Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Remembering Tan Chin Nam

This story appeared in the Star2 section of The Star newspaper on 30 Oct 2018 (but not online). Below is the original unedited version with additional pictures taken of Dato Tan through the years. [UPDATE: The online version of this story has now appeared in The Star here.]
The text message came in at 6.14pm. Sent by See Swee Sie, President of the Penang Chess Association (PCA), it read: "It is with great sadness that I inform you, though you most probably already know.  Dato Tan has passed away." Barely five minutes later, my good friend in Kuala Lumpur, Hamid Majid, texted me: "It is with sadness, that I announce the passing away of Honorary Life President Dato Tan Chin Nam at 4:30 today, Sunday, 21 Oct 2018."

Photo credit: Khong Wai Cheong
I felt devastated. I had dreaded the day when he would pass away and with each passing year of the Malaysia Chess Festival, I became more certain that the moment would happen soon, if not later. After all, he was already 92 years old this year. Yet, when it happened on 21 Oct 2018 at 4.30pm, the news floored me.

I made a few telephone calls to Hamid and Swee Sie but there was not much of additional information from them. Hamid said the family was making final arrangements soon. Nothing more I could do but wait. That night even as I went for the Old Frees Association annual dinner in Kuala Lumpur, my thoughts were far away.

Caught smiling after winning the Melbourne Cup in 2008
I first met him in 1974. At that time, he was just plain Tan Chin Nam but already a well-respected property developer. Of course, being a mere 20-year-old at that time, I didn't know much of this man. Who was he, I had asked silently at that time, that wanted to start the new Malaysian Chess Federation to take over from the defunct Chess Association of Malaysia? Anyway, I was down in Kuala Lumpur with the then first PCA president, Fang Ewe Churh, to attend that inaugural meeting of the Federation, and got to know him.

It has been 44 years. That's a very long time. If ever I was in Kuala Lumpur for a stretch of several days, I would try to fit in a visit to him at his office or his former home at Desa Kudalari. Initially built to look over the Selangor Turf Club – horse racing was one of his other great passions in life – his condominium unit later commanded a grand view of the KLCC Twin Towers.

Once, he invited me to his home for "some games of chess" but before we even played a single game he excused himself first because he needed his afternoon nap. So there I was, enjoying the grand view from his balcony while he slept in his reclining chair in the living room.

While he was still able to travel around for corporate meetings in Penang in the 1990s and 2000s, I would meet him with my chess board. In between chess games, he would ask me about the progress of chess in Penang. He really took a very keen interest in the affairs of the association. If we needed any money for chess activities in Penang, we looked no further than his company on the island. He would ask me to go see his niece and present my proposal to her. And occasionally, I'd buy some local street food to share with him. Once I brought some Penang chee cheong fun which he attacked with gusto.

Photo credit: Khong Wai Cheong
Tan celebrated his 80th birthday in March 2006. It was a grand affair at the Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Each of his guests was presented with a copy of his memoirs, Never Say I Assume! They were all pre-signed copies as it would have been impossible for him to sign them all on the spot. He called me over. "Seng Sun, give me your book," he told me and I duly handed it over. Then in his shaky handwriting – he was already suffering from Parkinson's – he added the words, "Dear Seng Sun my good friend of 32 years."

In the last few years of his life, he had been sickly. About five years ago, he suffered a fall which restricted his movements. For several years, he gamely tried to continue walking but later gave it up and remained largely confined to a wheelchair. He had his good days and bad days, according to his personal secretary. When I visited him at his house last year, I was forewarned that he might not be awake. True enough, he never stirred from his bed the whole time I was there.

This year, I was lucky. Tan was lucid enough to turn up at the closing ceremony of the Malaysia Chess Festival. But I could see the fatigue in his eyes. Like always, everyone milled around him, everyone greeted him and he acknowledged them back with a stare, sometimes with a nod. But he never spoke. And that was the very last time I met him. Eight weeks later, Tan was gone from this earth.

On the morning of the 22nd of October, his obituary appeared in the newspapers. I told Swee Sie that I shall have to go to the funeral home to pay my last respects on Monday even though the obituary notice said that the wakes would be opened to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday.

So I turned up at the Xiao En Centre in Cheras on Monday afternoon. Of course, nobody was there yet. There were no guests, no family members, just two representatives from Xiao En. There were rows and rows of chairs and meanwhile, their staff was still preparing the ballroom. Tan's body was in the holding room, I was informed, while I talked to the Xiao En people. And then suddenly, one of them turned to me and made an incredible offer, "Come follow me. I can give you some private moments with Dato."

I duly followed her to the holding room and thus there I was, standing beside the Big House and looking down at the most serene Dato Tan Chin Nam, dressed in a light blue shirt with yellow tie and a dark jacket, and having his final rest. "Goodbye," I mouthed silently, "I'm going to miss you."

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