|The White House hotel in Kluang|
I once spent a night at the White House and came away with a ghost story.
I know what you are thinking: The White House? Sure, since it is an old building there has to be an odd story here and there. Persons too significant to fade into the night, events too important to not replay. What did you say? You heard soldiers marching in the courtyard in the dead of night? A painting that keeps hanging itself askew as if to make a point? Always a wet patch on the carpet as if to indicate something buried beneath?
The White House is a veritable icon, more so because it stands out quite prominently at the crossroads of a busy junction. There in bold white letters on a red board, White House. Not red, not blue, but WHITE House.
In Chinese, it reads bai gong. Yes, from time to time you see PRC tourists about. But that was before the pandemic hit and the Movement Control Order kicked in.
What? MCO also have over there?
Yes lah, because Kluang is in Malaysia mah, and the White House is a very prominent traveler's motel there. Tired of being on the road? Just check in and have a laydown. Get a decent breakfast the next day and continue on with your journey, wherever that might be.
Had a lover's spat and by the time you made up, it is too late and past midnight? The White House looms large then Bill Clinton and Monica, you both think. But more likely, it is make-up sex that is on both your minds. You squeeze each other's hands and giggle unabashedly at being so in-sync with one another, like soul mates should. Same idea, same thought.
We are so compatible! You both concur with smiling eyes.
How did we quarrel in the first place? That's history!!
You park, check in and make glorious love. In the morning the car is gone, carjacked. In your haste last night you had forgotten to apply the steering wheel-lock, a must when driving in Malaysia. You two quarrel over it, oblivious to the wet hair both of you still spot from the we-shower moments ago.
People gather and whisper. "Hiaz, young people these days. Little bit thing also quarrel... And stand in the street with towel on some more. Really no shame one!"
As you can imagine, the White House in Kluang must have seen its fair share of residents. Some on legitimate business, others maybe not. Some loitered on a temporary stay, others a week or more. A refuge perhaps for husbands kicked out of bed. A place of solace for that bar girl who had had enough of lecherous men and just want to be alone to think of her next steps.
I was once like many folks out there clueless of Kluang - much less that it had a White House over there.
But a good friend hailed from that place and we would drive in once a month to play golf. Kluang had a small country club in town, a nine-holer. It was more a place for old-timers to putt a few and catch up with friends over coffee or beer. The country club is so small, your primary school is probably larger in comparison.
The serious golfer in Kluang would head over to PAMOL, a palm oil plantation that curiously had a recreational hall and a nine-hole golf course built smack in the middle of all 'em money-making trees.
Although a nine holer on paper, this PAMOL golf course was much larger than most 18-hole ones. Such an anomaly could only come from a distant past and it was. The PAMOL golf course was a leftover from Malaysia's colonial days when real estate was carved out with little regard. Especially when it had to do with leisure, the Brits would OK it without a second thought.
Any bit of leisure and comfort to make up for the "blasted humidity" that the tropics bore on them.
And thus, PAMOL golf course was born. And as with any backyard recreation, foremost on top of the hill beside the course was the plantation manager's bungalow.
It was a magnificent setup.
Playing at PAMOL, we always fantasized about owning that bungalow. How sweet, if at the end of a day, we could just strut onto the golf course and play a few.
Or just spend the rest of the hot afternoon relaxing in the recreational hall nearby to play some pool with a cold beer in hand.
And eat a gorgeous plate of nasi rendang (the caretaker's wife cooked a mean one served with rice dumplings or ketupat - very Malaccan style). Afterwards retiring to the bungalow once more to see the evening out with a Cuban cigar and Scottish whiskey (single malt, no less). The next day, start the cycle again and repeat.
Wah, what a life that would be!
However, if you can forgo a weekend of golf and simply explore Kluang, you will find that it is a nice town with a few satellite neighborhoods. Kind of like a North Bridge Road do if, within a short distance, it is linked to a very much downsized Siglap, Sin Ming, Chai Chee or Boon Lay, you know, quieter places that you head to to get other other things done. In town, you might visit the Chinese medical hall or babyware shop. But at an outlying neighborhood, you could get your car fixed, your body massaged, etc... That sort of thing.
