A day in Kuala Kubu Bharu
Entire towns don’t usually move, but after Kuala Kubu was hit by a series of floods in the early 1900s, it was decided that the town would be shifted to another site. This new location called for a name change and in 1930, the settlement became known as Kuala Kubu Bharu, or ‘New’ Kuala Kubu.
I was hungry for a train ride so one day I bought an early morning ticket to KKB, as the town is often referred to.
The farther north I travelled, the emptier the train became. It was a working day and all the gloomy-faced office workers had already gotten down at the KL Sentral, Bank Negara and Putra stations. On a day when other people were beginning a new week filled with new traffic jams, I was leaving them far behind.
By the time I reached Kuala Kubu Bharu, there were only two other people left in my carriage- an old lady and her son on their way to Tanjung Malim. I was the only one who got down.
I had visited KKB before but after my illegal taxi dropped me in town, as hard as I tried to compare Then and Now, I couldn’t. How much had changed? Were there any new buildings? Had the town changed at all, in the first place?
One thing I did notice about KKB was how few young people there were. It appeared to be a town of children and much older people, but almost no-one in their 20s, 30s or early 40s.
I wandered on to Jalan Mat Kilau and saw a white-haired man in a shop working on a sewing machine, beads of sweat rolling down his neck and onto his plump, shirtless chest. A freshly brewed cup of tea sat on a side table, its steam swirling in the air. It was a hot day.
“Hello, Uncle. Ini kedai jahit baju ya?” Is this a tailor’s shop, I asked, deliberately being obvious.
The man looked up and frowned. Man at work, interrupted.
“Ya lah. Lu mau apa?” What do you want, he asked, but not gruffly. He was about my father’s age.
“Takde, mau tengok-tengok saja.” I’m just looking, I told him. A low wooden bench leaned against the wall across him, so I sat down.
“Lu mau buat baju ka?” he asked, a hint of a smile appearing on his lips. He was teasing me; he knew I hadn’t come here to get measured.
The man was seventy years old and his name was Mr Loh Kon Sang. His late father opened the shop in 1958 when Loh was only fifteen. The young boy started off by doing odd jobs, then two years later went off to Kuala Lumpur to learn how to sew.
“I was nineteen when I came back and started making clothes. It was a good experience, helping my father. Back then, there were no clothes shops, everyone made their own clothes.
“Anyone who didn’t know how to sew would go to a tailor, so my father’s business was very important back then.
“We made clothes for a lot of people,” he looked up briefly and smiled, his feet working the pedal on the machine.
Hanging in a glass cabinet facing the road were several shirts, trousers, and one baju Melayu. I asked Loh about his children.
“My children are in Kuala Lumpur, making money. They’re not interested in all this,” he gestured.
Is that why there aren’t many young people in KKB?
Mr Loh nodded. “They’ve all gone to KL, money is much better there. Things have changed so much. Now it’s just me and my wife. What to do?”
Shops and department stores selling ready-made clothes have been making life difficult for him. “Everything is mass-produced now, they make hundreds of trousers and shirts in one go. I cannot do that. It’s shops like those which make tailors like me go bankrupt.”
He paused to turn over the trousers he was working on.
“Sekarang saiz baju semua tak kira punya. Besar, kecik, tak kisah, orang beli saja. Kalau seluar panjang, alter lah. Apa susah, bukan?” Part of the problem, he said, was that people no longer cared whether the clothes they bought fit them. They bought them anyway, because clothes could always be altered.
“But I cannot survive on just altering trousers and shirts. Even if people ask me to make their clothes, they will still keep on buying from big stores and I will keep on losing money,” he said, shrugging.
I asked Mr Loh if I could take a photo of him. “Yes, can, can. Wait, wait,” he said, putting on a shirt. He fished a comb from his shorts pocket and began combing his hair.
A large rectangular mirror with a carved wooden frame hung on the wall behind him. It reminded me of the ones in the antique shops in Malacca.
“That’s a very nice mirror,” I said.
He turned around. “Oh, it’s very old. It used to belong to my father, but he is dead now. That mirror has been around in this shop since I was a small boy.”
“How many people do you think have stood in front of it, while trying their clothes on?” I asked.
Mr Loh smiled proudly, his hair combed neatly and ready to be photographed. “Oh, very many. Hundreds, maybe.”
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