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Time distorts, and its greatest distortion, more than 30 years after I left Taiping where I spent my childhood and teenage years, was in the dimensions of the house I grew up in.
It had seemed so large when I was a boy. The rooms and garden that I had wandered through in the spacious idleness of youth now looks small, even toyish. Back then, time and space seemed to stretch on forever. Now, not only the space seems constricted but the passing time also seemes compressed.
Nonetheless it was a pleasure to see that the old house was still standing stolid against time. The house, on Cator Avenue, which was subsequently renamed Jalan Panglima, had been built by the British. My father was particularly proud of that fact, partly because it was British built and, I suspect, partly because he could purchase something that had been built by the Brits. It was in the early 1960s when he bought the house, and there was that strong residue of colonial admiration/antipathy in most things.
Time had also shrunk the road leading to my house, making it look narrow. My neighbors houses had also taken on different appearances since I last saw them. Some had become decrepit, others abandoned, others passed on to children or sold off to strangers. Some looked like they have had a new lease of life breathed into them through renovations, others looked sad and forlorn, marking time before inevitable decay.
Apart from that, however, the other aspects about Taiping seemed pretty much intact, with very few changes in the past three decades. The significant change is that they now have a Tesco and a Giant supermarket . And trafffic lights. Otherwise Burmese Pool remains much as it was, bouldered with rushing water and refreshing with a smell that is a mix of water vapor and decay of the forest.
Something’s that changed, however, is Coronation Pool, at the foothill of Maxwell’s Hill. They’ve tarted up the place and it nowhas modern pools. I tried to get in to get a look but the ticket collector would not let me in unless I paid. He did give me a spiel on how it was the only pool in Malaysia with pure water from the hills that is devoid of chlorine that makes your hair difficult to manage, your eyes sore and your skin itchy. So they now have a sales pitch as well.
One institution that’s remained is Ah Lan Che’s chicken noodles. It’s now in a shoplot with the official name of Restoran Kakak on Jalan Pasar but the food and many of the waiters there still remain the same, even after four decades. It’s still one of the most popular breakfast hangouts in Taiping, harkening back to a time that is Pre-Starbucks.
The government offices, dating back to colonial times are still there. And the Lake Gardens remain pristine in its beauty (see previous post).
The railway station, however, has come in for huge changes. Malaysia is in the throes of building a dual track high speed railway from north to south. Apparently the initial plan was to do away with the over a century-old railway station (that constitutes one end of the first railway line in Malaya). But after there were some protests they decided to build the new railway lines some distance behind the railway station, leaving the building intact.
The Taiping market remains very much as it was when I was a boy. The century-old steel and wood building still stands, looking a bit decrepit but still serviceable. It is roomy, airy and seen much history.
One feature that still survives and is quite remarkable considering the price of things these days are the pork-seller’s stalls. Made of concrete, these stalls are unique in that they have huge solid marble slabs for tops. My sister and I could not help wonder what the marble slabs alone would cost these days.
My old secondary school, St George’s, has seen few changes but one major change is that it’s now all locked up in the weekends, with the only access through the main gate with a sentry. Its a testament of times and innocence lost. Once you could stroll into the school compound at will through three or four unguarded gates. Go there to meet friends, play basketball or just to wander through its storied halls. But no more. I guess they have theft, drug addicts, child predators and other ills of modern life to deal with these days.
One institution nearby is Ansari’s, home to very delish cendol, pasembor (rujak to KL-ites) and the best gandum. The cendol and pasembor are still there but unfortunately they’ve stopped serving the gandum.
One thing that seems to have changed, and this seems to be a common theme throughout Malaysia, is in the sense of security. Speaking to friends who still live there, you get the impression that everyone’s a little afraid for the own safety. We were treated to lots of stories of Indian gangs extorting and robbing residents. It seems that some Malaysians of Indian origin, a group has had a rough time economically in Malaysia, have resorted to gangsterism and crime to make a living. The Indians are now apparently leading Triads and extortion rackets.
In spite of the changes, however, Taiping still remains quintessentially the small town I grew up in. Two days is too short a time to visit the place and Unspun plans to bring the wife and the Unspunlet there for a longer stay the next time. There is still the Zoo, the temple with the dometicated wild boars, Austin pool, Maxwells Hill and other favorite haunts to rediscover.
Oh yeah, there was also the oddly named store. Imagine sleeping on Simony or in the Mlay-ised spelling Simoni.