Saturday, 19 December 2015

Half a cup of coffee

Every time I drink my kopi-o at this particular stall at the Kampong Baru market in Bukit Mertajam and I reach this level of coffee in my cup, I am reminded of my aunt who, when she was still alive some two or three years back, had a knack of ordering "half a cup of kopi-o" from the stall-owner, and getting it. She had lots of friends among the stall-owners and could get what she wanted from them! Not me, though. Although the stall-owner knows me too, I am too shy to attempt what she did.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Venus and Jupiter

Stepped out of the house this morning and happened to look upwards. An automatic reaction with me. And immediately noticed two of the brightest spots of light in the still deep blue sky. Quickly grabbed the camera and aimed upwards. Handheld, no time to mount the camera on a tripod. Venus was no problem; it was bright enough to capture it juxtaposed with the mini-satellite dish. Jupiter posed a challenge, though, because it was so much dimmer. Despite steadying myself against a wall, I could sense a slight camera shake. But okay, lah, still caught the essence on the planet on the camera. Was immediately blown away by the discovery of tiny pricks of light on the image which I couldn't see with my naked eyes. Plus, the bonus of seeing two of Jupiter's brightest Gallilean moons. What a start to a day!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Eye drops and eye gels

I was supposed to go down to Kuala Lumpur in September but had to cancel my trip owing to conjunctivitis. Then after me, it was my wife's turn to come down with this eye ailment. Our bouts with conjunctivitis took a toll on us. We have lost count of the number of times that we had gone to the Penang General Hospital and the Bukit Mertajam Hospital to seek treatment. And in my wife's case, the Lohguanlye Specialist Hospital too.

The ophthalmologists there scraped our eyelids to remove the pseudo-membrane which were preventing the eye medication from being absorbed effectively. After each scraping, our eyelids would be so sore that we couldn't open our eyes. Luckily, we were affected at different times. After I had recovered, only then did my wife get infected. So we became drivers for one another.

Today, after almost two months, it is time for us to discard all the old eye-drops and eye gels. There are so many of them: bottles and tubes but they all have to go. Go, be gone! Don't need you any more! But thank you all the same.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Fire, spice and edifice: Penang's early history

The E&O Hotel in Farquhar Street was the perfect colonial-type setting for the launch of Marcus Langdon's latest book -- Penang, the Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830 Volume Two: Fire, Spice and Edifice -- which, appropriately enough, was all about Penang's early history. This was at a time just about 20 years after Captain Francis Light landed at the Esplanade and proclaimed the island as a British settlement.

Langdon's Volume Two (Volume One was published in 2013) is divided in seven chapters, or Books as he called them, with each chapter devoted to a different subject. Thus, his Book One was all about the Fort Cornwallis, Book Two all about the Fires in George Town, and so on and so forth. There are Books on the St George's Church, the Spice and Botanic Gardens, the Library and Battling the Sea. Oh yes, I've omitted mentioning one very important section: in Book Three, Langdon wrote about the early years of the Penang Free School, a subject now very close to my heart.

But I'm not going to disclose much about the topics covered; anyone wishing to delve into Penang's history should get a copy of this book from the bookstores. I can assure you that it is money well spent as it is a very good read.

All I want to say is that I had bought Langdon's Volume One back in 2014 at a time when I was already very interested in Penang's heritage. While reading it, I came across several references he made to the Penang Free School and in a footnote, he mentioned that a whole chapter would be written on the school in his Volume Two. Unfortunately, there was no knowing when it would be published because when I met him for the first time in late 2014 and posed the question to him, even he wasn't sure of its publication! But at least, I had established contact with him, a contact which I was certain would come in useful later.

Then in January this year I invited Langdon down to The Old Frees' Association and had a good chat with him. I told him that I was going to start a project on the Penang Free School and was sure that whatever information he had with him would be very helpful to me. Thus he agreed to give me a copy of his manuscript, the section that dealt with the Penang Free School, which turned out to be a goldmine indeed. It filled in a lot of blanks in the school's history. Of course, I was duty bound not to say anything about it to anybody then because Volume Two still had not seen the light of day, although he hoped that it would be available by June or July.

And now that Volume Two has been published and officially launched by the Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, on 7 November 2015, I will publicly thank Marcus Langdon here for sharing that pertinent, all-important chapter with me.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

A birthday concern

It was quite chilling this morning when I turned on the computer and the web browser loaded up the Google start page automatically. There, in front of my eyes was a graphic of birthday cakes. I so happened, accidentally, to move the pointer over the graphic and was surprised to find my name popping up on the monitor. Google was wishing me a happy birthday! It set me thinking what other personal information have I exposed on the Internet? If Google can pick up my birthday so easily, can other search engines do so too? And if search engines can find me, what more all those illegal Internet bots? Can my personal information be truly safe? Can your personal information be safe too? And what can we do to safeguard ourselves online?

