My grandfather’s legacy: from general merchant to something more

I always thought of my maternal grandfather as a wealthy man but digging deeper I learn that he was a small town migrant kid who became prosperous enough to provide temporary housing to new migrants.

Advertisements
Ban Loong Chan
Literal Translation: Shop of Ten Thousand Prosperities

 

When I was a little girl, my family drove from KL to Ipoh so often that I memorised the small towns along the way: Slim River (half-way point), Bidor (eat duck noodles in double-boiled herbal soup), Tapah, Kampar, Gopeng, Ipoh.

Some of the one-street towns appeared as a brief anomalies that whizzed past my backseat window. Those concrete shops looked as if they had fought valiantly against the rainforest for their place and won.

By contrast, towering limestone cliffs flanked the approach to Ipoh. The challenge in our little car was to be the first to spot the Mercedes Benz sign high up on the hills. It indicated that we had arrived.

The Ipoh of my childhood was for holidays and extended time with my cousins. My grandparents’ living room had a concrete and glass aquarium, and portraits of my grandparents and great-grandparents on either side of a towering grandfather clock. At some point during every Chinese New Year, my mother or one of my aunts would say, ‘All line up and kiss Gong Gong.

My grandfather was practically bald, apart from a comb-over. He wore slip-in suede shoes and walked in a shuffling gait. He would be guided to a chair, from which he received kisses and presented ang pows.

I remember the feel of his scratchy stubble as I leaned forward to peck him on the cheek. With good humour, he would give me a red packet as a hand-coloured version of his younger self smiled from a portrait photograph on the wall.

An early portrait of my grandfather, Loh Mee Loon
My maternal grandfather, Loh Mee Loon (1903 – 1993)

The going rate, for as long as I can remember, was ten Ringgit. And so, my image of him as a wealthy businessman, who drove the first Mercedes Benz in Ipoh (so I have been told), appeared to me fully formed, set in concrete, so to speak.

My grandfather, Loh Mee Loon, owned and operated Ban Loong. Initially, he sold all sorts of weighing scales and was also a tinsmith. His shop stood in the centre of Old Town, Ipoh. He had bought it 1926.

My maternal great-grandfather, Loh Siew San (1867 - 1947)
My maternal great-grandfather, Loh Siew San (1867 – 1947)

His father, Loh Siew San, had migrated from China and settled in Sungai Siput, a small town north of Ipoh. I try to imagine the kind foresight, self-belief and courage that compelled my grandfather, a small town migrant kid, to stretch himself to purchase a commercial property in the tin-mining capital of Malaya when he was only twenty-three years old.

In those days, migrants and mail came by long ship journeys. A husband who had sent for his wife might have relocated by the time she arrived. To address this problem, my grandfather opened his shop to new Chinese migrants. Ban Loong provided temporary accommodation and food in exchange for labour and soon became a community hub.

Then came the destruction of World War II. Bombs rained from Japanese planes. After the war, my grandfather saw an opportunity in the destruction and expanded his business to hardware supply. Business prospered as the townspeople began rebuilding.

In 2015, when the hardware business was no longer viable, grandson Ir. Loh Ban Ho decided to commit himself to preserving the building. It is fortuitous that Ban Ho is a civil and structural engineer. The old colonial building required new engineering solutions. To meet fire safety standards, the wooden staircase and wooden first floor were dismantled. A  steel framework was constructed within the old walls to carry the weight of a new concrete slab.

IMG_3502
Ir Loh Ban Ho, a grandson of Loh Mee Loon, pointing to the original shop signage now hanging in the restored building.

‘We basically built a new building within the old one. It was three times more expensive than building a new shop, but we didn’t want to tear down the original structure,’ said Ban Ho.

Fittingly, the restored shop now is Ban Loong Hotel, a testament to the foresight, can-do attitude and hospitality of my grandparents’ generation.

Next Friday: an interview with Tricia Rushton that almost made me cry. She’s a very busy woman, who has worked on projects as diverse as building stronger families, Indigenous Financial management and refugee support.

