Sunday, 26 August 2012

Those were the days when we were kids

The Sultan Ismail Bridge links both side of the Muar shores; it was opened to public in April 1967.

My old Chum Jeremy Lim Kim Hock wrote me a mail to ask about my childhood days back in the 50s to 60s; and that began some soul searching down memory lane of the yesteryears when we were kids in the Muar district. He began with this:

“Hi Alan, what are your memories of the sweet old times when you spent your years in Lam Aik long ,南益厂(Lee Rubber Factory) and later at Singabong新加望 (Sungei Abong, Muar)? I remember some of your Singabong feats, but not much of your Lam Aik long tidbit memories....”

The majestic Sultan Ibrahim Mosque at the Tanjong Agas river bank was built in 1999.

My reply to him is a little bit long but written in short phrases and lines, covering many minor anecdotes and recollections of what had transpired during those struggling years with World War II just ended about 10 years back. It was a time when life was tough going and villagers strived so hard to earn a meagre living. Here goes:

The Aik Ming Primary has been replaced by a new block built in front of the old dilapidated school site, obscuring the sight of it if one drives by, along the road leading towards Bukit Pasir.

Yes I had some memories back in the early years when my parents brought three of us brothers from Batu Pahat, Johore to begin their teaching life in a new school namely the Aik Ming Primary School益民学校, at 4th mile stone, Bukit Pasir Road, Muar. My father was the pioneer headmaster and my mother was there to assist him. We stayed at the Lee Rubber Factory南益厂staff quarters as the school was built and funded by the late millionaire philanthropist Lee Kong Chian 李光前, owner and founder of the Lee Rubber Empire. In fact for the first few years the place we stayed was the school premises-a corner shop lot along the state road leading to Bukit Pasir. Eventually a concrete-built school stood solidly next to the rubber factory about 100 meters away. The housing had no electricity but we had water piped into our home. Some houses of the factory workers had wells dug in their compounds. Toilets were a distance away from the dwellings for all. For kids, it was natural that we relieved ourselves squatting between two sides of a narrow cemented 'longkang' (drain). If it were to be raining at night, it was going to be really awful.

The frontal view of the new block of the Aik Ming Primary School

Since the house at Lam Aik Long (Lee Rubber Factory) quarters had no electricity supplied to our home, we used TaiKongTeng大光灯 with kerosene as fuel to provide lighting for our home work and reading. We slept early around 8pm. It was nice to note that we had no radio, TV, computer nor Blue Ray DVD player, mobile phones etc. to distract us.

My! We're using this classic pressure lantern 大光灯to provide lighting for our reading. It used kerosene as fuel.

Once my father pumped air into the bicycle tyres excessively that the tube burst and exploded, luckily no one was injured. But that incident left an indelible phobia in me till this day; whenever I pumped air at the petrol station into the tyres of my car, I would have a nagging fear that it might explode on my face.

A Galaxy of cluster stars lits up the sky at night

I woke up in the wee hours in some of the nights to piss and when I raised my head, and lo: the sky was lit up with thousands of twinkling little stars. Yes, it was a common sight to see bright stars covering the sky when industrial polution was not heard of. (Bobby Vee sings: for the night has a thousand eyes, a thousand can't deny......). It was most nostalgic when I witnessed the celestial wonder of the nature again to see the sky of the night decorated with thousands of stars half a century later (in 2009) in Taman Negara-National Park of Malaysia, Pahang.

Flying Foxes out to feed themselves in the evening hours
A very healthy looking fresh fruit bunch of rambutan
 A boldly tempting display of succulent rumbutan fruit awaits your tasting
God's creation-look at the cross-section of mangosteen, nicely snug inside the fruit chamber.
Flying foxes, squirrels and other pests could easily bore holes into the hard husk of durian fruit.
Ah, this is the best 3 in 1! Three most popular local fruits made available in one stall.

The area we were staying was neighbouring many fruit orchards, mainly the durian, rambutan and mangosteen plantations. In the evening hours before nightfall during the fruit season days, we could see flocks of flying foxes flew from somewhere (I really did not know where they came from) towards the fruit orchards to have their rampaging of the fruit farms. Almost all the fruit farmers owned hunting guns using bullets filled with tiny pellets. Some of the farmers would display the dead flying foxes they shot down with some sense of vengeance and pride. Of course the villainous flying mammals would end up in the cooking pots. Nowadays I do not see any of these flying foxes in Malaysian sky anymore. I did see some at the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park in an enclosure. I also saw some live ones at Brastagi, near Lake Toba, Sumatra, where the villagers were trying to peddle them for a price.

