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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gifts from a stranger

The Star
Wednesday December 22, 2010

Gifts from a stranger

MOTHER passed away on a December morning after a long illness. She was 68. About a month later my sister, 36-year-old Seck Neo, passed away suddenly. Somehow their lives were inextricably intertwined. Mother was pregnant with Seck Neo just after the Japanese Occupation.
The hardship and suffering Mother endured during the war had taken a toll on her health. Under-nourished and suffering from various ailments, Mother gave birth to a frail and sickly child.
Seck Neo excelled in her studies, but ill health forced her to quit school. Mother doted on her and a close bond existed between them. Later when we all got married and had children of our own, Seck Neo chose to remain single. Perhaps, she felt it was her filial duty to look after Mother in her old age. Did an incident that happened at our childhood home lend a hand in forging that special bond?

Our childhood home in Kuala Pilah was a typical colonial house. It stood on concrete stilts; its white wooden walls and russet-tiled roof juxtaposed against the thick green

Our childhood home in 2008

foliage of towering tembusu trees. I remember that day long-ago when our family moved into the long-abandoned house at the end of World War II. The house was redolent of musty jasmine petals. The white walls were discoloured with age and in some places the paint had peeled off.
As we entered the house, the loose, unpolished floorboards with narrow cracks creaked beneath our feet. At night, as we lay awake on a mat spread out on the floor, we could hear the wail of the wind that swept from across the field and feel the chill of the night air that knifed through the narrow cracks of the floorboards. Despite its shortcomings, we were glad to have a place which we could call home.
Among the many playgrounds of our youth, the space under the house was our favourite. There, my siblings and I spent many an afternoon playing in its cool shade. The concrete stilts with their dark shadows and the murky recesses strung with cobwebs provided perfect hiding places for our game of hide-and-seek. We also played masak-masak or lazed away the hours digging the loose dirt in search of beetles. Occasionally, we would unearth beads, chipped marbles and polished pebbles – relics from another childhood.

One morning when the older children were at school, Seck Neo was left to play by herself under the house.
Seck Neo and her childhood friend, Twinkle, at the side of the house.

 In the solitude and gloom of a detached kitchen, Mother was busy stirring a simmering pot of curry when she heard the patter of tiny feet behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw sister holding a matchbox in her outstretched hand. She calmly took the matchbox, expecting it to be filled with pebbles or discarded items. When she slid open the matchbox, she noticed it was filled to the brim with coins of various denominations.
Well, one of the passers-by must have accidentally dropped the box of coins, she thought to herself, as the dirt track beside the house was frequently used by pedestrians who took a short cut to school or the nearby town.
As she busied herself with the household chores, the morning incident was soon forgotten.
The next day, our sister played at her usual spot. Moments later she emerged with a matchbox which she handed to Mother. Thinking it was the same matchbox from the previous day, Mother asked sister to put it aside while she finished her work. She was clearing up the place when she spotted the matchbox. She picked it up. It weighed heavily in her hand. When she slid it open, she was surprised to find it filled to the brim with another set of coins.
A deepening sense of anxiety gripped her. Where did Seck Neo find the coins? Was someone trying to kidnap her by offering these gifts? Her curiosity aroused, she decided to keep a close watch on her child.
The next morning when Seck Neo went to play under the house, Mother crept upstairs to the bedroom. Going down on her hands and knees, she pressed her face against the floorboard and peered through the cracks.
From her vantage point she had a clear view of Seck Neo. She was engrossed in scratching the loose dirt and seemed oblivious to her surrounding. An eerie silence filled the morning air. Nothing stirred.
Then Mother detected a slight movement from one of the beams below the floorboards. The shafts of morning sunlight streaming through the cracks revealed something which made her hands tremble and sent chilly spasms through her whole body.
A hand with long fingers which were almost translucent was slowly emerging from behind one of the beams. Between its fingers was a matchbox. It was about to hand the matchbox ...
Mother did not wait to watch. Shuddering, she rose to her feet and with trembling hands and jellied feet, she staggered down the short flight of steps. She crawled under the house, grabbed my sister and carried her into the house.
When we returned from school that afternoon, we were warned not to play under the house. She did not give us any reason for the sudden decision and we did not ask any question. Although we did not venture under the house, we continued to play beside the house while Mother kept a wary eye on us, especially on Seck Neo.
Years later, after Father had passed away and we had moved back to Malacca did Mother tell us about the strange incident and explained to us why she had forbidden us to play under the house.
According to her the house where our house stood was the site of a former hospital. Could that have had something to do with the incident?
Today, a chill still skitters down my spine whenever I think of that incident which strangely brought a mother and child closer together and made them almost inseparable.

