Rantau Panjang - Sungai Golok: Savouring past memories
By Wan Chwee Seng
The tantalising aroma of fried chicken rose from a sizzling wok and drifted to a table where glasses of ice-chilled syrup water were beginning to be coated with cold droplets.
|Ice-chilled syrup water|
Around the marble-top table, eight teachers sat waiting; waiting for the moment to begin their meal.
It was the holy month of Ramadan, in the early 1960s and four Muslim teachers and four non-Muslim teachers from the Rantau Panjang English school and the Malay school in Gual Periok were seated at a table in Ah Kong’s coffee shop which overlooked the town’s market square.
|Where Ah Kong's shop used to stand|
|Former market place, now a bus and taxi stand|
My three non-Muslim friends and I were in the company of our four Muslim friends who were waiting to break their fast. At the next table, a few customers too waited patiently.
As we talked and laughed, we kept a discreet watch on Hassan, our ‘tok imam’. Without T.V. and radio Hassan had been entrusted with the task of determining the time for breaking fast. We watched and waited. From a wooden wall came the slow measured ticking of a clock; its minute hand seemingly stationary. Then we caught Hassan casting a glance at the clock and when he lifted his hands in prayer, the other Muslim teachers followed suit, while the rest of us waited in respectful silence. The moment Hassan lifted the glass to his lips, it was a signal for us to begin our meal.
Our evening meals at Ah Kong’s coffee shop was not limited to the month of Ramadan, but had become an almost daily ritual. Every evening, as the sun began to set, the eight of us could be seen making our way along the single stretch of unpaved road from Pak Duk's shop where we stayed to Ah Kong's shop at the other end of the town.
|Rantau Panjang main road in the early 1960s, as I remember it|
|Rantau Panjang main road from old railway station to Lubok Setol|
During the monsoon season, the laterite road was a slippery morass, pitted with potholes, but during the dry spell it was baked dry by the scorching heat of the mid-April sun and the wind would send fine brown dust swirling into the evening air.
Once, on our way to Ah Kong’s shop we were walking past a clothes line when a gust of wind lifted it high into the air. When the line rose higher, we realised the ’black line’ was swarm of flies that had settled closely on the clothes line.
Ah Kong’s shop was also not spared from the flies seasonal invasion. Ah Kong would place a few thin broomsticks smeared with sugar-coated glue at strategic locations in the shop, but the sticks would be magically transformed into thick black sticks.
In spite of the flies, Ah Kong’s shop was well patronised by the locals as there were few eateries in Rantau Panjang and the shop was relatively clean and served a fair selection of dishes.
Whenever, we yearned for more spicy dish we would head for Syed’s shop which was located on the main road, close to the railway station. The moment we stepped into the shop, we just called out ‘makeh’ (eat) and took our seats at the table without even bothering to place our order. Unlike today's restaurants where diners are spoilt for choice, in Syed's shop we were left with no choice. Everyday, Syed served the same food: fish curry, fried kangkong and rice.
|Fish curry, fried kangkong and rice|
Nonetheless, his fish curry was the best in town and we would take our time to savour every mouthful of the delicious dish.
An incident in the shop still remains vivid in my mind. One day we were having our meal in Syed’s shop when a voice interrupted our conversations.
“Satu, air sirup sejuk”."One cold syrup water."
We looked up to see a young immigration officer entering the shop. He must have just been posted to the town, as we had not seen him before.
He paused, looked around and continued,
“Tolong, basuh air batu dengan air panas.” "Please, wash the ice with hot water."
We tried hard to suppress our smiles while from the corner of my eyes I could see the faint smile on Syed’s lips. I was not certain if Syed followed his ludicrous request. Anyway, we knew the new city kid would soon learn to adapt to life in Rantau Panjang.
Today, as I look at the sumptuous spreads that is being readied for iftar at a posh restaurant in a hotel, it brings back memories of the time when I used to accompany my Muslim friends to break fast in Ah Kong’s coffee shop. It was just a simple fare, eaten in the austere setting of a small kampung shop ,yet after each meal I could see the look of gratitude on their faces.
I have since lost contact of my Rantau Panjang friends, but I will always cherish their friendship _ a friendship fostered through years of working, playing, eating together and living under the same roof.
Notes: Photos( taken in 2011) courtesy of Lt. Col.(Rtd.) Ojang Abdul Rahman