Snippet from Memoirs
GROWING UP IN
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
– A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.
I belonged to the baby boomer generation. My life story began in the year 1952 when I was born in Tanjong Malim – a very small, insignificant town in the Mualim District of Perak in Malaysia. It is located 70 km to the north of Kuala Lumpur and 120 km to the south of Ipoh, sitting on the Perak-Selangor border, where the Ulu Bernam River provides its natural dividing line.
IF NOT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD
According to my parents, I was born in a shophouse where they lived. In those days medical facilities were poor and so was transportation. There was no ambulance service, and my parents did not own a car. My mother did not have enough time to rush me to the hospital when she went into labour pain.
So I was born at home and my delivery was 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 of friends ever since. On looking back, I’m convinced that it was God who rescued me. If not for the grace of God, I certainly would not be around to tell you my story.
PRAISE THE STARS
My grandfather being the patriarch of the family was assigned the task of giving me a name. He came up with the name, Chan Sing which means, “praise the stars” in Cantonese. Chan means to praise, and Sing means stars. According to my grandfather, I was born on a night when there were plenty of stars in the sky.
So he praised the stars and called me Chan Sing. To him, I was one of those twinkling little stars in the dark starry night. This reminded me of Vincent Van Gogh’s song, starry, starry night. So this was how I came into this world and how I got my name.
The origin of my name reminds me of the story of Abraham (Abram) in the book of Genesis. God promised Abraham that He would bless him with posterity:
“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.” – Genesis 12: 2-3
However, after many years went by and still not having any offspring, Abraham 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:
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 offspring be” – Genesis 15:5
UNIQUENESS OF TANJUNG MALIM
Tanjong Malim is a unique town sitting at the border between two states. One half of the town is in the state of Perak and the other half is in Selangor, divided right across the middle by the Ulu Bernam River. Back in those days, even the water in the river was unique. One half of the river was clear while the other half was muddy – clear on the Perak side and murky on the Selangor side.
The town is famous for its Yik Mun Pau or dumplings, made by the Yik Mun family, which is still available 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 houses the Proton car assembly plant, established in 1996.
My grandfather came from China in the 1940s from a town called Sei Wooi in the Guang Doong district. He had two sons in China but for some reason, he came to Malaysia with only one 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 do not know anything about her.
My grandfather was a cobbler. He operated a one-man business, repairing and restoring shoes. However, due to alcoholism and opium addiction, he was always living in poverty. He was a kind-hearted man and I loved him very dearly.
I remember him taking me to the barber whenever my hair grew a little too long for his liking. He always told the barber to cut my hair really short much to my anguish. My grandfather passed away eventually due to old age. His death had a profound effect on me because this was the first time that I experienced the loss of someone really close to me.
My mother originated from another town in Perak called Bidor. She came from rich family background. Her father owned land and plantations in Bidor. She was third in a family of six siblings comprising two boys and four girls. She was her father’s favourite daughter. My parents met through matchmaking as this was the custom in those days. As alien as it is today, people in those days did not usually fall in love and choose their spouses. Their parents chose life partners and arranged their marriage for them.
NO. 22, CHONG AH PENG STREET
My parents owned a tinsmith shop at number 22, Chong Ah Peng Street, which was located in the town center. This shop was still there in its original condition until 2019 when it was torn down and rebuilt. I was fortunate enough to do a photoshoot of this shophouse in 2018 with the 7 of us who lived here in 1958.
It was divine providence, grace, and a miracle that brought us back together for a grand reunion in Tanjong Malim for this historic and rare photoshoot in 2018.
Back then, we were all kids, and I was only 6 years old when we had our photographs taken. For the 2018 photoshoot, every one of us stood in front of the shop according to our same position as in the 1958 photograph.
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 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 late parents 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 then and the economy was extremely bad. They were always in debt, living a hand-to-mouth existence. They were Taoists who were deeply steeped in idolatry and ancestor worship.
Growing up in Tanjong Malim was very tough for me due to poverty in extremis. Malaysia and the rest of the world were in a deep recession. Tin, rubber, and commodity prices were at all-time lows. We could not afford many things. Even the purchase of food and sundry supplies was on credit. My family was 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 remaining rooms upstairs 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 we were living in was not conducive to any form of study.
