4) My Grandpa I never knew: Southern Stars @ Sungai Petani

SP Old photos

The ferry rocked gently when it struck Province Wellesley’s pier, and Kai Chang was roused from his revelry. He alighted and walked excitedly for the next leg of journey toward “Huay Chia Tao” or the train station. Trains were replacing coastal boats as the preferred mode of transport to Sungai Petani.

He had heard so much about the fire breathing locomotives, and he would not miss his very first life time ride on one. He purchased his ticket, and sat on the bench waiting for the train. Porters were busy stacking up cartons and gunny sacks of goods on the platform beside the rail track for quick loading onto the cargo coach. The platform was crowded and noisy. Some were saying their goodbyes, hugging and crying. Some were munching kacang putih, local peanuts bought from dark skin turbaned hawkers. A handful Englishmen were chatting casually over tea and biscuits.

The distant whistle announced the train’s arrival soon. She came majestically into view, quite an awe inspiring beast, proud gleaming black, and spewing out steam as she hissed to a screeching stop. Trailing behind her were 3 passenger and 1 cargo coaches. The locomotive was detached and she steamed onto the turntable to reverse her direction. It then steamed back in the opposite direction on a parallel track before being re-attached to the coaches.

Kai Chang boarded coach no: 2 and sat by the window seat. He wanted to enjoy the lush countryside scenery and refreshing breeze. Soon the locomotive started to hiss straining to pull the coaches, metal wheels squealing against metal tracks to gain traction. The station soon faded into the distance, and the train was chugging northward for Alor Star. The initial excitement soon wore off in monotony, and Kai Chang fought hard to keep his leaden eyelids open. Soon he dozed off into glancing greenery.

Had it not been a longer stop needed by the locomotive to quench her thirst from the water tower at Sungai Petani station, Kai Chang would have missed his stop. He licked his parched lips, rubbed his eyes and groggily stepped off the coach. He headed for the station’s canteen for a cup of coffee. Its aroma was disappointingly weak and taste pathetically thin. He took only one sip leaving the cup almost full and exited the station. The train station has been recently transplanted brick by brick and plank by plank to the town’s Silver Jubilee Park on her 100th anniversary.

The first thing that caught his attention was the town’s 12.1m golden dome Clock Tower built at the very centre of town. Next was the iconic HSBC building of red bricks against white washed walls with domes of Moorish design. Both still stand proud today as the town’s grand ole dames. Kai Chang paused in the shadow of the Clock Tower and gazed down the rows of new shop houses along the town’s main street, Jalan Ibrahim. The town was young and new, alive and abuzz, a hive of construction activities. He smiled for he had made the right choice.

He counted inaudibly in his heart the shop houses and stopped at 20. He gazed at her proudly. He could not stop tears from welling up. He headed toward Lot No: 20 Jalan Ibrahim. He anxiously fished out the keys from his pocket, opened the door and stood momentarily petrified at the doorway. He was overwhelmed by the task ahead, so many things to do, to order, to buy and to arrange. He needed to quickly furnish his very own shop and home. He was on his own. No family, relatives or clansmen to rely upon for support and help.

Five marble tables in the middle row accompanied by 4 chairs for each table, 3 wooden tables with benches along the left and right walls, 6 ceiling hung kerosene lamps, cups and saucers, forks and spoons, brass boiling pot, coffee roasting drum and many other items were mentally noted as immediate essentials. Four rooms upstairs for rental must be fitted with beds, mattresses, sheets and pillows and side tables.

Within a short spate of time, Kai Chang was ready for business. He chose an auspicious day for the momentous grand opening. He lit joss sticks and prayed for good fortune. He then lit fire crackers to ward off evil. A lion danced to the rhythm of the drum in celebration amidst more deafening cracks of fire crackers.

On the appointed time, Kai Chang proudly unveiled the name he had chosen for his shop. He had chosen well. “Lam Seng” or Southern Stars, calligraphically written in proud and bold strokes, and in shiny gold against charcoal black background, was both captivating and endearing, a well chosen name indeed. The name plaque was hung on the top of the entrance of his shop. The celebration continued with all present treated to a sumptuous spread of food and free flow of drinks.

Southern Stars or Southern Cross constellation is the most distinct of all the southern constellations, eternally unwavering in the night sky, guiding sailors and travellers of old. Kai Chang chose the name to constantly remind him of his father’s unwavering guiding hands. Each night after a hard day’s work, he would gaze upon the name and draw comfort from them. They would soothe his aching heart for he missed his parents and bothers dearly.

Life went back to clockwork and business was brisk. Kai Chang would rise before 6 am to stoke the charcoal fire, to bring the water to a boil ready for his first patron. He took special care when preparing coffee, usually piping hot, thick bitter and sweet topped with a slice of butter.

Breakfast of bread, toasted to perfection over charcoal amber, with coconut jam and butter spread generously on each slice, then pressed together or “marry” them. Sometimes, they were diced into bite size cubes. “Roti Kahwin” in local Malay made by Kai Chang was simply heavenly. Occasional orders of half boiled eggs, usually two, lightly salted with soya sauce and a dash of pepper for those looking for a more sumptuous breakfast were prepared with similar care.

Another morning favourite was “Nasi Lemak” or coconut milk flavoured rice with a splash of spicy curry anchovy wrapped with banana leave in the shape of a cone, a local Malay staple, not only simple and delicious but affordably cheap, at 5 cents a pack. Those were the days when 5 cents coins were said to be as big as a bullock cart’s wheel.

Lunch was usually another Malay staple, “Nasi Gulai Campur” or white rice with curry fish or chicken and the day’s vegetables for the afternoon’s patrons were mostly Eurasians and Malays from the town’s administrative centre across the road. Dinner on the other hand was more an Indian fare, “Tose”, “Capati” and “Putu Mayong” to cater to the fairly large Indian migrants working in the surrounding rubber estates.

Regular patrons would record on their own their spending in their respective “555” booklet and settle only at the end of the month. Kai Chang knew them and trusted them. Those were the days. Enjoying a cuppa over a conversation into night, exchanging news or rumours or town’s gossips or just to relax was an affordable indulgence. Patrons were allowed to leave at their leisure.

Only then would Kai Chang shutter his shop and turn off the kerosene lamps. He would then record his day’s takings before dutifully frying and grinding coffee beans for the next day. He would take a quick bath before retiring for the night around 11 pm. It was the same routine every day except the 1st day of the Chinese Lunar New Year when he rested.

Within a short span of 4 years, Kai Chang had quickly established himself as the town’s coffee king. He bought another shop, named “Chip Seng” and partnered in two more shops, “Yew Seng” and “Tai Teong”. He needed extra helping hands. It was time to go back home to Fuzhou again to visit his parents and brothers, and also to recruit help from relatives and friends.

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