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Next year's bicentenary dinner

It has been 13 days since I celebrated the 199th anniversary of our Alma Mater with some of my old schoolmates in Penang, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. I can't say much about the dinner occasions in KL or Singapore because I wasn't there, but I can certainly confirm that there was a huge buzz of excitement at the Penang dinner. For the first time, the Class of 7072 was able to fill 16 seats at two tables. Some of us brought our spouses while some others chose to be bachelors for the night. But we all had a good time and we are now all looking forward to 21 October 2016 when Penang Free School will be 200 years old! Will you be there for the grand celebration? I know that I will, and I hope to see as many of my mates as possible. 

From what I know, the Old Boys associations in Penang, KL and Singapore have been asked to forego their own annual dinners next year and come back to their roots, the Old School, for the bicentenary dinner which shall be arranged in the school field. Many of the Classes have already made concrete arrangements with the dinner's organising committee and booked or reserved multiple tables for the occasion. And here, I have some good news and some bad news.

Despite all the growing excitement among the Old Boys around the world, our own Class of 7072 has, so far, given lukewarm response to be part of next year's celebration. But I know that without anyone taking the initiative to round up the gang, a reunion will never happen. After seeking out the views of a few friends in Penang, KL and Singapore, we decided that there must be a reunion, come what may. 

Last week, I emailed the OFA office in Penang to ask them to reserve five tables for the Class of 7072. By the way, the OFA office was appointed by the Bicentenary Committee to coordinate next year's dinner. Yesterday, I spoke to the personnel in charge of bookings and she informed me that my reservations were confirmed. So that's the good news. We have five tables to share out among the Class of 7072. Casually, I asked her whether I could increase the reservations to eight tables. My contention was that if we could not fill all 80 seats, we could still surrender the unfilled tables back to the organisers. Bad news. All of the RM1,500 tables have been taken up. Reserved. Booked. Our five tables were among the last batches to be accepted. But she was very helpful. If we want, the RM3,000 and RM5,000 tables are still available. However, I don't think that will be what we want. The Class of 7072 will want to be together; no point separating us all up at a reunion. It defeats the purpose. 

So to my schoolmates in the Class of 7072, I wish to say again that because we have only five tables, our seats are very limited. There are only 50 places available and technically, there are a few hundreds of us. Even if all of us want to attend the bicentenary dinner, it is impossible. I have to offer them the seats at the five tables on a "first come, first served" basis. If anyone in the Class of 7072 is keen on coming to the bicentenary dinner, they should drop me a private email at I'm sure you know how to substitute the -at- with the @ sign. I shall then add him into the list until all the seats are taken up. However, if anyone prefers to register through the OFA KL-Selangor or OFA Singapore groups, this is quite okay with me. It is not a compulsion for my classmates to join the Penang gang. Email me and we shall talk further, okay?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Remembering Robert Sparke Hutchings, 2015

About a week ago I had sent an appeal through the Old Frees' Association facebook group for more Old Frees to remember the founder of the Penang Free School by turning up at the Protestant Cemetery for the Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings commemorative service.

I was very encouraged when I arrived at Northam Road to find bustling activity outside the cemetery's gate at 6.45a.m. Not only were there a busload of Penang Free School boys and their teachers - possibly about 20 to 25 of them - but also a group of about 10 to 15 representatives from the nearby Hutchings School.

But more than anything else, for the first time in four years since I started coming to witness the annual commemorative services, there were about 15 Old Frees (and two parishioners from the St George's Church) who had made it a point to join the schoolboys and their teachers at this time of the morning. The pervasive haze made the occasion very ethereal as we gathered before Hutchings' grave in the cemetery.

The presence of Billy Yeoh, president of The Old Frees' Association, was very welcomed. For once, we have representatives of the Management Committee present. But there is a strong message in Billy's presence too. As the School moves towards its 200th Anniversary in 2016, the Bicentenary, I hope that I am not wrong to say that we can be assured of The Old Frees' Association's commitment to uphold the School's many old traditions. The annual visit to Hutchings' grave is one of most important among them.

I'm saying this because Christianity is not my religion. I'm a confirmed Buddhist. Yet, there shall be little that will prevent me from visiting a church or this Protestant cemetery and remembering this great man who through his efforts in 1816 pushed through his plans to establish a school that has lasted till today.

For that effort, I shall remember Robert Sparke Hutchings and I hope that many more Old Frees will honour that man too by turning up at the annual service. That is the least that we can do for the man and the institution we call our Alma Mater, the Penang Free School.

