Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Classmates in 1947

Have you ever had the surreal experience of looking at someone's old class picture in a facebook or whatsapp post and you suddenly discover that you recognise a very familiar face there? Well, I did, recently. And it was all by chance.

This was what happened. On someone's facebook timeline, he had posted an old class photograph - Penang Free School, Class VIID of 1947 - which he had obtained from a third party, and he said that standing in the last row, third from left, was Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Puteh, who would be more commonly known today as the late P Ramlee.

Now, my late father had always maintained that he had been classmates with P Ramlee during his schooldays at Penang Free School. Unfortunately, there was no way that I could verify his claim because there was no photograph at home to back up his claim. Unverifiable, that is, until right now.

Because when I first looked at this picture, the first thing that popped up in my mind was to check my father's claim. So it became very automatic that I began to pour over this picture very carefully, hoping to pick up his youthful countenance. And my heart skipped a beat - or several beats - when I finally located him. My eyes misted over. Here was his unmistakable face peering out at me from 71 years ago.

So finally, it has been verified. Yes, it is confirmed that my father and P Ramlee were once classmates. And this would be a picture to be treasured. The only picture of my father in school uniform, the only picture of my father at Penang Free School. He would have been 19 years old when this picture was taken, and 90 years old if he were still alive today.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Zsuzsa, Sofia and Judit

A twitter post by Susan Polgar, remembering their great, ground-breaking feat 30 years ago to end the Soviet domination of the Women's Chess Olympiad. Congratulations to the Polgar sisters.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Passadhi at Penang Hill

Green House. The first thing that comes to the mind of people nowadays are the two hawker centres or coffee shops in Burmah Road that adopt this name. But I'm not referring to them. The original Green House, would you believe it, was located up Penang Hill.

Or to be more exact, halfway up Penang Hill, accessible by the Penang Hill Railway.

Of course, in the old days when the funicular railway was split into two tracks, the Middle Station was a mandatory stop when passengers were required to change from one train to the other. One train would ply between the Lower Station and the Middle Station, while the other train plied between the Middle Station and the Upper Station.

Nowadays, the trains seldom stop at the Middle Station anymore because there is no need for them to stop. Since 2011, it's one continuous track from top to bottom. Only those trains that leave the Lower or Upper stations on the hour will stop here for residents to get on or off.

So there I was waiting with my wife - and two friends, Heng Swee and Alice - at the Lower Station on the 10th of this month. We were met by a couple, Ian and Bin, who were going to lead us to the Green House. We took the train up till the Middle Station, got off there and walked for about 200 metres along a track before reaching a long flight of steps to climb up to the old property.

"There used to be a suspension bridge linking the station to the bungalow," Ian explained to me, "but through decades of neglect, the bridge has collapsed and disappeared."

The 80-plus years-old Green House used to be the hillside holiday retreat of Ong Keng Seng (b 1898, d 1963) to get away from the hustle and bustle of the town. Ong was a well-known Penang trader and businessman. He started the Tai Tong & Co which later became Saw Seng Kew & Co, and was the chairman of the Kwong Wah Yit Poh newspaper. He was involved in the Kuomintang during the pre-war period and helped found a number of Penang organisations such as the Rubber Trade Association, Li Tek Seah, Philomatic Society and Lam Wah Ee Hospital. He was a promiment member of the Ong clan community. In education, he presided over the school boards of Chung Ling High School and Penang Chinese Girls' High School, and was involved in the boards of many other Chinese schools in Penang.

When he died in 1963, Green House was among his estate that was left to his many sons and daughters. Through the decades, however, few took interest in the upkeep of this bungalow and it fell into deep neglect and was later abandoned to the elements. When we visited the place earlier this month, we saw the depth of its neglect. Termites had attacked the property in several places and the balconies were in danger of collapse. Totally unsafe for anyone to tread on. A fall would mean tumbling down 20, 30 feet down the slopes.

Green House actually consisted of two main timber bungalow buildings, an upper bungalow and a lower bungalow, sitting on a quarter acre piece of land. The upper building had been rehabilitated somehow but not the lower one. But at least, the partitions in the lower bungalow had been torn down to leave the four walls standing. On the interior of all four walls, we read graffiti that had been left by holidaymakers, principally students, who had camped there overnight in the 1980s.

