Friday, September 26, 2008

The Lady of My Life

When I first met Wai Har at the sundry shop along Jalan Universiti after my dinner at the Satellite Restoran it was though the introduction of my cousin sister, Ling Mei Ling. They had walked over from their room in the Nurses Hostel in the Teaching Hospital to buy food provisions. It was around June 1968 soon after I began my varsity class.

I started seeing Wai Har at the hostel. I would arrive at the reception and put out a call for her and waited for her to come down. We would ride out for dinner on my faithful MB3195 in various parts of Petaling Jaya. Two of our favorite haunts were the Medan Selera along Jalan Othman in Old Town PJ and the Food Court in Section 14 near the present Cold Storage Building. Our food tastes were very simply and we usually ended up with hawker’s food. We would spend the rest of the evenings either in the library or in the park. Wai Har was a very encouraging person; she would encourage me to study hard, learn guitar and take up further studies. I would try my best to meet her requests. Unfortunately my guitar skills plomped after awhile and my M.Sc studies did not finish.

Monday, September 15, 2008

After My Graduation ...

OK, so I graduated. It was an exhilarating experience. I can still remember the feeling of relief after my final exam paper was sat ad handed in. All I need to worry is how well (or badly) I did in the exams. I was using the motorcycle even after my graduation. In January 1971, while waiting for my exam results, I was offered a temporary teaching post at the Methodist Girls School in Klang where I taught for 8 months. Up till April I stayed in a back room rented from Kao Chew Kwong’s eldest brother in Berkeley Garden, Klang. Daily after school ended I would have my lunch at a coffee shop in Taman Eng Ann next to our housing estate. During weekends I would ride the lonely Federal Highway up to Petaling Jaya to meet with Wai Har. Returning late at night I had to pass by a cemetery near the MARA College in Batu Tiga area. It was an eerie feeling because traffic then was rather light.

In May I decided to move back to stay in Petaling Jaya because a room was available in the house of a teaching colleague in Section 20 (Paramount Garden), PJ. That colleague, Miss Geh Suan Booi, later married my classmate Yong Kheng Hoi. Each morning we would take a lift from one Malay chegu in his Volkswagen with two other teachers. I ended my teaching job after August and in September took up M.Sc study under Dr David Burfield, with encouragement from Wai Har. For the duration of my study, which I did not finish, from September 1971 till August 1972, I stayed first in Section 10, then in the Xavier Hall of the St Xavier Catholic Church for a short while before moving to stay with a group of Sabahans in Jalan Bukit, Section 12 directly opposite the Teaching Hospital. In 1972, while crossing the Federal Highway on my motorcycle I met with an accident cutting my right ankle. Wai Har visited me often while I recuperated in the Section 12 room

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The University Library

Many a day I would go to the main library to study or do research work. Sometimes I would meet Wai Har at the medical library to study together. Those occasions were generally at night after she had finished her shift duties.

The main library was typically crammed with students from all faculties studying (or mugging) for their term exams. At the entrance to the library was a speaker’s corner that student union leaders and aspirants would take attention of passerby to promote their agendas or issues they were unhappy with. Unless I am free I would usually give the speaker some token time before I sprint to the library. I understand that Anwar Ibrahim was very vocal and eloquent there when he was a student leader in his days.

The interior of the library was quiet. I would head immediately to the Science section to look for books recommended by the lecturers to borrow. If I was a little slow they would have been borrowed first by my fellow classmates. A group of them was well known for blocking the entire set to themselves so the other students cannot have access. It was a selfish idea. Books that cannot be borrowed are red spotted for reference only. We were allowed to photocopy them. In those days the term ‘photocopy’ was unheard of. Instead we used the term ‘xerox’ which was the brand name of the photocopying machine. Each copy we xeroxed would cost us 20 sen and the quality of the print average by today’s standard.

University of Malaya

Universiti Malaya campus is situated in Kuala Lumpur and was sometimes mistaken as in Petaling Jaya since it borders the town. There were two entrances, one at Jalan Ilmu off Jalan Universiti on the PJ side, and the other off Jalan Pantai next to Bangsar on the Kuala Lumpur side. When I first reported to the Universiti’s administration office on the first day to collect my student card and made the fees payment I got lost coming out. Instead of taking the Jalan Universiti exit I took the Jalan Pantai exit and found myself taking a very long and arduous walk along the Federal Highway past the Angkasapuri back to Petaling Jaya. It was a hot afternoon and a walk I cannot easily forget, embarrassing as it was to recall. It confirms my poor sense of directions.

The layout of the Universiti was a circular road fringed by a library, various faculties with their lecture halls and theatres, the graduation and event hall named the Dewan Tunku Cancellor (DTC) named after the first Prime Minister of the country, and the administrative office. There was a lake inside the ring road and next to it the UMSU House, the office of the Universti Malaya Students Union. The UMSU House had a canteen that I sometimes go for lunch. The lake was really a retention pond for the streams that overflowed out of the nearby hills. It held sweet memories for Wai Har and I for we spent many evenings at the benches.

My stay at the college coincided with my 3rd and final year towards getting an honors degree in the Bachelor of Science with major in Chemistry. During that time I actively courted Wai Har. We went for regular suppers, studied together, went for movies and we talked. Therefore it was not surprising that when I graduated in June 1970 (general degree) she was there at the Dewan Tunku Canceller with me, and also in June 1971 (honors degree) when my parents came. That was the first time they met Wai Har, their future daughter-in-law.

Life in a Residential College

I had always wanted to stay in a hostel to have a taste of life inside. So I applied and was offered a place in the 3rd Residential College for the 1970/1971 session. My roommate was one Ahmad, a studious and religious boy. I would quietly study or leave the room whenever he had his prayers on the mat. Our room was two-bedded with two study desks and two wardrobes. I took the windowed desk that overlooked the road leading to the 4th Residential College which was reserved for female students. That gave the male residents of the 3rd RC to carry out panties raid during the orientation week which was at the beginning of a new academic year in May. I did not participate in such activities which always take place in the wee hours of the morning when the female students were asleep. The ‘trophies’ would be hung up on the fencing for display and the ‘owners’ would be too embarrassed to come over to claim them. The raids were carried out in good fun and no one was hurt.

The male wing of my college had a communal bath down the floor and a pantry at the other end. I would sing the popular songs by Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Beatles and other bands while I lathered soap over my body. Sometimes I would be joined by other ‘singers’. I am embarrassed to admit that I had my first taste of Maggi instant mee while in college. I didn’t know that I had to cook it first with egg or some meat. Instead what I did was pour hot water over it and ate the half cooked mee. It did not taste very good. Our clothing was sent to a laundry shop to wash and iron as there were no washing and drying facilities in the college. Every few days I would find a pile of my neatly ironed clothing outside my room door. To prevent mix up all our clothing was tagged with special codes. To keep an eye over our conducts the wing had a warden who stayed in a special room there. The resident wardens must be lecturers and during my stay we had Dr Tan Bok Hay and later Dr Ng Soon as our wardens. Their role was to arbitrate in any disputes or issues the male residents bring to his attention.

The 3rd RC had a Junior Chamber Common Room which is really a big recreational hall that students can read papers, watch TV or listen to music. They also go there to meet friends from outside. I frequent the JCCR to read the newspapers and keep abreast of the latest going-ons of the college. It was in this place that I come to know of Chin Li Li who later married Tan Foong Luen. Li Li used to play the piano and wore the fashionable mini skirts in that period. In 1970 I remember taking part as a member of the trio with Ahmad Sani and Lawrence Lim at the College Talentime Contest singing a song composed by Sani. We didn’t win but that experience was pleasantly etched in my memory.

Extract from :

Tuanku Kurshiah Residential College

The Third Residential College is one of the oldest hostels in the University Malaya and accommodates both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Officially opened on August 11, 1962, it was later renamed as Tuanku Kurshiah Residential College after the nation’s first Raja Permaisuri Agung, Tuanku Ampuan Kurshiah.

The first administration was headed by its Master, Madam Emily Sandosham, who was assisted by three College Fellows.The college initially consisted of three blocks of residential units –A, B and C – all accommodating female students. However, Block A which was originally intended for single occupancy, was later modified to house two students. In 1969, Block E was erected to receive the first batch of male students.

