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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Little Man Counts

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Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.

With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.

Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.

Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.

Endurance Challenge held every year in Chapman's honour
Chapman’s Challenge held on the island every year in his honour. In 2016, his descendants participated in the challenge and are listed in placing 4 and 5.

I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.

This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter  Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.

Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.

 

Capture them while you can

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My aunt, Lim Kum Ying, circa 1950.

My aunt once told me of her older brother, who had loved her dearly. During World War II, he was taken away by the Japanese and never returned. ‘That day,’ she said, ‘I had given him a piece of cake. It was so strange. He was usually the one giving me food.’ She was reluctant to say any more. ‘Surely you don’t need to write of these things?’

I had heard that the Japanese were cruel during the war and truth be told, I had never given much thought to Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did, after all, bring an end to the Japanese military occupation of Malaya.

But then, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a work of non-fiction that follows the lives of six atomic bomb survivors. The day before the bomb was dropped, for example, Reverend Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Mehodist Church, had just moved the church piano to a home two miles away from the town centre, where he believed it would be safer; the piano didn’t survive. After the explosion, he ran back to the city to check on his church and the twenty families he was responsible for as the head of their Neighbourhood Association. He was held up, however, up by cries of the injured: ‘Mizu, mizu! Water, water!’ For the first time, I started to imagine what it had been like for ordinary Japanese.

When I visited my aunt in December last year, she did recognise me, but said that I was such a pretty girl (Bless her! When was the last time anyone said that?), and who was this? My husband? He is very rich, is he not? My dear aunt has forgotten us. Her memories are slipping away. Many stories are already gone.

Hiroshima ends by referring to Reverend Tanimoto and the proliferation of nuclear weapons: His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

I guess that’s why we must talk about the past, and write down stories.