That's how the Muar Town's economy ticked during those difficult, initial years; the harvest, production, and export of the natural rubber had helped to feed tens of thousand families in the district.  The demand for rubber products during The Korean War (1950-1953) pushed the price of rubber latex up.

One harrowing , unforgettable incident I saw at the factory interior when one worker was seen skinning a monkey they had trapped and killed earlier at the back of the rubber factory. The carcass looked like a human baby! It was absolutely revolting and sickening! The men workers usually bathed in the factory premise before going home. Once my brother and I saw these men chatting loudly while having their bath at an open space, stark naked! They were totally at ease when they saw us passing by; but we flushed and were rather disgusted. We commented among ourselves: Yak! Those things hanging there with hair all over, real awful sight! (we were 5-7 year old then).

The late Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967), philanthropist rubber industry tycoon was the founder of the Lee Rubber Empire. Lee was the Chairman of OCBC from 1965 - 1967.

Staying so near the communist hide-outs at neighbouring Bukit Kepong we had some harrowing experience to relate. Almost everyday around 6pm we saw convoy of truck loads of  Ang-mor 红毛兵(Commonwealth soldiers and The Gurkhas)  passing by our residential zone, on the way to the hills to annihilate the threat of the communist insurgents some twenty over miles away. In the dearth of the night we heard mortar bombs and machine gun shots exchanged with the skirmishes going on. We kept hearing the loud sirens of the ambulance shrieking as it breezed by; more often there were the Black Marias. My father had never uttered a single word about these, thinking that we were too young to understand what was going on, but my mother did reveal some. She was quite concerned about the tense situation back then. At daybreak the military trucks returned with corpses; some casualties were the Ang-mors but most were the Chinese persons, male and female-the MCP members.

In the evening hours we used to see convoy of British Army trucks ferrying soldiers to the hills to fight the communist menance.

My eldest brother told me some years later when he was in the university that the dead bodies were displayed openly at the hospital padang (grass field) or at the barrack compound of the district police station so that the deceased's family could come forward to identify and claim the bodies. Few would do so as they would not want to subject themselves to surveillance and further harrassment from the authority, even when they were there to realize the cruel fact that their sons/daughters had been killed. Those were the days before the country gained its independence in 1957.

The jungle is neutral, so the book says it all. (F.Spencer Chapman wrote about his 2 years in Malayan jungle, his escape from the Japanese Army in the Pacific War).
The Commonwealth armed forces had a tough time in the tropical rain forests of Malaya trying to root out the MCP threats.

One hot afternoon my father and I saw two Malay grave stones mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, and lay on the hot cement floor of the court yard of Aik Ming Primary school. Father just picked them up calmly and placed them at the ground of the Malay cemetery behind the school.


My father coolly picked up the Islamic grave stones and returned them to where they should belong.

My parents did not get along well and they always fought so Mom got herself transferred out to teach at Bukit Pair's Yik Jen Primary育人小学, then headed by our schoolmate Cassey Er Kok Chooi's father the late Er Kim San余金山, until she retired. Right after the result of my School Certificate was released, my father died early at age 46 of cardiac infarction. My eldest brother claimed that he left at 48 but recently younger brother CC chipped in to mention that our father had died at age 49. He was born in a kampong (village) in Batu Pahat, Johore. So were we the first three brothers; only we were delivered in the district hospital. Guess I have to look for his birth certificate so as to ascertain his actual birthday date. Imagine there are people with Indonesian descent in the country calling us 'pendatang' (outsiders or newcomers). With the old man's demise, our family fell into dire straits and suffered extreme misery as there were many mouths to feed, and all would need to continue schooling.

This memorial plaque was erected to mark the site of the police station at Bukit Kepong which was ambushed and destroyed by the communists in 1950.

Aik Ming Primary taught pupils till Standard 4 only as the school was short of teaching staff and facility at that time, (Later my brother CC studied there till Std 6) and that was why we continued our primary education in Chung Hwa Er Xiao 中化二小 in Muar town. Even before that during the school holidays my mother would enrol us at Er Xiao for tuition classes and that was when we got to know you and your sister Siew Eng. 

I have great, fond memory of the Chung Hwa Er Xiao 中化二小 where I completed my Chinese primary education. The teachers were dedicated and respectable.

