Saturday, 26 September 2015
It could have been due to the haze; it could have been due to dust; it could have been due to any other reason. But the fact was, I came down with acute conjunctivitis. Red eyes. Pink eyes. Call it what you may, but that was the reality. Ever since more than a week ago, perhaps even before I went to watch that show Pawn Sacrifice at the cinema, I was already aware that there was some itchiness in my eyes. Some grit or a loose eyelash that was caught there, perhaps, because previously, I've had that problem of stray eyelashes getting into my eyes.
By last Friday (18 Sept), the discomfort had became bad enough for me to consult my local GP. "See me on Monday if the situation doesn't improve," she told me after prescribing a course of eyedrops and some eye ointment. And on Monday (21 Sept), I duly went to see her again and she prescribed me with more eyedrops and some oral anti-biotics. But you should consider seeing an eye specialist too, she added.
Then on Tuesday (22 Sept), I so happened to be at the Penang General Hospital on the island for a totally unrelated problem and decided, what the heck, since I was already at the hospital, I might as well go see the eye medical officer there. Opthalmologist, I think, they'd like to call themselves.
The lady doctor peered into my eyes with her array of instruments and pronounced my condition as conjunctivitis, just in case I didn't know it, and said it was rather severe. Out came the cotton buds. "I shall have to remove the layer of pseudo-membrane on your eyelids. It's covering up your sight," she said, and without much of a warning, she started scraping away at my lining of the eyelids. Ouch. "There may be some blood but don't worry, it's normal," she added, helpfully. Procedure over, she wrote a prescription and shooed me away to the hospital's pharmacy.
Now, the problem was that I had driven alone to the hospital, all the way from the mainland, in the morning and with my eyelids now all bruised, all puffed up and half closed, both sporting a delicious shade of scarlet red, and with eyes so sensitive to light, there was no way that I could drive back home alone and without help.
I was in distress. A call to my wife. Help, please come with third brother-in-law and drive us back home. Which they did, all the way from Bukit Mertajam (and he from Simpang Ampat), arriving at the out-patient clinic of the hospital at 6.45p.m. with hardly anybody else in sight. Rescued in time before it really got dark.
The next day (23 Sept), I was back at the hospital with my wife. The lady doctor wanted a follow-up. "Your pseudo-membrance has reappeared," she said. And out came the cotton buds again as I underwent another round of eyelid cleansing. Now, the good thing about the general hospital is that the place has so many doctors around that they do consult each other on the cases before them. And there was this other lady eye doctor that suggested that I be put on some eye ointment to help clear up the conjunctivitis. "Now open up," she ordered and started squirting a thick mess of sticky whitish eye ointment all over my eyes, telling my wife at the same time that "you have to do this to him," showing her how to push the ointment beneath my lower eyelids. Also, she said, go get him some preservative-free eyedrop gel. Turning back to me, she added, "And I want to see you tomorrow too."
So on Friday (25 Sept), there I was again seated across from my original eye doctor who was armed to her teeth with a fresh bunch of cotton buds. Ooh, my right eyelids really hurt this time and I couldn't open it after that until I was back in the house.
Today, Saturday (26 Sept), is a day of respite. I don't have to go back to the hospital until tomorrow morning for the follow-up. But I must say that my condition has improved a lot. My eyelids are no longer swollen and puffy, my eyes can open up lots more, they are no longer that sensitive to light and I can discard use of the non-prescription dark glasses, the whites of my eyes are not that red any more, and the feeling of grit in the eyes has subsided greatly. Hopefully, the pseudo-membrane is greatly reduced. Still, I have to put on the eyedrops diligently and well as to apply the ointment twice a day.
On top of all these, I've to continue using the Alphagan, Timo-comod and Xalatan eyedrops daily. That's me, all right. Lately, it's a life full of eyedrops.
Thursday, 17 September 2015
Ban Hin Lee Bank, oh, Ban Hin Lee Bank, where art thou today? You may no longer exist but to us, the former staff of this bank, we remember you well. You are our irreplaceable past but you are no longer anyone's future.. But imagine, if you were still around today, we should all be celebrating your landmark Oak Anniversary on the 17th of September 2015. Yes, it has been 80 long years since that day in 1935 when Towkay Yeap Chor Ee obtained his licence to operate the bank as an officially incorporated business.