Revd Ho Kong Eng addressing the Penang Fee School students and teachers

Old Frees among the people at the cemetery

The teacher and boys from Hutchings School

Some of the Old Boys from Free School

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Quah Seng Chye, P.E. teacher extraordinaire

This picture that I saw in the archives room of the Penang Free School recently brought back some memories of my physical education (P.E.) training during my days in school. The person seated in the centre was my P.E. teacher and, oh boy, was he the fiercest teacher on the field and the courts. If you do not know how big the field is at the Penang Free School, I can tell you that you can safely place four football fields into it and still have space left for some other activities! That's how big it is.

And Quah Seng Chye, my P.E. teacher who, by the way, was not related to me, in his inspired moments would require his classes to run around the perimeter of this field. The route would take us from behind the main school buildings - that was where the basketball and volleyball courts were located then when I was still at school - to join up with the road around the field and then back to the courts behind the buildings. A distance of about 1.2 kilometers, I would estimate. Not only that, as we panted around the route, he would follow us on his trusty old motorcycle to make sure that we did not slacken and, um, cut corners. He would stand at one corner of the field and holler at anyone at the opposite diagonal, and he could still be heard. Robert Plant would have been impressed!

On the field, we were taught the basics of rugby by this man. In fact, he was senior coach of the school's rugby squad, a throwback to the time when not only was he the Hargreaves House captain in 1953, but also the House games captain for rugby. Yes, this guy was an Old Free too but he never let on his past to any of us, not even to his fellow teachers, so I gathered.

He also taught us court skills and volleyball was one of his forte. And this was about the only court game that I really enjoyed in school although I wasn't any good at it. Again in his moments, we would be asked to go down on the ground and put do our pumping exercises, squats and what not. For umpteen times in a row. That, I did not enjoy.

Quah Seng Chye was also bloody good at gymnastics. Possibly the only teacher in the school that was comfortable enough to demonstrate to us boys how to work the parallel bars or the wooden gym horse. Possibly also the rings. The parallel bars and rings were permanent fixtures in the school's quadrangle and the gym horses were all kept at the back of the school hall. So we would either exercise in the quadrangle or the hall, depending on his mood of the day.

And just the other day, I heard an anecdote about him. I had quite forgotten that it ever happened but if someone had recollected it, well, I guess it must have. One year, he selected a group of boys to build a human pyramid. A lot of training and practice went into it, and his intention was to display this effort at the school's Sports Day. Now, the Sports Day was one of the few occasions when the Penang Governor himself would turn up, and there would be other dignitaries too. On this fateful occasion when the boys were clambering on top of one another, the base failed and the the boys toppled over. The story was that Quah Seng Chye was livid. He couldn't care less about who were present in the stands. He simply let go and bellowed at the boys at the top of his voice. Everyone was astounded. There was an eerie quiet, broken only by the sound of stirring music from the public address system. Here, in front of the Governor, was a dedicated coach who saw all his boys' training collapse. He bellowed and the ashen-faced boys all got up to try again. And luckily for them, they made it this time and the formation stood firm. Quah Seng Chye got his way, the tension was broken and the school's pride was restored.

But if anyone thinks that this was all there was to this man, let me add that there was also a more academic and less physical side to this man. In the upper forms, he would also teach us health science. I heard many decades ago, not reliably confirmed though, that he had resigned from the school to take up a teaching post in Brunei, and that was where he could have passed away later.

Quah Seng Chye, he was such an interesting man. In his memory, perhaps the Free School could remember him and dedicate one of the school's two quadrangles, the one next to the Sixth Form Block, as the Quah Seng Chye Quadrangle. What with the parallel bars there, it would be a fitting memorial to him.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Getting ready for Hutchings 2015

As a run-up to the bicentenary celebrations of the Penang Free School, let's give the Press something to write about! Let's give the Press a whole crowd of people at the Protestant Cemetery in Northam Road! This year is the 199th anniversary of the School's founding. Will anyone be willing to join me at the Protestant Cemetery next Wednesday (21 October 2015) morning? I've been going there since three years ago, and I should be there again next week.

The commemoration service at Hutchings' grave will start at seven o'clock sharp, and the prefects from the Free School will be there with two or three teachers. Sometimes, there'll also be a few representatives from the Hutchings School itself, as well as one or two parishioners from the St George's Church.

If you plan to be there, please arrive before 7a.m. If you find the main gate open, that means the congregation has already gone in. But no matter, just walk straight in and follow the path when it veers left. You'll then see the people far away to your right.

