Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Minding your Ps and Qs

Today's story is dedicated to my family and also my relatives in the Klang Valley. You see that chap with a guitar on Page 192 of FIDELIS, the commemorative book of The Old Frees' Association? He's my cousin, Tony Oh Keng Kooi.

He was two or three years my junior at the Penang Free School. Tony and I were members of the school's Chess Club. He played Chinese Chess. Way back then, I was staying in Seang Tek Road while he lived in Jahudi Road. My mother and his father were first cousins and that made us second cousins.

When I was working on FIDELIS, this old picture revived a lot of my memories. Tony, you see, although he may still not realise it, was the factor that brought me face-to-face with another cousin, one that I didn't know existed.

In 1974 I was studying in Petaling Jaya. The nascent chess scene in the country was just getting interesting. The Chess Association of Selangor was formed in that year and they were holding their first state championship. I was taking part but since the Royal Selangor Club was quite a distance away, I had made arrangements to go to the house of another of the participants and someone else would come by to pick us up. For four days or five days I would do just that.

After the event had ended, I continued to visit Phuah Eng Chye because I had developed a close bond with him. We could speak in the Hokkien dialect of Penang and befuddle anyone who couldn't understand us. His mother was very friendly and after learning that I was from Penang, she would sometimes even join in our conversations. Part of her extended family still lived in Penang, she said.

One day Eng Chye and I were talking about our connections in Penang. He had a cousin, he revealed to me, studying at the Penang Free School and also playing chess for the school - but only Chinese Chess. My ears pricked up. I still had very good ties with the chess club and there couldn't be many players that I wouldn't know about. Now who could that be, I wondered. So do I, I told him, I also have a cousin in the same chess club. If Eng Chye were to tell me his name, I would know for sure.

And that's how Tony's name cropped up. I almost fell off the chair. Tony Oh. He's Eng Chye's cousin? Why, that's also my cousin. How could it be, not unless we were also related in some way?

Eng Chye's mother was summoned summarily and I related my story to her. The excitement rose in her eyes. She questioned me about my mother and then she disappeared somewhere and rushed back with a photograph album. She stopped at a page and pointed out my parents' wedding picture. The black and white image of my father and mother stared out at me from the book. "That's my cousin in Penang," she blurted out happily.

What a happy revelation that I had to discover in Petaling Jaya the presence of relatives that I didn't know of at all. She was one of the three Oh Sisters that lived in Port Swettenham. My mother grew up with them.

She always mentioned them with enthusiasm but unfortunately, she never shared much information about her childhood days. Thus, I'm as much in the dark today as I was then about her - to me, mysterious - female cousins. Every Chinese New Year though, she would dutifully exchange festive cards with them. It was the only time that they could still be in touch. So here was one of them, settled down in Petaling Jaya. The other two remained in Port Swettenham.

Eventually, I returned to Penang in 1976. In the meantime, Eng Chye had gone on to Manchester and then came back to work in the Klang Valley. Despite the long years that have passed by, my friendship with Eng Chye remains strong although of course, we no longer keep in constant touch like before. We were very close in those days so much so that the joke was you should better mind your P(huah)s and Q(uah)s when you are with us. That was how close we were.

As a postscript, I must mention that when I was getting married, Eng Chye was the Best Man at my wedding. I could have asked any of my friends in Penang to be my Best Man but no, the only person that came readily to my mind was him and he came up all the way from Petaling Jaya just for this purpose. I never had the chance to thank him properly so this is as good a time to tell him, "Thanks, buddy!"

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