Muar is a coastal town along the west coast of the State of Johore, my home state, which borders Singapore to the south. Muar is also the very first place that I worked, then a freshly minted civil engineer (i.e., with a recognized first degree) thrust into the University of Hard Knocks. That was way back in 1978. And I was still driving my varsity companion, a 125cc Honda motorcycle with a booming exhaust.
I first lived in a small rented room tugged at the end of the 5th road, I think, as it is known colloquially. My first impression of the Muar town is it has many cinemas for a town its size, five in all. So that’s as much as entertainment went. And every other night would find me in one of these, whiling away the time in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned environment, alternating with watching the movie as the primary driving force for the visit, with my then girl friend by my side.
Then there was what fellow Muarians affectionately referred to as the Glutton Street, right in the town, where hawkers’ food lined both sides of the street, enticing would-be patrons to fulfill their gastronomic urge. Our two favorite dishes were fried oyster omelette and otak-otak, a kind of grilled fish wrapped in leaves as shown in the image below, a mosaic of images taken from here and here. [Muar is encircled in red while the two blue boxes denote my home town (YongPeng, literally meaning peace forever in Chinese) and my wife's (Paloh)]
The thing that I did not understand was despite the throng of people practically rubbing shoulders looking for a table to retire to an evening of delicious platter of culinary delight and tables/chairs spilling on to the road, the road was never closed to automobile traffic so as to be turned into a pedestrian mall for safety. I had had some harrowing experience, either while seated with cars brushing by inches away from my back or me inching along the congested road in the car [yes, you would thought I had the good sense to avoid the street at all cost. But most of the town roads in Muar are one-way streets and sometimes as a result of the lack of either foresight or decisiveness, or both, a driver could easily be led by the flow of the traffic into the wrong street] with pedestrians sauntering nonchalantly from one side of the street to the other or alongside the crawling cars.
The last place that I had any memory of, other than my work office, is the Tanjung Club located next to the Muar river mouth. This is a favorite hangout for government officers with pool tables and pinball machines. But it’s for members only. I was not a member but some of my colleagues were. After some time the novelty wore off and I think I just kind of stopped going to the place.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot about the Rest House. The rest houses are government run hotels making use of old-styled buildings that were built by the British Administration and usually perched on top of a knoll with a commanding view of the surrounding. Stories have it that there were also used by the Japanese Army during the Japanese Occupation during the 2nd world war as detention and torture centers for POWs or local informants. And some of these lost souls still linger on to these days, looking for closure at their untimely and perhaps inhuman demise, which translated into haunted houses.
My first two nights were spent in a room of the Muar rest house, a designated accommodation for government officers invariably those days. The thought of gossamer apparitions pirouetting in the room did cross my mind, but I soon dozed off, and woke up none the worse the next day. Later I learned that the ‘spirits” were wont to dwell in certain rooms and it so happened that mine was not among these.
Two years later, I moved on transfer to Raub, another town rich with its local folklore as regards government rest houses in the State of Pahang, but this time nestled in the thick of jungles accessible by winding roads. But that will be the subject of another blog, laced with its individual allure and unique adventure.
Since then, I have made several trips back to Muar, but never staying for the night. And it has gradually regressed into the deeper recesses of my mind, until I came across this self-made song video, performed to a rapping beat, several months ago, Muar Chinese (accessible at YouTube here). The lyrics are crude no doubt, but it does bring back memories of my two-year sojourn there, including the idiosyncratic Chinese and Hokkien (Fujian) dialect spoken locally, marked by the infusion of several less than flattering terms from the latter into the former, yielding a peculiar blend of street-smart lingo that is distinctly, eh, Muarian, or Muaresque. One must admit that there is certain poignancy to poking fun at one’s own heritage, and yet displaying a pride that is unmistakable.
More recently, the same guy, who claims to be a Hainaese, has come up with another rap video, Muar Chinese II – My Friends (accessible at YouTube here), with its trademark blend of Muar languages, six in all (actually 3, English, Malay, and Chinese, the remaining three being dialects: Cantonese, Hokkien, and TeoChew). Its theme has also evolved into one of social concern, lambasting the racial polarization that has split Malaysia down the middle, and then some. However, the video took pain to explain that the brunt of his castigation is not race-based, but rather all his friends who hail from different racial backgrounds.
This is a political statement of sort. The problem is, being the rap genre that the performer has seen fit to adhere to, including the use of uncouth language, albeit rhyming, it may remain as a street-wise personal ranting that is unlikely to be taken seriously, much less so as a mustering call for change. However, it does hit a chord, a rather discordant one, in me. Can we take it that the disenfranchised has spoken? Are we ready to change lest the country continue on its downward spiral to the point of no return, to the dogs, and what have you?