At the tail-end of the 19th Century, Yeap Chor Ee had arrived in Penang as an impoverished orphan, having escaped a China that was then caught up in the midst of an internal political turmoil.
The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi was in control of Imperial China and she resisted foreign influence and modernisation, preferring to spend money on her palace and lavish lifestyle. By the 1890s, China was more vulnerable than ever to foreign powers that were carving out their spheres of influence. Under this system, the dominant power in that sphere controlled the economy through collecting taxes and constructing railroads and telegraph wires, while still leaving administrative duties and expenses to local Chinese officials. This allowed the various powers to drain China of money without having to assume the more burdensome responsibilities of government. But what really shook China out of its lethargy was a war with Japan, which had successfully modernised in the past 40 years. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-85 was fought over control of Korea and to everyone's shock, the Japanese navy soundly defeated the Chinese navy and claimed Korea and Taiwan as among the prize of victory. Such a humiliating defeat sparked the Hundred Days Reform, a new movement among Chinese scholars for widespread reforms, but it was quickly squelched by Tsu Hsi. As a result, China's problems continued mounting until they triggered another revolt known as the Boxer Rebellion from 1898 to 1900.Amidst the uncertainties of this background, many Chinese like Yeap Chor Ee were forced to leave their homeland and start life anew elsewhere. In the nanyang, the British Straits Settlements was an obvious destination for him and many of his fellow compatriots that were fleeing from this strife-torn China.
With nothing much in his pockets, he started in Penang as a barber. But within six years of his arrival here, he had earned enough from his entrepreneurial ability to set up the firm of Ban Hin Lee & Co. The name itself meant Ten Thousand Blessings to Prosperity, and it proved prophetic enough as his enterprise eventually encompassed a myriad of successful commercial endeavours, including a private bank which he would call, naturally, Ban Hin Lee Bank.
From its inception in 1918, Ban Hin Lee Bank proved itself to be a pioneering force in the domestic banking scene. Even as a private bank, it lent money to borrowers and remitted money overseas for a clientele who were mainly the Chinese in Penang and Singapore. Yeap Chor Ee controlled and managed the bank until his death in 1952, when he left a thriving banking concern in Malaya to his descendants.
On 17 Sept 1935, Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited was officially incorporated under Ordinance No. 155 of the Companies Act with an authorised capital of $5 million and a paid-up capital of $2 million. It was the first local bank to have its base in Penang. Despite this date of incorporation, the new entity of Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited only commenced business formally on Friday, 1 Nov 1935, There was a short entry in The Straits Times newspaper some three days later.
Obviously, Yeap Chor Ee was deeply serious about his bank. He wanted it to be a proper physical entity, worthy of comparison to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation of which he was a shareholder, and Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited was to be the bastion of his future business empire.
The general contractors for the new bank office was a foreign West European company known as Enterprises Campenon Bernard which had its headquarters in Paris. The architect was CG Boutcher, a well-known resident Frenchman who was a partner in the local firm, Stark and McNeil. He designed a deceptively simple edifice on classical lines which best explained the overall aesthetic result.
It was a solid, massive building of four stories. In practical terms, the architectural design was a sensible one. It contrasted but compared well with the adjacent row of sedate terraced shophouses. The entrance into the building was raised a half-level above the ground to highlight the approach to the main doorway. Inside, the structure was spacious, creating a feeling of airiness within the confines of the four walls. The open areas of the splendidly enormous interior were accentuated by the high windows that allowed sunlight to filter in and bathe the whole environment with natural illumination
It was said that the principals of geomancy (fengshui) were also incorporated into the overall shape of the building. It was shaped like a trapezoid with a broader back and narrower front. If the popular story was that money would flow into the building and it won't come out because the mouth was small, it suited the bank well.
With so much dependency already placed in the hands of the French, it wasn't surprising that piling work itself was carried out by French contractors who were also civil engineers and construction specialists. They handled the project so well and did such excellent work that when a bombshell landed at the back lane of the bank in December 1941, the building stood unshaken, steady as a rock.
