Who needs Television?


THAT piece, two weeks ago, about my first day in school in Kuching drew a number of comments, mostly complimentary. I must acknowledge them with thanks right here and now.

PRECIOUS MEMORIES: ‘Three Came Home’ was the first book the writer could afford to purchase.

Someone pointed out that I had missed out the names of two teachers, Mrs Chi and Mr Lee Teck Huat. Indeed, I had missed more – Mr Y John (Maths), Mr Thampi (Biology), Mr Thambiah (?), Mr Willie Eng (Form 2 teacher), and PV Joy (Science). I am sorry. Not growing any younger, am I?

I remember Mr Lee Teck Huat all right, the teacher who walked with his hands behind his back. In the right one he held a thin rotan, which he would not spare on a noisy boy, not on the buttocks but on the left palm. Most painful, I was told by someone in Primary 6 who had a first-hand experience.

His son, Lee Chee Leong, was our Scoutmaster. Sometimes Chee Leong took us to his house after a meeting. At home — without the terror stick and puffing his cheroot — Mr Lee was an affable human but a strict disciplinarian, the type of teacher we badly need in some schools these days.

The newspapers we read

After a few years in an English school, I began to read newspapers in that language regularly. To get a copy of the venerable The Sarawak Tribune (10 cents), one had to go down all the way to Chiang Wah Onn, a bookshop down at Carpenter Street.

For a copy of The Week Ender, a periodical imported from Singapore, one had to go to Toko Mustafa at Gambier Street. The shortcut from India Street to Gambier Street was through a narrow dark passage, wide enough for one fat man, bypassing an Indian Muslim Mosque and a row of stalls full of spices. The magazine was expensive (50 cents) but worth the purchase because you could read about what was going on in other parts of the world. The new words enriched your vocabulary, to be used at the next school debate.

I liked its editorials written in idiomatic language and from it discovered a number of new words and adverbial phrases not normally found in school textbooks. Under the masthead of that publication was the expression: ‘For Discerning Readers Everywhere’. That word ‘discerning’ has been part of my collection of favourite English words to this day.

Are you a discerning reader?

Will you be a discerning voter on the 16th of this month?

Although books were not easily available in Kuching in the 1950s, bookworms somehow found their way to Tsing Nien Book Store at Carpenter Street before Francis Tan and Sim Kheng Lung opened the Rex Bookstore at Khoo Hun Yeang Street.

There was no public library to talk about and the school library sited in the attic of the school was stuffy and was mainly meant for boarders. The school magazine The Square popped out once a fortnight, hardly a source for fresh ideas.

We frequented a little shop called Mayfair at No. 47, Wayang Street, where we could get second-hand books. I bought ‘Three Came Home’ by Agnes Keth there for $2.25, the first book I ever could afford to buy — originally owned by one Albert Yong, Kuching, who wrote down his name on the side cover.

The shop was run by an old man called Uncle Ah Teck, who trained a couple of dogs. Years later, I learnt that Ah Teck was an important man sent out to Sarawak by the British Intelligence to pave the way for the recapture of Sarawak from the Japanese. How I wish I had known about this earlier; I could have found out how he managed to penetrate the Japanese security cordon of Kuching and how he managed to keep alive under the very noses of the Kempetai.

The radio station

In the late 1950s, Radio Sarawak started broadcasting local news; the world news was relayed from the BBC in London. Everyone in school started to imitate the BBC pronunciation. Chew Hock Guan was a very popular announcer because he had the perfect English accent and a broadcasting voice. Yes, there is such a thing as a broadcasting voice – pleasant to the ear.

The films we saw

We had limited choice of entertainment. Number one was the films. There were two cinema houses in Kuching – the Sylvia Cinema and Lilian Theatre. Later there was built another called Rex. These were always packed every Sunday morning. Popular films were ‘Tarzan’ (Johnny Weismuller), ‘Zorro’, ‘Three Musketeers’, ‘Jesse James’, and the ‘Count of Monte Cristo’. The Malay films produced by the Shaw Brothers such as ‘Semerah Padi’, starring P Ramlee, were mostly shown at the Lilian.

The shows would begin at 10am and we made sure that we were the first to be at the ticket counter, not queuing up but scrambling sometimes over one another with hands full of 30 cent coins for the cheapest seats almost right under the screen.

The boarders could afford luxuries like the dried cuttlefish or ice cream, for us the poor students from outstation, melon seeds (kuachi) would do.

Before a show started we would stand for the National Anthem, ‘God Save The Queen’. This was followed by a show by Pearl & Dean showing goods of many kinds and their prices. I did not know that this was an advertisement. Then followed a short film or a preview of the next one before the intermission — time for adults to smoke outside. One could smoke inside the cinema hall; all cinema halls were not air-conditioned except the Rex.

The songs we sang

Pat Boone’s ‘Letters in The Sand’ was everybody’s favourite tune, ‘Puppet On A String’ by Connie Francis was another. The requests for songs — ‘Rambling Rose’ by Nat King Cole or Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’ (instrumental) — to be played over the radio for a friend on Saturday afternoons involved some elaborate investment. Sometimes, we enclosed a dollar note to the announcer thinking this offer would get our songs played over the radio.

As and when we could collect enough money from 10 people, we started a fund from which we drew when new songs were on the market, so to speak. But this did not seem to work with the announcer.

From the Malay Section of Radio Sarawak, you would be able to listen to melodies like ‘Rangkaian Melati’, ‘Bunga Tanjung’, ‘Engkau Laksana Bulan’ (P Ramlee) or ‘Jembatan Merah’, for free.

At Scout campfires the most popular song was ‘John Brown’ — about whose ‘body was smouldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on’, ending with ‘Alleluia’.

Picnic spots

Santubong was a favourite spot for a picnic. In one of the excursions, a stranger with a mandolin suddenly appeared on the scene and joined us. His name was Anthony Saletan; he taught us the song ‘My Donkey’ –

“My Donkey Walk,

“My Donkey Talk,

“My Donkey Eat

“With a Spoon and Fork”.

No swimming pool was in Kuching in the 1950s, so we boys went to Matang stream for a swim at the Ang Kio (Red Bridge), cycling all the way there and back.

Nowadays, that would be crazy, wouldn’t it?

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected].