Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.

"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

3:12 The Bird’s-nesters of Gomantong
In the long vacation of the next year, 1957, Hale asked me to make a field trip to visit the bird’s-nest caves in North Borneo jungle where it was reported the natives were suffering a febrile illness. We describe such a condition as a PUO (pyrexia of unknown origin). The Ebola virus was yet unknown, else I would have been more circumspect in the undertaking.
Note: Ebola virus, associated with African jungle monkeys, causes a highly contagious and often fatal haemorrhagic fever. No cure is known and whole villages were wiped out in the late 1980s.
I was most eager to do what I had heard Carleton did in New Guinea and got my gear together. My baggage included a tent, cooking equipment and food, and I packed - of all things - a kerosene operated refrigerator to store blood samples. I also brought a microscope (to look for malarial parasites in the blood), anti-malarial drugs and various other medicines for coughs, diarrhoea and fevers, as well as blood collecting equipment, syringes and test-tubes. That I did not bring a kitchen sink was possibly an oversight. Hale had previously visited Sarawak and had returned with a technician on the staff of the Sarawak health authorities for training in Singapore. This was Stephen Malunjun who accompanied me to Sandakan and served as my assistant on the field trip.
My task was simple enough: I had to take blood samples from the sick natives, store them in the fridge until I could get them to the hospital in Sandakan where the serum could be separated if necessary. If I was lucky I might actually discover a new virus (in which case I might be unlucky if it was something like the Ebola virus!). Hale cautioned me not to over-pay the natives who would carry my baggage, “They love best to be paid with cigarettes,” was his advice. It was my first field trip and it was unfortunately doomed to failure from the start because of inadequate back-ground information of what we were trying to accomplish.
The edible bird’s-nest is made by swifts (scientific name: Collocalia) that live in mountain caves, where, clinging to the rock face, the bird makes a nest with its saliva. Some species of swifts strengthen the nest with their feathers making dark nests; those that do not, make the preferred white nests, which when dried, is sold by the tael (Chinese ounce). The swifts mate and make nests four times a year, and are life-long companions, according to legend. Because of the high infant mortality associated with bird’s-nesting, the government allows collection of bird’s-nests only for three of the birds’ mating seasons. The Gomantong caves were located in the mountains north of Sandakan and before the war were exploited by residents of a nearby village. During the Japanese occupation, the Malay villagers had taken refuge in Sandakan where they had established a new base.
The commercial exploitation of edible bird’s-nests was a government monopoly in which the right to collect nests in a certain locality was contracted out, usually to a village elder who had made the highest bid. The successful contractor then sub-contracted the right to exploit particular caves to his people who paid him an agreed portion of their earnings. At the caves, the workers climbed up to their assigned cave(s)and picked the nest from the rock face, the best time to pick the nest being before the eggs were hatched and before it was fouled by chick excreta. The collected nests were tied in neat bundles and brought to the “gudang”, a well-built government store house near the caves where they were weighed by the government supervisor who lived there and each worker credited with what he had collected. The government would subsequently pay the contractor the value of the nests collected and he would settle with his sub-contractors. The bundles of nests were then carried through the jungle to Sandakan by the workers themselves, each being paid by weight for what he carried and according to its value, the white nests being worth more than the dark nests. A hundred catties was not an unusual load for a worker to carry through eight miles of jungle and paid about twenty dollars, additional income to what he had already earned by collecting the nests.
My first disillusionment came when I had a meeting with the village chief and discussed what I should pay the porters that I had assumed he would supply. I was a bit taken aback when the chief said he would have to ask his men. If there was to be any bargaining, I had to bargain with them direct, for they were free agents and not his employees. No question of payment by cigarettes - they had to be paid in dollars. I had to hire, too, a motor boat to carry my baggage to Gomantong. No, the chief would not be going because the work was for young men, but not to worry, his people would look after me well, for I was going to be their doctor, yes? Some slight misunderstanding here was apparent. I learned later that for a couple of years or so, the workers at the cave site had been asking the government to send a (male) nurse to the site so that their sick could be treated there instead of having to be brought back to Sandakan. They thought that I was the medical aid they had asked for.
The journey to the Gomantong caves began with a four hour trip by boat to the river at the edge of the foothills of the caves, then continued with an eight mile walk along jungle tracks to the camp site which consisted of a number of open huts along a stream, next to a well-built government storehouse. Stephen and I set up our tent, got the fridge running and made our evening meal. It was camping just like in the Boys Scouts. The next morning I held my first clinic and saw a small number of patients, most of whom I treated with a cough mixture and with aspirin where they still had fever. I took blood specimens from all of them, faithfully recording their names, sex and ages, and I examined blood films for malaria parasites. No, they had been at the caves only a week or two and did not have any illness when they arrived. No, there were no other people living at the camp-site, only the workers who had come to collect the nests. Their families were all back in their village in Sandakan, except for some women who had come to take care of their men.
