Wednesday, July 8

A lifelong love for reading

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THE recent passing of my uncle, Dato Sri Tan Chiaw Thong, former High Court Judge of Sarawak and brother of my mother at 95 prompted me to reflect on the vast influence that he had been in my youth – at the impressionable age of 13, at the cusp of puberty and discovering new things virtually every day, week, month.

As a family, every Friday night, my parents would take my siblings and I to visit my mother’s mum, just a short drive down the road. Chiaw Thong (‘Say Koo’, meaning youngest uncle) lived with her at their family homestead in Tabuan Road at the time. He was working in the judiciary department then and had eventually retired as a High Court judge after being Attorney General for many years.

My Say Koo was an avid reader and was addicted to world and local news, as befitting his status and character. His interest in reading was extremely broad and encompassed all the interesting subjects and topics of the day. He was extremely generous in sharing his reading materials with his young and fast growing nephews and nieces, and would encourage us to read beyond our age group on many subjects, and he would always talk to us at his adult level – not ours. He greatly endeared himself to us. We greatly benefitted from his mentoring for many years – for me, till I left school at 19.

For his time and advice given to my siblings and myself we are forever grateful – in his later years I had an opportunity to personally remind him and thank him for it; but as is befitting of his humble character, he simply smiled and scoffed it off! Last Sunday, we paid him our final respects at his funeral.

Obviously the two most important people in our lives, who had cultivated in us our early love for reading, were our father and mother. Mum, an English school teacher all her life had instilled in us an early love for books, reading and getting into the habit of acquiring greater knowledge and educating ourselves. As she put it, learning is life long, and when everything else fails or disappoints you, you can always depend on reading – be it a good book, a magazine, or the daily newspaper. She herself was a voracious reader, newspapers from front to back cover, books, and magazines, and not just for the recipes either!

Dad too was, but to a lesser extent, and he would finance our earlier purchases from bookstores such as Rex Bookstore, Mayfair, Chiang Wah Onn, and Mong Soon; long before these mom and pop stores closed and were replaced by today’s chain of Populars and MPHs.

The very first Ian Fleming James Bond book of ‘Dr No’ was published in 1965 in paperback; I remember being handed a copy of it, after he had finished reading it, by my uncle Ong Kee Pheng, headmaster then of St Thomas’ Primary School. He too was an avid reader and a big Ian Fleming fan – from then onwards with every new Fleming paperback release I would be the second person to read his copy! I remember too that he had besides Fleming introduced me to others like Mickey Spillane – I had no idea what pulp fiction was; but his famous ‘I, the Jury’ which was first published in 1947 but read by me on paperback sometime in 1966 – sort of blew my young teenage mind away with its lucid violence and suppressed sexuality.

Once I had caught the reading bug, I became a lifelong addict to reading – and by that I mean everything I could get my hands on! You might not believe that a young teenage boy in the 1960s could devour every single English newspaper he could get his hands on, and luckily for me between grandpa Ong Kwan Hin, two uncles, and my parents, I had a wide and big selection of daily newspapers from our hometown as well as Singapore (in those days) and Kuala Lumpur. Usually the ‘overseas’ dailies would only arrive by 1pm, and I would have to wait till 3pm or 4pm, only after grandpa had finished, before I had my turn. I became a news freak, as well as was slowly educating myself on world politics, economics, and best of all on entertainment of all kinds.

Besides reading, I had by then also acquired a love for pop music and musicals; and was fast becoming a film buff as well. Up till this day this triumvirate of reading, music, and films has been ingrained in me forever. It’s nigh impossible to pick one over the other as all three are of equal importance in my life today.

I am humbled and extremely fortunate to be able to say that all three of my children have followed along my same path when it comes to this. They are all very individualistic otherwise; each possessing his or her own character and interests. What knits us together is this common love for the three most important things in our lives, besides the bonding as a family and mutual love and respect for each other.

Reading opens up a whole new world. Most things can be taught, tutored, preached, or forced fed into us, but reading by itself can at its own pace and time teach and inform and educate us in ways not otherwise possible. However, to start with, we need to have a basic education, a love for words, and an attitude of openness and feel for self-enrichment to be able to absorb whatever it is that we read about.

There are pitfalls too, as sometimes not everything one reads is true; or it may be half-truths or some extremist point of view – or indeed total falsehoods – we in turn must be discerning and be able to tell the grain of truth from the chaff of dishonesty. A well-read person would most likely be able to tell the difference.

I wish you all happy reading – and blessings for a continued love for the stringing together of words to form full sentences to give us meaning and joy in our lives.

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