Thursday, 13 October 2016

My involvement with the Bicentenary

It was by providence that I got myself involved with the Old Frees' Association commemorative coffee table book project in October 2011. There I was at the OFA annual dinner when Molly Ooi came to ask whether I would be interested to help out in the OFA project as a co-editor after the previous editor had been terminated. Up until today, I don't know why I took up the challenge.

But that job brought me a lot closer to the OFA and after FIDELIS - yes, that was the title given to the commemorative book - was launched on 31 March 2012 by the Raja of Perlis, there was no turning back for me. I became more involved with the Penang Free School.

In early October that year, I received an invitation to attend the school's Speech Day. I had never attended Speech Day before as a pupil, nor as a working adult in the later years, but suddenly this invitation arrived by post. Why not, I asked myself, why not attend Speech Day since I had been invited? And for good measure, why not go to the tomb of Hutchings at the Protestant Cemetery as well? That would be another first for me. So since 2012, I have been attending both the memorial service at Hutchings' tomb and Speech Day without fail.

I think it was sometime in 2014 that Rafique spoke to me about writing a commemorative book for Penang Free School in conjunction with the Bicentenary celebrations. I wasn't actively plumbing for this job but it sure intrigued me. It's for the school, see, we both agreed. Problem was, I didn't know where to begin. Neither did Rafique. We just left it at that. My problem now, not his.

Luckily, I still had my FIDELIS notes from 2011 and 2012, and this allowed me to carry on from there. I continued researching the online library at the National Library of Singapore and extracted some 3,000 newspaper stories that were related to Penang Free School. I scoured the Internet for books relating to old Penang. I needed to understand how life was like then. There were some initial email correspondences with the descendants of Ralph Pinhorn and JMB Hughes. I was also a constant visitor to the School Archives to dig out information from the old school magazines. Well, what remained of the old school magazines anyway, because many had been lost owning to the Japanese Occupation and many others were already in very poor physical condition - literally falling apart.

Then in March 2015, I met the local historian and author, Marcus Langdon, at a book-reading event in Penang. One thing led to another and he gave me a copy of his manuscript on Penang Free School, which would soon appear in his new book on the history of Penang. In turn, I passed him a copy of FIDELIS.

With the manuscript in my hand, I realised suddenly how the Bicentenary book was going to turn out. It was going to be a book on the history of the school. Comprehensive enough to fill in many missing gaps in the school's history. In a way, Penang Free School was lucky. A lot of what went on in the school had been documented in the newspaper extracts from the National Library of Singapore helped immensely. Apart from the Raffles Institution, no other school in the Straits Settlements or British Malaya was covered as much as the Penang Free School.

From about June or July 2015, I began the big task of writing the book. The chapter on Hutchings was supposed to appear at the end of the book as an appendix but Rafique insisted on moving it to the front. Thus, it became the first chapter and was re-titled as The Dittisham Connection, Dittisham being the village where he was born and baptised and later became the Rector of his local Church before he took the big step to arrive in the Prince of Wales Island in 1814.

In September 2015, I came down with conjunctivitis. I suspect that my eyes were infected from the dust churned up from pouring over the old school magazines in the School Archives. Anyway, I was affected for three weeks. For three weeks, I had to visit the General Hospital for treatment. With my eyes swollen, I could not do anything to the book. Luckily after that, there were no other mishaps.

In April or May 2016, we agreed on using "Let the Aisles Proclaim" as the title of the book. I had lobbied vigorously for it. Earlier, for want of a better title, Rafique had suggested titles such as "The Grand Old Lady" or "For the Brave and for the True." But "Let the Aisles Proclaim" struck a particular chord with all of us. It would be such an appropriate title for the book.

Discussions with the layout designer started in May 2016. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about working with Gene. Did Rafique decide to appoint her because she was an Old Free? Later, I said to myself that yes, I should work with her. Although she did have some previous work experience with layout designing, this would be her first big job on a big book project. It would be a good experience for her. I didn't mind giving her this opportunity. Basically, as it was for an Old Free, why not?

