A beloved teacher

He was said to be a French Count. How did he find his way to the Penang Free School to teach English Literature to a bunch of Sixth Formers?

Dear Mr de Turville with his sad blue eyes and thinning curly hair. He worked us hard. There were many of Shakespeare’s plays we had to read and remember. Also a lot of poetry. One of the earliest poems he taught us was Alice Meynell’s Renouncement which I hold dear to this day. The first line reads, “I must not think of thee….”. It ends very powerfully.

But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I’m gathered to thy heart.

The Romantics – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly and Byron figured prominently in our syllabus. He assigned us books by Oscar Wilde, Austen, Bronte, F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dickens and the list went on. It was as if he wanted to share all that he knew during the 18 months he would spend with us

However, it was not all hard work. He was kindly too and welcomed us to his home, a spacious bungalow with a huge lawn in Jones Road. The sandwiches he served were delectable. He taught us a hilarious game called Sardines. I don’t recall exactly how it went but it had us clambering all over his house and garden. There were quiet moments when we listened to classical music, mainly Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven. One day he played Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor. When Maria Calas sang the famous aria from the opera, I held my breath. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.

His biggest project was the year-end school play. He chose a comedy called “Worms Eye View” written sometime in the fifties. He coaxed, cajoled and patiently showed us how to breathe life into the play. Acting did not come easily to us. But our parents, family and friends who came to see it erupted in loud laughter at all the funny parts and applauded lustily at the end. My sister Faridah attended too. She went on to become an outstanding stage actress and the darling of Malaysian theatre. I believe she quickly saw that an acting career was not for me.

I took the University Entrance Exam, passed it, and left for Singapore. A few years later Mr de Turville returned to France. Something must have gone horribly wrong with his life. He took to the bottle and drank himself to death.


From ballet to modern dance

I adored Moira Shearer in the film, “The Red Shoes” and couldn’t wait to enroll for ballet lessons. I was about 10 years old. The great Margot Fonteyn, whom I idolized, was only four when she started ballet lessons but better late than never I thought.

I entered an exciting new world. Our vivacious French ballet teacher coaxed us to perfect our five basic foot positions and the arm positions that go with each of them. There were endless stretching and strengthening exercises at the barre or bar – demi or grand plies, eleve, releve, tendu etc. – the foundation for all other ballet exercises, she said. There were numerous French words and steps to remember, among them pas de chat, pas de deux, pas de bourree. I loved the spins we did to beautiful music, going diagonally from one corner of the spacious studio to the other.

It was always a joy to watch my fellow ballet student Milly Koe. She had the strength, elegance and grace which ballet requires. Regrettably I did not and gave up after two years. Milly went on to become an outstanding dancer. Sadly she lost her life when the apartment building she lived in, the Highland Towers, collapsed in Ulu Klang.

The dance teacher I remember with the greatest affection is Dolores Wharton. In my final year at the University of Malaya (MU), I was immensely fortunate to get to know Dr Clifton Wharton, who was appointed John D Rockefeller Professor at MU, and his hugely talented and beautiful wife Dolores.

Dolores wanted some students to participate in a cultural show at MU and I signed up like a shot. She had trained under Martha Graham, one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance in America, and she cleverly blended modern dance techniques with those of traditional Malay dance.

In our first dance we formed rows which criss-crossed each other many times at different angles, the girls gracefully waving scarves in time to traditional Malay music. The second was a stylized football game played by the boys with the girls as ardent spectators.

The third was a “wayang kulit” or shadow play based on the Ramayana Hindu Epic. I was thrilled to be chosen to dance the part of Princess Sita. During her husband’s absence, Sita is abducted by the demon god Ravana but her husband eventually rescues her with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god. We wore elaborate costumes and moved in small steps, puppet-like, behind a giant lighted screen, like in a real shadow play, but from time to time emerged to dance in front of it.

Clifton and Dolores left after spending six years in Malaysia and both have had very distinguished careers. Clifton was the first African-American President of Michigan State University and has been outstanding in his lifelong commitment to public service. Dolores, in addition to her many educational, cultural and artistic interests, was elected the first woman and first African-American to the Board of Phillips Petroleum Company. She has served on the Boards of numerous corporations.

