Building Bridges


In My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, I introduced my family – our grandparents and the family badminton champions in Where champions were born – and my parents, especially about my dad in We are OCBC.

Grandfather [Standing 2nd from Left] and
grandmother [Seated 2nd from Left] with
members of the Mak family
Readers got to know our grandfather or Ah Kong as the four-time Johor state champion and the woman he married, our grandmother, whom I had dubbed, The Real Champion.

In its sequel, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, I share more about the family and show our link to Johor pioneer, Wong Ah Fook.

In the course of my work, I met several people who I later discovered, are related through our link to the Wong family in Johor.

This intriguing discovery led me to talk to my mum about these people and she threw some light on how we are related.

My mum is the eldest daughter from her family of 11 siblings and because she used to accompany grandmother on visits with relatives, she had first-hand experience of meeting members of the Wong family.

Finally, I understood that grandmother’s aunts (her father’s two sisters) married Wong Kwong Yam, the nephew of Wong Ah Fook.

With Jack [Right] and Barney Lim at Kluang Rail canteen
So while mum had met the senior generation of Wongs, I’m meeting the younger generation members of the Wong family here.

Our Family Ties in the sequel, aims to kick start (those who are keen to know!) on a search of how we are all related.

As in the first book which has three sections: Memories, Portraits and By the Way, in Book 2 the first two sections continue while the third part is dedicated to Heritage Trades.

It was quite easy to pick the subjects to go into the Contents of my sequel as I considered each subject located in the various Johor towns with whom I have a special connection.

The Asian Pie Ladies at our pie-making workshop
My collection of stories on Interesting Places and Inspirational People took me on road trips from Johor Baru to various Johor towns to meet with the subjects/people who are featured under Portraits and Heritage Trades.

They include Macap, Kluang, Batu Pahat, Muar, Kulai, Kelapa Sawit, Pontian, Ban Foo near Ulu Tiram, and Desaru, as well as Melaka and Singapore where the families now live.

Self-driving to other districts is a breeze because of the network of comfortable highways and the use of road maps provided by Google Maps and Waze. The trips were more fun in the pleasant company of friends like Emily Dee and Florence Liew.

In Oct 2017, I made a road trip to meet some of my book subjects in Kluang, Batu Pahat and Muar. This initial visit was to brief them about my book sequel and let them know that I wished to feature them in this book.

Two subjects, one each under Portraits and Heritage Trades, are based in Kluang.

They are the Asian Pie Ladies and the Lim family who operates the Kluang Rail Canteen in the Kluang Railway Station.

Chan Sau Pheng [Right] sharing details about Han Cher Soh
I met Sarah Lee and Evonne Lee, whom I collectively call the Asian Pie Ladies, at their pie-making workshop in Kluang. When I got to know about their successful recipe book, I wanted to share it with readers.

From the number of stories I’ve written about the Kluang RailCoffee brand, the cousins, Jack Lim and Barney Lim, have become like old friends.

So it was comfortable for them to share their own memories about growing up, playing in the Railway Station canteen and helping to serve and sell when they were old enough to be useful.

With Linus Wong and his wife, Alice, on the Wongs of Senai
The subject in Batu Pahat is a 100-year old lady who is being cared for by her daughter, Chan Sau Pheng.

She is the only subject in this book who “chose me” because it was the old lady’s grandson, Ian Lee, who told me about his grandmother, the legendary Han Cher Soh, and asked me to include her in my next book.

When Ian told me to reach his mother in Batu Pahat for the story on his grandmother, I was cautious because I know it could be challenging (for me!) if I was to hear it in Chinese dialect.

“She is a retired English teacher,” he replied.

The two doctors Lim helping to translate their mother's
Eng Choon Hokkien into English for me!
While this assured me that our conversation should go smoothly, it was also rather intimidating that I later had to let a former English teacher look at my manuscript!

And with two visits to Batu Pahat, I was able to get the story and it is shared in, Madam Sweet Potato.

The story on the Two Wongs of Senai developed from the reactions from members of the Wong family who have moved to live in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

For the continuing story, I met with the eldest of the Wong grandchildren, Linus Wong, in Singapore who shared more details of their family’s legacy in Senai.

