Workers come, workers go: PJ senior citizens dispel myth Old Town overrun by migrants

Soo Wern Jun
Convenience store owner Ma Seng speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at PJ Old Town, Petaling Jaya during the enhanced movement control order May 12, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

PETALING JAYA, May 14 — Behind talks about a township overrun by migrant workers, the Old Town in Petaling Jaya is really just famous because like its name, it is an “old” town that boasts of many generations of closely-knit families.

One of the many elderly inhabiting the area, Ma Seng, 69, said the Old Town, or fondly known as PJ Old Town, is not popular because of some specialty food or certain enticing traits.

The township inherited its name from the word “old” and this made it popular as it was where Petaling Jaya started growing until it was granted city status in the mid 2000’s.

“Those who lived here gradually moved out to neighbouring towns like Puchong, Sungai Way, Old Klang Road and Subang Jaya to work and in time have settled down there.

“But during festivity celebrations, they would always return to spend time with their elderly parents and this is why the Old Town is always lively and kept its identity,” Ma told Malay Mail when met at his 22-year-old shop that sold household items.

Ma was clarifying misconceptions about the Old Town being overpopulated by migrant workers due to a spike in Covid-19 cases which is believed to have spread among migrant workers who worked at the Jalan Othman wet market.

This has resulted in three sections of PJ Old Town being placed under lockdown as of May 10 for a duration of two weeks, to make way for active case tracing and sanitisation works.

The wet market also ceased operations since April 27 after a market trader tested positive for Covid-19.

Same old ‘Old Town’

But despite all kinds of judgement passed about the Old Town, Ma said the town has not changed much.

“If you are a regular here, you will notice that everything is pretty much the same.

“The migrant workers have always been around. When some return to their home country, there will be new recruits to replace those who have gone back.

“It isn’t a growing number. We have never worried about that,” he said.

This also reminded Ma that it was during the earlier days that migrant workers were first hired to work in factories nearby the Old Town.

Over the years, the factories shifted further out, but the migrant workers stayed in Old Town and took up jobs that were available mostly at the market and some at hawker centres.

“At the time, hiring them was more economical while it helped solved worker shortage since the locals were not interested to work in the market.

“They may cost more now, but they are willing to work and that is why they are a preferred workforce compared to locals who were picky and disliked environment at the market,” he said.

Migrant worker invasion?

Because migrant workers mostly worked at the market, it only made sense that they stayed nearby to save travelling cost and time, said Ma.

“It doesn’t make sense for them to stay in Cheras and work here, right?

“Moreover, some home-owners have shifted out while some don’t occupy the entire house.

“So naturally houses are rented entirely or partly to migrant workers,” said Ma.

Back when Ma’s parents first came from Peel Road to PJ Old Town, there were only wooden houses in sight.

It was later that some were converted into bungalows, Ma said.

Some of these wooden houses are still intact and are occupied by second-generation residents.

But since migrant workers live in the neighbourhood, a stereotype arose: that crime rate was high due to the presence of these migrant workers.

Ma, however, said this is not true as migrant workers who reside in the Old Town all have jobs and did not need to resort to theft or robbery.

“They all have a job and so there is no need for them to steal or rob. When people hear about crime that happens here, it is usually petty theft and done by locals.

“But those are isolated crimes which happen only once in a while. Otherwise, PJ Old Town is really very peaceful,” he added.

Hawker stall owner Teoh Chin Wong speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at PJ Old Town, Petaling Jaya during the enhanced movement control order May 12, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Expressing similar sentiments, another old-timer resident Teoh Chin Wong, 58, said PJ Old Town has always had migrant workers.

“You will only notice them if you go to the market because they mostly work there.

“They work here, obviously they try to stay as close as possible. It is something normal that everyone including you and I would do,” said Teoh when met on Jalan Pasar 1/21.

Up until today, Teoh said migrant workers are concentrated at the market and hawker centres. They are not everywhere, as described or perceived by outsiders.

“They mostly came to PJ Old Town to work based on their friend’s recommendations. In a way jobs were usually introduced to each other within respective communities.

“For example, many Myanmar nationals work at hawker centres, while Bangladeshi nationals work at the market,” he said.

He also explained that migrant workers did not have job preferences and they were willing to take up any kind of job to earn a living.

No time for shopping

When asked if migrant workers posed any threat to the Old Town, Teoh said they have no time to scheme or plan a crime because they spend most of their time working at the market.

“When they are done with work, they go home to sleep.

“They don’t linger around or go shopping. They have no time for that,” he said.

Although there are times where people were caught stealing, Teoh said most of the time these crimes stemmed from desperation for food.  

“When a person doesn’t have a job and is desperate for food, it’s human nature that they would do anything to obtain food.

“It could happen to anyone, not just migrant workers,” he said.

Retiree Wong Ai Kwok (right) collects supplies through barbed wire fencing in PJ Old Town, Petaling Jaya May 12, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

As for 82-year-old Wong Ai Kwok, when met at her home while under lockdown, she said that elderly citizens like her are used to the presence of migrant workers.

Wong, who lives a few streets away from a house occupied by migrant workers, said that did not bother her at all.

“They don’t disturb us and they mind their own business.

“They are just here to earn a living and they have not caused trouble to the neighbourhood,” she said.

The Jalan Othman wet market and its surrounding commercial areas have come under the enhanced movement control order (EMCO) until May 23 following a spike in Covid-19 cases.

Putrajaya said it made the decision to impose the EMCO following the advice of the Health Ministry after 26 positive Covid-19 cases were detected in the area then.



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