Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary

I plan to visit the Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary in Taiping one of these days. Located in the foothills of Maxwell Hill (or Bukit Larut as it is known nowadays), I hear that the SBS is a pretty nice place to get away from the maddening crowd. The spiritual director is the Penang-born Venerable Aggacitta who may be about the same age as me, but that's beside the point. What's more important is that he is one of the better known Theradavin monks in the country.

Anyway, I haven't been to the SBS before and I thought that I should go into their website and get some information. But what a pain it was to locate the information I wanted. Firstly, there wasn't a location map. Then, it took me about half an hour to find out how to contact their office in downtown Taiping. All hidden within the various layers of webpages. Not much of a usability there.

Luckily, I did finally get what I wanted. Apparently, the trek to the sanctuary would require someone to drive us up and down in their 4WD vehicle. An ordinary car like my Avanza would not be able to climb the slope. So, I would have to arrange for transportation with their downtown office. Maybe, my family will visit the SBS at the end of the month and the helpful volunteer at the other end of the telephone line, a Sister Eugine, told me to call the office again at 05.8411198 when my plans are confirmed.

I really want to visit the place....

PS. I have better write it down here for my easy reference that the SBS office in downtown Taiping is located at 28-30 (first floor) Jalan Medan Taiping 4, 34000 Taiping. 


Friday, 26 August 2011

Getting my rating at 57?

So finally I'm back in Penang after eight days away from home. Had been spending time at the Malaysia Chess Festival. For the second year running, I was taking part in the senior open tournament there. Last year there were 18 players in the field but a decision by the organisers to lower the age limit from 55 years to 50 years meant that more could take part. This year the players increased to 29.

Personally, I say that it was not a wise decision to lower the age limit. It allowed many younger players to muscle their way into a competition that was not meant for them. Besides, it has always been accepted in this country that 55 is the retirement age (as least for the private sector) and anyone past this age would be termed a "senior."

Nevertheless I'm quite glad that I participated. But it took me a while to get going again. The long lay-offs from playing competition chess, even in the local chess scene, had meant that I was out of touch mentally and competitively. Losing my sense of danger too and opening myself to dangerous attacks. That was how I capitulated in my first and last games.

Still, getting four and a half points from nine games wasn't that all too bad. Many of the participants ended up with this score, myself among them too. But I wouldn't complain over an extra half point or even a full point, would you?

My only consolation is that I may finally end up with an international rating. Imagine that, I've been in the game for more than 40 years and this could be my time in the Fide rating list! As I had played three rated players last year and six this year, I should have satisfied the condition of a minimum of nine games against rated players. But I don't expect my rating points to be high; I'll be happy enough if it ever touches 2000 points.

Anyway, it's still early days and the Malaysian Chess Federation still has to submit the rating report to the World Chess Federation. But I should know by end of the year...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

How Woodstock opened my ears (Part 1)

I could have easily titled this post as "that deaf, dumb and blind boy" and get away with it. Truth be told, when I was 14 or 15 years old, I was totally naive to the world. Literally deaf, dumb and blind to everything in life. I won't talk about everything in my life but just stick to music in this post.

At that time which was around 1969 or 1970, I was already listening avidly to a lot of music and this came by courtesy of the Royal Australian Air Force which broadcast locally from Butterworth to their large base of Australian servicemen and their families. (1445kHz on the AM band.) The music wasn't totally the mainstream pop which was played over Radio Malaysia's English Service or Redifusion. I found the pop music over RAAF Radio edgier and I grew to appreciate it.

Because of RAAF Radio, I had always suspected that my musical preferences at that time were already diverging from the mainstream pop music enjoyed by my contemporaries at school. But by and large, I was still very naive. My tastes might have stood me out different from my crowd but upon reflection now, I was not really that much different from them at that age.

It was not until the Chinese New Year of 1971, I think, that I began having a very slightly wider perspective of music. A few days prior to the celebrations, my father had brought back this triple album from his friend's record shop. Woodstock, the title said.

