More on Wongs of Senai

The Wong family in front of their house
at West Coast Road in post-war Singapore;
When my story, Two Wongs of Senai was published in Streets Johor (NST 12 Sept 2014) I received a message from Senai girl, Wong Man Chen, whom I met to do a story on her visually-impaired husband (NST 20 July 2014).  She could relate to my story because she used to go to the South Johor Wong Association’s annual event for students with outstanding school reports.  I learnt that students who performed with excellence continue to receive rewards to encourage them and felt glad that a new generation of people in Senai are still benefiting from the Wong association’s contribution to the community.

Linus Wong Tian Ching [Right] with his wife, Alice
I had written about the Wong association building at Lorong 1 in Senai, Johor, known as Jiang Xia Tang, a sprawling mansion that was built in 1937 by one of the founding fathers of Senai, Wong Piang Nam.  Then in November 2014, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from David T C Loo, who introduced himself as a retired pastor with the Malaysian Methodist Church and his wife, Wong Ju Nee, who was a grand-daughter of Wong Piang Nam.

He said while he was doing some online research on his wife’s clan, he came across my story.  He clarified that the Wong clan refers to Wong Piang Nam as “Ping Nam” and I was particularly pleased with his comment: “The stories we heard, all jive with what you have written here.”

He said while he retired in Kuala Lumpur, almost all the Wongs live in Singapore now.  As the family has not visited Senai for a long time, he also thanked me for the recent photos published with my story that gave him a glimpse of the development in Senai.  Then he told me that his brother-in-law, Linus Wong Tian Ching, published a book with his recollections about grandfather Wong Ping Nam and his legacy entitled, A Hundred Thousand Fishes that was launched on his 80th birthday in July 2013.

Linus with family members at the launch of his book
on his 80th birthday in July 2013
Loo also introduced me to his sister-in-law, Wong Lee Lin, and invited me to write her in Singapore to set up an appointment to meet with the author, her eldest brother, for first-hand stories about their grandfather or Ah Kong.  

I was thrilled to learn that they have a written record of their family history and I wanted to get my hands on that book.  From a quick search in Google, I had to be satisfied with a peek of the book cover and some painted illustrations. 

I wasted no time to write to Lee Lin and she welcomed me to meet with her brother in Singapore.  She was instrumental in getting the book published and it is a priceless record for the family to better appreciate the hardships and struggles their forefathers went through to get them where they are today.  Lee Lin graciously shared a softcopy of, A Hundred Thousand Fishes, with me and I had the privilege to read it before meeting her with the author and his wife, in Singapore. 

Grandfather Wong

Born in 1867, Wong Ping Nam, a Hakka who hails from Her Po village in the Guangdong province of China, was sold as a migrant worker at age 17 to work as a tin miner at Belitung Island in Indonesia.  It was a rags-to-riches story where Wong worked hard to ultimately own his own tin mines and in 1926, he decided to seek his fortune in another land and moved north to Johor in then Malaya where he and his followers settled in Senai. 

The theatre [centre] still stands between two rows of
shops in Senai town today
Wong and his followers cleared the jungles around Senai to plant rubber and pineapple, crops that had replaced pepper and gambier as the most important plantation crops in Johor.  Wong, who used the trade name Wong Tack Maw, was a wealthy entrepreneur who owned 1,000 hectares of land in Senai that was cultivated with rubber and pineapple.  He lived in a sprawling mansion built within the Wong Tack Maw plantation while he developed Senai into a commercial centre. 

The theatre and two rows of shophouses along the main road may have been the earliest brick buildings constructed in this small town that developed around a network of roads.  Built in 1934, the theatre bears the inscriptions “Senai Hall” and “Wong Tack Maw,” the trade name of Wong Ping Nam, and still stands between two blocks of shophouses, designed with similar washed granite finishing, along the Senai main road.  In 1937 a replica of his plantation mansion was built at Lorong 1 and Wong, a benevolent entrepreneur, opened it as a shelter for new immigrants who could stay until they found their footing to settle in a foreign land. 

Steps to the front entrance of Wong clan house in Senai
The Chinese often apply the ancient art of Feng Shui to achieve harmony but it’s unknown why Wong decided to name the mansion, Jiang Xia Tang because the word, tang means “hall” as in ancestral halls that honour the departed.  Paralysed from a stroke, Wong passed away in his plantation mansion in 1940, just before the Japanese arrived in Senai, in the Second World War.