I'll even encourage you to spend some time wandering around the cemetery after the service is over. There is history buried here. Go look around and you'll even find the resting place of Francis Light. It's recorded on his grave that he passed away on the same date as the founding of Free School - 21st October - but a different year, that is, 1794.

My previous posts on remembering Hutchings here, here and here.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Battling conjunctivitis, part two

One thing that I had not mentioned before when I went to see the Opthalmologist at the Penang Hospital on the 20th of last month was that during the course of her first examination of my eyes, I mentioned to her that I was going to Kuala Lumpur early on the next day and would only be returning to Penang late on Friday night. If she had wanted to follow-up on my eyes, she would have to wait until Saturday at the earliest.

"Your eyes are in a terrible state," she protested. "I've just scraped off the pseudo-membrane from the eyelids and they will come back. If I don'y remove the membrane, the eye-drops can't be absorbed effectively." I must admit that my eyes were in a terrible state: both eyelids were half-closed, both sporting a deep shade of maroon, and both were puffed up. Goodness knows what could happen if I were to go back to the hospital on Saturday.

"Tell you what," she seemed to be conceding to me after some uncomfortable moments. "I'll let you go down to KL tomorrow but you must go for follow-up treatment immediately at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital. I'll write you a referral letter."

Wait a minute, I thought to myself. You mean I can go to KL but I must go for daily consultations at the hospital there? What's the use of going to KL then if I'm going to be holed up at the hospital and waste all my time there?

"Okay, okay," it was my turn to back down. "I'll postpone my trip to KL and see you tomorrow." A victory for her. But actually, with my eyes in their condition, I wasn't relishing any trip far from home, let alone Kuala Lumpur. And that was why I was back at the Penang Hospital on the next day, and the following day, and the day after that, and....

So continuing with my story, on Sunday (27 Sept), I had again gone to the hospital's Eye Ward for the doctor on duty to check on my eyes' condition. Some welcome news: just a bit of new pseudo-membrane there and she won't be doing any scraping.

On Monday (28 Sept), I returned to the eye clinic at the out-patient ward and saw the regular eye doctor. Just two scrapes of my eyelids and that was that. Two days later (30 Sept), the same procedure was repeated.

Today (5 Oct) will mark the 14th day after I first went to see the eye doctor at the hospital. I am still using the three eyedrops or ointment but she still wants to see me today, to check whether I am really rid of conjunctivitis. And this is the status now: I'm waiting (im)patiently to see her for hopefully the last time. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Wish me luck!

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Fighting against conjunctivitis

It could have been due to the haze; it could have been due to dust; it could have been due to any other reason. But the fact was, I came down with acute conjunctivitis. Red eyes. Pink eyes. Call it what you may, but that was the reality. Ever since more than a week ago, perhaps even before I went to watch that show Pawn Sacrifice at the cinema, I was already aware that there was some itchiness in my eyes. Some grit or a loose eyelash that was caught there, perhaps, because previously, I've had that problem of stray eyelashes getting into my eyes.

By last Friday (18 Sept), the discomfort had became bad enough for me to consult my local GP. "See me on Monday if the situation doesn't improve," she told me after prescribing a course of eyedrops and some eye ointment. And on Monday (21 Sept), I duly went to see her again and she prescribed me with more eyedrops and some oral anti-biotics. But you should consider seeing an eye specialist too, she added.

Then on Tuesday (22 Sept), I so happened to be at the Penang General Hospital on the island for a totally unrelated problem and decided, what the heck, since I was already at the hospital, I might as well go see the eye medical officer there. Opthalmologist, I think, they'd like to call themselves.

The lady doctor peered into my eyes with her array of instruments and pronounced my condition as conjunctivitis, just in case I didn't know it, and said it was rather severe. Out came the cotton buds. "I shall have to remove the layer of pseudo-membrane on your eyelids. It's covering up your sight," she said, and without much of a warning, she started scraping away at my lining of the eyelids. Ouch. "There may be some blood but don't worry, it's normal," she added, helpfully. Procedure over, she wrote a prescription and shooed me away to the hospital's pharmacy.

Now, the problem was that I had driven alone to the hospital, all the way from the mainland, in the morning and with my eyelids now all bruised, all puffed up and half closed, both sporting a delicious shade of scarlet red, and with eyes so sensitive to light, there was no way that I could drive back home alone and without help.

I was in distress. A call to my wife. Help, please come with third brother-in-law and drive us back home. Which they did, all the way from Bukit Mertajam (and he from Simpang Ampat), arriving at the out-patient clinic of the hospital at 6.45p.m. with hardly anybody else in sight. Rescued in time before it really got dark.

