Sunday, April 21

The barefoot schoolgirl who sprinted into history as Borneo’s fastest woman

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St Mary’s School anchor runner Mary Chong set to speed off upon receiving the baton during the inter-school girl’s invitational relay at the 1952 St Joseph’s School Annual Sports Day.

KUCHING: Former St Mary’s School principal Mrs Siaw nee Mary Chong can look back on a long, fulfilling life as top student, Colombo Plan scholar, long-serving educator and active member of the Church community since her retirement in 1987. But one particular year probably stood out as her most exhilarating. Actually it was more like a frenzied, action-packed five-week episode when a barefoot schoolgirl took a crack at sprinting and wrote a thrilling chapter in Sarawak’s sporting and women history.

It was 1956. Mary’s father – an Anglican priest – was in Brunei at the time with her mother and sisters. Canon Emeritus Paul Chong was founder of Miri’s St Columba’s School and Brunei’s St Andrew’s School. His 19-year-old daughter boarded in Kuching at St Mary’s School. Sarawak was just breaking out of the ruins and dislocation wrought by the Japanese Occupation. Centenary celebrations for the Anglican Mission and school in 1948 had been delayed for seven years.

Borneo’s fastest woman – Sarawak’s Mary Chong – stood on top of the podium during the medal presentation for the women’s 100 yards at the 2nd British Borneo Inter-Territorial Championships. Second and third were Brunei’s Rose Chong (left) and Sarawak’s Yu Lian Hua (right) respectively.

“Sports was not something people spent time on … Most people would have been focussing on day to day survival. Sports would have been a distraction,” Mary recalled in an exclusive interview with thesundaypost.

She was living a somewhat sheltered if regimented life. The school boarders had a fixed daily schedule: early rise, breakfast, prayers, school, lunch, recreation, dinner, self-study and bed-time. Nevertheless, she kept herself busy with school and church activities:

“I was a prefect in school. I was quite active in extra-curricular activities. I joined the Music Club and Dancing Club. We would learn folk songs and dances, then present them for annual school concerts. This helped with fundraising for the school too. I led the school team to victory in the Inter-School General Knowledge Quiz. I was also in the choir at St Thomas’ Cathedral.”

Every evening around 5pm the principal would send the boarders out for sports and games. Asked about sports facilities in the school Mary replied, “There were none really! We had a small patch of grass at St Mary’s.” But that was how she got started:

“For me it was running. It was something I could do easily and do well. Because I could run, I had to take part. The inter-house school sports (day) would be at St Thomas’ School sports field (further up the hill across the road). So I took part in running and from there was selected for inter-school meets, etc.”

The annual sports day of inter-house competition was filled with ‘fun’ events like the sack, blindfold and obstacle races. Track and field events were still quite a novelty especially for girls and women. The first state-wide championship in 1954, organised by the Kuching Amateur Athletic Association (KAAA), only featured events for men. It was not until the third edition in 1956 that the programme introduced four events for women: 100 yards, 220 yards, high jump and long jump. There was no distance running, hurdles, relay or throwing event.

The Sarawak women’s team marched past the grand stand during the opening of the 2nd British Borneo Inter-Territorial Championships at the Jubilee Ground. Mary is on the front row, second right. A crowd of 5,000 spectators bought tickets to watch the biggest sports event ever held in Sarawak.

Unlike champion athletes of today Mary started “rather late, maybe 16 or 17.” It was more of a pastime: “I also liked running by myself or with the team in the evening, I found it relaxing actually. There was something calming about going through the motions.”

But her talent was soon obvious and she liked to compete. She said she enjoyed running “especially when we beat the opposition.” The highest level of competition for school athletes was the invitational inter-school sprint relay, a fixture of sports days among the major schools at the time. She described the experience: “For the inter-school competitions, there were four of us – Jenny Wong, Lulu Wong, Rosalind Anding and myself. We took part in the 4 x110 yards relay and we would always beat St Teresa’s – our rival school!”

The 3rd KAAA Championship was held at Jubilee Ground on 14 July 1956. Athletes competed on the only grass field in the state capital with permanent markings and pits for the various track and field events. It was only six years later that Sarawak’s first bitumen running track was laid on the Jubilee Ground. St Mary’s was among the few secondary schools to send students to compete against athletes representing several government agencies and sports clubs from Sibu, Miri and Kuching. And so she prepared for the big day:

“So my training, if you can call it that, would be running there (the bigger St Thomas’ School sports field) in the evenings. Maybe just 15 minutes or half an hour. No one was there to time me. Sometimes I would train with the relay team, sometimes on my own. I never did get to train on a proper track until we competed at the Jubilee Ground.”

“We ran barefoot because we did not have any other shoes. Sometimes we ran in our school shoes. There were no shoes with all the padding or cushioning that you have now … (So) all the runners would run barefoot. It was a common thing. Most of us could not afford to buy other (meaning spiked) shoes and really it would not have been easy to buy such shoes. I have no idea how much such shoes would have cost or what was available.”