By the beginning of September, we had all finished work on the book. Layout completed. Proof-reading completed. The final draft submitted to the printer. The signatures had been printed but not trimmed to size yet. I could go to the Merdeka team chess tournament with an easy heart. Then came the sudden trip to Dittisham at the end of the month. I came back at the start of October to learn that the binding had all been completed and the printer was awaiting word from Rafique to make the delivery to the school. To date, it hasn't been done yet.

Meanwhile, my involvement with the Bicentenary celebration suddenly became deeper although I am not in the Bicentenary committee. Rafique asked me to coordinate with Gene on the postcards which he wanted printed for the occasion. A set of 10 postcards depicting the school buildings, old and new. I would be providing the captions for the postcards and generally checking on Gene to make sure that things were okay.

There was also the commemorative stamps and first day cover. The first set of design and accompanying write-up were rejected and I was requested to re-write the text for the brochure in August 2016. One of my pictures would also be used as the 70c commemorative stamp.

Also in September, I became involved with the sprucing up of Hutchings' tomb. Not that I wanted to scrub it clean myself. It was that I learnt that Billy, the OFA president, was at his wit's end not knowing who to turn to to get speedy approval to clean up the tomb. The Protestant Cemetery was a Class A heritage site and would need special permission for work to be done. And he didn't know who were the proper authorities.

Never mind, I told him, I'll handle it with you after my chess tournament. The moment I came back from Kuala Lumpur, I made an appointment for us to see the General Manager of the George Town World Heritage Incorporated. Ming Chee was most accommodating, largely due to us knowing one another professionally from some three or four years back. Once things clicked together, it was all systems go for sprucing up Hutching's tomb. There'll also be a new commemorative marble slab fixed to the ground on the occasion of the Bicentenary.

But that was not all. Just about a week ago, I received a telephone call from an Old Free who was connected with the St George's Church in Penang. "Help," he said to me, "I need information on Hutchings. My Bishop will be leading the service at the Protestant Cemetery on 21st October and I need information." So I had to point him in the correct direction and what can be more correct that Langdon's book?

Anyway, after that, he told me that from this year onwards, the service at the cemetery would henceforth be called the Hutchings Memorial Service and it would be a joint service for both Penang Free School and Hutchings School. That's coming full circle for me. I started out by joining the school Prefects and teachers at Hutchings' tomb in October 2012 and this October 2016, I shall be there again.

My one final connection with the Bicentenary celebrations. Several months ago, I was invited
by the Headmaster, Omar, to attend a meeting with the National Archives. In conjunction with the Bicentenary they were planning to hold a three-day exhibition at the school and then shift the display to the Komtar concourse. I was requested to help them wherever I could with information. No problem on this score. But out of the blue yesterday, I received a call from the National Archives saying that I was invited to speak at their function at the school on 19th October and would I accept? And the Penang Governor will likely be present. Darn...a big stage and happening in, what, six days time?? What should I talk about? I'm nervous, very nervous.

I can only hope for it to be over fast because I really want to enjoy myself with my mates. My schoolmates who entered Form One with me in 1966 are the original Sesquicentenary boys. Call us the Sesqui Boys for short. We were lucky to join the school as she celebrated her 150th anniversary. Never at that time could we imagine that we would be celebrating the school's 200th anniversary as well. Fifty years later, when we are all in our sixties now.

My batch of Old Frees are planning reunions on the 20th, 22nd and 23rd, and I want to be in the thick of them all. But there are two separate reunions on the 20th itself, at the same time in the evening. Both are enticing but I can only choose one to attend. I'll go with the Singapore boys as I had committee myself earlier to them but hopefully, I can just drop by the second reunion to say hello.

On 21st October, there'll be the traditional visit to the Protestant Cemetery at 6.45 in the morning before proceeding to the school for the Bicentenary Speech Day. Then the Bicentenary dinner at night on the school field. Almost 5,000 people are expected to be present. Let's hope it won't rain but I hear a bomoh is standing prepared somewhere.

On the 22nd, I'll be having lunch with my schoolmates at the school canteen and in the evening, a dinner at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Finally, on the 23rd morning, a private lunch with some Singapore friends somewhere in town before they leave for home. But that's not all, actually, because there's still a talk to attend on 24th October. A talk given by Cheah Cheng Hye, an Old Free whom I've known since our primary schooldays at Westlands School.

One wonders with so many activities and functions taking place within so short a time, can I survive the six days? Let's see....

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