"When the Japanese air force bombed Penang in December 1941, a bomb fell at the back street of the bank. The blast was terrific, but the building stood as firm as a rock. How do I know? Well, all of us were sheltering from the bombs in the strongroom on the ground floor, and it was a terrible experience! When we came out in the open after the bombers flew away, we could see the devastation around Beach Street, and the many dead bodies of the people who were unfortunate to be caught in the air-raid. The whole town was evacuated, and all the townsfolk ran to the countryside like Balik Pulau and Ayer Itam."
When the bank eventually moved into the ground floor of the premises in 1938, the strongroom had been fitted with specially imported Lipp vault doors from England. The upper floors were rented out as prime office space to other tenants, including the government departments of the day.
On 26 Jan 1940, Yeap Chor Ee transferred the land title, covering an area of 987 square metres, to the ownership of the bank.
Of course, as we all know it, the bank is no more. By 30 June 2001, Ban Hin Lee Bank had ceased to exist after the formalities of a takeover exercise by the Southern Bank Group were completed. Ironically, even Southern Bank does not exist today, itself having been swallowed up by a bigger banking giant.
Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Finally, I managed to dig up one prized item while looking through the archives at the Penang Free School on Monday: a school register which recorded my father's name. It hasn't been easy to locate the entry but yes, I've found it and the discovery makes me both happy and sad.
Sad because my father was only at the PFS for nine months, beginning Standard VI in October 1948 and leaving in June 1949 before he could start Standard VIII. The reason he had to leave school was to work. This was a time not long after the end of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The economy was still in the doldrums. My grandfather had no permanent job and there were mouths to feed. My father became the sole breadwinner of the family, bringing home just enough to feed a family of four. Still, it was a privilege for him to study at this great school.
I've no idea where he worked initially but by the time he married in 1954, he was already a clerk in The Mercantile Bank of India Ltd, later to be bought over and assimilated into the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, in Beach Street. And there he remained until his retirement in 1984.
Saturday, 12 September 2015
In case anyone asks who is Chen Ooi to me, let me say here that we grew up together in George Town, Penang. As a small kid, he was looked after and accepted as a godson of my paternal grandparents. Technically, he became a god-uncle to me although he was only two years older than I. In the early 70s, he left for further studies in the United States, and he remained there, finding work as a designer. But we kept in touch intermittently. In those days before the Internet, our own way to communicate was by letters and postcards. Maybe we exchanged New Year wishes once a year.
My family was aware of Ooi's relationship with Bill Kelley. Consequently, I was never one to harbour any prejudices about anyone's personal preferences in lifestyle. In fact, my family was always excited whenever Ooi and Bill came visiting Malaysia to visit his aged mother. These were the only times I could ever get to see him in person.
When Bill passed away in May this year, I was rather devastated. My first thoughts were for my Uncle Ooi and without a nary, I made an inter-continental telephone call to him. I had to talk to him, albeir briefly. But I think it was around three o'clock in the middle of the night in Chicago.
This video was filmed during the memorial service for Bill Kelley on the first of August, 2015. If it proves too long, perhaps it can be fast-forwarded to the 1:43:00 mark and wait for Ooi to speak. As befits someone who had been Bill's constant companion for more than 30 years, Ooi spoke with such heartfelt feelings. I felt it here in Penang when I watched him.
Friday, 11 September 2015
Butterworth used to be busier in the past but with more of the Penang mainland opening up to housing and industries - towards the southern part of Province Wellesley where the second Penang bridge is impacting development in a big way - Butterworth has quieten down somehow.
The Butterworth Outer Ring Road which skirts round the town's seafront seems to have caused the old part of the town to become more deserted as the ring road cuts off easy access to the sea. I've been hearing tales about how the area around the Sree Maha Mariamman Devasthanam Temple has become a hotbed for gangsterism. I can't confirm this and I can only hope that I am wrong.
As to be expected, Joe Sidek was in the thick of all the activities. Basically, he remains the man responsible for bringing a bit of culture to Penang, and now from the island to the mainland as well. I was there for the simple opening ceremony by the Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, and then did my short walkabout before disappearing for a quick Lor Mee lunch.
