The "N" family and us

Dad [Far Left middle row] and Uncle Nyeh [Far Right
middle row] in their graduating class in JB General Hospital
Our annual Hari Raya visits to their home at the Johor Bahru hospital quarters is my earliest memory of this family.  Affectionately dubbed the “N” family, Uncle Nyeh and Auntie Nora were our parents’ colleagues and a visit to their home was on our family festive visit calendar when we were kids.  I still have fond memories of their fragrant rendang and ketupat and variety of cookies but most of all, I remember this family whose names all start with the letter “N”.

Although our ages were different, I felt a special affinity between our families because they have three girls and a boy in the exact order as our family.  When we met during Raya, we were painfully shy of each other and hardly spoke but quietly observed how our parents shared a warm friendship.  I remember being intrigued when Auntie Nora spoke to mum in Cantonese dialect and I later discovered that she was the former Dora Loh from Malacca who adopted the name Nora when she married Uncle Nyeh.

A few weeks ago I was at an island resort that was also hosting a Family Day weekend.  It was hard to miss because the resort was swarming with different generations ranging from grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters to kids and babies.  I saw them going out for snorkeling, enjoying the playground, the pool and gliding on the flying fox.

At lunch, I was surprised when a young lady approached me and asked, “Do you remember me?”  She looked vaguely familiar but even though I could not place her, I did not hazard a guess lest I caused any embarrassment.  “I’m Nor’Aini,” she hinted, but it still did not ring any bell.

Uncle Nyeh [Far Left] with dad [back row] and friends
She went on to say she’s Pak Nyeh’s daughter and a bulb suddenly lit up in my woozy brain which I admit, has a major weakness in remembering names.  Memories of the “N” family came flooding back and in surprise I blurted out my nickname for them, “N” family!”  We fell into each others arms in warm embrace and what ensued was a weekend reunion of reminiscing on our shared memories!

To me Nor’Aini’s dad is Uncle Nyeh but many know him as Pak Nyeh or Ismail Othman.  He and dad were colleagues who trained and graduated together as Hospital Assistants with the Johor Bahru General Hospital in 1948.  They shared many happy bachelor days, pursuing a carefree lifestyle and were probably the more popular guys because they possessed a wacky sense of humour, wild charm and unparalleled skills in dancing. 

Dad with partner [centre pair] at a dance party
In those days, dancing in the nurses’ hostel was a healthy past-time and nurses would queue up for turns to dance with Uncle Nyeh and dad.  Dad told me 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.  There was no television or other forms of home entertainment then except for the transistor radio and Uncle Nyeh will not fail to tune into BBC for their favourite Victor Silvester half-hour music request show. 

“Cassanova lah!” exclaimed Nor’Aini who believed that our dads had countless dancing partners because there was dancing almost every night.  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 on their feet.  This reputation on the dance floor inevitably earned them the enviable moniker as “dancing kings!”

Uncle Nyeh [with foot on friends thigh!] and dad [second
from Right] with friends at a picnic by the sea
Uncle Nyeh and dad also enjoyed playing badminton on the court next to the nurses’ hostel and when the tide is high, they would go swimming in the Johor Straits just across the road, opposite the hospital.  As robust young men, they would swim from the hospital to the steps in front of the Grand Palace at Istana Gardens and back.  Other leisure pursuits include playing billiards or jam sessions to practice on their banjo-mandolins in the staff clubhouse at Jalan Dato’ Wilson.

When their bachelor days were over and the dancing shoes hung up for good, Uncle Nyeh and dad remained fast friends and their young families would meet for Raya.  Nor’Aini confessed with a chuckle that each year when they saw us arrive, she and her sisters would excitedly declare, “Uncle Loh dah sampai!”  This was followed by a frantic debate on who should serve the kueh because the fortunate one could have the thrill to see my brother who they thought was so handsome!

As we grew up and moved away for studies and work, we saw less of each other and lost touch.  Now Normah is a lecturer with UITM, Narimah is working with Maxis and Nor’Aini is a homemaker with 5 children while Norman is an engineer with Port of Tanjung Pelepas.  The “N” family still holds a special place in our hearts even after the demise, first of Uncle Nyeh, followed by Auntie Nora six years later.

When Nor’Aini read my feature on the recent 1Malaysia Bugfest, she sent a text message saying that her dad’s Volkswagen Karmann Ghia coupe is still in their family garage and Norman plans to restore it.  Then I discovered many photos of Uncle Nyeh and dad in their heydays.  These special memories are shared in his honour because it’s such a joy to renew my acquaintance with members of the “N” family.

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

Raya 2010 [Left to Right] Narimah, Peggy, Norma and Nor'Aini
Info Update: 

My parents and I shared a memorable Hari Raya Aidilfitri 2010 with the three girls of the "N" family in Johor Baru.

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