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In days past

Finding our way home

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lost Habitat

Wednesday October 27, 2010

Lost habitat and disappearing wildlife

Story and illustration By WAN CHWEE SENG

Rapid development has forced the denizens of the wild into pockets of fragmented wood lots; others have to seek sanctuary in human homes.

AS twilight edges into night, a dark figure treads its way cautiously along the high wire stretched between two poles. The figure pauses. Wide, wary eyes scan the ground for onlookers. However, there is no appreciative audience to cheer it on and no thunderous applause to greet its daring act. 
From the front porch I am the sole, silent spectator of the drama unfolding before my eyes.
High above me a civet is edging its way along a telephone wire, its brilliant eyes gleaming in the dim light. Suddenly, it disappears among the thick canopy of a rambutan tree. Rapid development and the absence of a safe corridor may have forced the civet to take to the high wire.
Alone in the stillness and silence of the gathering darkness, I am left to ponder its fate and those of its kind. Today, as I drive along the busy highway leading to our housing estate, the grisly remains of run over creatures such as civets, monitor lizards, snakes and night-jars, often greet my eyes. Will the civet, too, suffer the same fate?
My mind drifts back to the early 1970s when we first moved into the housing estate. The housing estate was then fringed by trees and shrubs and the nearby hill was clad in dense verdant vegetation. The thickly wooded area on the hill was a haven for the many denizens of the wild.
I remember that evening, long ago, when I was driving home alone along the narrow and deserted stretch of road leading to our housing estate. In the deepening dusk, I caught sight of a long, murky shape creeping slowly across the road.
Python! The word flashed across my mind. I slowed down the car, eased it to the road shoulder and peered through the windscreen into the gloom. The scene that lay before me came as a pleasant surprise. A mother civet with five babies following closely in single file were heading towards a clump of wild cherry trees on the other side of the road.
I watched enthralled at the slow-moving procession. Long after they had melted into the darkness, I sat in the solitude of the car and tried to capture the magic moment to be stored as precious snapshots in my memory.
Today, 40 years on, the place where our children grew up is sadly different. The once narrow and quiet road is now a bustling highway. Gone, too, are the trees and shrubs that once fringed the neighbourhood and clad the nearby hill in verdant splendour.
In their places stand stark, massive concrete buildings. All that remain are fragmented patches of wood lots behind the few rows of houses. Here the few displaced wild animals have made them their home; others have to seek sanctuary in human homes.
There were nights when the fragrance of pandanus leaves drifted into our bedroom and we knew that a common palm civet was in the immediate vicinity of the house.
One night I heard a faint thud on the roof and the familiar musky fragrance assailed my nostrils. I tip-toed to the bedroom window and peered through the half-drawn curtains.
In a corner of the balcony, a pair of eyes gleamed bright in the darkness and I could make out the indistinct outline of a civet. It glided down a pillar and was soon on its way to forage for food from the neighbouring gardens. In the morning we would find evidence of its night’s meal. Mango peels, half-eaten custard apples and ciku often litter our driveway or lawn.
Early one morning after a night filled with thunder claps, forked lightning and slashing rain, I strolled over to open the bedroom window. I grabbed the edge of the heavy curtain and was about to draw back the curtain when I was taken aback by the sight of a furry grey ball that was lodged between the window panes and the mosquito screen.
I peered intently at the object and in the pre-dawn light saw a baby civet snugly curled up in its cosy corner. I gave a half-hearted clap to scare it away. Startled from its slumber, it gave me a doleful, innocent look and reluctantly crawled out from the warmth of its sanctuary to seek refuge under the eaves of the house.
The patch of wooded area behind our house has become home to a number of wild animals. One morning as I gazed out of the kitchen window, the branch of a nearby cempedak tree started to shake violently, as if it had been hit by a sudden gust of wind.
A pair of monkeys appeared from within its thick foliage. They swung from an overhanging branch to a papaya tree and were soon feasting on the young shoots. At that moment our next-door maid emerged from the kitchen door and sauntered to the other side of the house.
At the sight of the wide-opened door, one of the monkeys darted into the house and in a flash dashed out with a plastic container in its hand. With deft fingers, it opened the container and was soon relishing its unseen content.
Occasionally, it would stand erect on its hind legs, eyes straining into the distance for signs of any approaching intruder. The sound of muffled voices and intermittent chuckles wafted across the morning air from the other side of the house.
Assured of its relative safety by the sound of distant voices and laughter, it resumed its feast. Having satiated its appetite, the monkey finally climbed over the fence and scurried into the dense undergrowth.
A few days after the incident, two uniformed men brandishing shotguns could be seen scanning the nearby tree tops for the monkeys. A slight movement among the branches of a tree caught their attention and they headed for the direction. A gunshot shattered the morning air. I hoped and prayed it was just a shot to scare away the monkeys. A second shot rang out and then another. A long eerie silence ensued. All hopes were dashed.
“They are back!” an excited voice called out. I rushed to join my wife at the kitchen window. The sight that met our eyes filled us with joy. Under the dappled shadow of a durian tree, a female jungle fowl was busy scratching and uncovering food for her clutch of fuzzy chicks. Head bobbing in the morning air, she kept a wary eye for lurking predators.
“There should be three chicks, but I can only see two of them.”
“What happened to the other chick?” my wife inquired, an edge of anxiety creeping into her voice.
A large monitor lizard, tongue flicking, waddled languidly near the unsuspecting group. We feared for the worst. Suddenly, a chick darted out from the undergrowth to join its mother and we heaved a sigh of relief.
Sometimes we would hear the crow of a male jungle fowl and catch glimpses of it among the half-obscure mass of vegetation. Occasionally, it would perch on a nearby boulder and this provided us with the opportunity to study and admire this magnificent rooster with its resplendent plumage.
The rooster had a rich, red comb and wattles, and sported a cape of iridescent hues, while its streaming tail feathers of red, green, yellow and blue shimmered in the morning sunlight. The jungle fowl would vanish for days, weeks and even months and then reappear unexpectedly. Until then, two retirees will wait patiently for the home-coming.

