Growing Up In Trengganu

Monday, February 16, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #3942

Last Saturday another link with my past was severed when news came that my cousin had died. He was a cousin, but was more of an uncle to us as he was much older and was already working when we were too young to tie even a piece of string, let alone the dreaded shoelace. The last time we met must've been ten years ago, maybe more years than that.

When news came that he'd died, all I could think of was the dark tunnel and the heat, and people walking about in a colony on a hill so removed from the mainstream that it took hours to reach by train. We were all standing there at Sura Gate in Dungun, a little town described then - as now - as a sleepy place in many pages that I've read. But Dungun then was the outlet for all the iron ore of Bukit Besi, a town on the hills that produced iron from the earth; and my cousin worked there for an employer named - if my memory serves - EMMCO, the Eastern Mining and Metal Company.He stopped the train. Sultan Zainal Abidin III of Trengganu

Our journey would start from Sura Gate in Dungun which only had two rows of shop houses. The heat was intense, and the trains were a long time coming. The journey upwards, to the hill, was even longer, with the train going chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug around the next bend, and upwards into the green forest of the next incline. And it stopped and it stopped at every station that appeared along its journey in this wild, isolated terrain, and at midday in Trengganu the heat was intense. I heard someone say once that it was the heat of all that iron in the hills.

Sometimes it'd stop between stations for no apparent reason, standing there on the tracks in the eerie silence of the jungle with additional anxiety brought by the occasional hissing of the engine. And then it'd move again into the deep, dark tunnel, chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug with the anxiety overload. My auntie cautioned my mum once to hold tight to her handbag in a hushed conspiratorial tone. "Hold on to that, hold on to that, this is the tunnel of the roving hands," she said.

When Bukit Besi came within sight it was a great relief. It was a strange place, an artificial town built to serve the company, with workers living in lines and lines of company-built houses, uniform wooden structures on the terraces of the hill. It must've been a great place for the workers in this community of much camaraderie, fun even for the children who lived and grew up in this unique tin town unlike any other in Trengganu. It was because of this perhaps, or the long tedious journey that wore my patience, or the mists of isolation that hung over Bukit Besi that it never won a special place in my heart.

But this isn't to say there wasn't fascination enough. Anyone journeying there would return home with a piece of Bukit Besi ore to use as paperweight, or to show to disbelieving friends, and they'd always talk about this community on the hill that was so different from the rest of us. My late cousin, as I could see it, enjoyed his work, took an active interest in the welfare of his fellow workers (he was a union officer), and took a serious interest in photography whenever he could.

I was - and have always been - fascinated by trains, but cannot remember much else about the journey to the Bukit and back, except that it was arduous and tiresome, and I was always glad when it ended. But in having the train Bukit Besi was unique among Trengganu towns, as no train line runs anywhere else in the state by the royal order of the Sultan Zainal Abidin (d. 1918) (also known as the Marhum Haji), a devout man and one of the great Trengganu Sultans of modern time. He saw it only as a transport for the intrusion of all that'd corrupt the religion and the way of life in the state. And as for the social upheavel that it'd bring? No thanks, he wouldn't have any of that. And so it is that until today Trengganu is the only state in peninsular Malaysia that's not linked to the railway track.

I remember Bukit Besi now, and my cousin, with great sadness. Tin mining has ended in Trengganu, and Bukit Besi is no longer there to re-visit. And as for my cousin, I'm grateful to him for the memories he gave us of this unique place. God rest you dear cousin, may you be among the righteous and your life's works be rewarded.

February 16, 2004


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