Our true love story

I woke up this morning with recollections, in vivid clarity, of the series of events that took place that day exactly 13 months ago when dad left us.  I have no idea what brought it on but these thoughts have a strange way of just creeping up on me.

Mum and dad, photo taken at Johor Baru's Istana Gardens
It occurred to me that if I can feel the loss, my mum would feel it too and probably even more acutely.  After all, mum and dad shared a good life together and his departure must have left a wide hole in her heart.

While I was a kid, I never thought about my parents as a pair of lovers but I got my first hint about how much my mum and dad were in love when I started looking at old photos in the family albums. 

As I turned the pages and studied the black-and-white photos, I came across collections taken at various occasions, like family group shots, formal studio poses and at events such as sports meets, weddings and funerals.

Mum and dad, Istana Garden, Grand Place steps [Background]
If I spotted something interesting, I would pause to quiz my parents about who, what, when and why, and they would look at that photo before sharing with me, an interesting anecdote or two to answer my questions.

It struck me that photos of my parents snapped during their dating days, portrayed a pair who were so in love.

When I saw the photos taken at my parents’ wedding, I noticed that someone was not in any of the photos.  I turned the album pages back and forth to check other shots of the event and realized that mum’s eldest brother, Uncle Roland, was not at that special occasion.

Mum and dad, on the Japanese bridge in Istana Gardens
With a natural curiosity, I asked my parents about this strange discovery.  Maybe they did not expect such a query but I distinctly recall that dad remained discreetly silent and it was mum who answered me.

Our parents met while they were working at the Johor Baru General Hospital, where mum was trained and qualified as a midwife.  Dad, who responded to a newspaper recruitment ad, applied from Ipoh and joined the JBGH to be trained as a Hospital Assistant (HA). 

During WW2 dad was with the Royal Army Medical Corps, based in Singapore (then part of Malaya).  His nature of work was to rescue the wounded.  After the bombings, the siren would sound for ceasefire and his medical team was the first line of rescue to reach any wounded soldiers, provide First Aid and rush them to hospitals. 

Mum and dad, at granduncle's house, Jalan Lumba Kuda
As British occupied Malaya was gaining political and economic stability after the war, dad applied to join JBGH as he had a keen interest in hospital work.  He was already familiar with South Malaya so he did not hesitate to move to JB for work.

With his previous experience rescuing the wounded during the war, dad took to his new job quite naturally.  In those days, the duties of a special grade HA included dressing wounds, diagnosing illnesses and dispensing medicine, a role with responsibilities very much like a doctor.

Mum’s older brother, Roland, also joined JBGH to be trained as a hospital assistant.  While he was younger than dad and joined a different batch of trainees, he was familiar with what was going on with dad in the hospital, on and off duty hours.

In 1948, dad’s batch of trainees graduated as HAs.  Dad enjoyed a carefree bachelor lifestyle and was among the popular guys maybe because of his wacky sense of humour, wild charm and unparalleled skills in dancing. 

Mum and dad, posing on a trishaw in Kuala Lumpur
At that time, dancing in the nurses’ hostel was a healthy past-time and I was told that nurses would queue up for their turn to dance with dad!  

There was a GEC gramophone in the hostel to play their favourite dance music by Victor Silvester, Mantovani and Joe Loss from 78 rpm vinyl records.  In those days, there was no television or other forms of home entertainment except for the transistor radio.  

The late Ismail Othman, dad’s fellow HA colleague and good friend, better known as Uncle Nyeh, always tuned into BBC for their favourite Victor Silvester half-hour music request show.

From quick-step, foxtrot, tango, ballroom dancing to the four-step waltz, Uncle Nyeh and dad were the proverbial Twinkle Toes, adept at keeping the ladies happily twirling around the hall.  Soon their reputation on the dance floor earned them the enviable moniker as “dancing kings!”

With countless dancing partners waiting in line to dance with Uncle Nyeh and dad almost every night, they also earned the unsavoury reputation of being Cassanova, a misnomer for “womanizers.”

Mum and dad, feeding each other!
[The driveway in the background]
Dad told me that the bachelor boys also enjoyed playing badminton on the court next to the nurses’ hostel and when the tide was high, they would go swimming.  They would simply dive into the Johor Straits just across the road from the hospital!  

These robust young men would swim along the straits from the hospital to the steps in front of the Grand Palace at Istana Gardens and back.  

Other leisure pursuits in the staff clubhouse at Jalan Datuk Wilson included playing billiards or jam sessions playing their banjo-mandolins.  It was then the trend to make their own entertainment and being musically inclined, dad also enjoyed singing while playing his banjo-mandolin.

When their bachelor days were over and the dancing shoes hung up for good, Uncle Nyeh and dad stayed in close touch and I remember how our family would visit uncle’s home for Raya.

It seems like a long digression but it must be understood that as a bachelor, dad had normal, healthy pursuits and when he met mum, who happens to be a non-dancer, he cared enough to give up for good, one of his dearest pleasures – dancing!

But dad’s reputation as Cassanova preceded him and as mum’s older brother, Uncle Roland had to protect her honour by disapproving mum’s relationship with dad!

Granduncle was dad's best-man while dad's brother, Wai Thin Fook [next to dad] witnessed the wedding in JB;
Group photo was taken in the porch of No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng [Notice the house number on top left of main door!]
Dad also did not have parents or family members to vouch for him because he was brought up in an orphanage run by missionaries in Ipoh.  With such an obscure past, uncle probably deemed him as an unsuitable candidate for marriage to his sister.

From the wide collection of old photos in our albums, I saw how dad found a new family in JB when he met mum.  Among other things, he was in a basketball team with grandfather, our Ah Kong – a versatile sportsman who also played this sport – and went on many picnics with the extended family which included our great-grandmother!

The bridal party leaving grandfather's house;
Note the driveway at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng 
I guess uncle must have his reasons for considering dad an unworthy life-partner for his dear sister and thus made a firm resolve, not to have anything to do with them.

The presence of the rest of the family at their wedding, especially mum’s parents, was a clear indication of our grandparents’ acceptance of dad as their eldest son-in-law.

Dad’s closest relative whom he considers a brother, Wai Thin Fook, who grew up with him in the orphanage, was present to witness their wedding and the grand celebration with a dinner banquet was hosted on the badminton court at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.

Mum’s reply to my query was brief because it all happened a long time ago.  I just filled-in-the-blanks from anecdotes and information I gathered over the years to form a clearer picture of mum and dad’s love story and how they started a life together.

Mum and dad - check out that dapper bow tie!
Uncle’s hostility towards dad is a thing of the past and after their retirement, uncle and his wife, a former nursing sister, were frequent visitors in our home.  They and my parents had/have so much in common to talk and reminisce about that he probably forgot about how he once thought dad was an unwelcome member of his family.

From the tales I heard about uncle from his wife, I know he was quite the rascal during his bachelor days but his wit and charm finally won her heart – she who was then one of the tutors in the hospital during his training days!

Love certainly finds us in various ways but as the saying goes, “True love always wins!”