I put it on the record player and gave it its first spin. (We were still using the old Pye radiogram that came with a Gerrard record player as a standard accessory. No stereophonic sounds then; everything that we listened to was in glorious monaural.)

Frankly and unsurprisingly, I didn't take an immediate liking to the album. There I was, being exposed to the new (in 1971, they were new to me) sounds of folk, blues, soul and rock music for the first time, and I wasn't impressed much. The names of many of the singers and the bands were mostly alien to me. Okay, so over the radio I've listened to Joe Cocker and The Band and The Who, or at my friend's house I've listened to Joan Baez and Crosby Stills Nash and Young, but performers like Richie Havens or John B Sebastian or Country Joe McDonald? Who were they? Butterfield Blues Band? Come again? Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

So after the Chinese New Year break, my father, sensing my seemingly lack of enthusiasm with the album, returned it to the record store. That was the end of my short-lived association with the Woodstock records.

To be continued....

Wither future of Petaling Street??

This is an appeal which has just appeared on facebook. It warrants reproducing it in full on my blog so that non-facebook readers can be aware of this plight. This issue is with regard to the federal government's acquisition of land in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown for the MRT project, done without warning or consultation with the people whose lives will be most affected by the decision. What distresses me is that the acquisition will lead to the destruction of Chinatown, one of the very few remaining heritage areas in Kuala Lumpur.

Obviously, the government is showing that it is impervious to the hardship of the people as it bulldozes its way through and at the same time, demonstrates that it cares even less for the preservation of cultural heritage. Here then is the facebook appeal:

Pre-war shoplots on Jalan Petaling & Jalan Sultan, some of which are more than a century old, are at risk of being demolished to make way for an underground MRT line. Acquisition notices were also served to business owners, which came as a shock because there was no prior consultation or correspondence from the government. As a result, a famous Malaysian tourist landmark known all over the world is now in danger of having its landscape changed forever.
Most of us have been here for decades, some close to a century even. Generation after generation, we have toiled, worked and preserved this place and made it into what it is today.
Soon, Yook Woo Hin where KL residents will fondly remember stopping by for a 'pau' or Chinese steamed bun on the way to school, Kwong Fook Wing the tailor who made coats for many notable dignitaries and the quaint and rustic Lok Ann Hotel which has been in business since 1957 will be no more.
We are not against development, in fact the MRT line will make it even easier for foreign tourists and Malaysians alike to visit Jalan Petaling and Jalan Sultan. We are however against the arbitrary acquisition of the property where we've been operating our businesses in for years. The line runs underground anyway so we do not see why the acquisition exercise is even required in the first place. We just want to make a living here in this place we quite literally call home. Please help support our cause to raise awareness about our plight! Thank you!
So this is the full appeal. You can click here to go to the facebook page and when you are there, click on the Like link to support the cause.

Friday, 19 August 2011


I had little idea, when I was writing my story on Tuesday for this week's chess column in The Star, that the Chinese woman grandmaster, Ju Wenjun, would be playing in the Malaysia Chess Festival which is now going on at the Cititel Midvalley Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I was mentioning that earlier this year, actually just several weeks ago, she had won a major international women's tournament in China ahead of the reigning women's world champion, Hou Yifan. It was just a casual mention in my story which was more about the world junior chess championship than anything else and then now suddenly, I find her here in the country playing chess!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The disappearing chess archive

Just the other day, I happened to see a very familiar picture on Jimmy Liew's blog. He was revelling in some old memories and had reproduced a picture of an old newspaper clipping which had appeared long ago on this blog, which in turn I had copied over from the old Penang Chess Association website which was my original brainchild. (What I'm hinting at is that the picture came from me.)

But never mind about all that. What I want to say here is that, that Jimmy has a crafty way of trying to lure me to comment on his blog. First, he casually dropped my name and then in the same breath, went on to add "...if they are reading this..." Of course, I was reading your reminiscence, Jimmy. I'm always reading your informative blog but doing it quietly. I don't want to get myself drawn into needless hours of arguments and counter-arguments about the state of local chess, especially with people who choose to hide under pseudonyms. I shall leave that to you, man, to sort out the truth from the lies! I have little patience interacting with unknown bloggers. 

