Memoirs of Dr. Andrew C. S. Koh
From Tanjong Malim to Auckland, a Journey of Faith
Growing up in Tanjong Malim:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.
I belonged to what is called the baby boomer generation. My story started in the year 1952 when I was born in a town called Tanjong Malim, a very small insignificant town in Perak, Malaysia. According to my parents, I was born in a shophouse where they lived. In those days medical facility was poor, transportation was poor, there was no ambulance service, and my parents do not own any car. My mother did not have enough time to rush to the hospital when she went into labour pains. So I was born at home assisted by my mother’s friend who happened to be there at the time. My mother was very grateful for this and they became best friends ever since. On looking back, it was God who rescued me. If not by the grace of God, I would not be around to tell you my story.
My grandfather being the patriarch of the family was given the task to give me a name. He came up with the name, Chan Sing which in Cantonese means, “praise the star”. In Cantonese, chan means to praise, and sing means star. According to my grandfather, I was born at night and there was plenty of stars in the sky that night and so he praised the star and called me Chan Sing. I was one of those twinkles, twinkle little stars in the starry night. Remember the song, Vincent, starry, starry night?
My name reminded me of the story of Abraham (Abram) in the book Genesis. In the book of Genesis, God promised Abraham that He would bless him with posterity. Genesis 12: 2-3, The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” But when after so many years had gone by and Abraham still did not have any offspring he was worried. So one day, God appeared to Abraham in a vision and gave him a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Genesis 15:5, He took him outside and said, ‘look up at the sky and count the stars if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “so shall your offsprings be”.
So that was how I came into this world and how I got my name. Tanjong Malim is quite a unique town sitting over 2 states, Perak and Selangor. One half of the town is in the state of Perak and the other half of the town is in the state of Selangor. The town is divided by a river called the ulu bernam river. Even the water in the ulu bernam river was unique. One half of the river is clear while the other half is muddy. The township on the side where the river water was clear is in Perak. The township on the side where the river water was muddy is in Selangor. So I have friends in Tanjong Malim, Perak, and friends in Tanjong Malim, Selangor.
Tanjong Malim is famous for Yik Mun Pau or dumplings, made by the Yik Mun family, which is still in operation today. Tanjong Malim is also home to the famous Sultan Idris Teacher’s Training College, inaugurated in 1922, now called the Sultan Idris Education University, and the RM 1.8 billion Proton City township, which housed the Proton car assembly plant, constructed in 1966.
My grandfather came from China in the 1940s. He had 2 sons in China but for some reason, he came to Malaysia with only 1 son, my father, and my grandfather’s wife. Unfortunately, his younger son, my father’s younger brother was left behind in China under the care of relatives. So my father did not have any siblings in Malaysia. My grandmother passed away before I was even born so I did not know anything about her. My grandfather was a cobbler or shoemaker. He owned a one-man cobbler business, repairing and restoring broken shoes for his faithful customers. However due to alcoholism and opium addiction he always lived in poverty. He was a kind-hearted man and I loved him very much. He passed away due to old age. His death had a profound effect on me because this was the first time I saw death in the face.
My mother originated from another town in Perak called Bidor. She came from rich family background and her father owned land and plantations in Bidor. She was 3rd in a family of 6 siblings, 2 boys and 4 girls, and she was the favourite daughter of her father. My parents were match-made as this was the custom of those days. In those days, people do not fall in love. Their parents chose life partners and arranged their marriage for them. I have many cousins in Bidor where I spent a considerable amount of my childhood days during the school holidays. Tanjong Malim to Bidor is only an hour’s drive by car.
My parents own a tinsmith shop at number 22, Chong Ah Peng Street, located in the town centre. Until 2019, this shop was still there in its original condition but in 2019 it was taken down and rebuilt. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a photograph of this shop in 2018 with 7 of us who lived in this shophouse in 1958. We stood in front of the shop according to the same positions as in the 1958 photograph. In 1958, we were all kids and I was only 8 years old. Providence, the grace of God, and nothing short of a miracle brought the 7 of us back together for this historic and rare photoshoot in the Chinese New Year of 2018.
I am the youngest in a family of 4 siblings, 3 boys and 1 girl. I have 2 elder brothers and 1 elder sister. My second elder brother passed away peacefully in his sleep in Singapore in 2009 at the age of 59 years. I am now left with 1 elder brother and 1 elder sister. My parents, both of whom had passed away were very poor when they were in Tanjong Malim. The tinsmith business was slow and trading was very difficult. Malaysia was in a deep recession and the economy was extremely bad. They were always in debt, living a hand to mouth existence. They were Taoists, idols, and ancestors worshippers.
Growing up in Tanjong Malim was very difficult for me due to poverty. We could not afford many things. Even the purchase of food and sundry supplies were on credit. My family was among one of the poorest families in Tanjong Malim. We lived in a rented shophouse. My father rented half the shop downstairs and one of the rooms upstairs. The other upstairs rooms were rented out to other tenants. The other half of the shop was rented out to a car and motorcycle repair shop which was very noisy and dirty. The place that I lived in was not conducive for any form of study.
My parents were very superstitious and believed strongly in traditional Chinese medical care and healing by mediums. They were also very involved in the Chinese temple worship. This childhood background gave me the impetus to get a good education to free myself from the bondage of poverty and hopefully to get a better quality of life. It also gave me the ambition to become a doctor at a young age. I wanted to treat sick people based on proper medical science and not based on a superstitious belief system. According to my parents, when I was only a baby I was down with measles, had a high fever, and almost died. But God was there again to preserve my life so that I am now able to tell you this story.