‘’They are back!”

My eyes flash open at the magic words. With sleepy eyes from my interrupted afternoon nap, I peer though the half-open window.


A little girl comes running up the driveway and jumps into the waiting arms of her grandmother. My heart warms at the sight and sound. I know my children and grandchildren are here on a short visit, but at least I know they can always come back to a place which they can call home. Then I think about the wild animals in the woodlots behind our houses. I wonder how long it will be before they are driven out of their homes.
Somewhere behind the house I hear a rooster crows. It is a long and poignant crow that lingers in the still, slumberous afternoon air. Wildlife experts may say it is a mating call, but to me it sounds more like a lone rooster lamenting the loss of its natural habitat – their lost habitat.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The warmth and kindness of kampung folk

The lamplighter of Rantau Panjang

The Star
Lifestyle 15th September 2010

Story and illustration by

Wan Chwee Seng

The generosity of Rantau Panjang's villagers can evoke a lifetime of gratitude.

NIGHT crept stealthily with silent feet from beyond the surrounding countryside and suddenly the remote town became enshrouded in its dark mantle. Void of electricity, the town’s darkness appeared more intense and sinister.
In the dimming light of dusk, the lone figure of a lamplighter astride his rickety bicycle, kerosene can strapped to the carrier of his bicycle and a short ladder slung across one shoulder, could be seen moving from post to post to light the oil lamps that lined the deserted road. It looked like a scene from a Dickension novel. But this was not the Victorian era. This was Rantau Panjang, Kelantan, in the early 1960s.

I vividly recalled that morning in 1961 when I first arrived in Rantau Panjang. As the steam locomotive rolled and hissed to a halt at the town’s railway station, a waving hand caught my eyes.

The headmaster, Encik Salleh, who had waited patiently on the open platform, greeted me warmly and ushered me into a waiting trishaw while my luggage which consisted of a single battered bag was bundled into another. While the trishaws negotiated the laterite road furrowed by trishaw wheels and pitted with rain-filled potholes, I took in my surroundings.