But never mind about that too. What I actually want to say now is that he had about half the information there correct. I'm not going to dispute that the person playing in the middle was indeed Jimmy Liew. He should know best whether that's him or not and besides, I also can't recognise a Jimmy Liew that was only 17 years old then.

But of the other persons in the picture.... Wait, maybe I should reproduce that old grainy picture here first:

I had been staring at it for quite a while. I still can't say who the player sitting on his right was. Maybe Jimmy's correct in speculating that it's Ooi Gim Ewe but maybe it's not too. Very difficult to make it out from that old newspaper picture. However, the ones standing up are not the persons whom he mentioned. There was no Gong Wooi Mau or Tan Kai Ming in the picture. I'm very certain, though, that the one at the far end was Koo Hock Song and next to him was Tan Beng Theam. The other bloke with folded arms is unknown to me.

Then we come to the other three persons in the picture. The two boys are brothers and that's their father stooping low over the one playing. He was a medical doctor, I was given to understand at that time. And that was the first and last time that they ever turned up at a PCA activity. Unfortunately, that's all I know about them. I don't even know the father's surname and I don't even know whether those boys subsequently got more interested in chess. (Come to think about it, since this was the PCA in the 1970s, I would surely know if they did but since they did not register in my mind at all, I'm sure they didn't.)

The other essential point of this story is that I should also add here that way back in the late 1990s, I had already prepared a website for the Penang Chess Association. It was hosted on Geocities. Anybody remember that name: Geocities? It was among one of the first web-hosting sites on the Internet; among the pioneers. Among the information I kept on the PCA website there was a little chess archive section that chronicled significant activities involving chess in Penang right up till 1978 or so.

From 2000 onwards when a new committee took over the PCA and started operating from Bayan Baru, they were offered a new website parked under the domain name. On my urging, they agreed to retain the chess archive on their new website as it was of historical value not only to the PCA but the Malaysian chess community at large.

After the 2008 General Elections when the then ruling Barisan Nasional political party lost their trousers in Penang, the domain name also packed up. Maybe we can put two-and-two together. Luckily there was a back-up of the old files and the Penang Chess Association then recreated their present website on At first, I still could see the chess archive there but of late, the link to the archive has gone missing.

This is a great pity. Personally, I don't give a hoot whether or not the archive was started by me. What I am disappointed with is that the present PCA committee just doesn't give a damn about their own illustrious beginnings. The information's all lost, you see, and that is the biggest pity.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

NZ travelogue: Flying out

Our flight from the low-cost carrier terminal at the Kuala Lumpur international airport was routinely boring, like all flights ultimately turned out to be. As you can see from the picture below, all the other passengers looked equally bored. And this was just at the start of the flight! We departed from the terminal at about 8.40am, right on time.

With no dancing girls in the aisles throughout the 10-hour journey, the only entertainment we had were the movies on my netbook. It was our life-saver. On our last few holidays, I had taken along four or five memory cards for the cameras. Not this time. I decided that whatever photos we had taken for the day should be copied to the netbook and thereby freeing the camera's memory cards for the next day's digital workout. And since the netbook would be with us, I might as well include some movies for us to enjoy during the long flights.

The food was also routinely boring. For the flight to Christchurch, I had purchased the in-flight meals together with the tickets. On board the aircraft, I took a sneak at the menu and saw that there were actually a choice of two meals. Nevertheless, the cabin crew told us that only the chcken lasagna was available. Ah, well, never mind, if we had to stick to this meal, so be it.

The lasagna did not look very appealing when we peeled back the aluminium foil but to our delight, it was actually quite tasty.

Maybe the only real advice I can give to anyone flying with AirAsia X is that if you want ample leg room to stretch yourself comfortably, you should consider paying extra for the hot seats. They are really value for money.

