#TSBreakAway @ Kuala Kubu Bharu

Call it a post #TSBreakAway excursion if you may, I made a trip to the idyllic town of Kuala Kubu Bharu together with Dian, Ashraf and Anis last week via KTM Komuter. It was the first time sitting an hour-plus train ride to Hulu Selangor district where the town is located as well as stepping foot into this idyllic town. It all started when Anis featured about Kuala Kubu Bharu or more specifically, an old tailor as part of the Canon Photo Storyteling Challenge in #TSBreakAway. Looking at her photos (yes, I am very much a visual person), I thought it would be great if I was there to take some nice shots of the people there. That was when I messaged Anis through Facebook and asked if she is making a trip to Kuala Kubu Bharu (or fondly known as KKB) again.

I must admit though that I had literally zero knowledge about KKB. Apart from a good friend of mine who occasionally praise about the famous Hainanese Chicken Chop at this town, I have no inkling of what to expect. I even looked up on the Internet just to make sure that I spelt ‘Bahru’, I mean ‘Bharu’ correctly. Upon arriving at the ‘pekan’, (you need to get a taxi which is nothing more than Kancils or Wiras owned by the locals upon reaching the KKB train station) the sight of the town was nothing more than old buildings with a handful of them recently painted or refurbished. One thing that struck me was how quiet the place was. After filling up our stomach (food always comes first in most instances), we walked towards the main road. Anis wanted to feature an old barber shop just a stone throw away but I spotted an old corner shop lot with a pair of swinging or saloon doors as what she termed as. Hurriedly, I called the group to check out the shop. Anis vividly recalled a rather impolite lady whom shooed her away during her first visit there. I was rather undeterred and made my way into the building. Inside there was a lady who was sewing with another woman looking at me. Being courteous, I asked if I could take some photos of the interior. The old lady was quick to respond with a firm “No…”, which I presumed many photographers who had came before me asked the same. Feeling dismayed by her answer, I politely walked out with the impression that the trip will end up with nothing much to photograph.

Left with no other options, we strolled towards the barber shop that Anis spoke about earlier. From the outside, the shop that reads ‘Diamond Hair Dressing Saloon’ has a very antique look, much older that those seen in Kuala Lumpur. The sight of such rustic looking place got me really excited as random thoughts of how my pictures would end up looking quickly ran through my mind. But still, I paced myself cautiously as I walked into the shop, hoping that I wouldn’t meet yet another local that will refuse to be photographed. The owner, an Indian man was attending to a customer. He looked up for a while as we smiled at him but seem unperturbed by our presence. Ashraf who has his camera resting on his hands must have given him an idea of who we are.

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A shot of R. Anbalagan from the entrance of his shop.

His name is R. Anbalagan, the present owner of Diamond Hair Dressing Saloon that was first set up by his father. Much about his story is nicely written at Anis’s website here. After expressing our intention to write about his saloon, he welcomed us to feature his place. I didn’t speak much to him though, as my eyes were darting around looking for interesting subject to shoot.

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This was one of my favourite shot taken. A contrasting scene between a young worker and his customer against R. Anbalagan and his much older patron as mirrored on the reflection.

As soon as I started noticing the surroundings, memories of my childhood days slowly trickling back when my parents used to send me to a barber shop at Petaling Jaya to cut my hair. Back then, I didn’t like the idea of having anyone touching my hair, what more, cutting them off. Every visit to the barber shop left me feeling very uncomfortable especially when the burly looking barber held my head with a firm grip while going about his routine. I even told my father that I hated it so much. But you see, I was very young back then and didn’t appreciate what is now a dying trend of Indian barber shops. “With huge malls and hypermarket mushrooming in the cities what will happen to them eventually?”, I asked myself.

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A closer look at R. Anbalagan shaving his customer’s hair.

Undeniably, I was feeling nostalgic. It would be a pity if Indian barber shops will eventually make way in the name of modernization. While I was left with a lot to think in my mind, I smiled when I saw R. Anbalagan shaving his customer’s beard. Ahh… I remember that one.

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Using a razor blade, R. Anbalagan slowly shaves off the beard from his customer.

I promptly asked the worker how much it takes to shave my beard. “Lima Ringgit”, he replied with a smile. Without hesitation, I told him that I would like to have a good shave. And what a pleasant experience it was. The icy cold cream that was lathered on my face followed by a razor sharp knife that slowly and gently inches off those prickly hair off my lower cheeks and chin. The result was nothing short of fantastic as my face felt baby smooth once again.