Butterworth sure has attractions of its own. It must be realised that the other end of the Penang ferry services is located here. Where else do you board the ferry if not from the Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal? Here is also the point where the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTMB) train services end, bringing travellers from the north and south to Butterworth before crossing over to the island.
There is also the Penang Port, which is the oldest port in the country, dating back to the days of the British colonial period. To the north and south of the ferry terminal are the North Butterworth Container Terminal, the Butterworth Deep Water Wharves and the Prai Bulk Cargo Terminal. Unfortunately, the Penang Port has lost a lot of its shine. Due to deliberate emphasis by the federal government elsewhere, the volume of cargo handled here pales when compared to both Port Klang and Port of Tanjong Pelepas.
So much has changed along this road in the past 20 years. It used to be a two-lane throughway but it has now be expanded to four lanes. Along some stretches of this road, there are even six lanes for traffic which never stops. Three-storey commercial buildings line along this road.
The wide availability of food at all hours of the day and night is probably what makes Jalan Raja Uda better known for.
There must be at least three large food courts along the 3.5-kilometre long road. Apart from them, there are countless hawker stalls by the roadside selling the popular range of street food that one can also find on the island.
Char koay teow, hokkien mee, curry mee, popiah, koay teow th'ng, char koay kak .... whatever one is craving for, it can be found here. To me, Jalan Raja Uda is the Food Street of Butterworth. Period.
Tuesday, 8 September 2015
What a weekend it has been for us. Weeks ago, we learnt that we had been offered two complimentary tickets to attend the Saturday Night Fever musical show that was touring East Asia and Australia. At first, we were supposed to attend the show on the fourth of September but our dates kept changing until we decided finally on the sixth of September.
Of course, on a Sunday afternoon, the place was packed and we had to wait some 15 to 20 minutes for a table to be vacated. Needless to say, we chose their famed chicken chop for our meals. And how could we resist not ordering their French toast too?
After that meal, we dropped Nephew off at the University of Malaya before proceeding to the nearby Gerak Budaya bookstore in Jalan Bukit 11/2, Petaling. Just the day before, I was at the Gerak Budaya bookstore in Pitt Street, George Town, where I tried to buy the book Sex, Pork and Persecution by our infamous sex blogger, Alvin Tan, but was told by the Penang bookstore's proprietor, Ismail Gareth Richards, that he was not stocking it. "But it's been mentioned in some news stories that you do," I persisted. "No, we don't," Richards replied, "we are not that liberal."
So having been rebuffed by him, I thought, what the heck, since I was going to be in Kuala Lumpur anyway on Sunday, I'll have my daughter bring me to the Petaling Jaya Gerak Budaya bookstore. Turned out that these two book stores, though sharing the same name, were not related. It was just that the two bosses knew one another. "No, we don't have the book," the lady in charge of the store informed me, "We used to have a few copies several months ago but we didn't order more after our stock ran out." Oh, darn, as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of my search for this book. I am sure no other mainstream bookstores would carry this title.
Anyway, we were seated within 15 minutes and our food arrived in a hot earthern pot. Steaming hot but little sign of any fish head. I had to stir the pieces of fish head up from the bottom where they were obviously hiding from us. We were a bit relieved to find them big chunky pieces.
But I've got this to say: the curry, though delicious, was a bit too rich for me. Too much coconut milk (santan) had gone into the curry. It made the dish nice, I admit it, but this particular fish head curry is not something that I would try all too regularly. If you have a cholesterol problem, please make doubly sure that this dish doesn't have dire consequences for your diet. Luckily I have none but my wife's cholesterol level is a bit on the higher side,
We did not know it then, but the Sunday night's performance had been pre-booked by The Star Publications as a celebration of their anniversary. So there I was, walking in to find my old friend from the newspaper industry, Wong Chun Wai, now the CEO of the newspaper group, welcoming all their guests. I looked around, trying to find some other people I knew but no, they were all unfamiliar face. Oh, wait a minute....there's David Yeoh, the chief of the Penang news desk. He's here too. But apart from him, so sorry, nobody else that I recognised out-right.