May 13, 1969 Experience

The beginning of my college life in May 1969 was marred by the May 13 race riots incident. I had just come out from Sitiawan to our rented room in Section 10 and started enjoying my role as a senior student. I was ragged the year before as a super-fresh so this year would be my turn to rag other new students. On May 13 I rode my Honda Cub (MB3195) to the 5th Residential College to meet up with my Sitiawan friends staying there so that as a group we can pick up some scared and timid looking girls wearing tags that identified themselves as freshies. We would tease them and make them do funny things like cutsy, do some dance steps or bring us things. It was a nice feeling exerting our senior authority. Sometime later that afternoon we heard news that there was a fight in Kuala Lumpur and that the government had imposed a curfew. I suddenly found myself cut off from the rest of the world in a place I have no change of clothing, no toiletries, no spare pocket money and an uncertain time ahead. Fortunately the college offered us visitors food to tied over the curfew period. We ate canteen food which later became scarce as ration dwindled. We even had to go through the days with just plain porridge. In the evenings I squat (bunked) with my friend Foong Daw Kwong inside the college. Life was boring during the curfew as we could not leave the college. We played caroms to pass time. In the nights we could see the skies engulfed in glow from the fires on the grounds. We really did not know much of the carnage outside the safety of our college. In that we were grateful for this protection.

About 2 days after the riots started an appeal was received for students to donate blood to top up the blood bank in the University Teaching Hospital. I responded to that appeal. We were taken to a reception area in the hospital where I had a pint of my blood drawn out. It was the first time I donated blood and I did not follow instruction to get up slowly so that my blood pressure was stabilized. Instead I got off the bed too fast and promptly fainted. When I awoke I saw several angelic faces crowding over me. I cannot remember if one of them was Wai Har. Anyway, it was an embarrassing tale to tell. Nonetheless, I was proud to have done my civic duty to donate blood when called to do so.

When the curfew was lifted I was glad to return to Section 10. The rest of 1969 was uneventful as I studied hard for my B.Sc general degree examination at year end.

The Beginning of University Life

A group of us ACS boys who were offered places in University of Malaya decided to take up rooms in a house in Section 10 in Petaling Jaya. Section 10 is just behind Jalan Gasing and very near to PJ New Town and Old Town. With our motorcycles we could go anywhere. In those days, traffic was light and there was no flyover from Jalan Gasing to Jalan University. There was just a traffic light.

We took a bus from Sitiawan in May 1968 and checked into the house, which was owned by a Mr Teh. He has a daughter called Peggy and a son called Elvis. There was an existing tenant, a medical student by the name Chiang Mun Cheong, a lanky fellow from Bukit Mertajam. Our group, comprising Song How Ting (my former Maths teacher), Wong Chew Swee, Wong Choo Chai (my room mate) and Dang Meng Song, took up the rest of the rooms. We were the NHO's or non-hostelites as we stayed outside the campus. That was in 1968 and I was offered direct entry into the second year of the Science faculty (we were called the Super-Freshies) and for many evenings we would ride our motorcycles out for supper in PJ Old Town Glutton Square or go for movies. Sometimes when bored we would play cards in one of the rooms. In June that year, I met my cousin Ling Mei Ling and her friend, Wai Har, both student nurses at the University Teaching Hospital, doing their shopping at a sundry shop along Jalan Gasing, where we had our dinner one evening. Mei Ling introduced Wai Har to me. After some years of courtship I married her.

Life in Form 6 in Ipoh

Leaving home was inevitable. Since ACS Sitiawan did not offer Form 6 classes in my time we had to go to the next school, ACS Ipoh to continue our studies. So in around May 1966, after the SPM/MCE results came out and we learnt of our new school, I packed my clothing and necessary books and toiletries and left for Ipoh to rent a room. It was in Happy Garden, off Jalan Bendahara, coincidentally within walking distance from my in-laws current house. The family I stayed with was the Cheangs and I can still remember the sons and daughter. They were Kam Hoong, Kam Tuck and Kam Yin. My roommate was Diong Cheong Hoong, whom I playfully nicknamed Rasputin. Diong was a very studious student. I heard that he has migrated to Hawaii. We rented the second room, which was badly ventilated and dark. Sometimes I could smell gas leak from the nearby kitchen and had to tolerate it. During the weekends I would go back to Sitiawan by bus and return with things my mother prepared. Once I brought back eggs that had 'expired'. I remember taking bad boiled eggs and not daring to throw them away. In my Upper Six year in 1967 we moved nearer to the school and stayed in Lahat Avenue. The family was the Gooi and I can still remember the daughter Lee Peng. My roommate was still Diong.

We Sitiawan boys were unpopular with the Biology teacher, Mr. Foong Ah Yoong, because we were too studious. Mr. Foong disliked us and made his opinion known in class. We were a little afraid of him. However, in 2000 when I bumped into him at the Family Convention in Bayu Beach Resort, Port Dickson, he was a much nicer man. He had since passed on into glory. In Mr. Foong's class we always do well in our studies, beating the others from Ipoh, Kampar and Teluk Intan. We proved Mr. Foong right during our years there, that we are good. We Sitiawan students were generally interested in nothing by studies, so the results in ACS Ipoh would show poor participations in extracurricular activities from us.

My Form Six were lonely years as well as emotional years. I think I was also searching for my identity, or maybe I missed my former girlfriend. My pimples grew and my studies deteriorated. I continued using my bicycle that I took out from home. At the end of my studies in Ipoh I had the bicycle and my books sent back through the Sitiawan Lorry Transport.

During my holiday after the Form Six exam I applied for scholarships and a place in the University of Malaya. I failed to get a scholarship, although I was offered a teaching bursary, which I rejected as I did not intend to take up teaching. I was offered a place in the Science Faculty, which I accepted. While I waited for the semester to begin in June, I applied and was offered a temporary teaching post in the Nan Hwa Private School. From the teaching salaries I bought myself a second hand motorcycle, a Honda Cub bearing the registration number MB3195. I was very proud of my possession and took great care of it. MB3195 followed me to university and served me well there. My grandfather passed way in 1967 and left me half share of the shop-house, being the eldest grandson.

Primary School Life

During my primary school days, I studied in two schools. In the morning I studied in the Kuok Min Chinese School. In the afternoon I studied in the Methodist Afternoon School. Later when I went to the secondary school, I studied in the ACS in the morning and stopped studying Chinese. At least the foundation years of learning Chinese had been established. Sadly, through years of neglect and disuse, my command of Chinese has deteriorated but I can still speak working Chinese Mandarin.

Right till my Form 5 years (1955 - 1965) I walked to schools as my home was within walking distance. School bags in those days were made of rattan and I had to carry my bulky dictionary, text and exercise books, coloring pencils and arithmetic box along. Teachers were revered in those days. Discipline was good and we greeted our teachers before during and after classes. I remember one of my Chinese teachers always carry a short ruler to whack the knuckles of any of his pupils who came late, were mischievous, bullied others or cheated in class. The recalcitrant would be sent to the headmaster for additional caning. Often I would see school children leaving the headmaster's room crying or get sent home.

The sight of the headmaster on his round always sent the class into whisper quiet atmosphere, whether he carried a cane or not. Nonetheless, we still play truant. I remember playing truant a few times when I skipped the last one or two lessons because it was not interesting or I already knew. Instead of going home right away, when I knew I would be queried, I would spent the time at the bus stops playing games with my fellow-violators. We would play 'catch the crocodile' and laughed our heads off enjoying the time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Royal Military College - The Autobiography Account

Form 3 in 1963 was a memorable year in one aspect. The Royal Military College (RMC) in Sungei Besi offered scholarships to students after their LCE exam to join as cadets. Because of my good results I was picked by the school to qualify myself. Together with 4 others we took a bus to Ipoh and then by train to Kuala Lumpur for our interview. If I recall correctly my companions were Ting Cheh Sing, Mohd Yusof, Ranjit Singh and Ling Chin Chai from Ayer Tawar. I was both excited and terrified because it would mean going away from home to stay in a strange place for a few days.

We took a bus from Sitiawan to Ipoh from where we board the train for Kuala Lumpur. On the bus trip, somewhere near Parit I saw a signboard that said 'AWAS' which I mistaken to be the name of a town. It was embarrassing because AWAS means 'Caution' in Malay.

When we arrive at the main railway station in Kuala Lumpur, while waiting for the RMC truck to come at pick us up, I took a walk out to the flyover nearby. It was the first time that I was on one and I was truly amazed at the modernity of it. Today, of course, we see many of these flyovers in Kuala Lumpur.

The army truck bundled us and drove us in darkness to the base. I couldn't make out the route at all. At the RMC we were assigned to stay in a dormitory and use a common bath area. That's when I became aware of the nakedness of my fellow classmates and learned not to be embarrassed.

