Friday, 20 February 2009

The ‘Hairy Fruit Cape’

Upon stepping in the very small town from a connecting road from the suburb Bercham, it feels just like any other old and quiet town in many other parts of Malaysia. The town that is filled with low shop lots, a small market, mosque and temples, houses as well as lots of coconut trees. But one thing will definitely struck the mind of first time visitors of this town, making them wary of the people around them.

Nine miles from Ipoh, this is the place where people here have always been associated with psychiatric patients. The reason for that is no other than the psychiatric hospital built just behind the train station here.

This is actually logical as the town, ‘ hairy fruit cape’, or Tanjung Rambutan, prospered because of the Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta, according to an old resident here. It is funny to the residents here, when innocent visitors thought that this town should be filled with lunatics or mentally ill people.

There was even an old but popular saying, “send person X to Tanjung Rambutan lah”, which means that person X must be mad or crazy and must be sent to the asylum. That could be a joke or means serious business but anyhow, it showed how significant this town has made for an asylum. In fact, for some shy residents, they rather not let others know that their hometown is this particular town that housed the psychiatric patients.

This is rude but true, only when you go through the guarded gate of the hospital.
Even then, the view within is also not one would have thought logically. The place is not dark, gloomy nor filled with eerie figures. It is actually a heavenly grassland with lots of coconut trees, palm trees, and colonial buildings clustered here and there, with some new buildings built in recent years. That includes the half wooden chalets for staffs and many jail-like stone buildings of wards.

It is unbelievable but true. A story from locals is that a British couple with psychological illnesses came here for a retreat, and decided that this little hilly area could be perfect for people to recuperate. The couple later suggested to the government then to build a hospital here, for the benefit of those who needs it.

A story it is but indeed, the hospital was built here in 1910 with the land suggested by Dr W.F. Samuels, and he himself as the first medical superintendent here.

Completed in 1910, it was named the ‘Federal Lunatic Asylum’ at that time. With 3 male wards and one for female separated by a kitchen, the asylum started operating. In 1928, it was renamed as ‘Central Mental Hospital’.

In the 70s, to place a more positive image on the developing psychiatric treatments and its medical field, it was renamed again. This time, as Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta. And it grew from there being one of the renowned psychiatric hospital in Malaysia.

With 544 acres of land, 300 were used for buildings. The rest of the land was reserved for agricultural activities. However, in 2007, 41 acres of the land was given to Ulu Kinta College of Health Sciences. In fact, areas around also includes the less popular Maktab Perguruan Ulu Kinta and a ranger camp, as well as the hiking spot to Mount Korbu from here.

Now, there are 79 wards with 54 of them being the male wards and beds above 2000. According to a former attendant, at one point, the hospital reaches an amout of above 4000 patients.

The former attendant added that there were three shifts for them to watch over the patients, especially those in the ‘suicide’ block, where the patients have a high possibility of attempting suicide.

It was also heard that there was also a trial room around the institution during the Japanese occupation. The place mentioned has now turned into a welfare home.

Out of the hospital area, immediately beside is the brown old train station. Looking at the 19th century train station, it easily evokes one’s memory of the good old smoky trains by Keretapi Tanah Melayu. The sign board bearing the station’s name is still standing strong beside the entrance.

Hundred years ago, it was the major way for the Chinese squatter vegetable farmers to sell their produce all over Malaya.

Now, with the occasional KTMB (the formerly Keretapi Tanah Melayu is now Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad) cargo coaches passing by, the train has been converted into a local Malay eatery. Now, isn’t that more original or authentic than the ‘Kluang Station’ food and beverage franchise?

The mamak shack below did not do any renovation, as it still has the same old blue wooden plaques for the ‘walls’ from decades ago. They still serve the the tarik and roti canai to the locals, who usually will park their motorcycles just by the road side to enjoy their breakfast or brunch. To them, nothing beats these good old Malaysian favorites every morning.

Along the main road has the notable Tenaga Nasional Berhad building, a sekolah kebangsaan (government national school) S.K. Methodist with its nursery cum chapel, a vernacular Tamil school, as well as the old post office which is now full of weed.

