Friday, 30 August 2013

Chinese English calendar

I was rummaging through one of the drawers in the living room and came across a plastic bag, all carefully tied neatly and tucked into a corner. Curiosity got the better of me. What could be in there that my late aunt had been keeping away? In the last 100 days since her passing, I had begun checking all the nooks and crannies in the house in order to familiarise myself with her idiosyncratic ways. Here was one of them: storing away items until they become forgotten.

Well, this was what I found. Together with some old vacuum cleaner and electric equipment manuals and their (gasp!) warranty cards, there were these three books.

Aha, the amateur gambler in her, all right. Nobody her generation would be caught short without a guide book of the 4-D number interpretation. And she had TWO copies. Different copies, of course, but basically very similar, almost identical, content. Occasionally, she would dabble in them. Have heard her phone her friends and ask them to place bets on this or that number for her. But in all these years, there were only two or three instances when she'd tell me: "Okay, let's go for a small celebration today." In my opinion, very inefficient ROI. But I had let her continue with her little passtime as long as she did not bet big. As for me, I've no interest at all in this 4-D, 3-D, Big, Small, Magnum, Toto, Big Sweep, whatever... Despite too, my father's gambling habits when he was still alive.

But the one book among the three that really jolted my memory was this one: a thin collection of 120-year Chinese-English calendars from 1873 till 1992.

I had remember buying this book from a Chinese bookstore in Carnarvon Street, George Town in the early 80s. What made me walk into that Chinese bookstore, I didn't know, but this book jumped out at me. I didn't hesitate to buy it.

What was so interesting about this book was that it gave readers an easy guide to convert from a Chinese calendar into an English calendar, and vice-versa. And all the years from 1873 until 1992 were covered.

It was useful for my family and we could now determine exactly when our fore-fathers were born. For example, my mother used to write in her little blue 555 booklet dates like eighth moon 18th day followed by the year 1907, and we'd be scratching our heads. What was the equivalent in the English calendar? When exactly was this relative born, or die? This book told me that the equivalent date was 25 September 1907. Gee, back in the 70s and 80s, this was nothing short of fantastic. I tell you, we were quite popular among some of the relatives then!

Unfortunately, the book was good only up until 1992, That was when the pages ran out. And despite my occasional visits to Chinese bookstores, nobody seemed to sell any similar books any more. And it was not until about 10 years ago that I managed to get my hands onto a similar publication: Joey Yap's Ten Thousand Year Calendar.

When I consider these two books together, I actually marvel at how for centuries, the old Chinese scholars could work out the complicated system of Chinese luni-solar calendars based only on their observations and predictions of the universe around them, such as the annual trek of the sun across the sky, the movements of the planets, the positioning of the stars and the waxing and waning of the moon. Just by looking at these celestial bodies, the Chinese scholars could devise accurately the Chinese luni-solar calendars that we use until today. 


Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Public Bank's ATM services suck real big time

Public bank. Hrrmpp! Public Bank. They may be among the tops in over-the-counter customer service but when it comes to providing ATM services to their customers, Public Bank's ATMs ain't exactly user-friendly.

In fact, apart from their reluctance to instal off-site ATMs in shopping malls and hence forcing their account holders to pay RM1 to use ATMs from other banks, Public Bank's own in-branch machines are among the most exasperating to use, especially when you are using their funds transfer option to move money between your own bank accounts.

I'll tell you what happened just the other day. I have one of their ATM cards and I have both my personal individual current and savings accounts tagged to the card for convenience.

This way, should I ever need to transfer funds internally between my two accounts, it should be a very simple and logical flow of choosing the "From" and "To" account numbers that appear on the ATM screen, right? That's my general experience at banks' ATMs....most banks, that is, except Public Bank's.

(Or course, I can also make my internal funds transfers through the Internet, which I actually do most of the time, but there are also occasions when I'm already out of the house and the ATM becomes the more convenient alternative.)

Now at the Public Bank ATM, the "To" account number is never displayed. Instead, you are asked to select the "Your Other Account Linked To This Card."

So naturally, I selected this screen option. But what do you know? The moment I pressed the option, the next screen asked me to key in the account number!

Since I already have my "From" and "To" account numbers tagged to the ATM card, why can't the Public Bank system just recognise them as belonging to me? Why ask me to key in a long string of numbers when in all probability, I do not write down for obvious security reasons?

What sort of madness is this?

Why? Why can't I just transfer from SA to CA or from CA to SA when they are both my personal individual accounts and they are tagged in the same ATM card??

Why on earth does Public Bank make it so difficult and inconvenient? To me, this is totally unacceptable and there is no satisfactory explanation from their branch staff.

Public Bank: your ATM services suck!

Friday, 23 August 2013

Mahjong Murder

This chess player here is Elgin Lee. He won't be 17 until December this year; so until then, he is just a 16-year-old young adult already with many, many years of experience playing chess at the international level, thanks to the support from his father.

Elgin is the eldest of three boys and like his younger brother, William, happens to be an Old Free. (I hear that they are junior members of The Old Frees' Association. They wanted to be life members but their father claimed that the OFA's rules did not allow for life membership at their young age. Strange...)

Elgin was at the Penang Free School for his first form before leaving to join an international school. Likewise, William was at the PFS for two years before going to a different international school. That they happen to be from my alma mater is merely coincidental. I only brought it up for mention because I'm terribly attached to my own educational roots.

