I WAS just seven months old when my great grandfather Ong Tiang Swee passed away on Oct 19, 1950. He was 86 and I was told that his funeral procession was the longest that Kuching had ever witnessed.
I was born in my grandfather Ong Kwan Hin’s house, at his homestead on a hill sited on the road which still bears his name up till today. He was the second son of Tiang Swee, but had become the patriarch of the Ong family after his eldest brother Hap Hin died at a rather young age due to illness.
My grandfather’s estate had encompassed almost seven acres of prime hilly land just adjacent to the Sarawak Club’s golf course and was surrounded by residences which belonged to the then colonial government. It was only just more than a mile from the town centre but due to its remoteness in those days in the 1950s, it was considered to be upcountry. Within walking distance was the last rajah, Vyner Brooke’s summer retreat, on top of another hill down by Pig Lane (now Park Lane).
Grandfather Kwan Hin had served many years as the Kapitan Cina of Sarawak, having inherited the title from his father before him. He was also chairman of the Hokkien Association from 1948 to 1958, devoting much time to the building and care of Chinese temples. He was widely regarded as an authority on this subject. He was also on the board of many charitable organisations including the Hun Nam Siang Tng. He had a business enterprise named Hiap Soon Hin at Main Bazaar and it was probably the earliest and oldest agent for the AIA insurance company until he gave it up sometime in the 1970s.
Grandpa, whom I called Ah Kong, had a total of 14 children – 10 boys and four girls. Two of the boys died young, one from a horse racing accident and the other due to sickness. My father Kee Bian was number six. Dad had worked in the Agriculture Department in the fisheries section, and his work would take him into the interior and more remote parts of the country; he had also received training and attended courses overseas from Canada to the UK and many other Asian countries.
I grew up in my Ah Kong’s enormous homestead, a rather spacious, roomy and warm bungalow house which he had earlier purchased from an Indian cattle farm owner named Anak Salam. It stood rather majestically on top of a hill, overlooking his orchard, which had all sorts of fruit trees and a garden full of fish ponds, chicken shacks and even a basic badminton court. One of my uncles had erected a sizable orchid shed and there was even some un-cleared jungle right behind all this, which demarcated the boundary between the property and the golf course.
The house itself had four entrances, two were in front by concreted staircases, as if one were to be used as the entrance and the other as the exit. The rear entrances were by the side with twin car porches and another at the back slightly further down the main road.
In the house proper, besides Ah Kong and Ah Mah (she was Singaporean, having been married a few years after his first wife had passed away), were several other Ong families. My dad was the most senior, being number six, with his brood of five. We stayed there till I was eight years old when Dad built his own house just 100 metres further up the road.
My two spinster aunties also lived with Ah Kong – Mary and Rosalind. They both worked for the civil service, one in social welfare and the other in Customs. Then there was my ninth uncle, Kee Pheng, who was then the headmaster of St Thomas’s Primary School; his wife Swee Lan worked at the Aurora Hotel and they had three kids.
My youngest uncle, number 10, Jimmy Kee Chiang, worked for the then Radio Sarawak and he stayed with his three children. There were also a number of maids, one from China and one each for the families. On top of this, from time to time, we had recalcitrant cousins being sent to live with us for ‘behavioural assignments’ lasting between months and years!
I have actually lost count of how many Ongs there were living in the big house at any one time between my growing up years of one and eight; and even though we had relocated when I was aged eight to our own home, I would continue to spend a lot of time at Ah Kong’s.
Ah Kong was a man of few words, he wasn’t much of an outdoor person and would mostly stay put in his room, reading his newspapers and listening to his radio (mostly BBC in those days, besides Radio Sarawak). He subscribed to all the English dailies and I was to greatly benefit from this, as I would await each afternoon after coming home from school, and after homework, patiently for the newspapers to be brought out after his perusal. I would sit myself down at the long table outside in the common room (sitting room cum worship altar cum trophy room with a massive office table and showcases of trophies as well as a radio and a number of aquariums with framed photographs hung on the walls).
I would read the newspapers from cover to cover, devouring news and features alike; skipping only the advertisement and sports pages. It was The Sarawak Tribune, The Vanguard, and The Straits Times. Most days my Ah Mah (whom to be quite frank treated me a mite better than the other siblings and cousins) would bring me a plate of tea time treats, which were leftovers from Ah Kong’s tea – almost always fresh white bread with a rather healthy dollop of Golden Churn butter on top! My great love for butter started from there. Don’t forget this was in the mid-1950s when butter was such a luxury and rarity.
During the many Chinese festivals, Ah Kong would bring me to watch Chinese Teochew operas at the Hun Nam Siang Tng; to the Muara Tebas Temple to worship, eat crabs, mud clams, and prawns; and down to his Main Bazaar office for night time festive processions and so on.
My Ah Kong in his own quiet way had made a great impression in my formative years and left an influence in my life, which in retrospect, has made me the person I am now today.
May his wonderful soul rest in eternal peace.
Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]