An unfortunate engine problem turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Alan Teh Leam Seng
“COME on, please start! Please...,” I implore my 17-year-old Proton Iswara when its engine suddenly dies. Guiding the vehicle safely to the side of the road using what little momentum is left, I recall passing by a repair shop a while ago.
I quickly walk to the shop and explain my predicament to the mechanic who speculates that it may be the fuel pipe that is giving trouble.
We walk back to my car and the mechanic soon confirms his hunch. He remarks that I am fortunate as my car has chosen to stop at a place where help is readily available.
I concur as I would have been in trouble if my car had given up along the highway or some deserted stretch of road.
Thanking my lucky stars, I observe the mechanic going about his work. “This is going to take a while,” he remarks, adding that it is better that I take a walk around town.
My reply that there’s not much to see in Kampar draws a rebuttal from the mechanic.
“Eh, this is a very exciting town if you care to look carefully. See this adjacent building. It may look run down but it was once a popular cinema operated by Eng Wah Entertainment company," he says, pointing at the word “PRINCESS” still clearly displayed at the front of the building.
He continues, obviously caught up in the past, especially his cinema-going days.
“Back in the 1960s, my friends and I would queue up for tickets to the weekend matinee shows. They cost less than 40 cents. We watched mainly romantic Chinese and period movies,” he reminisces before heading back to his shop.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
My curiosity is piqued. I am game to find out what other secrets that Kampar may have for me.
Taking one last look at the Princess, which is now the Foo Fah furniture shop, I begin to imagine hawkers lining the front of the cinema selling tidbits such as freshly roasted peanuts, sunflower seeds and fruits. Those buying the fruit slices would smother them with salt and chilli from little bottles using long-handled spoons.
My walk along Jalan Idris, one of Kampar's most important thoroughfares, reveals a mixture of century-old shophouses interspersed with new multi-storey buildings.
Despite the presence of modern buildings, the town's unmistakable old-world charm still exudes from almost every corner.
A little further down the same road is Restoran Yau Kee. Attracted by the large advertising board promoting roti ayam (which literally translates to chicken bread), I decide to walk in.
Priced at RM30, the roti ayam is a large loaf of freshly-baked bread with a packet of chicken curry as its filling. A sign on the wall lists the ingredients used to make the filling. Among them are curry foam, lemon grass, coconut milk and curry leaves.
The shop assistant explains that the bread, sufficient for two or three adults, is broken up at the top to expose the plastic bag containing the curry. Then pieces of the bread are broken off from the sides and dipped into the curry before eating.
Her recommendation to consume the dish fresh at the shop is met with disappointment. It is impossible for me to finish this unique Kampar dish on my own.
As a consolation, I settle for a box of lotus paste biscuits which are reputed to be equally popular. The restaurant, which opens from 7am to 10pm daily, sells the biscuits at RM2.20 each.
Feeling hungry, I quickly finish one even before leaving the shop. The palm-sized snack has a flaky crust and a generous smooth filling which is not too sweet.
I continue walking until I reach the end of Jalan Idris. The spanking new Lotus Five Cinema comes into view as soon as I turn into Jalan Baru.
Having just recently acquired an interest in cinemas, I decide to approach an elderly man at a television repair shop across the road to get more information.
I learn that this is the site of the former Rex Cinema which was demolished some years back.
Rex was among the four principal cinemas that existed in Kampar during the early 1960s. Being the main source of entertainment, cinemas enjoyed brisk business then.
Apart from Princess and Rex, the other two popular places that screened movies were Majestic and Sun.
I am taken aback when the technician tells me that, like Princess, Majestic and Sun also operated out of Jalan Idris. How could I have missed them during my walk just now? The only possible explanation is that, like Rex, they could have been demolished or heavily renovated beyond recognition.
In the past, the Rex cinema screened movies produced by Shaw Brothers exclusively. During that time, silver screen divas such as Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Li Ching and Cheng Pei Pei reigned supreme.
