Wednesday, 14 August 2019
Spending the last few weeks at his hospital bedside, I have learnt a lot more about the man who rose from being an illiterate 15-year-old from Batu Gajah, Perak, to a magistrate, principal and proprietor of Sels College, than I ever did in a friendship of almost 40 years.
He was often described as “kind and generous” by those who knew and loved him as friend, mentor, father and grandfather.
Always by his bedside, since he was admitted, were several Malaysian students — Ain, Nur Hayati as well as Dr Amalina Amir, who were among those he had taught English at Malaysia Hall every Friday evening. They took turns to take care of him with Yunus’ old friend, Ravi Pillai, who would stay there from morning until noon.
The man, whose love for teaching knew no bounds, taught for free. The Malaysian students were not the only recipients of his generosity.
When Amalina was nominated for the Schmidt Science Fellowship, she discovered Yunus slotted her in with students from Egypt, Syria and Italy.
Several years ago, a Malaysian who was in London for a short course had the misfortune of being mugged. Yunus paid for his two-week stay at the Malaysia Hall plus food at the canteen.
He always encouraged me to do more and even paid for my trip to Berlin to film an old manuscript for a documentary. He contributed a generous sum to a child who came here for a liver transplant.
Being with Yunus, even outside the classroom, was always a learning experience. I remember meeting him on a bus to Cricklewood, north London.
His observation was sharp — he brought to my attention the different languages being spoken by the passengers, which he said was like driving through different countries.
Yunus lived by the motto, “Learning to learn to live to learn”. He was learning several languages.
Last week, among the stream of visitors to his bedside was his Mandarin teacher. She had taught him for two years and was saddened by his sudden absence in May.
She cried when her greeting, “Ni hao ma”, was replied with a weak “Hao”. I took the cue and said, “Datuk, wa ai ni”, to which he smiled and replied, “Wa ai ni”.
He spoke Tamil to his relatives who visited from afar, and impressed fellow patients and hospital staff with his English.
When he woke up from his painkiller-induced sleep, we spoke about theatres and restaurants — two of his favourite subjects.
Once, Leo Hamburger, who has known Yunus since he was a toddler, mentioned several favourite plays of Yunus and the latter responded by saying “Covent Garden!” — a place he held dear perhaps because this was where his school for English was located.
When we mentioned food, he demanded that the phone be given to him.
“Who are you calling at 1am, Yunus?” Leo wanted to know.
“The Punjab — take away,” he said, jabbing at the screen.
It was sad that in the last few years of his life, he was denied several of his favourite foods, having been put on a strict diet.
He loved the Malaysia Hall canteen. His fear of flying meant he had not flown back to Malaysia for the past 20 years, so he religiously went to the Malaysia Hall canteen to get his fix of mee rebus and roti canai.
“Malaysia Hall is home to me. Without Malaysia Hall, where would I go?” he said.
Once, when the nurse told him off for eating melon as his sugar level was high, he looked despondent for a while. Then, he looked up and said, “Roti canai!”
I promised him that I would bring some the next day, but he insisted I do so immediately. Thankfully, he fell asleep and I brought his favourite food the next day.
Yunus believed in giving people a chance. When he couldn’t read or write, the tailor who was his first employer at the age of 15 gave him that chance he needed and sent him to evening classes.
He was among Malayan teachers who went to Kirkby to be trained in 1954. Train tickets were already booked for him for a reunion of Kirkby-trained teachers at the end of the month. They were supposed to meet at where they were taught. He was supposed to read his poem, Kirkby — A Many Splendoured Thing, there.
Yunus will be remembered by all who knew him as the “Malay English gentleman” — always meticulously attired, with a hat, coat, muffler and a handkerchief, tucked in his pocket.
“I have never seen him in anything but suits,” said his son, Alex Swan, who was by his bedside almost every day since learning about his deteriorating health.
The presence of Alex and his wife, Sherry, during the last few weeks of his life meant so much to Yunus.
Yunus may have left us, but he will live on in our memories. We will miss him dearly.
Monday, 27 February 2017
“Well, she was just 17 and you know what I mean, and the way she looks…”so goes the song by the Fab Four from Liverpool. It was the sixties, The Beatles and Cliff Richard were all the rave. This song could have been written specially for Sally and Malcolm Moore, the couple who met in the queue buying tickets for the movie “Summer Holidays”.
Sally Lee Sing Neo was 17 going on 21 and Malcolm Moore was the good looking soldier in uniform. You could almost hear on cue, the theme song for a blockbuster movie - the one with lots of thorns strewn along their path. Smooth it wasn’t.
