A precious tribute by the Tan family


I receive all sorts of emails to My Johor Stories blog but my interest was piqued when I read a particular email in June. It read like this: 

Tan Kiah Teck at No. 1 Hans Crescent, the
British Council Residences in London

"Dear Peggy,  My name is Mei Ling. I was born in and spent my early years in JB and now live in Singapore. I came across your book My Johor Stories 2 at the One&Only Resort, Desaru Coast (it was placed by the bathtub).

I was very delighted because it brought back fond memories of my childhood in JB, which was partly what that trip to Desaru was about for me. I shared my find with my siblings, especially the story about Mee Ho Seng Kee, which was and still is our favourite wantan mee.

I must say that coming across your book was one of the highlights of that trip. Even though I finished reading most of it during my stay, I subsequently bought a copy (and a copy of My Johor Stories 3) through mphonline when I got home. You write about people, places, things and food very lovingly.

The reason I'm writing to you is because I've been wanting to put together a book of my father's life stories. The intent is to preserve his memories and experiences and to pass on his stories to his younger grandchildren who probably wouldn't have a chance to hear the stories from him. Your book showed me the form the book can take and with a more concrete vision in mind, I finally got my father started on it.

I am wondering if you are open to working with us to string his stories into a readable and coherent book? The stories are overlapping and interwoven but they are currently written as standalone stories. And perhaps to make the locale more vivid (both of you wrote about the same places but your descriptions were a lot more vivid and "alive").

So far, we have compiled around 20 stories, mostly written by my father himself. He was a lawyer (his practice was at Jalan Meldrum and subsequently Jalan Wong Ah Fook) so there are stories about his childhood, his personal life, and a few memorable cases he handled. Other than a few stories about his student life in London, the rest are mostly about his life and work in JB.

I wish you a good day and hope to hear from you."


My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and 
Inspirational People
, in the
One&Only Desaru Coast, Johor

As I read, my thoughts flashed to how My Johor Stories books, placed in this beach resort, were connecting people just as I shared in my 2019 TEDx Talk, Connecting People through My Johor Stories.


It was in July 2019 at the Ombak Festival that celebrated the official launch of Desaru Coast, when Stephanie Saw, Group Chief Executive Officer of Themed Attractions Resorts & Hotels (now rebranded Destination Resorts & Hotels), told me that My Johor Stories books will be placed in the super luxurious One&Only Desaru Coast for their guests’ reading pleasure.


Then in early 2020, things ground to a halt when the global pandemic reached our shores.


In December that year, when a window for local travel was opened, a friend who was on a short break at the One&Only Desaru Coast, was pleasantly surprised to discover my 2017 MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage in her room and sent a photograph to show me.


Stephanie had kept her word and my books, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, and My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, were already in the resort to complement their guests’ stay experience in Johor.

Tan Kiah Teck on a school trip to Thailand 
while he was a teacher with Saint Joseph
School Johor Bahru, circa 1964 to 1966

Fast forward to 2023 while Mei Ling was at the One&Only Desaru Coast where she read My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, in her room. It was interesting that she easily identified with names and places featured in my stories because they were similar to those mentioned in her father's memoirs.

This sparked the idea to invite the author (me!) to help with compiling her father's stories into a book and preserve his treasured tales to share with their family members, particularly those in the younger generation.

While I pondered over this email from Mei Ling, I had a flood of questions that needed answers. To get a clearer understanding of what this project involved, I prepared a list of questions for Mei Ling to answer so that I would know how I may contribute to it.

Among other things, I needed to find out the purpose for this publication. When she replied my list of questions with relevant details, I learnt that hers was a genuine request to prepare a precious tribute to their father.

One of the questions in my list was, “Do you have a target date to complete this book project?” to which Mei Ling replied:

“At the beginning of this year, we targeted my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, which is 14 January 2024.


However, my father’s oncologist just told us that he doesn’t have many days left and has advised him to state his end-of-life wishes.


So it will be nice if we can complete it while he was still alive but we shan’t try to stress ourselves over that. My father will be 82 on July 17.”


Tan Kiah Teck, in front of No. 1 Hans Crescent,
the British Council Residences in London

I could empathize with the sentiments behind this project and was deeply saddened to read what the oncologist said. I promptly replied that I was ready to focus solely on this book project with the aim to complete it in the shortest possible time.


I said, “Your birthday gift to your father on July 17, is the confirmation that we will embark of this project immediately and will work furiously on it, step-by-step to get the mock-up book ready ASAP. Once the layout and proofreading are approved, then it can go to print.”


While we were both aware of the work involved, I said this in a nutshell to reassure Mei Ling that I was ready to partner with her family to complete this book project.


In my reply, I shared with Mei Ling about my experience in writing an autobiography for Colleen M. Redit, a lady Christian missionary from New Zealand who answered the call to serve in Madras, now known as Chennai, India.


Her life’s work as founder of Christian Missions Charitable Trust (CMCT) in Chennai was written in the first person and when the book was published in 2013, it was distributed internationally among the churches.


