WHEN the little girl heard that her parents would be moving from Johor Baru to Masai, she panicked. Masai? East Africa? Where the tribe drank cattle blood? The gory image scared her. What a relief for Peggy Loh when she learnt that her parents were not moving to a god-forsaken place far away from home after all. The small town called Masai was only about a half-hour drive from Johor Baru!
Her face lights up as Loh chuckles at the thought, which remains fresh in her memory although the episode of moving to Masai happened more than 50 years ago.The memory led her to penning a story, which she titled Going Back To Masai-chusetts. This story leads the collection of Loh’s memorable accounts of her life and people dear to her, as well as that of her beloved home state of Johor in her newly released book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.
Loh recalls how her friends in Johor Baru, who were great fans of The Bee Gees, would tease her and joked that she was ‘... going back to Masai-chusetts’. This was in apparent reference to the popular band’s famous song Massachusetts with the catchy first line ‘... I’m goin’ back to Massachusetts’.
The bubbly Loh’s sense of humour and strong nostalgia for Johor, specifically its capital Johor Baru, or JB, shine through the entire book, written in her informal and witty style. It’s no wonder that this book has made it to MPH’s weekly Best Sellers list for several weeks since its release into the market in mid-July.
WALKING DOWN MEMORY LANE
The book has 30 stories, divided into three main sections — Memories, Portraits and By The Way.
The Masai-chusetts story which falls under Memories. Where Champions Were Born is another enchanting story in this section. It reveals the outstanding achievements of Loh’s families in Malaysian sports, particularly badminton. Her Ah Kong, or grandfather — Ng Ngoh Tee — was the Maker of Champions. He trained his children and others to achieve state, national and international titles, including the Thomas Cup. Ng himself was a badminton champion, winning the Johor badminton championships four times in the 1930s.
Eyes far away, Loh recalls how the compound of her Ah Kong’s house at No. 154, Jalan Ngee Heng, JB, became the centre for badminton training back in the day. A badminton court, which once stood adjacent to the house, became the playground for her and other children in the family in the day time. They’d play there until nightfall when serious training led by Ah Kong would start and the court would be off limits to the children.
That badminton court had produced the country’s badminton champions, including All-England champion Wong Peng Soon, the first Asian ever to win the coveted title in the 1950s. Try and look for this badminton court and the house at No. 154, Jalan Ngee Heng today in JB, you won’t find them anymore as they were demolished some 40 years ago. Looking at the tiny wedge of land, which is today part of a highway, never fails to envelop Loh with a bout of nostalgia.
ORANG CINA BUKAN CINA
The roots of Loh’s large family can be traced, among others, to Wong Ah Fook, a name that often crops up whenever you read about the history of modern Johor. He was one of the pioneering Chinese who contributed to the development of the state. Named after him, Jalan Wong Ah Fook cuts through the city.
The story We Are OCBC gives an endearing glimpse into the roots of the family. OCBC, says Loh, may be the abbreviation for a bank’s name but to her family, it spells Orang Cina Bukan Cina. Loosely translated, the Malay phrase means ‘Chinese who are not Chinese’.
“This is because in spite of our Chinese names, we don’t look typically Chinese,” explains Loh, who laments how people are being stereotyped into racial groups by their looks.She adds: “Because we do not fall into any definite group, it causes a bit of confusion. Very often, my race becomes a topic of discussion and it can be quite awkward and just too personal.”
Often people would ask her bluntly: “You orang apa?” or “What is your race?” Loh would evade the query.
However, she has decided to tell the background of her family in the book, and it’s an engaging account of how her father, who was raised in an orphanage home in Ipoh, was given a Chinese name although he hardly looked Chinese! But he did marry a Chinese, Lucy Ng, whom Loh describes as “our beautiful mum”. Still, Loh and her siblings, with their more prominent Eurasian looks, are often mistaken for non-Chinese.