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After a hair cut, the barber would apply powder on the face and neck to prevent any prickly itchiness.

I did speak to R. Anbalagan but only briefly while Anis was interviewing him. Nothing particularly salient other than him telling me about his son who is still schooling in KKB and the fact that he doesn’t hire foreigners to work at his shop. Truth to be told, his serious demeanour had deterred me from striking a longer conversation with him.

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Ashraf was getting a hair cut and a clean shave at the barber shop.

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The common tools seen at an Indian barber shop. R. Anbalagan’s spectacle was left lying on the table (upper left) while he stepped out for a while.

Still, I was left with awe knowing that he has been in the business for thirty eight years. “What possibly drove him to stick with his line of work for so long?”, I wondered. A quick thought came into my mind suddenly. Perhaps continuing his father’s legacy whom started this business would have been the sole reason.

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“Apa itu cream?”, I asked the worker. He replied “Snow…”, in reference to a type of moisturizing cream similar to Hazeline Snow used by our parents in the old days.

I told myself that if I ever needed a good shave (or even a hair cut), taking a trip down to KKB wouldn’t be a bad idea after all. I am glad to know that R. Anbalagan is keeping the traditional Indian barber trade alive, at least in this part of the world.

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Ashraf with his new hair cut.

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Surprisingly, Mr. R. Anbalagan gave me a smile and even obliged when I asked him to be photographed at the entrance of his shop.

The sight of an old sewing machine reminded me of my mum’s Singer’s sewing machine. The metallic wheel which is built on the side of the machine to propel the belt and needle was something that I could vividly relate back to my childhood days. That was the first thing I noticed, even before raising my head and saw Mr. Loh Kon Sang, a well known tailor at KKB who is still continuing his tailoring business.

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A common sight in most houses during the 70’s and early 80’s, these machines were made entirely from solid metal with a foldable wooden table.

“Everyone here know me. I am the only topless man in town”, he joked. Mr. Loh told us that he is more comfortable working without his shirt on as the afternoon weather can be rather hot. Unlike R. Anbalagan, he was more approachable which made me felt at ease. “I have been featured in a newspaper lately. They were writing about Kuala Kubu Bharu and somehow I was being interviewed by them too”, he said. That explains why he was so forthcoming with us that day.

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The topless tailor in Kuala Kubu Bharu

When I asked him “How’s business?”, he replied that it was bad. In fact, he reckoned his business is no longer sustainable as people prefer to buy clothes rather than custom made. “Unless he or she is XXL, most of them will buy their clothes from departmental stores”, he sighed. “Most of my peers had already closed down their business too”, I recall him saying.

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According to Mr. Loh, It takes around 3 hours to make a long pants.

When I told him that there are not many tailors in Kuala Lumpur, he nodded his head quietly. Unsurprisingly so, I presume since he has been in the trade for so long and is aware of its declining trend. However, Mr. Loh is still proud of what he does. His clients come from as far as Singapore.

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A close up shot of Mr. Loh taking a measurement of the cloth.

I spotted three sewing machines at his shop. It must be a quiet day as he was working at a leisure pace. “This is made from wool which is more expensive that the cotton based ones”, referring to the cloth that he is working on.

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Mr. Loh has a few antique sewing machines in his shop, all of which are still in good working condition.

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A spool of thread on top of an old sewing machine.

There was also an old black and white television housed in a wooden cabinet just at the back of him. I pointed out to Dian and said “Hey do you remember this?” Mr. Loh laughed as he told me that it is no longer working. He only used it as a table top. The TV was certainly a tell tale sign of how old his shop must have been.

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At seventy years old, Mr. Loh still possess a good eye sight. “I recently removed the cataract from my eyes”, he said.

“Anyone taking over the business ah?”, I candidly asked. As expected, he has no one to pass the business to. “The younger generations prefer to move out of town and go to big cities to find money”, he said. Ultimately, in the next five to ten years or so we wouldn’t be able to see a tailor shop at Jalan Mat Kilau anymore.

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A few completed trousers ready for collection.

“Auntie, where is taukeh ah?”, I asked an old lady who was sitting on a chair at the back section of the shop. “He went out for lunch. You come back later ok?”, she replied with a smile. Kedai Jam Kim Ming was one of the places that I wanted to visit when I saw photos of it on the Internet. An old watch shop with clocks of all shapes hanging on the wall is calling out to be photographed, I thought. After having lunch ourselves, we came back and met the owner. A friendly smile greeted us followed by stories of him continuing his business just to pass time. “My daughter owns a cafe just a few shops away. You should go there to take more photos”, he said.