Having collected only a dozen or so of blood specimens, I visited the foreman (kepala) who had been pointed out to me as my helper. I told him to line up all his people so that I could take blood samples. It would not hurt at all as he had seen me taking samples from the patients. Carleton had told me that the technique of taking blood was to line up all the prospective donors and not to take any blood until they were all assembled, then to ask each donor to hold a test-tube in one hand and a label in the other.
“Tell them they must not put down what they hold,” Carleton said, “and say that if anything goes wrong the whole thing has to be done all over again.” Well, it was too late to follow that advice, they had seen me taking blood samples already, but I had hoped that the workers were civilized enough not to fear a little blood-taking. I was wrong, for the Malays considered blood a magical thing and to give blood would be weakening. Besides, while they understood that to cure the sick the doctor might have to take some blood, they saw no point in taking blood from people in good health! I explained that I had been sent by the government to do what I had to do, otherwise, I would be failing in my duty.
“Yes, doctor,” my amiable kepala (headman) told me, “We understand that your work is very important and we would like to help you perform your duties. But you must also understand that we are about to climb up to the caves and if we slip because we have lost blood we could have a nasty fall. Come and look, doctor, and see what we have to do.” I had a look, and indeed, theirs was a hazardous occupation. They would climb tip the mountain-side to approach their caves, sometimes with the help of ladders, and make the final approach up a chimney to the rock face usually by shinning up bamboo poles, all without safety nets or ropes. No, I could not take the risk of being blamed for any accident. Seeing my downcast face, the kepala tried to console me. “But wait, doctor, when we have finished our work and it would take only a week or so, we shall be at your disposal, andyou can take all the blood you want.” Upon this I went back to my tent to sulk.
Editor’s Note: my father here is referring to Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad, who, feeling offended, left the battle and went back to his tent to sulk.
A week or so later I noticed some workmen gathering at the gudang and found them tying up bundles of bird’s-nests and having them weighed. They had finished, I thought.
“You have finished your work?” I asked the nearest one, “Can I take you blood now?”
“No, doctor,” replied the worthy, “I still have a couple of caves to look at tomorrow, but my friend here has finished his caves and will be going down to Sandakan tomorrow.”
“Bagus (good),” I cried turning to our friend who cast a hurt look at the former speaker, “then I can take your blood.”
“Ayah tuan (alas, sir) “, replied our friend mournfully, “perhaps that is not such a good idea. I have to carry this 100 catties of bird’s-nest tomorrow through the jungle. If you take my blood, I shall be weakened and may slip and fall. Who will help me then?”
An impasse again. I went to look for the kepala who was most sympathetic.
“Yes, doctor,” he said, “it is true that the jungle walk is very strenuous but we all have to carry the bird’s-nests to Sandakan.” Then he added hastily, “I, too. But, doctor, not to worry, you can come and see us at our kampong (village) when you return to Sandakan.”
“Very well,” I said with as good grace as I could muster, “but how about the women who are here? They won’t be carrying any bird’s-nests, would they?”
“No, doctor,” was the reply, “only men carry the bird’s-nests. But all the women have gone back already (suda balek kampong), as we have almost finished the caves and can look after ourselves. But, doctor, you can see them too, when you return to Sandakan.”
And that was that. I reminded the kepala that I needed porters for my baggage and the kepala said that that had not been forgotten; some of the workers will return to the caves after taking their bird’s-nests to the river. I realized then why I had to pay so much, as it seemed to me, in porters’ wages. They were used to getting paid for carrying bird’ s-nests and had in fact, accepted a reduced rate from me by comparison in return for my medical assistance. Imagine having a refrigerator carried at the cost of carrying bird’s-nests! There was no help for it. I contained myself in patience, told Stephen to pack everything but our tent and personal gear and waited for the porters to say when we could leave the caves. When we reached Sandakan eventually, I went to visit the village headman, our chief contractor.“
How nice to see you,” the headman cried, “thank you for all your help. No, the people you want to see have gone to their kampong - we have a number around Sandakan - or to the town to have a holiday. I can get them together in a few days time if you will come back.”
I was not having any more of this comedy. I told the contractor politely that I could not return as I had to catch the boat back to Singapore. I assured him I would tell the medical authorities of their need for a nurse, at least, perhaps even a doctor at the caves. There was some merit in this for their work was truly dangerous and any serious injury would have to have expert first-aid on the spot.
In my official report I said that there was no PUO at Gomantong, and nobody took ill during the three weeks I was there, apart for a couple of cases of coughs. There was no need for a field trip to study PUO among the bird’s-nesters for they did not live at Gomantong and can be found in Sandakan. Hale was a bit disappointed at the negative tone of my report and that the dozen or so blood samples that I brought back to Singapore did not yield any interesting information. They were blood samples of townsfolk after all, for that was what the Gomantong bird’s-nesters were: Sandakians.

