The Real Champion

Mdm Mak Cheng Hai, my 100-year old grandma
She sits quietly in her cane chair, one hand gently waving a hand fan.  I watch the serene smile on her face, her rheumy eyes sometime shut as she drifts off into a world of her own.  After 100 eventful years, my grandma has plenty to ponder.  On 18 May 2012 we celebrated her 100th birthday with a family gathering and a luncheon the next day for friends and relatives who travelled locally and from abroad to join the party in Kuala Lumpur. 

Born in 1912 on the 28th day of the fourth moon in the lunar calendar, Mak Cheng Hai is the eldest daughter with three brothers, three sisters and three pairs of twins.  After Ah Kong or grandfather passed away in 1980, I invited grandma to live with us because I knew she disliked living alone.  Grandma was with our family for almost 20 years and we saw her age from a robust, strong-willed matriarch to a grand old lady who grew more and more dependent. 

Grandma now lives with Aunty Polly [Left]
Over the years she shared with me, snippets of family history, insights into life and her horror experiences of World War Two.  These precious memories are treasured as are her priceless sacrifices of putting love into action in her multiple roles as sister, aunt, wife, mother, and now grandmother of 30 and great-grandmother to 29 great-grandchildren. 

Early Years

In those days when opium-smoking was a Government controlled business grandma’s father, Mak Chor Kun better known as Mak Puan, had a license to operate an opium business.  Mak however, was not only in the business but also indulged in the habit.  This seriously drained the family’s resources and one rainy day, he was found dead on the street, probably from a drug-induced accident.

She chose to wear a Western-style wedding gown
His widow, Fong Ah Leen, had to use her skills in sewing beautiful embroidery or sulam to earn an income.  Grandma’s uncles, who were in the shipbuilding industry in Singapore, looked upon her with favour and they encouraged her personal development.  At that time, girls rarely had a formal education but grandma went to school, learnt to play the piano by ear and also played badminton.  This was probably how she met her husband, Ng Ngoh Tee, a Government servant who was also a badminton enthusiast. 

It was common then to marry young so she was married at about age 18.  Instead of wearing the traditional kwa or qipao, she chose a modern Western-style wedding gown and had several wedding banquets graced by dignitaries, held in a week-long celebration.  Marrying into a Teochew family presented grandma with many challenges because she was brought up in the Cantonese tradition and had a formidable mother-in-law whose hot temper earned her the moniker of Nyonya Kuching!

Grandma and Ah Kong with family in front of Government
 quarters, Jalan Kolam Ayer/Jalan Waterworks, 1940s
Grandma and Ah Kong first lived at Jalan Tangga Duke, an old road near Jalan Ibrahim in Johor Baru and later shifted into Government quarters at Bukit Chagar.  Grandma had eleven children by normal birth, with a son born during World War Two so she had the added stress of nursing her infant, making sure his cries did not attract unwelcome attention.  It was a serious life-and-death situation as they hid in the jungle because if they were discovered by marauding soldiers, every life was at risk!

After the war Ah Kong, who was attached to the Malaysian Public Works Department and later the Johor Baru Land Office, was transferred to Muar.  The family grew their own vegetables to eat and for grandma to make kueh for sale to supplement their income.  With a head for economics, grandma also became a part-time property broker to earn extra income for the family.

Family photo taken in No.154 Jalan Ngee Heng,
on the badminton court, 1950s
On Ah Kong’s transfer back to Johor Baru, the family lived at the Jalan Kolam Ayer Government quarters and later moved back to the family home at No.154 Jalan Ngee Heng.  

In our school-going years, my siblings, cousins and I lived with them in this bungalow with an adjacent badminton court and I had my share of duties when grandma assigned us tasks to help keep the home spick and span. 

In those days when washing machines were still uncommon, she would hand-wash huge basins of clothes daily as the family was big in sports and played badminton daily.

Love Set

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.  Seeing her wielding a racket instead of a ladle gave me a fresh view of grandma.  When I realized that grandma was among the pioneers of Malaysian sportswomen, I was filled with a new pride because in those days, most women were only busy with housekeeping and bringing up families.