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Kedai Jam Kim Ming is probably the only watch shop in Kuala Kubu Bharu.

I spotted a handful of digital watches for sale, mostly priced less than RM 50.00. “Automatic watches have more value”, I said, recalling my part time work at a watch shop in the old Jaya supermarket. During my short chat with him, a customer came and requested for his watch bracelet to be shortened.

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A special tool is required to remove the metal links of a watch bracelet.

I pointed some pictures hanging on the wall of him repairing a clock. “Nowadays, I change watch batteries or sell clocks”, he told us. I don’t do a lot of repairing work anymore.

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The various tools seen on the table.

One thing lead to another and we found ourselves at Kedai Khen Thye Hin just a few seconds walk from the watch shop. I was literally at awe when I saw such an old ‘Kedai Runcit’ that is still in existence today. Items of all sorts were either hanging from the ceiling or displayed at the back of the old wooden shelves. More items were also seen inside the table top glass cabinet. “This cabinet is very old”, Ms. Sim Ling Ling said. She is the wife of Mr. Yap Chee Chong the ‘Si Tau’ (boss in Cantonese) of this old sundry shop. As she continue to speak, I unconsciously walked further inside, looking at all directions at the amount of stuff that the shop sells. Some of them bring back old memories. “Oh look! I bet you still remember this soap”, pointing out to the Popinjay soap at the back of Ms. Sim while asking Dian. Ms. Sim said, “Oh yes, some people still use it”. I told her that I will never forget this soap as it has a funky smell which she acknowledged. “There is around 1,000 different items here”, Ms. Sim said. The old lady always kept a smile when I kept asking her more questions. Only my husband knows where the items are stored. Some of them are obsolete but it is a waste to throw them away.

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Stepping into Kedai Khen Thye Hin is akin to travelling back in times where many of the items that are sold there are those seen in our childhood days.

Besides that, I also saw ‘Buku Tiga Lima’ which is so commonly used in the old days for taking notes. In fact, most people always associate it with a debt record book as people tend to use it to keep track of who is owing them money. “How much are these?”, I asked her. Imagine my surprise when she told me that it was just twenty cents. Even the pencil with a pink rubber tip that I used for drawing last time costs only ten cents! I shook my head in disbelief.

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Anis was holding three Buku Tiga Lima.

After sharing a lot of laughters together with Ms. Sim about the good old days, she invited us for tea. “Come come, I introduce you to KKB famous kaya puff”, she hurriedly walked to a few shops away. We were taken by surprised by her extremely warm hospitality. As we were having our coffee, she whisked away all the sudden and brought back a few kaya puffs. “Come try these. All the locals here like to eat them”, she happily jostled the puffs to us. We wanted to pay for them but Ms. Sim insisted to treat us. In fact, she also paid for our drink as well. We were taken aback by such generosity shown. After all, this is a lady that we met a couple of minutes ago and she was already treating us like her good friends. We were extremely lucky to have met such a wonderful person.

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Ms. Sim is always full of smiles. She is an epitome of the great hospitality that one can expect in Kuala Kubu Bharu.

She also asked us to try home made kaya made by an auntie at the back of the coffee shop. “My kaya can only last for four days if you don’t keep in the fridge”, she reminded us. Using the same recipe for the kaya puff, the kaya does not contain any preservative. I promptly bought three bottles back knowing that it has to be good.

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Don’t miss out on the home made kaya made by this auntie at Yoot Loy Coffee Shop.

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The aromatic home made kaya is sold at RM 2.80 per bottle.

Soon after that, it was time to say farewell to Ms. Sim Ling Ling. She escorted us to our taxi ride before waving good bye to us. Kuala Kubu Bharu has definitely etched a memorable experience in my heart. The rustic charm of the town blends with the affable local folks make this place a rare jewel in the state of Selangor. Sadly, with the younger generations moving on to the bigger cities, Kuala Kubu Bharu may inevitably lose much of its lure when there is no continuity in carrying on the age old trade that is helm by Ms. Sim Ling Ling and the rest of the local folks. Till that time comes, I urge all of you to visit this town, photograph as many pictures and speak to as many people as possible to preserve the legacy of this rustic town.

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