Wang Lun in the Water Margin, was the first chief of Liangshan Marsh. His band of outlaws was small then. When assembled, they formed only two lines. Wang Lun, “The White Clothes Scholar”, was not the academic type. Having failed the government examination at the Eastern capital, he went to stay at Squire Chai Jin’s estate for a few days. He was somewhat beholden to the Squire who also gave him some silver for travelling expenses when he left to continue his journey. Drill Master of the Imperial Guards, Lin Chong by chance also met Squire Chai Jin after he escaped from jail following his troubles with Master Gao Yanei. Gao, the foster son of lecherous Marshall Gao Qiu, implicated Lin Chong of crimes he did not commit so that upon his banishment, he could marry Lin Chong’s beautiful wife. She hanged herself after being pressured to marry the despicable ugly young man. Lin Chong’s admirers, reviled by the injustices, lured Gao Yanei to a hut and cut off his penis but kept his testicles intact. This left the obnoxious character with intense sexual desires that were permanently unsatisfied. But, I shall not deviate from the story about Wang Lun, a chief of the stronghold on the hill with no special abilities. The squire handed his letter of introduction to Lin Chong recommending him to join the gang. “Present my letter to the chief, and he will welcome you like a brother,” he said. Although he was obligated to satisfy Squire Chai Jin’s request, Wang Lun still insisted on seeing Lin Chong’s ‘membership application’. “Ok, do you have paper and ink for me to write one?” Lin Chong asked, unaware that a membership required a man’s freshly severed head to be presented to the chief before he could be welcomed into the brotherhood.
The next hero, Ang-not-Wang, in The Urghhling Marsh story is a fourth generation Malaysian. His great grandparents on his paternal side fled Tang Aun village in Fujian during the decade-old Xinhai Revolution which ended over two thousand years of imperial rule in China. By the time Sun Yat Sen became ‘Father of the Nation’, Great Grandfather Wang had already settled in Penang, Malaya as a poultry seller. Due to a clerical error at the Registry of Birth, Death and Marriages and a lackadaisical attitude to incorrect spelling, Wang became Ang. The sixth of fourteen children, Ang Iok Hun (1904-1998), was famous as the first station master of the Penang Hill Railway. Iok, pronounced as ‘Yok’ is the Chinese translation for the biblical name ‘John’. He started his career as a “checker” in 1922, overseeing the construction of the railway after passing his Senior Cambridge at the Anglo-Chinese school. A year later, he was promoted to station master, a position he held till his retirement in 1961. Despite historical records stating that the construction workers were ‘mostly convict labourers’, Iok Hun said they were paid workers of Federated Malay States Railway, their hourly rate being 90-95 cents. The mandor or kepala earned twice as much. Iok Hun’s monthly salary was $75, a princely sum for the then 20-year-old. A dollar could buy him a roast duck, or thirty three eggs or thirty three durians! The workers lived on the bottom of the hill in a kongsi or community longhouse. In those days, malaria outbreaks were frequent, so every man was expected to take a small teacup of quinine daily for a month.
There were five gangs of workers; each gang consisted of thirty to forty fit and strong young men. Their jobs were to fell trees and chop up timber to feed the flames of the boiler. The steam from the boiler powered the winches that pulled a convoy of trucks up the hill supplying the cement, granite and sand for another gang of workers to work on the construction of the railway. The workers were mostly Indians and Hakka men, all noisy and jolly, tough and rough. They loved singing and joking whilst working in the cool and fresh surroundings of the lush tropical jungle. Iok Hun, a member of his church choir, was often heard singing with his men. There were reports of many sightings of tigers and other wild animals in those days. However, there was not a single report of any man who killed a tiger with his bare hands – simply said, the mythical story of Wu Song in Shuihuzhuan was unmatched in Penang. Otherwise, the scenes described are reminiscent of the hills above Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin story, where the junior recruits had to build jetties, camps, guest quarters and assembly hall from trees they felled in the forest. The mud to make bricks, huts and stoves was in unlimited supply from the river below.
The railway was officially opened on January 1, 1924, by Sir Lawrence Nunns Guillemard, Governor of the Straits Settlements. Prior to this role, he had no previous experience representing the Queen of the British Empire. His governorship left behind many notable buildings which still stand today – the Cenotaph, the Causeway, Singapore Yacht Club, and Singapore General Hospital, to name a few. In the old days, most of the visitors to Penang Hill were Europeans and wealthy towkays. The ordinary folks were either too poor or too preoccupied with survival to holiday there. Life on the hill was slow, the funicular train operated only on the hour. The colonial mansions were a popular retreat for the European expats who frequented the lush green hill to relieve themselves from the stifling and humid conditions below. Once news came that the Japanese would arrive soon, the Europeans fled from their English-style resorts with their beautiful stonework stairs and quaint floor patterns and Italian wall tiles. The size of the mansions complemented the massive well-maintained English gardens. The romantic balconies that looked out to the calm waters of the Indian Ocean were soon to be occupied by foul-breathed and foul-mouthed Japanese officers whose every third word was ‘bakayaro’. “They farted like dogs most of the time,” Iok Hun said. During the early days of the war, the Japanese dropped bombs on Penang. The hill was not spared, a bomb from the sky destroyed the bus that ferried railway passengers to and from their bungalows. A section on the lower end of the railway was badly damaged. The Butterworth power station was also bombed, rendering the railway out of action without electricity. It was not until 1942 that it was repaired when the Japanese required a look-out post on the hill.
