Shell, It Shall Be

The next member to be inducted into the Urghhling Marsh Brotherhood is a rather mysterious fellow. He is neither tall nor short, fair nor swarthy. He shared a photo of him with his dad, in front of his gleaming white car with massive 19 inch mag wheels. His stance reminded me of Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western, left hand poised to draw in a duel, the only items absent were a pistol and a hip holster. He is strong but not big, fit but not muscular. For over a month, he has been telling me his stories, yet he has not revealed all that I want to know. He has given me a sketch of himself but the sketch is merely an outline without a glimpse of any bone or innards. His life story is one that is truly blessed without the usual bitterness and awful struggles. He has thrown some meat and fat my way, but there is none of the tears and blood that will make a reader cry. He told me about his grandparents and parents but there is no hint of their suffering, struggles or toil. I learned nothing about their idiosyncrasies, philosophies and customs. I wanted to learn about their adventures and feel the excitement about their early pioneering days, the challenges they faced, their brushes with the Japanese occupiers during the war or how they started their family business. How did they acquire and amass their seemingly substantial wealth? Where did they come from? Were they imperial officials from a dynasty? How did they end up in Malaya? Answers that will make their characters come alive. I needed some scandals to spice up his story. But, what I encountered was a hard shell that would not open up. Alas, a shell, he shall be.

好事不出门,恶事传千里。News of good behavior never gets past the door, but a scandal is heard of a thousand li away.

Shi Naian, Shuihu zhuan, Chapter 24

The new inductee to our brotherhood is Lim Hock Cheng. In relating Hock Cheng to The Water Margin heroes, I could think of no one more suitable than chief jailer, Superintendent Dai Zong. It is not that Hock Cheng was a sheriff or worked as a cop or was in charge of a jail. I thought of Dai Zong because he was also known as the ‘Divine Traveller’. All Dai Zong had to do was wear some cloth puttees bearing the images of a divine horse on his legs and he could run two hundred and seventy 里 li or one hundred and thirty five kilometres in a day. Dai Zong first appeared in the Shuihu zhuan novel after Song Jiang, the eventual leader of Liangshan Marsh had narrowly escaped becoming meat for the buns being prepared in the inn where he was drugged. Upon arriving in Jiangzhou to serve a long sentence for killing Yan Poxi, Song Jiang arranged to meet his jailer, Dai Zong. The two of them got on so well that Song Jiang was allowed total freedom to leave the prison whenever he wished. Hock Cheng does not have special puttees to enable him to travel fast like the ‘Divine Traveller’, but he has an energy source that is superior. He is a proud owner of a Shell station. Yes, his story shall be about Shell.

Hock Cheng’s earliest memory of his childhood was the time he spent in a car with his paternal grandfather. “Many people will think it is impossible for a three-year-old to remember so vividly,” he said. “But, honestly, I still remember it as clear as day.” Grandpa put me on his lap as he drove his black car that day.” “I held the steering wheel of his Morris as he turned it left and right.” Not long after that day, his grandfather fell ill and passed away. It was a brief moment shared with the patriarch of the family but Hock Cheng still cherishes the memory today. He is the youngest of six children in his family. Being a son and the youngest, he was the father’s favourite.

Unlike many in school, Hock Cheng had it easy. His school uniform was always sparkling white, starched and ironed to perfection. He was never late for school. Well-groomed and well-behaved, he never got into trouble with the teachers. Detention classes were alien to him and the cane was only reserved for other students, never him. “He paid for his canteen meals without any hesitation, always choosing which ever food he fancied,” Blue Eyes said. When he was nine years old, a sister drowned. She suffered from epilepsy. It was on a Sunday. She was cleaning the fish pond in their garden when she had one of her ‘attacks’ and fell head first into the water. No one saw her unconscious in the pond till it was too late. For many months, the family mourned her loss and the inconsolable father was too distraught to go to work.