3: 11 Grand Old Man Passes

After my grandfather retired from the Amoy University in 1936, he lived in an old atap-roofed house on Paterson Hill, once the club house of the Magic Circle. The Japanese had given him a bad time during the Occupation and made him the chairman of the Overseas Chinese Association, on which account the Chinese government labelled him a collaborator. Because he had played an important role in the amalgamation, before the war, of four Chinese banks into the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation, the OCBC gave my grandfather a pension that enabled him to live in modest comfort. At the age of 87, on New Year’s Day, 1957, this Grand Old Man of Singapore, as he was often described by the press, passed away. I was in Penang on vacation and hastened back for the funeral.

Lim Boon Keng had been a free-thinker all his life and a Bahai in his later years but I was told that before he died Grandma Yin persuaded him to become a Christian. When I came to Paterson Hill I found a choir of Grandma Yin’s church people singing hymns around the coffin. My uncle Peng Han who lived in the same house was so incensed by the death-bed conversion that he kept away from the obsequies as much as he could. It would have been a great funeral in the Chinese traditional style but we had a relatively quiet Christian funeral. Lim Boon Keng was laid to rest in the Bidadari Christian Cemetery in upper Serangoon Road where subsequently Grandma Yin was also buried. Such a location was rare to come by and none in our family, not even Grandma Yin, had the foresight to make provision for it. However, Chew Lian Seng, a distant relative of Grandma Yin, came to our family’s rescue by giving her a plot in Bidadari he had kept for himself but possibly decided he did not need. I don’t think the Grand Old Man would have cared. When, once, we discussed religion, he quoted Confucius on this topic, “Not know life, how know death!”

Editor’s note: In the 2000’s Bidadari cemetery was cleared. Lim Boon Keng’s remains were exhumed and placed in a columbarium in Lim Chu Kang. The memorial stone was placed in a national Garden of Remembrance nearby.

My sister Ee-Jin had this story to tell: One day she found her young grand-daughter crying and asked her what was troubling her. “My school friend teased me,” said the little girl who was in primary school. “Tease you, how?” her grandmother asked. “We were looking at our history book,” my grand-niece said, “and I pointed to the picture of Lim Boon Keng, and I said ‘that’s my great-great-grandfather.” “Nothing wrong with that,” said my sister. “But”, said her grand-daughter, crying afresh, “my friend said, ‘I know, I know, Stamford Raffles, my great-great-grandfather!”

Lim Boon Keng was orphaned when young and stopped going to school so that he could try to earn a living. His teacher, Mr Hullett, however, sought him out and persuaded him to go back to school with financial assistance from Cheang Hong Lim (of Hong Lim Green). When my grandfather came to live in Emerald Hill, he named a road behind his house Hullett Road, in memory of his old teacher. Lim Boon Keng, himself, has Lim Boon Keng Road named after him.

3:10 Carleton Gajdusek
One of the topics bandied about at tea-breaks was when Carleton would be returning from New Guinea where he was on a field trip. I pieced together subsequently the following story: Dr.Carleton Gajdusek was a staff member of the US Army Medical Research Team based in Washington and who was on a year’s staff-exchange visit. He had been due to arrive a couple of years ago, but his arrival had been delayed, first because he had been on a tour of European scientific institutions determining their equipment needs and handing out cheques on behalf of the Marshall Plan! Carleton had been given this task because of his wide knowledge of medical science and technology and because he was fluent in the German language. Another six months deferment was requested when Gajdusek was diverted to Iran to study the use of rabies antiserum in an out-break of rabies caused by wolves! Finally, his flight plans were received and his ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) re-confirmed. The Institute Chief Technician took the station-wagon to the Airport to meet Gajdusek but waited in vain for him to turn up. When the Chief Technician returned to the Institute in disgust he found Carleton having tea with the Institute staff. Carleton had not expected to be met and on arrival had taken a tram to the Institute. This story gave me an idea. When Carleton returned from New Guinea and came to the tea-room, Marge introduce me saying, “This is Dr. Lim from Singapore”, I sprang up and cried, “Fancy seeing you here, Carleton, how are you?” But Carleton was unfazed and knew it was a joke for he clearly recalled not having met me before.

Editor’s note: This is a bit of my Father’s humour; he enjoyed the contradiction of clearly remembering that something never happened.

Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, MID, specialised in paediatrics when he took his MD at Harvard University. Before that he had taken a PhD in Physical Chemistry and then in Virology as well. His special interest was anthropology, studying human behaviour, and he finally became Chief of the Laboratory for Studies of Child Development in Primitive People in the National Institute of Neural Disease and Stroke in the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.. Carleton’s field trip to New Guinea was to observe the life of the Papuannatives and to collect blood samples for study of disease patterns. While at the Hall Institute he discovered that some human diseases was caused by an aberrant reaction of the body’s immune system to its own tissues, a condition now known as auto-immune disease.

