JOHOR Baru teenagers used to refer to my hometown as Kulai-fornia, and briskly add on Masai-chusetts. Back in the Sixties, such taunts at school events like choral competitions, debates or sports competitions were just good old one-upmanship. We were good sports about such teasing, because yes, Kulai and Masai were then specks of peopledom compared with the state capital.
But today, it’s a parliamentary seat, and Johor’s ninth and the smallest district. Kulai-fornia now covers a host of little communities surrounding the main town including Saleng, Sengkang, Senai and Sedenak. It is within the Iskandar Malaysia economic zone (that includes the Johor Premium Outlet, woohoo), and now has three golf courses and its fair share of malls.
A far cry from when, as a child, the town had one main road, with rows of double-storey pre-war wooden shophouses on either side. Distance was marked by the milestones, and people referred to the town was being at the 19th milestone (to JB).
Everybody seemed to know each other. A walk to the wet market on Jalan Pasar, through gravel backlanes, drew greetings from aunties and uncles (although not related) asking where you were going, how your siblings were doing, and so on as they swept the porch with lidi-stick brooms, or sat on rattan chairs, with hand-held fans. I remember passing people with jade bracelets, samfus, blue-colour Bermuda-like shorts with Pagoda t-shirts.
Local historians claim the town cropped up around the 1890s, settled by the Hakka community.
The town, which local legend says was named for the tortoises (ku) that came out (lai) with heavy rains from Sungai Kulai, was to me filled with heavenly pau and dim sum family-run coffeeshops, bicycle shops, sinseh shops, tailors, barbers and hairdressers, fresh provision suppliers with biscuits in glass bottles and tins, seafood, pork and frog’s legs eateries.
The provision man would weigh the goods like vegeables or onions on a scale with weights. Once I reallt wanted a partcular biscuit, and gave him a precious marble as payment for that jam-filled biscuit. All I got was a stare! haha.
Chinese fare was found everywhere — from steamed white thick bread, slathered with butter and home-made kaya, mua chee, and meehoon soup with duck meat to banana-leaf wrapped bachang (Chinese glutinous rice dumplings) which had meat or could be eaten plain or dipped in sugar, Hainanese chicken chop and bittergourd soup.
I liked mua chee so much that my school friends took me to a house near the wet market, off Jalan Pasar, to show how it was hand-made. In that long, dim wooden house, the glutinous rice or millet had to be steamed until cooked, then pounded in a stone mortar by a pestle. The dough was spread over rattan baskets to dry before chunks of it were divided. Strips of it were cut and rolled in peanut bits to be popped into hungry mouths. I still like it, and appreciate the hard work that goes into making this traditional dessert.
Along with the gustatory delights came olfactory memories, like the outhouse and its malodorous bucket below the kidney-shaped hole. It was set at the back of the shophouse, within a concrete courtyard that we shared with a neighbour’s family whose son was my earliest best friend. The zinc sheet fencing kept us kids from running off to the railway tracks at the back, and blocked the view of dusty brown lanes and the sight of the night soil carrier who would lift a flap from the back of the outhouse to remove the bucket, with blue-bottled flies buzzing, and replace it with an empty one.
Life in the shophouse meant water was drawn from a well and my mum would wash clothes with a wooden washboard. The clothes would first be run through a handwringer before being hung out on lines in the courtyard. We kids had our chores like turning the handwringer.
Indoor plumbing came with a modern brick house at the 21st milestone, just in time for the start of school at the missionary-run English Primary School, with lay nuns Miss Richard and Miss Lovell and headmaster Mr Swanston. Kulai didn’t have a secondary school until 1965 or so. Before that, my elder siblings had to go to JB’s Infant Jesus Convent or English College (for boys).