The next day (23 Sept), I was back at the hospital with my wife. The lady doctor wanted a follow-up. "Your pseudo-membrance has reappeared," she said. And out came the cotton buds again as I underwent another round of eyelid cleansing. Now, the good thing about the general hospital is that the place has so many doctors around that they do consult each other on the cases before them. And there was this other lady eye doctor that suggested that I be put on some eye ointment to help clear up the  conjunctivitis. "Now open up," she ordered and started squirting a thick mess of sticky whitish eye ointment all over my eyes, telling my wife at the same time that "you have to do this to him," showing her how to push the ointment beneath my lower eyelids. Also, she said, go get him some preservative-free eyedrop gel. Turning back to me, she added, "And I want to see you tomorrow too."

Come 24 Sept which was a public holiday, I dutifully made my way to the eye ward at the hospital's C Block to see this second doctor. She checked my eyes, was satisfied that there was less membrane over the eyes and spared me the ordeal of a scraping for a third time. But I couldn't escape getting squirted with that thick eye ointment again. Plus, I've to return to the outpatient ward again on the next day.

So on Friday (25 Sept), there I was again seated across from my original eye doctor who was armed to her teeth with a fresh bunch of cotton buds. Ooh, my right eyelids really hurt this time and I couldn't open it after that until I was back in the house.

Today, Saturday (26 Sept), is a day of respite. I don't have to go back to the hospital until tomorrow morning for the follow-up. But I must say that my condition has improved a lot. My eyelids are no longer swollen and puffy, my eyes can open up lots more, they are no longer that sensitive to light and I can discard use of the non-prescription dark glasses, the whites of my eyes are not that red any more, and the feeling of grit in the eyes has subsided greatly. Hopefully, the pseudo-membrane is greatly reduced. Still, I have to put on the eyedrops diligently and well as to apply the ointment twice a day.

My fight against this bacterial conjunctivitis infection consists of Cipmax eyedrops every four hourly, Vismed gel eyedrops every two hourly and application of the Chlorop eye ointment twice a day. Except for the Vismed gel, the other two medicines were hospital issues.

On top of all these, I've to continue using the Alphagan, Timo-comod and Xalatan eyedrops daily. That's me, all right. Lately, it's a life full of eyedrops.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Ban Hin Lee Bank building in Beach Street

Ban Hin Lee Bank, oh, Ban Hin Lee Bank, where art thou today? You may no longer exist but to us, the former staff of this bank, we remember you well. You are our irreplaceable past but you are no longer anyone's future.. But imagine, if you were still around today, we should all be celebrating your landmark Oak Anniversary on the 17th of September 2015. Yes, it has been 80 long years since that day in 1935 when Towkay Yeap Chor Ee obtained his licence to operate the bank as an officially incorporated business.

At the tail-end of the 19th Century, Yeap Chor Ee had arrived in Penang as an impoverished orphan, having escaped a China that was then caught up in the midst of an internal political turmoil.
The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi was in control of Imperial China and she resisted foreign influence and modernisation, preferring to spend money on her palace and lavish lifestyle. By the 1890s, China was more vulnerable than ever to foreign powers that were carving out their spheres of influence. Under this system, the dominant power in that sphere controlled the economy through collecting taxes and constructing railroads and telegraph wires, while still leaving administrative duties and expenses to local Chinese officials.  This allowed the various powers to drain China of money without having to assume the more burdensome responsibilities of government. But what really shook China out of its lethargy was a war with Japan, which had successfully modernised in the past 40 years. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-85 was fought over control of Korea and to everyone's shock, the Japanese navy soundly defeated the Chinese navy and claimed Korea and Taiwan as among the prize of victory. Such a humiliating defeat sparked the Hundred Days Reform, a new movement among Chinese scholars for widespread reforms, but it was quickly squelched by Tsu Hsi. As a result, China's problems continued mounting until they triggered another revolt known as the Boxer Rebellion from 1898 to 1900.
Amidst the uncertainties of this background, many Chinese like Yeap Chor Ee were forced to leave their homeland and start life anew elsewhere. In the nanyang, the British Straits Settlements was an obvious destination for him and many of his fellow compatriots that were fleeing from this strife-torn China.

With nothing much in his pockets, he started in Penang as a barber. But within six years of his arrival here, he had earned enough from his entrepreneurial ability to set up the firm of Ban Hin Lee & Co. The name itself meant Ten Thousand Blessings to Prosperity, and it proved prophetic enough as his enterprise eventually encompassed a myriad of successful commercial endeavours, including a private bank which he would call, naturally, Ban Hin Lee Bank.