After many long years I heard from Dolores recently. She wrote to say she had sorted out her copious archives, found the video tapes her husband had made of our MU cultural show, and was sending them to me. They are now among my prized collection of tapes.

The Brave Child

I dreamt that my husband came to get me home to Malaysia.

I woke up and jumped out of bed. My husband was due to arrive that very day! My heart pounding with excitement I took a cab to the Greyhound station and there he was, looking none the worse for wear, despite the long trip he’d made, flying to New York and then traveling by Greyhound to Athens.

I’d spent a year at Ohio U in Athens, completed my studies and was ready to leave but we planned to spend a bit of time touring the country before going home to our three-and-a-half year old son, Amir, whom I’d not seen for a year.

At dinner that night I pounded him for news about Amir and about all that was going on at home. And then he told me – we were not going home. It took a long while for that to sink in. My husband wanted to go to school in the US, to do an MBA, and his school of choice was Michigan State University at East Lansing.

What about Amir? I wailed. What about my husband’s job with Shell Malaysia? And what about my sponsor, the MARA Institute of Technology? It sounded very complicated to me but my husband was determined to sort it all out.

So we headed for East Lansing, my husband armed with all the relevant papers. I was amazed when he gained admission very quickly. His resignation letter was graciously accepted by Shell. I called my sponsor expecting the worst. The Director talked excitedly about starting a School of Mass Communications at the Institute and he wanted me to set it up. But my degree was in Guidance and Counseling? Enroll for a Mass Communications program at Michigan State since you’ll be there with your husband, he said. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. Everything seemed to be falling nicely into place.

We had to bring Amir over as soon as possible. But how? How could a three-and-a-half-year old boy travel all the way from Malaysia to the US on his own? Fortunately we discovered that my husband’s ex-colleague and his family, friend of ours, were then holidaying in Malaysia and could take Amir to London where they lived. And then what? We called the airline to find out if they could arrange for Amir to travel unaccompanied from London to the US. We’ll assign a stewardess to take care of him, they said.

In Malaysia, my father helped get Amir packed and ready to leave. He spent several days in London before we could find someone to accompany him to Detroit, the airport nearest to East Lansing.

I was a nervous wreck thinking about my little boy having to make the long journey with complete strangers. What if he felt cold? What if he was hungry? What if he needed to use the restroom? I spent many a sleepless night with these fears for company.

On the day of his arrival we drove to Detroit. His flight touched down at the scheduled time and we waited anxiously for him to appear. The door opened and a little boy walked in hauling a big suitcase. He gave us a huge smile and flew into our arms.

Mt Kinabalu

You can do it! My husband and two teenage kids assured me. I wasn’t so sure but allowed myself to be persuaded, packed a bag and flew with them to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah to scale Mt Kinabalu. At slightly over 4,000 meters, it is the highest mountain in Malaysia.

We spent the night at a hotel in Kota Kinabalu and the following day went with our guide to the Kinabalu National Park to begin our climb from the Timpohon Gate.

I was told one had to be reasonably fit to make the climb. We prepared ourselves by trudging up Gunung Angsi and Gunung Rembau in Negeri Sembilan a few times but they were each only 800 meters high.

As we started up the mountain, with our guide carrying our things, I was relieved to find it less than arduous. Along the way there were steps that led to little huts where we could rest and enjoy the scenery. However the steps gradually became fewer and the climb steeper. It seemed to take forever to reach Laban Rata, 3000 meters up, where we would stay the night.

We made it to Laban Rata by nightfall and checked into our guest house. For dinner there was a choice of rice and curry, noodles or steak which my husband happily opted for. We had to leave at three o’clock the following morning to make it to the top by sunrise. We were exhausted but also exhilarated so sleep eluded us.

We put on warm clothes in anticipation of chilly weather, secured little lamps to our head and met our guide at the appointed time. It was pitch dark and the climb steep. At one point we hauled ourselves up a very slippery slope by holding onto thick ropes. The thin air made breathing difficult. By sunrise we were nowhere near the peak. I became more and more tired and out of breath and kept gasping for air and falling asleep every few minutes. And then I slumped down and refused to move.

My son wouldn’t allow me give up. I was already so near the top, he said, although it looked like miles away to me and quite unattainable. He gripped my hand and pulled me up. After every few steps I would collapse to a stop but he kept dragging me on. And then I caught sight of Low’s Peak. My energy miraculously returned and I staggered on until I reached the top. We all made it to the summit! We pranced around, cheered and laughed as we took in the breathtaking views.

The climb down was easy. it was then that we saw the steep cliffs and sheer falls that were invisible during the night. Had we really braved them on our way up?

Our trip ended on another high note – a musical evening at a karaoke lounge in Kota Kinabalu.


The Darvell was a Dutch cargo ship that had seen better days. But it offered us, first year students at the University of Malaya in Singapore, the best option for our trip to Jakarta, Indonesia. It would take us days to make the crossing the but the fare was cheap and affordable.

It certainly was rough going. The food left a lot to be desired. I shared a hard bunk bed with Zabidah. The following day Asiah took a bath and let out a loud scream. Someone was outside looking in. The bathroom had lots of holes for peeping toms. The boys in our group fared better. No complaints.

The sea was rough and poor Yun was sick during the whole trip. But we made it safely to Jakarta and were met by our hosts, students of the University of Indonesia, who travelled with us up and down the island of Java for a month. Java is the world’s most populous island. I had never seen so many people on the streets, buses and trains. They were everywhere.

The girls, Tuti and Sikki who accompanied us, were demure and delightful. But the others were a most vibrant lot making us Malaysians seem even more laid back than we were. Jimar, always the first on the bus, talked nineteen to the dozen. He was irrepressible. Unsung Basuki was gentler but no less animated. Hassan Rey, who was a good 20 years older than us, was a life-long student. He was clearly brilliant and whenever he spoke, we hung onto his every word. One time I caught him squatting and watching several little children at play. Look at them, he said, they are so happy, no worries, no cares. Perhaps he is a troubled man, I thought then.

The Indonesians loved to “pidato” or make speeches. Everywhere we stopped someone would promptly stand up and give a pidato, not quite in the same vein as Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg pidato perhaps but always stirring and passionate.

The dances reflecting Indonesia’s diverse history and culture were what captivated me most. The graceful folk dances, some boisterous and playful, the wayang kulit or shadow play in which the shadows of the characters, finely carved puppets, were cast on the screen, dance-dramas based on the Ramayana or Mahabharata Hindu epics with their intricate hand and head gestures, and the court dances of the Keratons or royal houses where the movements of the dancers were slow and graceful. The Tari Kecak or Ramayana monkey dance, where the men, clothed only from their waist down, waved their hands and chanted “chak”, “chak” as if in a trance, was mesmerizing.

When we returned to Jakarta, someone had made it known that it was my 21st birthday so I was given a surprise party. There was a lot of fun, laughter and good food but no “pidato”. Among the many lovely gifts I received was a beautiful earthenware vase which I’ve kept to this day.

Soon it was time to say goodbye to our friends. We then discovered to our horror that the Darvell had abandoned us and we had to fly back to Singapore. It was expensive but Yun, in particular, was immensely relieved not to have to weather the rough seas again.

Several years later it was with deep sadness that we heard that our dear friend Hassan Rey had passed on.

The War Years

My brother Abu was the first one who saw it. Look! he shouted. The sky is red! We rushed to the window and saw an amazing spectacle. The night sky had indeed taken on a deep red colour.

That was one of my earliest recollections of the Japanese Occupation. Several ships had been set on fire in the Penang harbour and the huge blaze had lighted up the night sky.

Another was the sound of shrieking planes overhead. After a lull of some seconds – BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The bombs would explode, pounding the earth, making me shrink into myself with fear. The target was a military base but what if the bombs fell over our house?

We needed a bomb shelter. My father and four brothers dug an L-shaped, six foot deep trench in our back garden, covered it first with tarpaulin and then foliage. The slightest sound of approaching planes sent us scrambling in there. I once dashed from the bathroom with no clothes on.

Food was scarce but my mother saved every grain of rice and every scrap, so we never went to bed hungry. My father worked at the main Military Base. It was hard labour. He lugged heavy rocks and stones up several storeys. They were used to build the barracks. But every month he brought home a bag of rice. So while most people existed on tapioca, we had rice, vegetables from our garden and eggs from the chickens we reared.

One day we got an awful fright. Some soldiers raided our house. They searched every cupboard and drawer, turned over every piece of furniture, shoved beds aside to peer beneath them, ripped mattresses and pillows and grabbed a few chickens before they left. My father had earlier burnt his prized collection of English books.

