Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything.– Terrence Malick, American film director
There are some striking similarities between Sibu and Penang’s George Town, locally known as Tanjung.
Having spent two years as a student in Sibu (1973-74) and subsequently four years in Penang as Universiti Sains Malaysia undergraduate, both have become familiar to me.
In Tanjung, one would easily notice motorists stopping in the middle of street roads indulging in supposedly brief conversation with each other in typical Penang’s northern accent (loghat utara), Tamil or Hokkien. In Sibu, the same thing is easily noticed where these guys stop in the middle of busy roads.
In typical volume, one would hear the town folk greeting each other, sometimes using the usual expletives to express their anger and frustration with the world, adding to the myriads of noises and colours of the ambience.
Despite their oblivion to other road users in Tanjung or Sibu, none would usually interrupt their keen communication for fear of irritating the concerned parties, a testimony of tolerance and respect in our plural society, though at times, these virtues are not reciprocated. But who are to be blamed? After all, we are humans and have to accept that imperfection is our universal shortcoming.
At the Penang Esplanade, you are enthralled by the scenic view of the roaring stretch of water as one is greeted by the typical might of the Rajang River — with the omnipresence of fast express boats — at Sibu Waterfront next to the Li Hua Hotel and the express terminal.
However, the beauty of the majestic Tua Pek Kong temple there is absent in the Tanjung’s esplanade but the Kek Lok Si Temple, also known as Pagoda of a million Buddhas (Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple) further inland (in Air Itam), can certainly match the Sibu temple. I went up to the former’s highest level circa 1977.
In the mid-70s, while passing — and watching movies — at the Cathay Cinema along Penang Road, I would recall my usual trips to its Sibu namesake (now closed) at Central Road adjacent to the Ban Chuan café.
My inerasable memory of going to the Cathay Cinema in Sibu was watching Elvis on Tour for a record of five times in 1974 (within four days), mostly buying the third class 50 sen tickets but ending up with the first class RM1.40 seats — with or without my girlfriend.
One interesting moment while being inside and watching movie at Penang’s Cathay was when I purposely made a noise by rolling a coco-cola bottle when all was quiet as Gregory Peck was about to open the tombstone of his offspring Damien in The Omen.
It caused gasps among the audience in the midst of the suspense. It was done during my third trip to the movie in four days — so I was very familiar with the plot.
Penang Hill in those days, despite edging then Sibu’s Bukit Aup, did remind me of the latter. Still comparatively remote, I joined two groups to Bukit Aup in 1974, offering appeasements to Iban deities and praying for two Form Three students to pass with good marks in their Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) exams.
After its upgrading into a park, now called Bukit Aup Jubilee Park, it won the 1998 National Landscaping Competition for Public Parks. The tower, located on the park’s highest peak (59m), remains a favourite place for Iban visitors who bring offerings to benevolent spirits in exchange for help. I heard some superstitious individuals did the same in Penang Hill too.
Apart from the said similarities, Sibu’s busy express terminal is comparable to the ferry terminals at both Butterworth and Tanjung, both popular spots prior to the existence of Penang Bridge.
Later (post 1979), the comparison continued when my former Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Sociology of Education lecturer Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon entered politics and was named Penang chief minister whereas my teacher in Methodist Secondary School Sibu, Wong Soon Koh (now Datuk Seri) won the Bawang Assan state seat and was later made senior minister cum finance second minister.
While a few USM friends and classmates became Datuk or Datin, two of my Methodist Sixth Form classmates were also knighted, namely Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim (incumbent Batang Lupar MP and former minister) and Datuk Mohd Sait Ahmad (former IRD director).
However, I have endeared myself more to Sibu. Apart from a five-month stint in Rascom headquarters there, I served five years in Binatang (later Bintangor), two years in Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) Sedaya, Kanowit and seven years in Julau.
There were regular trips to the Foochow town from these places between 1979 and 1993. My marriage in 1984 also took place in its posh Premier Hotel, which became our regular place of stay.