Anyhow, Elgin reminds me a bit of my own youth. When I was in Standard Six at the Westlands School, Penang, I happened to take part in a story-writing competition. An international story-writing competition, no less. One fine day, my class teacher, Lim Eng Chuan, announced to us boys that anyone wishing to take part in the competition could submit a 10,000-word essay through the school. I think that I was the only schoolboy to respond although I may be wrong. To cut this old story short, nothing came from my valiant efforts. It was like my work had fallen into a deep, black hole and never emerged at all. But even if it comes to light again, I shall be too embarrassed to acknowledge it, even less to reacquaint myself with it.

But enough of me and my failed effort to be a young author. Now, the reason I had mentioned about Elgin reminding me of myself is that he did what I failed to do and which is, to have a book published during our teenaged years.

Yes, Elgin is a bona fide author and this is his book, Mahjong Murder. He wrote it within a space of three or four months, sought a publisher on his own and had a limited number of copies of this book published. Interestingly, it is possible to order this book online through Kinokuniya (at a ridiculous retail price of at least RM109) or but I bought my copy directly from the author at a cost of only RM35.

Overall, the book is a good effort for a teenager. Definitely, he loves writing and I want to wish him all the best if he continues to write and publish further. We - as Malaysians, Penangites and Old Frees at large - can play our part to support local authors by buying a copy directly from him. (Not through Kinokuniya, if you know what I mean...)

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Found Miyoshi at Joe's Mac

The first planned stop I made when I drove down to the Klang Valley last week was at the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, practically a stone's throw away from the Cititel Midvalley. It was the middle of the week and I knew the Amcorp Mall wouldn't be filled with temporary stall owners hawking their old vinyl records.

But I knew that Joe's Mac would be around. Why not? Joe has permanent residence there. His shop is on the lower ground floor and wasn't difficult to find once I descended the escalator. Found boxes upon boxes of old second-hand vinyl records on the floor outside the shop. I've been here twice or thrice before, and each time I went away with some hard-to-find treasures. Would I be lucky again?

I sat myself on the small stools and went through the pile of records in the boxes. First round went by. Mmm, yes, there were some nuggets worth acquiring. But some of the prices were too high, forcing me to train my sights on cheaper stuff.

Went through the boxes again a second time and picked up what I believed were five reasonably priced items. Then...while flicking through one of the boxes, I saw something that I had missed earlier. How could I? Immediately I removed it from the box, despite no other person looking through the records. This one, I must have: a record by Miyoshi Umeki.

I know, I know; I already have Miyoshi Sings For Arthur Godfrey, passed down to me from my father's collection, and the songs here in this album, simply titled Miyoshi but with the blurb "singing star of Rodgers and Hammerstein's" Flower Drum Song", looked like reproductions from the first album. But I had to have it. Miyoshi's songs are a rarity indeed.

Today, I finally had the time to put the record through my washing process before I could play it. My first surprise: the recordings sounded different from the other album. Maybe I should bring out that other album to play again and compare the differences.

Side One: Sayonara (From "Sayonara"), If I Give My Heart To You, China Nights (Shina No Yoru), I'm In The Mood For Love, My Baby's Comin' Home, How Deep Is The Ocean (How High Is The Sky)
Side Two: Slowly Go Out Of Your Mind, Teach Me Tonight, Hanna Ko San, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, Over The Rainbow, The Little Lost Dog.

There were liner notes on the cover too. Before I wear out the cover any more than now - it was already in bad shape when I picked it up - perhaps I should reproduce the notes here.
Miyoshi Umeki, the tiny Oriental nightingale, visually possesses the fragile beauty and delicate grace of a Japanese print, while vocally she displays all the modern technique and polished phrasing of a really hep occidental canary.

Arthur Godfrey first introduced Miyoshi to American audiences on his CBS TV "Talent Scouts" contest at the beginning of 1956. The doll-like performer - attired in a quaint kimona - astonished both the famous redhead and his audience by singing a sultry version of "How Deep Is The Ocean" in perfect English, enhanced by the merest trace of an exotic accent. She won by an overwhelming vote, and subsequently appeared on Godfrey's daily CBS shows for five weeks in succession.

Miyoshi handles an English lyric most effectively. The material includes such typical Tin Pan Alley standards as "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Teach Me Tonight," "Over The Rainbow," "I'm In The Mood For Love," and "How Deep Is The Ocean."

Born on the small Japanese island of Hokkaido, youngest in a family of nine children  - Miyoshi was the first Japanese girl to sing American songs in Tokyo. After perfecting her English by listening to American records, Miyoshi first sang with a U.S. Army jazz band on a 15-minute radio show and later joined Tokyo's top jazz outfit, the Tsunoda Sextette ("The Benny Goodman of Japan") as band vocalist.

In 1955, Miyoshi - by then an established Japanese star of records, motion pictures, night clubs and the theater - decided it was time to try her luck in America. Under the management of Art Whiting (whose marine corporal son spotted her act in Tokyo and advised his father to sign her) Miyoshi has made phenomenal career strides in America.

Following her impressive debut on radio and TV, Mercury Records inked her to a contract and her first single platter for the label was received most enthusiastically by disk jockeys and record reviewers across the country. Most recently, she won the coveted Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role in the film "Sayonara." Miyoshi sings the poignant love song of the same title in this album.

In view of the progress the petite thrush has made in her brief lifetime, it seems only fitting that her lovely and unusual name - Miyoshi - means "Beautiful Life."


