Our oldest Old Boys
They are our last living link to the very first VI Headmaster, Mr Bennett E. Shaw, and they knew the second and third Headmasters as well. They are arguably the oldest Old Victorians alive today. The V.I. that they went to wasn't on a Hill. It was right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, on the flattest possible terrain, surrounded on three sides by a wild river. So wild that it brought knee-deep floods when the monsoon rains came, so wild that crocodiles lazed on its banks next to school on sultry days. The maternal grandfather of one was a John van Cuylenburg, a Dutch Burgher cartographer who helped chart the coast of Borneo. The paternal grandfather of the other is a household name - Yap Ah Loy - the first Capitan China of Kuala Lumpur. Leslie Mervyn Keun and George Yap Swee Fatt were exemplary pupils of the V.I. of the twenties. They worked hard and played hard like all Victorians, represented their respective Houses and the School in sports and were made prefects. They then left the school and embarked on vastly different careers. Leslie Keun is related to the distinguished Talalla family and he counts Victorians Ronald S. McCoy and Geoffrey Leembruggen as his cousins. George Yap's brother and cousins were Victorians, too. And his son-in-law is none other than the Chairman of the VI Foundation, Dato' Jaffar Indot!
The lives of Leslie Keun and George Yap intersected one more time when, as Guests of Honour at the V.I. Centenary Ball in 1993, they sat at the main VIP table with the Sultan of Brunei and past and present VI Headmasters. Along with Sundram Robert, another Old Boy a few years junior to them, Leslie Keun and George Yap were given the honour of cutting the Centenary Cake that historic evening.
Over a period of months in 2000 I was privileged to meet with these two oldest Old Boys and record their memories.
was born on the 10th July, 1911. My father was the Assistant Medical Officer of Selangor at the District Hospital of Setapak which is now the General Hospital. I went first to the St Mary's School and then to the VI in 1922. The Headmaster then was Mr B. E. Shaw. He was a very quiet man but he was full of discipline and the V.I. was tops during that time. But Shaw was retiring after 28 years at the V.I. when I joined and was succeeded by Richard Sidney. Sidney was a stern and strict fellow. He was a good writer and used to write for the magazines and newspapers. Incidentally there is no truth to the story that he reviewed the VICC on horseback.
I have a very pleasant recollection of my school days. There was nothing to make us upset. The teachers were very good and everybody worked nicely together. There was no outstanding person to make us unhappy. Mr L F Koch was a Eurasian with rather funny habits, while N.S. Buck was a strict guy. He was always showing he more or less knew a bit more than we did, so we kept him at arm's length. I remember Messrs Tay Lian Hee and R. Thampipillay well. The latter was the VICC Second Lieutenant and when we marched he would mark time by calling out, "Left, right, left, right", except he pronounced it "Lep, right, lep, right". He was a very nice chap, though, as was Mr M. A. Akbar, who taught us English. He went everywhere in a two-seater car. We liked his pranks. He was a first class fellow. Full of fun and a natural comic, he made you laugh.
Redfearn taught us a history and was a popular fellow. Mr Ganga Singh was good but was rather on the quiet side at that time. Mr Chan Hung Chin was a little girlish in his mannerisms but was famous for producing concerts at the end of the year when school came to a close. There would be songs and sketches but I did not take part in them though. Mr F. C. Barraclough was very rough on us; he used his hands too freely. There was caning but only the HM could cane. We usually had to write lines as punishment.
School hours were from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. After that we had two hours to do whatever we wanted before the extra-curricular activities began at 3 p.m. Among the subjects I took were English and maths which were compulsory - if you failed one of them you failed the whole examination even though you had the best results. Then there was history, Gospel (Old Testament and New Testament, one book of each), geography, but there was no science taught. There was a debating society but I was not much of a debater.
I was more on the sports side. I was the secretary of Treacher House. We played football, cricket and hockey. I represented the school in cricket. We had tours, particularly to Singapore where we made it a point to play against the Raffles Institution. I was also on the school hockey team as a reserve. We played cricket only on Saturdays though because of the length of a match. I represented the school in cricket and I remember playing one match against our archrivals, St. Johns Institution. Our other rival was the Methodist Boys' School. We were disliked by them and they would sometimes combine forces against us. When we met either one of them, both sides would be having their own supporters cheering like hell and there would be occasions of fighting!
My best friends were Chan Peng Kong, who became a court interpreter, and Cyril Grenier. V.I. boys went to school in those days by bicycle or on foot, as there were no buses and few cars. Some boys used private rickshaws that were hired by the month. In KL, life was very quiet, very few cars, and no traffic jams. High Street was intersected in the south by the meandering Klang River and on the other side of High Street across the bridge were shop houses. Across the river were just trees. There were a lot of hawkers selling things along High Street including tekan (ice balls), mee, kuey teow (3 cents a bowl, without egg), ice cream (3 cents each). At night the street was deserted. For entertainment there were movies - starring the likes of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks - at the Lido or Madras Theatres. We played things that kids would never play with now - tops and kites. We flew kites on the school field. In front of the VI was an empty space called Police Circle before the present police station was built.