Carleton taught me that scientific work is not confined to office hours. I met him one afternoon about five o’clock on the Institute steps coming in as I was leaving. “Coming to work?” I asked jokingly and was surprised when he said, “Yes,” taking my question seriously. To cover up my faux-pas, I asked if I could join bun and see what he was doing, for it occurred to me that I had not seen him much of him in the laboratory. It turned out that Carleton did all his tests at night when he was alone in the laboratory, dispensing with the services of a technician and fetching everything himself When his tests were done, he would put the test-tube racks in the fridge to be read the next day. “Sir Mac is puzzled,” Carleton commented with amusement, “how I could sit at my desk all morning browsing through journals and reading test results without doing any tests.” (Sir Mac was what the Institute staff called Burnet).

It was typical of Carleton’s informal approach to people that he knew everyone by their first names, excepting for Sir Mac who was much our senior. At first he called me Lim, as my British friends did, then Kok-Ann, when he learned that this was my label in Singapore. One day he came into the tea-room waving a journal and pointed to an article which said From the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. “Who is this Macdonald?” he asked, indicating an author’s name with the initial “H’. “That’s me!” cried Heather Macdonald, our electron microscopist. “Oh,” said Carleton and, to cover up his embarrassment, he pointed to another name and asked, “Then who is Edney?” To roars of laughter, Marge Edney piped up, “That’s me!“

In the last few weeks of my stay in Melbourne I returned to the laboratory after dinner to watch Carleton at work and to listen to his account of his life. He was an intimidating conversationalist, backing up his facts by quoting chapter and verse from the best authorities, and in recent science, often citing personal acquaintances. He never made jokes because he had enough amusing anecdotes about his large circle of colourful friends to tell without having to make use of imaginary characters.

A few days after I started visiting him at work Carleton asked me, as he was putting his things away, where I was staying. He shared an apartment about half an hour away by tram with some American Full bright Scholars and was thinking perhaps that I, too, might have had a longway to go to get home. “Come here,” I said to him, drawing him to a window and pointing down a side street, “I have a room there in a boarding house.”

Note: There was a secondary school next to the Institute. The boarding house took in students from out of town and they were on vacation. One of the students still living in, because he came from Malaya, became Dr Chai and joined the Department of Microbiology, University of Malaysia.

Carleton was amazed that I was enjoying what he thought an ideal set-up, to live next to his place of work. He asked if there was another room in the boarding house that he could have. There was not, but my room had two beds so I offered one to Carleton who then shared my room for two weeks and stayed on after I left. I would go to the Institute in the morning and do a full day’s work; return home about five in the evening and then go to early dinner with Carleton, and accompany him back to the Institute to see him work. I thought I had not met such an interesting and clever fellow in my life, apart from Chong Eu.

3:9 Down Under

In the summer of 1956 I took two months leave to visit the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. The University then allowed a staff member to be absent from his department during the university vacation so long as he occupied his time usefully and caused the University no expense. Hale was impressed, perhaps, that I had the entree to the laboratory of MacFarlane Burnet, a Nobel Prize winner, and made no objections. On the way to Melbourne I stopped in Sydney to call on C.J.S. Purdy, the leading Australian chess player and author. The strong rivalry between Sydney (even before the Opera House was built) and Melbourne was illustrated by the following experience I had: when I told some Sydney chess players that I was on the way to Melbourne, they cried out, “O, bad luck!” Later, when I told Melbourne people that I had been in Sydney, they also cried, “Bad luck!”

Two months was too short a time in which to do any project so Burnet asked me to work with Dr. Eric French (a PhD) who was studying a recent out-break of influenza. He was also using HI tests similar to what Marge Edney had been doing in London and I was quite proud to show off my Z-chart which Dr. French had not yet adopted. French had in cold storage a number of serum samples that he collected in the epidemic and set me to testing them for influenza antibodies. He also had in the freezer some throat swabs from patients from which he wanted to isolate influenza viruses by a method that I had not seen in the UCHMS. This method involved the inoculation of patients’ materials into the amniotic cavity.

Note: A chick embryo begins life as a dot on the surface of the egg yolk. As the embryo grows it surrounds itself with the amniotic membrane which makes a bag connecting directly with the respiratory tract of the embryo. By the 8th day, when the embryo is about a centimetre long another membrane called the allantoic membrane has formed which grows under the shell membrane to enable the embryo to ‘breathe’. Influenza viruses grow well in both the amniotic and the allantoic cavities. By the 14th day the lungs of the embryo are well developed and support the growth of influenza viruses very well, especially from human materials. Allantoic inoculation yields virus in 4 to 5 days, amniotic inoculation in 2 to 3 days.

