Who you are in life is your own doing.Daniel Louis Wong
Iggy began formal education at Mrs D’ranjo’s kindergarten, next to the Convent Primary School in College Lane. The little boy was a frightened child who needed a security blanket in the form of his elder sister to visit him during recess time. His most vivid memory in the kindergarten were the cats that were well- cared for by a person or persons unknown to him. Growing up in the dark shadows of his father’s strict discipline and towering personality, Iggy learned never to talk back or ask too many questions. His sisters went through this regime also. Their mother was their saviour if trouble brewed. The servants were all very nice to them and the kids played with their servants’ kids. There was no discrimination at all, status or skin colour did not rate a mention. Everyone was equal in that household. Iggy only learned about race and ethnicity when he went to church, his outside world. In Pulau Tikus, there was a social hierarchy of who was who and where you ranked in society. Iggy learned that the fairer Seranis belonged to the upper echelon and the darker skinned somehow congregated to the lower rungs. But, his dad taught him to ignore the discrimination, “work hard to get what you want in life,” was his advice.
Labor Omnia VincitSchool motto of St. Xavier’s Institution, Penang.
Iggy got his academic education in St Xavier’s Branch School but the school’s motto was actually strictly applied by his parents who taught him to work hard, “doing all the housework and school work promptly because, if you don’t do it, it will not get done,” Iggy said. “Scrubbing the floor, cleaning pots and pans, washing cars and sweeping the house became our duty,” Iggy elaborated. “Labor Omnia Vincit” was the school motto which the boys lived by. Iggy did not deviate from that, even after the pretty girls joined them in Form 6. By then, for many of the boys with raging uncontrollable testosterones, their motto became “Amor Omnia Vincit”. All were conquered by love except for Iggy.
If you don’t do it, it will not get done.An aphorism by Ignatius Wong
“We mixed with Indians, Malays, Chinese and Seranis and had lots of fun,” Iggy said of his childhood. To this day, he still cherishes his friendships formed during primary school days, and hold fond memories of Urghhlings Marsh brothers such as Four Eyes, The Mayor, and The Cook, plus others such as Tan Ban Leong, Patrick Leong, Hong Meng, Deloke Charas, Howard Tan, Joe Tan, Mohd. Tahir, and Mustapha Kamal. They grew up together chasing peacock fish in the streams and climbing rambutan trees. “It was a good life,” Iggy reminisced. For Iggy, time has not effaced their footprints in the sand and their distant laughters, although soft and receding, still replay in his mind. School mates such as Colin Andrews, Benard Packiam, Terrance Tan, Charles Barnabas, Peter Aeria also attended the same church as Iggy. They were best of buddies in school, nothing dandiacal about that.
My friends make my life a mostly wonderful one.Another aphorism by Ignatius Wong
Iggy’s mum, Cheah See Hoon, was born in 1922, in a rural town called Telok Anson. Her father, Francis Cheah, was the manager of the rubber estate owned by his relatives, members of the Cheah kongsi (Hokkien for clan or company). See Hoon learned to speak Hakka from her Hakka baby-sitter. She also spoke Tamil fluently, having grown up in the rubber estate where the majority of the labourers were Tamils. From them, she also learned to be frugal and independent. Her schooling ended during Standard 2 after her parents passed away due to beriberi and as orphans, she and her siblings went to live with their Aunt Sally who was married to a Serani man named John Boudville. Iggy’s mum had a hard life as a teenager, slaving away in Aunt Sally ‘s Fettes Road house, cooking, washing clothes and ironing from dawn to dusk. Her stories encouraged Iggy to be as tough later in life, but also kind and helpful.
After primary school, Iggy went to SXI at his father’s behest. Iggy’s dad used his close connections with the Christian brothers to make surprise visits to his son in school. “I had to do my best,” Iggy said, inventing warm water. The Spanish have a saying for that, someone who says something that is quite obvious is inventing warm water. It was a tough life getting up at 5.00 a.m. preparing his own breakfast and recess-time food. His pocket money was ten cents a day. The routine did not vary much, “Catch the bus at College Lane after early mass and be at school before 7.00 a.m. for catechism class,” he said. In the first week in Form One, he couldn’t read what was on the blackboard due to an undiagnosed short-sightedness and so he got kicked out of Form 1A2 and was sent to class 1B4 as a laggard. For reasons unknown, the teacher, Mrs. Nah Soo Leong, was the most popular teacher in that school. To be enrolled in her class was a cause of celebration usually met with whoops of delight and excitement, yet for Iggy, he felt out of place during those early days.