We were given classroom tests to assess our knowledge and aptitude as well as given physical examinations. I was quite afraid of the physical part because I knew it would be my problem area. True enough I failed to gain admission because I did not pass my physical. Nevertheless I enjoyed my few days' stay at the RMC. 2 things I shall remember:

a. I sketched the parade ground and the grand college building on a card but unfortunately it was lost when my mother cleared out my stuffs.

b. I was naughty at the dormitory. When it was supposed to be lights out but we were still yakking, a senior came in to check and asked a question 'What is the OBS?' The answer was supposedly Outward Bound School but I answered from under my sheets 'Outer Banana Skin'. When challenged by the senior to reveal myself I pretended to fake sleeping and was not discovered. Later my classmates and I had a good laugh over it and joked about it for months later.

Passing Time after School

Believe me we also lepak (gallivant) in my time. After dinner, especially months before the exams and during our Form 4 honeymoon year, my friends would congregate at my house. We would sit outside on our bicycles and on the bench and chit chat. Later we would cycle to Simpang Empat, 2 miles away, for our evening drinks and disturb the waitress, Ai Hwa. Our favourite drinks were ice kacang, Coca Cola and barley water. We would sat and talked until the stall closed.

During the school holidays we would meet up and cycle to the beach at Teluk Muroh near Lumut for a swim. Once, when we were cycling home, we were caught in a heavy shower and had to take shelter in a Tamil school along the way. I cannot remember if I caught a chill. Sometimes the schoolteacher would organize outings during the school holidays such as to Cameron Highlands, to Ipoh to watch a famous movie like the Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, or to Penang to sightsee. We always enjoy these trips as they open our eyes to the world beyond our little town.

Snapshot Memory of Kuok Min School Life

Class is over when a school bell that hung over a high bar outside a classroom was rung by a student. I don't remember ever been called to this task.

My class teacher would carry a short ruler in his hand whenever he walked around the class teaching us. Students who misbehaved or don't know their work would get a rap on the knuckles from his ruler. No wonder the class was always so quiet with him around.

During recess I love to go to the canteen behind my class to buy a Hock Chian bun and dipped it inside hot curry water to eat.

Near the canteen was a row of classrooms of which one had an old piano. Here we received our music lessons. The piano sounded old and out of tune.

We children love to play catch me in an open space near the classrooms during recess. It was fun and hilarious. I was quite sweaty after each game. Sometimes we would play the same game on the badminton courts outside the teacher's room.

The school's bookshop was next to the headmaster's office. I like to go to the bookshop because I loved the smell of new books. And I like to touch new books and write my name over them at every new school session. I also enjoyed wrapping my books using brown wrapping papers. In those days there were no plastic papers.

I was never hauled to the headmaster office for disciplinary reason because I was an obedient and hardworking student. Naughty boys who came out were seem crying from being smacked by the school head. Respect for teachers was high and parents trust them to teach their children well and not interfere.

Fishes, Ants and Bumble Bees

One fun but cruel game I did was to catch bumblebees and tie a string round one of its hairy legs and suspend a small weight at the end. The bee would try to fly away but the weight would keep it flying low. I was unafraid of them though they smell funny. The female doesn’t carry a sting on her tail so I learn to identify the gender and would only catch the female bees.

Rearing Siamese fighting fishes was another favorite pastime of mine. One interesting trick I learned was to rear the fish inside an empty electric bulb. Siamese fighting fishes were the rave in my time. We would try to own the fiercest male Siamese fish in town. When fully aroused the fish would display its bright red and purple color and open wide its fins as if to fight. The way to ‘cool’ it was to keep them out of sight by placing a cardboard between the two bottles in which they were kept.

My interest in biology was stirred each time I catch giant ants and rear them inside a glass bottle filled with sandy soil. They would burrow and build tunnels that could be seen from outside the bottle. The only ants I disliked were the fire ants, which are red in color. I have lost count the number of times I was bitten by them when I accidentally stepped on their nests. The only way to kill them was to set fire to their nests.

Reminiscing my Chinese New Years

During the Chinese New Year, we children would receive red packets from our parents. For me, I always remember that it would come soon after the last dinner of the New Year Eve. My parents would call us siblings and give us a red packet each, and reminding us to study hard and be good children. We would happily nod our heads and skip away with our new monies. New Year was really fun when we were young. We would definitely be wearing new clothing and shoes on New Year day. There would also be a balloon man at a street corner with his carbide tank that produced hydrogen gas to fill the balloons. We were so gay watching the balloons tug against the wind wanting to fly away. Sometimes, they did and we would squint our eyes as we followed the balloons fly higher and higher until we could see no more, or when they burst. Another dying art that we always enjoyed during New Year was the dough doll man. Carrying a small tray filled with multi-colored salted dough and paraphernalia of ribbon sticks and doll dresses, he would artistically fashion out ancient Chinese warriors or fairies for sale. He announced his coming each time with a leaf whistle and a crowd would surely gather around him. Today children would rather buy Barbie and Ken dolls from Toys R Us. They really miss out on the fun I had.

Another favorite game during the festive season was firing homemade bamboo canons. We would fill the chamber with carbide and light it and get a boom much like canon shots. Such devices are now banned.

My Hometown Delicacies

I love to eat nyonya kuehs that could be found in the wet market. In Sitiawan there was a large population of Hokkiens rooted in the nyonya tradition. Nyonyas were Straits born Chinese women who lived among the Malays and knew how to speak their language but forgotten how to speak their own Chinese language and dialects. My own grandmother had a nyonya root and wore sarongs like the Malays. Nyonyas made lovely kuehs from rice flour mixed with fragrant daun pandan water spread with kayas rich in coconut santan.

The Seven Layer Buns are a foochow favorite afternoon tea food. It was made using peanut paste mixed in lard and rolled in dough until a 7 layer is formed and then steamed.

Hock Chian Pian is an authentic hot bun from the Hock Chian community. The Hock Chians are closely related to the Foochows (also called Hock Chews) and they made this HCP by sticking pieces of fermented dough on the inside wall of a charcoal heated vat. After they are baked the pian (literally bread) are scrapped off using metal scrappers on long wooden handles. There are two kinds of HCP: the plain type and the filled type. The filled type had sugar syrup layered inside. When baked the bread expanded inside to revealed a sugarcoated inner surface that is crunchy and sweet.

Ley Pian means special occasion bread. It is about 4 inches square shaped and half inch thick and is made using sweet filling mixed in lard. Ley Pians are only available as wedding gifts and specially made for the occasion.

Korn Pian is a well known foochow snack. It means hot biscuit literally and is made the same was a Hock Chian Pian. The fillings can be plain, will tiny chunks of lard and onions added, or with some meat fillings added. Kong Pians can be heaty if eaten too much as well as unhealthy because of the saturated lard fat used.

Lou Shee Pian is a sugarcoated snack about an inch long and quarter to one third inch round. It means mice biscuit literally because the tiny sizes resembles mice. They are only available on special occasion like weddings or New Year. Lou Shee Pian is a favorite with children because they are like today’s Cheezels snacks.

Steamed Kaya Buns and Pows

Next to our shop, 2 doors away was a coffee shop that sells steamed buns and pows. At night I would sometimes go over and buy a bun and have the shop assistant slice into halves and spread a rich layer of kaya inside and top it up with a slice of Australian Cold Storage salted butter taken from the refrigerator. Mmmm, the taste was heavenly when the butter melted in the mouth. From the same shop I also ate their meat pows and meatballs wrapped in wontan skin as well as the famous foochow fishballs with soup mee or korn lou style with thin slices of lean pork. To spice the dish we apply vinegared grated garlic. This is a true foochow dish.

My Father, Part 3

My father had a strong desire to travel but poor health and inability to take time away from his business gave him few opportunities to take holidays to China and other distant lands that he loved to go. He traveled a few times to Hong Kong, Sibu, Thailand and Taiwan but not anywhere else. In 1991 I accompanied him, my mother and sister to the States to visit his son whom they had not seen since 1978 when he left the country. At that time, my father was suffering from a weak heart but he managed to complete the holiday, which sapped him to the point that his doctor advised him to retire immediately. I guess father did enjoy his holidays in the States, knowing that he would not be able to go back again.

In 1994 we celebrated his 70th birthday in a grand way. Most of the children and grand children were home. His health gradually weakened as his heart enlarged and his kidneys started failing. In March 1998 his health suddenly improved and he asked to go visit all his children. He traveled to Johor Baru and Singapore and enjoyed his stay there. During his visit with me he became very ill and I had to send him back to Sitiawan where he died a day later in hospital. Father suffered from chronic heart failure for many years, caused probably by business stresses and too much beer and smoking. I hope that he found true happiness when he was alive and that he really knew Jesus Christ after he was baptized.