Grandma and Ah Kong with some
of their tropies at Ngee Heng front porch
Badminton was grandma and Ah Kong’s passion and they earned a reputation as mixed-doubles champions.  Their common love for the game also influenced the sports careers of their children – six boys and five girls.  Nurtured by a supportive environment their children also excelled in other sports like boxing, rugby, football, basketball and athletics.  Badminton is probably in the blood because a champion was born almost every 10 years – Roland Ng (1931), Billy Ng (1940) and Sylvia Ng (1949). 

Ah Kong was coach of the late, great Wong Peng Soon, helping him to master the most difficult stroke in the game – the backhand.  Wong, grandma’s cousin, became the first Asian to win the All-England title in 1950 and went on to subsequent victories in 1951, 1952 and 1955.  Ah Kong’s skills in badminton was passed down to the next generation 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 in this great badminton family in the South.

Meanwhile grandma would cook us nutritious meals, always with soup in the Cantonese tradition, and bolster our health with evil-smelling herbal brews.  With her own experience in competitive badminton, grandma knew all about the right attitude and what went into the making of champions as her children kept the Jalur Gemilang flying!

Fond Thoughts

Back then every meal in Ah Kong’s house seemed like a big party because there were least 15 people dining together daily.  Grandma would prepare food without the help of electrical appliances like blenders or food processors but chopped, sliced and pounded to cook for us over kerosene and charcoal stoves!

Grandma with grandchildren in Ngee Heng garden, 1960s
Peggy is 4th from Right with Ruby behind her;
Philip is in front of Peggy
My cousins, Malcolm and Philip, dreaded market days especially when grandma bought bean sprouts because they invariably spent hours plucking the tails off kilos of sprouts, to the point where they sometimes nodded off to sleep! 

Ruby, my sister, recalls the kilos of fresh prawns with a shudder and to this day, does not eat prawns not because of any allergy but due to an aversion arising from her endless task of shelling prawns!

Grandma has aged gracefully, free from diabetes, hypertension or heart problems and is still able to walk on good days.  Her secret for this radiance, I guess, must be TLC [Tender Loving Care], a consistently healthy diet and the use of Sam Fong Hoi Tong pressed powder which she used as her daily make-up!

As we celebrate grandma’s life and longevity, her frail mind may not fully appreciate its significance but we cherish her and keep her comfortable in the twilight of her life.  We value how she has impacted our lives and just care for grandma who once cared for us.  The roles are now reversed.

Sports Achievements

RTM filming grandma for documentary on retired sports
personailites in our house; From Left: Mum, my niece
Amanda, Uncle Billy and Aunty Sylvia 
Among other sports achievements, Roland Ng 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. 

Billy Ng was Malaysian Open men’s singles champion in 1964 and a member of the 1967 victorious Thomas Cup team. 

Sylvia Ng achieved State and National titles as well as medals in the South East Asia Games and Asian Games and on 12 August 1978, she made history by becoming the first Asian woman to win the Commonwealth Games singles Gold in Edmonton, Canada. 

Auntie Sylvia, 6-time National champion was honoured Sportswoman of the Year in 1975 and 1978.  Auntie Sylvia and Uncle Billy were inducted into the Olympics Council of Malaysia Hall of Fame in 2004 and 2008, respectively.  In July 2010, Uncle Billy was conferred the Darjah Indera Mahkota Pahang (DIMP) which carries the title, Dato’.

More photos of Mak Cheng Hai - taken by NSTP photographer, Adi Safri:

Grandma Mak Cheng Hai now lives in USJ, Selangor
Her lips are a healthy red even without wearing lipstick!
Grandma is child-like and enjoys having a sweet...
At 100 years old, grandma has plenty to ponder
Grandma - wandering in her own thoughts
Grandma now lives with Auntie Polly and Uncle Steven in USJ

Peggy Loh is the youngest daughter of grandma’s eldest daughter, Lucy Ng.

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 20 May 2012

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5/21/2012

    Love the selected pictures (couldn't have been easy). A well recorded account of a beloved grand-old-lady, my lovely "Poh-poh" (grandma in Cantonese). from grand-daughter in England.