The only concern about the hot seats is that you may suddenly find other people prostrating themselves in front of you. No, they weren't asking for our seats. But yes, they had other motives. We had about five or six people who did just that, the prostrating, in front of us. But they were quite nice about it and had asked for permission from us. If you can cope with that momentary distraction, the rest of the flight should be rather uneventful. We encountered this only during the out-bound flight, though.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Buying records online

Nowadays, I buy quite some stuff through the Internet: compact disks, books and lately, records. Why do I turn to the Internet to get them? Because I know that I wouldn't be able to get them locally. Not in a million years, I won't. Even with postage and handling thrown in, the price differential is sometimes not that much too; so that makes my Internet purchases rather logical and reasonable.

Normally, I'm not particularly bothered about the compact disks or the books. They are hardy; they can hardly get spoilt while being sent over and moreover, they are so common and easily replaced. At most, the parcels may get delayed. But I'll receive them sooner or later.

Records are, however, a different kettle of fish. I never stop worrying about my record purchases until the postman finally delivers them to my doorstep. No prizes for guessing why I worry so much about the records: first, the records are usually old and already out of production, meaning that I may not be able to get replacements soon enough if they go missing; second, I can never tell the actual condition of the records until I inspect them visually; third, the possibility of the records getting warped during the long deliveries from overseas; and fourth, the efficiency of our Customs department to release the parcels quickly. There are other reasons that keep me on edge but these four will do for the time being.

So until I finally receive the parcels, I am always very anxious if I have to wait more than three weeks after the purchase date.

You can then guess my total relief when the postman finally comes around. Nothing is more satisfying than to open the parcel carefully and then reveal the treasure within. I'm always like that; I don't tear open the wrapping like many people are likely to do. It's a pain-staking process, this unwrapping, but always, it is well worth taking all the time.

Recently, I subjected a parcel to the same care. I had ordered it through eBay from a seller in the United States in early July and it arrived less than three weeks later. My heart skipped a beat - no, two beats - as I slowly prised open the flaps. The condition of the record? Almost like new. The cover was very good but more importantly to me, so were the records. No surface scratches, no spindle marks on the labels, and they played well with very little pops and crackles. Of course, I had also subjected the surface to a complete wash to remove dust and static.

I never had the chance to own this three-record set when I was young (maybe I'll write about this later) but now that I do, it's become a cherished treasure. So what are on the records, all six sides of them?

Side One: John B Sebastian (I had a dream); Canned Heat (Going up the country); Richie Havens (Freedom), Country Joe & The Fish (Rock and soul music); Arlo Guthrie (Coming into Los Angeles); Sha-Na-Na (At the hop)
Side Two: Country Joe McDonald (The Fish cheer, I-feel-like-I'm-fixin'-to-die rag); Joan Baez & Jeffrey Shurtleff (Drug store truck drivin' man); Joan Baez (Joe Hill); Crosby Stills & Nash (Suite; Judy blue eyes); Crosby Stills Nash & Young (Sea of madness)
Side Three: Crosby Still Nash & Young (Wooden ships); The Who (We're not gonna take it); Joe Cocker (With a little help from my friends)
Side Four: Santana (Soul sacrifice); Ten Years After (I'm going home)
Side Five: Jefferson Airplane (Volunteers); Sly & The Family Stones (Medley: Dance to the music, Music lover, I want to take you higher); John B Sebastian (Rainbow all over your blues)
Side Six: Butterfield Blues Band (Love march); Jimi Hendrix (Star spangled banner, Purple Haze, instrumental solo)

Yes, you guessed it right. The original Woodstock triple-record set which I missed out in 1971 but now rightfully included in my little collection 40 years later:

Friday, 12 August 2011

Hungry ghost festival 2011

For the past 11 days, I've been going to this place, a Taoist temple along Jalan Kampung Besar which is a narrow and busy road that connects the Kulim Road to Jalan Berapit. This temple is very popular with the locals who come here to consult the medium on all matters relating to health, wealth and whatever else. The first half of August was an especially busy month for this temple as it coincided with the start of the Chinese seventh lunar month and the Hungry Ghost festival. This is the very first time that I've been involved as a somewhat reluctant participant. Long story, which I will not want to air out.

