Segamat on a sleepy afternoon

20 08 2011

I always enjoy a walk around any old part of any town. They usually offer a window into a world that might have once existed, sometimes throwing a few surprises. Taking a quick walk around sleepy old Segamat on a Thursday afternoon took me into that world, a world that may have once existed in Singapore that is now lost to us. It is in walking into gateways into that lost world, where windows into the soul of the place can be peeked into, opening up passageways through the heart of the place, that one can reflect on the world that surrounds you. It was a world that I found myself immersed in in what little time I had, and one that made an impression on me.

Gateways

Windows

Passageways

Reflections

Signs of the times

Patterns





A storm in the southern seas

16 08 2011

A mini storm hit the otherwise sleepy southern seas on the last Thursday in June – a storm of train passengers intent on catching the last train back into Tanjong Pagar on the last day of the station’s operations on the 30th of June. It wasn’t of course the sea that the storm hit but the Nan Yang, which translates into the Southern Seas, in the sleepy town of Segamat in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. The Nan Yang is the name of a coffee shop that is perhaps one of the main tourist attractions in Segamat for the want of one in a place where a single tower block that dominates the town and which has since found use as a tower in which swiftlets are allowed to weave the much sought after nests with their saliva probably serves as a curiosity.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop in Segamat.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop is a favourite of the locals, who seek their once or even twice a day caffeine fix. The coffee shop offers more than the thick black liquid that the locals seem to rave about, and also serves as a place where one can get a quick breakfast or snack of toasted buns or slices of bread served with a generous helping of kaya (a sweetened spread made from coconut and egg and flavoured with pandan leaves and butter), and soft boiled eggs, typical of coffee shop breakfast fare in days when life was a lot simpler, and has now become big business so much so that chains of similar coffee shops are now thriving in the larger towns and cities in Malaysia and also in Singapore.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop can be found in the old part of town in the corner of a two storey pre-war shophouse along Jalan Awang.

The coffee shop is set in the corner of a row of pre-war shop houses in the old part of town on a street, Jalan Awang, that resembles that of many of the smaller towns in Malaysia and perhaps a Singapore we have left behind, just across from the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah. Just a stone’s throw away from the Segamat Railway Station and Police Station, stepping into the Nan Yang takes you back immediately in time to a world that even with its somewhat sanitised appearance, is one that was typical of a world we in Singapore have forgotten. It is for this, if not the excellent cup of coffee the coffee shop serves, that made the Nan Yang, well worth the visit.

Supposedly the best cup of coffee in Segamat.

The storm in the southern seas.

Offerings that excited the hungry Singaporeans ...

Another view of the Coffee Shop.

An old safe.

Locals enjoying a cup of coffee.





When time did stand still on June 30th

10 08 2011

The 30th of June 2011 was a day on which I was to have taken a final journey out of Tanjong Pagar and had a final homecoming into the station that was at midnight of the following day, cease to function as one. The day was one in which I was caught up in a frenzy of activity that started with me stepping through the grand arches of the station early in the morning and being almost immediately accosted by a media team from a local television channel, having been identified as the perpetrator of the so-called party on the last train into Tanjong Pagar. The journey up to Segamat was no less frenzied as I tried to first catch my last daytime glimpse of the rail corridor from the open door of the train carriage, and then on the way up catching up with friends and acquaintances that had come on the train.

A reflection of the Sin Tong Ah Hotel entrance off a mirror in the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah along Jalan Awang in Segamat.

It was only at Segamat that peace finally reigned as the various groups decided to head out on their own. After a leisurely lunch in the cool comfort of a restaurant that was recommended by a local friend of one on the train, a coffee and toast at the must visit Kedai Kopi Nan Yang, there was time to wander around and make a few interesting discoveries. It was after all this that most of the group somehow congregated at another coffee shop just across from the Nan Yang to wile the rest of the afternoon away, and it was at that where I suddenly found myself immersed in a fascinating world where time seemed to stand still.

Time stands still over the marble tops of Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah in Segamat.

