Our Family Ties

One of the most valuable legacies I received from spending time with my late grandmother, must be her recollections of a bygone era with details of people and places which helped me see a bigger picture of the family tree and where I fit in it.

Lunar New Year at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng; on the
 driveway [badminton court at Right] Ng and Mak cousins
[L to R] Sylvia, Nellie, Agnes, Samson, twins Terrance
and Jeffery, Polly with Eddy in her arms
Grandma was a fountain of information and when she set off on a topic, it would lead to another and link to yet another.  I remember how I often made her pause in her story to ask questions to clarify what she said so that I got the facts straight.

While most young people may think it’s boring to talk to adults or older folks, I did not see it that way at all.  For me, it was interesting and meaningful to hear true stories from the experiences of older family members.

I can still picture grandma in the front port of our Ngee Heng home, seated on a comfortable rattan chair with her hand-fan waving to move the humid evening air, chatting away with Chinese honorific titles and names woven into her anecdotes.

At that time, these titles did not make much sense to me but as I began to understand the Chinese way of respectfully addressing our elders with titles that would indicate how we are related, I slowly figured out who these people were.

Grandma, Mak Cheng Hai, [Seated Right]
with mother, Fong Ai Leen, and siblings
[Standing L to R] Mak Kim Chew,
Mak Fong Sim and Mak Kim Hong
Grandma, Mak Cheng Hai, was born in 1912, the eldest daughter in a family with three brothers, three sisters and three pairs of twins.  I have only met with grandma’s two sisters and two brothers as the other siblings had passed away either at childbirth or as infants due to illness or malnutrition at a stage of life when they were very poor.

From a young age, I was taught the names of our grandfather, grandmother and great-grandmother.  These Chinese names were a mouthful for a youngster but with frequent repetition, the names were drummed in and I remembered them all.

I’m told that grandma’s mother, our great-grandmother, Fong Ai Leen, was from a wealthy family.  We came to this conclusion also because in those days, it was the norm for young ladies from good families to have a child companion or playmate who would grow up with her as her personal maid.

With their origins from Taishan county in the Guangdong province, China, senior family members spoke in the Seiyap dialect and would refer to elder sisters as Ah Tei

I used to wonder who that lady with great-grandmother was.  When I met her, she was dressed in the traditional sam-foo outfit with a cotton blouse matched by black satin pantaloons.  Her hair was pulled back and knotted in a flat bun at the nape of her neck.

She was respectfully addressed as Cheong Kiang Tei and I was told she was great-grandmother’s companion-maid.  Her title, I later learnt, was just a nickname because she had quite a long neck and cheong kiang in Cantonese means, long neck!  Her given name was Kok Soi Heong.

Grandma, Mak Cheng Hai [Right] with her mother
When great-grandfather, Mak Chor Kun, better known as Mak Puan, came to seek great-grandmother’s hand in marriage, he gave the Fong family the impression that he was an equally wealthy man because he operated a licensed opium business.

In those days, opium-smoking was a Government controlled business to earn much-needed revenue for the developing state of Johor.

When great-grandmother was married, she let her companion-maid leave to also marry and have a family of her own.  Having lived together as family for so long, we stayed in touch and was glad when she too was married and had a daughter, Molly, and later also had grandchildren.

While great-grandmother started out with a good marriage, her husband’s bad habit of indulging in opium seriously drained the family resources and they ended up being poor.  One rainy day, he was found dead on the street, probably from a drug-induced accident.

This left great-grandmother a penniless widow with young children and she had to use her skills in embroidery or sulam to earn a living.

Grandfather, Ng Ngoh Tee [Left] with Frank
Mongford Still [Centre]
The family home was at Jalan Ah Siang and I imagined how great-grandmother used to sew by the light of an oil lamp late into the night after her children had gone to bed.

I was curious when I heard grandma refer to her kau-foo (uncles), the Fong brothers, who were involved in the shipbuilding industry in Singapore.  As the eldest daughter, grandma was tasked with reaching out to her uncles for practical help for the family. 