Fans packed the halls each time movies featuring their favourite stars were shown. Most movies were either in English or Mandarin with English subtitles. Interestingly, Rex never screened Cantonese movies despite it being the dominant dialect in Perak.
A customer arrives with a faulty television. I thank the elderly man for his time and invaluable knowledge about Kampar's cinematic past. I check my watch and estimate I still have roughly 40 minutes left before I head back to the workshop.
Jalan Gopeng, which runs parallel to Jalan Idris, is the busiest road in Kampar. Commerce here consists mainly of traditional coffee-shops, goldsmiths and family-owned retail outlets.
While it shares many similarities with Jalan Idris, Jalan Gopeng has a markedly higher number of pre-war shophouses which are well-preserved. Many still have their original wall tiles that are very colourful and attractive.
Two buildings stand out — the Persatuan Koo Kang Chow building and the Persatuan Nam Phun Soon building.
The former is inspired by bold art stucco elements. Its roof features a high broken pediment topped with five finials, each resting on a square base.
Occupied by Lam Yin Agricultural Trading company on the ground floor, most of the interior has been heavily renovated. There are hardly any remnants that give me an inkling of what the association used to be like in the past.
Lady Luck smiles on me when I reach Persatuan Nam Phun Soon which is just a few doors away.
Peeping through the open window panes, I notice dark wood mother-of-pearl chairs and tables lining the entire side of the living hall.
My hunch about those being the places of honour for the elders during meetings is proven correct when I step inside and strike a conversation with the friendly caretaker.
She must have been glad to have someone to talk to, judging by her vigour when describing momentous events held since the building was completed in 1938.
The funds needed for the construction of this building, which has a facade that hints of Chinese and Art Deco influences, were mostly contributed by wealthy Chinese merchants who made their fortunes from either tin mining or trading.
TIME AND TIME AGAIN
Before seeing me off at the door, the caretaker drops me a hint after noticing my deep interest in Kampar's history.
“Walk along this corridor until you arrive at the last unit. Look carefully at the ornate ventilation grills above the main entrance as well as the old clock there,” she says, insisting that I pay special attention to the inscriptions on the vintage timepiece.
I easily locate the clock, which measures more than a foot in diameter.
Inscribed with the date 1914, it has all its 12 numerical digits replaced with the alphabets forming the words “Ban Seng Leong” or “Ten Thousand Successful Prosperities”.
This famous company owes its existence to a certain Yeoh Chin Kee who started off as an assistant in a company in Kampar.
Gifted with sound business acumen, Yeoh soon saved enough to start his own business. With his brother-in-law, Oh Cheang Keat, as his partner, they went into business under the Ban Seng Leong trademark.
Ban Seng Leong grew rapidly during the early 1910s when the duo acquired tin mines and tin-smelting factories. They also bought tin ore on a large scale and began smelting the metal to produce refined tin ingots. These ingots were resold to their principal customer, the Straits Trading Company, at vast profits.
This unique 103-year-old clock, which is still in working condition, must have been specially ordered by Yeoh and Oh at the height of their business.
Apart from telling time during a period when personal pocket watches were only reserved for the rich, this one-of-a-kind timepiece reminds everyone of Ban Seng Leong's immense wealth and immeasurable success.
Peering at the clock, I suddenly realise that it is past the stipulated time for me to pick up my car.
I step outside and look around to get my bearings. I then realise that the workshop is just across the road. I have made a full circle around Kampar town without even knowing it!
I arrive just in time to see the mechanic closing my car bonnet. He looks up and gives me the thumbs-up, declaring my car roadworthy again.
After paying him, I thank him for his earlier suggestion to explore the town. I want to stay back and regale him with tales of my exploits but time is of the essence. I am already late for my appointment in Gopeng.
Farewell, Kampar. Thank you for the brief but yet entralling experience. Until we meet again.
Pictures by Alan Teh Leam Seng