In our case, we'd head out to get a haircut, as well as buy a bottle of Kluang's superb black sweet sauce. Malaysia's famous Black Hokkien Mee would not be the same without this splendid Kluang concoction.
On food, Kluang had plenty to offer, from Hakka style beef noodles to a turquoise-colored thunder tea rice. Why that color? A Japanese tea, I was told.
From curry noodles to kaya and toast and soft-boiled eggs - a set of which had been served since 1938 at the coffeeshop at Kluang's very intimate railway station.
If you fancy a very good wanton mee, you could get it on the way to the PAMOL golf course. It was served from a roadside shack that doubled as a home as well. Eat wanton mee and watch a shabby baby crawl in its own playpen.
Kluang was of course not the first Malaysia small town I had fallen in love with. There were others.
I love driving into Malaysia to visit them because they have all given me a kind of comfort missing from living in Singapore for so long. The old Singapore ambience that has been swallowed up by ever more glass and concrete, and that something called "progress".
When the old National Library was torn down, I think a bit of my soul went with it too. I had spent quite a bit of time there to improve myself, explore other worlds. It being torn was just as if someone had thrown away a pair of my fave shoes without telling me. The shared memories, the journeys we had together.
The same with the mom and pop shops along North Bridge Road/South Bridge Road. Without them, without the families to add life to the area, the shops and their attached upstairs units simply became just economic barter for higher profit. Familial real estate to be traded for more expensive office spaces.
I tried to relate to a present-day shop selling industrial pumps once. It wasn't very successful. I didn't even know how to begin to say hi, ask how's your day, your children.
Will they all one day grow up to be big and strong and pump out world-changing sludge? CB.
Of course, with everything good, one must "jio" others to enjoy.
Of Kluang, this is what I told a girlfriend:
"If you sit at the kopitiam, a lady will bring you a platter of kueh. You know, those Chinese kuehs we love so much that is now being sold at Bengawan Solo? Same same. After you have had your coffee...and mind you, Kluang coffee is one of the best in Malaysia. Even Penang and that Mark Lee one cannot fight. You pay for whatever kueh you had eaten. How sweet is that? They just leave it there for you to pick and choose!"
"You mean they would just bring it on a big plate?"
"Yes, you know the enamel metal ones your Ah Ma use for prayer outside to the sky god Tian Gong? The one-size-fit-all kind that's usually pink with some rose flower motif?"
"Yes, that kind. And do you remember the family sized dum briyani we had at Upper Changi Road? That Pakistani one where a huge portion of rice is scooped onto that rose patterned enamel plate so a Tom, Dick and a few Harrys could just dig in with their hands? Yes, that kind of platter. But slightly smaller."
I could see my GF being intrigued. She had a mole on her upper lip and as was often the case, a mark of someone regarded as very "tam chiak".
In fact, friends call her Ms Tam Chiak, more in affection than "eh, don't touch my food in the pantry."
The next Friday night, we decided to set off. I often drove into Malaysia at night. It's cooling and the traffic jams much less; or even non-existent.
As usual, the drive there took about 1.5 hours. Once you reach Sungei Renggam, Kluang is not far off.
We hit upon the White House soon after entering the township and crossing under the arch that read, "Selamat Datang di Kluang".
In my previous trips, I would bunk at my friend's house. He had a spare room that came in 70s decor as well as plenty of mosquitoes perhaps nostalgic for Sgren blood.
I didn't think my GF could stand for that. She would complain to no end and demand I do something about it.
I also did not want to bring her there knowing that my friend's sister was interested in me. Best not to cause hurt when there's no reason to. Plus, I still like to feel welcomed at my friend's home. His mom cooked a mean Hakka meal.
Until I know that this sister has not mastered any of those timeless dishes, I would then be more forthright with her about my feelings. At the moment, best to keep the one bird in hand and the other singing happy in the bush. I think there's one saying to that effect.
Or, don't cut off your exit route, that sort of Sun Tzu wisdom.