A trishaw navigatng the furrowed road

Rantau Panjangg town in the 1960s
All I could see was a narrow road flanked by double-storey wooden shophouses with rusty corrugated iron roofs. Not a car was in sight as the town was only accessible by rail. Overhead, rain-bearing monsoon clouds were grudgingly giving way to the morning sunlight.

I felt a little apprehensive at the unfamiliar sight and the gloomy weather only added to my anxiety. It was only two weeks since I had left the cold winter of Kirkby College and the brightly-lit city of Liverpool and now found myself transported into the humid and unfamiliar town of Rantau Panjang.
With Pua in front of the school mural which we painted
The trishaws came to a stop at a nearby coffee shop and Encik Salleh introduced me to four elderly men seated round a marble-topped coffee table. They welcomed me to Rantau Panjang and wished me a safe and pleasant stay.
A few days later, I had a drink in the same coffee shop. At the next table, a few customers were talking in cautious tones. I strained my ears to catch the dialogue that was passing back and forth.
“Hey! I heard that the policeman who just reported for duty here was nicked on the back of the head by a kapak kecil.”
“Huh! Just a warning,” came an unsolicited reply from somewhere behind me.
The crisp voice sent a shudder of relief as I recalled my earlier meeting with the four seemingly innocent-looking men. I remembered what Encik Salleh told me as soon as we had stepped out of the coffee shop.
“You know the four men you have just met? They are the leaders of the kapak kecil gang of Rantau Panjang. You don’t have to worry about your safety now. Enjoy your stay here.”
The note of optimism in those words provided some comfort and nourishment to my flagging spirits.
However, on dark and lonely nights as shadowy figures strolled by with sarung hitched shoulder-high, I sometimes wonder what lay hidden beneath the folds of the sarung and lingering doubts made me look occasionally over my shoulders at the lurking shadows.
Encik Salleh had made prior arrangement with Ah Kong, the proprietor of a coffee shop, to provide me with temporary accommodation.
“You can stay here as long as you like,” the affable Ah Kong and his ever-smiling wife assured me. The couple not only provided me with accommodation, but treated me as a member of the family. I remember the special meal they prepared for me when I was taken ill and the Chinese New Year I spent with the family when I was not able to make it back home.
One evening, Phua, the only teacher in the school besides the headmaster and his wife, invited me to be his housemate as he had rented a fairly large house near the school. Not wanting to inconvenient Ah Kong and his family any longer, I agreed to join him. Late one evening, lugging my bag, we headed for the double-storey wooden house which stood stately among a cluster of low palm-thatched huts.
The moment I stepped into the house, I was in for a surprise. Not a single piece of furniture was in sight. There was only a mengkuang mat on the bare wooden floor, while a gas lamp hanging from a rafter provided the only light.
That night, while Phua snored away in one corner of the room, I gazed out of the window. Across the river, the night sky of the Siamese town of Sungai Golok was aglow with electric light and the night air carried the sirenic strains of “ramvong” music. Immediately below me, the dull yellow glow of oil lamps flickered from within dark wooden houses, while from the nearby countryside came the rhythmic throbbing of ceremonial drums.
As I took in the sight and listened to the poignant melody of the monsoon rain drumming incessantly on the window panes, a feeling of nostalgia stirred within me and I yearned for the company of loved ones and college friends.
Was I destined to finish my five years’ contract in this dismal place? Could I go through with it? With doubts still lingering in my mind, I felt into a deep slumber.
Dawn, the next day, brought another surprise. The need to answer the call of nature made me search frantically for the toilet.
“Where ... where is the toilet?’ I asked Phua, as waves of goose pimples rippled up my arms.
“There’s a floating one at the edge of the river. You can ...”
I did not wait for further explanation. I made the 200-metre dash for the nearby school’s toilet.
Fortunately, the arrival of two trained teachers, Kwok and Lim, who had come to replace Phua, brought an abrupt end to my stay in the “stately” house.
As we could not find a suitable house to rent, our new headmaster, Encik Mohd Zain, offered us the use of one of the vacant classrooms. So one evening, with broom in hand, we swept the floor, wiped the windows and dusted the desks. The metal desks were arranged closely to form a bed. A mengkuang mat was spread on top of

With the headmaster En. Mohd Zain and the Standard VI pupils
them and a piece of cloth laid on top to hide the unsightly table legs from prying eyes. That night and on subsequent nights, we slept on the cold metal desks and rested our weary heads on inflatable pillows.
One evening, the headmaster paid us an unexpected visit.
“I think all of you can shift into the headmaster’s house,” he said.
“Where are you going?” someone inquired.
“ Well, I have decided to commute daily from my own house in Pasir Mas. You know, I am rather scared of the light that I used to see floating from one end of the school field to the house.”
The familiar, mischievous smile crossed his lips.

