it was illegal to cross the river by boats, shallow  boats could be seen plying daily between the two towns. During long dry spell the river snaked sluggishly between exposed sandbars and it was even possible to wade in its ankle-deep water to the opposite bank. However, during the monsoon season, the river, is a raging torrent that is treacherous for small boats but allows larger boats to navigate its waters.            
As soon as the immigration post closed, and dusk began to slip into night, shadowy figures could be seen creeping stealthily and silently, like nocturnal predators, along the bank of the river. The border police had begun their nightly task of preventing illegal crossings  and  curbing   smuggling activities.
 One  night  a local temporary teacher appeared unexpectedly at my doorstep.
“Do you like to see something interesting?” he asked.
Interesting?  What could I expect to see in a ’cowboy town’ with just a single stretch of unpaved road still lit by oil lamps.  I had my doubt, but curiosity got the better of me and I found myself following doggedly behind his silent footsteps. We crept along a side lane of a  double-storeyed wooden house, hugging its side and keeping to the dark shadows. Except for the sound of our soft footfalls, a strange silence pervaded the place. The    sandy ground beneath our feet and the murky shape of houses on wooden stilts that loomed before us, suggested that we were heading toward the river. We were creeping cautiously from stilt to stilt when the sound of low conversations and the muffled  cry of a baby drifted from above us. Had we been spotted? We paused, ears straining in the silence.  Sensing there was no unusual activity to indicate our presence had been exposed, we crept quietly to the next stilt and stood in its shadow.
“Look,” my friend said in a barely audible voice.
The murky outline of a boat
I peered in the indicated direction. On the opposite bank of the river, a wavering, incandescent glow lit the darkness of the place. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed  the murky outline of a fairly large boat. A dark figure  standing on a gangplank was holding a burning torch over his head. Further down the narrow road another figure held another torch which partially illuminated the road leading to the boat.
 In the yellow glow a cyclist could be seen pedalling hurriedly with a gunny sack strapped to his bicycle’s rear carrier.  The moment he reached the gangplank, the sack seemed to vanish into thin air, as unseen hands plucked it from the carrier. As soon as he retreated the way he had come another cyclist appeared bearing another sack and immediately behind him came another cyclist. I watched in disbelief and with a twinge of apprehension at the endless procession which resembled a column of ants bearing food to their nest.
Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and my friend motioned me to follow him. We retraced our steps and as soon as we were  back in the safety of the house, I asked him,
“Where are the border police?”
“Oh, coincidentally they were all engaged in some kind of jungle-training exercise,” he replied with a faint smile.
"And where are they taking all those goods," I asked.
"Ah, just across the river to one of the warehouses," he replied casually, as if it was common knowledge,
The next morning I woke up to the sound of another rumble. Unlike the depressing rumble of the evening, the morning rumble helped  lift our spirits as our link with the outside world had been reconnected.  From high above the corridor we watched the  early morning commuters_ women balancing baskets of vegetables on their heads, elderly men lugging bundles of fruits, pupils with engorged school bags _streaming down the road leading to the town.  Meanwhile, across the road, in a makeshift stall,  able-bodied young men drank and smoke as they idled away the morning or perhaps enjoying their well-earned rest. In Pak Dok’s coffee shop,  other customers were engaged in animated conversations with no mention of the night’s incident.
There was a sudden blare of horns as a train from Golok  pulled into the town’s railway station. Young boys hugging brown paper packets filled with rice could be seen scrambling down the slow- moving train. On board the train while custom officers checked for contraband and taxed the petty traders other kids would scurry from coach to coach to evade the custom officers.  Later, I learned about  a boy who in an attempt to evade the custom officers had  tried to scramble onto the roof of a moving train, but somehow slipped and fell into the river.
The sight and pathetic story left me wondering if poverty had driven these kids to resort to such  risky undertaking.   I thought of Ghazali,  a pupil who used to help us  sweep our rooms and was happy and grateful for the few sen that we paid him. His lunch, I noticed, was usually  plain white rice with a pinch of sambal and a piece of dried fish. I  also remembered a pupil who was often late or absent from class after a night's heavy downpour. When I reprimanded and questioned him he would remain silent  with downcast eyes. Then one morning a pupil approached me and asked me not to scold  him. 
"Why?" I inquired, an edge of irritation creeping into my voice 
 "Sir, whenever it rains at night he has to keep awake the whole night as the  roof leaks and he has to collect the rain water in a pail to keep it from drenching his sleeping place."
For these poor boys  the little they saved from the cheaper 'imported' rice, perhaps, went a long way in elevating the family's financial burden.