“I’m used to that curious question, ‘You orang apa?’ And to cut a long story short, I will say that I’m Malaysian and on paper, I’m Chinese,” she says with finality.
FACES AND PLACES
In the Portraits section, Loh pays tribute to 10 past and present personalities who’ve left an indelible impression on the cultural life of Johor’s community. The persons include unsung heroes like Muar High School headmaster Desmond Paul Pereira, lady and teacher extraordinaire Dawn Parry, and cultural activist Tan Chai Puan, whose name is synonymous with the 24 Festive Drums renowned for the dramatic art of drumming.
“I’m glad that she doesn’t feature any politicians,” says Johor Baru Member of Parliament Tan Sri Shahrir Abdul Samad, who launched Loh’s book at the Double Tree by Hilton hotel in JB in mid-July. In penning the foreword for the book, he said that he was inspired by the genuine connection Loh has with JB’s people, places, culture and heritage, rendering her ability to write about the city’s rich legacy.
The section By The Way contains vivid details that bring to life Loh’s perspective of the rich and colourful history, culture and heritage of Johor. She takes readers down memory lane by revisiting JB’s heritage landmarks, from palaces and movie theatres to markets and food courts. Food is one subject that Loh is passionate about.She peppers her story Celebrating with Auspicious Food with snippets of why certain food are served during the Chinese New Year celebrations. For instance, prawns are a must as they symbolise happiness and because the Chinese word for prawn, har, sounds like cheerful laughter: Ha! Ha!
Yet another heart-warming story is Loh’s account of Our Charming Coffee-shop Culture. She wrote that long before air-conditioned coffee houses and cafes started in JB, there were family-run coffee shops that locals call kopitiam. This word is coined from the Malay word kopi for coffee, and tiam, the Hokkien word for shop. The early coffee-shop operators were mainly Chinese of Hokkien, Hockchew and Hainanese descent.
Loh remembers going to JB’s central market with her grandma. The market was then located at Jalan Wong Ah Fook on the site of the present-day Johor Baru City Square shopping mall. They frequented a coffee vendor who had a stall at the old market’s upper floor. They nicknamed the young Indian vendor Cassius Clay — the former name of champion boxer Muhammad Ali. He’d weigh out grandma’s choice of roasted beans before putting them in a grinder.
“I can still hear the shrill whine of the grinder and the fragrant aroma as the beans — the pure stuff that was not roasted with sugar or butter — were ground to the desired texture and neatly packed into brown paper bags,” she recalls, her eyes looking distant as if evoking the picture of the coffee grinding at the old coffee shop.
One of the things that she remembers about old kopitiams was the spittoon placed under each table. “My mum warned me to stop swinging my legs under the table or risk accidentally kicking the spittoon over and I quickly obeyed, cringing at the thought of countless people having spat in it,” she says, adding that back then spittoons were provided for people who chewed tobacco. Even though it was unhealthy, public spitting was socially acceptable. “I’m grateful that the use of spittoons in coffee shops gradually disappeared in the 1980s,” says Loh, smiling.
There are plenty of anecdotes that can make you chuckle as you flip through the pages of this book. It’s all about people who have mattered in Loh’s life in one way or another, or who have called Johor their home since the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957. You’ll enjoy the author’s amusing personal accounts of days gone by. It’s also about places, both old and new, that have made JB the city it is.
The stories have been kept short and snappy, making for easy reading. She attributes the New Straits Times, particularly the newspaper’s past pull-out sections the Travel Times (rebranded as Life & Times Jom) and Johor Buzz for her prolific writings on Johor in the early years of her foray into the mainstream media.In 2010, she launched her personal blog My Johor Stories (www.peggyloh.com) where she also archives her published stories.
Loh also contributes stories on Johor culture and heritage to The Iskandarian, the official newspaper of Iskandar Malaysia, Johor’s main southern development corridor.
My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage
Publisher MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd
Sold at MPH bookstores nationwide, and at MPH’s online store www.mphonline.com