I remember that there was once a curfew in Tanjong Malim. I think it must have been during the time of the Malayan Communist Party insurgency. We could not go out of the house at certain times of the day. We were under curfew and locked down. It was much worse than the present COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
I can still vividly remember my late father cooking pigeons for lunch and dinner. In those days, we had pigeons in the house. They flew in by themselves and when we fed them, more would come.
My late parents also reared chicken, ducks, geese, and turkeys. Every Christmas, my parents would give turkeys as Christmas presents to the estate manager who was our client. We also planted vegetables for our own consumption. Even though my parents were poor, they provided for all their children’s needs. In fact, I don’t ever remember us starving or lacking food at any time.
GOOD TIMES IN BIDOR
I spent a significant proportion of my childhood days in Bidor where I had many cousins, especially during the school holidays. My cousins were the children of my mother’s elder brother, and her elder and younger sisters. We had such good times playing games that children played back in those days like marbles, catapult, spiders, fighting fish, tops, kites, and so on. The distance from Tanjong Malim to Bidor is only 62 km or 45 minutes drive by car. I used to take a bus on my own from Tanjong Malim to Bidor.
My late “big uncle”, my mother’s elder brother was especially good to me because I was good at my studies. He bought many brand-new watches for me. In those days, watches were considered expensive items. He was a very good saxophonist often playing in the house, at weddings, funerals, and other private functions. He could not read music but play extremely well by ear. He was Bidor’s equivalent of Kenny G.
My uncle worked as a projector operator in a movie cinema theatre. Often, he would take me and my cousins to watch movies in the theatre free of charge! Chinese New Year was almost always spent in Bidor and we played firecrackers and received Angpows from all the uncles and aunties. My auntie, my big uncle’s wife, would buy breakfast and supper every day for the children without fail.
I remember a massive flood occurring in Tanjong Malim in 1971. The whole town was flooded, and the water was up to waist level in our shop. The flood took several days to subside, and it badly damaged our furniture and office equipment. Cleaning up after the flood was in itself a great big undertaking!
IMPETUS TO SUCCEED
My parents were very superstitious, believing strongly in traditional Chinese medical care and healing by mediums. They were also very involved in Chinese temple worship. This childhood background spurred me on getting a good education to free myself from the bondage of poverty and get a better quality of life.
It also gave me the ambition to become a doctor at a very young age. I wanted to treat sick people based on proper medical science and not based on a superstitious belief system. The two local general practitioners near my late father’s shop became my role models.
According to my parents, when I was a baby, I was very sick with measles, had a high fever, dehydration, and almost died. But miraculously the fever resolved, and I survived. God was there again to preserve my life so that I am now able to tell you my story.
I studied in the Methodist English Primary School from 1959 until 1964 and moved over to the Methodist English Secondary School from 1965 until 1969. I do not remember very much about my primary school years. However, I do remember that on my first day at school, my parents secretly put onions and sugar canes into my school bag. They believed that onions would make me intelligent because “onion” in Cantonese means “intelligent”.
They also 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, and we did many things together. We read books in the library and tuned in to the radio together for pop songs from performers like Cliff Richard, Shadows, Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Bread, Air Supply, Monkees, Marmalade and so on.
He combed his hair high, like his idol, the late king of pop, Elvis Presley. He also idolized Mary Poppins, and so he called himself Poppy Leong. We played tops, catapult, and marbles, caught fighting fish from rivers and spiders from trees, flew kites, rode 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 a chance to say goodbye to him and did not have any closure. I remembered him telling me that he might have to follow his parents to Seremban someday, but did not give me any forwarding address.
I lost touch with him until 2015, after a lapse of 48 years, when we were united again thanks to Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, e-mail, and social media. He is now living in Jakarta and I have visited Jakarta twice just to meet up with him. The last time we met, he had forgotten about onions, sugar canes, Elvis Presley’s hairstyle, and Mary Poppins. To my amazement, he did not even remember calling himself Poppy Leong back in those days!
ENCOUNTERING THE GOSPEL
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 remember on one of those Friday morning chapel services, my class teacher, the late Mrs. Jothi told the class about the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-32, in the most masterly manner:
A man had two sons. The elder one was good and the younger was bad. The younger son took his share of his father’s inheritance, left the town, and squandered all his money on wild living until he was bankrupt and had to feed pigs.
