Going back to Masai-chusettes

After having spent 13 formative years in Masai, PEGGY LOH has fond memories of a town her classmates dubbed Masai-chusettes.

Dad [Centre] with trainee nurses in front of the health centre
IN Geography class in school, I learned that the Masai is an East African tribe that drank cow’s blood mixed with milk. So when my parents had a job transfer to Masai, I panicked because I thought they were being posted to East Africa.

What a relief it was to learn, after listening to their discussions, that Masai was a town 16 miles from Johor Baru. An hour’s drive along a winding road fringed with rubber trees took us past the police station into Masai.

On the same road, there was a Chinese cemetery with a post office next to it and film theatre on the opposite side. I’d never been to the open-air theatre but it had the dubious reputation of having seats infested with bugs!

Peggy [Far Left] with siblings and mum, enjoying fresh
slices of juicy watermelon in front of our house

With one main street bordered by rows of dilapidated shops, Masai looked like a wild-west cowboy town. We moved into staff quarters 2174, Jalan Sekolah, in the Government Health Centre compound. This was our home for 13 years until dad retired in 1977.

On that same road was the Penghulu or headman’s house and Balai Raya or community hall. A Tamil primary school was directly opposite our house, so the road was always busy except on weekends and holidays.

My sisters and I went to school in Johor Baru, so we had to wake up very early to ride on the Bas Sekolah. Later, we moved to Johor Baru to stay with our grandparents for several years. In upper Secondary, we moved back to Masai and used public buses to commute to school.

My friends, who were great fans of the Bee Gees, knew that I lived in Masai and would wittily joke that I “going back to Masai-chusettes!”

Mum [3rd from Left] and Dad [Far Right] with colleagues
in front of the Health Sub-Centre in Masai
Meanwhile, our family became part of the Masai community. Mum was known as “Meesee,” a corrupted form of ‘Missy’ in local jargon for female nurses. For a long time, I was puzzled by the word that local Chinese used to address dad. It sounded like, “Lesa”. Finally I asked dad and he told me that it was an English word, “Dresser” because one of his duties was to dress wounds!

My siblings and I, easily recognisable as “anak Meesee,” felt that we enjoyed special privileges especially when we dealt with shop merchants and taxi drivers. After our parents retirement, we would sometimes meet Masai folks and they still refer to us as “Meesee kai kia” (Meesee’s children).

Two landmark incidents in the town’s history were proof of the people’s solidarity and their resilience to cope with calamities.

In June 1966, fire razed almost all the shops on the main street. Dad helped retrieve belongings and among other things, he remembers pulling out a heavy sewing machine.

After the smoke cleared, rumours were rife that the fire was deliberate because the town was due for redevelopment. The fire indeed paved the way for rebuilding and soon the town had a wider road and two rows of brick shophouses!

Fury of the fire in Masai town.June 19
In the monsoon of 1968, floods inundated many low-lying areas and villagers were urged to evacuate to the community hall.  With bridges swept away, Masai was virtually cut off from Johor Baru until a temporary Bailey bridge was built. A pregnant woman who lived in a coconut grove, refused to leave her home until the flood water level rose to almost her neck.

As she was being swept off by the strong current, she wrapped her arms around a coconut tree and clung on for dear life!

Dad was again among the rescue volunteers and he plunged in to help her. As he was taking her to safety, the current was so strong that he had to grasp submerged grass to keep them from drifting.

Then dad heard yells and saw a young man clinging to a tree further away so he ran to town and tore a rope off a shop’s window blind. He secured the rope to a tree and using it as a safety line, managed to rescue the young man. After this happy ending, we knew nothing more about the young man but that rescued woman was so grateful that she wanted to give her newborn son to mum and dad! Mum sometimes wondered about what if they had accepted her offer but I thought it would be great to have an Indian brother.

In the bustling streets of Masai today, not many can remember the Masai of yesteryears but I have lots of fond memories of Masai-chusettes!

This article was originally published in the The New Straits Times

While I was at an event recently, I was approached by a gentleman who asked me if I'm Peggy Loh.  He may have already guessed it was me because he was a reader who enjoyed reading my Johor stories in Johor Streets and the event MC had mentioned that I was present.  So it was just a courteous question to start this conversation.  When I told him, "Yes!" he went on to tell me that he and his family are from Masai and they know my family, especially my parents!  He introduced himself, Gunasegaran, and his brother, Vijayan, who used to live in Masai, close to the bus stand, opposite Anthony's store... and their father, Kandasamy, was a taxi driver.

Their mother, Muniamah, was delighted to see me and indicated with her hand, as a measure of my short height when she last saw me as a child!  I must confess that I cannot remember much but they have very fond memories of my parents while they were based in Masai.  It was a joy to receive their warm wishes to convey to my parents.

Gunasegaran [Left, wearing red shirt] and his brother, Vijayan [Right]
and mother, Muniamah [Wearing sari], and family
25 Sept 2011

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