Ah! The Chung Ling School Canteen! One of my best memories. My father was given a contract to operate the school canteen. Suddenly there was not only plenty of food but a great variety of it. My mother had a different menu every day. When the food was all packed we carried it and walked to the school which was near where we lived. My duty was to carry the big clock. The Canteen was a huge success.

And so the days passed peacefully by. We heard stories about people being arrested and tortured. My Uncle who lived in Singapore was one of them. They cut his eye-lids, strapped him to a chair and left him out in the sun. His body, when they found him, was full of burn marks. But nothing like that touched us.

When the British returned there was a huge welcome ceremony complete with cannon shots and loud marching band music. Everyone seemed happy. I looked at my mother and she had a beautiful glow on her face.

Soon after my father bought me a large doll with long hair and the prettiest eyes. I put her down next to me when I went to bed that night and it closed its eyes. I jumped out of bed not believing what I had seen. Yes, it could open and close its eyes. Like magic! And that was my best memory of all.


“Mydin Sa abang kita” my mother sang to her parrot (Mydin Sa is our brother). The bird promptly replied, “Mydin cha abang tita”, but “sa” became “cha” and “kita” became “tita”. I loved to hear stories about her talking parrot and would make her tell them to me over and over.

My mother was very fond of animals. She kept birds, cats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and goats.

Our house was built on stilts and each morning I would creep under it to collect the eggs laid by the hens. And invariably knock my head against the low beams.

I helped my mother feed the chickens and take the geese to the nearby stream where they swam and caught fish to eat. One of my brothers tended to the goats. I followed him once to their grazing ground far away and was parched and drenched with sweat by the time we got home.

One night I awoke to the sounds of loud bleating, ran out of the house to where the goats were kept and saw my mother playing midwife to a goat that was delivering a baby.

My mother raised seven children. She cooked and cleaned, washed and ironed, sewed clothes and window curtains, embroidered tablecloths, pillow cases and chair backs, darned torn stockings, washed shoes. She baked the most delicious cakes and cookies.

My mother loved the cinema but she spoke no English so my father was her “interpreter”. She signed up to learn English in an Adult Education Program but the classes were discontinued after a few months because of poor enrollment.

I adored seeing her dressed in fine clothes whenever she had a wedding to attend. An elegant black sarong kebaya with gold thread was her favourite and she would complement it with sparkling diamond earrings, brooches, bracelets and rings.

One day I found her looking very pretty in a three-quarter length white dress belted at the waist with matching white high heeled shoes. She was off to do something she’d never dreamed she could do, have a joy ride in a little airplane. We have a picture of her and my father standing in front of the plane with the pilot, all wearing goggles and safety helmets.

My mother survived the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia, a long grueling trip to Mekah, and a stroke which left her bedridden and unable to speak for some time.

Her knees finally gave way and she spent her last few years in a wheelchair. But she remained fit and well with a memory as sharp as that of an elephant. Her favourite past-time was watching the news on television. She yearned to know what was going on in the world. On her deathbed she kept asking me about Princess Diana who had been involved in a car accident. She passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 93, two days before Princess Diana died.

A Family in New York

“Sakit perut!” (my tummy hurts!) wailed Aris as we waited to see the Principal of Heathcote School in Scarsdale, New York. Aris obviously had butterflies in his stomach. He didn’t speak a word of English and was about to be “interviewed” by the school Principal.

We had recently arrived from Kuala Lumpur. Esso Malaysia, the company I worked for, had sent me on a nine-month attachment at our headquarters at Exxon. I had a tiny office in the 54-storey Exxon building, the second tallest building in the Rockefeller Centre in New York. The building was better known by its address, 1251 Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue).

The agent assigned by Exxon helped me locate a beautiful house at 44 Carthage Road, Scarsdale in Westchester County in New York. My three children, Niah, our Indonesian helper, and I soon settled in comfortably there. My husband who worked with Petronas, Malaysia’s national oil company, couldn’t leave his job and stayed back in Kuala Lumpur.

My colleagues at Exxon were aghast. How could you leave your husband behind? they asked. But when you come from a developing country and are given the opportunity to further your career and give your children better educational facilities, you go for it and make sacrifices.