 

Renaming Roads and Revisiting History

On a 2010 road trip with my dad to find his childhood home, I discover roads that have been renamed. Our understanding of history is anything but static.

 

On Malaysia’s Independence Day today, my thoughts turn to a road trip I took with my dad in 2010. We drove up from Kuala Lumpur to Menglembu, so that he could show me the house where he spent the first eighteen years of his life. Back then, I was helping Dad write his memoirs. My sister had handed me her notes and the eleven pages she had written. My job was to complete the rest.

Malaysian shophouses
The row of colonial British shophouses in Perak where my dad grew up.

Dad’s first Identity Card (IC) was issued in 1952, when he was 12 years old. The card itself is a curious mix of languages: English, Malay, Chinese. The British introduced the IC to fight communism and it was a possible precursor to some sort of citizenship document in anticipation of the day when Malaya would be granted independence.

Dad’s address is listed as 57, Tranchell Street, Menglembu. In 2010, when Dad pulled off the North-South Highway, his memory guided him.  Tranchell Road is no longer on the map. It has been renamed.

dad's ic
My dad’s identity card issued in 1952.

Looking at Google Maps this morning, I think Tranchell Road is somewhere in the cluster of roads renamed Jalan Menglembu Timur 1 to Jalan Menglembu Timur 16. Very long names. A tad unwieldy. I understand why the roads have been renamed – to name and to rename is the prerogative of the ruling power – but I cannot help feeling that something has been lost in the process, some enigma, some history, some story.

Malaysia school
My father’s old Wan Hua Primary School, which housed a Lutheran Kindergarten when this photograph was taken. This street has been renamed Jalan Barat.

Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian yesterday that the current debate over the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue is really about ‘how European Australian and indigenous Australia are going to reconcile on this continent given their competing cultures and histories.’ He warned against revising history because there will be no end and it will leave both sides depleted.

Revising history is difficult and dangerous. But revisiting history is not. I think we should revisit history many times, preferably from different points of view, and hopefully, each time, we gain a better understanding of what happened, a more nuanced, more accurate version of what happened and why.

I think it is crucial we pay attention to the telling and retelling of history because history confers legitimacy. It shapes understanding. It speaks to what we allow and forbid, what we love and hate, and who we allow ourselves to become.

I am so glad I embarked on that road trip with Dad. I discovered things I would never have otherwise discovered. It took three years to write the book, Fish in the Well, which we self-published in 2013. I hope to make it available shortly as an eBook. Please subscribe if you would like to hear more.

Hello and Goodbye

My paternal grandfather
My paternal grandfather

I sit in my study in Adelaide, thinking of the journey that my paternal grandfather took from China to Malaya somewhere between 1900 and 1930. It’s an imprecise estimate, my best guess.

In the only surviving photo of his younger days, he is in Western attire. He was a scholar, or, as the Cantonese saying goes, one who holds a brush. I imagine him looking for a better life, fleeing the political turmoil of China, setting sail for the South China Sea.

For the migrant, life is a series of goodbyes and hellos, and for me, the modern day migrant, December is a month of long summer days, bush fire dangers, and holidays back home. But home is becoming harder and harder to pin down.

Maybe home is where the food is best – where I hear a metal spatula fighting with a wok and know that a good plate of char-kway-teow is coming up. But my children have developed a taste for Spaghetti Bolognese, Aussie meat pies and Kourabiethes, and I must admit that I am partial to a good tiramisu myself.

Or is it where I can walk the streets my grandfather walked? Where I can gaze up at his calligraphy, imagine his brush forming words that were cast in concrete and affixed to the newest building in town? But my link to him is tenuous. I never met him; he passed away before I was born. Those streets may hold my history, but not my home.

IMG_1291
My grandfather’s calligraphy on a building in Menglembu, near Ipoh.

 

My grandfather left China and never returned to see family left behind, establishing a new family in a new land. Modern migrants are luckier. We travel back and forth with our hellos and goodbyes and our bittersweet holidays, maintaining links with the past where all the talking and remembering is compressed into a few emotional weeks, and then we return home again to forge a path into the future, wherever that may be.