(The Star 22/1/2006)
ARE we near the bridge?” my five-year-old son, Aiman, asks as I pull out of the toll booth at the Tangkak Exit of the North-South Expressway.
“We’ll be there in about 30 minutes,” my wife replies. Five minutes later, as I am negotiating the winding Tangkak-Muar highway, Aiman pops up in my rear view mirror and asks again, “Are we near the bridge?”
We are on our way to the riverside town of Muar, the place I was born 40 years ago.
Once, before the completion of the 772km North-South Expressway that stretches from Singapore in the south to Thailand in the north, Muar was Johor’s gateway to the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia.
Today, the trip that would have taken three to four hours from Kuala Lumpur, only takes two hours, if you abide by the speed limits.
From the toll plaza, we turn left, guided by the signboard that points to Muar.
The drive on the undulating road leading to the Muar Bridge and into Muar town, is actually quite pleasant. But before it was widened and resurfaced, the fatality rate on this stretch of road was probably one of the highest in the state.
Some say that the deadliest part was where it passed by a Chinese cemetery. Stories of spectres waving at passing cars at night or figures that suddenly appeared in the middle of the road were said to be the main causes of the fatalities.
Today, the people you see waving at you along the way are flesh-and-blood durian sellers. The thorny fruit is priced from 30sen a kilo at the peak of the season to RM10 a kilo at non-peak season.
The roadside scenery changes as we head towards Muar: From durian orchards, decorative plant nurseries, rubber trees, latex processing plants and other factories to the famous (or infamous) Chinese cemetery, then quaint village houses, from old traditional wooden ones to modern double storey mansions. Along the way we pass through the two small towns of Sungai Mati and Bukit Kangkar, before the road widens into two lanes in either direction as we approach the new bridge.
This bridge and the road before and after it, known as the Muar Bypass, was completed in late 2004 to accommodate those going to other towns further down south, without having to go through Muar town. It is a 632m state-of-the-art cable-stayed bridge that begins from the Parit Bunga Interchange. One road leads directly to Malacca, one to the new bridge and the other to the old bridge and Muar town.
The old bridge was built in 1967, replacing a ferry system of transport from one side of the river to the other. Even after over three decades, the still sturdy Sultan Ismail Bridge remains a majestic landmark for those travelling down south.
Anglers love to lower their lines from its highest point, but of late, the authorities have decided to enforce the “No Fishing on the Bridge” signs at both ends of the bridge.
Over the crest and finally, we arrive at my hometown. Commonly known as Bandar Muar, this township was inaugurated as Bandar Maharani in 1887 by Maharaja Abu Bakar.
Subsequently, Muar became a commercial centre for the west coast of Johor. The history of Muar is rather vague, though many Muarians (as we like to call ourselves) pride themselves that Parameswara, the founder of the Malacca Sultanate, hung around Muar for a few years before moving on to Malacca. So, while that state is known as the cradle of Malay Rule in the Peninsula, we remind ourselves (and others) that Muar was mentioned in the annals of history before there ever was Malacca.
But there is probably some truth about Muar being a commercial centre. Even today, some specialties are still sought in Bandar Maharani. Coffee brews, some types of spices and even soft freshly baked loaves of bread and its “kaya” can only be found here.
“Mee Bandung” is exclusively Muar, though now adulterated versions of it is sold countrywide and I for one will only eat this noodles-in-gravy delicacy in my hometown. Even the satay in Muar has its own distinctive taste, especially the peanut sauce. The Muar version of the briyani rice, too, is unique and well known all over the country.
My children love coming to Muar. They especially love the monkeys that have populated the park at the very end of the Muar River where it meets the Straits of Malacca.
The mangrove area, once a lovers’ haunt, now is overrun by macaques. I suspect development further down south along the coast has forced them to migrate here. Besides, food is in abundance. On weekends, this monkey haven is crowded with tourists bringing peanuts, bananas and junk food.
Driving around and around in the town centre – and I mean around and around as all the roads are one way streets to ease congestion – is a nostalgic journey down memory lane. The corner bookshop where I used to buy the daily news for my father (Kedai Buku Manaf), the tailor we went to once a year to make our traditional clothes (Lajat Tukang Jahit), the Chinese coffeeshop where my father took us for a treat (usually after a doctor's visit), are all still as I remember them some three decades ago.
The most nostalgic of places is my primary school, the Ismail School. It was the school to go to in Muar. Probably still is. New blocks have been built to cater for more students, but the British styled original buildings are well preserved and are where I had the best and the worst times of my life. I especially remember our British educated Chinese music teacher teaching us strange songs with strange titles like Santa Lucia, Loch Lomond and The Minstrel Boy. We sang at the top of our voices, not understanding a word of the lyrics.
But then, not everything stays the same. The town is busier now, where once trishaws and bicycles rule the streets, now they cower at the roadsides as motorcycles, cars and lorries rush past.
My old favourite Malay restaurant, where I thought the best Mee Bandung in town was served, is gone. Word has it that the owner had died. One shop where I used to buy songkoks and other traditional costume accessories burnt down. The Rex and Cathay cinemas which I patronised after school are now bazaars selling plastic ware and the old shopping plaza has become a big shopping complex.
The area behind the majestic Sultan Abu Bakar building which houses government offices, where my friend and I used to meet almost every evening a couple of decades ago, is now fenced up for (I assume) security purposes. The Muar General Hospital where I was born is now the Sultanah Fatimah Specialist Hospital.
It seems that each time I come back to Muar, I feel more like a visitor than a local, more like a tourist than a hometown boy. And I guess, when God one day takes my dear old mother away, this town will become more alien, as there will be little motivation to come here, except to visit my elder sister, maybe every Hari Raya.
But we can never deny our roots. Even as I have put down roots very comfortably in Subang Jaya, Selangor, the hometown of my children, I will always (and proudly) be a Muarian.