An Inadvertent Time Traveler

The training gig was scheduled to take place at the client’s training academy located in the quaint little town of Batu Gajah. Thinking about it, I realised that this was perhaps a peculiar (if not unfortunate) name for a town. Brushing aside the recurring vision of pachyderm testicles being displayed proudly by the townsfolk in the town square, I started my long lonely drive.

I thought the drive would take me to yet another faceless town like the many faceless towns we were likely to find off the beaten track. Instead, I found myself in a place where I had never been before but felt as if it was one where I had been all my life. Instead of arriving at yet another non-descript business destination, it felt as if I had found myself in a place I would have called home had I been around in the late 40s or early 50s.

That my vision inexplicably turned into sepia tones as I crossed Sungai Kinta on a typically over-engineered JKR bridge on the outskirts of town should have told me something of the things to come. The more modern houses were not unlike the ones you’d find in Petaling Jaya in the early 60s. The older ones reminded me of the old colonial government quarters that had cool, 12-inch thick walls and would probably survive a nuclear attack. No, I hadn’t just arrived in Batu Gajah: I had somehow come home.

Along the way, the mature trees lining the road seemed to join overhead creating a much welcomed canopy that created a mottled pattern of sunlight on the road. As part of the welcoming committee, a cooling breeze blew from the east – which was just as well because somewhere past Sungkai my air-conditioning had died. Suddenly, I was no longer in a hurry to locate the training academy.

It was time for a good cup of coffee. I pulled up in front of an old-school coffee-shop that had an equally old-school Chinese name. No doubt about it. It was an honest-to-goodness kopitiam. No, it wasn’t one of those overpriced coffee-shops masquerading as a kopitiam: it was the real thing! There was an old Chinese geezer (probably the proprietor himself) who was dressed in the mandatory blue-striped, light cotton, draw-string shorts and the equally mandatory Pagoda T-shirt. He wore round gold-rimmed glasses and looked as if the last time he had smiled was when the Japanese left Malaya.

“Apa mau?!” he asked. It was more of a challenge than a question. I felt right at home immediately.

But when the coffee came, it was well worth the proprietor’s questionable customer service ethic. It was Hainanese coffee as it should be: thick, sweet and buttery – the kind that stuck to the side of your throat. The coffee went down a treat with two (or was it three?) sticks of Winstons. On my way out I bought some Hacks cough drops that came out of a tall bottle with a rusty screw-on lid. Yes, the bottle had probably been there since the Japanese left Malaya, too.

A Moor-inspired clock tower stood guard over Batu Gajah’s main junction.  The dome glistened in the sun as the breeze blew past the old shophouses of the almost deserted main street. I could not fight the feeling that even if you took a nap in the middle of the street, no harm would come to you: the only traffic – probably a Pos Malaysia van – would only come trundling along by Monday morning.

Going past the old golf course I saw the District Officer’s official residence in all its splendid colonial glory. It stood on what appeared to be an acre of the most perfectly manicured lawn I had ever seen – tended to, no doubt, by a team of gardeners headed by a mandur who would invariably be called Maniam. Meanwhile, inside the colonial mansion’s pristine white walls, I imagined a Chinese manservant (usually called simply Ah Pek)- wearing a stiff linen tunic with brass buttons – standing guard over the tea service of Darjeeling and scones, waiting for the Tuan to come. At the same time, somewhere upstairs, the Malay nanny – usually called Gebab – was probably struggling to apply Cuticura talcum power on the tyrannical little ones after their late afternoon bath.

It was a déjà vu moment if there ever was one.

Perhaps because I was there standing with my jaw hanging down my chest for a good fifteen minutes, a policeman came around to enquire if I had a problem. I politely said that I didn’t. But that was one big lie. I had a problem alright; I had a problem the likes of which I had never seen before: I wanted to be the District Officer of Batu Gajah! But I couldn’t tell him that, could I? So, as I sullenly climbed into my beat-up Proton and I asked him the way to the training academy. He obliged a little bit too quickly – perhaps relieved that he had gotten rid of a glassy-eyed lunatic who could very well have been a terrorist.

On the way to the training academy, I spotted the local KFC and 7-Eleven. Immediately the dream was shattered and I found myself jolted back into post-independence Malaysia.


10 thoughts on “An Inadvertent Time Traveler

  1. I love the colonial bungalows too. I grew up in one

    Btw..where can we get the oh-so-comfy Pagoda singlets these days?


    Lucky you! And I bet you had your version of Maniam, Ah Pek and Gebab to boot, too.

    Pagoda T-shirt? Try your local Mydin, ma’am. They are usually located at men’s undies. If that fails, drop me a line and state your size. I’ll be glad to get you some. The sundry shop in Merlimau stocks authentic Pagoda T-shirts.

  2. Dear Sofian

    If I somehow got to time travel to the past, first thing I would get bothered is would I have the mental frame to live out the period I have now got into.