Marge had gone back to her old project of analysing influenza variants and was busy inoculating dozens of eggs daily and harvesting the virus in large volumes. We only met briefly at tea-breaks, quite a important feature of the laboratory routine. What I wanted to learn was not only new techniques, but also to meet people and to get the feel of how they worked. This was what the tea-breaks were for!

3:9 Down Under

In the summer of 1956 I took two months leave to visit the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. The University then allowed a staff member to be absent from his department during the university vacation so long as he occupied his time usefully and caused the University no expense. Hale was impressed, perhaps, that I had the entree to the laboratory of MacFarlane Burnet, a Nobel Prize winner, and made no objections. On the way to Melbourne I stopped in Sydney to call on C.J.S. Purdy, the leading Australian chess player and author. The strong rivalry between Sydney (even before the Opera House was built) and Melbourne was illustrated by the following experience I had: when I told some Sydney chess players that I was on the way to Melbourne, they cried out, “O, bad luck!” Later, when I told Melbourne people that I had been in Sydney, they also cried, “Bad luck!”

Two months was too short a time in which to do any project so Burnet asked me to work with Dr. Eric French (a PhD) who was studying a recent out-break of influenza. He was also using HI tests similar to what Marge Edney had been doing in London and I was quite proud to show off my Z-chart which Dr. French had not yet adopted. French had in cold storage a number of serum samples that he collected in the epidemic and set me to testing them for influenza antibodies. He also had in the freezer some throat swabs from patients from which he wanted to isolate influenza viruses by a method that I had not seen in the UCHMS. This method involved the inoculation of patients’ materials into the amniotic cavity.

Note: A chick embryo begins life as a dot on the surface of the egg yolk. As the embryo grows it surrounds itself with the amniotic membrane which makes a bag connecting directly with the respiratory tract of the embryo. By the 8th day, when the embryo is about a centimetre long another membrane called the allantoic membrane has formed which grows under the shell membrane to enable the embryo to ‘breathe’. Influenza viruses grow well in both the amniotic and the allantoic cavities. By the 14th day the lungs of the embryo are well developed and support the growth of influenza viruses very well, especially from human materials. Allantoic inoculation yields virus in 4 to 5 days, amniotic inoculation in 2 to 3 days.

Marge had gone back to her old project of analysing influenza variants and was busy inoculating dozens of eggs daily and harvesting the virus in large volumes. We only met briefly at tea-breaks, quite a important feature of the laboratory routine. What I wanted to learn was not only new techniques, but also to meet people and to get the feel of how they worked. This was what the tea-breaks were for!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

3: 8 Prodigy

On returning to the department I plunged back into teaching and research but on visiting the Singapore Chess Club in the YMCA I was intrigued to learn that a young player had been thrashing all the adult players (this was before the world had heard of Bobby Fischer!). The prodigy was Tan Lian Ann, only 9 years old, and still in primary school. He had learned chess from his older brothers, Lian Quee and Lian Seng; was quite innocent of chess theory, but had great tactical ability, for he could see his way through mazes of calculations: I go there, and if he goes this way, I go that-a way, but if he goes that-a way, I go this-a way, and so on, rather like what modern chess computers do. I decided to teach him some elementary end-game techniques and opening theory and visited his home in Devonshire Road regularly.
At the age of 11, Lian Ann won the Singapore Championship and repeated this feat ten times in later years. In one of the rare occasions when both he and I took part in the SingaporeC hampionship, Lian Ann and I tied for the first place and I won the play-off for the title. I have never got over the suspicion that Lian Ann did not try too hard to win the match.

In 1963, when Lian Ann was only 15, 1 took him to Yugoslavia to contest the World Junior Championship for players under 20 years of age. Most of the participants were better players than I so I was hardly of use to Lian Ann as a coach, but luckily we found a good friend in Yugoslav International Master Nikola Karaklajic (pronounced Karaklaich). Nikola took a fancy to the little Singaporean and he showed him a few things he thought Lian Ann should know. In particular, Nik taught Lian Ann how to play the Centre Counter Defence, and Lian Ann adopted this defencewhenever he was given the chance to do so. “It was strange, “Nik commented later, ~‘that Lian Ann’s opponents had prepared for this defence, rightly guessing that Lian Ann had no other resource, yet once the game went beyond their preparations, Lian Ann often out-played his opponents.” In his first international tournament, Lian Ann qualified for the Final Group A of ten players, then finished in a tie for the 4th to 8th places. Many of his opponents in that event soon became grandmasters, notably the winner, Florin Gheorghiu of Rumania.

