An envelope marked with the name of an old cinema sends Alan Teh Leam Seng on an exploration of the charming century-old town of Lunas in Kedah
THE ageing envelope with its yellowing edges marked with the words “Lunas Cinema” in one corner has been sitting in my collection for many years. I’ve often wondered if the cinema still existed. One day, with time to spare, I decided to make a trip to this small southern Kedah town to satiate my curiosity.
The easiest way to Lunas is via the Kulim-Butterworth Expressway. Coming in from Penang, the Lunas exit is a mere 25km from the Butterworth intersection. Motorists driving in will come across the newer part of town in the form of modern double storey shophouses before reaching the heritage enclave.
There’s nothing much to see in the former. The new shops lack history and most of them sell nearly the same things as in the city.
Leaving the electrical appliances, secondhand clothes and cheap wholesale household goods behind, I continue driving for less than 10 minutes before catching sight of pre-war shophouses.
This century-old town saw a flourishing sago and tapioca trade during its early years. Established nearly 130 years ago, Lunas continued to prosper during the rubber boom in the early part of the 20th century. One of the town’s pioneers, Loh Boon Ghee, arrived from China and worked as a labourer.
The rubber industry at that time was still in its infancy. The 22 saplings brought into Malaya from Kew Gardens began producing countless precious seeds that were distributed throughout Malaya. By that time, Boon Ghee had saved enough money to start his own business clearing land for European estates. But he didn’t stop there. Being a shrewd entrepreneur, he made his pile by setting up his own rubber plantations. The story of his life is a classic immigrant’s rags-to-riches tale.
Lunas today is a pale shadow of its former self. The rubber trade has slowed dramatically, no thanks to the invention of the more versatile synthetic rubber. The town was further left behind with new expressways bypassing it, diverting traffic away from its once busy street.
Not knowing where to start, I decide to stop by a very old-looking coffee shop at the opposite end of town. The modern signage in front reads Kedai Kopi Seng Tong. There’s another rather faded signage below the traditional Chinese signboard and I make out the words “Seng Tong Cafe”.
A cheerful man standing behind a rather modern-looking counter greets me on my entry.
“Kopi?” he asks.
“Kopi Or.” I reply, badly missing my regular morning black coffee due to the early start for this trip. Glancing around I notice a row of old cafe benches and I proceed to click away with my camera. The presence of my camera immediately notifies that I’m an outsider even though I speak fluent Hokkien, the dialect prevalent in the northern region of Malaysia.
Business this morning must be slow. Only the front table is occupied. It wasn’t long before my coffee arrived. The proprietor, Ooi Hoe Peng, is a friendly person. Standing beside me as I take my first sip, he regales me with stories about how his father had decided to start business due to a dearth in coffee shops back in the early 1950s.
“It was 65 years ago when my father bought this shop and began his trade. Back then, business was good. Our shop is located by the main road,” shares Hoe Peng, pointing to the road in front of the shop which hardly has any passing traffic these days.
“My father was so busy that I had to help out the moment I got back from school. In those days, we had to buy raw coffee beans and fry them at the back of the shop until they were fragrant. Then, each morning my father would grind the beans into powder before opening the shop,” shares Hoe Peng, before moving to the counter to attend to a customer who’s just arrived.
I continue to enjoy my coffee. It is just the way I like it. Black, strong, fragrant and piping hot.
I steal glances around the shop in between sips. I can just imagine young Hoe Peng coming back from school, throwing his school bag aside and starting to clean tables. Back in those days, education took a back seat when it came to helping out with the family business.
“Come and try. Sit. Sit,” beckons Hoe Peng, noting my long gaze at the vintage cafe benches and tables. I decline his offer, feeling rather embarrassed. Thanks to his insistence, I soon relent. Picking up my bag, I plonk myself down on the low seat, coffee in hand. So, this is what it felt like sitting at a coffee shop more than half a century ago.
I finish the last drop of my coffee which has already turned cold. Just as I’m about to leave, an elderly lady appears from the back. Hoe Peng introduces her as his mother. “Haa ...my mother is the best person to talk to if you want to learn more about the history of Lunas. She has been helping my father right from the first day they started this coffee shop. Both of them hail from this town just like the two uncles sitting in front,” he tells me as he gestures towards the two elderly gentlemen chatting at the front table.
Just as I’m about to whip out my notebook, she turns around and heads back inside.
“Wait. Aunty, please wait,” I try to coax her for a chat. “Boh eng la,” she replies before disappearing. Hoe Peng tells me that his mother, Chew Kooi Hiang, is usually busy cooking lunch at this time of the day. He urges me to venture into the kitchen if I want the story.
A short and narrow corridor links the front portion of the shop to the kitchen. Here I find Kooi Hiang busy in front of her stove frying what seems to be mixed vegetables and beancurd.
“Aunty, your cooking is very fragrant. I feel hungry already,” I praise the matriarch. Still cooking, she tells me that Lunas today still attracts visitors.
“People still come here to seek out the famous roast duck, visit the Buddhist hermitage and also the old rubber smokehouse. The hermitage attracts lots of people, especially during alms giving days. It’s just at the back of our house,” she shares, as she walks to the back and points to the golden spires in the distance.
With her ladle in hand, Kooi Hiang gestures towards several black and white photographs beside the dining table. “Lunas back in the early 1950s was a hot bed for communist activities,” she recalls. “Food rationing was imposed about a year after we started business and all our food stuff had to be accounted for. The government back then was worried about the bandit sympathisers and the food denial scheme was enforced to prevent communist supporters from supplying food to the rebels,” she recounts, adding that young people today don’t know how lucky they are to live in this day and age of peace and abundant food.
I finally get around to asking her about the old cinema as she takes a seat at the dining table to take a breather. She only vaguely remembers the place. Fortunately, Hoe Peng happens to recall going to the movies as a teenager. According to him, the cinema was located beside the market and it screened mostly Mandarin and Cantonese movies.
That information must have jolted his mother’s memory as she chips in, recal-ling that tickets used to cost only 40 cents back in the 1960s. “The audience had to sit on wooden benches and there was a huge fan to provide ventilation. I still remember how the ladies used to complain about their hairdo each time they left the cinema,” says Kooi Hiang, chuckling.
Before bidding the duo goodbye, Hoe Peng informs me that the old cinema burnt down several years back. “People in Lunas have to travel to Penang if they want to watch movies these days. At the rate our small town is going, I doubt any large corporations will be willing to invest in a cinema here. Surely they’ll be running at a loss,’ he laments, while confiding of his concerns about who will continue the coffee shop business when he finally retires.