He was an ang moh and the vivacious Methodist school girl came from a Peranakan family whose parents, family members, aunts and uncles, would rally around at a flick of a fan, to lock her up if possible.
It was in 1962 in Malacca that they first set eyes on each other, they told me almost in unison. And yes, it was love at first sight too, they chorused, with Malcolm nodding in agreement with dates and events that Sally narrated, her 72-year old eyes alive and dancing as memories flooded back when we met in their cosy home in the village of Rossington in Doncaster recently.
The living room of their smart detached house was decorated with pictures; old and new, colour and black and white, Malaya and England. These are memories of their life together since their meeting on that fateful day at the Cathay cinema in Malacca.
Malcolm was a corporal with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), when he was posted to Malacca at the age of 20. He is now 75.
“When I saw her, I knew that she was the one,” said Malcolm, the tattoo on his arms bearing a female name seemed to be a minor problem that he thought could be erased in time.
“We started going out,” continued Sally whose escape plans involved logistics, precision planning as well as physique and agility of a commando for the attempts of rendezvous, given the opposition from family members.
“I had to sneak out otherwise I would get into trouble,” explained Sally.
As was normal in a Peranakan family and extended family, Sally slept with her cousin sisters in one room. From the two storey house, she would climb out of the window when they were asleep and they would go somewhere in town or the beach.
She soon exhausted all the well tried and tested reasons for staying out, such as sleeping over at a friend’s place and soon enough family members found out. Although no one was pointing fingers at the brother who caught them kissing, it must have been quite a relief that their trysts were discovered and their intentions to get married could be discussed openly.
However, it was the threats that came first; especially from the uncle who lived next door.
“When he found out he forbade me from going out. He said they would not allow me to marry an Englishman,” she added saying that she had to kneel in front of him while he did the talking, warning her of the bleak outlook of life without rice in England.
“He said I should try to eat potatoes for a month and being stubborn, I said yes, I would,” she said laughingly, living up to her reputation as the most stubborn and naughtiest member of the family.
Sally’s mother threatened to put her in a home for naughty children and when that went unheeded, hit her with a broom when she came back from an outing with Malcolm.
“She said ‘Lu kasi malu gua' (you have embarrassed me!)” hitting me as she said so. But I just walked past her.
It wasn’t just the parents and family members who were set to stop the marriage of the young couple. Marriage between soldiers and the locals were frowned upon by the army.
Before a posting to Borneo, Malcolm proposed. Sally was interviewed by the army and she was kept under surveillance.
To ask for her hand, Malcolm had to see her parents and uncle.
It was not unlike a job interview for Malcolm had had to answer a barrage of questions from the uncle who asked whether Sally would be treated as a servant once they were back in England. Malcolm said no and he was made to promise that he would look after his young bride to be.
The happy couple married on 16th Nov 1963 and their son was later born in May in Terendak Camp.
It wasn’t too long when Malcolm brought back his young family to England. Sally recalled how unexpected it was with the hugging and kissing from strangers.
“The weather was a shock. We arrived at the Brice Norton airport at six in the morning. I didn’t have a coat and just a cardigan with a baby in my arms and I was expecting another one. I was 18,” said Sally of the September weather, adding that she used to cry in the nights. She was missing her family AND rice. Her mother in law went out of the way to find rice and curry, but it was one with fruit and raisins. But gradually she found friends who were in a similar situation having uprooted themselves to be with their soldier husbands.
Sally was lucky that in 1966 she was back in Malaysia as Malcolm was posted back to the same camp he left two years before. Sally then went back as a British soldier’s wife.
She brought her two small children to visit their grandparents and relatives and soon they won the affection of the family.
“After that I could do no wrong in the eyes of the uncle,” quipped in Malcolm.
When Malcolm left the army in 1971, he worked as a mining welder and later went to Hong Kong to work for a security firm as well as in the police force. They lived in Hong Kong for 21 years before coming back to Doncaster.
Thursday, 23 February 2017
Love in the tropics :A young soldier fell in love with a local lass and proposed everyday for over five years until she relented
Over the years, I have met a lot of ex-servicemen from the British Army and spoken to them about their experience in the jungles of Malaya; defending the country against the communists and during the konfrantasi with Indonesia. Some brought back wonderful memories of friendships which they still treasure, some still recite the pantuns they learnt and memorized behind sandbags, and some brought back wives to be their life long partners.
With love in the air, this being the month for Valentines, I went searching for some couples whose love blossomed in the tropics to see how they have fared in the cooler climes.