When this prodigal son came back to his senses, he returned to his father’s house. To everyone’s surprise, the father welcomed him back with open arms and hosted a grand feast to celebrate his return. In this parable, the father represented God. The prodigal son represented those who had run away from God, but God never gave up on them.
Although I was a free thinker, the parable of the prodigal son had a deep impact on me and got me thinking about God.
ROLE MODEL BROTHER
I was passionately involved in the Boy Scouts movement and participated in all their activities. The movement instilled good leadership fundamentals in me. My elder brother, Chan Wing, who was 2 years older than me was a King Scout. He was also a Head Prefect, my role model, and mentor – a student who was highly regarded by his teachers and scoutmasters.
Chan Wing inspired me to excel in the Boy Scout Movement. We were inseparable and I learned a lot from him. The scoutmasters who were impressed by my brother’s achievements within the movement also nurtured and trained me too.
THE SCOUT’S JOURNEY
My journey as a scout started off as a Private. I worked my way up the ladder by passing tests and accumulating badges. The first badge, the Tenderfoot was relatively easy to pass but subsequent badges got incrementally harder.
A scout must be able to tie different kinds of knots and identify trees, birds, and flowers. Our swimming, hiking, trekking, and jungle survival skills are also tested. The final hurdle is to get the King Scout badge. As for me, after a lot of hard work, as well as guidance from my scoutmaster, I finally became a King Scout.
SUNGEI BILL CAMPSITE
I always looked forward to scout campfires, camping, and other activities. Camping was the highlight of my scouting days. Our campsite was in Sungei Bill – named after a river with the same name.
On arrival at the campsite, we would set up our tents. We had to dig a drain around the tent in case it rained. A single tent could accommodate up to four people. There were many large, rounded rocks in the middle of the river emerging above the water.
For dinner, the senior scouts would boil rice and cook curry chicken with potatoes. They would also fry mee and mee hoon (rice noodles and vermicelli), and so on under the supervision of our scoutmasters.
As I remember, the boy scout’s chicken curry rice was most yummy. I can still picture the spectacular scene – sitting on top of one of the large rocks while eating dinner and watching the beautiful scenery. The soothing sounds of the running river and the nearby waterfall encapsulated perfect peace.
Dinner would be followed by the campfire, whereby we sing songs, strum guitars, play games, share testimonies, and so forth. “It Only Takes a Spark” and “Kumbayah” were among my favourite campfire songs back then.
At night, we had to do sentry duties, taking turns to guard the campsite in case there were any intruders namely wild boars, tigers, or other four-legged “friends”. Fortunately, we did not encounter any snakes, but leeches and mosquitoes were plentiful. On some nights when we were lucky, could see owls with their two eyes peering at us through the night.
To stay awake, we drank thick black coffee all night long. We kept the campfire burning both for warmth and to keep mosquitos and bugs away. Our Wellington boots adequately kept the leeches at bay while we patrolled the campsite carrying our torches on our rounds.
The symphony of sounds of the jungle at night was unique and entertaining. The majestic night sky with the moon and myriads of stars, show-casing Almighty God’s dynamic painting.
I was not much of an athlete and not particularly talented in sports. To compensate for this deficiency, I worked really hard academically. I was good in my studies, consistently finishing top of the class. This resulted in me being regularly chosen by the teachers to be a prefect, class monitor and other prominent academic roles.
In fact, as I remember, almost every year, I would be awarded book prizes and cash awards which made my parents happy and proud.
In secondary school, I did a lot of things that I should not have done. I remember going hitchhiking twice with another boy scout, once to Penang and another time to Melaka. This was to fulfill the requirement to attain the King Scout badge.
I did not have much cash in my pocket. I also did not inform my parents because they would not have allowed it. I used to go swimming in the Simpang Empat river with friends without informing my parents.
On one occasion, I had leg cramps while swimming and almost drowned. I screamed for help and someone pulled me out of the water just in time before I went under! Looking back, it was God again who saved my life. As far as I can remember, this was the third time God saved my life up to that point.
PETS & HOBBIES
I had pets too. They say the dog is man’s best friend. From my experience, this is very true. I had a dog, called Bobby, a mongrel. I brought him home when he was just a puppy. He was a loyal, friendly, 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 Bobby away to a farmer. I blindfolded him and took him to the new owner’s lorry and Bobby was transported to his farm in another town.