Anyway, this is a typical Hungry Ghost festival. Facing the temple was a huge paper effigy of the King of Hades. How high is it, I had asked the temple's medium. About 15 or 16 feet, he answered. What about the other one in BM town near to the Tua Pek Kong Temple? That, he said, would be something like 26 or 27 feet. Impressively large, that one always qualify as the largest effigy in the state. It has become something of a tourist attraction.

The first day I went to the temple, I noticed that some men were putting sone finishing touches to a long and thick bamboo pole. Easily, I estimated, that pole might be some 80 to a hundred feet long. These guys were preparing to hoist it up. A long of patient work but at last, they were ready.

But first, the preliminary blessings must be done by the medium. So I just stepped back and watched him go about his task with the chantings and prayers.

And finally, the bamboo pole was ready for hoisting. A lot of heaving and hoing from the guys to secure the pole to a base beside the effigy. Once that was completed, the temple was ready for its Hungry Ghost celebration.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A father's ambition

This is what I call pushing his luck too far with me.

There I was, minding my own business, when I received an email from a total stranger asking me for some advice on seeking chess trainers in the Klang Valley to assess the potential of his three-year-old son. Three years old? Methinks, barely out of his diapers. Could be, still sporting a dummy in his mouth. Boy, there's a lot of fatherly pride there.

Okay, so I'm a chess writer. In this field, he would probably be correct to believe that I would know quite a number of people who call themselves chess coaches. Some are quite decent but there are also those who are less-than-decent. But I'm not here to discuss their coaching capabilities. If anyone wants to know who can provide chess lessons to beginners in Penang or the Klang Valley, I can point my fingers in a few useful directions.

Which was what I did in this case. I made some suggestions to the fella and even recommended that he takes his three-year-old son to the forthcoming Malaysia Chess Festival and have a look at some of the one-day events there. Who knows, it could possibly spur his three-year-old son to really be interested in the game.

I sent off the email. And I thought that would be the end of the matter. It's normally the case with strangers asking me chess questions. They'd be so satisfied (I haven't met anyone who has expressed dissatisfaction, really) with my answers that if there was ever a follow-up email, it would be just to thank me for my response.

Today, I logged into my inbox. Ah, several email messages there, including one from this same fella. Probably, a short note to thank me but let me see what he wrote. True enough, he thanked me but huh, what's this? Now he's asking me whether I have any advice on professional coaching for his same three-year-old son in competitive gymnastic and also in playing the violin and the cello. Talk about a father's misplaced ambition for his son!

Like I said, this is what I also call pushing his luck too far with me.

Monday, 8 August 2011

NZ travelogue: Fun and frustration

So there I was in April, faced with the big task of planning our self-drive holidays in New Zealand's South Island. Effectively, there were only about six weeks for me to finalise everything. For the first time, it dawned on me that this planning was going to be a fun experience, it was guaranteed to be frustrating as well.

Fun in the sense that (almost) everything would be under my control: the search for a perfect itinerary to fit into the days we would be there and the search for decent places to stay within our budget. But on the other hand, frustration in many areas, such as deciding the driving route and the booking of accommodation for every night of our travel.

The earthquake in Christchurch in February caused us some initial worries because we were uncertain of the effects on our holiday. But I determined early that we need not stay for long in the city itself; the peripheral of the city was largely unaffected and besides, Christchurch would only a base for us to get in and out of the country.

Our flight would arrive at Christchurch airport late at night. We would stay in a motel nearby and the next morning, collect the rental car and drive away from the city. As simple as that. And renting the car was easy enough. I just had to pay a deposit through the Internet.

With that settled, my thoughts turned now to our itinerary. Originally, I wanted to travel through the Canterbury plains and visit Mt Cook and from there onward to Queenstown, Te Anau, Dunedin and back to Christchurch.