Sitting at the marble top table with its heavy wooden leg, reminiscent of the tables we were used to seeing in the kopi-tiam (coffee shop) of old, I was also for a while, transported back to days when I could sit and watch the world go by in that half an hour I had before school started some three decades ago. It has probably been as long ago as that since I last thought of passing time in a kopi-tiam as I did at one we referred to as “Smokey’s” along the row of shops of Victoria Building (since demolished) facing Victoria Street, that with a few friends, I would sit, surrounded by walls tiled to half their height. And just as it would have been then, I found my eyes trained on the preparation counter. And just as it might have been back then, half obscured steam which rose from a cauldron of boiling water beside the counter, I watched as the assistant at the counter fulfilled the orders of kopi (coffee), teh (tea), as well as that for toast and half-boiled eggs – a popular choice for breakfast at the kopi-tiam.

A half boiled egg ... a popular item for breakfast in the kopi-tiam of old.

Black sauce often accompanies the eggs.

Busy at the counter - a scene reminiscent of the kopi-tiam where I wasted half an hour away, five days a week.

Reflection off another mirror in the kopi-tiam.

Electrical fittings that take one back in time.

Melamine plates stacked at a stall in the kopi-tiam.

Empty bottles in a crate stacked over crates of unopened bottles of softdrink.

A schoolgril watches her father as he sip on his cup of tea.

Sitting at the table, it felt as time, for a while, seemed to stand very still, as the world within the kopi-tiam moved as if I was watching it pass by me in the slowest of motion. The hour that we were to spend there, did eventually pass, accompanied by the excitement of another group of passengers who had descended on the kopi-tiam to purchase some food for the journey home. It was then time to head back to the train station for that final journey, a journey that was to be the last back through the length (north to south) of Singapore and the last into a station that a little more than 79 years after the first train it saw pulled into one of its platform, was on that evening see a last slow and sad final homecoming.

The passage of time quickened at the end of the hour with many descending on the kopi-tiam to take food away for the return journey.





A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: the slow train up the length of Johore

3 12 2010

Leaving JB Sentral Station, the train on which we were on for what would probably be the last train journey out of Tanjong Pagar for my friends and me, continued on its journey north. It was a journey that in its early stages, had already been delayed by the stops and starts at Bukit Timah Station and was as one should expect on the KTM trains, that would be delayed further en route to our destination, Gemas. Nevertheless, it was still very much worth the experience, not just for the fact that it would represent a last for me out of Tanjong Pagar, but to be able to have a leisurely glance at the interesting places en route. The route takes the train through much of the length of the state of Johore, passing town after town that can be read from the list of significant positions as they fell in reverse order, in the dark final days of the Battle of Malaya in early 1942, during which the relentless push by Japanese invasion forces towards Singapore during World War II, saw much of the area overrun in a matter of two weeks. Our intended destination, Gemas, just north of the state border in Negri Sembilan, had in fact been where a significant battle took place, one that might, on another day, have turned the tide. That it did not, allowed the invading forces to reach Singapore’s doorstep some 16 days following the engagement in Gemas, with Singapore falling only a month after that engagement.

Time Table for the Ekspress Rakyat out of Singapore and back into Singapore ... the journey to Gemas takes a route through towns in Johore which read like a list of defensive positions taken up by the British forces as they retreated towards Singapore in the face of the Japanese invaders in the January of 1942.

Along the initial part of the journey from Johor Baharu, the unmistakable landscape that characterises much of the urban areas along the railway line was very much in evidence with zinc roofed huts that was once commonly seen lining many of the areas by the tracks in Singapore, lining parts of the tracks. One of the first stops along the way was Kulai, a town some 30 kilometres north of Johor Baharu which was one of the last areas to fall before the Japanese arrived at Johor Baharu on the final day of January in 1942. Kulai had previously been known to me from the road trips I made in my father’s car across the Causeway. It was one of the last towns we would arrive at on the long journeys back home before the final pit stop in Johore Baharu where we would always stop to do some final bits of shopping – particularly for school shoes at Bata (which were because of the rise in the Singapore Dollar against the Malaysian Ringgit in the early 1970s a lot cheaper in Malaysia than it was in Singapore). Later in life, I would associate Kulai with a friend, Paul, whom I met whilst attached to Sembawang Shipyard in the mid 1980s. He had come form Kulai to work at the shipyard, putting up in a tiny room in a wooden shack in the old Chong Pang Village on work days, returning to Kulai only on Saturday nights to visit his mother.