My family moved to Jalan Salleh just outside the Hospital Muar perimeters when I attained Primary 5 going age. We all walked to our schools during our late primary and early secondary days. Later we had bicycles and that was a great help to solve our transport woes. I inherited my father’s huge “Raleigh” brand bicycle and that was why I bore resentment till this day towards the principal of St. Andrew’s Secondary the late Rev. Brother Robert who ordered to detain my bicycle, claiming that it had a faulty ringing chime. Almost all the boys at the school idolized, respected and feared him but not me. The retired soldier from Ireland turned priest/educationist ran the school like a WWII British military camp.

Just like any Chinese primary school in Malaysia, the Chinese people donated generously to renovate the old blocks and to build new wings.

By the way Jeremy, the place we moved from Lam Aik Long to stay in Muar during those damnation years was not Singabong but Jalan Salleh.  We were neighbour to the hospital mortuary which was about 100 meters away. Once we were naughty enough to climb up the semi see through glass window to peek what lay there, and lo: I saw an old Chinese man’s corpse lying there , pale and white, before his burial. The worst one I had ever seen was the body of a drowned man; it was all bloated and smelly. Amitabha! God have mercy on me; I had seen things I should not see!
This South African morgue was similar to the one I got so near when I was a kid. They were after all, built by the British.

Jeremy, your Sweet, cherubic neighbour girls Catherine, Lucy and Mary Tan’s father the morgue worker would process and dress the dead bodies before releasing to the families of the deceased for burials. I understand that he accepted ang-pows from the deceased's family as a token of service rendered. 

               Imagine a goatherd could resemble one after years of rearing goats!

I remember clearly about one Ang fellow who kept a herd of goats in a shack not too far from your place. After some years the man Ang not only looked like a goat, he also sounded like one! CC my brother could confirm my memory solidly. I was bullied by one fisherman’s son nearby when I went out pedalling the bicycle to buy grocery items for the family. This gangster boy forcefully pulled my bicycle down, causing me to fall and that resulted all the eggs I placed in a basket broken. Mom was really mad with me. If only I had the build of Gan KS’s - our burly King’s Scout classmate, his guts, his usual behaviour and temperament, there would be a show-down like that in Clint Eastwood movies.

You had a cross-bred short-legged long-haired mongrel dog named Tony, right? You remember? Once I crowned it with the hat of your niece, your sisters all yelled at me! The most haranguing experience was not the ghost I met on the way home (I will tell the story later) but the cries of my mother looking for me. She wanted me to go home to care for the younger ones so that she could go out to play mahjong. Very often I must do the cooking too.

CC wrote to tell Jeremy LKH some incidents that remained in our mind firmly ever since we were kids:

The SIAU LANG KENG (Mad House-sorry for the Hokkien words used by CC) for the lunatics was basically a torture chamber which was rather inhumane thinking back. I could remember copies of birth certificates were strewn all over the surrounding morgue areas. Also still vivid on my mind were the outstretched hands of the mentally disturbed patients trying to grab me from the steel bars, thinking back, that was not the right way to treat them man! I even found copies of birth certs of my classmates as we all lived near the hospital area.

I went there alone quite often those days and found those birth cert books. Should have kept them and issued to all the Indons before the MAMAKTIR did. Perhaps KimHock could vouch for it. Further down the morgue and mentally disturbed wards there was another huge padang (field) and at the end of which stood a badminton stadium where I once watched SYLVIA NG playing badminton there (She was a charmer then). There was also a small plot of tapioca plantation where the plants were grown on top of the unclaimed deads’ graves. Those poor souls were buried there by courtesy of the hospital authority.

By the way the ANG guy of the goat fame quoted by ALAN KOK not only resembled but sounded like goats too. I also remembered the great fire of the CHAP HER TIAM (Grocery Store) at SINGABONG AKA SG ABONG, and your brother KIM KONG who appeared very fierce but actually was a very helpful guy. Once he helped to negotiate with the bigot mamak prison warden to let ALAN KOK and me off the hook because we plucked some flowers from the prison garden after the open- air movies. I did not forget all these adventures.

CC Koh

It was true that the mentally disturbed patients were trying to grab us from behind steel bars of their enclosure-their lock-up cells. I could recollect very vividly seeing a totally naked Chinese woman sobbing to be released. Poor lady, I could hear her wailing in Hokkien now. Hope I could sleep well tonight. As a small boy to witness that I was traumatized; it was a tormenting sight. I was overwhelmed with an inexplicable and eerie feeling; no wonder I was constantly having confused and strange dreams during my childhood days. Anyway the hospital area had been haunted with many ghostly tales.

Regarding the plucking of the orchid flowers from the prison garden after the free show of open air movies, it was all my fault as I was the elder one. It was a haunting experience as the wardens (not in uniform) were very fierce in reprimanding us. I could not remember your brother King Kong's presence there.