My Father, Part 2

My father bought and sold rubber for a living. It was a risky business as the rubber prices fluctuate unpredictably. Sometimes, after buying in at a certain price range, the rubber prices would fall and it would be left to my father to decide whether to hold for a few days for the price to rise, or sell immediately to cut the loss. It was hair-raising for him and nerve wrecking too if the market was too volatile. We children did not understand nor realize how lonely he was trying to make money to support us.

My father was not a shrewd or aggressive businessman. Although he made enough to support us he did not become rich. Rubber trading was a laborious and time-consuming business. Sometimes he needed to take cash advances from another dealer to cover his purchases. When he retired due to ill health in 1995, he was sorry that he did not created wealth for us. My mother consoled him that his wealth was in his children after providing food and shelter for us as well as investing in our education. I guess my father really wanted to be successful financially but even in his ordinariness he was a great man in my eyes. When he died in 1998 I felt I should have spent more time to know him better. I was unable to ask him things that I needed to know.

My Father, Part 1

My father was a gentle man. I never saw him in any other way. He was the sole provider to our family and often suffered the trials of income uncertainties to feed us. As the eldest of 4 children he helped run the rubber business, inherited it when my grandfather died in 1963 and operated it as his own until he retired in 1995.

Father was a handsome man with curly hairs, strong facial lines and reasonably good education. He read and writes in both Mandarin and English and had a good command of the Malay language. I admired that his handwriting was very elegantly styled and written. He wrote carefully and deliberately and seldom made mistakes. He was meticulous and would keep records in great details. This latter quality I inherited partially.

My Mother's Poultry Farm

In those days people don't buy poultry off the market because they are easily reared and slaughtered. Mother used the vacant land behind the shop to build a poultry farm in which she reared chicken and ducks for both their meat and eggs. They were fed with pellets made from corn waste as well as dried grated coconut cake called copra. I enjoyed helping out feeding and herding them as well as collecting the freshly laid eggs. Sometimes I'd help identify fertilized eggs to be sat on by mother hens to hatch young chicks. It was really fun to help and remember since it is sometime children today don't get to do unless they are brought up in the farms or in villages.

Inside the farm was a tall tree that I used to climb. I also remember catching bumblebees that made nests in the wooden beams of the chicken coops and tie paperweights to their legs so they cannot fly high away.

Snakes loved to eat poultries and there were 2 occasions when I witnessed cobras shot dead by family friends using shotguns.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My Grandfather's Proud Possessions

I remember my grandpa had 2 cars bearing the numbers 982 and 4641. The 982 was a 2-door open top coupe and 4641 a 4-door saloon. I cannot remember their make and models. These cars used manual crankshafts at the front to manually crank start the engines. The signal turn indicators were little levers activated by pulling a cable on the dashboard. It was a big thing to have cars and it symbolized a higher social status. My grandpa as a businessman was certainly an important person then in the community and many people knew him. His garage was built next to the coffin shop but could only house one car. I remember playing inside and dirtying myself with soot from the wooden walls and beams.

Love of My Parents

My parents seldom interfere with my studies and activities. They would give me freedom to study where and when I liked, knowing that I would put in my best efforts. They fed me well, gave me pocket monies, bought me uniforms and all the school and revision books I needed. Before the examinations, they would buy me chicken essence and prepare nutritious herbal soups. Perhaps these acts of love helped me do well in my studies. But they also reprimanded me for my mistakes, especially my mother. I remembered she caned me and tied my hands and made me kneel for misdemeanors like stealing and telling lies. My father on the other hand concentrated on providing support for my studies. I made them very proud when I became the first in the family and relatives to graduate from the university. In those days, to become a graduate is a great thing. Perhaps my academic achievement made my younger brother jealous as he associated his poorer academic performance with a perceived poorer parental love for him as compared to me.

Mother's Gambling Spree

Sometimes in 1962 my mother, being persuaded by well meaning friends, began attending friendly card games that started innocently but developed into a full fledged gambling party that addicted her and claimed her time away from the family. She would settle her domestic chores early and rode her bicycle to a friend's house and took part in the gambling session. She would return home in the evening to prepare dinner.

Soon her gambling habits became an open knowledge and she even opened her home to her 'friends' to come to gamble. It was of course illegal to gamble with cash but it was totally ignored. In some evenings, these gamblers would converged in our shop, and my father was unable to put a stop to it, and meet upstairs and played cards. At that time I was preparing for my LCE examination and needed privacy and quietness to concentrate. I was naturally annoyed at my mother for her insensitivity. When a person is addicted he or she cannot take reasoning well and she brushed my protests aside. I wonder if I could have scored full distinctions if I had a more peaceful environment to study!

My mother wanted to give me her winnings to save in my account. It was silly of me to reject because she soon lost those winning money. Although she did not gamble away my father's money she nonetheless ended up without anything but losing the respect of family members. She stopped gambling a few years later. Until today she always speak remorsely of her misdeeds but we assured here it never affected our love for her. At least her addiction did not claim her or bring financial problems to us.

My Mother

My mother told me that I was not the first child but that I was supposed to have an older sister who unfortunately died stillborn. I would have loved to be number 2 and to experience the love and care of an older sister. As it is I am the eldest of 5 siblings.

My mother was the youngest daughter of a Chinese martial art teacher. She was very beautiful and her beauty caught the eyes of my father who was the eldest in his family. At that time which was soon after the unsuccessful Japanese invasion of Malaya, my grandfather ran several businesses, one of which was producing cigarettes from tobacco leaves he bought from farmers, cured them and have them processed and wrapped into individual cigarettes before packing them. It was very laborious and my mother was one of the workers. That was where my father saw her. Being a shy man he sent her love notes through intermediaries.

My grandmother disapproved of their relationship but the power of love won the day and my parents were married. My mother did not have an easy life in the beginning of her marriage, partly because she was not favored by my grandmother and partly because the Yew family was quite big and having no servants the daughter-in-law has to do much of the housework. I suppose I lost my elder sister through miscarriage during my mother's first pregnancy. I felt no anger towards my grandmother and I don't think anyone should be blamed. It was very circumstantial. I grow up without any animosity towards anyone and took the news as a matter-of-factly when I was told about it when I was an adult.

Around the Shop

More extracts from the book:

Behind the shop was a piece of unoccupied land that my mother claimed to rear chickens and ducks. Inside was a tree that I loved to climb. It was also there that I caught bumblebees and tied their legs with cigarette paper to prevent them from flying high. I learned to differentiate the males from the females that would not sting. I also learn to look for duck eggs and watched the chicks hatched from the eggs. In the late evening I would help call home the ducks that were freed to seek for food during the day. Looking after the poultry was fun but dirty. It was a childhood experience that urban children would not be able to experience. I don't think they would miss it but certainly an experience like this even for a few hours would be well worth the time.

The back lane was where I spent much of my childhood days. Behind the back lane was a large open store to keep wooden coffins made from large timber logs. Next to the store were an opium den and a room that was used as a prostitute den. On the far side of the store was the garage that my grandfather used to keep one of his cars that I believe was BB 4641, an Austin saloon. In that garage I remember climbing the walls and play. Next to the garage was where a blacksmith fired and hammered out tapping knives, parangs and other iron tools.

A big monsoon drain bordered the front of the shop before the main road. I used to climb into the drain barefooted looking for coins. Back in those days, Kampong Koh experienced flood every few years. The water would rise to about a foot and we had to lift every stool and valuable things to higher grounds. It was fun wading around and trying to avoid the drain and any deep places. As a kid, floods were always fun times. I was oblivious of risks such as snakes and broken glass. One flood nearly took away my life, if not for the alertness of a neighbor shop assistant, who plucked me up before I was swept away.

The Most Memorable Space

In trying to capture the memory of my childhood I invariably remember the space where I spent in the living hall and the kitchen of the shop where I grew up. This is what I wrote in my autobiography ...

The family living area was very cooling from the crosswind that blew through the shop. That was the place my father would take his afternoon naps when business was slack.

This family area was divided into a dining cum stove area and the wet kitchen cum washing and toilet/bathroom. The dining area had a large round table with 10 stools. It was there that the entire family gathered in the evenings at 6pm for dinner. No one start eating until grandfather was seated. We had porridge when grandfather was alive. After he passed away in 1967 we began having rice.

Behind the dining table was the cement stove that had a long story to tell. The original stove was laid out across the width of the shop but sometimes in the mid 1960s it was demolished because of cracks and heat leakage and a new one constructed, of the same design, but perpendicular to it. The stove had 3 openings and a chimney leading to the roof. It was fired using mangrove wood, rubber wood and charcoal. To light the woods we had to prepare rubber glue using scrap rubber soaked in kerosene.