The psychiatrist and the proctologist

Not often that I am tickled pink long enough to reproduce a joke on my blog, but this one did! Do enjoy it:
The Psychiatrist and the Proctologist

Best friends graduating from medical school at the same time decided that in spite of their different specialties, they would open a practice together to share office space and personnel.

Dr Smith was the psychiatrist and Dr Jones was the proctologist. They put up a sign reading: Dr Smith and Dr Jones: Hysterias and Posteriors.

The town council was livid and insisted they change it. The docs changed it to read: Schizoids and Hemorrhoids.

This was also not acceptable so they again changed the sign to read Catatonics and High Colonics - no go.

Next they tried Manic Depressives and Anal Retentives thumbs down again.

Then came Minds and Behinds - still no good.

Another attempt resulted in Lost Souls and Butt Holes - unacceptable again!

So they tried Nuts and Butts - no way.

Freaks and Cheeks - still no good.

Loons and Moons - forget it.

Almost at their wits' end, the docs finally came up with: Dr Smith and Dr Jones - Specialising in Odds and Ends.

Now everybody loved it!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Typing skill

I never learnt the proper way of typing. My first exposure at typing was at my aunt's house in Irrawaddy Road, Penang. My uncle had an old typewriter there, and every time I went visiting with my granny, I would spend my time bashing at the keys. But still, I never learnt all those "asdf hjkl" stuff.

But the experience was valuable enough. When I started work at The Straits Echo, typing was an essential skill for everyone. If you are not proficient enough, you have a steep learning curve to get yourself up to speed. When we returned from any assignment, we would be required to bash out our story on a typewriter.

It was here that I refined this old skill. Still not typing properly during those six months, but I could get by fast and accurately with two right fingers and two left fingers (which I still do today.)

And suddenly, an old memory just popped into my mind. During my interview at Ban Hin Lee Bank in Penang way back in 1976, one of my interviewers asked me how fast I could type. I didn't know, I told him, but I could demonstrate it there and then. He never did take up my challenge but accepted my confidence at face value. Guess that was one of the points that clinched my employment.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Six Old Frees

I returned last night from Kuala Lumpur where I had been a guest of the organisers of this year's Malaysian Chess Festival. It had been a hectic five days away from home and I had to split my time between my family members and the chess festival. So much so until I came down with a fever on the day we departed from KL. Lunch wasn't particularly appetising for me as I could not even look at the food.

Anyway at the chess festival, I came across these six Old Frees. I'm sure that there are a few others around but I couldn't locate them.

A mixture of young and not-so-young, Ronnie Lim is now a doctor at the Universiti Hospital, Jonathan Chuah is an engineer at Intel, Evan Capel is waiting for his A-Level results, Mat Zaki Yeop runs a business in Ipoh, Ooi Chern Ee is working with an insurance company and Elgin Lee is studying at the Inti College.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Quah side of my family

I'm now staying at the Cititel hotel in MidValley, Kuala Lumpur, for a few days on special invitation from the organisers of this year's Malaysian Chess Festival. And all because I've been writing special articles for the festival since the inception of the Arthur Tan memorial Malaysian open championship 10 years ago. There are still people who value my inputs.

Anyway, I was awakened this morning at an almost unearthly hour for one who is supposedly on holiday and it was a surprise call from one of my relatives, Sian Bok. I haven't seen her for about three or four years although I did talk to her some few weeks back. The last time we met was during one of those Tang Chik festivals at year-end (Dec 22) when her side of the family came up to the Quah Kongsi at Carnarvon Lane in George Town to visit the memorial tablet of her brother.

Unearthly hour or no unearthly hour, I was nevertheless very pleased to receive her call. Of course, she had wanted some information from me but as I was in Kuala Lumpur and not Penang, I promised her that I would dig out the information she wanted when I get back next week.

In the meantime, I also tried to fish for some information of my own. For a long time, I have wanted to compile a short family tree so that my children would not lose touch with their roots. Since my father had passed away some 18 years or so, I have been unable to fill in the blanks properly. This morning would be an opportunity to complete some of these blanks.

To start with, my great-grandfather was someone notable enough named Quah Chor Suan. I say notable enough because when he died in 1935, he received a small mention in The Straits Times of the day and we know that in those days, The Straits Times hardly covered any information on Chinese activities in Malaya.

So I have no idea of when or where he was born but he died in a house he owned in Burmah Road. There's also no information to show which house was this. This aunt of mine could throw no light. But according to her, he was the first generation of our particular Quah lineage in Malaya. And according to her too, his wife's name was Khoo Gaik Nie.

Now this has caused me some distress because earlier this year or late last year when I was discussing something with my late aunt when she was still alive, she mentioned to me that my great-grandmother's name was Tan Gin Geok.

So which was which? Tan Gin Geok or Khoo Gaik Nie? Unless either Sian Bok or Liew See were wrong, it did seem possible that Chor Suan could have had two wives. In those days, many Chinese immigrants did have two or more families. Could my great-grandfather have had two?? It's impossible to confirm this.

All I know is that he left behind two sons. My grandfather, Teik Beng, was born in 1896 and his younger brother, Teik Lim, was born in 1907. Teik Beng was married to Lim Poh Choo, and their children were my father, Ah Huat, and my aunt, Liew See.

Teik Lim was wedded to Khoo Chye Suat and they had four children in Sian Kheng, Sian Bok, Kong Chai and another son who was given away at birth to another family. Quite a common occurrence in those days; people willingly giving up their sons or daughters for adoption elsewhere. Although he was given the name Ong Tiang Siew, he remained very close to his blood parents. When we moved to Seberang Jaya, Tiang Siew - a generously hearted and hefty man - was at hand to help us heave the heavy furniture up and down flights of stairs. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack several years later. Kong Chai himself died about three or four years ago.