At first, the Japanese soldiers were rough and rude, and ignored the signs limiting the maximum number of passengers in the chocolate-brown wooden railway coach. An active member of the Air Itam Methodist Church in his younger days, Iok Hun prayed hard before risking his neck the following day by complaining to the Japanese Governor about the unruly behaviour of the soldiers. The Governor ordered a senior officer to accompany Iok Hun back to the railway station. There was no misbehaviour by the soldiers after that visit. Iok Hun was later summonsed back to the Governor’s estate but the sweat beads on his forehead and his nervous eyes were ephemeral. He thought he would lose his head from a disgruntled officer’s complaint but he only lost his way home after having got tipsy at the Governor’s dinner party at the E&O Hotel for selected staff and guests.
Ang-not-Wang’s dad, Ang Sim Boo, born in 1933, was the sixth child and third son of fourteen siblings. His family photo taken after the war in 1945 shows only seven kids playing at the back of their house in Air Itam which was a jungle at that time. Two siblings died during the Japanese Occupation. A Police Volunteer Reservist in the mid-1950’s, he became the station master of Penang Hill after his father, Iok Hun, retired. Sim Boo and his eleven siblings grew up at the railway quarters provided for their father. A notable flautist and a table tennis champion, he was unlike many of the young men of his generation, lucky to be given a solid education. Sim Boo served as the station master for thirty three years. The Penang Governor awarded him the Pingat Bakti Setia medal for his loyalty and dedication to his work in 1987. He spent most of his life up in the hill of Penang. Before the cocks crowed and the evanescent dew clinging to the big palm leaves still whole and clear, the wispy captivating sounds of a sweet angelic flute was often heard wafting in the cool morning air. Occasionally, the melancholy notes of a harmonica would replace the classical contemplative tunes of the flute. Sim Boo was adept at both instruments. Under a stubborn and heavy cloud of mist that wouldn’t lift, Sim Boo called out to his men, “Be careful today, visibility is poor. Don’t use the signal flags when you move the trucks. Whistle once for stop, twice for forward, and three times for reverse”. His loyal men appreciated his care and concern for their welfare and safety.
Unlike Wang Lun of Liangshan Marsh, Sim Boo was an effective leader of the railway station on the hill. His men did not revolt against him. They did not strike. No one raised their hands against him. He was highly respected by everyone around him and his reputation as a tough but fair master attracted many to want to work for him. The mendacious Wang Lun, on the other hand, showed his ‘small heart’ and his ‘two hearts’ by presenting Chao Gai with a tray of silver and gems whilst refusing to accept him and his men into the brotherhood. Wang Lun understood that it was as good as sentencing them to their deaths by the pursuing imperial soldiers who numbered in the thousands. Lin Chong whom Wang Lun had just promoted as his second-in-charge to quell the unrest within his group, displayed his disdain for his chief with a strong body language. He despised such cowardice and lack of altruism and swiftly killed the hapless leader. Upon seeing their leader motionless in a pool of his own blood, the men all knelt or genuflected and made Chao Gai the new leader of the gang.
Ang-not-Wang’s maternal great grandparents were from Lam Aun Hakka State in Guangdong Province, China. His name was Ooi Thean Kua. Her name was Khoo Bon. In Malaya, he was known as ‘lawyer buruk’, i.e. a lawyer without proper qualifications. Be that as it may, a bloke in China born in the 19th century with knowledge of the many facets of law and the legal system is to be greatly admired. “My own great grandparents could not even write their own names. They were always addressed by their status in the family hierarchy and so, their names are forever lost,” Wu Yong, a less popular hero in the Urghhling Marsh said. Peasants in that era could not be expected to be literate; they were mostly impoverished, angry or dying from starvation. There were already large-scale uprisings against the Qing government. The corrupt Manchu officials were thin in numbers and could not govern properly. Foreign invasions added to the misery of the people who were already suffering from natural disasters, civil unrest and disease. The migration to South East Asia for safety and economic reasons continued and escalated after the heavy defeat in the Second Opium War and the capitulation to the perceived weaker Japanese army eventually led to the fall of the Qing.