A typical school recess time was running about with his friends and treating one another as a target with a tennis ball. They sweated like pigs. It didn’t matter since everyone in the classroom smelled the same. Iggy joined the school band and learned to march. He wanted to join the drums section but ended up in the bugle corps. Later on, he joined the bagpipes which the school was famous for. “I owe a lot to Peter Lee, Aloysius Low and Mr Michael Barbosa for allowing me to learn to play the flute, bugle and bagpipes,” Iggy said, before adding, “and of course, to Mr Koh Chin Seng and Mr Nicholas Ng who were instrumental in my love of music.” Blowing the pipes improved his lungs and “made it strong and powerful”, he said. Some of the students nicknamed him “The Gasbag”. From Form 2 onwards, he was transferred to the Industrial Arts stream where lessons learned in the woodwork classes were most beneficial to him in his adult life. For that, Iggy wishes to thank Mr Too Koo Sin, his woodwork teacher. Iggy met many friends like David Christopher who remains his best friend today and Kuppusamy, Tan Chuan Guan and many Catholic mates in the morning faith enhancement class by Brother Peter Papusamy. Iggy’s dad had by then relaxed his iron grip on discipline at home, and Iggy was allowed to join them on field trips to Penang Hill and Tanjong Bungah where the Christian Brothers had their bungalows. The LCE exams were a huge hurdle for Iggy as he suffered from Typhoid during the exams, but luckily the injections and medication he took helped to lower his fever.
In Shuihu Zhuan, Squire Chai, the hero who reminded me of Iggy’s father, owned a mansion in a large estate. The squire’s uncle similarly owned a beautiful mansion in a nearby prefecture. A distant relative of Grand Marshal Gao Qiu, Yin Tianxi, served in the imperial court in Dongjing. After a prolonged spell of harassment to force Uncle Chai to relinquish his property to Yin failed, the latter ordered a gang of thugs to beat him up so that he would surrender his mansion for free. Squire Chai arrived too late to save his elderly uncle who died of his injuries. This tragic story in The Water Margin about the dastardly deeds of seizing control of someone else’s property echoes that of the family disputes and attempts to gain coercive control of the family home during the latter part of Iggy’s teenage life.
The family moved from their Burma Road house to a smaller house on Kelawai Terrace in 1964. Their new mansion on Gurney Drive was being constructed. That year, Iggy had a severe bout of bronchitis, so his mother kept a hen to provide fresh eggs for him. His health improved quickly. The hen, named Emily, became his pet. Emily lived in the house and being Iggy’s life saver, he cared for her diligently. All was well until July 17, 1975. Iggy’s dad passed away and the whole world collapsed. One day they had money and the next, absolutely nothing. All the money in the bank was frozen. Iggy became a pauper overnight. The night his dad was sent to the General Hospital was filled with trauma but it was also the most confusing time for the teenager. “It is during a crisis that you can truly see who your true friends are and who are out for a pound of flesh,” Iggy said. When news of his dad’s death broke, his step-sisters and step-brothers descended on them like vultures to a carcass whilst their dad’s body was still held in a morgue. The bank said Iggy’s dad was the sole signatory and all monies were in his name. It was at this juncture that Iggy was exposed to the rigidness of the law and the coldness of the courts. It was a nightmare for the 17-year-old who had to deal with lawyers and administrators to resolve the ownership of the house and the family’s finances. The house was divided into three shares. Iggy’s mother held one share. His step-sisters were hounding them to get out of their home so that they could sell the house and get their share of the money. Iggy’s mother refused and a ‘battle royal’ ensued. Their mother, a rotund Nonya woman with a typical oriental face, was a kind soul and welcomed everyone into her kitchen with a meal or at least a cup of coffee despite their desperate situation. Seeing the lawyers’ bill rising fast and copping the constant abuse from the older step-children, Iggy’s mother finally gave up and they moved to Seremban in 1983. After they sold the house and settled the court costs and other legal expenses, they had only $30,000 left.