The stove invoked sweet memories for me. I used it to grill my dry cuttlefish or made hardboiled eggs. The grilled cuttlefish tasted very nice and was very fragrant, so much so that it made great bait to trap rats when hung inside a wired trap cage. The 3 compartments of the stove were for a kuali (Chinese frying pan), boiling water pot and rice pot. Next to the kuali was always a pot of lard and soy sauce that were essential ingredients for frying vegetables or cooking meat. I fondly remember the old stove as the place where my mother would place a mug of warm porridge gravy for me to drink when I return from school in the evenings. That would be around 1960. The ashes from the stove made good fertilizers as well as for cleaning out the faeces of cats that used to come into our house.

Behind the stove, separated by a partition with window, was the kitchen and washing areas. I can still remember the many activities that I was involved there. There was a water filter basin filled with river sand. Into that we would be pouring water to filter it for cooking and drinking use. Periodically, every 2-3 weeks, I would help scoop out the rust colored sand into a large aluminum drum basin, step over the sand to clean out the rusty stains, wash them a few times before putting the sand back. Next to this filter was a motorized water pump that drew water from an underground well. In those days we did not have piped water at all. We depended on either the underground water or well water delivered to our house. The well water was drawn from a public well opposite the ACS school field and in front of the Pioneer Church manse. The water lady would either carry two huge pails or four bins on a pushcart to our house' backdoor and pour them into a concrete storage tank.

Right at the back of the house was the bathroom and an adjoining squatting toilet. The bathroom was only build before mid 1960s. It was in this bathroom that I practiced my singing skills. I did not know if my neighbors ever complained of my singing. There were no electric heaters in those days so when I needed hot water, like when I was unwell, my mother would boil a kettle of hot water and mix in the cold water for me to bath in. The toilet (it was actually a latrine) was not a place to stay in for long as it stank from the faeces that were collected once every week by the nightsoil lorry. Years later, around 1975, when a sitting toilet was installed everybody was relieved. I guess that was a sign of progress.

In this same area my mother would cook, wash, and rear chickens and rabbits. I remember helping my mother slaughter chicken and rabbits. In that same place I also help mill the soybean for its milk, wrap meat dumplings, make love letters and squeeze out the red wine. The kitchen was indeed very memorable place especially when I was very young. I also remember that I had to help scrub the drains and floors as well. I was indeed a very obedient and industrious boy.

Introducing 'The Disappearing Years' - my Autobiography

A person's past is as precious as air. Without a past he loses his identity and ability to relate to his surroundings. Consider a person afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. He withdraws into a behavior not unlike that of a baby. He has lost his memory, and therefore his past and can no longer think rationally or act responsibly for himself or his family. History is such an important part to not just the well being of a person but to the entire human civilization. Our past molds our live and is reflected in our personality and thinking. Lose it and we will lose both.

The past is the substance of our memory and our memory is the foundation of our sanity. But the past disappears when we allow it to be hidden or obliterated by new information. It is lost when our brain loses its ability to recall either through degeneration or lack of use. Like a hard disk, if that space that had stored some memory is over-written but a new set of data, that old memory will be lost forever.

'The Disappearing Years' is about our fading past and if we do not try to capture it because we are too busy cultivating our tomorrows we can end up asking questions like ‘Where did all my time went’ or ‘What can my children learn about my life’?

Those years may have been innocent and joyous, or they may have been difficult and unhappy. Yet collectively they created a unique person. I hope that this book will accurately portray my life and provide my readers a glimpse to a time that can no longer be re-visited physically.

P/S Unlike Cherie Blair I am not writing for money but for memory and will be on a very, very limited circulation.

The A-Go-Go Dance Craze

Back in the 60s the a-go-go and the twist dance hit my hometown and people started dancing to their beats. It seemed that people discovered the fun of switching from the more traditional dances like cha cha, foxtrot, waltz and tango to these new craze from the United States. Many songs were written to the rhythm of this new dance, including some Mandarin songs. Chubby Checker was very famous then doing the twist. I could not dance (I wish I could) but I surely enjoy young people up on stage doing the a-go-go in tight short skirts and tight pants or getting low below the bar doing the twist.

My Favorite Subjects

As soon as I discovered the fascinating world of science, after my LCE exam in 1963, I entered the Science stream ('A' class because I was among the brightest students) and studied Mathematics, Additional Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Physics. I was thrilled by Chemistry more than anything else because I was studying how things were happening at atomic and sub-atomic levels. It was truly mind boggling that scientists could come up with theories, after conducting many experiments, on how certain reactions take place. I began to put chemists on godly pedestals and I fantasized men in white lab coats and made it my ambition to be one. I did.

In 1971 I graduated from the University of Malaya with an honours degree in Chemistry. Worked as a chemist for several years but soon the glamour of the profession wore off and I drifted into management and then started my own business, which applied some of the chemistry knowledge I learned since my schooldays. Today Chemistry still stands out as a colorful course mainly because of the many practical experiments I learned. Most of all, Chemistry trained me to be analytical and systematic in handling ther many non-chemistry issues of my life after university.

After Chemistry I would like to say that I also love Mathematics. However, with the advent of electronic calculators and the personal computers I've surrendered most of what I studied to the dark recesses of my memory. With some plodding I think I can still solve simple mathematical problems. Try me!

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Thorndike Dictionary

I was a proud owner of the Thorndike Junior dictionary since Form 1 (1961). I still kept it after some 47 years and it is still in good condition since I plastic wrapped it! I wonder if it is still in publication. Here are some pictures I took recently:

Sunday, September 07, 2008

My Birthdays

I was born on 6th April but my mother would consider my birthday as 27th day of the 2nd lunar month to celebrate it. Then we had no birthday cakes as cakes were not fashionable nor readily available. Instead we had noodles and hard boiled eggs. These were special dishes to be eaten on special occasions. Every birthday my mother would boil 2 eggs for me and cooked a pot of noodle from the restaurant across the street. No candles, not happy birthday singing, no party. A quiet celebration to commemorate my growing up years.

When I left home to study and work, I missed my own birthday celebrations. After I was married and had kids, I would celebrate their birthdays. My wife would celebrate mine, and I hers. Now that they are grown up, it is their turn to celebrate my birthdays. This year I celebrated my 60th birthday 3 times - by my siblings, my office colleagues and by my family and church members. They were memorable events I'd treasure until I die.

Stamps and Coin Collecting

I became interested in philately or stamp collecting at an early age of 12 I guess all because my father had collected stamps. I collected them not so much I was keen to know their origin, or for their rarity and mint conditions and value, but because they look beautiful. I even spend money to buy used stamps mainly from Hungary, Soviet Russia, Poland and other exotic countries because their stamps carried lovely designs and pattern. I really did not know if they were authentic. I collected them simply because I adored their wide display of pretty pictures. But I did not sustain the interest for long. Even though I kept collecting foreign stamps and first day covers of local issues, they did not had the fervour I had in the 60s and 70s. Perhaps other interests overtook them in priorities. Nonetheless I still maintain the collections and hope that my grandchildren will take an interest in them.

I learned about numismatics or coins collecting after I returned from my 1985 Europe and US holidays when I had coins from several European countries unused. I had no heart to throw them away or give them away so I kept them in coin albums. Over the subsequent years, whenever I traveled overseas I'd keep the excess coins I have and their collections grew. Again, like stamp collecting, I did not grew beyond that like study their history and background. I collect them just because they were there to be collected. When my father passed away in 1998 I also inherited his own local coin collections.

Exam Fevers

I can remember 7 major exams I had to pass before I came out to work. They were the Std 6 Assessment Exam, Form 3 Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) exam, the Form 5 School Certificate/Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) exam, the Form 6 Entrance exam, the Form 6 Higher School Certificate (HSC) exam, my Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) exam in 1970 and Bachelor of Science (Honors) exam in 1971. Each exam was more stressful than the previous one as competition got more fierce but I took it in good stride. The most satisfying of these exams were the Form 6 entrance exam (I was placed 2nd in the whole state of Perak), the LCE exam (I was 2nd in the whole school), the SC/MCE exam (again 2nd in the whole school) and the B.Sc (Hons) exam when I achieved 2nd class upper (I should be a 1st class material but I guess I had peaked academically before that) and received my 'freedom' key from all academic exams.

The worst exam pressures were in my university days when I constipated for many days due to intense anxiety from having to study many subjects in one go at the university library. In local parlance, we said 'shit bricks' which was literally accurate. My exam pressure stated from my 1963 LCE exam when I understood the need to excel. Since I was not physically inclined I had to be good mentally. Months prior to the exam I studied 'like mad'. I did tons of homework, many on my own initiative so I had lots of practices. I also memorized answers on subjects that required 'vomitting' out knowledge rather than using my analytical skills, like geography, history and biology.