The headmaster’s solitary house stood at one corner of the field. The house faced the field, its back covered with a tangled mass of vegetation, while its bedroom window overlooked a Muslim cemetery.
The house, however, had running water and was among the few houses in town which had recently been supplied with electricity. With those facilities and not wanting to show that we were easily intimidated by his attempt to strike fear into us, we accepted his offer.
But fear finally did get the better of me. It happened just after the term break. I had returned from Malacca a day before school reopened, and had expected Lim and Kwok to be at the house. They were nowhere in sight.
As the last train pulled in and rolled out of the station with no sign of them, a feeling of despair set in. I knew I had to spend the night all alone in the house. The story the headmaster told us about the ephemeral light added to my apprehension.
Darkness soon cloaked the place. I switched on all the lights I could find. Then I heard it. It was just a faint click ... a click somewhere in the dark recesses of the house. Then the whole house was plunged into total darkness. Who had switched off all the lights? With pounding heart, I groped about in the darkness to locate the switch. Then I recalled the headmaster‘s reminder.
“Don’t forget about the light. Don’t switch on all the lights at once.”
It suddenly dawned on me that the blackout was perhaps due to overloading, as the house was allocated only a limited supply of electricity.
Somehow I managed to switch off some of the lights and locate the trip button. That night as I lay awake and listened to the mournful sound of the monsoon wind that wafted from across the nearby cemetery, my mind started to conjure images of a ephemeral light that was moving closer and closer towards the house.
I must have drifted off to sleep for I was awakened the next morning by the sound of pounding on the front door. In a stupor I staggered to the door and was happy to find Kwok and Lim standing at the front door and happier still to note that their feet were firmly planted on solid ground.

With Lim and Kwok at the railway station

One evening the headmaster burst excitedly into the house“Hey guys, you have to move out of the house for a few days,” he announced.
“Why?” I inquired.
“The Deputy Prime Minister will be here to campaign in the coming election and he is going to occupy this house.”
We were unperturbed by the sudden announcement as we had decided to shift to a bigger house to accommodate four other teachers from the nearby school in Gual Periok who had decided to join us.
With their arrival and the arrival of some new teachers, our days were now filled with fun and activities. The local folks, too, often invited us to share meals with their families. Whether it was a sumptuous spread or simple fare, we were deeply touched by their warmth and sincerity.

One of the houses where we stayed

The years started to roll and tumble and Ifound that my five years’ stay in Rantau Panjang had come to an end.
On a December morning in 1965, lugging the same suitcase, I walked along the still unpaved road flanked by the same row of wooden houses, to the town’s small railway station.
The oil lamps, however, had been replaced by electric lights. The sight rekindled memories of the lamplighter who used to light the oil lamps. Just as he had helped to brighten up the gloom and darkness of the town, the many people I had come to know had helped to brighten up my life in my hour of darkness.
When I reached the edge of the town, I glanced back and bade a silent farewell to all those kind and generous folks. Perhaps, I had not expressed my gratitude in so many words then, but in my heart I knew I would be eternally grateful to them.

Jim Ed Brown: The old lamplighter

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Moments to Savour

The Star

Wednesday July 21st 2010

Moments to Savour

Story and illustration by Wan Chwee Seng

Adventures in the kitchen that add spice to life.

IT began on a lively note. The thumping blare of Cliff Richard’s latest hit, Living Doll, resonated across the Block Nine common room. Fingers snapped and knees bounced as the young listeners kept time to the rocking music.
Then as if on a given signal the turn-table came to a stop and the lights were switched off. The listeners strolled reluctantly to their respective rooms.
In the other blocks of Kampung Kirkby, as Kirkby College, in Liverpool is fondly known by its young Malayan students, the lights, too, were disappearing gradually like stars being sponged by the light of dawn. It was lights-out time and most of the students were already snugly curled up under layers of woolen blankets.