From its inception in 1918, Ban Hin Lee Bank proved itself to be a pioneering force in the domestic banking scene. Even as a private bank, it lent money to borrowers and remitted money overseas for a clientele who were mainly the Chinese in Penang and Singapore. Yeap Chor Ee controlled and managed the bank until his death in 1952, when he left a thriving banking concern in Malaya to his descendants.

On 17 Sept 1935, Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited was officially incorporated under Ordinance No. 155 of the Companies Act with an authorised capital of $5 million and a paid-up capital of $2 million. It was the first local bank to have its base in Penang. Despite this date of incorporation, the new entity of Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited only commenced business formally on Friday, 1 Nov 1935, There was a short entry in The Straits Times newspaper some three days later.

When Ban Hin Lee Bank first opened its doors for business, its premises occupied the ground floor of 86 Beach Street. This was a three-storey building at the corner of Beach Street and Market Street. Above the bank was an architect's office while occupying the top floor was the office of another prominent businessman, Heah Joo Seang. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to trace any old photographs of this building. Today, that original building is gone. In its place stands a new structure that once housed the Penang branch of a defunct Singapore-based bank, the Overseas Union Bank.

A year after Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited commenced formal business activities, work started on the construction of a new building at the corner of Beach Street and China Street Ghaut. This new building was on land belonging to Yeap Chor Ee which stretched from Weld Quay to Beach Street. The new premises was to be the main office and headquarters of the bank.

Obviously, Yeap Chor Ee was deeply serious about his bank. He wanted it to be a proper physical entity, worthy of comparison to the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation of which he was a shareholder, and Ban Hin Lee Bank Limited was to be the bastion of his future business empire.

So this had to be a solid-looking building which gave assurance to his customers that Ban Hin Lee Bank was going to be around for a long while. The premises added an immeasurable amount of prestige to him and the bank.

The general contractors for the new bank office was a foreign West European company known as Enterprises Campenon Bernard which had its headquarters in Paris. The architect was CG Boutcher, a well-known resident Frenchman who was a partner in the local firm, Stark and McNeil. He designed a deceptively simple edifice on classical lines which best explained the overall aesthetic result.

It was a solid, massive building of four stories. In practical terms, the architectural design was a sensible one. It contrasted but compared well with the adjacent row of sedate terraced shophouses. The entrance into the building was raised a half-level above the ground to highlight the approach to the main doorway. Inside, the structure was spacious, creating a feeling of airiness within the confines of the four walls. The open areas of the splendidly enormous interior were accentuated by the high windows that allowed sunlight to filter in and bathe the whole environment with natural illumination

It was said that the principals of geomancy (fengshui) were also incorporated into the overall shape of the building. It was shaped like a trapezoid with a broader back and narrower front. If the popular story was that money would flow into the building and it won't come out because the mouth was small, it suited the bank well.

With so much dependency already placed in the hands of the French, it wasn't surprising that piling work itself was carried out by French contractors who were also civil engineers and construction specialists. They handled the project so well and did such excellent work that when a bombshell landed at the back lane of the bank in December 1941, the building stood unshaken, steady as a rock.

In one of the bank's newsletters printed in September 1979, it was related by Ong Chin Seng, a bank staff for 45 years from November 1935 till his retirement in 1980:
"When the Japanese air force bombed Penang in December 1941, a bomb fell at the back street of the bank. The blast was terrific, but the building stood as firm as a rock. How do I know? Well, all of us were sheltering from the bombs in the strongroom on the ground floor, and it was a terrible experience! When we came out in the open after the bombers flew away, we could see the devastation around Beach Street, and the many dead bodies of the people who were unfortunate to be caught in the air-raid. The whole town was evacuated, and all the townsfolk ran to the countryside like Balik Pulau and Ayer Itam."
The building took two years to complete at a total cost in the region of $200,000 which was no small sum in those days.

When the bank eventually moved into the ground floor of the premises in 1938, the strongroom had been fitted with specially imported Lipp vault doors from England. The upper floors were rented out as prime office space to other tenants, including the government departments of the day.

On 26 Jan 1940, Yeap Chor Ee transferred the land title, covering an area of 987 square metres, to the ownership of the bank.

Of course, as we all know it, the bank is no more. By 30 June 2001, Ban Hin Lee Bank had ceased to exist after the formalities of a takeover exercise by the Southern Bank Group were completed. Ironically, even Southern Bank does not exist today, itself having been swallowed up by a bigger banking giant.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

My father was at Free School

Finally, I managed to dig up one prized item while looking through the archives at the Penang Free School on Monday: a school register which recorded my father's name. It hasn't been easy to locate the entry but yes, I've found it and the discovery makes me both happy and sad.

