Of missionary priests, future tycoon and sports legend
Published on: Monday, July 13, 2020
By: Nicholas Chung
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A photo taken in mid-1970s showing the author with Tan Sri Lau Gek Poh, OKK Datuk Mohd Yasin bin Hashim, then State Minister of Social Welfare, Chinese Chamber of Commerce Chief Datuk Yeo Kai Seng and businessman ‘Mr Choong’.

Holy Trinity Senior School Class of 1958. Rev Fr Lawrence Parsons (seated, sixth left),  author directly behind him. The two other priests are Rev Fr Kouters and Rev Fr Bekema. 


Class of 1953 graduation ceremony at Sin Hwa School with Headmaster Tan Yuk Tze (seated at centre) and teachers.  Author is seen standing, back row at far right. 




IN between hitch-hiking, swimming, fishing and spying for ships coming in from the southern horizon (ball games were not my forte), I plodded through my Chinese primary education and in the final Primary Six Examination in 1952. 

I came fourth in a class of 22. On graduation day (what a high-sounding term) – Dec 19, 1952 – everybody put on their best white attire to be addressed by the Chairman of the School Board, Lau Gek Poh, and by the headmaster. 

Lau, now a Tan Sri and one of Malaysia’s tycoons, launched his business venture in Tawau in a small way before the war. His life-long association with the town and his outstanding success made him a household name. 

He was one of the prime movers in the formative years of the school; his immense contributions in cash and in kind towards the development and maintenance of the school right up to the present time have earned him the people’s gratitude. 

He spared no effort in ensuring that the students’ every need was taken care of, even when the school was under tremendous financial and administrative constraints. He was always highly respected and each time he was invited to give a speech, the pupils paid him rapt attention. 

I remember when he walked up to the podium on that particular day and gave a very cogent speech in Teochiew, urging school leavers to be always ready to face challenges and to aim high in whatever tasks they were asked to perform. 

You could hear the sound of a pin drop in that silent atmosphere. One could write volumes about the career of Tan Sri Lau Gek Poh and his contributions to society, but words alone would not be enough to sum up the indebtedness of the Chinese community to his philanthropy which he has consistently maintained over a span of more than 60 years. 

If only we took heed of half of what he said on that day, there would have been many more outstanding businessmen or women in Tawau today. At the end of the ceremony, everyone received a “tow sa pau (sweet bean paste bun)” and a cup of tea – courtesy of the School Board. And so, with that, we said goodbye to our beloved Sin Hwa School. 

In those days, there were two English-medium schools: Holy Trinity and St Patrick’s. Only Trinity was a Catholic mission school that had been established earlier and had a larger student population. 

The European parish priest and his assistant were qualified teachers: therefore, the school was the first choice among Chinese primary school-leavers. 

St Patrick’s, on the other hand, was run by the Anglican Church whose staff were mostly locals until about the mid-1950s when the Reverend Walter Newmarch took over as resident priest as well as headmaster. 

He was joined later by fellow Australian the Reverend Kenneth Perry. I was to owe Mr and Mrs Perry a lifelong gratitude in that their actions were to touch my life decisively. More about that later. 

In March 1953, mother decided that I should start English education with St Patrick’s for no reason other than it was the school nearer home. As it was within walking distance, the family was, thus, relieved of investing in a bicycle. 

Despite my total lack of English. I was accepted to Primary Four after undergoing some simple written and oral tests which centred on arithmetic and general knowledge. Both Newmarch and Perry were highly motivated missionaries and experienced teachers, and I was given a sound grounding of the English language in the first year. 

I was soon proficient enough to follow and participate in a full range of schoolwork. When I was promoted to Primary Five in 1954, stepdad started to show signs of illness and the family’s future was once again thrown under a cloud. 

By early 1955, it was obvious that his condition required better medical attention than was available in Tawau. So mother decided that everything possible should be done to send him by air to Singapore for further treatment. The family’s financial position, although comfortable as long as stepdad was working and being paid, never had any contingency plan to meet this kind of emergency. 

We had always been living from hand to mouth. We had no savings, no property, not even the house we lived in. Some of stepdad’s clients very kindly contacted their Singapore associates and solicited their promise to make arrangements to receive stepdad and to check him into one of the hospitals. 

That he was able to make the trip at all was a miracle. To meet the cost of the trip and sundry expenses, mother had to pawn part of her pitifully small collection of jewellery. 

Stepdad first travelled to Sandakan by boat and from there flew by Dakota plane to Jesselton, and then on to Labuan, Miri and Kuching before he finally reached Singapore. The long, arduous and uncomfortable flight may have worsened stepdad’s condition more than had been anticipated. 

In any case, he duly arrived and was seen by the doctors. After diagnosing and treating him, he was put under observation for two weeks. The doctors concluded that his condition was terminal and that there was nothing they could do for him. 