Although we arrived late, there was someone to check us in. But before we made any commitment, I asked if we could check out out the rooms first (knowing how finicky Sg girls could be about hotel rooms. I felt it was best to get her approval first.)
The room turned out to be quite decent. Clean and not too cramp.
There wasn't a private bath but since it was a step or two away, we didn't mind. It was clean, the heater was working and the water flow rate better than a child's pee.
"Sure you don't mind the bathroom being out there?" I asked my GF just to be double sure.
"No, it's fine. Not like we need to use it tonight. Besides, I've got plenty of wet wipes," she winked as she said that.
That got me aroused a little.
The check-in clerk then proceeded to turn on the air-condition. It was one of those old fangled window units that rattled to start but afterwards would give off a mighty blast of cold air.
Wonderful, and it was pretty quiet. Says a lot about the maintenance effort this hotel must be putting in.
"Do you want to see the other rooms?" the clerk asked, a bit superfluous I felt, as he had already turned our room's air-con on.
"Er, no need," I said, and added, "But are these rooms empty as well?"
Great, I thought. Peace and quiet throughout the night.
So me and GF unpacked the essentials from our luggage and fell into bed soon fast asleep. The wet wipes untouched.
In the middle of the night, I was awakened by my GF who seemed a little concerned.
"TC, wake up, I hear voices!"
"Whaa..what? Where?" I was pretty much getting into REM sleep and felt groggy having been awoken up so unceremoniously.
"A couple talking!"
True enough, I could hear the muffled voices of a couple deep in earnest conversation. But at this time of night?
"Maybe the walls here are thin," I suggested.
"But didn't they say the room beside ours is empty?"
I could see now that my GF's eyes were wide open and very alert. I didn't think I could sleep again if something was not done.
"Look, just ignore it. Maybe they have just checked in."
"Cannot be," my GF reasoned. "I was awake the whole time and nobody came up to check them in. No key turning in the lock, no doors opening, etc., etc."
At that moment, the voices suddenly stopped. Not a single word.
"See see, it just goes away. Where got people talk like that one?"
I thought about what my GF said and found it funny. I laughed.
She quickly gave me a smack on the shoulder.
"Eh, serious leh, is this place haunted?" Once more her eyes were wide open and very very curious.
Just then water in the bathroom ran.
My GF gripped my arm harder. "Hear that? People in the bathroom. Where got people bathe at this hour one?"
"Er, people with dirty dreams?" I ventured.
Once more a smack on the shoulder.
I've seen ghosts before as a child and since then, had always wanted to see more just to affirm that in this world, we are not alone. I mean for some people, want to see ghost also kang kor. Don't say once. Many times: never.
So I opened the door to our room and peeped out.
The outside toilet/bathroom was still the same. Door ajar, lights off. Just as how it was when we first checked in. Only the incandescent bulb outside shedding some thin light in. You could assume nobody was using it.
But that's the cruncher. I could hear someone splashing water inside as if taking a bath. Yet no water flowed out into the drain hole that was clearly visible by the door.
I closed our room door and calmly assured my GF that somebody new had checked in.
"Really." I said, clearly stating a lie.
In another part of the same night, the conversations started up again. But by then my GF had fallen asleep.
I stared at the half-opened wet wipes on the side table and thought hard.
Truly, who the heck is up at this time of night. And who would once again bathe?
I didn't get any answers that night, nor could I make out what that conversation was all about. It was just something earnest between a man and a woman. It almost sounded the same, as if recorded and replayed again and again.
Before dawn arrived, I too fell asleep.
The next day, my GF was adamant that the place was haunted and refused to stay another night. No need.
Kluang wasn't so big as to bother with another night unless you go hiking at two of their very popular recreational hillsides and streams.
Well, with this GF and her fear of mosquitoes, that's definitely out of the question. I enjoyed her fair skin too so keeping her out of the sun was fine by me. I've climbed enough mountains and beachcombed enough seasides for the two of us. But hey, what about golf? PAMOL was just such a sweet sweet place.
- the end (by TC Lai, 2nd May 2021)