My 'competitor' and 'rival' was my friend, Ting Cheh Sing, who is now an established surgeon in Ipoh, Perak. I guess it was good to be challenged to do well in studies and other areas of life.

The Ice Cream Potong Man

The ice cream man is a ubiquitous fellow that all kids love to befriend. He is a bringer of cold and delicious ice cream bars, cones and scoops. Armed with a ringer or bell, he announces his arrival and most likely a bunch of kids will rush up to meet him gleefully.

OK, the scene is less exuberant than the above in my days as a kid. The ice cream potong is a local ice cream bar made from coconut milk and flavored with different local fruits like sweet corn, durian or red beans. The red beans variant is the original ice cream potong that is still very popular today and can be found in the cold section of most supermarkets. The bar is about one inch square or round and about 3 inches long.

The ice cream man cometh in the good old days on his bicycle with an ice box attached to his rear bicycle carrier. Not just the ice box with tubes after tubes of ice cream potong inside, but also a pinball board attached to the box. Whenever a child wanted to buy an ice cream potong, the length of the bar he'd get depended on what number he got when he shoot the pinball. It was always exciting to have this element of gambling in it and I really like to shoot the pinball all the way up to the top of the board and watch the steel ball trickle down the matrix of nails and will the ball to enter the slot at the base with the highest (or higher) number.

I remember the lowest number (default) would buy me a 3 inches bar and but a higher number could earn me anything from 4 inches to a double bar. Today this is disallowed by law as it inculcate a gambling habit in young children. That is not generally true because I am no gambler although I was exposed to this game by the famous ice cream potong man in my hometown.

Incidentally, 'potong' means 'cut' in Malay because the ice cream was cut from a long tube into lengths according to the number struck by the pinball.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Rubber Connection

Although I did not take over my late father's business when he retired in 1995 (I was already having my own business then), I did continue in the tradition of rubber based. My father traded rubber products - buying rubber sheets (smoked and unsmoked), cuplumps and tree laces from smallholders who brought them directly to our shop for sale. For every sale father would negotiate the lowest offer and the smallholder would try to bargain a higher price to sell. Father had to carry out a visual quality check before offering his best price. Once the deal was sealed he would get behind his counter and calculate the amount due using his trusted abacus and paid cash to the seller. He had to make sure he had enough cash to pay the subsequent sellers who turned up. On days when his business was brisk, and cash a little low, father had to rush to a nearby rubber dealer (to whom he would resell what he'd bought) to get a cash advance. In a sense, my father had to juggle money to make sure he make enough to feed the family. This process was quite hidden from me so I did not understood or realise his financial difficulties whenever he faced them. He was a man of few words, and he did not want to burden me with his problems.

Although I did not carry on the family trade, I applied my university education in Chemistry and started a rubber glove manufacturing business in 1988. It seemed I could not get away from things rubber. Now I am in my 20th year of this business I would not be asking my son to take over like my father hoped of me 20 over years ago. Like me, he had his own interest and passion in life.

I Will Follow Him

There were no suitable rubber factory that fit my description below.

Him is father. My father would find opportunity to have me accompany him on business trips. Perhaps he wanted to groom me to take over his business, I being the eldest son. After all he inherited the business from his father, so the succession was natural. (Unfortunately, because I went to university, I could not take over a business that do not require university education. And I had no passion continuing his work).

Father would bring me on his trips to Taiping or Kuala Kangsar when he accompanied the lorry loaded with his rubber sheets to be sold to a processing factory there. I would sit next to him next to the lorry driver. On arrival at the factory I would follow him into the office and waited for him to finish negotiating the sale and collect his money. Sometimes I would wander out to look at the piles of rubber sheets, cuplumps and tree lace awaiting processing and baling. The environment was smelly but I was quite used to it since I literally lived with that stench at home.

Usually after the sale was done father would buy some noodle in dark sauce to be brought home to eat. If I did not accompany him, he would still buy the noodle for me to eat when he got home.

On Daddy's Arms

One memory I love to recall to fondly remember my late father was of him carrying me upstairs in his arms after I had dozed off to sleep after dinner. I pretended to be asleep and enjoyed the occasion.

Another memory of father was of him and I sitting together one evening at the window of his bedroom. He was telling me of his life during the Japanese occupations in the 1940s, how he survived the mosquito bites by learning how to smoke, and ate tapioca since food was scarce then. My father was a man of few words so what he told me I treasured them.

He was a good man, a loving and responsible father, and I missed him.

The Foochow Lavish Wedding Dinners

Unable to google an authentic Foochow dinner party scene.

Those of us who have attended one or more of the wedding or birthday dinners at a Foochow function will attest to their lavishness. Firstly, the number of dishes far exceed the typical 8 or 9. In the Foochow dinners, sometimes the number can go as high as 14 in the olden days but 12 would be quite normal. Today the number has reduced to match the market practice. Also the Foochows do want to be viewed as gluttons. However the large number of dishes served 30-40 years ago had to do with the fact that most of the Foochows worked hard physically in estates and orchards so needed the extra energy through larger food intake.

Secondly, the size of each dish was by today's standard, extra large. Again this was tied to the lifestyle of the Foochows whose philosophy was generally to work hard and enjoy hard.

One other observation I wish to add is that the dinners were not actually served during the normal 7-8pm time slot. Instead, guests would arrive at 3pm and food would be served around 4pm. Maybe you might want to speculate that they eat more so they could skip the regular dinner meals. Could be true.

A typical dinner menu would consist of fried chicken, fried sausages made from chopped assorted guts, sweet sour fish maw with young bamboo shoots, fried pork skin and sea abalone, roast duck, meesua noodle, pomfret in soy sauce, steam glutinous rice with chopped red dates, longan and wintermelon (very very Foochow dish) and of cause sharksfin. Long life noodle would be served instead if the dinner celebrates a birthday.

Instead of chinese tea, we would get bottles after bottles of F&N orange crush, F&N sarsi, F&N cream soda, F&N ginger ale and coke. No mineral water (it was non-existent then).

Dinner tables were usually square shape that sat 8 persons. Not chairs but 6" wide stools. Those with fat buttocks would find it uncomfortable after a while.

As in any typical Chinese public dinner, it was very rowdy and noisy. And expect lots of kids. There were no such thing as RSVP. Whole families would just turn out and sit anywhere they like. They add extra stools when needed. You can say it was quite a havoc but no one mind. And there was no planner. Everything was left to the restaurant. And no master of ceremony. No speeches. Just eat and be merry. There were lots of toasting and drinking. The tables and floors were always littered with melon seed shells, groundnut shells, spilled drinks and food when the dinner was over. In a sense, such dinners were quite messy but there were always workers to clean up later.

If the dinner happened to be a anniversary birthday dinner, you would see a large queen size red wool blanket with greetings written (or glued) on both left and right sides, hanging up on the stage. To the Foochows, to be able to celebrate an anniversary dinner like 60th, 70th or 80th birthday is a very blessed occasion and usually the whole town would be invited.

At birthday dinner, instead of receiving angpows (auspicious red packets with money) the celebrant would give out angpows instead to children. This was a sign of wishing them to also reach old age and in good health.

The Circus is in Town!

Nothing bring more excitement than the circus. When the Big Top announce its arrival through public address from a moving car, coupled with posters of tigers and lions draped over the sides of the vehicle, children and adults alike would rush out to the road to greet the event with much gossip.

There would be many lorries bringing in the tents, cages, equipment, props, animals and performers. The circus was set up in the open field where documentary movies were screened and political speeches made during election time. In a few days, the circus was opened for business and would stay on for at least 2 weeks before moving on to another venue.

I have been to the circus a few times in my childhood years. I remember the stench of animal faeces. I was up close to the elephants, horses, monkeys and cages housing the tigers and lions. Those were my early introduction to wild animals that I've read previously in books.

I like the circus because of the way the performers tame the animals and made them behave and act to instructions. It was a little frightening to watch the tamers inside a metal cage with several tigers or lions. Thank goodness I did not witness any nasty accidents.

I enjoyed the trapeze on high wires too. I was mesmerized by the coordinated swinging by the swingers. Even with a safety net below, they seldom need to fall on it due to a miss catch.

The next show I like was the motorcycle ride inside a spherical steel cage. How the rider can ride so fast round and round without falling is something I could never do. It got more unbelievable when there were two of them inside the cage. They have to ride in opposing directions and same speed to avoid crashing into each other. After ending an accident-free ride, they'd emerge to the applause of the spectators for a feat well executed.

