He's a blessing to others

James Ho, Police Volunteer Reserve
at Police College in Kuala Kubu Baru

He's so blessed, he's a blessing to others

JAMES Ho, who turns 87 this year, was 4 when he suddenly lost his parents in a fatal car crash. Born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1923, he and his parents, who were diamond merchants, came to Singapore for business.

The accident across the junction between Tank Road and Clemenceau Avenue killed his mother and left his father seriously injured but before he passed on, he asked his business associate Ho Kee Yong to adopt his son, the accident's sole survivor.

And that's how this Sri Lankan boy became part of the Ho family.

When Ho joined the family, his Chinese father already had a son and daughter and had also adopted his brother's son.

Ho grew up in Singapore, went to school in Raffles Institution and was schoolmates with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Minister Mentor.  He excelled in sports like tennis, hockey, judo and football and after school, he would play games or go to the movies but because Ho often came home late, there was usually no food for him.

"I was a naughty boy," said Ho with a chuckle, recalling how his mother was a strict disciplinarian. Not only was he naughty, he was also resourceful.  Finding no food kept for him, the hungry Ho would sneak off to enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal at a Sikh temple where they served free food.

During World War 2, Ho befriended a Japanese boy who got permission from Ho's parents to take him to Japan for the school holidays. It was an interesting experience but in Japan, Ho was forced to join the army. When the Allied forces won the war, Ho returned to Singapore.

James Ho is synonymous with Johor Baru's Capitol cinema
At that time, his father rented the Jubilee Theatre in North Bridge Road and Ho went to work there as a sweeper.  Ho started from the bottom and worked his way up to become a film re-winder before he was promoted to projector operator assistant. In 1945, he was sent to Johor Baru where his father rented the Tivoli Theatre, a piece of property which belonged to Wong Ah Fook, a prominent kangchu and entrepreneur in Johor Baru.

The Tivoli used to present live entertainment but the Ho family turned it into a cinema and renamed it Capitol Theatre. Ho then became assistant manager to his brother, who was then the cinema manager. Capitol screened coloured, talking movies, mostly American Western or cowboy movies, blockbusters like The Greatest Show on Earth as well as Chinese movies.

James Ho [Far Left] with Tunku Abdul Rahman Ismail
and police officers at an event in JCSC in 1950's
Ho soon became synonymous with the Capitol cinema in Johor Baru. Movie-goers were especially familiar with him because movies were among the most affordable entertainment available at the time and the non-air-conditioned Capitol always had long queues to buy tickets. At that time, tickets cost RM2 for upstairs seats while rates ranged from RM1.25 for the best seats and 65 sen to RM1 for seats closer to the screen.

With the war over and the gradual departure of British planters and soldiers, the Johor Civil Service Club (JCSC) opened its membership to non-civil servants.  Ho's friend, Dr Yeoh Bok Choon, a surgeon at Johor Baru General Hospital, was aware that Ho was an avid sportsman and persuaded him to join the club. So in 1952, Ho joined JCSC and played a wide range of sports in the adjoining fields and tennis courts.

Ho fondly remembers representing JCSC in an inter-club tennis tournament in Ipoh and playing a friendly match with the team from the Singapore Cricket Club in the 1950s.  Looking back on his tennis heyday, he recalls good games played with regulars like Datuk Dr Bhattal Singh, Hamzah Osman, Chee Thiam Chin, K.K. Seow and Goh Teck Chow.

Ho was also a prime mover of the Indian Recreation Club and he played the right back position in their football team when they beat Singapore in the Malayan League.

On June 27, 1952, Ho chartered the Rotary Club of Johor Baru and as a past president, he remains an active Rotarian to this day. For decades, the Rotary Club would hold weekly tea meetings at JCSC and they only moved their meeting to another venue in the early 1970s.  To this day, Ho keeps an impeccable attendance record and still drives his 1923 model Mercedes Benz to club meetings each week.