I did not know the fire gutted down the grocery store belonged to Francis Lim's father. I thought it was some one else's. Francis's parents and we were neighbours at LamAikLong (Lee Rubber FActory) quarters at the 4th Mile, Bukit Pasir Road. His father worked there a while until they moved to Singabong (Sungei Abong). It was my mother's fiery temper that fouled our childhood days with francis. I sincerely wanted to say 'sorry' to Francis. The issue was brought up during Jesse Van Drissen's moral class when we were in Form 1 or Form 2. I told the class in my halting English that there was some misunderstanding (turned into ugly quarrels) between our parents. I actually was okay with Francis anyway. He turned up to be such a nice guy when we met during the past few SAS Old Boys' gatherings. He is a staunch Christian and I think that plays a part in his idiosyncrasy, i.e. his gentle, easy going and friendly way.

CC mentioned that we had three maids while staying at the rubber factory quarters! For that matter I could not remember; perhaps we had two alright. They were the mother and adult married daughter team who stayed a few houses away. The older lady to whom we called 'Ah Mah' looked after us since we were toddlers; They were nannies to us too to provide us their natural mother's milk, if I did not remember wrongly. One of them also cooked for our family. My parents were too busy as they're teachers who spent their off duty hours playing mahjong.

Jeremy, I want to differ, in quoting Robert Graves's famous catch words from his ever popular book "Goodbye to all that" he wrote regarding the First World War:

If I were to relive those years, I would not want to behave or experience those awful years again. It's Goodbye To All That!

Have good days ahead,

Regards from

Alan CY Kok



  1. My friend Ron Lim has this to say:

    Wow! Alan, I read with interest your childhood experience. When were you born? I am same age as KS Gan. Born in 1950.
    Remember a little bit of the communist insurgents when my father was managing a tin mine in Jintan, Kedah.
    That is when we visited him. Otherwise, we live in Penang.
    You are a good writer. You should write more about your childhood experience.


  2. My friends commented by sending e-mails to me; I think it's okay if I publish their comments here: Hi Alan,

    I am amazed by your passion for writing, and also your memory of the historical past and experiences.
    Keep up the great work.

    Cheers & God bless you,
    Jeremy Kong

  3. Curious Lim PW has got this to say:

    Very interesting, perhaps you could elaborate more on Bukit Kepong story & your personal life ie when you start dating girls..........

  4. Old pal Francis Lim wrote a long endearing letter to comment:......My wife and I enjoyed reading it and it opens
    a flood gate of memories of our childhood days. I always tell myself that our our generation has "seen it all and done it all".
    Alan, thank you very much for helping to revisit our past and thank you for our friendship which dated back to our
    early years. Putting our parents' differences aside (which I had no clue what happened) we thank the Lord for keeping
    our friendship intact and I always treasure our periodical meetings of our "Class of '67". Keep on writing and enjoy what you are doing. Keep well and healthy everyone.

    Francis Lim

  5. Jeremy LKH sends in a much awaited comment in elaborate form of a long essay laced with sugar and spice here and there,in his usual style.

    Hi Alan,
    The memory of your childhood years was filled with sweet, sour and at times mental hammering as you were exposed to various incidents and anecdotes that dotted your childhood years. No wonder you grew up to be a complicated person but still harboring many nostalgic moments that passed by....
    Your years spent in the Lee Rubber factory when your parents were the educated bearers of torch to light up the minds and souls of many who stayed in it and perhaps nearby were the nurturing period that cast some permanent scars, imprints that all together indent your mental development when you grew up when moving to stay at Jalan Salleh, as neighbor to the Muar Hospital....And with your siblings growing up together bombarding each other with differing mental behaviors......Interesting! Intriguing!
    I really enjoy every bit of your writing and marveled at your prolific flow, reinforced by the pictures to thrill our reading appetite.
    I will urge more readers to log in to read and chew what's being written by him, as he has searched and dipped deep into his memory tank (though at times he refused to recall lest some were too hard for him). Nonetheless, his writing skill has developed over the years, especially after leaving SAS, aided by his photography skills that mesmerized many of us with his still and nature pictures.
    He has that mixed flair of sentiment, nostalgia and melancholy tinges that we have to shift through his many words; though at times verbose befitting a literary person with some background.
    With his ending sentence declared that if he were to 'relive those years, I would not want to behave or experience those awful years again. It's Goodbye To All That!'
    Yes, if it's Goodbye To All That, then he should have his sweet-sour memory kept inside his Pandora's box.....