With Aw Lee Lang to review the Aw Pottery story
After making appointments to meet again, I made another road trip in May 2018 to Kluang, Batu Pahat and Melaka to meet the subjects for their stories.

The subject in Muar is the Lim family of Doctors, most of whom have relocated to live elsewhere.
                                             
Their 96-year old mother, Loo Siew Chin, was then in Muar with her son, Dr Lim Boon Seng. Madam Loo has a schedule to stay with her sons or daughters in various places, so I had to plan a trip to coincide with her presence in Johor.

I remember this trip was made soon after polling day and Madam Loo was back in Muar to cast her vote. I cannot forget the sight of her inked finger-tip when we met in the home of her son, Dr Lim Boon Aik, in Melaka.

With Mr & Mrs Er Cheong Kee and Henry Goh
at Desaru Fruit Farm for their story
With the help of her two sons, who translated their mother’s Eng Choon Hokkien dialect for me, we retrieved her recollections in English.

Their family story have been shared in the Chinese media but it is my privilege to document it in my book.

On my way back to Johor Baru, I also made a stop at Macap for photography at Aw Pottery Studio, a subject featured under Portraits.

The ‘Pottery Paradise off the main highway’ is a destination which was being restored by Aw Lee Lang, the youngest daughter of founder and sculptor, the late Aw Eng Kwang.

With the Lew family ladies at Volcano Thunder Tea Rice
In 2011, I had connected with Lee Lang, who operates Aw Pottery Northwest Inc. in Seattle USA, and after reading my published pieces on their family business, she was convinced  to come back to Johor to restore the work her father had started here.

Since then, I was back at the pottery studio a few times to meet with Lee Lang to update and review my story on her family.

I had already featured some of these subjects for publications like Johor Streets and The Iskandarian so what I needed to do was to update the information by visiting them or reach them by email or telephone.

Most of the subjects are English-speaking and computer literate so as a follow-up, I would liaise with them online or by telephone WhatsApp chats.

With Natalie Ngu at Yon Lai Pau in Kulai
But for those who are not, I had to be physically present to talk to them face-to-face, sometimes in Chinese dialect or with the help of a Mandarin/English translator.

I cannot forget my experience at the Desaru Fruit Farm because the boss lady, who is not conversant in English, made a remark about not knowing what I had written about them.

I suddenly realized she just needed to know the contents of the story.

To assure her that I had indeed written what she and her husband had shared with me in our previous meeting, I read my story about the Farm to her, bi-lingual – translating from English to Cantonese – almost ad verbatim!

With Hong Say Tee AKA JB's Coffee Shop King [Centre]
and his wife
Midway through my reading-translation, Florence, who was with me, asked me sotto voce “Are going to finish reading the whole story?”

I nodded, “Yes!” because this lady had the right to know that what I wrote was in fact all that she and her husband had shared with me.

I didn’t know where my Chinese vocabulary came from but I somehow managed to read their entire story to her bi-lingual. After I ended, she did not comment but I could tell from her body language that it had met with her approval.

It was a major exercise for me – a very exhausting one indeed – because I do not often speak in dialect and this (I must congratulate myself!) was quite a feat!

With Yeow Sien Soon at Sin Keng Wah Kedai Tilam
At Kelapa Sawit where I met with the Lew family ladies – mother and two daughters, Lee Lee and Lee Lin who serve Thunder Tea Rice at Volcano – there was a world of difference.

It was very encouraging because even though they hardly know any English, they just trusted me to share their story.

Then I finally connected with Natalie Ngu again whom I first met at Yon Lai Pau in Kulai. My Kulai makan-kaki first introduced me to their delicious steamed dumplings.

I was relieved that she felt comfortable enough to chat with me in English by telephone and text. But when I arranged to meet up, she hesitated.

With Grace Lim at Art52Gallery
It made me wonder why and just as I was getting anxious, she told me that she had just delivered her baby and her confinement period should be over in a few more days.

So this was why Natalie could not agree to meet me. Whew!

After waiting out her confinement, we finally met again to review my story on her family’s dumpling business which I discovered, had vastly developed to meet a growing demand.

Meanwhile back in Johor Baru, I had arranged with my friend, Jennifer, who would be my translator, to meet with her father-in-law, the gentleman better known as Johor Baru’s Coffee Shop King.