    Not you apparently if somehow you are transported to colonial Malaya. You would just know what to do won’t you? Even the houseboy wouldn’t bat an eye greeting you “Tuan!”

    For me I probably worry – busily thinking my teeth would be too white and that would have given me away!

    Red Alfa

    That’s a perennial problem with me, sir. Not only in a time travel scenario, but also in everyday life: I am too busy trying to live out colonial Malaya even now in 2010. I guess I wasn’t born very smart 🙂

  3. ..ahh..sofi…if you were to look closely you would have seen a a 13yr old boy in white shorts and shirts, a little bit uncomfortable in his white socks and shoes, messy haired, on his way to school..Sultan Yusoff School..and its the mid-fifties…and home was on Owen Road and school was just a short walk took me home, took me home, too…


    You wouldn’t, by any chance, be the son of the D.O., would you?

    Messy haired? Nah, we used Brylcreem by the gallon back then 🙂

  4. Yes Boe, the post office stopped using snails when they found out snails sleep 3 years out of their life-span of maybe 8! But BG junction is not BG junction without the post office – where it was thought to be once the site of the elephants’ post where missives from hulu and hilir were sorted and exchanged. The “batu” in the name denotes a kind of milestone marker – i doubt it’s referring to the elephants’ treasury, but then what do I know about elephants or the post office for that matter 😉


    I have it on good authority that when it comes to things postal, you are the one to have the last word. So, I guess your take on BG’s history is the definitive version.

    The testicle theory was naughtier, tho…

  5. Wow Matt, thanks for this blast from the past trip, F’me dead, now u just reminded how old I am…kakaka. I could jolly well be that old Apek proprietor of that authentic kopitiam. And U forgot to mention he probably had a ‘Good Morning’ tea towel he used to wipe those marble tables with.

    I just love those old colonial building, fortunately somebody had the good sense to preserve & heritage list them. Good job u sepia tone these photos.

    If only u were smoking Senior Service no filter, or Craven A,u would have fitted in that time period state of mind…kekeke.

    Thanks for the memory Boe!


    P/S- BTW, do u know what the acronym of Winston is?
    > ‘Wa Ingat Nak St**m, Tapi Orang Nampak…hahaha, we were real rascals then Bet u know all the other ciggie brands acronym, if not ask Pakmat. My personal favourite if Gold Leaf 😉


    Gold Leaf? Go-On-Lie-Down-Let’s-Enjoy-A-Film? Close but not quite right, eh?

    Yeah! How could I forget the Good Morning towel! That’s part of the uniform. And Yes, if Senior Service and Craven A were still on the market, I’d be smoking one of those!

  6. i was born in batu gajah way back in 1959 but i have never seen batu gajah or been to batu gajah all my adult parents left batu gajah in 1961 after my dad quit the army. i believe we stayed at the army quarters then.i think i’d better make an effort to see batu gajah soon.thanks sofian for the wake up call.


    Batu Gajah is a wonderful place. It will be worth that long overdue trip.

  7. “Those were the days of our lives
    The bad things in life were so few
    Those days are all gone now but one thing is true
    When I look and I find I still love you”

    – The late Freddy Mercury of Queen


    This sums it all up!

  8. Salam Tuan,
    Interesting write-up on Gajah punya Batu, now I wonder about Gajah punya Alor? Hahaha… btw, Tommy Yew mentioned about “sepia tone those photos”… they looked great! Is there any way of getting that effect with digital cameras of 21st century? Looking forward to your next posting Bro.!

    Dhahran Sea

    I don’t own a DSLR (yet) but I suppose they have this capability. However, I process the pics (to get the sepia effect) using either Macromedia Fireworks or run them through

    Have fun trying the technique, bro!

  9. I used to be very fascinated by old old houses like these.. until one day, a friend of mine told me that places like these are the favourite hideouts for the mahluk halus. I am one who is inclined to roll my eyes and give a lopsided smile when someone tells me stuff like these. But for this instance, I thought I would take note coz my friend happened to have what one calls a “third eye”. *chuckles*


    I think the makhluk halus just add to the mystique of these old houses. Anyway – if we thought about it – makhluk halus are everywhere, not just in old homes.

    The trick is to avoid the ones that strangle us in the middle of the night to drink our blood 🙂

  10. These colonial buildings, they do have a certain charm, dreamlike quality about them, yes? The DO’s official residence could have been built in between 1890s to 1900… To still see it in all its glory and the land in splendour, I can understand your wanting to be the DO. And posting the picture in sepia tone, you kind of give the residence a surreal mix of fact and fantasy look.

    I like this post, Sofian. It made me do a research on Batu Gajah, why it was thus named and also led me to the discovery of a beautiful website (We learn and discover new things everyday…)

    It can be pretty taxing traveling anywhere, by car but it gives you the chance to encounter quaint towns and discover many beautiful things too, yes? The experience, I think, is priceless. But you need a full tank and a working air conditioning, of course…

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