Kuala Muda’s old man and the sea
A native of Kuala Muda remembers the simple yet meaningful life amid the rigours and beauty of nature
The space farthest north in Penang, the absolute northernmost contour of the state, is defined by a river. This is the mighty yet gentle Sungai Muda.
The undulating waterway is not just a geographical marvel – it snakes along some 180 kilometres of natural terrain upon springing from a source deep within the interior of peninsular Malaysia’s Ulu Muda rainforest – but is also a focal political landmark. Regarded as a convenient natural boundary Sungai Muda has for some centuries now been deemed as the official border between Penang and its northern neighbouring state of Kedah.
It is also of strategic importance for mariners and traders as it opens up to the Penang Channel and thereby to the Straits of Malacca and Andaman Sea beyond. At its mouth two coastal villages face each other, one of each side of the Kuala Muda estuary, age-old neighbours with similar cultures, identity and customs intersected by this splendid behemoth of a river.
Despite the watery barrier between them, local folks on both sides of the Sungai Muda do not feel estranged from each other; there are as many as seven bridges, for road vehicles and rail carriages, over the mere twenty-five kilometre course of this natural northern margin.
But there was a time when the bridges did not exist. People then still interacted actively across the river, trading and socialising, criss-crossing over in wooden boats called sampan in Malay. The Sungai Muda was in fact teaming with a multitude of sampans, a scene that can no longer be seen there today.
One man remembers vividly that lost era. Retired fisherman Aman Din, who at the ripe age of 95 years has lived in Kuala Muda all his life, had seen the now-defunct sampan service that plied decades ago to ferry people across the Sungai Muda. The charge per person for each ride used to be just ten sen. The service operated mostly by local fishermen saw throngs of people regularly using the sampans to shop, trade and visit relatives or friends.
The sampan service had begun way before the first physical structure across the river, the Pinang Tunggal railway bridge, was built by 1915 and the Merdeka Bridge which allowed road vehicles to be driven across was opened some twenty years later. “The sampans were full of people,” Aman recalled in an interview at his house at the Pulau Bendahari neighbourhood in Kuala Muda. “They were large. There were sampans carrying ten people each.”
“Things used to be cheaper across the river on the Kedah side,” he said. Sugar sold for just three sen for every two kati, while rice cost ten or twenty sen for a gantang.
Aman is among the last generation that lived through the idyllic simple years of Kuala Muda. Most of the people he knew in his youth, including his wife and three siblings, have passed on. Mind you, the area still exudes a good deal of the tranquil and humble ambience typical of northern Seberang Perai. But there is a great untold historical narrative that can be chronicled and exhibited for the new generations to be conscious of.
One place where one can have a nostalgic view of the landscape to picture the bygone lifestyle and activities is the Permatang Bendahari riverside park beside the Sungai Muda Bridge built in 2006. There is a small pier and promenade with gazebos here for people to stroll about and spend some leisurely time. The area would make for an ideal spot to house information panels for visitors to appreciate the historical significance of the Sungai Muda as an important passageway during peacetimes, the colonial periods and wars.
Aman himself recalls how the Japanese colonial police in the Second World War guarded the river and even disallowed fishing activities there. The Japanese also enforced rationing of foodstuffs, causing the lively marketing and social dealings across the Sungai Muda to be quietened for some years.
He also remembers crocodiles, which are unheard of along the river today, but these predatory animals never threatened people. “We knew how to hit the boats if anyone caught sight of a crocodile. The vibrations kept them away.”
Aman is a purebred seaman with fond memories of the Sungai Muda. His father was also a fisherman and sailor in the area. Proud of his thirty great-grandchildren, he presents a picture of health at his age. He has been fit since young. He now hears and sees excellently, his legs and hands working well for him still.
Speaking with a hearty laughter, he remembers how he had to row hard against strong currents while traversing the river. “Years ago there were so many fish here. There was a lot of terubuk (herring). And we caught large udang (prawns) of various kinds. They swam near the surface of the water. We used the pukat udang (prawn traps). You don’t get those kinds of fish traps anymore.”
Aman sold many of his fresh catches on Penang island, especially near the shores of Tanjung Bungah. Incredibly, he rowed from Kuala Muda by himself across the channel and back – a distance of some thirty kilometres – to sell his wares. “Yes I rowed. In those days where got engine?” He added that his boat had a small sail, but he still needed to use his oars and it took him a few hours to make his journey each way.
It was a rigorous rustic life that made him so fit that he even rowed to Pulau Aman, the little island further south some thirty-five kilometres away. As he grew older Aman earned a living by helping to lay cables and pipes in the ground for the National Electric Board and the Penang Water Authority. He is also very much a pastoral man, remembering people he knew working in the wet rice-fields and tiling the land with their bare hands using the hoe instead of machine harvesters.
But much of that is now gone and the increasingly urbanised generations today may not get the opportunity to see the simple but beautiful earthen human endeavour that individuals like Aman have experienced amid the natural embrace of the river and the sea.
“The sea was everything to me. We were not afraid of it,” he said. “In those days it was all about what is there to eat tomorrow. And the sea and the river gave us what we needed.”