Two weeks later, to my surprise, Bobby came back to me, dirty, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. I broke down 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 looked after Bobby until he died.
I also had two monkeys, one a male and the other one a female. The male one was called “Abang”, but I cannot recall the name of the female monkey – talk about exotic pets! I liked reading the novels of William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton 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 remember an incident where a Malay lady was swallowed alive by a crocodile when she was washing clothes and bathing in Ulu Bernam river. Everyone in the town was shocked by this incident.
Another heart-wrenching incident was that of a passenger whose head was severed when he popped his head out from the train as the train was passing through a bridge.
The sides of the bridge were very close to the window of the train. After this incident, someone pretended to be a ghost and frightened the people living near the train station. Fortunately, the police caught him, arrested and charged him in court.
Then there was the sad incident of May 13, 1969, when riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur and many people lost their lives. Thankfully, Tanjong Malim was peaceful and did not have any riots or civil disturbance.
In 1969, when I was in Form 5, a fire broke out in Behrang Station, a satellite town near Tanjong Malim. A whole row of shops in the town center was burnt to the ground. I remember accompanying one of my friends to his house after school.
He was still in school uniform when he reached home to find his house completely destroyed. Fortunately, his family members were able to run out to safety in time before the fire engulfed their home.
I used to cycle from Tanjong Malim to Kalumpang, and from Tanjong Malim to Behrang Ulu and Behrang station to visit my classmates who lived there. We cycled in a group so that we could chit-chat all the way.
When cycling from Behrang Ulu and Behrang Station to Tanjong Malim, we had to pass through a graveyard that was near the main road. Whenever we passed through this graveyard, it was always late in the evening. I remember us cycling really fast within the graveyard area for fear of devils coming after us!
There was also the incident where an Indian scoutmaster in his forties disappeared suddenly and was never seen again. Even his family members did not know what happened to him. It was postulated that he was kidnapped by communist insurgents and killed in the jungle somewhere.
On the music front, 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 were invited to play in the annual school talent-time, weddings, and private functions.
This band was partially reunited when three of us got together as a 3-piece band in our MES class of 69 annual reunions in 2018 and 2019. Sadly, one of the other guitarists, a former classmate of mine, passed away in 2020 due to liver cancer.
SOJOURN IN KUALA LUMPUR
After the Form 5 school certificate examination in 1969, I had to wait for several months before the results could be announced. During this period, I went to Kuala Lumpur with a group of friends to work in a bakery on Pudu Road. I remembered we were being exploited by the company. They paid us peanuts and made us work long hours.
We started work at 8 am and worked until 10 pm, after breakfast, a lunch break, a dinner break, and two tea breaks thrown in between. Breakfast and tea breaks were always tea with bread and kaya. It was nice to eat the bread that I baked through blood, sweat, and tears. After finishing work, we slept in the worker’s quarters within the bakery complex.
I made some good friends in the bakery. I remember this handsome boy, who took a liking to a beautiful girl who lived in the neighbourhood. The girl liked him too, but they had a wide chasm between them. The boy was uneducated, and the girl was educated. The boy was poor, and the girl was middle class.
They were from diametrically opposite backgrounds. He dated her on Sundays, which was our weekly rest day. The last I heard was that it did not work out for them. After the bakery stint, the boy left Kuala Lumpur, broke off with the girl he loved, and became a drug addict. I was very sad to hear about this.
THE STORY CONTINUES
This was my first experience with working life and earning my own salary. It was the first time I left Tanjong Malim, and the first time I lived in the big capital city of Malaysia called Kuala Lumpur. When the results were announced and I was told that I passed, I left the bakery job immediately and returned to Tanjong Malim.
I left Tanjong Malim in 1969 to continue my Form 6 education in Telok Intan, another town in Perak, 86 km away. 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, Google, WhatsApp, e-mail, 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 three more annual reunions in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
A smaller sub-group within the larger group also made several overseas trips to Perth, Jakarta, Medan, Lake Toba, and Vietnam. We also have yearly gatherings during Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali, and birthdays. However, our activities were curtailed in 2020 due to COVID 19 pandemic but we’re looking forward to continuing our activities once the haze lifts.
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