Regarding Chor Suan's ties with the Quah Kongsi, I learnt from this aunt that my great-grandfather was one of the main movers that set up this society. He could have also been the Kongsi's first president. I've seen some of the Kongsi property's title deeds and his name had appeared on some of them in his capacity as a trustee. But my aunt suspected that those few buildings could have belonged to him at one time or another before he donated them away. Is there any way that the old records can still be checked at the Penang Land Office? I would be interested to know.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Conversation with a bank

There's this foreign-owned bank, you see, that had just sent me my renewed credit card. However, it required me to send a text message to an automated number for it to be activated. I had been trying several times yesterday afternoon with no apparent success.

And so, I decided to contact their call centre instead. After going through the long process of pressing and entering this number and that number, I was put on hold. The voice at the other end droned on and on about their services and products, and kept reminding me that my call was important to them. Oh boy, but it took about four to five minutes before a real live person at the other end answered.

Never mind, I thought to myself. So I told the bank's call centre staff that I wanted my card activated. Then came the next hurdle. I had to answer a whole series of questions before anything else. I know, I know, it's for identification's sake. Banks can't be too careful, you know. I was prepared to go through the whole rigmarole of getting naked with my personal information. Identity card number, okay, given. Mobile telephone number, okay, given. Whether I've other accounts with the bank, okay, told him. How do I normally make payments, okay, cleared that question too. Can't recall all the questions but okay, everything asked were answered. Correctly.

By the time I answered the umpteenth question, I made a small inquiry. Wahh, any more questions to answer just to get some service, ah? "No, sir, that's all," he bubbled cheerfully, "and how can I help you, sir?"

A bit silly, don't you think so? "Gosh, by the time I answered all your questions, I've forgotten what I wanted to ask you already..." I said.

"Never mind, sir," the faceless call centre guy answered. "You wanted to activate your card, sir. It's activated now, sir. Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?"

Polite till the end. Nothing else, I said. And after some closing niceties, I terminated the call.

Monday, 12 August 2013


I am very puzzled. The new Financial Services Act 2013 that came into effect on the 30th of June this year significantly impacts the life insurance industry in Malaysia and yet, apart from MCIS Zurich, I am not aware of any other insurance company taking the initiative to update their policy holders about how this new piece of legislation affects them.

Certainly not from Great Eastern Life Assurance (Malaysia) and certainly not from AIA Malaysia either. Anyhow, these are the two other life insurance companies with which I have my policies and so I should be aware.

The letter which I did receive from MCIS Zurich has already been documented here.

In fact, I was hearing just the other day that an insurance agent insisted that the FSA 2013 did not apply to him as he had not heard anything from his company! I can only hope that this is not true because that was pretty damning and irresponsible.

Insurance agents have responsibilities to themselves, the companies they represent and most of all, their customers who give them their monthly commissions. I am not from the insurance trade but yet, I try to keep my ears as close to the ground as possible. I am a very curious man and I am interested to know.

Coming from an insurance agent like him, more so that he should show interest in something that affects him. Where's the initiative to make sure his customers are rightly informed? Please do act more professionally.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

"This town (neighbourhood) ain't big enough for the two of us"

I loved all those old Western movies regardless of whether they were made in Hollywood or by the spaghetti fellas. I always got thrilled towards the climax of each show. You know that part when the hero and the villain faced off in a windy or dusty deserted street. The showdown. There'd be no one else standing outside the buildings, save for one or two of the hero's sidekicks peering out anxiously from a saloon, sometimes hiding ludicrously from behind a bartender's bar, with eyes wide open.

The sun would be beating down relentless on the two antagonists and they strode - s.l.o.w.l.y - towards each other from the opposite ends of the street. Though they would be looking straight ahead at one another, occasionally the hero would steal glances at rooftops just in case he could catch sight of an ambush.

Their right hands would be hovering around their gun holsters, fingers twitching to whip the gun at a moment's notice. "Now, this town ain't big enough for the two of us," the villain would drawl but there would be silence after that.

The cameras would pan to the antagonists' eyes, first to one and then to the other. One of them would squint as if to focus better on the task ahead. Pregnant seconds. Staring ahead. Fingers twitching. Staring ahead. A silent countdown hovering over everyone in the cinema. Them still staring ahead. Unbearable, chilling silence despite the noonday heat. Staring ahead. Then in a flash, the guns were snatched from the holsters and there'd be two shots ringing out. One of them would sink slowly to the ground, mortally wounded. Who would that be? But need you ask? Has the villain ever won? Has a film show ever been innovative enough for a villain to prevail?

That's all cinematic bullshit, by the way.

Back to the present. When I first moved into this neighbourhood in Bukit Mertajam, the night-time security services were provided by a small security firm that stationed their people at the end of our road. Every night, the security people would patrol the streets and back lanes on their motorcycles and shine their torchs into the house compounds. Not every household subscribed to the services but I was one of those who did.

Then about two or three years ago, the Rukun Tetangga unit in my neighbourhood proposed to take over the nightly patrols and employed their own guards to do the rounds. Their arguments were convincing: why should we need an external party to provide these patrols when we should be more involved ourselves with our own security and could engage these services on our own? And almost everyone agreed. For the sake of the ideals of the Rukun Tetangga, we agreed. Those of us who had subscribed to the original security firm switched over.