1975 was also the year of the Malaysian Cambridge Exam (MCE). The life-changing exam was just another trial in Iggy’s life that year. It was then that Iggy realised he had better pass the MCE or else there would be no hope of any further education. Uncle Ah Leong gave them $40 a month to carry on. “It was a time when life taught us to appreciate friends,” Iggy said. He studied and got through the MCE and landed in Sixth Form in SXI, despite the tumultuous events a few months earlier. A Christian charity paid for his exam fees and school fees. Iggy gave tuition lessons to pay for the bus fares and bare necessities such as cheap veggies from the side streets to take home for his mother to cook. The neighbours helped out with their leftovers. “We were so grateful to them. We all made do with what we had,” Iggy said.
Iggy’s mum had the natural inclination of inviting everyone who came to his house to sit and eat. It is like the Nyonya adage of “masuk, duduk dan makan.” Come in, sit down and eat. “There is always a meal for any visitor,” Iggy said whilst shrugging his shoulders as if to say he did not know why and how she could afford to. Iggy misses her famed helpings of Jiuhu Char, Asam fish, Bubur cha-cha, and her ‘must-haves’ such as Sugee cake and Nonya Kuehs – Kueh Kaput, Kueh Baulu,and Kueh Bangkit. Dressed in her typically dark coloured sarong and baju which highlighted her fair complexion, she worked in the house from morning to night and the centre of all activities was her kitchen. Food, of course, was the subject of her life. When Iggy was still a kid, her most-repeated sentence was “Wait till your father comes home.” She had a great way of reminding her kids who was boss by telling them the story of the Ten Commandments and putting the fear of God and their father’s cane in them. The turmoil caused by the stepsisters demanding money made life a living hell for Iggy’s mum. It was uncomfortable too for Iggy whose mind was always about his mother’s dire financial situation and how to survive another day. Memories of his Form 6 life were devoid of the pretty girls in class, even though he was the only boy there. All he cared about was to work hard and help support his family. He couldn’t afford to attend university after passing his Form 6 exams in SXI, and the only choice he had to consider was which jobs to apply for. Iggy found a job as a factory worker in Mostek Electronics in Bayan Lepas. “Venturing into the employment sector was what education was all about, right?” he asked. Opportunities to get into the government sector was slim with his P8 result for Malay. It was his worst subject amongst all the subjects he sat for at the MCE. His first pay cheque of RM90 was given to his mum. He never stopped giving her his wages after that. “She gave me life and made me what I am,” Iggy told me. His mum passed away at the age of 85, in May 2008. Iggy played Amazing Grace on his bagpipes as a goodbye tune for an amazing person.
In 2012, both Iggy’s stepsisters Ethel (Lily) and Theresa (Molly) passed away. He called them ‘Godma’ because when he was baptised, they stood in as godparents in a church ceremony. As such, it was their father’s rule that they should all care for one another. Lily was born in 1924 and Molly two years later. They attended the Catholic school at the Pulau Tikus Convent. It was very likely they too were taught to do housework and cooking just like their much younger siblings much later on. Sewing and needle work was also compulsory at home. Their father required the girls to be skilled in home duties as well. Lily and Molly were both good cooks and bakers. It was a tradition to be able to make cakes and jam tarts as well as to be able to cook Chinese, Indian and Serani food. The two sisters were spinsters who also lived in the Pulau Tikus Lane house. Lily worked as a seamstress, sewing and making dresses in various boutiques in Georgetown. Molly was a cook in the Uplands School in Penang Hill. It was mainly for the expatriate children and their teachers. Molly worked till her forties. Iggy remembers her as rather hot-tempered, and attributed that to her being often close to a hot stove and oven.
In 2017, Iggy started to experience health problems. He survived a heart attack but hasn’t been able to recover from a bad knee which gives him constant pain. He also suffers from gout, describing the unbearable pain with a trembling voice. “Even a soft light breeze feels like a deep cut to my toes,” he said whilst signalling that this would end his story. He forced himself up and the loud creaking of his old knees almost drowned out his voice. “Got to go and teach now. Catch up with you later, bro,” Iggy said, forcing a sugared smile from his heavy lips which are often turned downwards, burdened by gravity. Despite his debilitating condition, Ignatius Wong does not display any bilious temperament but rather, he remains sanguine that every day will be a good day. He continues to teach English and Malay to the local Chinese children. There is nothing iffy about Iggy. He becomes the latest member of the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.