Tan Kiah Teck was called to
the Bar at Lincoln's Inn,
London in July 1969

Mei Ling and I agreed that their book should also be written in the first person as the bulk of the content was her father’s recollections with a few pieces written by his grandchildren. Aware that her father was gravely ill, she aimed to publish this book as a tribute to him, only for private circulation among family and close friends.


Her father, retired lawyer Tan Kiah Teck, had established a private practice in Tan & Tan Advocates & Solicitors in Johor Bahru. Like many Johoreans, he and his wife decided to send their children to study in Singapore where many of these young people continued to have careers or settled down there.


Mei Ling and her sister experienced the daily commute across the causeway to school but when their younger brother started school, he did not have to commute because by then they had a home in Singapore with weekends spent in their Johor Bahru home.


When Tan retired in the early 2000s, he moved to live with his family in Singapore. While he enjoyed his retirement, Tan would regale his children and grandchildren with stories about his childhood, growing up in the kampung and his youthful pursuits in a developing Johor Bahru during the 1940’s.


Tan Kiah Teck with daughters,
Mei Ling [Left] and Huai Ling [Centre]
Tan also shared with them about his education, the turning point in his life when he decided to pursue a career in law, his experiences with interesting legal cases and the colourful characters he encountered during his law practice.


Encouraged by his children, Tan finally wrote these down and created a collection which Mei Ling thought, should be preserved for the younger generation to read as they may not have the privilege to hear firsthand from him.


Mei Ling then shared with me, two samples of stories her father had documented, one of which was a legal case that involved the then owner of Mee Ho Seng Kee.


From these sample pieces, I could anticipate the rewriting challenges I had ahead of me. I used the metaphor of tailoring to illustrate the task, that it was easier to cut and sew a garment directly than to unpick stitches and adjust the garment for a better fit. In short, it would be a lot of work.


Tan Kiah Teck with his children
on holiday at Genting Highlands 
in the 1980s

I also connected Mei Ling with my friendly printer – who helped to prepare the mockup for My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, as required by Think City in my book project in 2017 – to discuss her requirements and provide a quotation for her consideration.


Throughout July and into August, Mei Ling and I exchanged numerous emails and WhatsApp chat messages as we made rapid progress in preparing the manuscript.


Guided by information she provided in a timeline document I filled in the blanks and joined the dots to get a clearer overview of the chronology of events in Tan’s life to flesh out each piece Mei Ling provided.


And she was right. I easily identified the people and places in Johor Bahru like Jalan Tarom, Jalan Yahya Awal and Kim Teng Park, mentioned in her father’s memoirs to do my bit to make the manuscript more readable.


Tan Kiah Teck, speaking at banquet held 
to celebrate Mei Ling's wedding

From the outset of this project, I had urged Mei Ling and her siblings to think about the concept for the cover design and to propose options for the book title.


Then as I read the manuscript, it occurred to me that the generations who grew up in Singapore may not be able to relate to some of the details documented by Tan about his parents and their humble beginnings in a kampung in Johor Bahru.


I also thought that the younger generation may not understand some of the words and phrases that described things in a bygone era and suggested that illustrations may be created for readers to visualize what Tan was talking about in his memoirs.


Mei Ling agreed with me and arranged for talented illustrators to draw sketches to support the relevant stories while I proceeded to create an Appendix with words, phrases and colloquialisms listed in alphabetical order along with brief descriptions, for the readers’ easy reference.


Tan Kiah Teck with granddaughter,
Lea Goh, aged 6 on her first day of
Primary School, Singapore

We also agreed to prepare an Introduction that clarified the Special Link between Singapore and Johor – where families had links on both sides of the Causeway – as well as a sketch map that indicated the roads and landmarks in Johor Bahru mentioned in the manuscript.


With Mei Ling’s feedback and comments after each review, I revised every document until the entire manuscript was ready and only waiting for just one more piece of Foreword to complete it.


In my exchange of WhatsApp messages with Mei Ling on August 10, she mentioned that her father was very ill and it looked like he did not have many days left.


Then on August 12, my heart sank when I read a message from Mei Ling who said: “Good Morning. Received with thanks the revised documents. My father passed away yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to look at them.”


I shared their grief and immediately replied with condolences, knowing that the family would need time and space to deal with their bereavement.


Tan Kiah Teck celebrated his 
82nd birthday in July 2023 just
before he passed on August 11

While I was deeply saddened that Tan did not live to see the finished product, Mei Ling assured me that her father was aware that the book project was in progress. I believed that knowing it must have given him peace and comfort.


The book project hardly took a pause because when Mei Ling met her father’s partner in their legal firm at the funeral wake, he shared more details about their early years in the partnership and she was keen to add this anecdote into the manuscript.


Soon after that, her uncle showed them a bunch of old photographs of her father that they had never seen before and she wished to pick some to add into the compilation of family photos in the book.


By early September, the manuscript was submitted to the printer for layout and to prepare the mockup version of the book for Mei Ling to review.


Even as I am writing this, work is in progress to print the Tan family’s loving tribute to their father/grandfather, in a book simply titled, Tan Kiah Teck – A Kampung Boy’s Search for Truth and Justice.

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