During the school interval (there was a tuck shop under one of the buildings), the first thing we would do was to go to the Klang River bank with stones, chucking them at and irritating the crocodiles, despite stern warnings not to go near them. You could see the crocodiles there in their own habitat where the water was rather muddy, and there were plenty of them all over the place. It was dangerous and a couple of non-V.I. fellows did lose their lives, falling into the river. When I first joined the V.I. there were plenty of crocodiles but in later years there were fewer of them. The Klang River flooded during the monsoon season. The school padang would be at least under one foot under water. After the water receded the Selangor Fire Brigade would come to help clear up the mess, pumping out the mud from the lower floor classrooms.
School sports days were big occasions. There were tents erected during the event. Parents would come along and there would be a band. The main events were the 100 yards sprint and the high jump. The greatest V.I. sportsman was Lall Singh who was a cricketer. He achieved world fame and made a trip to India to play for their national team while he was still schooling at the V.I. I don't think he played in any Test match though; he was only a reserve. Still, it was a great honour.
There was no school song in those days. Another big occasion was the annual prize giving day held in the evening in the school hall (on the wall of which hung a portrait of Queen Victoria). Every parent made it a point to come along to see the boys get book prizes. On Empire Day the V.I. cadets would have a parade on the school field and on other occasions we would go on a route march and return along High Street stopping in front of Block One. I played the fife in the VICC band and we would practise twice a week after school. In 1928, when the new V.I. neared completion, I was in the parade that we staged to get us acquainted with the new school. One afternoon around 4 p.m., the whole school marched up Birch Road (Jalan Maharajalela today) from High Street with the cadets leading the way. People lined along the streets to gawk at us. The new building was ready, cleaned up but not in occupation as there were no desks yet. We all looked around and marched back again. Of course, by the time the new V.I. was ready in early 1929 I had already left school.
After I left VI I was unemployed for a year. Then I joined the railways as an apprentice driver. From there I was First Fireman then Second Fireman. During the war we had to run the trains for the Japanese. During the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 it was terrible as well because trains were being derailed and shot at but we were the people who got the trains carrying food through. One time just before Bangi the fish plates of the tracks were unscrewed and a bomb exploded by the communists as my train approached. My engine took the full blast and went off the track but fortunately my train of 13 to 15 coaches (each with 78 passengers) did not overturn. Two locomotive drivers were killed in the line of duty during the Emergency. We were truly on the front line of the war. At night I sometimes could see the torches in the rubber estates as we chugged past. We knew they belonged to the communists. When the Emergency was finally over, the railways never recognised our contributions. We never got any word of thanks or any recommendation which was very disappointing
Those old days were wonderful days. The V.I. was a great school. You got better respect. Times have changed; there is more discipline now perhaps. We were more relaxed then. Our teachers gave us a little bit more freedom. They didn't make us feel we were obligated to do what they wanted. They gave us a chance to voice our own opinions.
was born on January 1st, 1910. I never met my grandfather, Capitan Yap Ah Loy, who had died fifteen years earlier. I joined the V.I. kindergarten in 1916 and my brother, Yap Swee Hin, was my teacher! The H.M. was Mr B. E. Shaw, the first Headmaster of V.I. Then when I went to Standard One, the teacher was my cousin, Yap Swee Kee!
My house was on Petaling Hill where the Chin Woo is today and I could look down on to the VI in High Street below. Block 4, in addition to housing the School Hall, also housed Senior I and II classes downstairs and Junior I class. Mr B. E. Shaw used to shoot crocodiles on the river banks, mostly behind the HM's bungalow. The crocodiles would come up to sun themselves and the HM would shoot them. By the time Mr Richard Sidney took over there were not too many crocodiles left. The Lee Wong Kee restaurant was then in High Street, a shop at the end of the block just next to the school and was well-patronized by the VI boys. Ice kacang in the form of a ball was a favourite with the boys. Lee Wong Keeís sons were Lee Kuan Chong and Lee Kuan Yew - the latter was a high jumper and a football player. (One of the V.I. Houses is today named after him)
I went to school by gharry - a horse-drawn carriage - in my younger days. Every class I joined, the teachers loved me. I had a lot of privileges but I never abused them. Whatever it was, the school came first. I was secretary of the Prefects Board and we got to sit in our own room during the interval. I was also the prefect who issued permission slips to boys who wanted to leave the school during the half hour interval (10:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.) as the High Street gates were then manned by prefects. The right to wear a pin-striped sports blazer was earned by a pupil who played in the School Cricket or Football First Eleven or for being an outstanding boy in some other way.
When Mr Richard Sidney was the HM in 1923, he formed the V.I. Musical and Dramatic Society or VIMADS. I took part in Twelfth Night and King Henry IV Part I. We produced and acted in these plays because they were school exam texts. Twelfth Night was a Junior Cambridge play. We travelled to Singapore, Penang, Ipoh to give public performances - there were five nights in Singapore - playing to full houses. The audience wanted to see the plays in order that they had a better understanding of the plays for exam purposes. I remember I played Maria in Twelfth Night. In fact all the female parts were played by boys because we had no girls in the V.I. then! The Headmaster and some masters like Mr Akbar even acted on stage with us as well and it was enormous fun.