For a long while, everything was fine but at the end of June, the households received a letter that informed us that the Rukun Tetangga's security services were being terminated by the provider. No reason was given although I suspected that many uncooperative households had refused or delayed to pay the monthly fees. The fees weren't much, only RM30 per month, but Malaysians being what they are, those selfish residents that refused to pay thought they could enjoy the same benefits at the expense of those who paid. So there we were, when collection became difficult and the service provider pulled out, all households were left in the lurch.

Then at the beginning of July, we heard that the original security firm wanted to make a return and resume the night guard services again. Fine, I thought, at least we would get some security services back. So I joined with several other people to subscribe to them. But the monthly fees have been upped to RM40 now. No choice if anyone wanted their patrols to resume. What to do but at least I'd have them shine their torchs into my compound again and provide some semblance of comfort and security.

But I was surprised when a neighbour came calling on me about a fortnight later to say that the former Rukun Tetangga night guards wanted to take up the patrolling services on their own, and their fees would only be RM30 per month. Cost-wise, this was a much cheaper alternative but frankly, I wasn't convinced that the second group of security fellas could do an adequate job. So I told this neighbour: good for you but I shall stick to my RM40 security services for the time being. It wasn't about the money, see, but I should believe - which I did not tell my neighbour - that a registered security services provider is more appealing to me than a bunch of former night guards striding out on their own without a proper business registration.

So there we have it. Every evening after eight o'clock, I would see two groups of people patrolling the roads slowly on their respective motorcycles. The services I engaged would have two riders with the pillion rider shining his torch into my compound and the windows on the upper floor. Whenever they see me, they'd shout "uncle" in greeting and wave to me. Very pleasant duo. And the other patrol service? There would be only one guy on his motorcycle looking straight ahead with a "what'd I care" attitude. He doesn't look to the right, he doesn't look to the left, just straight ahead.

So far, there doesn't seem to be any tension between the two groups. I haven't seen their paths crisscross but I'm sure they have. How has the second group been collecting their moneys monthly? Frankly, I don't know because they don't knock on my door.

Now I really wonder whether my neighbourhood is big enough for two night patrol services to operate side by side. Would one party eventually edge out the other? Would there be a turf war eventually? Who would take responsibility should there be break-ins or other security incidents? The residents cannot say that they are enjoying the best of both worlds because I am sure that when it comes down to the crunch, (a) the residents would go back to the service provider they employed for resolution, (b) those residents who refused either service provider will have no grounds to complain, and (c) hopefully, I can get more comfort from a registered business than an adhoc grouping of night guards.

What say you?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Largest playing field in Malaya

Which construction firm won the tender to build the main building at the Penang Free School in Green Lane, Penang? Here's an interesting news item, extracted from the Singapore Free Press of 5 Sept 1925, which should prick the curiosity of many Old Frees:

Largest Playing Field in Malaya

In Green Lane, far from the noise of motor cars and buses, the new Free School is rapidly nearing completion, and should be in use in the course of the next two years at the latest, says the Pinang Gazette. For a long time survey work and clearing up had gone on, and for the past year or so the P.W.D. were engaged in constructing the masters' quarters. These are now ready and Mr. W. Hamilton, headmaster of the Free School, and other European masters went into them a few days ago; now Messrs. Gammon and company, who have taken the contract of the school building itself have commenced operations and, according to the contract which was signed about a month ago, should "deliver" the building within 15 to 16 months' time.

The new Government School, when completed, should be an imposing one, not so much, perhaps, for its generous proportions, but for its setting and the immense area in which it is accommodated. Government has altogether set apart 31 acres for its new school, and of this no less than 12 acres are for a playing field. This playing field will be the biggest in the whole of Malaya and will be more than sufficient for a cricket field, two football grounds, hockey ground and tennis courts. The local Esplanade will offer no comparison and even the two combined esplanades in Singapore (the S.C.C. and S.R.C. grounds) will still be smaller than the new Free school esplanade.

The school building itself, which will be a two-floor structure, that is, a ground floor and upstairs, will occupy a space of 20,000 square feet and Messrs. Gammon and Company, it is understood, have undertaken its construction at a cost of 260,000 dollars.

Friday, 9 August 2013


My wife and I bought some avocados from the supermarket at the lower ground floor of The Gardens when we were at the Midvalley in Kuala Lumpur last month. Turned out that the fruits weren't good. It took the avocados ages to soften and when they did, we found quite a lot of fibrous tissue inside them. Moreover, the seeds were humongously huge. Quite a disappointment for us, considering that we paid about RM5 per fruit.

But we love avocados. And just a few days ago, we couldn't resist buying another batch from the AEON supermarket at the Seberang City Prai Shopping Mall in Bukit Mertajam. They went for a song: three avocados for only RM9.90 and what's more, they had been brought in from Australia.

This evening, I sliced open one of the fruits. They were already in various stages of ripening but there was one which was decidedly soft. Bearing in mind the disappointment of the avocados from Kuala Lumpur, I was delighted to find a soft, creamy interior. Now, that's more like it! Oh yummy, excuse me while I go scoop out the flesh now....

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Anecdotes from the Japanese Occupation years

I was born about a decade after the end of the dark period in Penang's history known as the Japanese Occupation.

When they were still alive, my grandparents and parents never talked much to me about the Occupation years but I could gather from their brief comments that those were brutal years indeed. Family fortunes were lost in the process when people headed to the hills to escape the bombardments from Japanese aircraft.  I suspect so too were my ancestors' fortunes because by the Second World War's end, my grandparents ended up renting a double-storey house in Seang Tek Road. Still, I reckon that they were luckier than most other people.