She used to say the names of places in Cantonese like Keppel Harbour and Clifford Pier that sounded like, Sai Puck Moon, and Hong Thung Mah Tau, respectively, and it piqued my curiosity as to who these people were but I never met them.

At that time, Malaya and Singapore was one country and Johor was not yet linked to the neighbouring island by a causeway so grandma would travel across the Johor Straits by boat to visit her uncles.  I thought it was very liberal and courageous for a young lady to travel alone, literally overseas!

Grandma found favour with her uncles, who doted on her and encouraged her in her studies.  She described to me, outfits imported from England that they bought for her like dresses and patent leather shoes.

Grandfather and grandma shared a
passion for badminton
In those days, it was rare for girls to get a formal education and grandma was one of the fortunate girls who attended the prestigious Foon Yew School.  For a perspective of this particular era, one of her classmates was the late philanthropist, Quek Ho Yau.

On her trips to Singapore, her uncles would also present grandma with food provisions and she recalled how they would give her generous chunks of ham (she said: foh thoy) to bring home to feed her family.

At that time, the surviving Mak siblings included grandma, her youngest sister, Mak Fong Sim and two brothers, Mak Kim Hong and Mak Kim Chew.

Their other sister, Mak Wai Cheng, was adopted by a wealthy couple from Hong Kong as great-grandmother believed she would have a better life with them.

In Johor Baru, the main road in the city is named after a prominent personality in Johor: the builder, entrepreneur and close friend of Sultan Abu Bakar, Wong Ah Fook.

Wong’s only nephew, Wong Kwong Yam, was brought to Malaya to look after his businesses here.  He was the son of Wong’s only brother, Wing Kee, who died young. 

Kwong Yam went to a Malay school and being conversant in the Malay language, he was known locally as Towkay Ah Yam. 

Wong Kwong Yam, also known as
Wong Ah Yam, nephew of Wong Ah Fook
Grandma would say his name, Tow Kah Yim, in the Seiyap dialect.  With five wives and 17 children, Towkay Yam had a huge family who lived in Jalan Ah Siang.

In the garden of their family home, there was a sand and gravel badminton court built by our grandfather, Ng Ngoh Tee.  This was the training ground for several champions, the most famous of whom, was Towkay Yam’s seventh son, Wong Peng Soon.

We are linked to the Wong’s through Towkay Yam, the founder of the Johor branch of the Wong family in JB.

It took me some time to finally understand our link to the Wong family but by listening to grandma’s tales, recalling names of relatives and then reading historical accounts on Johor history, it helped me join the dots to figure it out.

In those days, wealthy and influential towkays like Kwong Yam could have their pick of wives and concubines and his eyes fell upon the sister of great-grandfather Mak.

When Towkay Yam approached the family for her hand in marriage, he discovered that she was the younger of the Mak sisters.  In strict Chinese tradition, the older sister should be married before the younger could consider marriage.

Kwong Yam was so besotted with this beauty and wanted her for his bride that he decided to marry both our great-grand aunts, the Mak sisters!

I remember how grandma would regale us with anecdotes of how Kwong Yam kept his five wives and their families living in harmony, in their home built around a large fresh water pond in Jalan Ah Siang.

At that time, there was no piped water convenience and the families living around the pond would depend on the spring water for their livelihood.  She said the men would carry buckets of water back into the homes for the ladies to bathe, wash and cook.

Grandma told me that there was a central kitchen where all the meals were cooked and when it was time to eat, the maids would go to the edge of the pond and call across to the separate wings of the house to summon the family over for the meals.

Victorious team with the Foong Seong Cup
in 1939, [Seated] F. M. Still and Encik Mat
[Standing L to R] Wong Peng Nam,
 Peng Soon, Ng Ngoh Tee, Peng Yee
With two of her aunts married to Towkay Yam, his children were grandma’s cousins and they grew up together in Jalan Ah Siang. 

Among his children by wife, Mak Qui Tong, who were familiar to me were Wong Cheong Meng, Wong Peng Nam, Wong Peng Tong, Wong Peng Yee, Wong Peng Soon, Wong Peng Long and Wong Peng Kow.