Here was where Ian and Bin come into the picture. Bin is one of the grand-daughters of Ong Keng Seng and she learnt that unless something was done to Green House, there was a danger that the state government could ultimately confiscate the property. So she set into motion a plan to ask her relatives, those sharing the title deed to Green House, to donate the place and turn it into a Buddhist meditation centre. And this was how the Passadhi Buddhist Meditation Society came into being about two years ago.

Admittedly, the partial rehabilitation of Green House has been long and arduous. Above the upper bungalow, the heavy rains of last November 2017 caused a minor landslip that brought the earth crashing down. Workers were employed to clear the soil and the slope then reinforced with waterproofing and concrete. Subsequently, a new kitchen was built. There are also four new kuti huts for visiting Buddhist monks of all denominations, and presently there is a resident Mahayana monk, Venerable Xin Shen, staying in one of them.

In the immediate future, there are plans to place a 40-inch Buddha statue in an open space beside the upper building. Having been up there to Passadhi, I see that the space commands a breath-taking vista of George Town and the cape below; the view extending all the way south to include the Penang Bridge and across the Channel to Province Wellesley.

There are other challenges ahead, especially in raising funds for the rehabilitation of the rest of the dilapidated property and in welcoming enough monks to stay here. But there is also the challenge of attracting visitors and devotees to Passadhi because apart from hiking up Penang Hill for the very fit, the only practical access to the place is by the train service and the fares are not cheap in the long run. Moreover, there are usually long queues of tourists for the trains during weekends and the holidays, which may turn away genuine visitors to Passadhi. These are challenges indeed but both Ian and Bin are pragmatic about them: "We'll overcome them with determination and optimism." That's the spirit.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Rise...ini kalilah

RISE...INI KALILAH is the local production that's making the rounds of the cinemas around the country right now. It takes inspiration from the recent General Elections (GE14) to weave a story around six loosely-connected characters in the days leading up to GE14. I say loosely connected because these six characters do not know one another - except maybe two of them - and yet their paths would cross on that fateful day of the 9th of May. In their own ways they contributed to the formation of Malaysia Baru. Out with the Old, in with the New.

Each of the six characters contributed a slice of Malaysian life, both the good and the bad. "There is policeman Azman (played by Remy Ishak) who doesn’t accept bribery of any sort, but he doesn’t stop his partner when the latter harasses and blackmails the common people either. Teacher Shanti (Sangeeta Krishnasamy) is always questioning the authority for any wrongdoing even when that authority is none other than her own father, who is the headmaster at the school she teaches," reviewed Mumtaj Begum in The Star newspaper.

There is bound to be at least one character that we can associate closely with, whether the character is the policeman, teacher, reporter, businessman, overseas student or overseas worker.

That's us with Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow
We despaired with their private challenges in life, their angst, their fears, the demons they were facing, the hard decisions that they were required to take, what was right and what was wrong. And then there were the representative moments in the film that mirrored real life situations....the cutting out of Mahathir's picture from the billboards, the almost empty cheramah grounds (clap clap clapping from the audience), the distribution of phantom ballot boxes which the crowd tried to stop and successfully, foreign workers posing as voters, free buses to transport voters back from Singapore, students organising themselves to collect and bring back the ballot papers from far-flung reaches of the globe and the invidious attempt by the Head of the polling station to allow cheating to happen.

On the stage were the film's producer, (Fred Chong) his three
directors (Saw Teong Hin, Nik Amir Mustapha and MS Prem Nath)
and two of the actors (Jack Tan and Moon Yoong).
The star of the film was none other than Dr Mahathir himself. The producers of the film took a lot of liberty to include actual footage from television news stories as the drama of the polling night and the days that followed unfolded....of Mahathir claiming victory based on the unofficial results, the pregnant wait for the new Government to be accepted by the King and ultimately, the swearing-in at the Palace (more clapping from the audience.)

In all these scenes, the PKR flag flew prominently everywhere while the BN flag and banners were nowhere to be seen. Oh, I forgot....except for a fleeting moment during the rolling of the credits at the very end of the film, an alternative party flag and name were used to depict the campaigning ruling party. But nobody was fooled. We knew what they referred to.

RISE...INI KALILAH had hit the local cinemas from Thursday (13 Sep 2018) but my wife and I were lucky enough to have been invited to a private preview screening of the film in Penang a week earlier because, well, we had volunteered our services to the DAP as their polling agents during GE14. A small reward for our efforts, we were told.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Sarawak Report in Penang

We attended a book signing event last night (13 Sep 2018) and that's the author, Clare Rewcastle Brown, with her book The Sarawak Report. Clare is a celebrity of sorts in Malaysia and this is her first visit to Penang - the hometown of Jho Low, she called it - although she has been in the country a number of times, having been born in Kuching.

