Monday, January 30

Of schoolmates and class reunions

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Some of the columnist’s Form 5 classmates of Year 1967 at St Thomas’ Secondary School.

I HAD the good fortune of starting school in January 1956 at St Thomas’ Primary School in Kuching when I was just six years old; in those days the minimum age was supposedly seven, but there was no strict and fast rule.

As a matter of fact, in my class we had pupils who were eight or even nine years old, and some were transferred from other schools.

I was to spend the next 13 years at St Thomas’, eventually finishing off in October 1969 at Upper Form 6 Arts and attaining my Cambridge A Levels with distinction.

During my primary school years, our classes were big in size; there were up to 50 pupils in a class, although by junior secondary they had reduced to around 30 but streamed into two or even three classes.

Students were often transferred between the A, B and C classes and some were held back a year or was promoted by an extra year. So much so that in looking back, we sometimes lose track of who was with us during certain classes, or years.

In 2008, we had organised a rather big 40th class reunion which had included our class of 1969 and those of 1968 – the attendance was very good with over 80 past students/spouses and teachers attending, many from overseas.

It had taken us up to two years to plan for that one!

Members of the organising committee of the 2008 reunion at the Sarawak Club in Kuching, with Datuk Amar James Wong (front, third left).

In December 2018, we had our last big reunion which was our 50th year anniversary – that we held over a long weekend, involving only just our Class of 1967 (Form 5) and 1969 (Upper Form 6) – we had over 40 ex-classmates and guests.

Our generous hosts were Dato Goh Leng Chua and Philip Yong, whose respective residences were our celebration venues on each successive evening.

This year, we will be holding our 55th anniversary reunion on Friday, Dec 16, 2022, at the residence of Philip Yong at Jalan Hamdan, off Tabuan Road in Kuching – from 7pm onwards.

We will be welcoming everyone who has been in school with us from overseas and from within Sarawak as well – we expect around 50 will be joining us to celebrate our 55 years long friendship.

If you’re reading this now and wish to attend, please drop me an email at edgarong@gmail.com or WhatsApp-text me on +6019-8598928. You’re most welcome!

You may also wish to spread the word too.

Class reunions are always memorable times – they can also be emotionally charged especially for those who have not seen each other since they had left the hallowed halls of their last classroom or school hall – in our case, that would mean more than half a century!

It would also be an opportune time for memorialising those classmates who have left this earthly realm; reminiscing of when we had last seen or spoken to him or her; the good (or bad) times we had shared together and the many issues that we had mutually faced during our time in school; our common or different interests; our various goals and dreams; and eventually our own personal varying degrees of success (or failure) that each of us had attained during and after our time together in school.

Once we’re together, we would talk about our favourite subjects; the teachers that we had liked and respected as well as those whom we didn’t think much of.

We’d reminisce about the naughty stuff we did – the science lab experiments that had gone awry, or pranks we had played on each other.

We would recall with much clarity and hilarity the time when a certain dashing male Swedish teacher had taken a shower buck-naked within sight of his afternoon-class students (we were already a co-ed school with St Mary’s girls coming over by 1965).

A smaller reunion in 2019 held at a Kuching bistro, with (from left) Vashdev Khialani (Singapore), Datin Ang Bee Lian (Kuala Lumpur), Philip Yong, the columnist and Philip Chang.

He was later severely reprimanded by the then-principal (a certain ‘Tiger Song’). Our school history annals have remembered both of them rather fondly by now.

Who can forget that our favourite classes were either Art or Scripture. Art was taught by a sheepish ‘Dr Fu Manchu’-lookalike teacher whom everyone had nicknamed ‘Eye-Level’ and ‘FISH’ (after his initials) and other than being able to oil paint Chinese landscapes, had no idea how to teach drawing or the proper appreciation of any art form at all.

However, his classes were well-liked because half the time we were all allowed out of our classrooms to wander around the nearby Sarawak Museum grounds, with half of us usually ending up at the nearby St Michael’s Club Canteen having a nice ‘angtao peng’ (red-bean iced dessert) or simply playing truant around the proximity of the British Council Library or the Anglican cemetery.

We had all loved Scripture as well as Father Thomas, the long-suffering reverend preacher from India, was a bear-sized kindly old soul in his long flowing white flock, and none of us had ever failed in his subject. It had uplifted our average grades among our total subjects taken.

I remember rather well that almost all the non-Christian students, including the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist among us, had uniformly obtained almost perfect 100-per cent marks at every examination.

During our time in school, right up till 1969 by which time we had all left – some for higher studies, some for work and yet others for migration overseas – we were taught by a sizable group of well-experienced, much disciplined and very qualified teachers. They were from within Sarawak as well as from England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Sweden and Malaya.

Besides the school curriculum being strictly adhered to, all the students were also compelled to take part in various extra-curricular activities. We had a very strong reputation in the sports field and within the school, we also had seven sports teams named variously after past Anglican Bishops. They would compete with each other during annual sports days, and our school teams in the various games like athletics, swimming, football, basketball and hockey would compete with other schools at inter-schools meets. During those years, we were unbeaten champions in many games.

The last reunion, celebrating the 50th anniversary in 2018, at Philip Yong’s residence.

For those who had taken part in the sporting activities, it was a well-known fact that the friendly rivalry between the two biggest rivals, St Thomas’ and St Joseph’s, would sometimes erupt into fistfights and other misdemeanours especially during football games.

This so-called ‘friendly rivalry’ appears to have continued to the present day – but now towards golf!

There were other areas where we had found our personal interests and forte. There were the Boy Scouts, the Boys Brigade, the school magazine editorial board, the Debating Society, Photography Club, Library, Music, the various clubs for tennis, hockey, squash, badminton, scrabble, chess – and so on.

Strangely enough during those days, there wasn’t any Cookery, nor Philosophy, nor Science Club.

At our 55th reunion, we could look around and find among ourselves so many successful former classmates. We’ve all found our own niches and our little corner of whatever life, career or achievement that we have only dreamt about – more than half a century back in that chalk-dusty classroom, under the bright morning sun or afternoon rain, classrooms without fans (till much later) sitting at wooden tables and chairs that had needed long-forgotten repair or replacement, turning over the pages of our well-worn textbooks and wishing that the class be over soon so that we could get outside and do our own thing!

Fifty-five years on, our classes of 1967 and 1969, we are indeed blessed with having had in our midst, some for a shorter time than others, our current Premier of Sarawak, a former Tan Sri Datuk Amar State Secretary, two former Datuk Mayors, a former Judiciary Commissioner, a number of Datuks, Datos and Datus, former heads of departments and CEOs, doctors and lawyers, engineers and architects, scientists and entertainers, accountants and auditors, writers, journalists, authors, researchers and agriculturalists, entrepreneurs and businessmen, farmers and landowners and many others.

The beauty of it all is that once we get together, it’s back to school again as we talk and joke and kid each other about the good (and not so great) old school days — and for one brief shining moment in time, we are all brought back to that period in the late 60s, when we were in our late teens once again.

We pray for Almighty God’s continued blessing to be upon all of us as we continue on with our life’s journey. Amen.