Daddy dearest

My dad - photo taken in early 1950s
Many readers tell me that they enjoy reading my “grandfather stories” and are thrilled by the nostalgia in old photos which I garnered from my dad’s collection.  A picture truly tells a thousand words because it not only lends credibility to my nostalgia stories but also depicts interesting scenes, food and fashion from a bygone era.  Dad’s shots of our family gives me a precious glimpse into our growing-up years and where we were at various stages of our lives. 

Besides his sturdy VW Beetle, the only sophisticated piece of equipment that dad owned back then, was his trusted camera.  I’m thrilled to discover that dad’s ancient camera still holds a place of pride in the cupboard and compared to our digital models, it feels so heavy in my hand.  When I carefully opened its leather case and examined it, I saw that it is a Franka Solida III, a classic post-war camera marked “Made in Germany US Zone” that was manufactured around 1954.

Ms Sarah Shirtliff
I fondly recall how dad used to unscrew the camera that was securely fastened inside its leather case and the way he carefully installed the 12 exposures-per-roll of film.  This was the classic camera that captured all the precious moments since my parents’ dating days because we have many photos of our family enjoying JB’s iconic Istana Gardens and Lido Beach.  Dad also has a handy tripod stand for group shots and I can remember how he used to set the self-timer and rushed to join us in the group as he told us to smile and look into the camera!

At the birth of each of his four children, dad used his camera to chart our lives with photos that are carefully organised in our individual albums.  Thanks to dad – each of us, from my eldest sister to my younger brother, has our own collection of baby photos through our childhood.  One page even lists our personal and family info with significant dates recorded for the appearance of the first tooth as well as the name of the midwife who helped mum with the delivery.

I have many memories growing up in our Ah Kong or grandfather’s house at Jalan Ngee Heng, Johor Baru, shared with cousins, uncles and aunts but when I heard classmates talk about their maternal and paternal grandparents, I realised that I have only met mum’s parents but not dad’s.  It was much later that I discovered that dad does not have any family because he was brought up by God’s grace in the care of missionaries, George and Elizabeth Wilson in the Elim Gospel Hall orphanage, known as the Elim Home.  He was born in Selangor and was probably aged 3 when his father brought him to a missionary from New Zealand, Miss Sarah Shirtliff, in Kuala Lumpur and she later sent him to the Wilsons in the Ipoh Elim Home. 

Dad with his brother, Wai Thin Fook [Right]
When I saw a photo of Sarah Shirtliff among our old photos, I was curious enough to make a Google search and discovered that she was one of the pioneers of Bukit Bintang Girls’ School, Kuala Lumpur.  In 1898, five missionaries from Brethren assemblies in New Zealand left for Malaya, four of them single women – Sarah Shirtliff and Elizabeth Dron from Nelson and Miss Davies and Miss Reeve from Palmerston North.  Shirtliff started a ministry to leprosy patients near Kuala Lumpur and while she spent a few years in India, she was in Malaya until 1947. 

Our family visiting Uncle Thin Fook's family
in Ipoh during the 1960s
Elizabeth Dron was a teacher in a very isolated area in Penang until she married British missionary, George Wilson in 1902.  George and Elizabeth Wilson went on to establish Elim Gospel Hall at Jalan Chung Thye Phin in Ipoh and started the orphanage with a girls’ home through the goodwill of Bessie MacClay and a separate boy’s home for orphans and borders from destitute families in and around Ipoh.  The Wilsons could not afford to send the children to school so they were given basic education in reading and writing in English and Chinese language. 

In the early years, many children who came to live in the Home never knew their family names so Wilson put the children into groups of five and gave them surnames and names to let them have a sense of family.  For instance, a group of two boys and three girls were given the surname, “Wai” which I believe, is the first half of “Wai-son” the Chinese version of his name, Wilson.  This probably explains the mystery of why my dad is named Loh Thin Loke even though his features do not resemble the Chinese and why my siblings and I are often mistaken for non-Chinese!

A visit to Haw Par Villa, Singapore with Uncle Thin Fook's
family when they holidayed with us in JB during the 1960s
It appears that dad’s family was the Wilsons and the children whom he grew up with but the bond he shared with another boy, Wai Thin Fook, was as close as brothers.  Dad told us that even though the Wilsons maintained a strict code of conduct for the children, he and his brother were up to all kinds of mischief and because Wilson had no patience with any disobedience, punishment was often harsh.  In 2003 when we visited Elim Gospel Hall at their 90th anniversary celebration, dad showed us a tiny dark room under the staircase in his former dormitory – the place where boys or girls were locked in as the ultimate disciplinary action meted out by Wilson!

Dad showing us the little dark room under the stairs when
we visited Elim Gospel Hall in 2003
When their families were young, dad and his brother had an arrangement to meet for holidays with either family visiting Ipoh or Johor Baru in alternate years but if they were unable to come, uncle never failed to send us a parcel for Christmas filled with Ipoh specialties like juicy pomelo from Tambun and tins of Menglembu groundnuts. 
A collection of photos of our holidays together taken by dad’s classic camera at Haw Par Villa Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore, the beach in Morib and at Cameron Highlands, records fond mementoes with dad’s side of the family.  Our regular family holidays are the foundation of the strong bonds that dad established in our family and it continues to bind us together wherever we are.  Happy Father’s Day daddy!

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 18 June 2014

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