Then I investigated an alternative route through the Arthur's Pass that could take us to Greymouth and down the island's west coast to Wanaka, then to Queenstown, Dunedin and back to Christchurch. But I had to give up that idea when I read that the weather in May could be unpredictable on the west coast at that time of the year and thus, it might not be a good time to travel along there. Better be safe than sorry.

Besides, there weren't enough days for us. I didn't want a holiday where the driving took up all our our time and left us with little time to do anything else.

So it was back to my original route. But now, I decided to vary it by visiting Mt Cook, Wanaka, Queenstown, Dunedin and Oamaru. Everything would fit nicely into an eight-day, seven-night schedule. Although it was recommended, we didn't even need to stay overnight in Queenstown if we don't want to.

Now came the real frustrating part: deciding where to stay. My wife agreed that we should have a mixture of accommodation. Staring every night at the motel ceilings weren't so appealing. So I started looking into possible alternatives like inns and homestays. While some replies were positive, many turned out unavailable. A few didn't even bothered to reply my emails. Nevertheless, by the end of April, I had pre-booked all our accommodations. We were now set.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The new Penang hill funicular train

There are some people who claim that they do not find it as romantic as before. Yet there are also people who say that they enjoy the new rush of adrenaline. Either way, they are referring to the Penang Hill funicular rail service that reopened to the public on 25 Apr 2011.

"It was so fast," one of my old school mates complained to me, "I could no longer slowly seep in the view of George Town any more. I preferred the old wooden coach. Even with the white and red coach, it was also not that fast and when you come down at night, you can enjoy the twinkling lights of the city."

So I decided once and for all to experience the new funicular train ride up the hill last weekend. Arriving on a Saturday morning, the queue wasn't there yet so I was able to choose the first compartment of the spanking new blue coach that overlooked the front. This is important if you want a good view of the ride. But I shouldn't have sat down because my good view was soon obstructed by other passengers who had more or less the same idea.

Soon, the door closed and we were on our way. The air-conditioning was working fine but frankly, nobody took any notice of it because the first impression of the train ride was the unexpected speed. Pulled by the cable, the coach quickly accelerated as we left the bottom station. It was near impossible to observe the foliage on both sides of the track. Within seconds, we had zoomed past the first station leading to the Cheng Ji Chan Temple and within a minute or so, the old passing loop of the lower line was reached. A new track now runs through the centre.

Pretty soon, the old middle station loomed ahead. One of the old white and red coaches was parked there permanently. Suddenly without slowing down, the coach swerved slightly to the left as it started to pass by the station on a new stretch of track. As I had been conditioned to the coach always stopping here in the past, this came as a small psychological shock.

Before I could recover from this new thrill, I was greeted with the new passing loop that was just above the middle station. From a distance, it looked like any other passing loop except that this one was slightly longer to accommodate the new, longer coaches. Right ahead, I could see an on-coming coach, plunging down the same track. Yah, plunging. In the past, the old coaches would be trundling slowly along the track.

Again without skipping a beat, our coach moved over to the right-hand track while the other coach shifted to the left. With a zoom, it was all over. Only a blur of blue motion as we passed by each other. No opportunity at all to even look into the other coach.

Onward we rushed along as the new track ended and the coach rejoined the old track. There were still two landmarks to look out for. The first was the old passing loop of the upper line. As the coach moved onto the right-hand track, we sped by the second old white and red coach which had been parked by the side. The second was the tunnel. It was unchanged. From what I know, this 258-foot long tunnel is reputedly the steepest in the world for a funicular train system. We zoomed into the tunnel and within seconds emerged into daylight. Up ahead was our final destination, the top station.

What happened during the RM73 million upgrading project that now allowed the new coaches to travel so fast? I was told that previously, the motors that pulled the old coaches were powered by direct current. The new system was running on alternate current and was thus, more powerful. This enabled the coaches to travel much faster and in fact, by having bypassed the stop at the middle station, it is easier for the operator to vary the length of time for a one-way journey. At off-peak hours for instance, the ride could be made slower and vice-versa.  