Who could have known that just less than five months ago, she would have been arrested if she had entered Malaysia. The previous Barisan Nasional government would have made sure of that! But with the fall of the Najib regime, Clare is no longer persona non grata in Malaysia. In fact, she was welcomed into the country almost immediately after the present Pakatan Harapan government took over. Same with other foreigners like Xavier Justo who had contributed to the scandal known as 1MDB.

Soon after I arrived home last night, I had posted this photo (top right) to my facebook account. People seemed to like this picture and I received an inquiry from a friend in far away Dittisham in the UK. "Quah," she had asked me, "who is the person signing the book?" I made a lengthy reply in facebook but as an after-thought, seeing the interest that Clare had generated in Penang and the whole country, here is a snapshot of my reply to Helen Woodman, my Dittisham friend.

The book signing event was well attended. The Penang Institute's chief executive officer, Ooi Kee Beng, said that the crowd was possibly the biggest he had experienced at a Penang Institute event. Not only were the 150 seats all occupied by the early registrants - only those with validated tickets were allowed in - it was standing room only for some of the registrants. So possibly, about 200 people were crammed into the conference room. Everybody had wanted to hear Clare speak and her every word was readily absorbed in. People were thanking her for her part in bringing about the downfall of Asia's most infamous kleptocrat.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Empowering the Sixth Formers

I had returned to the Penang Free School last Thursday (06 Sep 2018) to give a presentation to about 50 of the Upper Six boys and girls. That's about two-thirds of their current student population in the Upper Six classes this year. Although this was a solo initiative, I viewed it as a continuation of the Student Leadership Workshops to empower the PFS students for the future. Lean Kang came along to give me some moral support and say a few words of encouragement to the attendees.

My presentation to them consisted of two talks. The first was on taking inspiration from some prominent Old Frees who had made names for themselves on the national and world stages. Basically, this was an expansion of my talk to the Lower Sixers at last month's Student Leadership Workshop without the accompanying videos on Wu Lien-Teh and Cheah Cheng Hye.

I had felt that it was important that the Upper Sixers - especially those who had joined the school in Lower Six - should appreciate the long and rich legacy of the Free School.

My second talk could be of more relevance to them. Here, I touched on the principles of writing their resumes properly in preparation of their entering the job market in the years to come, with an emphasis on the importance of improving their soft skills. This was an adaptation and an update of my original material which I had used during my days.

Although I didn't quite notice it, Lean Kang tells me that he saw several of the pupils jotting down furiously as I was talking. Good for them if they did.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Cancer is like .... chess??!

Personally, this has me baffled 👇

“I would liken our efforts to a game of chess. The best chance we have of beating cancer at its own game is to predict its next move and we are developing our play. Instead of simply responding to cancer’s every move, we want to become more akin to a grandmaster – looking several steps ahead, seeing the patterns in play and devising our own strategy to thwart it.”
                                                          - Dr Andrea Sottoriva -

Click here for the full story 👉 ROBOT WAR ON CANCER

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Giam Choo Kwee, RIP

This was the last time that I sat down for a meal with Giam Choo Kwee (far right in
this picture) at the 2017 Malaysia Chess Festival. We were both playing in the Seniors
tournament and had gone for dinner with some other chess players and officials.
Photo credit: Andrew Ooi 
One of my chess friends from Singapore passed away on the Monday of the week when the Malaysia Chess Festival was due to start. Gian Choo Kwee, who was Singapore's first second international master, died in Kuala Lumpur. He was 76. He will be missed by all chess players who knew him. I, for one, will miss him greatly. The last time I met him was a year ago at the 2017 chess festival.