On my maternal grandmother's side, her siblings originally numbered seven in all, including herself. Every time when they visited us or we visited them, I had to call them (apart from my grandmother, of course) as my Ku Kongs and Ee Poh. However, there was always one of them missing: my second Ku Kong. His name never came up for mention and nobody ever wanted to say how he died except that he died young. Even today, I wonder whether he was a victim of ill health or the Second World War.

As I write this, it struck me that there were many people who preferred not to bring up memories of the war years again; as if the lesser said, the lesser the pain. But it is important to document all these verbal memories for the sake of the present generation and the future.

Therefore, it was with some joy that I came across a thread on facebook recently where someone had posted up a picture of a group of Japanese soldiers relaxing by a ditch and...smiling into the camera! It was as if these soldiers actually knew who it was that was holding the camera and approving of their picture being taken.

The comments below were taken from the thread. Not everything is reproduced here except the very pertinent ones. I have to thank deeply the people mentioned in the parentheses for sharing their anecdotes with me without their knowledge.

(Azman Shaari) I lost an uncle in WW2 who was captured by the Japs and forced to build the "Bridge over the River Kwai" railway. That's where he died. My grandma (father's mom) also died during the Japanese occupation. At that time grandpa was a clerk with KTM in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan. According to dad, tapioca was the staple during those difficult times. It happened while grandma was digging for ubi kayu that she accidentally struck her foot with the changkul. With no hospital or medical facilities available, grandma succumbed to tetanus (lock jaw) and passed away.

(Goh Kek Seng) Azman Shaari, I lost an uncle too in similar circumstances - my mum's brother was conscripted to build the railway link from Thailand to S. Myanmar.. Apparently he escaped from his prison camp, wandered back towards Malaya but died somewhere along the way back. Someone related the news to my mum after the war.

(Goh Kek Seng) My parent grew up with foster family during the war because my grandparents died early. But the foster family had Thai blood in them, were Buddhists and had the house adorned with pix of King Bhumipol. The Japanese respected that King because Thailand was considered a friend then. So when the Japs came into our family home they did our folks no harm and instead bowed to the pix of the Thai King.

(Willis Teoh) My maternal grandfather was killed by Japs but we moved on. My father saw what happened and told me first-hand what actually happened. In war you are either a man or a sell out.

(Potent Flower) My aunties and dad had to run into the jungle to hide. Some hid in chicken coops. Some were quickly got married off by my grandpa (he had 10 girls and two boys). Grandpa gave away his watches so that they didn't throw my dad into the air and stab him with the knife at the edge of their guns. I always see and feel the fear in him whenever he tells us about the war.

(Avan Khoo) My dad had a first-hand encounter with Japanese. He was still a little kid when the Japanese invaded. He saw them marching into the village but didn't know what happened, so he watched. A Japanese soldier saw him, picked him up and gave him a few kisses on his two cheeks, and then put him down. Probably that's why he didn't hate Japanese so much...

(Muttaqin Othman) My late grandma told us many stories about the Japanese occupation and a police constable called Latif. He was a Japanese collaborator and yes, a sellout. He lived easy during those days, and not through his pay or other stipends. He preyed on the villagers who was afraid he'd tell on them to the Kempeitai. He never did pay anything when he went to the market. Let's say he met a fitting end when the war ended during the transition period.

(Azman Shaari) My dad was still a young boy during the Jap Occupation. He told me that he befriended the Jap soldiers so that they wouldn't harass his father and sisters. They taught him basic Jap words, phrases and also some Japanese songs. Whenever he sang to them they would reward him with army ration chocolate bars that he'd take home to share with the family. In those tough times you had to learn to adapt for survival.

(Ba Asp) I recalled my late granny telling me tales of those gatai Japanese soldiers who'd go from house to house to look for young girls.When her house was searched, she and her sisters ashen their face with ash and pretended to be maids.

(Avan Khoo) Ba Asp, yeah, I heard that too. And saw it in many reports. They just satisfied their lust, and then blamed it that these were filthy animals worthy of humiliation. I can imagine it happening during wars when laws and rules are sitting on a thread. But to hear it in our current society that some officers misuse their power to threaten foreigners who came illegally to "pay by body" if they don't want to be arrested is really heart wrenching.

(Ba Asp) The Japanese Occupation caused so much fear among the Chinese. That fear caused my great grandpa's diabetes to worsen and he died a few months later. Coming from Toisan, China, he of course had a collection of old Chinese literature. He burned all that for fear that the Japanese would behead anyone owning Chinese literature. So sad.

(Saifol Shamlan) My late father was 20 when they invaded. His mother's big house on Chamberlain Road/Jalan Kampa had many girls due to the many relatives and foster children who lived there. He learned the language and was the one to face the "inquiring" soldiers that came to the house sniffing around for young women. My aunties told me that they'd hide and he would talk the soldiers out of a search.

(Lizzie Slothouber) I'll add my little bit here so all the info is in one place for reference. Re the WW2 bit ... my Mum was about seven or eight when WW2 broke out. Her Mother cut off her long hair and dressed her up as a boy. Later when her body started to develop, her chest was bound very tightly so that nothing showed. Fortunately her second brother's wife intervened and taught her to remove the bounds and Mum was always proud of her C cups (where the other two in the family were flat as pancakes). Mum told us that the raw rice that you HAD to buy from the Japanese - the price of it changed from day to day - had to be very carefully sorted through as the Japanese would add white cement powder and other stuff to make the rice heavier and you pay more. Had to use a DULANG to toss it into the wind. The powder flew away and rice came down. Then washed the rice between your hands with running water - sometimes six times - until the water ran clear.