It has been said that the new and faster funicular train service, by cutting down the journey from 30 minutes to an average of seven minutes, would be able to transport more visitors to Penang Hill. The target was 2.4 million tourists in a year compared to about 600,000 tourists in 2009. Yes, true, the speedier service may cut down the time but at the same time, the increasing visitors to the hill would mean that the queue at the station may be just as long.

When I took the train down later in the day, the queue was stretched till outside the station. Dutifully, I took my place the queue. I anticipated a long wait to go into the coach again but was surprised that the wait wasn't too long after all.

For the downward journey, I was unfortunate not to take the front compartment. Maybe some other time, I'll be better prepared and choose a weekday for a second joyride on the train. But I was also mentioning to my old friend that I had timed the return journey to be about four minutes (seconds not counted) from the moment the coach started moving until it came to a rest at the bottom station.

I had written to him: "This is a journey not to be missed. I would even suggest it to be one of the 10 best train rides in the world. If you are lucky enough to squeeze into the front compartment, you can just imagine it as the ride of your life: practically a 700-metre rollercoaster drop, minus the loops. Along the way, as you approach the old middle station, the track veers to the side and you see the other coach speeding towards you. Then suddenly, after a whoosh, you realise that it has missed you by inches (well, it felt almost like inches anyway) and you continue careening downwards and downwards and downwards and...."

Anyway, I happened to come across a video in YouTube. Take a look at it and decide whether you'll get an adrenaline rush if you were there to experience it first-hand, or whether the excitement of this experience makes up for the romantic loss.

Some brief facts about the Penang Hill railway: It was built as a two-section funicular system at an impressive cost of 1.5 million Straits Dollars. It was first opened to the public on 21 Oct 1923 using four wooden coaches which were replaced by the white and red ones in 1977. Two of the wooden coaches are on permanent display: one at the top of the hill and the other at the Penang Museum. The length of the track is about 2,220 metres or 7,280 feet.

Considering that at its fastest, it may take about four minutes plus to travel one-way up or down, the top speed of the coaches is about 30 kilometres per hour or about nine metres per second.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Old stalwarts of Ban Hin Lee Bank

It's been quite a while since I ever wrote anything about my Ban Hin Lee Bank days. Maybe I should say something about some of the most senior people that were already working in the bank when I joined the establishment. When I say "senior", I really mean it. These people were the stalwarts: long in age and long in working experience at the bank. They were completely trusted by the bank's management. This was a time when companies treated their employees like part of their families and the people were practically employed for life at these companies. Ban Hin Lee Bank was one of them.

The day I joined, I was placed in a department known as the Securities Department. To a bank noob like me, it was a peculiar name to call a department. The only security people I knew were those that carried guns outside banks or goldsmith shops. But I soon learnt that this department was responsible for processing applications from people who wanted to borrow money from the bank. So I spent my weeks learning how to fill in the new application forms and prepare those loan forms that were due for annual reviews and renewals.

Everything was done manually in those days on huge manual Olivetti typewriters that sported extended heavy-duty carriages so that A3-size paper could be rolled in and typed on. We would go clackity-clack on these old machines and sometimes when mistakes were made, the old Tippex would come in handy. Some departments were more advanced: they had access to electric typewriters. But not the Securities Department. These ancient typewriters were only discarded in the mid-1980s when the first generation personal computers were bought.

The person in charge of this department then was Ng Chak Hon. He was already in his fifties then. A nice man, he gave a lot of advice to us youngsters who were new to the bank's employment. Later on, he was transferred to the new Bukit Mertajam branch in Aston Road to become the branch manager there. I can't remember who took over from him at the head office in Beach Street because at the same time, I was transferred to the bank's new Pulau Tikus branch as well. If I remember correctly, these two branches had opened within days of one another.