Stepdad, still lucid, asked that he be allowed to return to Tawau immediately. Thanks again to the samaritans in Singapore, stepdad was put on the next flight to Sandakan, where mother was waiting. From there, they returned to Tawau by the next available boat. 

Stepdad had by then become a stretcher ease. He was readmitted to the cottage hospital and died three days later. My poor mother once again found herself a widow, aged 41. Yet again she found herself the sole breadwinner of a growing family without any resources. She now had an additional two children to look after having borne stepdad a girl Fang and a boy Chon. She now had to find work in order to feed the family; her answer was to take in other people’s laundry to wash. 

My elder sister was by then 22 years old and married. She returned to assist mother with the housework like ironing, and to deliver the laundered clothes to customers. My second sister, then 19, was halfway through her English primary education, but quit school to become a teacher in a Chinese primary school in Bombalai. The elder stepbrother and stepsister went in search of work at Sandakan. Both eventually married and started their respective families there. 

By the end of 1955, I had completed my Primary Six at St Patrick’s. As the school had no secondary programme, I had to move to Holy Trinity for my Form One education. It was not smooth sailing, however. I had to sit both oral and written tests to satisfy their requirements. I managed to scrape through by the skin of my teeth and counted my blessings that 1 had been able to make it. 

In 1955, Holy Trinity introduced a programme to prepare students for the Junior Certificate Examination. It was referred to as the Senior School, with the Rev. Father Lawrence Parsons as the principal. Mother was delighted that I was safely in the middle school, but her underlying worry was how to keep me there. Her laundry job was tedious and physically demanding. However, by taking in more and more work she was finally able to save enough money to buy a bicycle for me to ride to school. 

During this period, other than bringing home the occasional fish catch, I was not very productive in helping with the family finances. Like all boys of this age, my favourite pastime in the afternoons was to go to the town padang to join in or to watch whatever games were being played. 

In those days, the events on offer were quite limited; the most ardently watched were the school sports. Sometimes sailors from the visiting Royal Navy ships would stage a game of football against the local boys, and these encounters always provided the townsfolk with a refreshing, and sometimes hilarious, display of high-class football. 

There was also the local tournament. The contests were usually very spirited and on-the-field fracas, even brawling, were frequent. The rivalry on the pitch was strongest between the local Chinese team and the side fielded by the various Government departments whose players were predominantly Bumiputras. One of these teams invariably emerged as champion, and the prize-giving ceremonies, presided over by the DO, were looked upon as the most important sporting event in the town. 

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Tawau saw the emergence of its own local sporting legend in the person of Eric Chin. When I first saw Eric, he was working as a wharf stevedore. One never failed to notice him because of his 6ft-plus frame, his strong physique and his Afro appearance. His forte was his ability to throw the shot-put and discus long distances. I used to watch him train at the padang and saw him in action during several competitions. 

Despite the limited coaching facilities and the primitiveness of the town stadium, Eric went on to win several local and State meets in the discus and shot-put events. He also won medals in the two events when he represented the State in the championships held in Sarawak and Penang in the 1960s. His crowning achievement probably was winning the two events in the Singapore AAA held in 1961. 

Eric Chin Tian Loi was born in Jamaica in 1929. His father, Chin Luk Sem, was a Sandakan-born Hakka whose forebears came from a village near the Hong Kong border with China. Chin Luk Sem worked at the Sandakan dockyard before being enticed to join a British ship as a greaser. He either jumped ship or was left behind when his ship docked at Kingston, Jamaica in the mid-1920s. 

He found employment there and eventually married a local girl named Madge. She bore him three sons and a daughter before he became homesick and brought two of the boys, Eric and his elder brother Wilson Chin Tian Su, back to Sandakan. When Eric was five, his father sent him and Wilson to Tawau to live with their grandmother. They were poor and had to work as cowherds, odd-job labourers and coolies. They never went to school because they could not afford to. 

After the war, Eric joined a gang of stevedores and developed a remarkably athletic physique. He attracted the attention of the authorities, who encouraged him to take part in organised training. His pleasant personality and outstanding sporting prowess so impressed the late William Thien, a sports enthusiast, that he employed Eric as a handyman at the Empress Theatre. Unfortunately, although he had won fame and glory for his country, in his old age Eric lives a hard life with his wife and their three sons (the eldest one being retarded). None of the sons have had much schooling, all are unmarried and they all share the same cramped living quarters in an old low-cost wooden house. One of their two daughters is happily married, and the other lives and works in Kuala Lumpur. 

Eric’s facial features bear a striking resemblance to another Jamaica-born personality, the former American Secretary of State, Colin Powell. When I visited Eric in early 2005, he complained of high blood pressure and painful knees, which forced him to hobble when walking. 


Temporary school buildings of Yuk Chin School, later vacated and taken over by the Anglican Church to become the St Patrick’s Church 

Complex in the late 1940s.


* More next week


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