We were shown to our seats at the back of the hall. Both good and bad. Bad because I had not brought my proper spectacles down to Kuala Lumpur and hence, the performers looked rather fuzzy to me. Good because we could take in everything, all the action, without having to turn our heads left and right. My camera was with me but I couldn't bring it out. The usherers were sitting right at my back and everyone in the audience had been warned that photography and mobile phone usage were strictly forbidden. I did see them pointing their laser beams at people in the audience who brought out their mobile phones to use. Therefore, sorry, I was unable to take any photographs especially when the usherers were practically breathing down my neck. But at least, we were still able to go back with these pictures from the lobby:
And finally, a cut-out of Tony Merano, played by the Broadway stage actor Brandon Rubendall. I think only three of four of the performers were Americans. The rest were Filipinos, but they gave very good accounts of themselves.
I was asked how close was this musical to the original film? I would say that the story line was quite close. They had the dancing down to pat, while the props, including the backdrops, were simple yet effectively used. Even the dialogue seemed faithful to the original, I think, because I've no means of comparison and can only guess. Anyway, here's a link to the full cast of this musical.
Friday, 4 September 2015
Come tomorrow, 5 Sept 2015, the Penang Governor will confer on Eow Jin the award of Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri (DSPN) which carries the title Datuk.
I am very happy for Uncle Ooi whom I've never met. Ever since I heard that he was suffering from one tragedy after another - one son dying from leukemia and the other son suffering from a brain tumour - I've been wanting to see how I could make life more pleasant for him. In my own way, of course.
However, I was not satisfied with just writing this story. I felt that more could be done for Eow Jin who, like me, happens to be an Old Boy of the Penang Free School. Three days after I wrote that piece in my blog, I decided to send an appeal email to the Penang Chief Minister. I think it is time for me to make the contents of my appeal public:
Dear Chief Minister,
I am writing to alert you to a news story which in all probability could appear in tomorrow's edition of The Sunday Star (Soo Ewe Jin's column piece). The story will be about a music maestro in our midst, a music maestro who is long forgotten by the Malaysian people at large, a music maestro who is truly an Anak Pulau Pinang.
I am referring to Ooi Eow Jin - or Uncle Ooi, as many people would refer to him - born in Penang in 1938, worked in Penang in his early 20s and then moved to Kuala Lumpur when he was offered the opportunity to work in the Radio Television Malaysia Orchestra. He rose to become the bandleader of the RTM Orchestra and then left to join TV3. When his stint at TV3 was over, we was appointed as an adjunct professor in music in one of the local tertiary institutions. After his retirement, he remained active in music and was employed by the Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur as their resident pianist, tinkling away at the keyboards six afternoons a week. And he was already in his 70s.
But there is more to this man than just his career. During his stint with RTM, he arranged a medley of songs that won a young singer the Bintang RTM award in 1976. Soon after that, he composed the first song which this young singer recorded in a studio. This song was "Teriring Doa" and it was Sudirman Arshad's first local hit. Until his final days, Sudirman - Malaysia's Number One entertainer - never forgot the part that Uncle Ooi had played in his career.
Ooi Eow Jin composed many other hits for our local singers. For instance, there was “Masa Berlalu” for Salamiah Hassan, the mother of current jazz singer Atilia. Other songs included Dahlan Zainuddin’s “Lagu Untukmu”and Yunizar Hoessein’s “Kisah Gadis Sepi”. He wrote the entire soundscape for Yassin Salleh’s blockbuster film "Dia Ibuku" in 1981, along with the theme song sung by M Nasir. In 1965, Ooi Eow toured Sabah with P Ramlee to entertain the Malaysian armed forces.
But Uncle Ooi has his fair share of personal tragedy. During his long career, Eow Jin had supported his two sons through their education until both graduated from University. Unfortunately, his younger son died after a prolonged battle against leukemia despite his efforts to give his son the best treatment available. Eow Jin, himself now showing signs of Alzheimer's disease, continued his playing career at the Majestic Hotel until recently, 30 June 2015, when he made his final bow. I am told that his younger son is now afflicted with a brain tumour. Again, it was with the effort of Eow Jin that the son is still hanging on to life. Eow Jin now lives with his wife and son in a home shared with other unfortunate people.
