Significant 2012

Dad with his three daughters in Larkin Gardens, early 1960s
[Left to Right] Dad, Ruby, Pearly and Peggy
As we count down to 2013, it is also time to look back and sum up the past year. I will say it was a good year for our family because we celebrated our grandmother’s 100th birthday in May as well as our mum and dad’s birthdays with a Thanksgiving. As mum turned 80 in September and dad marked his 90th birthday in October, my siblings and I brought family and friends together for a Thanksgiving in October. While the celebrations were special and memorable, an extension to our Thanksgiving – a road trip with mum and dad – was a particularly significant event for me in 2012.

As we were compiling RSVP responses to invitations for the Thanksgiving celebration for our parent’s birthdays, we learnt that the Voon family in Petaling Jaya was not able to come. 

Dad and his daughters in Johor Baru, Nov 2012
[Left to Right] Peggy, Ruby, dad and Pearly
Aunty Betty was unwell and her children, Eric, Lawrence, Violet and Esther Voon, were taking turns to care of her.  Aunty Betty is like a sister to dad when they grew up together in Ipoh and due to failing health they have not met for the longest time.  My eldest sister Ruby and I hoped to visit her with dad – if we could persuade him – because in his advanced age, we know he is now reluctant to travel.

Dad is the inspiration for our travels because when we were kids, almost every year he would drive us to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Cameron Highlands for family holidays.  I was probably too young to know but I’m told that we used to start from Johor Baru in the wee hours of the morning when it was still dark and travel the long and winding old trunk roads, with several stops in between to rest both car and driver, and finally reach Ipoh at night. 

Family holiday in Ipoh in the early 1960s
Peggy is seated [3rd from Left] between
cousin Bernie and eldest sister, Ruby!
We have a large collection of holiday photos taken at places of interest and besides having fun, I remember often being very carsick but dad had a plastic pail in the car, ready for me to throw up if I felt too nauseous!

The surprise arrival of our second sister, Pearly from the UK for the Thanksgiving added to the overall excitement.  As she also planned a short trip to Kuala Lumpur to visit relatives and friends, Ruby and I suggested to dad that we too could go to KL to drive Pearly back to JB.  And while we were there, we could also visit Aunty Betty in PJ.  We were mentally crossing our fingers for his positive reply and as we waited with bated breath, his reply was a spontaneous, “Yes!”

So we started making travel arrangements and that all-important appointment to meet with Aunty Betty.  The next morning, at the breakfast table, dad brought up the subject of our impending trip to KL and I privately wondered if he was having second thoughts about going.  He asked me when we were coming back – and I thought it was a valid question since he is quite the homebody who could not stay away for long.  I told him we will just do an overnighter but instead of being in a hurry to come home, he suggested that we go on to Ipoh! 

Mum and dad with Aunty Betty in Petaling Jaya
I almost fell off my chair in shock but kept my cool and quickly agreed to his suggestion.  It’s not everyday that dad asked to see the place where he grew up and I was determined to take him there.  For me, it was not just a trip down the proverbial Memory Lane but it was the first time in umpteen years since dad was going on a trip with his three daughters!

While most people may know mum’s family by reputation, very few know the details of dad’s origins.  I remember visiting Ipoh during school holidays and staying with Uncle Thin Fook, Auntie Annie and cousins, Bernie and Esther.  In alternate years, they would come to JB and I remember going with them to places of interest in Singapore like Haw Par Villa.  If they did not visit, at year end we would receive by parcel post, a gift pack filled with Ipoh snacks that always included the famous Menglembu [still in their pods] peanuts! 

Precious old photos of the home in Elim Gospel Hall
It was much later that I realised that dad does not have any family because he was brought up by God’s grace under the care of missionaries, George and Elizabeth Wilson in the Elim Gospel Hall orphanage.  I finally figured out that the only family dad knows are the people he grew up with in the Elim home and Uncle Thin Fook in Ipoh was like a brother to him.

Historical records show that the orphanage started with a girls’ home through the goodwill of Bessie MacClay and the boy’s home was for orphans and borders that came from destitute families in and around Ipoh. 

Facade of Elim Gospel Hall, Ipoh [taken in 2007]
Many years ago, when I read Roots a book by Alex Hayley [also made into a TV mini-series] that traced his ancestors to the native boy who was captured and sold as a slave in the US, I was curious about my own roots and started to quiz dad. 

He was too young to recollect much except what we know from his birth certificate but he remembered that he was probably aged 3 when his father brought him to Sarah Shirtliff in Selangor and she later sent him to the Wilsons in Ipoh. 

One of the old wooden buildings that has since been
demolished to rebuild modern buildings in Elim Gospel Hall
Now at age 90, dad is one of the last surviving “boys” who grew up in the Elim home and it was very special for him to meet Aunty Betty – one of the “girls” from the girls’ home – to reminisce about bygone days.  Every year, we send each other Christmas cards but with Aunty’s failing eyesight, it is now a challenge for her to write to us or read our messages.  So it was particularly meaningful for dad and Aunty to meet each other, while at least one of them could still travel.  I will fondly remember her account of how the “boys” set Uncle Victor Voon up to meet (and date!) Aunty Betty – when he wanted to buy a bicycle and she was working with Whiteaways, the department store that sold bicycles among a host of imported items! 

Ipoh's landmark Sultan Yussuf Fountain looks smaller now!

It was a precious, nostalgic trip to take dad to meet Aunty and the next day, to visit Elim, the place where they grew up in Ipoh.  It was my privilege to drive and point out sights to dad and hear him tell us how it used to be back in those days.  Throughout the journey, our conversation was liberally punctuated by the phrase “last time” or “in the olden days” because dad could not help comparing how different things are now from what he was familiar with. 

With new buildings and one-way streets, very little of the Ipoh in dad’s growing-up days remains today.  There are drastic changes to the city skyline but the landmark Sultan Yussuf Fountain at the junction of Hugh Low Street, Gopeng Road, Tambun Road and Brewster Road, welcomed us into the heart of Ipoh.  Even though it looks much smaller now and the fountain jets are reduced to feeble spurts, it is a fond and familiar sight as we passed it to find our way to Jalan Chung Thye Phin where Elim Gospel Hall stands in its original site, within a complex of modern buildings.

A new complex of buildings in Elim Gospel Hall, Ipoh

I took a short drive around the compound to show dad the new buildings as he reminisced about what used to stand in those sites.  We met with Jimmy and Josephine Ho, the church elder and his wife who shared with us, some very precious old photos of the people in the orphanage. [This is an exciting subject for a separate post!]

After closely scrutinizing the photos, dad could recognize several girls – his older “sisters” – but he could not identify himself as a child.  After all, he was then just a kid.  

Jimmy [Left] and Josephine Ho, showing dad some
precious old photos of Elim's residents!
Jimmy told us that Elim Gospel Hall has plans to celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2013 and invited dad to come for the celebration. 

As we anticipate the coming date, I have been given an assignment to produce a video clip of dad speaking about his memories of Elim to be used at the anniversary celebration. 

The Elim Gospel Hall Centenary Celebration in Sept/Oct 2013 is certainly another nostalgic, significant and special event to look forward to and God-willing, dad may be ready to travel again then!


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