One sultry morning, as I gazed down from the bedroom’s window at the grocery store directly across the road, I watched with interest as a   kid steadily poured rice from a brown packet into a gunny sack. Another kid appeared and followed the same ritual. Then it dawned on me that not all the smuggled rice was  meant for domestic consumption. The poor kids were  smidgens in a larger scheme of things. While  they and their families had to eke out a living others enjoyed luxurious lifestyle from ill-gotten gains.  
Forty-seven years have lapsed since I left Rantau Panjang for my hometown, Melaka.
"There's now a plane service to Kota Baru," I told my wife, Siew Leng, as I read the advertisement in the morning papers.
"Why don't we fly to Kota Baru and take a train ride to Rantau Panjang?" my wife suggested, perhaps remembering those days when  as a Staff Nurse  she used to cycle along the dirt track that ran along the side of the railway lines that led to the outlying villages of Lubok Setol and Gual Periok where she had to assist with the deliveries and make home visits.
Siew Leng at the Rantau Panjang health clinic's quarters

Then early this year I received a phone call from  Ojang, who was  my ex-student in Rantau Panjang English School. He  inquired if my wife and I were free to join him and his family at The Grand Continental Hotel in Melaka. It was a happy and emotional meeting for all of us. He informed  us Rantau Panjang was no longer the 'cowboy town' we used to know as rapid development had taken place in and around the town.
Rantau Panjang town in the early sixties

Present day Rantau Panjang town
Photo courtesy of Lt. Col.(Rtd.) Ojang Abdul Rahman

Pak Duk's coffee shop in 2010
Photo courtesy of Lt. Col.(Rtd.) Ojang Abdul Rahman

 We inquired about the train service from Pasir Mas to Rantau Panjang and learned with a tinge of sadness  that the service had already been terminated. 
 Where railway tracks used to run and a railway station once stood,  now well- paved roads and new brick buildings  stand in their places and  the rumble  of the old steam locomotives with their long lonesome calls have been replaced by the drones of cars and roar of motorcycles.
 All that remain of those distant past are the forgotten dreams, recurring nightmares and the  bittersweet memories of  an ex- resident of Rantau Panjang.

* Last train to Gun Hill: A 1959 movie starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn

Listen to Al Grant sings " Memories are made of this"

For related articles, click below links and scroll down:

Memories of a small town

Warmth and kindness of kampung folks

Magic of Syed

Thursday, June 7, 2012

MPPM, Melaka: Life's lessons learned along the way

MPPM, Melaka: Life's lessons learned along the way
By Wan Chwee Seng

In the 1970s Maktab Perguruan Perempuan Melayu(MPPM), Melaka was one of the Teachers’ Training Colleges in Malaysia selected  to conduct holiday training courses for untrained temporary teachers(Kursus dalam cuti bagi guru sandaran yang tidak terlatih) who upon graduation were awarded the  Certificates of Education .
The writer with some of the KDC teachers 

 The teachers who attended theses courses came from various parts of  Malaysia and many had wealth of teaching experience behind them. For most of us teachers’ trainers who had been teaching student teachers fresh from schools, conducting courses for these temporary teachers provided us with  an entirely new experience.

 During the pedagogy lessons, I found out, with their maturity and vast experience  we were able to exchange ideas and engage in lively and meaningful discussions.
A pedagogy lesson in progress

  During their practical teaching we had to travel the length and breadth of the country to observe and evaluate these teachers. Here is an account of  our experiences during some of those trips.  

The car bounced and rattled along the  stretch of undulating bitumen road. At last a dirt road came into view and the driver angled onto it. The car was soon crunching its way along the pebbles-strewn road and sending clouds of fine brown dust in its wake. 
My two colleagues, Ng and Yap  from Maktab Perguruan Perempuan Melayu, Melaka  and I were  on our way to observe a teacher at a school located close to the Johore and Pahang border.
 “ You may find some difficulty in locating the school,” the headmaster from another school in Segamat had warned us earlier. Armed with the sketchy directions provided by the  headmaster we were confident of locating the school. 
 As the car made its way along the dirt road, tired eyes  peered  through the dust-covered windscreen for sign of  the school. Lulled by the rhythmic sway of the car, drowsiness was irresistibly overtaking us.           

“There, Chung Hwa!” 

 An excited voice  from the front seat jolted us from our near slumber.  We followed a finger which directed us to a   signboard located on a hill slope. ‘Aaah, no problem in finding the school' I thought to myself. As the car slowed down, we  stretched our aching backs, craned our necks and our bleary eyes scanned the hill for  sign of the school building. However, not a single building could be seen.   
 Then as the car rounded the hill, white stone structures  that glistened in the mid-morning sun caught our eyes.    
“Hey! I think it’s a Chinese cemetery,” a solemn voice whispered from the front passenger''s seat. 
White tombstones stippled the hill slope.
Our initial disappointment was followed by suppressed laughter and a faint chuckle. The car continued its crawl along the dirt road and after some time jolted to an abrupt halt. The road had ended  at the edge of a thick wood. Then  we noticed  faint tyre marks, flattened grasses and broken twigs on the ground before us,
“Let’s follow the trail,” someone suggested.
The jungle trail
The car ploughed  through overgrown grass and weaved its way between towering trees and dense undergrowth. Eyes searched the ground for tell-tale signs of a trail.
 After what seemed an eternity, we finally arrived at a jungle clearing. Down in the valley, against a backdrop of verdant vegetation, stood a low wooden building. Young, curious faces peered from the classroom open windows.  Somehow we had managed to locate the school.