Ever since I broke the story of Ooi Eow Jin's plight on my blog http://ssquah.blogspot.com and facebook, I've seen Malaysians of all ages come together to rally around him. Next week on 19 July 2015, there is an effort to organise a small benefit concert in Petaling Jaya to raise funds for Uncle Ooi. But there are grander plans afoot. I understand that some friends are planning two bigger benefit concerts in Penang and Kuala Lumpur later in the year.
I am not involved in any of these benefit concerts for our forgotten Anak Pulau Pinang but I was wondering whether you and the Penang government can chip in by:
1) Offering the Dewan Sri Pinang as the venue for the Penang concert once details are finalised; and
2) Recognising Ooi Eow Jin with a last-minute DSPN award. I know that the deadline for submission of award applications has long passed but I also know that the state government retains some prerogative. And I am suggesting that Eow Jin (already 77 or 78 years old) deserves it for his contribution to the Malaysian music industry.
Ooi Eow Jin is an Old Free (I am also an Old Free and I was one of the co-authors of the FIDELIS commemorative book which the Raja of Perlis launched in 2012) and I am confident that you, as the Chairman of the Penang Free School Board of Trustees, will want to rally round to help him too. Many thanks for reading my email....Until today, I had remained mum about the content of this email because, well, I wasn't sure about how my request to Guan Eng would pan out. How would he respond to my brazen request? To be frank, I did not receive a reply from him. What was I supposed to do? What could I do? Why, send Guan Eng a Reminder! That was what I did:
Dear Chief Minister,
I had sent this email to your official email address last Saturday but have not received any acknowledgement from your office despite a Whatsapp reminder to your PA, Julio. As a result, I am forwarding the same email message to you with the hope that the Penang government can look into it and do something nice for our forgotten music maestro, Ooi Eow Jin. The details are in my original message. Thank you.Alas, no reply too. So I gave up the attempt to communicate further with my Chief Minister although I had two or three chances to accost him during some public events I had attended. But I was gutless. I did not. However inside me, I was hoping - really, really hoping - that he would take up this cause all the same.
And now, my hope to see some recognition for Ooi Eow Jin is realised. From tomorrow onwards, you can call him Datuk Uncle Ooi, haha..... :-)
Tuesday, 1 September 2015
The railways and trains have always fascinated me. Growing up as a pre-school kid, one of my favourite toys was a train set going round and round endlessly on a circular track. Later, when I was given a train set with a figure eight track, you can imagine the joy that I got from this upgrade. :-)
Growing up on the island meant that I had little opportunity to interact with real trains, meaning those of the Malayan Railway (Keretapi Tanah Melayu, KTM), until I was about eight or nine years old. Then my parents took me on a very rare outing to Taiping. At that age, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience sitting in a real train as we crossed the channel in a ferry to the train station in Prai.
There, we boarded the train and maybe about two hours later, we arrived in Taiping. We stayed in a small room somewhere in this small town. It wasn't even a budget-style hotel: just a room above a shop. And from there, we visited the Taiping lake gardens on the second day before we took the train back to Prai. It was a small adventure that I still remember.
When I was older, there was this occasion that I first took the train from Penang to Kuala Lumpur by myself travelling with one of my cousins and got ourselves caught up in the Great Flood of January 1971. Now bigger and more aware of my surroundings, I remember that the coaches had hard wooden seats, the coaches were not air-conditioned and we had to open the louvred wooden windows to let in the breeze or to close them to shut out the sun. In any case, at the end of the eight or nine-hour journey, our faces were sticky and coated with a fine layer of dust and soot from the coal-fired engines.
I remember sitting by the window watching the scenery roll by...the tall lallang fast approaching or drawing away, the rows and rows of rubber trees, the padi fields stretching for miles, the rail tunnel - now, that was the killer experience, going into the tunnel - and of course, the train rolling slowly across the Bukit Merah lake. One of my favourite past-times was to look out for the stations along the way. Once, I sat with a pen and paper in hand, noting down the names of the stations and the times that the train stopped there. Such was my fascination with train travel.