And what an opportunity it turned out to be. The assignment helped prepare me for the position of Public Affairs Manager at Esso Malaysia. My children enjoyed going to school in Scarsdale. Six-year-old Aris amazingly survived his “interview” and after a month was able to speak and understand English. Aida, nine, loved her teachers at Heathcote School, particularly Miss Piloseno. She did very well judging by the stars (for outstanding work) she brought home every week. And Amir, 16, excelled in his studies at Scarsdale High.

In the middle of my assignment, I was reunited with my husband when he came for a visit. We had a thoroughly enjoyable time together but all too soon he had to leave. Amir went home with him to prepare for his important Form Five exams. Despite having missed several months of school Amir obtained excellent results.

Many years after we left New York, we revisited Scarsdale. The house at 44 Carthage Road, Heathcote School, Scarsdale High, our favourite shops and places we had loved to visit were all there, just as we remembered them.


Four months before my first baby was due, my husband left for London to work with the BBC Far Eastern Services. I was to join him after the baby was born. He’d given up his job with Radio Malaysia while I continued to work there.

Aside from the few weeks of morning sickness, my pregnancy was easy. I felt good and strong. My dear sister Zurina said I looked like a blooming flower (ahem!) I didn’t miss a day’s work, went promptly for my hospital check-ups and waited patiently for the baby to come.

When I had the pains, Zurina and her husband (I lived with them after my husband left) took me to the hospital. I was wheeled into the ward and my regular doctor arrived soon after. She took some time examining me and then said she couldn’t hear the baby’s heart-beat. I stopped breathing. That could only mean one thing, that my poor baby was dead. Everything went black for me from then on.

I went through all the pains of childbirth but at the end of it all there was no baby for me to kiss and cuddle. I wasn’t even allowed to look at her (it was a girl). It’s better that you don’t, the doctor said gently, despite my pleas. My mother and sister agreed. They took her home and buried her.

A couple of weeks after I was discharged, a parcel arrived for me from London. It was from my husband. It contained many lovely clothes and other baby things. I could not hold back my tears.

I returned to work as soon as I could and then it was time for me to leave. I gave up my job, packed a few things and flew off to London. It was hard to leave my family but I had missed my husband and looked forward to seeing him again.

A year after I arrived in London my dreams came true. We were blessed with a bouncing baby boy!


Mr Sim, who headed the Malay and Indonesian Section of the BBC Far Eastern Services asked whether I might be interested to audition for the BBC’s Jackanory program. They were looking for someone to present Malaysian folk tales about Sang Kancil, the wily mouse deer.

Dear Mr Sim, my husband’s kindly boss, had offered me an opportunity of a lifetime. Interested I certainly was. Excited and consumed by anxiety I was too. Me, audition for the BBC?

On the appointed day, a cab collected me from my flat in South London and took me to the BBC studios somewhere outside London. Was it at Elstree?

After the hair dresser and make-up persons were satisfied I was ready to face the cameras, I was taken to the studio and asked to read a story about Sang Kancil. I was completely overtaken by nerves but thankfully did not fall off my chair.

After the session ended I was driven home and waited anxiously for the result of my audition.

My job as a Placement Officer at the Malaysian Students’ Department required me to enroll tertiary level students at appropriate colleges and Universities. It was interesting enough requiring me to travel now and again to meet the Deans. It was always a real joy when the students under my care were accepted at the places of their choice.

But the BBC! That was something else completely. Would I pass the audition? Incredibly I did!

The recording sessions started soon after, over five days that passed in a frenzy. Each day I was taken by taxi to the studio and shown to my room. I was startled to see my name in huge letters on the door! It was a pretty little room with a large oblong mirror surrounded with big bright lights. I was given the clothes to wear. After I’d put them on the hair and make-up persons appeared to work their magic on me.

There were five thirteen-minute presentations in all. I did my reading seated in an armchair and from time to time beautiful still life pictures showing the many antics of Sang Kancil appeared on the screen.

All too soon it was over. But the the excitement and elation I felt during those five frenzied days have stayed with me. It was an experience never to be forgotten.

Jackanory was a BBC children’s television series created to get children to be interested in reading. The first show was televised in 1965 and the series ran for 30 years. I was one of the early presenters and it was most pleasurable to learn that the later presenters included celebrities like Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Everett, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Irons, Alan Bennett, even Prince Charles!