Suffice to say, I got more than I bargained for; love stories that defied all odds and worth turning into a Mills & Boons series. Who wouldn’t swoon listening to stories of undying love of a young soldier for an 18 year old Chinese girl to whom he proposed almost everyday until she relented years later, who wouldn’t cry reading jottings of love from someone who couldn’t read or write to her soul mate who saved her from a series of life’s misfortunes, who wouldn’t sympathise with the lass who was beaten with a broom for going out with an ang moh! Yes, all for the love of an ang moh kui, the red haired devils in uniforms that set many hearts a flutter!
Last week, I travelled up to Colchester, once the capital of Roman Britain, to meet up with the first couple, John and Ruth Fitt, both 71, to hear their love story.
John Fitt joined the army, the Royal Green Jackets, at the age of 15, to see the world. When he was posted to Penang three years later, his meeting with the long haired and petit Cheng Say Muan, also 18, was only the start of a life long adventure that would take them around the world.
“My friend had asked me to go to this White House restaurant and bar in Penang Road. That was when I saw her. Her hair was right down to her bum,” he said pointing to a black and white picture of the lass he now calls Ruth.
“My jaw dropped, my heart was beating so fast and the first time I spoke to her, I asked her to marry me,” he recalled the moment as if it was yesterday.
The gobsmacked lass, whose family owned the restaurant, obviously thought the young soldier was either mad or drunk, for she had met so many drunken Australian and British soldiers who frequented her father’s bar
Everyday since they met, she was bombarded with, “Will you marry me?” She gave in five years later and they were married on 30th May 1967.
“When he was away, he would send piles of letters and every line and every page would be filled with “I love you” said Ruth of her besotted beau.
“When you are in love, you are a complete idiot, aren’t you? You tend to do idiotic things!” John defended as they sat in their sitting room surrounded by memorabilias, souvenirs and pictures; testimonials of their journey in life together.
As the stories unfolded, with John and Ruth trying to tell their own version of the story, each finishing each other’s sentences as it is wont to be with long married couples, John’s admission of being an idiot didn’t stop there.
“He stalked me everywhere. He bribed trishaw pullers with five sens or ten sens to tell him where Miss Long Hair was,” protested Ruth lovingly while John just smiled coyly remembering his mischiefs.
It would be months before Ruth would agree to go out, and a lot longer before they would hold hands.
“We had to meet secretly, at the cinema for the midnight movies. I would buy the tickets first, gave them to her and we would meet inside the cinema. One of her sisters would meet her outside and they would walk home,” John continued, adding that just by being nice, he won over the approval of her siblings, her mother and even her grandmother.
However, the biggest hurdle and challenge was her father, a respectable member of the Hainan community on the island, who considered marrying an ang moh as akin to ruining his reputation.
“My father didn’t mind us being friends, but not to marry,” added Ruth whose work as a baby sitter with an Australian couple at the Australian base in Butterworth, helped true love on its course during the turbulent times.
By then, Ruth was offered a place in Australia to do nursing, sponsored by her employers. When John received orders to be posted to Munster in Germany, she found herself at a crossroads.
Her grandmother found her crying in her room and offered her the best advice that she needed.
“She liked John who was kind and caring, so she advised me to go with John,” said Ruth.
The decision to marry started a conspiracy that would involve more willing sympathisers across several continents.
The day of their marriage at the registration office in George Town and the dinner that followed was one that was tinged with sadness as her father, who wasn’t privy to what was going on, wasn’t there.
“All my siblings, my mother and aunties were there, but not my father. When my employers left for Australia, my father thought I left with them to do my nursing course.
But we left two weeks later, as husband and wife. I also left letters for my father. The letters would be sent to Australia to my former employers and they would be posted back to my father with the Australian stamps and postmarks!” explained Ruth of the web of conspiracy.
But Ruth knew she needed to tell her father who still thought she was in Australia. With the help of her mother, they came up with the story that Ruth had accompanied her Australian employers to Germany, where she ‘accidentally” met John again and they had married. By then she was 23, and although her father was heartbroken, he accepted that explanation.
A few years later, the couple went back with their first born, Dan, and her father’s heart melted. They then had a daughter and Penang is now a favourite destination for the family.
As a final evidence of their devoted life together, the couple took out a cake; the first tier of their wedding cake which had travelled halfway around the world with them and had remained unopened.
The whiff of smell, akin to old cheese, filled the air as they finally got the almost 50 year old cake out of its container and ceremoniously cut it for me to witness. They laughed and giggled; the love smitten 18 year old ang moh soldier and his Malayan bride.
This article first appeared in the NST on 12 Feb 2017