When grandfather, Ng Ngoh Tee, was then dating grandma, he was often at their Jalan Ah Siang home.  This was where he met with her cousins, the Wong brothers.

And when the Wong brothers recognized grandfather as the 4-time Johor badminton champion in the 1920s and 1930s, they asked him to train them in the game.

Grandfather, who trained many talented world-class players through his Companion Badminton Party, was not only a competent player but also a dedicated trainer.  In 1936, he was the vice-president of the Johor Baru District Badminton Association.

So with grandfather’s help, the Wong brothers built an international standard badminton court in their garden, right under the chiku tree!

Wong Peng Soon with the
prestigious Thomas Cup 1949
Here, grandfather trained the Wong brothers and together with Peng Nam, Peng Soon, and Peng Yee and they formed the Johor team of 1939 who won the Foong Seong Cup, a trophy donated by a Chinese businessman. 

In 1960, when Tan Sri Mohamed Khir Johari became Badminton Association of Malaysia president, he renamed the trophy, the Khir Cup.

Grandfather helped Peng Soon hone his badminton skills and to master the most difficult stroke in the game – the backhand.  Peng Soon is best remembered as a member of Malaya’s first team who won the ThomasCup in 1949 and the first Asian to win the All-England title in 1950 and subsequent victories in 1951, 1952 and 1955.

Badminton is probably in their blood because almost every ten years a champion was born in grandfather’s family – Roland Ng (1931), Billy Ng (1940) and Sylvia Ng (1949).  

Grandfather was their trainer while the siblings were sparring partners on the court built adjacent to grandfather’s house at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.

Aunty Sylvia on the cover of All Sports
magazine, Sept 1978 issue
Among other achievements, Uncle Roland was Johor champion from 1963 to 1973, National Veterans singles champion in 1971 and doubles gold medalist in the first World Invitation Badminton Veterans Tournament in 1983.  Uncle Billy was Malaysian Open men’s singles champion in 1964 and a member of the victorious Thomas Cup team in 1967. 

Like her brothers, Aunty Sylvia’s badminton training started at home and she went on to conquer State and National titles as well as medals in the South East Asia Games and Asian Games.  

On 12 August 1978, Aunty Sylvia made history by becoming the first Asian woman to win the Commonwealth Games singles Gold in Edmonton, Canada.  In her illustrious career, Aunty Sylvia was National champion six times until 1980 when she retired from competitive sports.  

For her outstanding achievements, Aunty was honoured as Sportswoman of the Year in 1975 and 1978.  Aunty Sylvia and Uncle Billy were inducted into the Olympics Council of Malaysia Hall of Fame in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

Grandfather and grandma had 11 children, their eldest daughter is my mum, Lucy, and the youngest, Aunty Sylvia.  Being the eldest daughter, mum’s age was closer to that of grandma’s youngest sister, Mak Fong Sim, and they had a very close relationship.

Dating days at Istana Gardens, 1953, [L to R]
dad and mum with her aunt, Mak Fong Sim,
who later married Leong Weng Yip
They started dating about the same time and for my mum’s wedding, her aunt sewed my mum’s evening gown.  Dad captured some good shots of their double dates at the Istana Gardens, using his trusted camera on a tripod stand!

My parents’ wedding banquet was held alfresco on the badminton court at Jalan Ngee Heng.  The caterer was New Hong Kong Restaurant, where the cooks brought their mobile kitchen to prepare and serve the banquet on location!

Our Ngee Heng home was the ‘central’ for most family events probably due to its space and some of my fondest memories must be the Lunar New Year gatherings there.  

During our school-going years, my siblings and some cousins stayed here to conveniently walk to school and we had many exciting experiences in this neighbourhood. 

One of the most unforgettable experiences happened while Aunty Polly had just delivered her firstborn, Bernice, and were staying in the Ngee Heng family home for her confinement month.

In the middle of the night, we heard a loud crash and felt a strange tremor – it was a common occurrence because the house was bordered by main roads – and as usual, we opened our upstairs room window to see what had happened. 