The other pioneering Wong of Senai, Wong Ji Song, an entrepreneur in the transport business, prospered the town by transporting mainly rubber and pineapple products to Singapore.  After the Second World War, he established the Johor Jiang Xia Tang Mutual Help Association in 1947 which evolved into the present day South Johor Wong Association in 1970 and members joined from JB, Kota Tinggi, Kluang and Pontian.  In 1951, the association proposed to buy Jiang Xia Tang and the sale was formally completed in 1978.  These premises are now used as an ancestral hall for the Wong clan and a clan house for community events and celebrations.

Written Legacy

Front cover of A Hundred Thousand Fishes
I meet Linus, 82, and his wife, Alice, in Lee Lin’s home for a further insight into A Hundred Thousand Fishes, a written legacy that he has dedicated to the descendants of Wong Ping Nam.  Having read his book and from my own family’s experiences, I can relate to many of the scenarios he described in pre-war days, their escape to safety during the Japanese invasion as well as the challenges in rebuilding their lives in the post-war period.  As the eldest child, Linus made a great deal of sacrifices to benefit his extended family and because their schooling was interrupted during the war, he fought hard to complete his education so as to have a career and earn a steady income to support the family.

Linus [Front Left] and his brother, Ah Sen
[Right] with grandmother [seated] and
their father Wong Siew Chin [Back row
Left], aunts and uncle
While Ah Kong was still alive, Linus’ father, Wong Siew Chin, the eldest son of Ah Kong’s second wife, Sim Kee Lan, managed their plantations well and regularly sent funds back to support their family in Her Po village, China.  He said Ah Kong owned some 200 shophouses in Senai and his wealth was so vast that it was believed that there was an entire room filled with gold ingots.  Linus recalls they had a well-stocked kitchen to provide for the family and Ah Kong would forbid them to buy any outside food because they already had plenty of food at home!

When the World War II reached Malaya, schools were closed in Singapore and they moved back to their bungalow in the plantation which had turned into a refugee camp for hundreds of people who were sheltered in temporary long houses.  His father became a hero of sorts as the plantation not only provided shelter but also food.  They planted acres of sweet potatoes, tapioca and vegetables in between rows of young rubber trees and meat was usually wild boar meat shot by his father and his workers.  Later in life, however, his father did not manage their money well and this resulted in the loss of the wealth amassed by Ah Kong. 

An illustration in the book which Linus drew to show
the younger generation the house they built in Bangka Island
The Wong family escaped certain death by leaving Senai just a week before the Japanese arrived.  A senior Japanese officer was ambushed and killed by guerrillas in another plantation and while the Wongs were safely in Singapore, they heard news of Japanese retaliation with the massacre of hundreds of lives in the plantation.  

Later the Wongs moved to Tanjung Pinang in Indonesia but as it was still too close to Singapore, they decided to shift to their mother’s birthplace, Bangka Island, where they stayed for three years.  In his book, Linus gives detailed accounts of their youthful adventures and the dare-devil escapades of their brother, Billy Wong Kee Lock, better known as Ah Sen, short-form of his nickname, Sam Seng (a colloquial word to describe gangster like behaviour!)

A few pages of the draft that was hand-written by Linus
After the war, the family returned to Singapore where Linus worked hard to qualify as a teacher and excelled in teaching Science.  In 1960 he published his first series of Science books used for the Primary school syllabus.  He often reminisced about Ah Kong’s fortune in Senai and attributed the collapse of his empire to the Japanese invasion, and when Lee Lin suggested that he write it out as a record, he agreed.  

He started writing using his Royal brand manual typewriter but because suppliers no longer stock that typewriter ribbon, Linus completed his draft by hand writing.  The draft was transcribed by his daughter-in-law, Jillian Martens, edited by Lee Lin, with illustrations by her daughter, Anya Ow Si Ying.

“This book is written not to regret the past but instead to recognise the successful life of Ah Kong and to learn the good aspects of his life.  It is also to record the lives of some of the descendants of Ah Kong during and after the war.  It is my hope that the descendants of Wong Ping Nam, in reading this book, can enjoy it, learn from it and live as God-loving people, rich in a life of love for the family and close friends,” said Linus in the closing paragraph of A Hundred Thousand Fishes.

It was my pleasure and privilege to meet with the author, Linus Wong and his wife Alice

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 22 March 2015

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