Last but not least, the clowns always made me laugh. Their antics, silly acts and gaudy costumes made sorrow disappear.

The Big Ring was a big hit many years ago, when going to the zoo was also exciting. Now when we have so much access to seeing wild animals on television and reading them in pictorials like the National Geographics, going to the circus has lost much of its old age appeal. Plus it is sweaty, smelly and full of jostling with other people. I'd prefer staying at home and watch from my TV or DVD. It is more comfortable.

Snake Charmers, Medicine Men and Freak Shows

Talk about entertainment, we were not lacking during the 60s. Those were colorful years when performers would make it to town to amuse us as well as earn our money. The snake charmers were Indians who came from India with their baskets of snakes. Parking themselves in the cool shades of the trees, they'd start blowing their reed pipes to attract attention of passerbys. As more people gather around to watch, the charmers would open the baskets and entice the snakes to leave and stand up to the hypnotic strain of the music. These were non-poisonous tree snakes with yellow stripes but to us all snakes were dangerous, so we watched in admiration of what these charmers were doing.

Some of them even tried to get cobras to rise up in attack position. We did not know that their fangs had already been removed so they were not poisonous. The snake charmers put up these shows to ply their snake poison antidote oil. Of course not many buy them since the likelihood of being bitten was very rare.

While snake charmers set up business in the daytime, medicine men made their appearance at night. They'd set up their business by the roadside, typically where there were space for people to gather and watch. The team normally comprised either a husband and wife, father and daughter or grandfather and daughter partnership. After laying out their products and well worn posters of their feats and efficaciousness of their products, and a small collection plate with a few notes placed on it, one of the members would bring out a gong and strike it loudly to draw attanetion of the public. As the gong beater announce their presence, the other member would display his/her martial or acrobatic skills to wow the crowd. I love to go watch the medicine show because I liked to see martial arts being performed. After all, they were free. Sometimes volunteers would go up to be treated for their ailments. Most of the time, the products sold were rubbing ointments for muscle injuries, burns and contusions. Once I was watching a quack dentist extracting a tooth from a customer. It was a bloody sight. Another time, a seller was pushing his medicine to aid men in urinating straight. I understand now what he meant them, our urethra gets crooked when we age and our urine ejects sideway.

Lest exciting were the Gurkhas from Nepal who laid their collection of trinkets, jades, gemstones, etc for sale on five foot ways.

Lastly the freak shows. These were rarer to come by. One that I remembered vividly was that of a freak goat with human body. It drew a lot of curious visitors who had to pay an entrance fee to watch. I think it was a fake because the creature was wrapped up in cloth inside a box and we were not allowed to touch or move it. We were allowed a few seconds to pass by, watch and leave the room.

These live shows can beat our modern shows in many ways. Firstly, they were free to watch. Secondly, they came to us; we need not travel far to see them. Lastly, they spice up our routine.

Friday, September 05, 2008

My Landlords

I need to post now before I overlooked this. In my 2 years in Ipoh (1966-1967) I had 2 different landlords. In 1968, my first university year I had another one, so all in I had 3 landlords in my student years.

My first landlord in 1966 was Mr Cheang, a retired army officer. He was a nice gentleman and had 2 grown up sons and a young daughter at the time I stayed with them. Although it was only a year I had a good memory of them. Although we did not stay in touch I hope they are all doing well. If my memory serve me right, his children are Cheang Kam Tuck, Cheang Kam Hoong and Cheang Kam Yin.

My second landlord at Lahat Avenue, Ipoh was Mr Gooi, a politician. He had a son and a daughter whom I still remember as Gooi Lee Peng. I still remember how she looked 42 years ago and wonder if she is still the same if we meet again. In that one year I stayed there I taught her mathematics as a tuition teacher. Lee Peng had fair skin and looked very pretty.

My third landlord was a Mr Teh who stayed in Section 10, Petaling Jaya. I rented the back room of the house and stayed there with another room mate, Wong. Teh had 2 children, Elvis Teh who was just a kid, and a lovely daughter, Peggy, who was short but gregarious. She was interested in one of the other tenants who became a doctor, but he was not keen on her. Pity!

I had good landlords with good families. Later when I started working I stayed in a colleague house in 1972 (estimated). The landlady, Mrs Geh, took an interest in me for her daughter but we were in different league and wavelength so no deal. She married one of my friends a few years later.

Leaving Home ...

I spent a good 17 years of my life living in my hometown where I had such good memories as well as some miseries. So after my Form 5 examination in 1965 when I knew that I would have to leave home to study in Ipoh, the capital of the Perak state, some 2 hours away by bus, I felt a little afraid and reluctant to leave. Who would want to leave a place that had become familiar and comfortable? Going away meant much inconvenience as well as facing the unknown. Nevertheless I had no choice because my education came first.

I was a systematic boy and prepared myself to live away from home. During the December 65 holidays I've made myself a wooden chest using a discarded box, hinged up a door and fitted a padlock. That would be where I could keep my private stuffs, like money, diary, watch, etc from prying eyes. I knew I would be staying with a room mate so this precaution was necessary.

I found a rented room in Happy Garden off Jalan Bendahara, Ipoh. That place is very very near to where my father-in-law stays now but it is still little changed. The Cheang family took me and my room mate, Diong, in and treated us well. But the room was stuffy as the window opened into the kitchen and the smell of cooking would drift inside. We had little choice but bear the smell. I slept on the bunker next to the door while Diong took the further bed. The senior Cheang was a retired army man so he had army quality blankets for us to use. Really tough stuffs. We had different study desks. I still sing in the bathroom here but a little muted, unlike in my own house. I stayed in that place for a year before moving to another room in Lahat Avenue, Ipoh, to be nearer to my school. My room mate followed me. (I will post about my 2 landlords and families later).

I made a point to take a bus home fortnightly to see my parents and my siblings, and look out for the little girl down the street. Distance had made us grow farther and I was quite sure the relationship would not flourish.

Being away from home made me more independent and helped prepare me to face my adult life.

The Floods

No one like floods. They disrupt our lives, destroy properties, even lives, and bring misery to the victims. News of floods caused by typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms are usually accompanied by statistics of losses and appeal for aids. Floods are not good news, but what do kids know?

My hometown was flooded several times in the 1960s, before the government deepened and desilt the streams that flowed nearby. Especially after a prolonged rainfall the streams would overflow their banks and the excess water would flow over to the roads and the drains and into the houses in low lying areas. Unfortunately our shop was in the low lying part of the town so it got flooded a few times though not too seriously.

I can vividly remember the scenes of the big floods that hit Kampong Koh, my hometown. The roads disappeared, everywhere became like a sea. I could not tell where the drains were, only the lamp posts gave indications of where the roads were. Residents who dared venture out, either walking or cycling, would tread their ways carefully lest they fall into a drain or trip over a boulder or heavy object.

But it was really fun to me! I would get out and look for fishes in the flood water. Of course the water was not too deep, like only up to my knee at most. My parents did not supervise me as much as parents nowadays would, so I enjoyed my flood days even more.

Once I saw a snake swimming before me and I ran for cover. In floods, you get all sorts of things as debris flow into homes. It was a frantic exercise trying to beat the rising floods. I remember helping to lift the valuable equipment to higher grounds.

After the floods the big task of washing up the dirty floors, cleaning the stained walls and dirty furnitures would make all of us tired. Floods are not a good thing naturally, but they made good memories. I guess that is the only good I can say of floods. Not big ones, please.

Please Mr Postman ...

Postmen were always a delightful intrusions. In days when they were the only means of contact with people far away, I'd love to receive letters from them. So daily I'd wait for mails from my postman between noon and 1pm. I could be found sitting on the wooden bench in front of my father's shop gazing into the distant to see if he was weaving in and out of the other shops delivering letters, and waited for him to appoach me. Were there letters? Or would he bypass me? I held my breath expectantly but tried not to show I was interested in his arrival. I pretended to be looking elsewhere but secretly wished he would stop and hand over a letter or more to me, still looking nonchalantly. It was all a pretence you know.

Why was I that curious to receive mails? I was lovestruck and waited to get replies from my sweetheart, of course!

So the lyrics of the song, Please Mr Postman, by the Beatles were especially meaningful to me then.

Today? Yea, I still wait for him but for a different reason of course.

