by Hanis Jasmy
This is the story of Daniel Gnanapragasam, an Engineer at YTL Land and Development who grew up in Sentul during its industrial period with his father, mother, and four siblings. As a young man, his dream was to work at his neighbourhood train depot, where he could contribute to Sentul’s development the way his father did. Little did he know that he would achieve much more, albeit decades later, for the place he will always call home.
It was music to my ears.
The shrilling wail of a siren that echoed for miles on end signaled the break of dawn in Sentul. It was a sound that nudged railway workers and their families off their beds. Those who missed the first alarm at 6:15 am would get their sleep interrupted again at 6:45 am. Appa, on the other hand, was always up before the morning sun hit our tattered roof. The first order of business was to prepare for another work day at the neighbourhood depot. He began his career with the Federated Malay States Railway, a defunct railroad operator active during British Malaya, as a Chargeman in 1955, and retired as a Supervisor four decades later in 1994. He was undoubtedly in my mind, the most hardworking man I knew.
A thundering sound produced by the locomotive trains ‘letting off steam’ at the nearby depot. Amma always reminded us to count our blessings when we heard it, as it symbolised Appa’s blood, sweat, and tears coming to fruition. Like most Sentul kids then, my dream was to keep my father’s legacy at the depot alive. However, he had much bigger plans for me.
Since the 1800s, men like my father were the driving force behind Sentul’s reputation. The bustling town was home to the biggest railway depot in Malaysia, that majestically stood, and still stands, at 200,000 square feet. Sentul was also home to thousands of depot workers and their families, many of whom eventually joined the depot workforce once they were able.
Its history dates back to a time before I existed, in particular, the year 1905. Sentul Works, also known as Central Railway Workshops, was one of the biggest industrial undertakings in Malaya and boasted a collection of engineering workshops. Imagine that! One of the finest integrated engineering workshops in the world headquartered in Sentul. The enterprise was also a storage and maintenance centre for steam and diesel locomotives, as well as a fleet of railway cars. Appa, as I would always proudly declare, was one of the 7,000 workers employed there during its heyday – the very same workforce that manufactured train parts for India’s railway system. It would be an understatement to profess that visiting Appa at his ‘office’ was the highlight of my days then.
What’s left of Sentul Works now is just remnants of the past – old uniforms hang on the walls at the depot’s main welding area, and smashed holes in its zinc roofs ‘decorated’ by B-29 bombers during WW2 are still visible – as it stopped operations in 2009, making way for a new central workshop in Batu Gajah, Perak. However, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) continued housing many decommissioned locomotives at the Sentul depot until the early 2000s.
Fun fact: Sentul was one of the last towns bombed by British planes during World War 2, in an attempt to prevent invading Japanese troops using its sizeable train yard to their wartime advantage. Today, surviving locals say that they can still hear the sounds of bombs dropping from the skies.
“Good morning, Appa”, I wished him while wobbling to the toilet with my eyes half shut. Having four siblings living under the same roof meant it was a mission and a half to get ready for school. However, breakfast with Appa was of utmost importance, so I always rushed into my uniform before his last sip of coffee. “Stop moving, boy”, my mother sternly whispered to me while she combed my dripping hair. Amma knew I wanted to rush to the kitchen for a quick bite with Appa. Our meals, which typically consisted of roti, fish, and vegetables, were humble and made to fill our bellies just nicely. Our home, though simple, was always kept beautifully by my mother. Appa’s pay was admittedly modest, but it gave us all we needed.
Routinely after breakfast, Appa would hop onto his old bicycle before extending a hand to help me and my two brothers up. Even with the help of his strong, calloused hands, my brothers and I always struggled to keep our balance. ‘Oy! Is there space on that bicycle for me?’, Appa’s good friend yelled sarcastically, as he gleefully watched the four of us hang on to each other while the bike swayed left and right. It was always a task getting to school, but we never complained. In retrospect, we were blissfully happy.
In the mornings, a throng of workers filled the streets as they pedalled their bicycles to the depot, easily outnumbering zipping cars. It was a sight to behold! Miraculously enough, accidents rarely ever happened. Today, you may occasionally spot a purposeful geriatric catching his breath by the roadside, clutching onto his shabby, old-school bicycle. A few have chosen to keep this piece of heritage alive despite the deafening honks they get from the growing number of cars on modern Sentul roads. In the past, another time of day when bicycles would swarm the Sentul streets again was when the clock struck 12 noon, signalling lunch.
