“Heard a siren from the docks,
Saw a train set the night on fire,
I smelled a spring, on the smoky wind,
Dirty old town, dirty old town.”
~ “Dirty Old Town”, The Pogues
Nothing of especial importance took place during my Lunar New Year celebrations this year. All I remember of it was the customary increase in the amount of housework I had to do, the shuttling back and forth between Rawang and Petaling Jaya (due to the fact that Bravo, my rescued dog, is still living with us in our bachelor pad in PJ), the files I managed to complete on my computer (which makes me wonder why I bother leaving the office at all), the hours spent volunteering at the SPCA (especially bathing and tick-washing the much forgotten Sick Bay dogs) and the unpredictable and volatile weather.
Last year’s Lunar New Year bike rides led me to document the neighbourhood that I grew up in (See this post). This year, I thought of taking a few photographs (merely of cellphone quality, mind) of a few of the remaining landmarks that are of any sentimental value to me in the old town.
My parents, who were originally from Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, came to Rawang to teach in the 1970s following their graduation from the teachers’ training institute. Rawang Town has its roots in the tin mining and rubber industries, and remains a largely working-class small town with little to offer visitors. Mining pools dot the landscape, and the “town centre” used to consist of only 2 roads, Jalan Maxwell and Jalan Welman. The cement factory, then known as APMC (Associated Pan Malayan Cement), dominated much of our small town life, especially since we could not ignore the rock-blasting exercise which was carried out every Monday and Thursday at their limestone quarry.
Most of the buildings and landmarks that were of any significance to me have already been demolished in the name of development. There was a provision store we called the “Bengali Roti Shop”, due to the fact that they baked their own bread, near the old marketplace, that the younger population of Rawang Town used to hang out in because it had comic books and magazines galore. Tired of grubby fingers pawing through the pages of latest issues, the shop owner would leave one copy unwrapped and charge us 10 sen to read all the unwrapped copies of magazines and comic books that we wanted. Where that charming little shop once stood, a row of faceless shoplots now stand, offering knockoff tees and cell phone accessories. Rawang “New Town” was built on the site of our town library, football field, basketball court and a handful of picturesque post-colonial bungalows which served as government offices.
Jalan Welman is made up of over 40 shoplots on each side, and now consists mostly of Indian restaurants and provision stores. I remember that there were 3-6 shops in a row all selling school uniforms, schoolbags and school supplies. In our teens, we would try to get temp jobs at these shops during the school holidays, especially during the back-to-school rush. We were paid by the hour and we blew the money on – what else? – comic books and beer.
Jalan Maxwell is just as shabby, but it did have the only supermarket in town then (Bintang Supermarket, opened in 1987), the only KFC outlet (I was never much of a meat eater so I went there for the soda floats) and the town Post Office (where my Primary 5 class teacher, Cikgu Ramlah, lived, as she is the postmaster’s wife). I still find it quaint that my teacher lived a floor above the Post Office.
Rockman Inn, in Jalan Maxwell, was the only boarding house in town back then. It occupied the 2 levels above the town’s only 7-Eleven convenience store and was located next to the very grotty bus station. I used to spend a lot of time at the 7-Eleven outlet in my teens because one of my male friends worked shifts there and would let me read the magazines for free. Sometimes he offered me chewing gum or Slurpee and claimed that he had palmed it, but looking back on it, I think he paid for it out of his own salary and told me he nicked it just to impress me. My schoolmates and I would ride on the smelly buses to KL to attend intensive tuition classes before major exams, and my friends and I learned a lot about the birds and the bees from the lewd graffiti at the back of the bus seats.
The Sun Cinema, located in a back alley running parallel to Jalan Welman, screens mostly only Tamil and Hindi movies these days to cater to the majority Indian population. It was closed down at one point and converted into a pool parlour. I remember this back alley for the stray dogs that chased our bikes, the scrap metal collector who lived among his piles of soda cans, the schizophrenic male who would rail and rant at the world in the middle of the road and the shops and clinic that I found temporary employment with during my school breaks. The said shops and clinic faced Jalan Welman, but this was the back alley that I rode my bike up to on my way to work.
And here’s the cinema that I actually patronised! It has since been converted into a tacky shop selling kitchenware. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was called ‘Rex Cinema’ and screened mostly English and Cantonese movies. My parents weren’t too happy with us frequenting the cinema as it was dirty and had an unsavoury reputation as the site of at least one rape incident and another murder incident, but I don’t think parental disapproval has ever stopped any youngster from doing anything they wanted! Not even finding a flasher behind the cinema stopped me from spending my allowance watching Batman movies at this grotty place. (The flasher wasn’t as dangerous to us as we were to him – my 2 female taekwondo teammates and I chased the flasher down on our bikes, yelling and whooping like Apache braves. The flasher stumbled and fell several times and almost got involuntarily castrated when his pants got caught on something. No-one ever saw the flasher again). My parents were right – the cinema was filthy to a fault. The flip-up seats were full of wood lice and the floor was full of sunflower seed shells that were never swept up. Sometimes, in the middle of a movie, rats would come out to eat the crumbs on the floor and we would be able to see the rats silhouetted against the cinema screen when they stood between the screen and the projector. I found the rodent shadow play hilarious and occasionally more entertaining than the actual movie. The cinema didn’t have a proper snack bar, but there were mobile (and probably unlicensed) concession stands that offered insalubrious treats such as garishly-coloured preserved fruits, cordial drinks that were probably nothing more than food dye and lots of sugared water, and crisps with enough monosodium glutamate to make all your hair fall out.
The Sri Veerakathy Vinayagar Temple has undergone a facelift in the last decade. My parents still dutifully visit this temple annually on Vinayagar Chathurti, or Lord Ganesha’s Birthday, which usually falls around August-Sept each year. I wouldn’t be so contemptuous of the current temple committee if they’d only try not to make a circus out of Vinayagar Chathurti by setting off firecrackers and having neon light displays on a day of meditation and prayer.
All roads lead back home – well, not all roads, but the old market road which passes by the front of two houses of worship leads to Old Waterfall Road, which in turn, leads to my neighbourhood. The Chinese Quan Yin temple marks the end of the town and the beginning of the residential areas.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time on the school field and unpaved rural roads practicing running, for I represented my sports ‘house’ in cross-country running and the 400m, 800m and 1200m track events. In retrospect, my love of long-distance running symbolised my desire to run away and flee from the small town ties and mindsets that tried to hold me down. A small town is no place for a young person with ambitions and ideals. At the age of 17, I saw my opportunity to run, and I did, never looking back. 16 years later, I don’t have to run any longer. I can’t say it feels perceptibly good to return, or that I feel any pride in this provincial town. But I can look back with a smile and a shrug, and remember the good times and good friends I had. There’s a life to be lived, and places to explore, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.