Ang-not-Wang’s mother, six years her husband’s junior, was the second child and the eldest daughter. Although her name was Ooi Phaik Gee, she was better known as “samseng po” or tom-boy in her childhood haunt in Rope Walk. Her father, Ooi Hock Seng (1916-1980), operated a hardware shop called Hock Hoe Trading near Standard Chartered Bank in Beach Street. He remarried after his wife, Loh Chin Neo died in 1953. In the war, a bullet wound permanently scarred her with a bad limp and left a mark of a crescent on her left leg. The family of four was at home in 78, Kimberley Street when a shop selling house coal across the street was hit by a bomb. The front wooden casement window of their house was in flames by the time the family fled outside. Hock Seng carried their son on his back and Chin Neo carried Phaik Gee in her arms as they joined the panic and fear of the crowds surging in the street. Bang, bang! Chin Neo suddenly felt her left thigh go numb before she tripped and fell. As she sat on the road in agony, she saw her wound gushing out blood. Only then did she realise she had been hit by a stray bullet from across the coal shop. A young man who was also running from the mayhem ahead of them turned back to help her. The quick-thinking hero saw an abandoned rickshaw from the corner of his eyes, and rushed to take ownership of it. “In that moment, I would have commandeered it if I had to.” Yap Seng told Chin Neo later, laying further claims of his heroism. He carried Chin Neo into the wooden carriage and pulled it hastily to the Dato Keramat Hospital. Hock Seng and Chin Neo were forever grateful to Yap Seng. They remained friends after the war. The couple had five children.”Her subsequent two stepmothers produced nine more children for Grandpa Ooi,” Ang-not-Wang said as he related his mother’s story to me. “All of them looked up to their sister as ‘Tai Ka Jie’ and their respect for her was unquestionable even though she was only fourteen when her biological mother died. She attended Convent Dato Keramat and was already a devout Catholic in school with Theresa as her Christian name”.
Sim Boo and Phaik Gee were engaged in 1954 “after six months of going to the movies together” and they married a year later. “There’s not much to say,” Ang Sim Boo said about their romance. He couldn’t explain why a Methodist boy would attend a Catholic congregation except to say that was where he first laid his eyes on her. Phaik Gee was a dazzling beauty, with a good sense of style and fashion. Her eyes were mesmerising, and her lips full with a sexy pout. She had a healthy mop of natural curls, and a nose with a prominent bridge that was not aquiline, made cute with a slight bulbous tip. On some occasions, she wore her hair with two pigtails which made her simply adorable in an age of innocence. In some of her photos, she showed a certain coyness and charm reminiscent of a young and innocent Princess Diana. Unlike Phaik Gee who had a knack of dressing well, Ang Sim Boo’s habiliment was predictably the same every day, that of a train station master’s uniform. A practising Methodist all his life, love, faith and hope are the three strengths that remain with him and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). The couple celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 18th November 2005. They produced four children and seven grandchildren.
Ang-not-Wang, the second born, is the only son. He is very much like his father. He is well-groomed and wears a perpetual smile, possesses a strong infectious personality, an unwavering Christian faith and is well-liked as a natural leader. Both were in the transport industry; he was a bus checker at one point in his life, and his father a train checker. Both are devout Methodists, great coaches for the younger generation and preach against idle gossip. Ang-not-Wang is not one to readily accept a ‘no’ for an answer when a ‘yes’ can help someone in need. A holder of a double diploma in Bible Study, he is a qualified counsellor in child transactional behaviour. He is a SXI alumni like all the other heroes in his brotherhood. I say that because there is absolutely no doubt that he has been accepted into the Marsh brotherhood even though I have not sought any confirmation. In school, he was like Wang Lun, in white school uniform and a lousy student who was neither good academically nor a sportsman. Whilst Four Eyes (one of the Marsh heroes) caught the school principal’s praise for his swimming prowess, Ang-not-Wang’s bad class report cards attracted the principal’s cane instead. He told me he found God when he turned fourteen. I reckon maybe it is truer to say God found him and converted him from that mischievous trouble-maker that he was in Sunday schools to save the teachers from a hellish time in class. After Form 5, God gave him a taste of his own medicine by making him become a kindergarten teacher. The young man did not enjoy a career as a teacher, so he tried other professions such as a bus checker, a printing operator before finding his element as a salesman in ladies’ and menswear, later switching to biscuits and detergents. He joined Nestle in the eighties, a fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company that many salespeople aspired to join. Nestle recognised his managerial skills and eagerness to learn and invested in him, sending him to many international seminars and training camps. He moved up the corporate ladder over the next twenty five years and finished as the Senior Manager – Commercial Excellence Manager handling strategies, processes and projects.
Today, Ang-not-Wang occupies his time by looking after the needs of his congregation and sets himself up as a role model for the youths in his community. The pandemic has raged on in Malaysia with no end in sight. Sympathetic to the plight of the local people around him, he helped form the ‘Nuri Cares and Support Group’ in his residential community called Nuri Taman, whereby he organises the distribution of food and small necessities to those out of work and cannot support themselves. Ang-not-Wang is an unsung hero and a quiet achiever. He surely belongs to the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.
The past holds our fond memories, the present is a gift we enjoy and there is always hope for tomorrow.Michael Ang Lay Beng