“Did you have to show them your passport before they let you past the Klang toll?”
If I had a sen for every time someone from Kuala Lumpur made fun of me just because I’m from Klang, I would be a Datuk.
The last time I played host to a group of KL-ites, they stopped at a petrol station on the highway for road trip snacks and arrived equipped with sunglasses, caps and cameras. I looked at them quizzically, the same look of bewilderment I get when I see ang moh tourists in town.
“Bring tourists here for what? Nothing to see in Klang. To eat, yes lah. Nothing to see,” any Klangite would say.
That was my perception too until I saw my friends excitedly posing for photos with the food and in gritty back alleys like real tourists. That got me thinking – have we been underrating ourselves?
Maybe there is much more to our little town than the stereotypes of Indian gangsters and Hokkien Ah Bengs, starting with our history and folklore.
Last year, the Klang Municipal Council launched the Royal Town of Klang Heritage Walk, highlighting beautiful historical buildings around the Klang Railway Station. Left out from the list is the popular all-boys school called High School Klang, lovingly known as STK (Sekolah Tinggi Klang).
STK’s history goes all the way back to 1927 when it was established by the British to provide an English education for the community. However, it wasn’t just for nurturing young minds. This is a school that has seen war and bloodshed. During World War II, the British used it as a military hospital. When the Japanese invaded then Malaya, they turned it into a military base and medical camp. One can only imagine the number of innocent civilians and wounded soldiers that died on these school grounds.
Close to 90 years later, the school’s eerie past still lingers on the lips of its students. The most popular urban legend is said to come from a group of young scouts who were camping in school one night. It was late, and the moon was shining. They were all alone when, suddenly, they heard the sound of marching footsteps. It echoed from the basketball court. Who else could be at school at this hour?
Curiosity drove them towards the sound of the vigorous marching. When they arrived at the basketball court, all the blood immediately drained from their faces. They turned pale, as white as the troop of Japanese soldiers marching before them. Some of the army men were headless.
Ironically enough, the school is also located right next to a Chinese cemetery. Sitting strategically on a hill, the cemetery overlooks the school football field. We laugh and call STK Sekolah Tepi Kubur (school beside a grave). We also joke that these are some of the most expensive cemetery plots in Malaysia. The hill may not be high enough to be close to heaven, but at least its “residents” have front row seats to daily football matches.
Now, I can’t write a story about Klang without mentioning bak kut teh, can I? There have been many debates about the origins of the meaty dish, but for obvious reasons we like to believe that it originated from our town. To the surprise of many visitors, we typically have bak kut teh, so heavy in rice and meat, for an early breakfast. Many have asked me why.
The story goes back to when the British brought Chinese coolies, mostly people from the Fujian province, here to work in the ports. The labourers needed a good strong breakfast to endure the back-breaking work of the day. With little money to spare, they chopped up pork and threw the meat, along with all its innards and bones, into a pot. Various herbs were added to give them energy to last the day. Every morning, the coolies would drink a bowl or two of the herbal soup and fill themselves up with meat and rice before setting off for work. Thus, the humble bak kut teh was created.
The future generation of this Hokkien community would later come to be known as Pa Sang Lang (Klang people). With no phonetical similarity, how the Hokkien name of Klang translates to Pa Sang is a rather amusing story featuring another famous icon – the Klang river.
The name of this new town was a mystery to the Chinese when they first arrived. One day, a Hokkien man was standing by the gushing river when he stopped a Malay man passing by.
“What is the name of this place?” he asked in Chinese, finger pointing down to indicate ”this place”.
The Malay man didn’t understand a word of Chinese and thought the man was pointing at the river. Coincidentally, the river was at high tide, and he proudly answered in Malay, “Pasang! Pasang! (High tide! High tide!)”
From then on, the Hokkien name of Klang was cemented as Pa Sang, and the Mandarin name was translated to Pa Sheng.
With curious stories like this, perhaps the town on the other end of the Federal Highway is not as drab as we think it is, after all. But before you come over, there is one small note to those from the city making fun of us: Can you speak Hokkien? If you can’t, they won’t let you past the toll into town.
This story was originally published on The Star Newspaper on 11 July 2015. See it on The Star Online here.