'Kampung Kirkby', Liverpool

However, in the small pantry of Block Nine, a light still glowed. The tall figure of my friend, Seripala, hovered over a pot of noodles which was simmering to a boil. In the adjacent common room, from behind drawn curtains, I gazed out at the blackness of the cold winter night. All that was clearly visible from my vantage point was the frost-covered driveway which glistened under the golden glow of the street lamp. Beyond the driveway was a shrouded landscape of indistinct outlines of low buildings.
The savoury aroma from the pantry rose and drifted along the corridor to the common room where I stood watch. My stomach started to rumble, but above the faint rumble came a more audible sound. Footsteps!

I pressed my nose against the icy panes to peer and strain into the darkness. A dark figure loomed from behind a veil of low-lying fog and lumbered up the driveway. The hulking frame and familiar gait told me that it was the object of my surveillance.

A hulking figure loomed through the gloom

With heart pumping fast, I rushed to the pantry.

"Warden," I called out.

Seripala turned off the stove and flicked off the light. He sprinted to his room at the end of the corridor, while I bounded the few metres to my room next to the pantry. From behind closed door, I waited, ears straining in the silence. The minutes ticked away. Then I heard the rhythmic pounding of heavy footsteps on concrete floor. The pounding stopped. An uncomfortable silence ensued.
I could sense the warden’s presence outside my room and pictured him scanning the long corridor for any tell-tale signs of nocturnal activities.
My thought strayed to the pot of noodles in the pantry. Would he catch the whiff of the aroma emanating from the pantry?
I gave a sigh of relief when I finally heard the sound of footsteps receding into the distance.
I crept warily to Seripala’s room and gave the all clear signal. We resumed our cooking without anymore interruption. Back in my room, we sat in the stillness of the night and savoured every single strand of the soggy noodle with relish.
Watching Seripala scrape the last bit of noodle from his plate with a long sigh of contentment, I could not help suppress a smile as I recalled another incident. It was a late autumn night when we made our way to the makeshift fish-and-chips stall just outside the college gate, only to find it had already closed for the night.
We trudged forlornly back to the pantry for another humble dish of noodles. White steam was soon billowing and curling from a pot of noodles flavoured with Knox chicken stock. Seripala took a peek at the open pot and suddenly announced: “I think we need to add some vegetables.”
He slipped out of the pantry and disappeared into the dark night. A while later he sauntered into the pantry clutching tightly to his protruding “pot-belly”. He dug under his gabardine and with a flourish withdrew a freshly-plucked cabbage which he proudly displayed in his outstretched hand. Where did he get the cabbage at this late hour? I thought to myself. I had my suspicions, but I kept my silence.
The next morning as we busied ourselves threading colourful threads at the loom in the Art and Craft room, the nocturnal incident was soon forgotten. Around us could be heard small pockets of conversations. Next to us a group was talking excitedly in low whispers.
“Hey, did you hear the college gardener is raising a hue and cry because a cabbage went missing from his cabbage patch. He suspects one of us.”
The words drifted to my ears. I paused at my work to look at Seripala. He beamed a faint smile in my direction. My suspicions were confirmed.
Seripala, an avid cook, preferred to cook during the weekends when he could use his culinary wizardry to whip up divine mouth-watering dishes, especially his signature dish – fish curry. The fragrance of his cooking would send ravenous students scurrying to the pantry to investigate the source of the pungent odour and they would often be rewarded with an invitation.
I remember the freezing winter night when a group of us with different creeds and colours would gather in my room to share his cooking. As our fingers dug into the steaming white rice generously topped with spicy curry, sweat formed and trickled down our cheeks, to provide additional warmth to the cold winter night.
Long after lights out, we would sit in the darkness to share stories and talk about our 
hopes and dreams.

Block Niners(1959-1960) From L to R
Sitting: Low Mui Chuan, Tan Teong Kooi, Chelvarajah, Jaikishan, Lionel Koh, Siva, Wan Chwee Seng, Nagarajah, Choo Ewe Keat, Teh Tien Chong
Standing: Michael Shum, Douglas Gomez, Johnny Khoo, Ang, Rahim, Seripala, William, Ahmad Omar, Joseph John, Tay Soo Hock, Tan Vin Quen

Fifty years on, Seripala and a few of my friends who shared that delicious fare are no longer with us. Today, as I reflect on the many fond memories of my college days, those late-night incidents and the few moments we shared together are among the most precious.
They helped to add spice to our otherwise mundane college work and are the little threads that lend more vibrant colours to life’s tapestry. In our golden years, these are moments to savour.