Lian Ann’s success as the leading Singapore player continued and he played Board 1 for Singapore in a number of Chess Olympiads with creditable results, the best of which was a victory over Czech Grandmaster Vastimil Hort. He also represented Singapore twice in our Zonal Championships, yielding the first place each time to Philippines’ Eugenio Torre, but qualifying for the Interzonal Tournament. These results gained Lian Ann the title of International Chess Master and the Runme Shaw Prize of $5,000. Runme also offered similar awards for the next four Singaporeans to become International Masters, and in due course, these prizes were collected in turn by Giam Choo Kwee, Lim Seng Hoo, Leslie Leow and Wong Meng Kong. In addition, Runme also offered to present the first Singapore Grandmaster with $20,000, which prize no one has ever got near to collecting. Runme’s magnanimity was shown by the following exchange between us on the occasion he made this offer.

“Mr. Shaw,” I said, “I am so sorry that every time we meet, I am asking you for money.”
“No need to apologise,” said Runme, “you are not asking money for yourself.”

It was my policy to emphasize to all young players in whom I took an interest that they should do well in their school work, otherwise to keep away from me. “First learn how to eat,” I told them, “then we can learn how to play.” Better to learn how to make a good living, I said, and be able to pay grandmasters to play for us, than to be a grandmaster living on hand-outs. This policy worked well with Lian Ann whose family was not well off. He took a degree in accountancy at the Singapore University, saved some money from his first job, then went into business as an agent for office materials. One day I asked him what his main line was and was disappointed that it was Tippex, a correcting fluid, a bottle of which lasted me for months.

“How can you make money,” 1 asked, “selling correcting fluid?” I was amazed when Lian Ann told me his monthly turnover was $50,000, for Tippex alone.
In a little over ten years Lian Ann was able to sponsor chess tournaments, and for a while was President of the Singapore Chess Federation. In this regard, Rosie commented that my chess proteges invariably qualified professionally and became men of good standing in the community. It is possible that they might have had more brilliant careers had they not been bewitched by chess, but I believe that none that I encouraged in chess was the worse off thereby

3.7 My first invention
Professor Wilson Smith, head of the Department of Bacteriology of UCHMS was an international authority on influenza viruses. To get a traineeship in his laboratory was not an easy thing and was made possible for me because of Hale’s influence. In the academic world, andespecially in England, much is achieved through “old boys networks”. One goes through the formalities of applying for a position, but the appointment comes because someone influential knew someone with the authority to say yes. “Kwansi” we say nowadays, though this term connotes some kind of nepotism or corruption which was not always the case.

When I had just joined the Medical College staff, my Uncle Robert passed through Singapore on his way to the United States and he gave mc some advice. The first was: “To be successful in research choose a topic ignored by others and make it your own specialty.” The second was: “Find the best man in your field of study; go to work for him for a while and suck his brains dry. Then, go and work for his greatest rival and suck his brains dry. You will then be ready to work on your own.” I was not in the position to do quite what Uncle Robert recommended, but being with Wilson Smith was a little step in the right direction.

Professor Wilson Smith put me to work with Dr. Margaret Edney, a staff member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, who was on a staff-exchange appointment for post-doctoral experience. Wilson Smith had this to say before he passed me on to her: “Don’t publish anything on what you do here without letting me see it, and don’t mention my name without my permission.” Besides Marge Edney, other people I got to know well were Dr. George Belyavin, Senior Lecturer, who was Professor Hale’s junior before Hale went to Singapore, and Dr. Cohn Kaplan, a South African who did most of the bacteriological tests the department did for the hospital, and subsequently became Professor of Microbiology at Reading University. Belyavin took some trouble to tell me how the department was organized and was very interested to know how Hale was doing. He had a charming way of pulling my leg whenever I over-embroidered my stories, “Lim, I always knew that you are a most ingenious fellow.”

Marge Edney was the first Australian I got to know well and was typical of her people: friendly, frank and outspoken. There was not enough time for me to undertake an independent piece of research so I played the role of a technician and helped Marge in her project which required innumerable haemagglutination inhibition (HI) tests. Influenza viruses caused the clumping of fowl (chicken or goose) red blood cells but this activity was prevented (inhibited) by antiserum prepared against the virus thus enabling us to identify variations in influenza viruses.The test itself involved mixing various dilutions of the antiserum (1/10, 1/20/ 1/40 and so on) with a fixed amount of the virus and then adding a fixed amount of red blood cells, when clumping, if present, was easily recognized. In determining the result, described as the 50 per cent end-point, a little arithmetic was required that Marge did on a scratch-pad and with the help of a slide-rule. As I was a bit of a whiz at maths, the calculations were not difficult for me, only tedious, as dozens might have to be done daily. After I had been at it for a few weeks I wondered if the labour might be reduced by using some mechanical device such as a modified slide-rule but I could not make anything handy.