My Godmother

I confess that I have one but she was not much in my memory anymore because we never had much contact. I cannot remember under what circumstances I became her godson but I know she had a son so it could not be for a lack of one she adopted me. Maybe it was to enhance her family or family connection. Anyway my only memory of my godmother was in some gifts she gave me when I was just a boy. A boy who knew how to choose what he wanted. My godmother bought back a pair of nice fabric shoes from China and gave it to me. I disliked them because they were colorful and too girlish. I was ashamed to wear them anywhere because they would make me effeminated and I knew people would laugh at me, maybe not directly but behind my back, so I kept the shoes until they gathered dusts and were given away later. I guess I wasn't fair to my godmother but at that age I did not know how to appreciate her goodwill. Anyway I had absolutely no contact with her family and the relationship was as good as non-existent.

The Dough Doll Man

People like him are probably extinct except maybe in rural China where the tradition may be still alive. If you know who I am talking about you are probably in your late 50s and above, Chinese and from the villages.

The dough doll man always come around during the Chinese New Year and he would whistled his presence. Like the Pied Piper, kids would run and gather around his stall and watch him weave a doll out of colorful salted dough.

First he'd take out a thin stick and quickly weaved on it a body of plain dough and pressed it to shape. Next he'd weaved on a head and prick in eyes, nose, ears and hairs. Over them he'd weave in headgears, depending on what kind of doll he was making. He could make a fairy, a soldier, a scholar, monkey god, beggar or a jovial person. Name it and he would oblige.

Once the upper torso was done he would put on the doll's attire from clothings down to boots and shoes and any weapon it may be carrying. Each piece of dough would be pressed in tight and shaped to make the doll as realistic as could be. We would gasp and cry out when we saw the final character took shape. His last stroke would be to add on a leave whistle below the doll on the stick.

The proud owner of the dough doll would take it and walk away ten feet tall.

The dough doll man, where are you now?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Flossing Away

I was curious of my father's habit of running a piece of rubber band through his teeth. I did not understand that was flossing. Back then we did not have dental floss to aid in removal of entrapped food particles between the teeth. My father found this ingenious method that I started following right up till my university years. It was convenient as rubber bands were easily available. Hygiene wise they were naturally lacking but I was not too concerned, my concern was removing the discomfort of pieces of meat stuck between my teeth that irritated me. Plus they caused malodor.

Later in life I would discover the wonderful waxed nylon thread called floss and soon replaced the rubber band with it. I had been flossing all my life, at least once a day and definitely before I retire. Can't stand the thought of carrying meat in my teeth to bed!

Fragrance of New Books

No doubt you would have done the same as I did, smell the new books or magazine. Maybe not as adult but surely as a kid you would have done that! I surely did, all the time whenever I brought home a pile of new text books from school or the bookshop.

Like wearing new clothings, having new books (the common denominator here is NEW) was exciting. It meant I was at the start of a new beginning. Plus they belonged to ME and I could take steps to preserve them.

First thing I did was paper wrap the books. I was pretty good at that, since I had many practices. Then I would write my name carefully on the title page of the books. If it was a story book I bought from a bookshop, I'd likely also date it.

From then on I'd take good care of my books, like using ruler only to underline important text, not doing homework inside the book but in exercise books, and opening the pages carefully so they did not tear, so I can treasure them. Usually if I can sell off my used text books, their mint conditions would help me get better values.

I don't know if the odor of new books were toxic but I did not care. The fragrance gave me pride that I was at a new beginning and excited that I have elevated to a higher class.

As Tears Go By

This song brought back tender memories of my love-loss days when I waited in vain for the girl of my dream to reply my letters or appear before my eyes. The lyrics aptly described my feeling then. Here the Rolling Stones sing it HERE but the song was popularised by Marianne Faithfull for whom the Stones composed for.

Road Repairs of the 60s

If you've never watched how roads were bitumened the way they were carried out 40 over years ago, you should read this.

The number of workers involved could make up a cast of actors on a stage show. First, there was a team of general workers whose job was to cart and carry stones from lorries and spread them over the road section to be repaired/resurfaced. Before that the surface was sprayed with coldpave, a water based tar to help adhesion. After the stones were spreaded to the desired thickness, coldpave was again applied to promote adhesion. Now comes the interesting part.

While the stone laying was going on, another team of workers would be firing up drums of asphalt using wood charcoal to melt it. When the asphalt was sufficiently fluid, it would be drained into watering cans that were quickly carried to the newly spreaded and colpaved stones and deftly sprayed over to bind them. As each section was fully tarred, another group of workers would broadcast fine gravels over the bonded stones before a steam roller start running over it to compact the newly formed layer of asphalted road. This was before the days of macadamized roads when stones and asphalt were premixed in a plant and then delivered to site, formed on the road and compacted before it hardened.

The process of this primitive road making was tedious and laborious, and hot. Most of the workers involved were Indians who could take the heat better than other races. I could spend the entire afternoon watching these workers resurfaced the road in front of our shop.

Grandfather's Family

My grandfather was the youngest of 4 sons. He migrated to Sibu, Sarawak from Kutien, Fujian Province, China and later to Sitiawan, Perak where he lived and died. He had 2 wives (it was allowed in those days). My father was the eldest of his first wife, and I the eldest of my father's marriage to my mother.

From his first wife he had 4 children, 2 sons and 2 daughters. From his second wife, he had 8 children, 6 sons and 2 daughters. So altogether he had 12 children.

My grandfather had several businesses, the main ones were rubber trading and soy sauce production. The rubber trading was given to my father to run, while the soy business he ran himself until he died. I have blogged them elsewhere so I shan't eleborate here. My grandfather also ran an agency for the Bank of China that receive remittances from the local Chinese to their relatives in China. In that context he also ran a forwarding service to let the local Chinese in my hometown send to their relatives in China goods and gifts. Our shop was also a post office of sorts, because mails from China would be addressed there for recipients here to collect. My father, who could read and write well, would help in reading out to those who were semi literate as well as help them draft replies. I consider what my grandfather did a sort of community service to the Foochows in my hometown and I knew they appreciated that very much.

My grandfather also had a stake in the pork selling business. I was not sure exactly how but I know that every year, on the eve of the Chinese New Year, he would invite all the employees of the pork stall in the wet market to come to the shop to join in a reunion dinner. It was a regular affair until my grandfather died in 1967.

My grandfather did not have as much wealth as he should, considering the size of his family, to pass on sizeably so there were no unhappiness. There were squabbles over wealth distributions but there were nothing tragic about the final outcome, although I wished relationships were not badly strained because of money or property issues. With age, most of the siblings have come to term and reconciled.

At the time of blogging this, I have lost both my grandmothers in 1981 and earlier this year, as well as my youngest uncle 3 years ago. I lost my own father in 1998 and my mother is now the oldest surviving member of the Yew family at the age of 83.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Money, Money, Money!

I should be forgiven for being obsessed over money as a kid. Well, I wasn't born with a silver spoon and a fat daily allowance. My father gave me money for food at school and enough to support me through schools but I also need extra to buy my own stuff and go to the movies. I therefore was always on the lookout to find coins and notes that were dropped. Yea, I must confess I even pocketed some cash from the drawer of the sundry shop next door to supplement my needs.

The most obvious places to look for coins would be under the tables, cupboards, cabinets and shelves. Those were places where people who dropped coins would not search. So I did not mind dirtying my hands and knees when I got down and panned the floors in search of coins. And I was quite fruitful in finding several. Whenever I walk I made sure my eyes were on the ground scanning for anything that sparkle or looked roundish.

Did I sound desperate? I was when you read that I even went into the drains and sieved the debris for any coins that fell inside. Although not as successful as my harvest from the floors I must say that my efforts were satisfying. This hobby, if I can call it, was for a short span of time sometime between 1961-1963. Later I would stop doing such a crazy thing.

The Night Soil Carrier

If you are alien to this term you are forgiven. Night soils are human excrement collected to fertilize the soil. In my younger days, toilets were of the bucket type which means we shit into a bucket through an opening on the floor. Every 2 days or so, a lorry would come round to collect the excrement from the buckets. It was therefore quite embarassing to be in the toilet then when the worker remove the bucket and replace another one in.

You can imagine the stench inside such a bucket latrine and most of the time we would do our business as fast as we can and get out fast! But this was not as bad as the pit latrine which could be found on my grandfather's land where my grandmother kept her pig farm (see earlier post). The pit latrine consisted of a deep hole dug in the ground, some 6-8 feet deep. Over it was a wooden platform with an opening where a person could squat to do his or her business. The concept allowed the excrement to dissolve into the soil and was never removed. As a result the excrement attracted insects that laid eggs in them, resulting in thousands of maggots swirling in the shit. And the stench could not be better than the bucket latrine.

Having read the above, I hope you are thankful for the flush toilet you use today.


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