Sunday, March 18, 2007

Segamat, My Birthplace – Lam Chun Chew

The little-known town of Segamat was pretty much in the news recently because of the massive floods in Johor, the southern most state of peninsular Malaysia. Located along the old trunk road linking Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, Segamat has a special place in my heart. I was born there in 1943, during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.

Before the present North-South Highway (known in Malay as Plus or Projek Lebuhraya Utara Selatan) was completed, towns like Ayer Hitam, Yong Peng, Segamat, Seremban and Kajang were quite familiar to Singaporeans who travelled north. Ayer Hitam was especially well-known because it was the place where the tour buses liked to stop. Many older Singaporeans would remember, I’m sure, the dirty coffee shops there; and the many shops selling souvenirs, fruits and vegetables; and not forgetting the many flies. But with the completion of N-S Highway, many Singaporeans no longer have the chance to even pass through these towns. As such, other than its famous durians, younger Singaporeans know little about this sleepy little town called Segamat.

One day in 2002, I suggested to my brother, Chun See and my sister, Pat that we should pay our Aunt (my father’s elder brother’s wife, we called her tai pak leong) a visit in Segamat, as she is now quite old - around eighty years old and was staying in her son’s flat. And so we set off on the morning of 31st November 2002, at about 9.30 am in Chun See’s Toyota Corrolla. Pat brought along her good friend Mdm Chan (a retired nurse). Earlier I had called my Segamat cousin, who was a car mechanic to expect us in the afternoon.

We stopped for lunch at an old coffee shop in Ayer Hitam. From Ayer Hitam, we continued northwards along the old trunk road and arrived in Segamat at mid-afternoon. The journey was smooth. We drove into the town’s main street and checked into the first hotel we found, a rather old one. The room rate was really cheap, something like S$18.00 per night. Later, we found that a better hotel was just down the road. I telephoned my cousin and he came to lead us to my aunt’s flat which was on the town’s outskirt. My aunt was surprised and happy to see us coming all the way from Singapore to visit her. We told her that all of us were getting old and I, apart from seeing her, would also like to see the place where I was born. This was somewhere in a row of shop houses along Jalan Sultan, which my mother had described to me. Before departure, we gave her S$200 for her pocket money and Mdm Chan also gave a small ang pow of S$10.00 to her grandson. She thanked us profusely and insisted that her younger son should take us for dinner in town.

My younger cousin and his wife took us to a small restaurant which resembled a Singapore coffee-shop. The service was terrible. There were only two tables occupied. After serving one table, it took them forty five minutes to come to us. Of course we did not complain for fear of embarrassing my cousin. My cousin’s wife told us that she was quite familiar with Singapore as she had worked in Jurong for a period of time before her marriage. After dinner, my cousin took us to a pasar malam (night market) which was similar to those in Singapore, with nothing much to buy.

The next morning, we had breakfast at an Indian coffee shop. Chun See loved the putu mayam which reminded him of our kampong days. I tried the roti prata to see how it was compared with our Singapore variety – but I cannot recall my verdict. Chun See (being the 5S consultant) observed that the level of cleanliness of this shop was better than that of Singapore. When we reached Jln Sultan, Chun See began to take many photos. We went over to the nearby Hakka Association to take more photos, as my late mother used to mention the association.

I was born in one of the shop-houses along this street (Jalan Sultan) next to the Segamat River..

The Hakka Association building still stands where it did more than half a century ago.

After saying goodbye to our relatives, we set off for home. We had lunch in another small town called Yong Peng. The food was good, and the restaurant was air-conditioned. Again we noticed that the cleanliness of the place, including the toilets, was excellent.

We stopped over at Johor Bahru and did some shopping before heading for home. All in all, we had a nostalgic trip back to a place where our parents met during the war. All of us, me especially, are in a sense, the ‘products’ of this little town.

Lam Chun See continues.

