Badminton glory days

Ah Kong or grandpa [Right] and
grandma [Left], mixed doubles champs
Recently at a funeral wake, I was introduced in Teochew dialect to the widow as, “Ngoh Tee kai soong,” meaning “Ngoh Tee’s grandchild.”  Surprised by this old-fashioned identity that linked me to Ah Kong or grandpa Ng Ngoh Tee, I fondly recalled a bygone era when badminton was the family’s pride and passion.  I know that Ah Kong was Johor badminton champion in the 1920’s and 1930’s and trained players in his Companion Badminton Party but it did not occur to me that grandma was also a badminton player. 

I always pictured grandma holding a ladle, dishing out food from a large wok, so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw old photos of grandma holding a badminton racket instead.  Seeing her wielding a racket instead of a wok ladle certainly gave me a fresh view of grandma.  It somehow gave me a new pride when I saw that grandma was among the pioneers of sportswomen because in those days, most women would only be involved with mundane housekeeping tasks and families.

I tried to find out more but even if nobody could confirm it, the hopeless romantic in me wanted to believe that Ah Kong and grandma met on the badminton court and it was a love-set for them.  A picture certainly tells a thousand words and I saw how they were both so in love with the game and each other.  It’s interesting to look back and see that their common passion for the game not only garnered them the title as Mixed-Doubles champions but it also influenced the sports careers of their 11 children.

Grandpa [Standing 4th from right] and
Uncle Roland [Standing 3rd from left] with their
Companion Badminton Party
Ah Kong was the instructor of the great Wong Peng Soon, helping him to master the most difficult stroke in the game – the backhand.  Wong became the first Asian to win the All-England title in 1950 and continued with subsequent victories in 1951, 1952 and 1955.  Ah Kong’s knowledge of badminton was passed down from one generation to the next as the Ng siblings trained together as sparring partners, refining their magnificent artistry in wristwork, cultivating clever court craft and developing a winner’s mentality as a great badminton family in the South.

Almost every night, regulars will join them at the court adjacent to grandfather’s house, a double-storey bungalow at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, for training.  Here Ah Kong and his older sons would help young players hone their strokes and skills to improve their game.  I used to watch them from the benches that lined the court and observed how playing badminton is serious business because champions are not born – they are made.

Our grandparents, Khir Johari [2nd from Right]
and Uncle Billy [holding the Thomas Cup] 1967
Badminton is probably in the blood because it’s uncanny how almost every 10 years a champion was born in the family – Roland Ng (1931), Billy Ng (1940) and Sylvia Ng (1949).  Among other achievements, Uncle Roland was Johor champion from 1963 to 1973, National Veterans singles champion in 1971 and double gold medalist in the first World Invitation Badminton Veterans Tournament in 1983.  Uncle Billy was Malaysian Open men’s singles champion in 1964 and best remembered as a member of the 1967 victorious Thomas Cup team. 

Like her brothers, Aunty Sylvia’s badminton career began at home and she went on to conquer State and National titles as well as medals in the South East Asia Games and Asian Games.  On 12 August 1978, Aunty Sylvia made history by becoming the first Asian woman to win the Commonwealth Games singles Gold in Edmonton, Canada.  In her illustrious career, Aunty Sylvia was National champion 6 times until 1980 when she retired from competitive sports. 


For her outstanding achievements, Aunty was honoured as Sportswoman of the Year in 1975 and 1978.  Aunty Sylvia and Uncle Billy were inducted into the Olympics Council of Malaysia (OCM) Hall of Fame in 2004 and 2008, respectively.  These proud achievements certainly came with a cost that involved dedication, discipline and much sacrifice.

Their training was not only on the court but also in work-outs on the exercise rowboat, skipping and running at the Istana Gardens.  After exercise, they would be dripping with sweat and I will never forget the terror and disgust when they chased me, threatening me with wet hugs!  I remember going to the Gardens with Ah Kong and Aunty as he coached her in preparation for tournaments and how my short legs and little lungs failed to keep up with Aunty’s rigorous run up and down the hillock.

Our grandparents would train on this court
at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, Johor Baru

In the evenings before training started on the court, our uncles and aunts would play “catching” with us or masuk belon a thrilling team game accompanied by much screaming.  Then using kiddy rackets with reduced shaft lengths that Ah Kong had modified to match shorter heights, we will exchange strokes with them.  Sometimes Ah Kong would partner one of the kids to play doubles and make us run to every corner of the court with his tricky strokes and say he could beat us even with one hand tied behind!

Grandma would cook nutritious meals, always with soup in the Cantonese tradition and often bolster our health with evil-smelling herbal brews.  Nurtured by such a supportive environment her children also excelled in other sports like boxing, rugby, football, basketball and athletics.  With her own experience in competitive badminton, I’m sure grandma knew all about the right attitude and what went into the making of champions as her children kept the Jalur Gemilang flying!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in June 2010

Info Update:  On 27 July 2010, Uncle Billy was conferred the Darjah Indera Mahkota Pahang (DIMP) which carries the title Dato'.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous11/21/2011

    Dato' Billy's son, Dennis Ng (黄炳福) kept Jalur Gemilang flying at Shanghai defending his Mizuno Cup 2011 (第四届“尧力•美津浓”杯羽毛球邀请赛颁奖花絮) http://www.yaolisport.com/shownews.asp?id=277

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  2. Anonymous12/10/2011

    Dear Peggy, I stumbled upon yr blog accidently while looking for the Convent School Song lyrics in full to share with my other friend,then I began to read yr articles one after another and memories of Johor began to flood in. I remember following my late mum to play badminton at the court of Ng Heng that I know belong to the reknown Chinese family of Badmintons. The again my grandma was a chinese convert and mum was studying in Convent and know this family well. The only thing I remembered about this famous badminton court is that of a small shop next to it was selling ice balls! and to get rid of me 'kacauing'the rest playing she would allow me to go and buy the ice balls and then I would watch them play in peace :-) thanks for the memories Peggy.

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