"I look after her better than my wife," said Ho with a sparkle in his eye, referring to his classic car parked in the front porch.  While his right knee may suffer from rheumatic and arthritic aches, he is still able to drive the manual Mercedes around familiar city routes.

James Ho [Seated Centre] still active with the Rotaract Club
in a charity event in 2009
In 1963, some secondary schoolboys who had completed their education approached Ho to help them continue their commitment at the school-level Interact Club.  Ho wrote to Rotary Club International in the United States with a proposal to form a club for school-leavers who were keen to continue working for the community. In 1965, Ho received their approval to create the first Rotaract Club in Asia, a name coined from combining Rotary and Interact. Ho, the founding father of Rotaract, is proud that many Rotaract Clubs have been formed worldwide since then.

In the early 1970s, Ho nearly lost his life in a medical emergency. Whenever he experienced discomfort in his abdomen, he would drink hot water for relief but in that incident, the pain persisted.  He telephoned M. Singaraveloo, now the JCSC manager, who rushed Ho to the hospital where Dr Dhillion Singh attended to him.

"He saved my life," said Ho, praising Veloo for his quick response because Dr Dhillion told him that it would have been too late if there was any further delay.

It was also in the 1970s when Ho experienced the saddest moment in his life because he witnessed three girls of the Infant Jesus Convent being swept away by a flood's strong currents outside their school.  Since it was a flood-prone area, he sought the principal's permission to level the hill behind the school to fill the valley in front of the school. He also helped to raise funds for the construction of a new, second gate to help ease traffic in front of the school.

Ho attributes his commitment to help others to his own life -- one that was so blessed after his parents' deaths and how in turn, he wants to be a blessing to others wherever possible.  He is a JCSC Life Member along with 14 other members and continues to surprise the uninitiated by speaking to them in his amazing repertoire of Chinese dialects.  Today, Ho is a doting grandfather to 13 grandchildren by his six children who live in various cities in Malaysia, Australia and the US.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 26 April 2010


The legacy of a noble gentleman...

Jmaes Ho looking dashing at age 24
The name, James Ho, may evoke a picture of a modern Chinese who had adopted an English name but those who know are not surprised when the man who answers to this name looks very non-Chinese. 

Ho’s name is synonymous with Johor Baru’s iconic Capitol cinema and associated with various volunteer groups, schools and societies.  On 2 March 2011, Ho passed away peacefully after a brief illness at age 88, at a private hospital in Johor Baru.

Ho was aged 4 when he and his diamond merchant parents came from Sri Lanka for business in Singapore.  His parents perished in a fatal car crash and he was adopted by his father’s business friend, Ho Kee Yong, and given the name, James Ho.  He went to school in Raffles Institution Singapore and excelled in sports like tennis, hockey, judo and football. 

Ho, an avid sportsman, joined the then Johor Civil Service Club in 1952 and was a Life Member.  He enjoyed playing a wide range of sports and is best remembered as a regular on the tennis courts. 

James Ho [Right] with Curly Lee [2nd from Right]
and two other in JCSC, 1950's
M. Singaraveloo, Manager of Johor Cultural and Sports Club (JCSC) who started work as a ball-picker when he was just 19 years old said that he owes his career with the club to Ho. 

On 27 June 1952, Ho chartered the Rotary Club of Johor Baru and is fondly remembered as a Past President, an active Rotarian and a true gentleman.  For decades Ho kept an impeccable attendance record at the weekly Club meetings and he only stopped driving his 1923 model Mercedes Benz to meetings recently.  When he could no longer drive, his daughter Ellian and son-in-law, Sasykaran Rasiah, would ferry him. 

In 1963 Ho founded the first Rotaract Club in Asia and is fondly known as the Father of Rotaract.  Rotaract is a name coined from combining Rotary and Interact.  After the first club was established, many Rotaract Clubs have been formed worldwide for youths to continue their commitment to serve the community. 