Sad because my father was only at the PFS for nine months, beginning Standard VI in October 1948 and leaving in June 1949 before he could start Standard VIII. The reason he had to leave school was to work. This was a time not long after the end of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The economy was still in the doldrums. My grandfather had no permanent job and there were mouths to feed. My father became the sole breadwinner of the family, bringing home just enough to feed a family of four. Still, it was a privilege for him to study at this great school.

I've no idea where he worked initially but by the time he married in 1954, he was already a clerk in The Mercantile Bank of India Ltd, later to be bought over and assimilated into the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, in Beach Street. And there he remained until his retirement in 1984.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Remembering William B Kelley

In case anyone asks who is Chen Ooi to me, let me say here that we grew up together in George Town, Penang. As a small kid, he was looked after and accepted as a godson of my paternal grandparents. Technically, he became a god-uncle to me although he was only two years older than I. In the early 70s, he left for further studies in the United States, and he remained there, finding work as a designer. But we kept in touch intermittently. In those days before the Internet, our own way to communicate was by letters and postcards. Maybe we exchanged New Year wishes once a year.

My family was aware of Ooi's relationship with Bill Kelley. Consequently, I was never one to harbour any prejudices about anyone's personal preferences in lifestyle. In fact, my family was always excited whenever Ooi and Bill came visiting Malaysia to visit his aged mother. These were the only times I could ever get to see him in person.

When Bill passed away in May this year, I was rather devastated. My first thoughts were for my Uncle Ooi and without a nary, I made an inter-continental telephone call to him. I had to talk to him, albeir briefly. But I think it was around three o'clock in the middle of the night in Chicago.

This video was filmed during the memorial service for Bill Kelley on the first of August, 2015. If it proves too long, perhaps it can be fast-forwarded to the 1:43:00 mark and wait for Ooi to speak. As befits someone who had been Bill's constant companion for more than 30 years, Ooi spoke with such heartfelt feelings. I felt it here in Penang when I watched him.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Street food in food street

About a month ago, I was given a copy of this delightful 22-page booklet, A Quick Guide To Butterworth. I say delightful because for the first time, someone has taken the trouble to pen something down about the charms of this town which sits on the opposite side of the Channel from Penang's island capital, George Town.

Butterworth used to be busier in the past but with more of the Penang mainland opening up to housing and industries - towards the southern part of Province Wellesley where the second Penang bridge is impacting development in a big way - Butterworth has quieten down somehow.

The Butterworth Outer Ring Road which skirts round the town's seafront seems to have caused the old part of the town to become more deserted as the ring road cuts off easy access to the sea. I've been hearing tales about how the area around the Sree Maha Mariamman Devasthanam Temple has become a hotbed for gangsterism. I can't confirm this and I can only hope that I am wrong.

But for two days on the 15th and 16th of August, that old, quiet part of Butterworth, with the focus on Jalan Jeti Lama, came alive for the experimental Butterworth Fringe Festival, an off-shoot of the month-long George Town Festival on the island.

As to be expected, Joe Sidek was in the thick of all the activities. Basically, he remains the man responsible for bringing a bit of culture to Penang, and now from the island to the mainland as well. I was there for the simple opening ceremony by the Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, and then did my short walkabout before disappearing for a quick Lor Mee lunch.

Butterworth sure has attractions of its own. It must be realised that the other end of the Penang ferry services is located here. Where else do you board the ferry if not from the Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal? Here is also the point where the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTMB) train services end, bringing travellers from the north and south to Butterworth before crossing over to the island.

There is also the Penang Port, which is the oldest port in the country, dating back to the days of the British colonial period. To the north and south of the ferry terminal are the North Butterworth Container Terminal, the Butterworth Deep Water Wharves and the Prai Bulk Cargo Terminal. Unfortunately, the Penang Port has lost a lot of its shine. Due to deliberate emphasis by the federal government elsewhere, the volume of cargo handled here pales when compared to both Port Klang and Port of Tanjong Pelepas.

I'm not going to write a lot of Butterworth's attractions, seeing how anyone can pick up a copy of this book from various centres around the town, but I just want to mention that Jalan Raja Uda is now possibly the new focal point of growth for the town.

So much has changed along this road in the past 20 years. It used to be a two-lane throughway but it has now be expanded to four lanes. Along some stretches of this road, there are even six lanes for traffic which never stops. Three-storey commercial buildings line along this road.

The wide availability of food at all hours of the day and night is probably what makes Jalan Raja Uda better known for.

There must be at least three large food courts along the 3.5-kilometre long road. Apart from them, there are countless hawker stalls by the roadside selling the popular range of street food that one can also find on the island.