Mee Ho Seng Kee is now at Level 6
of Johor Baru City Square
Hong Say Tee is a spritely 95-year old man who enjoyed sharing his story but because he’s not conversant English, was irritated when I lapsed into English when I could not find the vocabulary in Chinese.

Then he would remind me in Mandarin, “Speak Chinese!”

We took a longer time to record his story simply due to his habit of repeating his story from the top each time I interrupted with a question or a request for clarification.

Maybe it was just his way of recollecting his thoughts but in the hours we spent together, I often found that I heard that bit before.

Maybe it was all good for me too because with each repetition, I could counter-check my notes and confirm that I had actually got the facts right!

I also met with Yeow Sien Soon better known as Ah Soon at Sin Keng Wah Kedai Tilam, to talk about his family business.

Haji Halim serving his grandfather's recipe Mee Rebus
at Angsana Johor Baru Mall foodcourt
This is the only traditional mattress-maker left here and Ah Soon was such a fountain of information as he shared his story in Cantonese and even demonstrated the art of mattress-making, just for my photos.

I observed that he is a friendly guy who had friends popping by to say “Hello!” or honking while driving pass his shop along Jalan Trus.

At the close of our chit-chat, I tested the waters with him and asked if he would accept my invitation to my book launch event, planned at a hotel.

“Of course, I will come,” Ah Soon replied with gusto.

He continued with a question: “How should I dress?”

“Like this?” with reference to his work outfit which comprised a pair of long trousers teamed with a singlet top.

The typical queue outside Hiap Joo Bakery at weekends!
I call it the Bruce Willis top because mum had commented after watching the Die Hard movie series that Bruce Willis would first appear in full suit, then strip to his white singlet while fighting the enemies.

He would have no further costume changes but ultimately end up with this top stained a deeper shade of green. This is the ‘uniform’ that Ah Soon wears at work!

The chatty (50+) Ah Soon was quick to say that I may not recognise him when he comes dressed in his after-work outfit which he claims, would make him look like 40+!

To meet with artist, Grace Lim, I went to Art52Gallery situated along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee where her art is displayed and sold.

Entrance to Johore Heng Photo Studio
She had completed some new work and I while I admired her nature and kampung inspired themes reminiscent of her growing-up years in Pontian, I overheard their conversation with a visitor that a piece of her art would be loaned to an exhibition in KL, held to commemorate the Prime Minister’s birthday.

I felt a tremor of excitement because Grace Lim’s art is being appreciated by a wider audience in KL, especially after one of her works was presented to Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali (the PM’s wife) at an event back in 2013.

Over the span of a few months, I also updated my heritage stories on Mee Ho Seng Kee, Mee Rebus Haji Wahid, Hiap Joo Bakery, Johore Heng Photo Studio and Kerala Restaurant, all established brands and household names in JB.

Eugene Kurisinkal and his wife, Emilda sharing the
Kerala Restaurant heritage story with me
Ask any Johorean (especially those in JB!) and they would tell you that they have enjoyed eating this or going there regularly since their childhood!

Finally, I headed off to Ban Foo located close to Ulu Tiram, to meet the guys who run the FOLO Farms.

The farm, a social enterprise which started in early 2015 and have since garnered numerous awards and accolades, have started doing something about the way food should be grown and making a difference in the community while leaving a legacy for future generations.

Someday in the future - maybe when I'm no longer here - someone may write about them as a heritage story!

With the FOLO farmers, Will Chua [Left] and
Dr Lemuel Ng with baby Ellie on his lap [Right]
Even though JB was once called Little Swatow because the dominant Chinese immigrant dialect group were the Teochew, the people in Johor, whether they were Hainan, Hokkien, Hakka or Cantonese, share the same entrepreneurial spirit as the early Malay and Indian traders.

While writing their stories, I saw a common thread that runs through these true stories of the struggles and triumphs of real people, some of whom arrived in Johor as immigrants and bond servants.

While some of these heritage stories may be familiar, some are exclusive to this book.

So do check out the untold stories that may be lost forever if they were not documented in My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People.

Thank you all for letting me share your stories! I’m deeply honoured by the privilege to bridge them together in my book and to celebrate the community that we live, work and grow in.

My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, is now available in hardcover and softcover versions from MPH bookstores nationwide and online via www.mphonline.com