After we had completed our observations we were invited to the headmaster’s office for a drink. He briefed us about the school and we learned that the majority of the   pupils were orang asli children from a nearby settlement. As we chatted, he was  stealing anxious glances at his wristwatch. I wondered if his uneasiness was due to a  prior engagement. 

Then he said, “Cikgu, I don’t mean to be rude, but I think it’s best you leave before evening.”

Then he told us a few Education Ministry officials had visited the school  and stayed on until late in the evening. On their way out they found  their path  blocked by a herd of wild elephants.
A herd of wild elephants

 Since that incident, the headmaster told us,  they did not have the privilege of another visit. We did not wait for further explanation. We quickly excused ourselves and scurried to the car.  We gave a huge sigh of relief the moment we emerged from the woods_ thankful that we were not accorded the mammoth send- off. 

Later, back in the warmth and comfort of the College staff room I listened intently as others recounted their own experiences during their visits to the other schools. A lady colleague told us how she had been assigned to observe a student at  a school located in the middle of a vast oil palm  plantation. With proper direction provided by the guard at the toll gate she was able to locate the school without much difficulty. On her way out, however, she suddenly found herself at a cross-road right in the middle of the plantation, hemmed in all sides by  palm trees that looked like ghostly sentinels. 
Hemmed in by palm trees

 Not knowing which road to take, she decided to stay put in the car and  wait for  passers-by. She waited and waited, but not a soul could be seen. The evening light  was beginning to fail and she could feel the deepening gloom closing on her. A rising panic gripped her and tears began to well up in her eyes. Then in the dimming light of dusk she  caught sight of a lone cyclist. She stopped him and in an emotional voice   asked him for direction.
“Aiyoh, lain kali ikut itu letrik post, mesti boleh keluar”(  Next time, just follow the electric posts and you’re certain to find your way out)  he explained to her in his colloquial Malay. The moment she emerged from the plantation she heaved a sigh of relief and said a silent prayer of thanks.
Another colleague, K.L. Lim, told me about an incident in another rural school. He was in the midst of an observation when he heard a flutter of wings behind him and from the corner of his eyes he noticed a rooster had alighted on a window's ledge and was perched precariously above him. It parachuted onto the cement floor  and strutting  between the rows of desks, made an unsolicited inspection of the classroom, before making its silent exit. Meanwhile, the class lesson proceeded without interruption as it was perhaps a common occurrence and the pupils were obviously disinterested in the fowl's play.   
As I listened to the incidents, I began to reflect about the other schools that I had visited.
I thought about the small, dilapidated Tamil School located among rubber trees in a rubber plantation in Chaah. I remembered sitting at the back of the classroom listening to a lady teacher teaching a combined class of less than ten pupils. From the next class the voice of another teacher was clearly audible as only two wooden cupboards  partially partitioned the classrooms.
Later as the pupils trooped excitedly out of their classroom  for their physical education lesson I decided to  follow them to their school field. They headed toward the fringe of a rubber plantation. We arrived at a small clearing on a gentle slope. My eyes scanned the surrounding in search of the school field. None was in sight. Then behind me I heard a sudden clap and a voice called out ’lari bebas’ ( free running). A small boy scuttled past me and I looked back in time to catch a few pupils darting and vanishing among the shadowed trees. I then realised I was standing on the ‘school field’. 
Part of the 'school field'

Then I recalled another trip to a small town in Johore after a heavy downpour. A temporary teacher, with trousers rolled up to his knees, was waiting patiently astride  his motorcycle under the shade of a makeshift stall. 
The moment he spotted me, he approached the car and said, “Cikgu, the road to the school is not passable by car, but you can hitch a ride on my bike.”
I noticed the knee-deep, swirling water and I told him politely, “I think I’ll visit you another time.”
 During our visits to the different schools we noticed how most of the teachers had to work under unfavorable conditions and with inadequate educational facilities, but despite   the physical constraints and shortcomings  they were highly motivated and fully committed to their work. 
Today, in quiet moment of reflection, I  reminisce about those trips with their unexpected twists and turns, the trauma and light moment, and of  life's lessons learned along the way. 

Writers Notes: This piece is dedicated to my ex-colleagues, the ex-student teachers, and  the ex- KDC teachers at MPPM and especially to the unsung heroes of the teaching profession - those dedicated teachers who have served and currently serving in the interior areas of Malaysia.