(Lizzie Slothouber) They grew UBI KAYU and peanuts outside their family home in Pudu. Harvested the leaves of ubi kayu to fry to eat. And she loved eating steamed ubi kayu dipped in sugar but in her adult life - she NEVER touched/ate ubi kayu ever - because it reminded her of the hard war times. Her father died when she was four, died of burst appendicitis, and her mum died when she was 12 due to ill health and diabetes and lack of medical access during the Japanese occupation too.

(Lizzie Slothouber) Reposting the reply from Dato' Hj Mohd Nuri SaLatiff: Yes, the Japanese soldiers could never see girls; they just grabbed the girls for their own use. That's why at the house near Simpang Pulai, my mother's cousin sister, being desperate, jumped from upstairs to the ground to flee from the Japanese soldiers. She was lucky she didn't break a single bone - that was a miracle! We had our rice mixed with tapioca, sweet potatoes or unripe bananas to make up the volume/quantity.

(Saifol Shamlan) I was told by my mother that some of the "Japanese" soldiers were actually Manchurians and those were the ones you really should avoid.

(Muttaqin Othman) Many Manchurians were the ones tasked with occupying Malaysia and other nations conquered by the Japanese while the Japanese troops would fight on the front lines. An old Malay Regiment member (still alive) told me the "Japanese" soldiers his village had were actually Manchurians, not Japanese. Germany did the same during WW2. They used Hungarians, Romanians, etc, to occupy countries they had subjugated while their own soldiers went to the front lines. For them it was also a question of competence and loyalty!

(Raja Shah Idris) It was mostly the Officers who were the Japanese...

(Winter Soon Chak) A true story told by my late father. During the Japanese occupation, life was tough so most people had to find ways and means to earn a living. One day, my late uncle was taking fruits to the local pasar in his bicycle and he was carrying a load of mangosteen. Along the way, he was stopped by a Japanese soldier and he demanded to know what it was. Upon being told by my uncle that it was a fruit, the soldier snatched one, quickly placed it in his mouth and was just about to take a bite when my uncle immediately told him to stop, with good intentions of course. Taking this for a refusal to give him the ‘free’ fruit, he slapped my uncle and subsequently took a big bite of the mangosteen, skin and all!! As we all know, to eat this fruit, you’ll have to remove the hard, bitter outer ‘skin’. The end result… my uncle received two more slaps as gratuity from this soldier. At least it was not a bullet!

(Lean Siang Yew) Someone from my mother side of the family was killed by machine gun after the first few days of Japanese invasion of Penang because he went to check the condition of the shop. Family members tried to stop me but he would not listen. They went to the hills to hide from the Japs. My father's side of the family had to live on wild vegetables and shellfish (siput) collected from the seaside. I regularly heard the stories from my late father, late aunts and late grandma. All of them were very strict on food wastage because they went hungry during Japanese occupation - I could not understand them when I was a kid but now I understand why. My father actually smuggled rice from Thailand before during WW2 - he could get his head chopped off if he was caught. I still have a Japanese certificate issued to my dad - he worked in the railway station as a fireman (not fire brigade but the one that looked after the train's steam engine).

(Lean Siang Yew) My family members and former teachers used to tell us stories of how Japanese tortured the people by pulling their finger nails, fed them with water from a water hose followed by placing a plank on their stomach...then the Japs jumped on top of the stomach leading to water coming out from the nose, mouth, ears, eyes...etc. Very brutal!

(Leon Tan) My uncle was 12 in Kota Bharu when the Japanese landed in December 1941. He distinctly remembered that a large number of the invading force were actually Taiwanese conscripts, and could communicate with the locals in Hokkien and Mandarin.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Chan Mun Fye

I just learnt of the demise of Chan Mun Fye yesterday. He would be about 67 years old. Mun Fye was a chessplayer who represented Malaysia twice at the Chess Olympiads in 1972 and 1974. (In this picture, that's him on the far left.)

At the Skopje Olympiad in 1972, Mun Fye was formidable enough to play on the second board behind Dr Foo Lum Choon and that was an indication of his relative stature among chess players in the country. He played 20 games (+6=7-7) and scored 9½ points.

Two years later at the Nice Olympiad, he displaced Dr Foo on the top board. Despite his magnificent efforts, he scored only 5½ points from 19 games (+3=5-11).

The year 1974 was about the same time too that I first got to know him from the Selangor Open events although our paths on the chessboard did not meet until decades later.

Yesterday, I read a moving tribute to Mun Fye in facebook. I would like to reproduce here the tribute by Doris Wong. It shed some light on a very private person.
He looked much older than his age. Hair all white, placid mien and toothless. He was never intrusive, shy and barely audible when he spoke. Walked in shuffling steps. For many years, he worked at a petrol kiosk. Gave no troubles and was often overlooked, overworked. Made to the night shifts. But he took it all in stride.

Never judge a book by its cover. He was quite sharp and a tough nut to crack at chess. A very simple fellow whose other passion is calculations of numbers. He was quite lucky in 4D. One time he struck special prize, first prize and was almost a millionaire (all within weeks of each strike)! He missed a single digit and so had to settle for second prize in Mega/52.