Mary stood on top of the podium as Sarawak’s first women’s 100 yards champion in the 1956 Kuching AAA championships at the Jubilee Ground. Second and third were St Teresa’s Yu Lian Hua (left) and Irene Chew respectively.

It didn’t matter. The record book showed that Mary Chong of St Mary’s School became the first ever Sarawak women sprint champion. She scored a double on that 14 July Saturday, winning the 100 yards (12.3sec) and 220 yards (29.8sec). She returned to school as a star, grateful that teachers and schoolmates were so proud of her: “No one else from St Mary’s had ever done something like that before.”

“(When) I returned from (the KAAA meet that evening), the boarders had started dinner when I entered the dining hall. They rose in thunderous applause! Actually they did the same when I was the only one to score Division One in the Cambridge School Certificate Examination.”

1956 was also a momentous year because Kuching was the venue for the 2nd British Borneo Inter-Territorial Athletic Championships (later called Borneo Games) on 21 July. The first held in Seria (Brunei) was also restricted to men only. Barely a week after the Kuching AAA meet Mary braced herself to don Sarawak colours to run against the best that Borneo could offer. She faintly remembered that Sarawak sports officials could have provided her with spiked shoes to wear for the first time. The wide-eyed schoolgirl surprised everyone including herself to sweep three gold medals:

“I must have been nervous at the time. I would not have run in front of such a big crowd before. I basically tried my best and by God’s grace I beat them! I became the fastest woman in Sarawak and Borneo … I was, of course, happy! It was completely unexpected, especially against Sabah, North Borneo then. They were known to be very good. Without any proper training, I was very surprised to win the 100 yards (12.6sec), 220 yards (personal best: 28.9sec) and the 4 x 110 yards relay (55.8sec with Irene Chew, Yu Lian Hua, Mildred Bateman).”

An official report stated that 5,000 ticket-buying spectators thronged the fenced Jubilee Ground to watch the biggest sports event ever held in Sarawak. Schoolgirl Mary Chong emerged from it as a local celebrity:

“I suppose I became a role model of sorts. I walked along Carpenter Street (1 km from the school premises) and complete strangers would greet me. “Hello Mary!” they would call out and I had no idea who they were, but they recognised me.”

15 outstanding athletes were selected to represent British Borneo in the 35th MAAA (Malaya Amateur Athletic Association) Championship to be held in Penang from August 17-18, 1956. Three women were included in the Borneo contingent for the first time: Sarawak’s Mary Chong (100 yards, 220 yards), North Borneo’s Adina Abad (high jump) and Brunei’s Rose Chong (long jump). It would be a tall order for them in Penang. Female athletes in Malaya have regularly taken part in competition since the 1930s. In 1956, the top women sprinters were clocking under 12 secs for the 100 yards led by Singapore’s Mary Klass, silver medallist at the 1954 Asian Games.

The Borneo team flew to Singapore and then Penang. It was the first time that Mary ran on a bitumen track at the newly built Penang Sports Stadium. None of the Borneo women obtained a medal although Mary did well enough to qualify for the 220 yards final. Reflecting on that experience over 60 years later she said:

“It was the first time I was travelling not to be with family, so I am sure it would have been overwhelming. I had never been away from Borneo before. Definitely never been to a proper stadium. The facilities in Penang were much better than anything we had in Kuching at the time. Before Jubilee Ground, all I had were the school fields. I wasn’t really disappointed with Penang because I knew we had no proper training. It was still a very good experience. I was proud to have represented Borneo.”

The Borneo team assembled during the opening ceremony of the 35th Malaya AAA Championships at Penang Sports Stadium in August 1956. The three women athletes were (from left) Brunei’s Rose Chong, Sarawak’s Mary Chong and North Borneo’s Adina Abad.

She can’t remember if she had told her parents before the trip but guessed the church could have informed them. She said, “It would not have been easy to communicate with my parents at the time. I was basically called by Sarawak to go and I went!” After the MAAA meet in Penang she never competed again. It was back to school, completing her Form Six, away to University of Sydney to obtain a B.A degree with a Diploma in Education and returning to her alma mater to embark on a teaching career.

Her 100 and 220 yards state records stood unbroken for three and six years respectively. Later Sarawak sprint champions like Chen Li Na (five times from 1958 to 1964), Lau Kiew Ee (six times in the 70s and 80s) and Hii Siew Ngiik (eight times in the 90s) have won the 100 yards (or 100m starting from 1963) more times. But Mary Chong will always be the first in the long line of Sarawak champions in that blue riband track event. And her name is forever etched in the history book as the first woman athlete to represent Sarawak overseas and the first athlete in Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei to be crowned Borneo’s fastest woman.

The Borneo Post would like to invite our readers to suggest past champions, officials, teams or events that played a role in Sarawak’s rich sporting history. It will be helpful if you can provide contact details and other information to us for the follow-up research or interviews especially if such persons or events involve your family members, relatives or acquaintances. Email to the Sports Editor at [email protected] This occasional Pioneer Series kicks off with a feature story on Sarawak’s first woman sprint champion.