Lessons from May 13: Trapped in Rex Cinema, Petaling Street

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Part 3/5 of a R.AGE documentary series on the May 13 riots and the lessons Malaysians should learn from them. 

Johan Fernandez, Petaling Street

Sitting in what used to be the iconic Rex Cinema in Petaling Street, former Star Metro editor Johan Fernandez was lost in memories.

On May 13, 1969, he was watching a Paul Newman movie after work when the movie stopped at the word ‘Darurat’ (Emergency) flashed onto the screen.

That word ended Kuala Lumpur as Fernandez knew it.

“It was pandemonium,” he said. “People were jumping over seats and running into each other as they rushed to the main entrance… but when they reached and saw the huge (armed) crowd waiting outside, they turned and ran back in.”

Before that turning moment, Fernandez had never believed something like the riots happening all over Kuala Lumpur could ever happen.

“We heard rumours about it (the riots), but we didn’t take it to heart. It’s KL you know, it’s a city, people will fight and say things. We weren’t disturbed.”

But for once, the rumours came true.

Fighting to leave the cinema, Fernandez managed to find an exit, but reached just in team to see the door being broken down by a few members of the mob.

“People were standing there with parangs, cleavers, bicycle chains - you name the cruelest weapon you can think of, they had it - and they were blocking the exit, preventing anybody from leaving,” he said.

May 13: 50 years later | Johan Fernandez, Petaling Street

Despite not “fitting” in the “profile” they were looking for, Fernandez had to bear a few tense moments as the crowd discussed what to do with him.

“With my rudimentary Cantonese, I understood I didn’t fit the profile they were looking for, but they still weren’t sure what to do,” he said.

“One fellow said ‘Eh, he’s an Indian guy la, what do we do?’ and another fellow said ‘Nevermind, just hit him,’” he recalled ruefully.

He took advantage of their confusion to walk out unscathed, but that harrowing incident has become an indelible memory.

“People who talk about ‘another May 13th’ don’t know what they’re talking about - they never lived through it,” he said.

Despite the repeated references to that dark day, Fernandez says people haven’t actually learned from our shared history.

“Sadly, things have gotten worse in the last few years,” he said.

“One would think we would have learned from (May 13), but we haven’t. Our racial and religious rhetoric is reaching a fever pitch - it’s scary, the way things are taking a turn. We should teach our students about what we went through.”

May 13: 50 years later | Hassan Abdul Muthalib, Kampung Baru


Parts 4 and 5 of the May 13: 50 Years Later serial documentary will launch throughout the week. For more info, log on to rage.my/May13.

May 13 , Rage