The last couple of years, a kind hearted philanthropist took him under his wings. All he had had to do was play chess with him. I heard he gently faded away last night. Rest in peace, Mun Fye. I shall miss you.
Yes, Mun Fye and I did meet eventually over a chess game. And of course, it had to happen two years ago at the Malaysian Chess Festival in Kuala Lumpur. Rest in peace, old chess warrior.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Breakdown: the Tengku and his car

I came across this picture from facebook. The man on the right should be a familiar sight to most of all. I can't imagine this situation happening again in this time and age, can you?

Monday, 5 August 2013

George Town's heritage postboxes

This story was posted originally on this blog on 15 August 2012 which makes it almost exactly one year ago. Since then, I have uncovered one more cylindrical postbox on Penang island. I deem this new find to be significant enough for me to bring my original story up-to-date. So here goes, an update on George Town's heritage postboxes.

--- UPDATE ---
After I had posted a story here about the Royal Mail in Great Britain painting some of their postboxes gold in honour of their athletes at the London Olympics, I remembered that about five years ago, I had written in passing here about one old postbox in George Town, Penang.

It struck me that there are actually several cylindrical pillar postboxes on the island, remnants of our long colonial past. Frankly, I find them quite awesome from the heritage point of view. Regardless that George Town is now a UNESCO world heritage city, it is imperative that these postboxes must be preserved as markers of our remarkable history and culture. So where are these old red postboxes, almost all of which still bear the royal cyphers of the old British monarchs?

It was during the time of Queen Victoria that the cylindrical postboxes were first designed and installed in Britain. Penang being part of the Straits Settlements then, it was only natural that these postboxes would also be used here eventually. However, I have been unable to find any documentation from the Internet when the first such postboxes were introduced into Penang or British Malaya. 

This one above, bearing the VR royal cypher of Victoria, in the banking sector of Beach Street, George Town, must be one of the earliest postboxes around. This prominent postbox is quite well known to both residents and visitors alike. At the base of the pillar is the name of the manufacturer, Andrew Handyside & Co Ltd.

Interestingly, the only other similar Victorian postbox is located not in the city but up at Penang Hill. I took the above photograph in July 2007, never thinking that it would come in useful five years later but here it is. I can just barely make out the Handyside name on the base. As the letter slot is sealed, it is quite obvious that this postbox is just for display. Visitors will have to walk quite a distance from the upper hill railway station in order to find it, but it is there by the roadside. I understand that this postbox used to sit near the fire brigade station in Beach Street. In 2005, Pos Malaysia presented it to the Penang Hill Residents' Association.

Back in the city, I found this postbox which bore the EVIIR royal cypher of Edward VII who succeeded Victoria to the British throne in 1901. This is also quite a well-known sight, being located outside the Customs building (originally the Federated Malay States Railway Station building) in China Street Ghaut. This is the same one that I had mentioned in this blog five years ago. It is curious to note that the postbox looks fat and squat not from design but because its base is buried deep in the ground. When roadworks raised the road level, nobody dug up the postbox to reposition it higher. Worse, when the pavement was added later, the authorities must have thought it more convenient to build the pavement around the postbox. Definitely, a short-cut solution. So who was the manufacturer of this postbox? It's impossible to know without digging it up. (When I was still working at Ban Hin Lee Bank, I used to pass by this postbox almost everyday during the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, there was no pavement yet and the postbox just stood there by the side of the road.)

After Edward VII came George V who had ascended to the British throne in 1910. I could find only two cylindrical postboxes that bore his GR royal cypher. The first one (above) is located along Upper Penang Road, directly across from the E&O Hotel. The Handyside name appears on the base. The second postbox (below) is found along Residency Road, just outside the gate into the Penang General Hospital's compound. As the base is also buried deep in the ground, there is no way of knowing its manufacturer.

Edward VIII was British monarch for only a few months in 1936 before he abdicated and there doesn't seem to be any postbox in George Town that bore his EVIIIR royal cypher. I've been reading that even in Britain, it is quite difficult to find an Edward VIII cylindrical postbox.

I also discovered two cylindrical postboxes along Ayer Itam Road. The first one, shown above, is located outside the Post Office building and the second one, below, can be found directly opposite from the Kampung Bharu market.

I was surprised not to find any royal cypher on the door of either postbox. Could it be that some over-zealous person or persons had filed away all the marks after 1957, or were they ordered without any royal cypher in the first place? In any case, what interested me was that the postboxes were supplied by a different manufacturer, Carron Company.

The last cylindrical postbox that I know of was ordered for Penang possibly during the time of George VI. Here it is above, located along MacAlister Road, and just across the road from the Madras Lane junction. Accordingly, it bore the GVIR royal cypher. This postbox was supplied by yet another manufacturer, McDowall Steven & Co Ltd, as could be seen from their name on the base.

I haven't been able to locate other cylindrical postboxes in Penang, including any that bore the EIIR royal cypher of Elizabeth II. Maybe these are all that can be found on the island but it won't stop me from searching further.

Incidentally, I did locate a unique standalone rectangular postbox at the junction of Dato Kramat Road and Siam Road that bore the GR royal cypher. Initially, I was puzzled over this design because it was unlike any of the heritage postboxes that I've seen in Penang. But having thought it over, I now believe that this was just a plain wall postbox encased in a rectangular concrete structure. When the pavement was raised up later, the base of the postbox became buried in the ground too. Maybe for this one, it was really impossible to reposition. I will always remember shoving my letters through the slot in the late 1960s and early 1970s.