Cliff Richard ......" Living Doll 1959 "

Mary Hopkin _ Those were the days

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Lessons for life

Precious memories

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Precious memories

The Star
Wednesday February 17, 2010

Precious Memories

Story and illustration

Magic moments that live on in the catacombs of our mind.

ON A cold winter night in January of 1959, two thickly-clad figures could be seen making their way slowly down the approach road to Kirkby College, Liverpool. The road was virtually deserted. It was past midnight and well past lights out.

The road leading to Kirkby College, Liverpool

Towering trees which lined the road stood stark naked like silent sentinels, while the fish-and-chip stall and a farm house beyond it were just murky shapes.
A few metres from the college gate, the pair caught sight of something which made them stop dead in their tracks. Under the golden pool of light, cast by a solitary street lamp, stood the hulking figure of the warden.
“Mr Struthers,” a voice whispered.
The figures made a quick about-turn and started to pace back and forth along the icy road. They wrapped their scarves tightly round their necks to protect themselves from the biting wind and their gloveless hands dug deeper into the pockets of their gabardines.
The low-hanging fog and the darkness of winter, they fervently hoped would render them unrecognisable. The warden finally stalked away. The two figures made a dash for the college gate, made a quick right turn and vanished into Block 9.
In the silence and comfort of the recreation room, they warmed their numb hands over an electric heater. For both figures, my friend Seripala and I, it was not the end, but the beginning of our troubles.
I remember well that particular evening. Earlier in the evening, young men and women could be seen heading for the gym hall to seek warmth and company from the darkness and dreariness of winter. It was the evening of the informal dance.
“Shall we go to the dance?” I asked Seripala.
Stroking his goatee, he mulled over my suggestion.
“Er…er... I think I prefer to go to the Jacaranda Club,” he replied with a faint smile that flitted at the corner of his mouth.
“Like to go?” he inquired with his trademark smile.
“Okay,” I replied.

Quiet escapade

After an early dinner, we slipped quietly out of the college gate. We took a bus to Liverpool and soon, I found myself trying hard to keep pace with his long striding steps. We made our way along unfamiliar roads flanked by indistinct buildings and came to a stop at the entrance of an inconspicuous building.
Seripala whispered something to the doorman and we were ushered in. The moment we stepped into the building, the metallic rhythm of steel band music reached our ears. As my eyes adjusted to the dimly-lit surroundings, I realised we were standing on some kind of landing.
A short flight of steps led to a cellar which was filled with a seething mass of hip-swaying bodies. To the left was a small counter that served light refreshment. A mural adorned a wall, only its black and white outlines now visible in the dim light.
We pushed our way past the milling crowd to the centre of the room. Soon we found ourselves dancing with two English college girls to the rhythm of a Calypso music provided by a Caribbean Steel Band.

There was no room for any fancy footwork and the din made it impossible to engage in any extended conversation. So we “danced” in silence, hardly moving from our spots. Caught in the excitement of the moment, we soon lost count of time. Then above the din a voice next to me said: “Hey! It’s nearly 12!”
We shouldered through the crowd, grabbed our gabardines and headed for the nearest bus stop. The last bus to Kirkby College screeched to a halt. Talking and laughing in childish exuberance, we scrambled up the bus and plopped ourselves in the vacant seat behind the driver.
We had hardly settled down when the not-too-familiar figure of a college lecturer boarded the bus. Without even glancing at us he strolled calmly to the back of the bus. As the bus hummed its way towards its destination, we sat in complete silence as both of us had the uneasy feeling of someone watching our every move.
After what seemed like an eternity, the bus finally came to a halt at the college bus stop. We sat and waited for the few passengers at the back to disembark. I stole a glance at the disembarking commuters.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the lecturer. He was standing next to our seats. His eyes were fixed directly at the open door and the darkness beyond. I heaved a sigh of relief as there was not the slightest sign of recognition. Then, above the silence of the cold night air came a crisp voice: “See the warden, tomorrow.”