From Ho’s contributions in various capacities with different volunteer groups, his life was evidently the epitome of volunteerism.  In the 1950’s Ho joined the Police Volunteer Reserve as a Police Constable and worked his way to the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police.  Ho’s passion for volunteer work is evident from his role in helping to set up the Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind, the Johor Spastics Association, the Tampoi Leprosy Home and the Johor Cheshire Home.  He was also an active member of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, St. John Ambulance Malaysia and the Anti-Tuberculosis Association. 

Fellow committee members of the Johor Spastics Association recalls one day when the school bus driver was absent due to illness.  Someone had to drive the children so Ho did not hesitate to volunteer to be the driver!

James Ho [Centre] cutting the ribbon in
the re-opening of refurbished dining hall
and bar of the JCSC in 2009
He was also a familiar figure in the Johor Baru Convent and St Joseph’s School.  His daughter, Amy, said that every Christmas the whole family would go with Ho to present two roast turkeys each to the Convent sisters and the St Joseph’s brothers.  Ho would get his children to stand in a row to sing a Christmas carol and in return, they would receive gifts from the sisters and brothers.

Jimmy Yap said one day in the 60’s, Ho approached him to supply gas to a school science lab so that the class could do their exam.  Yap was then working with a Shellane gas dealer in Johor Baru and he was told the class needed gas for their Bunsen burners.  Ho’s quick action to get a favour from Yap helped to save the day and the class managed to complete their science exam.

Movie-goers in Johor Baru who enjoyed watching coloured talking movies in English, Tamil and Chinese at Capitol cinema are very familiar with Ho because movies were among the most affordable entertainments in the 1940’s.  Elizabeth Yong, a classmate of Ellan in the Johor Baru Convent, said she and Ho’s two older daughters would sneak in to watch Chinese movies that featured legendary hero, Wong Fei Hoong, and used to tremble in fear when they spotted Ho doing random checks in the theatre. 

“He was indeed a most gentle and generous man,” said Robin Tay whose father’s fruit stall was just a stone’s throw away from Capitol cinema.  Ho’s son, Robert, was Tay’s classmate in St Joseph’s School.  Tay recalls how Ho would let him and others who grew up in Johor Baru’s Chinatown enjoy watching movies for free.

The words, feelings and emotions of all who mourn his loss cannot fully express how much Ho is appreciated as a person and for his contributions.  He will be dearly missed not just by family and friends but by the community who enjoyed being regaled by his war memories or surprised with his amazing repertoire of Chinese dialects.  Ho’s life and contributions has certainly reached out and touched countless lives in many positive ways. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 March 2011

Exerpts of emails from Ho's daughter, Amy Neo:

9 March 2011

Since I'm living in Singapore and don't get to read the Malaysian newspapers, I was wondering if you could forward me a copy of the article you were planning to write on my dad, once it comes out.  Also, you could give me a heads up on when that article will be published so that I can try to get my hands on a copy of the newspapers for that day. I belong to the old school....nothing like having a hard copy in hand vs printing out a copy from the net! Appreciate your help.

Peggy, I can just picture my dad smiling with pride at this wonderful tribute and honour to his memory.


12 March 2011

Thank you Peggy, for your kind and loving tribute.  As I was reading the article, I am reminded of the parable of talents found in Matt 25:20-21, "Master, you entrusted me with 5 talents. See I have gained 5 more." His Master replied, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"

My father had certainly been the Lord's good and faithful servant, blessing others with the gifts and talents God had given him. I can see him now, sharing the Lord's happiness and wearing the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, has awarded to him. {2Tim 4:8}. Well done Pa!!!!!

Rest assured that I'll be on the lookout for the postman, and waylaying him to see if he's got my copy of the paper on him!!!!!!

Once again, many thanks Peggy, and may our Lord bless you and keep you always.


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When Amy gave me permission to share her emails on my blog, she also updated me with this info:

Dad was awarded a few medals from the Johor government: PIS, BSI, PPN, SBST JPK. Got the list off his name card, so can't give you the dates when he got the awards. 
23 March 2011

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