Raja Chulan Raja Ahmad Tajuddin reminisces the variety of food available in the Kuala of yesteryear, as well as enjoying ais kacang with your lady friend whilst enjoying music from the juke box at Restoran Ghee Kheng. Bring on the good times!
Kuala Kangsar now has a new bus terminal and supermarket where previously stood the famed Ghee Kheng restaurant. Along the same street is the Double Lion Restaurant still offering the best home-made sekaya that goes well with its own-baked Hainanese bread, especially charcoal toasted. Along this street too is the 100-year old Tsung Wah Chinese school, still standing proud today, with Sungai Kangsar flowing behind the school grounds. Spanning this part of the river was an old hanging bridge then only accessible to pedestrians, pedal cyclists and small motorcyclists. This was my short cut to school and the town when I was staying at Bukit Residen (Resident Hill), passing through small footpaths in this Chinese village. And being a river-boy this bypass became my haunting ground playing truant, irresistibly charmed by the river with its clear and swift flowing stream.
The only other landmark this part of Kuala then was the Grand Theater, besides Ghee Kheng. In the 70’s, no cinema theatre would thrive without its own food court, enticing cinemagoers for a bite before or after a show. Ghee Kheng would come alive after six in the evening, offering local Chinese and Malay cuisine – the favorites being its ais kacang and lin chi kang. For the young cinemagoers, it was not so much the food that attracted them but the chance to play the jukebox.
Remember films when Elvis would enter a restaurant and get into a fist-fight over a girl? And he would then play the juke box and wooed the girl with his hip-swinging rocking song? Where else in Kuala could you find a juke box but at Ghee Kheng! School-going teenagers would starve themselves during morning breaks at school just to save their meagre pocket money to treat their girlfriends at Ghee Kheng. Chatting over a large bowl of ais kacang, they would dedicate songs from the juke box to their partners. There were no DJ’s, so they had to pluck the courage to ask, “mike suke lagu ape?” But to my recollection, no boy was brave enough to literally shake his hips singing to Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock in front of his lass, let alone in public!
If you watched the late shows at the cinema and spent late hours at Ghee Kheng, you would have missed the bus which stopped its services before nine. After nine, you had to make do with the prebet sapu, which were the unmetered illegal taxis. The choice we had of riding iin comfort were the Holdens and Peugeot 404’s!
Kuala Kangsar might not have its own leaning tower like Telok Anson (now Teluk Intan) but we Kuala Kangsarians took pride in our jam besor. During British rule, it must have been one of the biggest clock tower ever erected in a town centre for it to be called as such.
Near the jam besor was the old bus station, located in a backstreet between two rows of shops. For the convenience of the commuters and the townsfolk, there were some hawker-stalls-on-wheels. We were not short of choices to whet our appetites.
For thirst quenchers, there was cendol Pak Talib, who was always wearing his kopiah. Pak Hassan popiah was all smiles when serving his regular customers. Clad only in his short-sleeved Pagoda T-shirt and kain pulicat, one cannot miss his big leather belt with its pouches. For the lovers of mee mamak, there was mee Pak Desa, a rather taciturn man whose son was my classmate at Clifford. And laksa Pak Ngah was a must, especially for the ladies and it remains popular till now. At that time, pau Ah Lok was not in contention, hardly popular at all like it is today.
Despite the small size of their businesses, these food sellers were successful in providing for their families, schooled their children (many of whom went to school with me, like Pak Desa’s son), bought their own houses (the rumah murah Jalan Kenas) and performed their Hajj. Their subsequent success from hard work were an inspiration to me, and may Allah bless their souls! Amin.