We had to return to the school for two or three hours a day for rehearsals. It took three months of rehearsals before we were ready to stage the play. The sets had to be made and painted by the boys. Imagine! as 15-year-olds we were touring three other states with the play. Mr Richard Sidney wrote this of me:
He is easily the most outstanding boy in the school. He has distinct dramatic gifts found rare even among the public schools in England and phenomenal in Malaya.
I remember Mr Tay Lian Hee, the cricket master, who was one of the masters who travelled with us and helped to transport the scenery, costumes and props to the various states. I remember, too, Mr M A Akbar who taught the A classes. In those days, A did not mean the best classes, but the oldest boys! The B class had the next oldest boys and so on! So Akbar, because he was a big-sized man, was able to control the A class boys. Mr R Thampipillay taught me religious knowledge, Mr M. Vallipuram taught me geometry and algebra, while Mr F C Barraclough taught geography. Then there was Mr N S Buck, a suave gentleman with certain habits. Dictation would be read out by whoever was the pastor of the Anglican Church at that time. Every boy had to take part in gymnastics and in the school gymnasium we had parallel bars, Roman rings, vaulting horses. I won several prizes for elocution and English and I still have two of them - books on poetry.
Mr Sidney taught English to the Cambridge classes. He was also very interested in sports. In those days school hours were from 7:30 to 1 p.m., with the boys coming back at 2 p.m. Every teacher had to take turns to do afternoon duty from 1 p.m. when he would then be in full control of the school. There were so many games to play, and there were ten houses then. My school admission number ended with an Ď8í which meant that I was in Shaw House. The final digit determined which house a boy went to. Inter-house competitions kept us busy as did the scouts and the cadets. I was a sergeant in the latter which was headed by Captain Barraclough, while Mr Thampipillay was a second Lieutenant.
I left the VI on 10th December 1926. I had been a very good student. In my school leaving certificate the H.M. wrote:
.... took very prominent part in school as Prefect, House
Captain (Shaw House), Cricket First XI, committee member of school magazine,
Cadet Sergeant. I am very sorry that he is leaving as one of the best boys in
I was so good in English, dictation, and literature that I had wanted to go to England to take up law. That was my ambition. However, my father, Yap Hon Chin, was against it. He was the eldest son of Yap Ah Loy and he had never worked a day in his life because he was so rich. He said to me, "why go to England? You come back as a lawyer and you want to make money? There is already all the money for you to spend - I have never stopped you from spending. You can spend any amount you like." So I did not go for further studies. I travelled instead - I went on the P & O liners to the Philippines, to Hong Kong, to Japan in the late twenties. My fatherís theory was this. If you have money you donít have to have brains, because with money you can buy other peopleís brains. In the end, I felt, you cannot buy knowledge or power or smartness. My father was only partially right.
So, after travelling, I decided to work locally. I joined the KL Sanitary Board as a health inspector. In 1932 I went to Singapore to take up a course for the job of health inspector because that involves veterinary science and sanitation engineering. Many of these things we do in daily life. At that time this course was conducted once a year and each state was allowed to send two people while the Straits Settlements were allowed three. Physics and chemistry were some of the prerequisite subjects that had not been taught at the VI at that time. So I took private tuition and as result I managed to catch up with the class. I was also a committee member of the VIOBA which was then in Rodger Street with Mr Ganapathy as president.
I was at the KL Sanitary Board until 1955. After that I was interested in dancing and learned all the dances - the waltz, the rhumba, the samba. At the BB Park cabaret I would book all the girls so I could practise my dance steps! But I assure you, I was never a womanizer! I was and am very honest.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
24 Jan 2007:
by Wilson Henry
KUALA LUMPUR: George Yap Swee Fatt, the last grandson of Yap Ah Loy, KLís Kapitan Cina, died yesterday morning. He was 97.
His last moments were spent with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren at his eldest daughterís residence here.
"He was frail towards the end," said his eldest daughter, Datin Patricia Indot née Yap.
"But he lived a good life and he was always proud to know that he came from one of KLís founding families that contributed much towards the cityís early development."
Yap (picture), who was the youngest son of Yap Hon Chin, remembered in interviews the opulent life his father lived in KLís old quarters near the Chin Woo stadium.
He studied at the Victoria Institution, was a scholar who won book prizes, played cricket, tennis and was an active orator and drama member.
Yap, who worked as a health inspector until he opted for early retirement, married Lucy Ho Kam Leng who passed away 25 years ago.
They had one son and three daughters: Henry Yap who is in the United States, Patricia Indot in KL, May Yeow in Canada and Fanny Tan in Singapore.
His children have all retired, with only Fanny Tan still working as a deputy principal of ACS Singapore (Independent).
He leaves behind seven grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.
"His favourite pastime was to hang out with his friends in their sixties whom he affectionately termed as young punks."
The wake is at 30 Jalan Tualang, Bukit Bandaraya, here. Cortege leaves for the Cheras crematorium at 2pm today.
Last update on 21 February 2007.
Interviewer: Chung Chee Min