It is saddening looking at the abandoned old building, which once served for the locals here. During weekdays where it operates, people can be seen queuing up, not only to send letters or parcels, but paying water and electricity bills as well, along with many other services it once provided.

One thing to take note is the building’s structure. It is the structure of the so called ‘government house’ which is similar to the Malay kampung houses.

There was a red post box which one will throw in their letters to be sent. However, it is nowhere to be seen now. No trace left behind for a feature which was once so common for everyone then.

Turning in from the corner from the train station, one will see the vernacular Chinese school, S.J.K. ( C ) Tat Choi. It was said that this school was set up by the local Philomatic Union, the reading club.

The sign bears the year 1929, commemorated as the 18th year of the Republic of China (da zhung hua min guo) which is established by Dr Sun Yat Sen.

In fact, there were many supporters of Dr Sun Yat Sen among the locals here who helped set up this school.

Walking into the inner street is the main shop rows. The colonial style building and peeling paint layers on the pillars and walls tell people their age and what they have been through.

One of the shop is the tailoring shop, which still make old fashioned or vintage coats, blazers and dresses. The wood and glass display shelves and cabinet are still there, seems to be trying to retain its glory.

The Indian barber shop is still operating, with the strong smell of its cologne bursting out from it. Opposite of it lays the old style pawn shops and the school’s alumni lot, with several sundry shops.

The coffee shops or kopitiams here shall not be forgotten, as they are still serving the taste buds that have eaten there decades ago. Ah, again, doesn’t that evoke the same feeling you have for the ‘Old Town Kopitiam’ franchise, or even stronger?
Apart from the economic various fried ( that is, fried vermicelli and different kinds of noodles), wan tan mee (dumplings noodle), kopi-O-gau (thick expresso), local toast from white fluffy bread, kayas (sweet coconut paste), perfect soft-boiled eggs, it also serve some of the most crunchy, nice-to-be-bitten yao zha guai and ham jin peng(Cantonese: the various fried doughs).

Every Sunday, this street will be closed for the pasar minggu (weekend market), which have stalls selling almost everything. Most important of all, it is very muhibah as it is not monotonous but includes people from all races. Thus, it is not surprise to find silver pots and sundries, kuih and Chinese herbs here all in one place.

Further down is the wet market which operates every day. It is just a platform under one roof, with lanes for customers to walk. Around the market would be the wooden stalls for different kinds of cooked food as well as the sundries. At the side, the balai raya (community hall) stood still without much noise.

The river beside is the Sungai Kinta which has turned murky. According to one of the residents here, it was clear during the olden days but has turned murky due to the deforestation further up the area. The mud from the loosened ground has gone into the river after the tree was removed. Plus, people used to throw their garbage into the river then, leaving it ‘disfigured’ from its original look.

One side of the river stands the police station. The other side was the mosque and temples for Sikh and Hindus.

The road there, Jalan Majlis, was once Jalan Caulfield from the British era.
Now, every year, the Hindu temples still raise major functions during Deepavali and Thaipusam. Devotees will be seen walking bare-footed with milk jugs on head to the major prayers held there.

It is nostalgic looking at this town. There is really not much difference from the same scene decades ago. Well, maybe some cars and people and posters.

The extremely slow development, or rather, ‘stunted growth’ of this town is probably nostalgic as well. The youth has been to the towns nearby to work or live. It is strange enough when the town nearby such as Ipoh Garden, Bercham and Tambun has gained such huge population and fame (for shopping centres, tourists spots and the new Sunway water theme park) while this town remain quiet and proceeding at its own pace.

In a therapeutic way, maybe it is good to remain in that condition, as a form of preservation to what our ancestors has started and lived for.

*end note: the writer has followed his attendant uncle into the Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta to take pictures discreetly, although taking pictures or any sort of recording is strictly prohibited from the institution. However, fate decided that the videos and pictures to be taken away in a ‘laptop damage’, probably as a punishment for recording illegally.

A dedication to the writer’s paternal family, especially her grandfather, and the town itself.

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