We wonder of our fellow train passengers: who are you? Where are you going? Ms. Lai Ah Eng shows us how her family tree has stretched its branches by passing through the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.
Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has seen millions pass through its gates in nearly eighty years. Workers, visitors and residents, young and old – they came and went alone or in groups, usually in a state of hurry and excitement. This is commonplace enough for common folks. But each has a story to tell as to why they were passing through.
The station has a special place in my family history. My father first passed through it sometime in the early 1930s. A young man in his late teens, he had left Hainan Island to look for his brothers and for work in Malaya. He only knew one of them to be somewhere in Kuala Lumpur and another in Kemaman, Trengganu.
Upon arrival in Singapore by boat, he was first quarantined in St John’s Island, stayed a while at the Hainanese Kheng Chiu clan association for news and orientation, then took a train to Kuala Lumpur. The journey lasted two days and he was covered in soot by the time he arrived. Little did he know then that he would be wandering around Malaya and Riau, working in turn as rubber tapper, cook, and kopitiam (coffeeshop) worker.
When I miss him, two images that come to mind are of him as a young man with his few worldly possessions in a bag and looking somewhat anxious yet anticipatory, one boarding a train at Tanjong Pagar and another disembarking at Kuala Lumpur.
Each carriage was a microcosm and reflection of the ordinary people of Malaysia and Singapore, and I usually watched passengers or chatted with some in which our conversations inevitably revolved around our journeys. Why are you taking this train? Where will you be getting off? Who are you visiting? How long will you be staying? What will you be doing there?
My aunt’s family passed through the station on their epic journey sometime in 1963. She was my mother’s fictive sister, and both had come to Malaya together from Blue Bamboo Village, Boon Sio Province, Hainan. She and my uncle formed a then-common Hainanese husband-wife team of butler-cook-housekeeper working for British families, and they had decided to follow their employer who was returning to ‘ang moh dow keh’ (‘Caucasians’ ancestral homeland’) at the end of colonial rule.
I recall waving goodbye to my cousins, never to see them again. Now, when I think of them, my images are of a family weeping at Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, arriving at Tanjong Pagar, and boarding a boat bound for Britain.
Each departure or arrival for me, without fail, was also a journey of intense and mixed emotions – of sadness and happiness, disappointment and excitement, despair and hope.
My oldest sister passed through the station sometime first in 1965 to get married to a man with whom she corresponded for a short while. I remember weeping at her departure to Singapore and not seeing her for some years after that. Little did she know then that she would have to serve an entire family of in-laws, and she was to pass through the station only on rare visits home, with two young children in tow.
In my mother’s journeys, the station appears in her regular rides along the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore route. One early trip sometime in 1965, she was to be reunited with her long lost brother and sister in Singapore, after the Japanese Occupation and civil war in Hainan had led to their migration and separation.
Her subsequent trips were regular social visits over many years until she was too old to travel, and always consisted of luggage bags that contained plenty of food and fruit for her Singaporean relatives. These included famous Hainanese coffee powder and kaya (coconut jam) from my father’s kopitiam, jungle durians with prickly thorns chopped off for ease of transport, cooked or live fowl she reared in our backyard and, for some years, clothes for Vietnamese relatives who were refugee boat people awaiting resettlement.
At Tanjong Pagar, her main worries were always about clearing customs (will the pungent durians and concealed chickens get through?) and queuing for return tickets, but once home she regaled us with lively stories of her adventures in Singapore and people she met on the train.
On one journey, she was reunited with her work partner — the cook in her days as a domestic worker with a British family. ‘Cookie’ Ah Teck had found a new job in the cafeteria of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore day train after their British employer returned to Britain, just like many other Hainanese cooks and butlers in the food, beverages and services industries.
I first set foot on Singapore at the Tanjong Pagar Station in 1971, arriving with some school friends for my first holiday abroad. The journey was full of excitement and laughter, just as whenever seventeen-year old girls gathered. My second trip in 1972 was a great contrast – I was leaving home to study in Singapore on a Pre-University ASEAN scholarship – and I remember waving goodbye to my family and weeping all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban and intermittently till I reached Tanjong Pagar.
Little did I know I was to pass through its arrival and departure gates many times over many years after that, first as student, then as immigrant worker and finally as filial daughter visiting aged parents in Kuala Lumpur with two children in tow.
There was also a stretch of some years when three young nieces and a nephew travelled by train to visit me, their ‘Little Aunt’, during their school holidays, each time bringing with them my dearest disabled sister who could not travel on her own. Tanjong Pagar Station was where our joyful reunions and fond farewells took place.
For all my train trips, I usually travelled on the slow Sinaran Pagi (Morning Sunshine) or faster Express Rakyat (People’s Express). Each carriage was a microcosm and reflection of the ordinary people of Malaysia and Singapore, and I usually watched passengers or chatted with some in which our conversations inevitably revolved around our journeys. Why are you taking this train? Where will you be getting off? Who are you visiting? How long will you be staying? What will you be doing there?
But mostly I observed the scenes along the way: the lush vegetation, plantations, farms and factories, the parallel trunk and country roads, distant hills and mountains, railway line squatters, villages and small towns, railway crossings and railway stations – this was the Singapore and Malaysia of my youth. In Singapore, passing Bukit Timah Station meant we were halfway across the island, and when the train crossed the Causeway, passengers inevitably looked out the windows or exclaimed “arrived!” Each departure or arrival for me, without fail, was also a journey of intense and mixed emotions – of sadness and happiness, disappointment and excitement, despair and hope.
I have not taken the train between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in recent years. But each time I pass Tanjong Pagar Station, my heart leaps a little and I smile and nod at it. This place and I communicate with each other in unspoken but understood ways.
There was a time when the train was the main means of transport for ordinary folks up and down the Malay Peninsula. The trains at Tanjong Pagar connected people between Singapore and other parts of `up country’ and `federation’. Their journeys, like those of mine and my family’s, tell stories of migration, work and settlement; social connections and bonds; travel adventures and life journeys. Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as silent witness to each and every traveler passing through it, has a very special place in this collective history and memory.