Char koay teow, hokkien mee, curry mee, popiah, koay teow th'ng, char koay kak .... whatever one is craving for, it can be found here. To me, Jalan Raja Uda is the Food Street of Butterworth. Period.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Weekend sojourn in Kuala Lumpur

What a weekend it has been for us. Weeks ago, we learnt that we had been offered two complimentary tickets to attend the Saturday Night Fever musical show that was touring East Asia and Australia. At first, we were supposed to attend the show on the fourth of September but our dates kept changing until we decided finally on the sixth of September.

We arrived at the KL Central station on Sunday at about 1.30p.m. and was soon whisked away by our daughter. One of our nephews was also with her, having arrived in Kuala Lumpur the day before and was joining us for lunch at the Yut Kee Restaurant.

Of course, on a Sunday afternoon, the place was packed and we had to wait some 15 to 20 minutes  for a table to be vacated. Needless to say, we chose their famed chicken chop for our meals. And how could we resist not ordering their French toast too?

After that meal, we dropped Nephew off at the University of Malaya before proceeding to the nearby Gerak Budaya bookstore in Jalan Bukit 11/2, Petaling. Just the day before, I was at the Gerak Budaya bookstore in Pitt Street, George Town, where I tried to buy the book Sex, Pork and Persecution by our infamous sex blogger, Alvin Tan, but was told by the Penang bookstore's proprietor, Ismail Gareth Richards, that he was not stocking it. "But it's been mentioned in some news stories that you do," I persisted. "No, we don't," Richards replied, "we are not that liberal."

So having been rebuffed by him, I thought, what the heck, since I was going to be in Kuala Lumpur anyway on Sunday, I'll have my daughter bring me to the Petaling Jaya Gerak Budaya bookstore. Turned out that these two book stores, though sharing the same name, were not related. It was just that the two bosses knew one another. "No, we don't have the book," the lady in charge of the store informed me, "We used to have a few copies several months ago but we didn't order more after our stock ran out." Oh, darn, as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of my search for this book. I am sure no other mainstream bookstores would carry this title.

Dinner was at a restaurant in Pudu that sold curry fish head. It's reputedly one of the more well-known curry fish head restaurants in the city. And for good reason too. We had to wait for a table again. Seemed to be quite the norm nowadays in the big cities, George Town included.

Anyway, we were seated within 15 minutes and our food arrived in a hot earthern pot. Steaming hot but little sign of any fish head. I had to stir the pieces of fish head up from the bottom where they were obviously hiding from us. We were a bit relieved to find them big chunky pieces.

We dived in, scooping the fish meat and bones and the pieces of chopped vegetables onto our plates of rice. It was satisfaction till the last drop.

But I've got this to say: the curry, though delicious, was a bit too rich for me. Too much coconut milk (santan) had gone into the curry. It made the dish nice, I admit it, but this particular fish head curry is not something that I would try all too regularly. If you have a cholesterol problem, please make doubly sure that this dish doesn't have dire consequences for your diet. Luckily I have none but my wife's cholesterol level is a bit on the higher side,

Dinner over, we left for the Istana Budaya for the main reason why my wife and I travelled to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday: to watch the stage adaptation of Saturday Night Fever.

We did not know it then, but the Sunday night's performance had been pre-booked by The Star Publications as a celebration of their anniversary. So there I was, walking in to find my old friend from the newspaper industry, Wong Chun Wai, now the CEO of the newspaper group, welcoming all their guests. I looked around, trying to find some other people I knew but no, they were all unfamiliar face. Oh, wait a minute....there's David Yeoh, the chief of the Penang news desk. He's here too. But apart from him, so sorry, nobody else that I recognised out-right.

We were shown to our seats at the back of the hall. Both good and bad. Bad because I had not brought my proper spectacles down to Kuala Lumpur and hence, the performers looked rather fuzzy to me. Good because we could take in everything, all the action, without having to turn our heads left and right. My camera was with me but I couldn't bring it out. The usherers were sitting right at my back and everyone in the audience had been warned that photography and mobile phone usage were strictly forbidden. I did see them pointing their laser beams at people in the audience who brought out their mobile phones to use. Therefore, sorry, I was unable to take any photographs especially when the usherers were practically breathing down my neck. But at least, we were still able to go back with these pictures from the lobby:

And finally, a cut-out of Tony Merano, played by the Broadway stage actor Brandon Rubendall. I think only three of four of the performers were Americans. The rest were Filipinos, but they gave very good accounts of themselves.

I was asked how close was this musical to the original film? I would say that the story line was quite close. They had the dancing down to pat, while the props, including the backdrops, were simple yet effectively used. Even the dialogue seemed faithful to the original, I think, because I've no means of comparison and can only guess. Anyway, here's a link to the full cast of this musical.