I studied in the Methodist English Primary from 1959 until 1964 and moved over to the Methodist English Secondary School from 1964 until 1969. I do not remember very much about my primary school years. I remembered my first day at school, my parents put onions and sugar canes into my school bags. They believed that onions will make me intelligent because onion in Cantonese means intelligent. They believed that sugar cane will make me sweet because sugar cane is sweet. When one of my classmates opened my bag and saw the onions and sugar cane, he laughed and laughed until I did not know where to hide my face anymore.
This same classmate became my best friend in primary school. We did many things together. We read books together in the library, we listened to the radio together for pop songs from bands like the Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Marmalade’s and so on. He combed his hair high, like his idol, the late king of pop, Elvis Presley. We played tops, played catapult, played marbles, catch fighting fish from rivers, catch spiders from trees, ride bicycles, played games, and participated in the Boy Scout movement.
One day I was very sad when my best friend suddenly left the school without informing me and I never got to see him again. I did not have any closure. I remembered him telling me that he might have to follow his parents to Seremban one day but did not give me any forwarding address. I lost contact with him until 2015 when we were united again thanks to Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and social media. He is now living in Jakarta and I visited Jakarta twice just to meet up with him.
I remembered when I was in primary school there was a free period every Friday morning, where students were free to do whatever they wished. During this free period, I liked to attend the chapel service in the school church. I remembered on one of those Friday morning chapel services, my class teacher, the late Mrs. Jothi told the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-32, in a most masterly manner. A man had 2 sons, one “good” and one bad. The bad son took his share of his father’s inheritance, left the town, and squandered his money on wild living. When the bad or prodigal son came back to his senses, he returned to his father’s house. To everyone’s surprise, the father welcome him back with open arms and hosted a grand feast to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. In this parable the father represented God. The prodigal sons represented those who ran away from God, but God never gave up upon them. Although I was a free thinker, the parable of the prodigal son made a deep impact on me and got me thinking about God.
I was active in the boy scouts movement and participated actively in all the scout activities. I was quite good in my studies and was chosen to be prefect, class monitor, and other prominent academic roles. I looked forward to scout campfires, camping, and other activities. But I was not much of an athlete and was not very talented in sports.
I did a lot of brave and unwise things in my secondary school years. On two occasions, I went hitchhiking once to Penang and another time to Melaka. This was to fulfill the requirement for getting the king scout badge. I did not have much cash in my pocket and did not inform my parents because they would not have allowed it. I also used to go swimming with friends without informing my parents. I remembered on one occasion, I had leg cramps while swimming and almost got myself drowned. I screamed and someone pulled me out of the water just in time before I went under! On looking back, it was God again who saved my life. This was the third time He saved me as far as I could remember.
I rear pets too. They say the dog is men’s best friend. I had a dog, called Bobby, a mongrel dog. I took him back when he was just a puppy. He was a loyal dog and playful dog and I liked him a lot. But as he was growing up, he needed a lot of attention and care. When I realised that I did not have the time to look after him properly, I gave him away to a farmer. I blindfolded him, took him to the new owner’s lorry, who sent him to his farm in another town. Two weeks later, to my surprise, Bobby came back to my father’s shophouse, dirty, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. I was in tears when I saw him. I was so heartless to send him away, but he faithfully came back to me. Ever since that day, I have looked after Bobby until he died. I also had 2 monkeys, one a male and the other a female. The male one was called Abang but I could not remember the name of the female one.
I like reading the novels of William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton’s and so on. One day after reading the book Robinson Crusoe, I built a treehouse at the back of my father’s shophouse. Every night, I would climb up into my treehouse to read books. This was my secret hiding place.
I was active in a band called the Asteroid where I was the lead guitarist. It was a 5 piece band, with a singer, a drummer, a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, and a bass guitarist. We played in the annual school Talent-Time, weddings, other schools, and private functions. This band was partially reunited when the three of us got together as a 3 piece band in our MES class of 69 annual reunions in 2018 and 2019.
After the Form 5 school certificate examination in 1969, I had to wait for several months before the results came out. During this period I went to Kuala Lumpur with a group of friends to work in a bakery in Pudu Road. I remembered we were being exploited by the company. We started work at 8 am and worked until 10 pm, with breakfast, a lunch break, dinner break, and tea breaks in between. After finishing work, we sleep in the bakery complex. The pay was very poor and working hours were very long. This was my first experience with working life. When the results came out, I returned to Tanjong Malim.
I left Tanjong Malim in 1969 to continue Form 6 education in Telok Intan, which is another town in Perak. After leaving Tanjong Malim, I lost contact with almost all of my Methodist English School Tanjong Malim (MESTM) classmates except for those who were selected to study in Telok Intan. In 2015, through Facebook, Googles, and social media we were able to reconnect and formed the MESTM Class of 69 common interest WhatsApp chat group. This culminated in the first grand reunion in Shah Alam Club in 2016, followed by annual reunions in 2017, 2018, and 2019. A small group within the group also made several overseas trips to Perth, Jakarta, Medan, and Vietnam. We also had yearly gatherings during Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, and Deepavali. However, our activities had been curtailed in 2020 due to COVID 19 pandemic.
To be continued ……