Old shops nostalgia

I’m always seeking the nostalgic charm of a bygone era so when I’m in districts like Senai, Muar and Kluang, I choose to browse around old shops instead of visiting modern malls.  

Facade of old provision shop that's still doing business in Senai
On these walk-abouts, I discovered interesting old shops that are still doing business the way they did back in the 1960s.  Shops like these are fast disappearing in the cities but in many of Johor’s smaller towns, they are still serving a regular clientele and doing brisk business.

A pair of Adidas Kampung, ideal waterproof footwear
These old-fashioned shops have a place in our history as they once provided the goods and services that early settlers and immigrants needed when they came to seek their fortune in Johor.  

As the nation celebrates its 58th birthday this August, the landscape in Iskandar Malaysia is changing with modern developments and it’s timely to reflect on the past when various race groups arrived and worked together to develop Johor Baru into a thriving trading post.  They opened up dense jungles and cultivated choice pieces of land close to the rivers into pepper and gambir plantations before going on to plant pineapples and rubber.

Dried provisions are displayed in wooden boxes

I will never forget the interesting story behind the name of a small town located between Skudai and Gelang Patah, named Lima Kedai, (Malays for 'five shops'), because this town developed for just five shops. This row of shops was a model of typical town centers at a time when the goods and services offered by each of these five shops, specifically met the needs of early settlers who were mainly involved in the agricultural industry.

Back then when there were no supermarkets or convenience stores, one of the most essential businesses in any new settlement was the traditional sundry shop.  It was a one-stop general store that stocked a wide range of provisions, household items and even joss products for Chinese religious rites.  Just as its name describes, the merchandise in sundry shops are such a wide assortment of items, quite similar to the inventory of modern departmental stores!

I remember driving pass Pekan Nenas, Malay for Pineapple Town, en route to Kukup and Tanjung Piai and when our car stopped at the traffic lights, I looked at the shops that bordered the road.  My eyes were riveted to a sundry shop that had developed into a type of department store because it also stocked clothes but it was the range of shoes that caught my eye.  I couldn’t help smiling when I spotted pairs of single-mould shoes on the outdoor rack, popularly known as Adidas Kampung, the ideal waterproof footwear for plantation workers!

One of the shops among the five in Lima Kedai was a bicycle shop not only to sell bicycles but also to provide repair services and replacement parts for their trusted two-wheelers because the bicycle was the most common mode of transport then.  Before bicycles were introduced, rubber-tappers had the back-breaking task of carrying latex in buckets suspended from both ends of a pole placed across the shoulders.  Later, tappers depended on bicycles to carry large metal buckets designed to collect the latex and travel across acres of estates to send the latex to the collecting station.

Shopkeepers still prefer to use the trusted abacus
instead of modern calculators
A tinsmith who made and mends metal buckets and other useful metal items for plantation workers, was another essential service in an early settlement.  Back in the day when battery powered lights were uncommon, rubber-tappers used simple metal oil lamps fastened to their foreheads for light to tap rubber in the wee hours when it was completely dark.  Skilled tappers could tap a tree in a standard half-spiral pattern every 20 seconds and completed tapping 450 to 600 trees daily, while some hardworking tappers even tapped two rounds per day! 

Another of the five shops would be a barber who provided settlers with another essential service in keeping them well groomed.  While women may have kept their hair traditionally long, it took trained professionals like barbers to help the men maintain short and neat hair.  In those days, getting a shave and a haircut was probably a big treat for these hardworking men.

Check out the variety of goods stocked here!
Finally, the fifth shop in early Lima Kedai must have been a traditional medicine or herb shop where the trader also doubled up as the sinseh who was skilled in offering traditional medical advice.  Traditional medicine has been trusted for generations and as physical outdoor activities caused sprains and other aches and pains, the sinseh could be consulted for regular treatments.  He would also prescribe the necessary concoctions of traditional herbs to brew and drink as a cure for ill health caused by hard work in harsh tropical weather.

These five shops must have served the daily essential needs in the simple lifestyle of early settlers where everyone was familiar with each other and traders would know their regular customers.  The sundry shop, in particular, played an important role in helping families make ends meet by extending credit to customers based solely on trust.  If food was sold only on a cash basis, many large families may have suffered but back then, the trader had a unique system of supplying provisions in advance with the bills settled when customers received their weekly or monthly wages.

A range of  familiar 555 booklets with the oldest version
[Right to Left] to a modern version still in use today!
The trader would just record the purchases in small record books, fondly known as 555 booklets.  All the customer needed to do each time he made his purchases was to tell the trader, “Masuk buku,” (enter book) and the trader would make a record in his booklet.  The astute trader would also recognise every member of the customer’s family so they could conveniently buy items and get them recorded in their booklet!

So when you visit smaller towns, give the malls a miss and seize the opportunity for a peek into traditional shops that contributed significantly to the humble beginnings and livelihood of many families.  This relationship of friendship, trust and goodwill, established in an era when the community was striving together for personal and national progress, remains both vital and priceless as the nation advances.

A version of this was published in the July 2015 issue of The Iskandarian

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