Before the advent of television, my friends and I spent our time visiting the tikam hawker whose folded bits of paper on a board held such promises for 5 cents. A whistle, toy gun, tiny motorbikes. Past-times saw us playing five stones, shuttlecock kicking, skipping rope, hopscotch, badminton, pallankuli (similar to congkak), eating home-made Indian candy fairy floss or the hard bits from the “ting-ting” man. Both came on bicycles and the latter would break up the white rock candy with a hammer and chisel. The candy would stick to the teeth, and its sweetness was amazing.
There was also the dough-maker who made dough dolls on a stick. They were always g the Taoist gods and goddesses like Kuan Yin. The colours would fade as the dough hardened till it stopped off. So a moustache might fall off first, then the head… Today, Thean How Temple in Seputih has such dolls, but they are of the Marvel comic era.
One forbidden past-time was walking along the railway tracks. But we went anyway, waving to passengers as the train whizzed to Singapore’s Woodlands checkpoint or the other way. We would end up at Sungai Kulai to fish or jump into the water. Along the way were vegetable farmers, whose muddy patches had fish like guppies (the cheap variety), tiger barbs, cat fish and the common silver drain fish. Once, when trying to get those fish out for the bottle aquarium, my friend and I fell in a patch. That’s when we knew it was organic farming for the vegetable growers.
It was fun watching the local Chinese clan houses’ marching brass bands as they trooped proudly on the main road, on which end sat Bright Cinema, the first in the town. Sentosa Cinema came about a decade later, near the Kulai International Club, as the town expanded. That club hosted parties for adults, karate classes for kids, and new year’s parties for the families with live bands from around the vicinity. It was the Shindig! and Hollywood A-Go Go era which we saw on Singapore television. There was folk dancing class in school but no one did that at the parties.
The rubber estates and surrounding forest was then rife with flying foxes, wild boar, tigers and elephants. Sometimes we kids followed the adults on their hunting excursions with shotguns left over from the “Home Guard” era of the Emergency period. Flying foxes and wild boar ended up in the cooking pots. I never saw the bigger wildlife.
Sometimes the hunting trips were family outings to the Pulai Waterfalls, on the edge of now Kulai Baru and the exit to the North-South Highway. It was smaller than the Kota Tinggi Waterfalls, another favourite picnic place for Kulai folk. In that era, we changed behind batik sarongs.
When the outdoors didn’t call, Singapore TV certainly had its pull. It was black-and-white TV sets which soon gave way to colour screens.
While Radio Malaya improved my English with its BBC World Service shows, good antennas brought in Singapore TV’s afternoon enjoyment of soap operas for my mum with The Bold And Beautiful, Young And Restless and General Hospital. For the kids, there were non-violent shows like Lassie, The Waltons, Talentime that revealed the likes of Rahimah Rahim, variety shows with P. Ramlee and Anita Sarawak, and quiz shows like Science Challenge, Shakespearean plays and documentaries. I got to learn Negara Ku as well as inadvertently from TV, Majulah Singapura.
When the island republic separated from Malaysia in 1965, it meant nothing until I had to bid farewell to my school friend in Std 3 (today’s Year Three) as her family returned lock-and-stock barrel to Singapore.
As tragic for me was the flood of 1967 that saw the adults using sampans and kerosene-fuelled boats for search-and-guard work as the waters had filled the first floors of the shophouses. I don’t recall tortoises, though.
Growing up in Kulai meant almost fortnightly day-trips, by train or car, to Woodlands and Singapore’s amusement parks like Gay World and Haw Par Villa cultural park. With our blue restricted passports, the Causeway ride led to the newest movies, musicals and a truly memorable Billy Graham rally in Singapore’s old National Stadium, with a 4,500-strong choir. I had never before seen so many people in one place.
Today, the island republic offers the youths of Kulai lots of job opportunities and the town much appreciates the Singapore dollar. The eateries have made a name for exotic food, and weekends keep the many coffeeshops abustling, while golfers seasonally keep the 27-hole greens busy. Farmers still tend to their crops and vegetables, delivering greens daily.
The trains still stop at the small railway station.
** A shorter version appeared in the New Straits Times