When I was studying in Kuala Lumpur, that was the time when train travel became more frequent for me. I remember going down to the Howe Cheang Dispensary at Penang Road to buy my train tickets. Howe Cheang was the agent for Malaysian Railways and one of the staff there would dutifully issue me with the train ticket.
So during the semester breaks, I would take the train to and fro Penang and Kuala Lumpur. During those days, the economy seats were unnumbered and once on board the train, chances were very great that you could be separated from any friend you were travelling with. There would be a clamber for any empty seat and once there, you would remain seated until the end of the journey, save for the occasional walk to the buffet coach or the toilet. But when the journey gets monotonous, as eight or nine-hour journeys can become after several experiences, I would choose to stand by the coach entrance, open the door and hang on to the railing, blissfully unaware of the possible danger of falling off from the train especially when it rocked on the tracks.
This clambering for seats in the unnumbered coaches became more critical during the holiday seasons for usually, Malaysian Railways would over-sell their seats. During the holiday seasons, it was not uncommon for rail passengers to sit in the aisle or attempt to share space with the luckier passengers who had already claimed their wooden seats.
Once during the run-up to the Chinese New Year holidays in the mid-1970s - it must be between 1974 and 1976 - I couldn't find a seat and had to settle down onto a space at the end of the carriage, where the doors were. Suddenly, a girl soon plonked herself next to me on the floor as she couldn't get a seat either. Soon, we started talking and she told me that she had also studied at the Penang Free School. But obviously, she was my junior in the school as I don't remember her in any of the Sixth Form classes while I was at school in 1971 and 1972. Her name? Cardosa. Either Mary Cardosa or Elizabeth Cardosa. The years do funny things to one's memory and honestly, I can't remember which of the Cardosa sisters became my carriage mate during the long journey from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. But I must frankly say that the conversations with her certainly made the trip much less boring.
After I left Kuala Lumpur, I practically stopped taking the train except for once in the late 1980s when I followed some of my former bank colleagues on a trip to Cameron Highlands. I remember that there were about 10 of us and we decided to take the train down to Tapah Road Station where we would then catch a bus up to Cameron. There was another long interval before I took a train in Malaysia again; it could be in the 1990s when I joined a Malaysian contingent of chessplayers back from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
But the excitement of rail travel never left me. In 1978, when I was part of the Malaysian chess contingent that was invited to the People's Republic of China, I had a big thrill travelling by train from Kowloon to Canton (Guangzhou) through the border town of Sham Chun (Shenzhen). My first impression was that Communist China's trains travelled so smooth, unlike our own local trains. From Canton, we had flown to Shanghai, and from Shanghai we again boarded China's trains to visit Hangchow (Hangzhou) and Suchow (Suzhou). We then flew to Peking (Beijing) before flying back to Canton for the return trip by rail into Hongkong.
Back home in Malaysia, I've started to take the trains more often again on my occasional visits to Kuala Lumpur. This started about four or five years back when I wanted to give myself another chance to savour a train ride at night. To my surprise, I found that so much had changed for Malaysian Railways. For one thing, the carriages are now all air-conditioned. The seats are numbered and there is no risk of not finding a place to sit. For importantly, the carriages were cleaner (though not the toilets which remained as yucky as ever, in my opinion), quieter and ran much smoother.
So that was the re-start of my new love affair with Malaysia's railway station. Since that first trip, I've used the Malaysian Railways service several times now, even experiencing travels in the first class carriages. In my opinion, rail travel is the way forward for me, especially as I now enjoy a 50 percent discount on the tickets as a senior citizen. The new railway station in Bukit Mertajam is hardly six kilometers from my house and I can reach the station within 15 minutes tops, unlike the Penang International Airport which is 32 kilometers away and which requires a one-hour journey. Plus, by train, I get straight to KL Sentral from where I can get connections to anywhere in the Klang Valley.
Presently, with the completion of the double tracking and the introduction of the electric train service (ETS) between Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur, a one-way train journey to KL Sentral takes hardly four hours to complete. That's only very slightly longer than preparations required for a flight but more importantly for me, shorter than driving down to Kuala Lumpur. Besides which, I don't get all stressed up having to concentrate on my driving on the highways, if I choose to drive. Let the train driver take the stress, not me!