Hock Cheng attended St. Xavier’s Branch School in Pulau Tikus. “Life was normal,” he said. But, his normal was, of course, very good for many others who had less normal lives. He was a member of the fencing club. Fencing gear was well beyond the budget of the normal school kids. The Made-in-England sabre and sabre gloves, long trousers, jacket, underarm protector were all compulsory items and therefore the sport was exclusive to the rich. He had a motorcycle when we were still proudly showing off our bicycles. He did bodybuilding with proper equipment whereas Wu Yong also pumped iron, and he literally meant iron, i.e. the discarded rusty charcoal irons used in his father’s dhoby shop. Then, Bruce Lee became a fad. Whilst most of us drooled at his martial arts and pretended to be the ‘Big Boss’, Hock Cheng actually enrolled in a Shaolin (kung-fu) school. Today, he still keeps fit with a rigorous regime in a local gym. He still applies the remedial massage techniques acquired from his Shaolin master today, helping to treat friends and family who have injuries.

After Form 5, he joined the Youth Park Leadership course. That was where he met his future wife. When his grandfather passed away in 1962, his father took over as the second generation Shell dealer. Hock Cheng began to take an interest in the family business. He worked as a pump attendant whilst he was still attending school in SXI. He started from the bottom and worked his way up the ranks, from the washing boy, to greaser to foreman before becoming the clerk at the station. His father retired in 2001, enabling Hock Cheng to become the third generation Shell dealer. A few years later, his wife joined him in running the business. One of Hock Cheng’s biggest achievements was to win the Shell V-Power Challenge in the country and was a Gold Retailer twice. These awards also meant free holidays to England, Italy and Switzerland. When the family achieved their 100 Years with Shell, they were rewarded with a much bigger operation in Bukit Mertajam. It was really a big occasion, even the then Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, attended the event.

Lim Eng Hooi Shell Station 1913 at the corner of Penang Road and Northam Road.

The original petrol station was situated adjacent to the cemetery where Francis Light was buried. He was the founder of the British settlement in Penang, and not the founder of Penang like how we were taught in school. The Old Protestant Cemetery sits on a small patch of ground on Northam Road. It was just a stone’s throw from the shop house where Wu Yong lived. It was the go-to place for the young boy whenever he needed to find a replacement champion for his fighting spiders. He kept one or two at a time in separate lolly tins. Like gladiators, his champions invariably suffered injuries and damaged egos or irretrievable confidence. It never dawned on the young boy that, imprisoned in tins, despite a healthy diet of freshly caught flies, any prized fighter would eventually weaken. Nestled in the cool shade provided by a grand canopy of frangipani trees, shiny metallic blue-green and black warrior spiders, Thiania bhamoensis, made their homes amongst the thick long green leaves of agapanthus plants. “It’s very easy to find them,” Wu Yong said. “I just looked for leaves that are stuck together by tell-tale signs of white silky web,” he added. Apart from their fighting qualities, Wu Yong selected his spiders based on looks, the more iridescent the green or blue, the more he desired them. Wu Yong was surprised that Hock Cheng’s family owned the station. He used to gaze at the Shell sign from his upstairs bedroom and wondered at why the afternoon heat caused the shimmering effect on the road as he observed the attendants attending to customers at the bowser.

Back in those days, Farquhar Street finished at Leith Street. The existing stretch of Farquhar Street between Leith Street and Northam Road was an unused field for the neighbourhood kids to play their games of marbles, tops, kites, masak-masak cooking or hopscotch depending on the season. During wet weather, the field would disappear leaving a thin haphazard trail of lallang grass, sand and stones amidst a body of muddy water and waving tips of lallang grass that resembled a padi field. The stench of mud filled the air and any open wound, no matter how minor, turned pestiferous. It was uncommon for the kids not to have pus on their limbs. The seventh month, the month of the hungry ghosts, was especially bad. Wu Yong called it his ‘pus season’, bringing a paroxysm of cuts and bruises without fail. To reach his school, Wu Yong the boy had to walk southwards on that tricky path, always minding the treacherous ground that might swallow up his white school shoes.