Therefore, it was very appropriate that during the closing of the chess festival last week, another of my Singaporean chess friends, Leong Chee Weng, paid a moving tribute to Giam. Addressing Dato' Tan Chin Nam from the stage, he said:
Dato' Tan, Datin...I first came across Giam when I was 13 when I participated in my first national schools championships. I would go to the venue very early and then he would say, "Young man, put out the score sheets." I like to stay until very late, even many people had gone home, and then he would say, "Young man, fill out these cards. And after that, fill out these papers." It was then that I realised that they were pairing cards and pairing lists.
Photo credit: Khong Wai Cheong
At 15 when there was an inauguration of a chess club at a community centre, suddenly he pointed out to me and said, "You, you become the assistant tournament director of this club." He was an inspiration already at a very young age. If Prof Lim Kok Ann is considered as the father of chess in Singapore, then Mr Giam Choo Kwee is definitely the son of Singapore chess, if I may say so.
Already in the late 60s and 70s, he was a very strong player; had competed in Olympiads and zonal championships and (he) became an international master in 1976. Besides playing very actively in competitions, he was also a very active international organiser in the local circuit. You can see him on Saturday afternoon in this tournament and Saturday evening at another tournament, on the same day. In almost practically every tournament held in Singapore you cannot miss Giam. He is always organising and playing at the same time.
Those of you who have his games, if you run through his games in the 70s and 76, you will see that he is a very...he has a very swift style and you will see someone with the most interesting games. He has played extensively in Penang especially in those Rapids and Blitz. I believe he has played in some tournaments like Selangor Open and I think he is a frequent visitor to the Malaysian Chess Festival, either in the Team or the Rapids and the Seniors. My last encounter with him was about five months, six months ago and I'm very happy to say that he defeated me and crushed me in that tournament.
I was looking forward to seeing him here but although he is not here I think that he is listening and he will be organising Rapid and Blitz tournaments in paradise. Or in heaven.
But I also want to say that the connect between Singapore and Malaysia is none other than Giam, and I followed through his steps, building bridges with local organisers, knowing many of you through the last two, three decades. All this is because of Giam. I think we all miss Giam but I think we will never miss chess even when he is not here. Thank you very much. 

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The meaning of life

My neighbour's dog died last week. It was huge, black dog of humongous size and possessing a deep growl and bark. I believe it must be a sort of mastiff or something close. Anyway, it died. Can't remember its exact age but definitely more than 12 years old when it died. The normal, average lifespan of a dog.

It came into my neighbour's family when only a pup and I was told that its name was Boy. Well, a very common name. Boy. But it was good enough. So we also called the pup Boy. He would run to the wall that separates our houses and wag its tail whenever I called him. He would allow me to pet him and ruffle him around the ears. And he would gobble up any tidbit that I threw over to him. Boy grew and grew until one day, my neighbour moved him to a fenced-up garden in his compound. And there he remained until his last days.

I was a little sad when I heard the news several days after the dog had died. Boy never got to know actual freedom because he was confined to the small garden in his owner's compound. He only roamed there - thankfully without a leash - and was never allowed out into the house porch.

Of course, he was never allowed out of the house too, not even on a leash. His owner never took him for walks. He never got to know other dogs. Never got to smell another dog's posterior, never had the opportunity to spread his genes around to other dogs. Come to think of it, I had never even heard of my neighbour or his children play with their dog.

Boy must have led a very lonely life. Comfortable life no doubt, but very lonely indeed. Makes me think, what is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of a dog's life?

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Meeting old chess friends

One week after I had returned from playing in the Merdeka rapidchess team open tournament with my The Old Frees' Association teammates at the Cititel Midvalley, I found myself in Kuala Lumpur again. Same place too, the Cititel Midvalley.

Reason was to attend the closing ceremony of the Malaysia Chess Festival but mainly, also to meet with the grand patriarch of Malaysian chess, Tan Chin Nam, whom I had not talked with for at least two years. He would now be 92 years old, getting to be 93 in March next year.

While I had visited his home last year in an effort to meet him, he was not feeling well enough to see me. But I knew that he would be at the closing ceremony. He wouldn't miss it if he was able. And I couldn't afford to miss this opportunity. It was a chance I had to take.

So I flew to Kuala Lumpur on the morn of the 26th of August. And yes, he did turn up. The moment he entered the hall, the whole place was abuzz with excitement. Everybody wanted to fuss over him. Such an important man in Malaysian chess.

Other than Dato Tan, I met up with several other chess friends that I have known throughout the years. But if only I had taken the opportunity to take more pictures with them. Oh well, there is still next year, though.

 Carl Hessler from the United States. He used to call Penang the biggest Chinatown in the world outside of China.

Possibly my oldest foreign chess friend, Ignatius Leong from Singapore, whom I've known since the 1970s.
And of course, this is Hamid Majid, another old chess friend. Known him since the 1980s when he first started to be interested in chess organisation. Now, this is so much ingrained in him.

 See Swee Sie, the current President of the Penang Chess Association.  

The next morning, I bumped into another old friend at breakfast in the hotel. Khoo Boo Teik, one year my junior in school. Only a casual chess player, unfortunately. He now works in Tokyo, Japan.