Seated quite nearby to our department was Ong Chin Seng who was in charge of the Remittances Department. I was told that he was, at that time, the oldest employed staff of the bank. He had been with the bank since 1935 when it was first established, started out a clerk and retiring about half a century later as a senior officer. Everyone remembers him as going around with a big paper or plastic bag on his arm. His job was primarily to approve and sign all those remittances between banks.

At the old Bank Hin Lee Bank building in Beach Street, the bank counter curved round in a U-shape. The Securities Department was located away from the counter as we had no business attending to the walk-in customers but next to our department were the Savings Account, the Fixed Deposit and the Cheques Receiving counters. The person in charge was Tang Yoke Hong, a grumpy and opinionated old man who, if he was not initialling the transaction slips, would spend his free time picking away at the dead skin around his elbows. It's true, this.

The head cashier, Khoo Heng Chuan, would be in the enclosed Cash Room with the rest of his people. There were three or four cash counters to receive money paid in by customers or to encash their cheques. Also seated in the Cash Room was Madam Teoh Phaik Kheng, one of the directors of the bank at that time.

At the back of the banking hall was the Current Account Department. Here was also the Accounts Department. While during the day the people there would be busy balancing the previous day's transactions, writing the entries into the journals and preparing the daily trial balances, the most important task was at day's end when the transaction slips had to be balanced. This was normally the responsibilities of Tommy Goh and Tan Hun Wee. Hun Wee was another grumpy old man who would later become the cashier at the Pulau Tikus branch. But until he was transferred there, his job was to pour over and balance all the day's transaction slips. You can imagine the bleak look in his eyes during days when the credit and debit slips don't balance - the fault of the departments - and he had to spend hours searching high and low for the errors. If looks could kill, his would have exterminated everyone in the building, myself included. Woe betide the department staff on the next morning when they reported to work. Hun Wee would be there to accuse them of slack and demand that they make good their mistakes. One good thing was that he never took these mistakes to heart so while he was a grump, it was all in the course of work and nothing else after that. Hun Wee took his talent to the Pulau Tikus branch, so while there was some rejoice of sorts at the Beach Street branch, we at Pulau Tikus of course benefited from his experience. Of Tommy, we all remember him as being partially deaf in one ear, or so he wanted us to believe, and if anyone tried to be high-handed with him, all he did to show his displeasure was to turn, literally, his deaf ear to them.

In the bank, nobody could be more colourful than the postal clerk, Chioh Eng Seng. Daily, he would make his way to the Post Office, collect all the letters from the post office box (P.O. Box), come back to the bank and distribute the letters to the various departments. At the end of the day, his job was to seal up all the out-going envelopes, weigh them to determine the individual postage costs and then take the envelopes to the Post Office. I think he was the most care-free among the old staff of the bank. He had a younger brother working in the bank too, Chioh Eng Ghee, whom we called Ah Bak. He seemed to be doing many things - more like a general staff, running errands when needed - but nothing seemed to stick in my mind exactly what his duties were.

Teoh Beng Cheang was the bank's assistant manager and he was completely trusted by the bank's management. Together with Madam Teoh Phaik Kheng, they were among the bank's most powerful signatories because at day's end when the bank needed to withdraw cash from or balance their transactions with Bank Negara Malaysia, their authorised signatures were the ones we had to seek. Beng Chiang was also in charge of the properties that belonged to the estate of Yeap Chor Ee, so looking after the estate's rental income was part of his responsibilities.

There were also three other senior staff of the bank. Oh Hock Seng and Khoo Boo Hean were the respective assistant managers at the Komtar and the Bayan Baru branches, whom I interacted much later when I worked at these branches. And then there was Abdullah Jan. He used to serve in some army overseas and always took great pride to show off his medal for bravery. He always kept it on his person. Now, instead of at the battlefield, we would see him standing at the main door with his gun in hand but at the same time we would wonder whether he could see properly through those thick spectacles of his or whether or not his firearm could actually work. Of course, we never found out but throughout his long stay, he was the bank's most faithful guard.

Other Ban Hin Lee Bank stories here.