Note: in the days before hand-held calculators were available the slide-rule was an invaluable tool of the engineer and of those who had to do multiplication or division in a hurry. Such operations can be transformed to addition or subtraction by using logarithms. If we mark a ruler in lengths equivalent to logarithmic units, we may, by adding two such lengths, perform a multiplication, and by subtracting one length from another, perform a division.

Browsing through a bookshop one day, I came across a book entitled The Nomogram. The book had examples for graphical solution of many kinds of equations but the equation I had to solve was simply solved by a i-chart. Imagine the letter Z with the upper and lower arms, and the diagonal as well, marked off in units. The upper arm represented a, one of the results of a test, and the lower arm b, another result of the test. By joining the point representing a with the point representing b with a ruler, we find the solution where the ruler crossed the Z diagonal. Marge was no great shakes at maths and when she found my device required only a ruler she was delighted. The Z-chart seemed such an ingenious bit of work that I enlarged its scope and wrote it up for publication and having cleared it with Wilson Smith, submitted the paper to the Journal of Hygiene, the editor of which was Professor Spooner, one of my former teachers at the School of Hygiene. Spooner, too, was no maths expert, so he walked over to our laboratory to see how the chart was used. “What would you do,” Spooner asked Marge who happened to be using the Z-chart at that moment, “if I took this away from you?” Marge promptly replied, “I would cut my throat!” Upon that, Spooner accepted the paper for publication. Any hope that I might have won the Nobel prize for inventing this cute device was frustrated by the appearance within a few years of inexpensive programmable electronic calculators. If Marge had one of these she could have got the solution she wanted by keying a then b and would not have needed even a ruler!

Marge Edney was always full of cheer and claimed that she had only three interests in life: Mice, Men and Mountains, the order of priority depending on the season of the year! She was one of the few Westerners who called me “Ann” (“an” as in “wander”) and constantly complained of the conservative way the British did things and kept on telling me, “Ann, you just have to visit us at the Hall Institute to see how things should be done.” It took me a while to understand that Walter and Eliza Hall were two people who had endowed the Institute and that the word “Hall” was a name and not a place. I decided to take her advice when I learned that Wilson Smith’s greatest rival was Sir Macfarlane Burnet, the director of the Hall Institute who was an authority not only in influenza viruses, but also on the immunology of tissue transplantation. Time and time again, Wilson Smith would thumb through a recent publication by Burnet and say indignantly, “That’s my idea he has stolen”. It was clear that my education would not be complete until I had tapped Burnet’s brains.

Sometime in 1953, I was invited to attend an ACS Old Boys Dinner where I met Toh Chin Chye, a Raffles College graduate and had a long talk with him. I did not know that Chin Chye was the leader of the Malayan Forum, and only found out years later that this was a discussion group formed by anti-colonial students. I believe now that Chin Chye was cautiously sounding out my political leanings with the view asking me to join the Forum. Being naive, I had no hesitation in showing my socialist sympathies and anti-colonialist feelings. I advised him, however, that university teachers should not dabble in politics, that is, actively propagate their views to students. “Besides,” I said, “we would only get shot at by both sides.” Chin Chye must have revealed somewhat his own sympathies, and I wanted to tell him to be careful. “We would be attacked by the colonialists on one side and by the communists on the other”. How was I to know that I was speaking to the future Chairman of the People’s Action Party? I believe that there and then Toh Chin Chye wrote me off as politically useless, and chicken-hearted, to boot. After we both returned to Singapore we never met socially though our work places were on adjoining floors, and to his credit, I never heard of Chin Chye talking politics to his students.

Any possibility that I could have joined up with Chin Chye’s political allies, Keng Swee, Kim San,, Barker and Kuan Yew, all my contemporaries, his presumed adverse report not withstanding, were scotched by my known friendship with Chong Eu who had left the MCA and formed his own party, the Gerakan,in Penang in opposition to the UMNO.

3.6 London, 1953
The Diploma in Bacteriology course had places for only 12 students, six of whom were nominees of the Public Health Laboratory Service. This was a branch of the British Ministry of Health that maintained regional laboratories serving the whole of the United Kingdom and was responsible for backing up local authorities with routine and specialized tests. The main business of the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was to run the course for the Diploma in Tropical Health and Medicine for doctors in the Public Health branch of the Colonial Medical Service. Such officers would be responsible for control of infectious diseases and the health aspects of sanitation, water works and so on, in the colonies. At the request of the PHLS the School of Hygiene organized a course to train staff for the PHLS but found that six which the PHLS required annually were rather too few to teach for the effort involved, so they offered another six places to academic and research institutions in the UK and abroad. Even so the staff-student ratio was about 1:2! It was an all round course that trained us to meet every known contingency that a Public Health laboratory might encounter, and possibly some hitherto unknown. To be taught by those who wrote my text-books was not a new experience for me for I had that in Edinburgh, but to learn from journals that reported new knowledge was exciting and at the same time frightening; to be at the cutting edge meant constantly asking oneself the question, “What if this new knowledge is wrong?”