"See the warden, tomorrow!"

As we stood in the recreation room and warmed our hands over the glowing electric heater, I wondered how the lecturer knew we were from Kirkby College. Then it dawned on me that like typical “freshie hobos”, we were na├»ve enough to don our college scarves!

A lesson in charity

The next day, we found ourselves outside the warden’s office. We tapped lightly at the door and without waiting for an answer, stepped into his office. The warden peered at us over his thick-rimmed glasses.
“Yes, what can I do for you, young men?”
We explained to him about the night’s incident and waited anxiously with bated breath for the expected long lecture. It never came. Instead in a slow, calm voice he said: “Young men, you can enjoy yourselves, but be careful. The English girls can be naughty, you know.”
With those sagacious words of advice, he waved us out. As we left his room, we realised that behind the table sat a big man with a big heart.

The warden ( Mr. Struthers ) standing on the right, welcoming us
to Kirkby College

Our trips to the Jacaranda Club came to an abrupt end though, as Seripala had somehow decided to take up ballroom dancing lessons at the Victor Sylvester’s Dance Hall. However, we filled our free time and weekends with other interesting activities.
Seripala, who was well-known for his culinary skills, would often prepare his signature dish – spicy fish curry. I remember the cold winter nights, well past lights-out, when the aroma of freshly-cooked fish curry would waft across the long narrow corridor of Block 9. Ravenous, pyjama-clad bodies peeped from half-opened doors and in zombie-like fashion would sniff their way to our bolted room. Then, there were the weekend trips to the brightly-lit town of Blackpool; the horse race at Aintree and the GP on the Isle of Wight.
I remember that particular trip because on the return journey aboard a ferry, a stranger had walked up to me and said: “Your countrymen did very well.”
I nodded. I knew he had mistaken me for a Japanese. I also remember the winter days when we would join our English family at Goodison Park to cheer for Everton and that special trip to Old Trafford in Manchester to watch the game between Everton and Manchester United.

With so much fun and activities, the years slipped by, unnoticed. Suddenly, we found our two-year stay in Kirkby College had come to an end and it was time to bid farewell to our friends.

At St. Paul's Hill , Melaka during a school vacation
From Lto R: Seripala, Chwee Seng, Joseph John

On our return to Malaya, Seripala and I were posted to different parts of the country. We met once during the school holidays and then lost touch with each other.

Years passed.

One morning, while scanning the local papers, my eyes fell on a news item about a Kirkbyite who had passed away in a foreign country. I saw the name. It was my good friend, Seripala.
I choked back the lump that rose to my throat as memories of our Kirkby days came flooding back.
Today, 50 years on, I still cherish that friendship and remember with nostalgia the magic moments that we shared, especially that unforgettable night at the Jacaranda Club

Some interesting facts about 'The Jacaranda' ( source: Liverpool Echo )

The Jacaranda, or the Jac as it is popularly known, has a rich history linked with The Beatles. It was founded in 1957 by Allan Williams, the Fab Four's first manager and "the man who gave them away".
Williams leased an old watch repair shop which he converted into a coffee bar. He named the venue the Jacaranda after an exotic species of ornamental flowering tree.
The Jac, as it became known, opened a year later in September 1958 and John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and Paul McCartney were frequent customers.
Asking for the chance to play at the club, Williams instead put them to work redecorating, with Lennon and Sutcliffe painting a mural for the Ladies room. The Beatles finally began playing at the Jac and in the summer of 1960, Williams secured a number of bookings for the group at other venues.
In 1961, Williams and The Beatles parted company over money and in 1962 he famously told their new manager Brian Epstein: "Don't touch them with a bargepole, they will let you down."Prior to its closure, the Jacaranda was known for its basement vault booths, chandeliers and a belting Wurlitzer jukebox.
The walls were covered with pictures of The Beatles, Cilla Black and Epstein, alongside posters for seemingly every Beatles-related movie, play and revue.

Nestled among them is the celebrated 1956 school picture of pupils at the Liverpool Institute, in which can be seen McCartney and his brother Mike, George Harrison, newsreader Peter Sissons and various members of Gerry And The Pacemakers,Remo Four and The Quarrymen.

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Moments to savour