‘You will get it from Appa when he comes back!’, warned my angry mother. Every day, Appa would cycle home from work for a home-cooked lunch, which was usually the same meal served at breakfast, before heading back to the depot to finish his shift. That fateful day, Amma had caught me skipping school and discovered that I’d performed poorly on a recent exam. I fearfully dashed out of the house and went into hiding inside an abandoned yellow car sitting across our home. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life. Suddenly, Appa’s hands emerged from the car’s broken window panel, pulling me out from my hiding spot. I braced myself for a light whooping. Instead, he shuffled me to school in silence. Unbeknownst to me, Appa was teaching me a lesson that I would only learn decades later, which was to finish school and then use education as my weapon to make a difference.
After completing my high school education, I handed Appa my resume, confident that he’d help me secure my dream job as a locomotive train driver at the depot. “You won’t have time for your family,” sighed Amma when she learned this, but I was too determined to be part of the depot ‘family’ to take heed. Months went by without me hearing any good or bad news, so to kill time, I took up part-time jobs, such as delivering milk in glass bottles, while excruciatingly waiting a little longer. Eventually, disheartened, I gave up and applied to further my studies at Universiti Tenaga Nasional. As it turned out, Appa had never submitted my resume, confident that I’d eventually have a change of heart and choose a different path for myself.
As always, he was right.
As a professional Engineer, traveling was a norm. To date, I’ve traveled to 33 countries across the globe to work on a multitude of projects. One day, as luck would have it, that ‘path’ Appa knew I’d choose finally led me to my ‘final stop’; a career with YTL Land as an Electrical Engineer, where my first interview was aptly held in its Sentul office over 17 years ago. As a kid, never in a million years did I think I’d eventually work on dynamic projects that would transform the face of the town that built me.
When the electric train was introduced in Malaysia in the 2000s, the depot workforce, many of whom were Appa’s friends, were relieved of their jobs. The depot itself eventually became derelict and was left to disrepair for decades. Sentul too, lost its noble reputation, and became a breeding hub for gangsterism.
Then in 2018, the abandoned depot made history again.
On Malaysia Day 2018, the Sentul depot opened its doors again, but this time to the public for an event of colossal scale. It was revealed to be the venue of choice for RIUH that weekend only, which was a shift from its usual joint at APW Bangsar. RIUH (pronounced: ri-yoh; loosely translated to: loud festive noises) is a monthly creative platform that curates a variety of pop-up stores & food, creative workshops, showcases and live performances (http://www.riuh.com.my/). Its theme was #LoveLokal, and the event was a three-way collaboration between the brains behind RIUH, Grab and YTL Land and Development Berhad. Although the depot’s facade still remained mainly untouched, it was an occasion that marked a fresh, more urban era for the future of Sentul.
After decades of undergrowth, YTL Land and Development Berhad will be spearheading a 5-year project to transform and rejuvenate the Sentul depot into a world-class lifestyle destination of Kuala Lumpur, an idea inspired by famous heritage destinations such as the Meatpacking District in New York, Xintiandi in Shanghai and Kings Cross in London. This ambitious project is part of an even even bigger masterplan to rejuvenate and urbanise the whole of Sentul, which began operations in 2002. To date, with modern skyscrapers, luxury condominiums, and link bridges beautifying Sentul, the urbanisation project has proven to be a ground-breaking success. It is an active mission that I, alongside thousands of others, are pouring our hearts and souls into, as we are determined to restore Sentul back to its former glory.
Once a month, I’d take Appa, now 80, with me to the abandoned depot – where it all began for us. He’d sit in silence in an unmarked spot before politely asking me for some time alone. I’d watch him silently from a nearby corner. Without fail, tears would slowly fill the bank of his eyes while he glanced at the nothingness surrounding him, as if still seeing and hearing everything just as it had been. He always ended his visits by thanking the ground he stood on.
“This is the place where I remember many occasions happened. I miss all my friends,” he suddenly shared with me after a recent visit. His love and struggle for work and his family will always move me. More importantly, it will always inspire me to continue building what’s right for Sentul and its people, as Appa and his friends had once done.