By TAN EE WAH
Mentakab looks innocuous as one of the many townships in Malaysia but looks can be deceiving as still waters run deep. This town stakes substantial claims to fame, which I will attempt to flesh out here.
When the British wanted to move the Pahang capital from Kuala Lipis, Mentakab – being centrally located – was a contender, but lost to Kuantan.
Mentakab has come a long way since. It merged with the nearby town of Temerloh and therefore laid claim to Temerloh’s famous Patin catfish (from the Pahang River) and the Sunday Pekansari market as part of its own. As well as Temerloh’s celebrity singers Sudirman and Siti Nurhaliza besides anti-British colonial figures Datuk Bahaman and Pak Sako.
Mentakab is linked to an outstanding British officer named Frederick Spencer Chapman whose book The Jungle Is Neutral (The French Foreign Legion reputedly used it as a reference for jungle warfare in Indochina) became an invaluable record of the lives and times of the Communist Party of Malaya in the jungles, then under the guise of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army.
Colonel Chapman was the leader of a tiny but daring stay-behind party that carried out attacks against the Japanese. He met Chin Peng and escaped to India via a rendezvous with a submarine at Pangkor Laut Island.
Field Marshall Wavell wrote in the foreword of the book that Chapman’s exploits reminds one of the legendary Lawrence of Arabia during World War I. For a period of time, Chapman stayed not far from Mentakab town where he recalled his frustration at failing to shoot a gaur in the Kemasul forest reserve.
Unlike most Westerners, Chapman loved the king of fruits, and proclaimed a durian feast as “the greatest of delights”. During World War II, the Japanese attacked and committed atrocities in Mentakab. After the war, a monument was erected in the football field (Victory Park) in memory of the inhabitants who had undergone the terrible experiences.
Traces of this slice of history still exist. During the dry season, exposed stumps of wood can be seen under the railway bridge over Semantan River. These are remnants of the original bridge that was destroyed by the British to deny passage to the Japanese.
The Communists were active in Mentakab until the late 1970s. An attempt to blow up the railway bridge was foiled, and the Communists staged their last act of defiance by raising a red flag atop the seven-storey Swee Lee Building which used to be the tallest building in the area. Swee Lee also used to be the agency of Cycle and Carriage (Mercedes-Benz) and was said to hold the record for selling the most Mercedes cars in Malaysia during the timber boom of the 1970s and 1980s.
An unforgettable event in Mentakab is the great flood of January 1971. This was one of the five floods that I experienced in Mentakab; the others took place in 1967, a second flood later in 1971, in 2007 and this year.
Mentakab earned more fame in the 1980s when a popular Nescafé commercial was shot, with the rustic Mentakab train station used as the romantic setting. The ad featured a female traveller being offered a cup of Nescafé by the station master, while she was waiting for her boyfriend.
Another memorable event was when parts of Mentakab were used as a setting for the acclaimed 1993 Malay film Perempuan, Isteri Dan Jalang starring Sofia Jane. It was directed by award-winning Malaysian filmmaker U-wei Haji Shaari who was born in Tanjung Kerayong, Mentakab. He watched many films at the Rex Cinema located just next to his kampung that eventually inspired him to learn the trade of filmmaking in New York City. Part of that film was shot in Mentakab and inside the New Capital cinema.
Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan made a buzz in 1997 when he stayed in the town while filming a small part of his movie Who Am I? iSingapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, too, stayed overnight during a visit to Pahang.
Mentakab’s well-known Tai Heng Ah kopitiam is located in the oldest section of town – along Jalan Tun Razak. The business operated in a Chinese shophouse with a pillared five-foot way. Unfortunately, it closed shop several months ago, marking the end of an era.
Some of the Chinese shophouses there still prominently display, near their rooftops, the year in which they were built; the oldest reads 1921.
There used to be a row of hawker stalls along Jalan Mok Hee Kiang in the town centre but they were not allowed to operate since 1992. That glutton street was the pride of locals, many of whom are still nostalgic about it. A stretch of Mok Hee Kiang turns into a pasar malam during late afternoon but without the fabulous food of the original hawkers, this famous street has lost its essence.
The biggest thing to happen in Mentakab in recent years was the opening of The Star Mall in 2011. It is a mall with a cineplex and is set amidst housing estates.
Mentakab beckons, like a movie coming to a cinema near you.