The way it used to be

AT an impressionable age in the early 1960s, I started secondary school at St Thomas’ in Kuching, in January of 1963, when the world was filled with endless possibilities and dreams could still come true. For a 13-year old, the world was an oyster – anything was attainable – the United States of America together with Great Britain (then usually just referred to as England) – had ruled the world and were both seen to be the great benevolent and much-admired ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, invincible nations, destinations we had all aspired to eventually travel to, either to continue our further studies, to just visit or holiday there, or eventually even to migrate.

In 1963, John F Kennedy was the President of the United States of America (he was assassinated later that year on Nov 22) to be replaced by Lyndon B Johnson. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister of Great Britain. Martin Luther King Jnr had given his ‘I Had a Dream’ speech that year; and the polio vaccine was being given out in both the USA and UK for the very first time.

On the entertainment front, Beatlemania had just started; the Rolling Stones had burst on the scene in the UK. The year’s Oscar for Best Picture had gone to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’; and the hit movies were Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ and ‘The Great Escape’, which made a matinee hero of Steve McQueen. The Record of the Year was Tony Bennett’s ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’.

On the home front, Konfrontasi between Malaysia (specifically between Sarawak and Kalimantan Borneo) had started on July 27, 1963. Britain had started sending its troops and advisors into Sarawak, slowly building up a significant presence in the main towns and border villages. Malaysia was formed on Sept 16, 1963.

In school, our medium of education was English, and Bahasa Malaysia became a second optional subject only in 1968, even then it had started off as night adult classes held after hours and was non-compulsory. We had American teachers from the Peace Corps of the United States, Cuso from Canada, and others from Sweden and Australia. Almost a third of the teaching staff at most mission secondary schools were from the UK, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Australia.

In schools everywhere, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Boys’ Brigade, 4H Clubs, and many others were active and extracurricular activities were the order of the day. Sporting events during the day, and debating and miscellaneous clubs completed the active student’s workload and study schedules. Co-education was to start towards the mid-1960s – in my school it was only 1965 when the fifth formers from St Mary’s across the road had started to join the boys in St Thomas’.

In my class from Form 1 in 1963 to Upper 6 in 1969, we had students who were Chinese, Malay, Melanau, Iban, Bidayuh, Indian, and Eurasian, taught by teachers who came from the UK, USA, Canada, Sweden, Australia, India, and Ceylon. As a mission school, our morning assemblies were conducted with prayers and school terms usually started and ended with the singing of hymns. In our tuckshops, the food served was non-halal although pork-free food was also available (the term halal was unknown then). There was no segregation of kitchens; there was no special Islamic prayer room, and students would march to the nearby St Thomas’ Cathedral during special Christian festivals to attend church. All students participated. I had never in my time seen any non-Christian excuse himself nor asked to be exempted from attendance.

In class I had a number of memorable teachers; there was Ian Gamble, a Cuso from Canada; Arthur Cotterell, our English Literature master from England (he has since become world famous having published over 30 books, mainly on mythology and medieval history); Beryl Chapman also from the UK; Zigniew Zamoyski, a Swede from Stockholm who was a real libertine having being sighted taking a shower in the buff in the open; Julia Marsden and Fred Black from Australia; and many others.

Of these teachers from overseas, Ian Gamble introduced us to philosophy, the music of Bob Dylan, and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Kierkegaard. Cotterell married a local Chinese lady from Kuching; he was instrumental in having taught us not just Shakespeare plays and the beauty of the sonnets, but also the poetry of TS Elliot, EE Cummings, Wordsworth, Shelley, and so many others.

Of all the teachers, sadly we have lost touch with many of them, with only recent years having met up with Beryl Chapman and Arthur Cotterell. In the meantime, Fred Black decided to settle down in Kuching and made it his second home after finishing his contract at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus.

For me in particular, the most memorable times of the 1960s spent in Kuching were the immense influence that the presence of the British troops had over the music being played on the radio over Radio Sarawak; the birth of the Beatles in 1962; the love for pop music – Elvis, Roy Orbison, Rick Nelson, Ray Charles, soundtracks and the early beginnings for jazz and the classics; the films (only in cinemas in those days) mainly epics, westerns, dramas, and musicals; and of course the reading – books on myriad subjects, glossy and pulp magazines, whatever newspapers I could get my hands on.

I had bought my first 45rpm single vinyl record in 1959 – Paul Anka’s ‘My Home Town’ at Tai Chey in India Street for $2.40; a year later my first LP was Elvis’ ‘Blue Hawaii’ soundtrack (for $12.80). I had also bought my first issue of ‘Playboy’ in July 1964 at Chiang Wah Onn bookstore at Carpenter/Ewe Hai Street. That same year, I read DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ together with Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, and Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’.

I started my journalistic pursuit with writing articles for ‘The Vanguard’, an English daily founded by the late Leong Ho Yuen, whose son Desmond Leong was my first editor and writing guru; we remain good friends today 53 years later. This was in 1966 when I was still in Form 4 – I had a weekly column called ‘Pop Art’, one full page of news on popular arts and culture, then mostly confined to pop music, movies, and books. I stopped in March 1970, when I started work as an executive cadet at the Borneo Company Limited in Kuching at the same time as my good and dear friend (to this day) Mohd Shookry Gani.

Nowadays, when I hear my friends speak of ‘the good old days’ … this is the story I usually tell them.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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