Squatters along the railway line north of JB Sentral - this was a common sight on the KTM Railway land in Singapore up to the 1990s.

Kulai - a town which featured in the march of the Japanese invading forces towards Singapore in January 1942.

Passengers alighting at Kulai Station.

A rail carriage at Kulai.

Rail carriage carrying containers.

Leaving Kulai Station.

Passenger holding a ticket up.

North of Kulai, the next major stop is at Kluang, some 90 kilometres from Singapore. Kluang also featured prominently in the push by the Japanses invading forces – being abandoned by the retreating British led forces to allow them to regroup further south in the face of the Japanese advance through Johore. Kluang was in fact where General Yamashita moved his headquarters to, from Kuala Lumpur, at the end of January 1942, as the forces under his command prepared for the final assault on Singapore. Kluang was also known to me in my childhood, not so much from the road trips, but as the town where my maternal grandmother paid a visit to on her only trip to Malaysia that she made without me that I could remember. She had spent a weekend there with a Catholic group on a pilgrimage at the end of the 1960s.

Passing a level crossing at Kluang.

Pulling into Kluang Station.

Kluang Railway Station is well known for its coffee shop which has even been recreated in places such as shopping centres in Kuala Lumpur.

The tracks at Kluang Station.

A scene along the tracks from Kluang to Paloh.

The view inside the Superior Class coach.

A young passenger ...

The next major stop, Segamat, was the last stop before arriving at Gemas. Before that, there was a stop to make at Paloh, a rather small town set amongst palm oil and rubber plantations – Sime Darby features prominently in the area. Paloh was, during much of the 1950s, caught up in the Malayan Emergency and being one of the notorious “black areas” where Communist activity was rife. Much of its notoriety came from ambushes and killings made by Communist insurgents operating in the area and it was only about ten years after the Emergency was declared that the area was re-designated as “white area”.

View opposite Paloh Station.

Arriving at Paloh.

Kilometre marker at Paloh.

KTM logo at Paloh Station.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

1st view of Segamat.

Segamat was again another significant town during the war. It was where the Australian forces had retreated to after being forced back from Gemas. Segamat is of course well known to Singaporeans as being where some of the best durians originate from. My only previous encounters with Segamat had been once again on the many road trips made in the 1970s on the old trunk road leading up to Kuala Lumpur. Here the landscape around the station is dominated by warehouses and some old buildings associated with the railway, which we got a good view of as the train did a bit of backtracking after making its stop, southwards to the truss bridge south of the station, to move to another track and wait for a passing southbound train. This is a common feature in rail journeys through much of the southern part of the Malaysian railway as for most part, there is only a single track. This often makes the journeys longer than it should really be as trains often wait for each other to pass before being able to continue on their journey.

Pulling into Segamat Station.

View opposite the station.

Railway workers' quarters near Segamat Station.

Backtracking along the track to change tracks ...

On a truss bridge south of Segamat Station.

On a truss bridge south of Segamat Station.

Godowns near Segamat Station.

Godowns near Segamat Station and an old train carriage.

Segamat Station.

Another view of Segamat Station.

A member of the KTM staff walking along the train at Segamat Station.

Southbound train pulling into the station.

Southbound train passing a waiting northbound train. The line in the far south is a single track and trains often have to wait for one another to pass at some of the main stations such as Segamat - very often resulting in delays.

Southbound train heading towards the truss bridge.

View opposite Segamat Station.

Close up of a train's undercarriage.

A child looking out of the window of a passing train.

Leaving Segamat ... and on to our destination Gemas.

A companion is often necessary for the long and often delayed train journey.

After Gemas, it was our final push to Gemas. With a lot of stopping for passing trains that morning – it was only one and a half hours later than our scheduled arrival time of 1210, that we arrived at the station, somewhat weary from the journey, and somewhat hungry. Gemas, however was waiting to be discovered and we very quickly got off, found ourselves a place to eat, made arrangements for transport, and were ready for the next part of the adventure…

Arriving at Gemas Station.

Sign at Gemas Station ...

Gemas is the main railway junction in the Malayan Peninsula where the north bound lines split into an eastern line and a western line. The map shows the Singapore station in Tanjong Pagar, this would soon change when the terminal station moves to Woodlands.