Hock Cheng remains thankful for what his grandfather had provided them with. It is forgotten how he secured the deal with Shell in 1913 or how he survived the Japanese occupation of Penang during the war in the early to mid 40s. “All he told me was they moved to Irving Road for refuge and ate tapioca,” Hock Cheng said. His petrol station closed for a few years to avoid supplying fuel to the invaders. After the Occupation was over, Grandpa Lim almost lost his station. He was deemed to have forfeited his right to continue as a Shell operator. It took his agility as a fluent speaker to wrest his business back from his competitor. From the will that he wrote, Hock Cheng said his grandpa had beautiful writing, another indication that he was a learned man. Very few men at the turn of the 20th century had any education in Malaya, so this was a strong hint that he hailed from a well-to-do background. “My mother liked him,” Hock Cheng said. He could tell from the way she talked highly of her father-in-law. He was strict but fair to all his children. Grandpa Lim had a good command of English and was a professional auctioneer besides running his petrol station business. Hock Cheng honours his grandpa’s memory by driving his 15-month-old grandson around the block. His greatest joy will be for his grandson to remember him the way he remembers his grandfather, he holding the steering wheel with his tiny hands whilst on the old man’s lap. His grandma also came from a wealthy family. They owned five rows of houses and a mansion in Argyll Road. She inherited one of the houses when her father passed away. “There is a photo of her in the Penang Peranakan Mansion.” Her name is Tan Chooi Chit.

Grandpa Lim in 1916.
Grandma Tan

Hock Cheng’s mother was Siamese. She was adopted by the second wife of her adoptive father. The second wife was also Siamese. His mother’s biological parents were poor. She, being the eldest, was given up for adoption. Although illiterate, she was a smart person. She knew how to cook a dish simply by tasting it. Her taste buds were able to discern accurately all the ingredients and from the texture of the food, she could figure out how it was cooked. “Her chicken pie was to die for, the puffy pastry was simply divine” said Hock Cheng. She worked long hours at home, taking care of the family. One day, the couple had a big fight. The husband discovered that his wife had been secretly pawning away her gold jewellery. The pawnshop owner had asked him if he wanted to redeem all the gold she had pawned. Hock Cheng said his mother did it to support his eldest brother was was studying in America. To supplement their income, she provided food and lodgings for some Thai students and sold jelly and cakes during festivities. Her secret condiments made her curry powder famous in as far away places as Genting Highlands and Pahang, where the late Sultan was especially fond of them.

Hock Cheng’s father was born in 1927. He was the second of three brothers and a sister. His mother died at age 28 whilst giving birth to his younger brother. He didn’t get the chance to know his mother. “Dad’s stepmother was a terror,” Hock Cheng said. “Dad loved photography,” he added, showing off a thick collection of photo albums passed down by him. When Grandpa Lim passed away, the three brothers had to take over the running of the petrol station. “Dad was the most artistic and loved doing the displays and merchandising,” Hock Cheng said. He enjoyed cutting words out of paper and sticking them to sheets of timber. A big banner that said SERVICE IS OUR BUSINESS hung proudly from a display window. They won many display competitions amongst the Shell operators. Over the years, the brothers had different temperaments and conflicting business ideas, one less entrepreneurial, the other less modern. Eventually, Hock Cheng’s father bought out the other two. “Dad had a Chinaman mentality, ‘enough is good enough’,” he said. Hock Cheng still thinks fondly of his young days when his father would drive the whole family to Swatow Lane for ice-kachang every Sunday. His father is 96 today and lives in Bangkok with a daughter.

Hock Cheng’s parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They married young and did not have a formal wedding.

Hock Cheng and his wife of 40 years have two children, both born in Malaysia. The daughter has a double degree in Computing Science and Accounting and is head of Accounting at a big firm in KL. The younger one worked in Dell for a few years before joining the Shell programme. There is an old Chinese saying that a business will not pass to the third generation, but Hock Cheng is proud that his son is today running the family business in its fourth generation.

Wu Yong welcomed Hock Cheng to their Marsh Brotherhood. Recruiting had been slow-going. His original plan was to have a hundred and eight ‘heroes’ before the year is out. He is hard-pressed to reach twenty!

好人相逢,恶人远离。When good folk meet, evil men keep their distance.

Shi Naian, Shuihu zhuan, Chapter 37

Artist, Anne Koh. Lim Hock Cheng 2022