My earliest memories of Segamat were from my secondary school days. I joined my mum and her youngest brother, our Eleven Uncle, on a trip to Segamat. I cannot remember if my dad came along. Very likely he did. The year was 1967, because I was in Sec 3 then. The purpose of the trip was to exhume my maternal grandparents’ graves and rebury them properly. Apparently they had been buried quite haphazardly, without a proper grave stone even (probably due to the war) in Segamat. Now that all my uncles were settled down and doing well in life, my mother had insisted that they performed this duty.


Victor said...

Wow, another moving epic from the Lam Bros to rival those from the Shaw Bros. ;)

Chun Chew, was that you standing in the last 2 photos? Goodness, for a moment there, I thought you were a lamppost! And despite squinting my eyes and enlarging the photos, I still can't make out your face. Looks like you are also someone who believes in not 'wasting' the photo, i.e. must have someone posing in it. Haha.

Anonymous said...

The photos were chosen to illustrate the places. They were taken with a cheap point and shoot camera and then recently scanned for this post.

Anonymous said...

Victor - You are right, the lanky fellow, dressed in grey, could be easily taken to be a lamp-post, worst may become an invisible man. Luckily you are driving nearby, otherwise...

Chun See regretted not bringing his camera and using my sister's one, which did not carry any film. She went to a shop near the Hakka association to buy a role of film, whereby she also made friend with the owner, just resembling my mother. She once remarked that:"Funny I never realised that Chun See, like you, becomes so nostalgic". I replied: "You forgot that we all came from the same parents".

Chun See is getting old and forgetful. I do not know why he doesn't employ his 5S skill before it gets rusty.

Anonymous said...

In my previous comme, I mentioned that the hotel rate of S$18, per room per night, was indeed very cheap. I told my sister: "Since you share the room with Mdm Chan, each of you need only to foot S$9.00 per person, very cheap, and also the room is a larger one, a rather good deal". Those travelers who needed hot water just self-serviced themselves, as there was a large airpot placed in the corridor for users. I noticed that at the receptionist counter, it was manned by a moslim lady, tudung and all, she worked like a tortoise, in shifts. It seemed that this hotel were popular with travelers in a hurry. They parked their vehicles overnight at the compound and drove off early in morning enroute to other part of Malaysia.

Victor said...

I had experience staying in such a budget hotel when I visited Malaysia more than 2 decades ago. The room was spartan but adequate. Bedsheets and pillow cases were all-white. There was no aircon but only a ceiling fan. Bathroom and toilet were commune ones which you share with other guests (rather, lodgers in other rooms) on a first-come-first-served basis. We only went there to sleep hence such conditions were quite alright for us.

Anonymous said...

Victor - It was an improvement. The rooms were all aircon, though Chun See's room aircon was making a lot of noise, he switch it off. It was indeed spartan and no frills, but then I made full use of the warm water bath, a luxury compared to careful water usage in Singapore.

As for durians, I cousin did leak out some secrets. They do inject somekind of growth compound into those trees, making them bear fruits much quicker. That is why we are wondering how come so many durian seasons per year.

Lam Chun See said...

Still better thanflooded foxhole.

Anonymous said...

Many Asians believe that the first breath of air a baby at birth took in, in the place of his birth, is very important. It is therefore almost a must, for that person to visit the place of his birth, at least once in his life-time, irrespective whether he has left the place for a long period of time. It was for this reason that my sister father-in-law wished to take my sister's son to visit his birth place in Guangchow, but unable to do so, because of poor health.

Las montañas said...

I remember Segamat. As I got down from the train at the small town. There was a round about at the train station I think. Continued my trip to Tangkak to visit Mt Ophir.

Thanks for bringing back memories of yesteryear. Only Malaysia now has all these places to remind us of our childhood and younger years. The Singapore now is a strange new place to me.

Anonymous said...

In a way my father had good foresight. He believed Singapore has a bright future and brought the whole family back here after the war, despite my mother reluctance to leave Malaya. He also refused to change job, sticking to his job at the Naval Base. He had great faith in the British, and was not disappointed, because the HMS services paid him all the salaries due to him in full during the absentee period caused by the war (not his fault). When the British left Singapore sometime in 1971, my father was compensated with full (work-out) retirement benefits. This was the time in his life when he could afford to spend quite freely without much worries.