We scanned the scene and saw nothing amiss but when we looked down, we were shocked to see that a car had rammed down a section of the bamboo hedge, fence and wall, and was halfway into the bedroom where Aunty Polly, baby and helper were in!

We screamed and rushed downstairs, and can never forget the horrific sight of the car hood inside the room, under the rubble of the fallen wall, through the cloudy darkness of concrete dust – and no sign of Aunty!

Thankfully, their room door was kept wide open and the impact of the car which hit the baby’s cot, shot it out into the hall and the baby was unharmed.

The car, with a drunk driver at the wheel, also hit Aunty’s bed, rammed it directly under the higher bed where the helper was sleeping and I remember how grandfather managed to dig Aunty out to safety. 

Family group shot on badminton court; Our grandparents with their
eleven children, their spouses and the older grandchildren:
[Standing L to R] Sylvia, Polly, Annie, Arthur, Victor, Robert, Billy,
my dad, uncle Tay Liong and Seow Boon; [Seated L to R] Aunty
Elizabeth, Roland, grandfather and grandma, mum, Lily with Shirley
on her lap; [On floor L to R] Howard, Richard, Jeffery, Daniel,
Catherine, Philip, Peggy, Pearly and Ruby
Looking back on this awful incident, I’m just grateful that everyone involved made a full recovery. 

Grandfather, then already advanced in age, did not suffer a heart attack with the shock and Bernice grew up to be an amazing mother of two beautiful boys.  I only wonder what became of that irresponsible driver…

Our Ngee Heng home was also where I met members of the extended family from the Wong’s side who often visited grandma.  We would also send grandma over to chit-chat with Sam Yee Poh, (Wong) Lin Tai, grandma’s cousin, the sister of Peng Soon.

Chinese New Year at grandfather's house; Note the porch
at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng , [L to R] cousins, Kenneth,
Philip, Catherine, Peggy, Pearly, Daniel, Jeffery and Ruby
With the passing of the senior members of the family, the younger generation may not be familiar with who’s who, how we are related and our long and illustrious heritage!  

I hope this brief summary should stir up some interest for them to ask questions, do their own research and dig deeper to find out further links and inter-relationships within the widespread family tree.

For a start, bear in mind that grandfather’s youngest sister (Ng) married great-grandmother’s brother to be Mrs Fong.  This is yet another branch of the family to explore…

In such large families, we often joke about how we may meet our relatives outside and inadvertently get into a “fight” with them without realizing that we are in fact, related! 
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I have just read your most interesting account of your 'family history'.  I was a contemporary of your aunt Annie Ng and I have visited your mother Lucy, twice during my regular visits to JB from the UK where I live now.

I am the daughter of Wong Sweet Wah, also known as Wong Lin Tai and your grandmother Aunty Chiang Hai was a regular visitor to my mother who used to live in Jalan Chantum.

Even today I can recall the names of the 11 children of Aunty Chiang Hai. Two years ago I met your aunty Anne in KL for a good one hour chat in between breakfast and
lunch appointments.

I forwarded your family history to a cousin Francis Wong who lives in Melbourne. His grandmother is Wong Kwong Yam's 4th wife, whom we call Ah Niong.

My grandmother is called Sai Por and she is the third wife of Khong Yam. I call her Sam Por (third grandmother).

I was told by my mum that because Kwong Yam's first two wives did not produce male offspring (very important for running the family business) Wong Ah Fook's wife arranged for my grandmother to marry my grandfather.

Third grandmother produced my mother, not a good start, hence Kwong Yam did the right thing to marry two more wives and it was a success story as everybody started to produce male offspring, including my grandma who produced 5th uncle Wong Peng Tong who is Philamae Wong's father.

The cousin who forwarded your family history to me is the grand-daughter of Ah Niong's sister whom my mother used to refer to as Ah Nai. Don't know why.

I have fond memories of that brightly lit badminton court and seeing your grandfather Ngoh Tee coaching the budding badminton players.

In the days before TV and the internet, we used to spend our evenings watching people play badminton or visiting contemporary classmates in the evening, playing Snakes and Ladders, Chinese chequers and Monopoly!

GOH SEE ENG
UK, 11 Feb 2017
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