The field of knowledge covered in the Dip Bact course was broad and many of my class-mates already had some years of service in public health bacteriology; they were taking the Dip Bact just to get their proficiency badges, so to speak. By dint of burning the midnight oil I made the grade but one of our twelve did not and had to take a re-exam six months later. It was the year of the coronation of Elizabeth II and the high point of my attending the School of Hygiene was seeing the Coronation Carriage Parade from the windows of the School. I even took a film shot of the royal couple as they passed by below in their open car.

The UCHMS where I was to spend six months with Hale’s old boss was also in Gower Street, just 200 metres up the road from the School of Hygiene. We had been nine months already in London and Amak decided to go home to avoid another English winter, taking Mei Kin with her. For our reduced household we moved from Morden to Regent’s Park, near Camden Town and 15 minutes by bus from the Medical School. Rosie quitted RADA so as to take care of the family and because the second year course was really for professionals. She did get a stage appearance from her RADA contact, a speaking part in an United Nation’s Day celebration at the Albert Hall. When she had time from house-hold duties Rosie would visit the British Museum just at the bottom of Gower Street, or take in a matinee performance at the theatre.

To fill in my spare time, I enrolled in a night-class of the London Polytechnic in Camden Town to learn workshop practice, that is, how to use machine tools and make machine drawings. The experience enabled me to talk authoritatively to our workshop technicians when I got back to Singapore and wanted some equipment made. It also made me buy a clock-maker’s lathe, the first of a series of expensive toys that I made little use of.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

3.5 Family, Oberon 1947 - 53

My friendship with Chong Eu was strengthened by a name exchange when our wives each delivered a son in 1948, mine the second, named Su Chong by Grandma Yin, and Chong Eu’s his first, named Cheng Ann after General Cheng Ch’eng and his old buddy. In choosing Su Chong’s name, Grandma Yin changed the name Su Min into Su Ming and the meaning into Su, “to think”,and Ming, “clearly”, thus meaning to think clearly. The variation Su Chong (thinking wisdom) then comes naturally because there is a common phrase ”Chong Ming”, meaning a brilliant fellow. Su Min would have none of that however, and soon reverted to his proper given name of Su Min (saviour of the people) which was more out-going. The subtlety is lost in the Romanized spelling of the names.

Bringing up three children was not sufficient occupation for Rosie as Amak had energy enough to manage all our lives. Rosie went back to college to take the Diploma in Education which she passed with flying colours in 1951 when Raffles College had become part of the Universitv of Singapore. At that time I was playing a lot of chess, having won, in 1949, the Singapore Championship organised by the Singapore Chess Club which met at the YMCA in Orchard Road. The Club had been running a Club Championship for some ycan for its members but I persuaded the Club to organize a championship open to all Singapore residents with the proviso that the title of Singapore Champion should be awarded only to a Singapore subject. At that time, Singapore was still a colony and not even a “state’; however, the event was the equivalent of a national championship which it eventually became. For the challenge Trophy I went to my grandfather as I recalled seeing a chess trophy named after him in the Singapore Chinese Recreation Club before the war. Grandmother Yin surprised me by pulling a large silver cup from a cupboard and giving it to me. It is I imagine, one of the most handsome challenge trophies in the world for a national championship and was made in sterling silver. I don’t know where she got the cup from, but I guess that it was an unredeemed pledge for some loan that she had made, probably in Amoy. I won the Cup again in 1962 and in 1968 and I look forward to playing in the golden jubilee of the Lim Boon Keng Cup in 1999!

When Rosie started teaching, armed with a Dip Ed, one of the schools to which she was assigned and from which I would fetch her was the Bartley Secondary School. I got the idea of arriving early so that I could conduct a chess class and made many young friends there, one of whom was Giam Choo Kwee, now an International Chess Master, and still playing strongly. That was not my first effort at teaching chess in schools for I had earlier coached the ACS chess team which included many who subsequently became doctors as was and is the trend for ACS boys.

I had not forgotten what Professor Sen had said, that “real bacteriologists “had to attend the London School of Hygiene course, and I found that my former professor had, before he was taken ill, officially proposed that I be given overseas leave to study in London. This proposal had been deferred when Hale came because he did not know of it and because he needed me to get the department into shape. Once Hale had found his bearings he gave some thought to strengthening his staff. His idea was to send me for a year to his old department where I could be trained in teaching and research as he was trained. When he learned that Sen had already recommended that I be sent to the School of Hygiene he fell in with the plan but further arranged that after I had completed the Dip Bact course I should spend six months in his old department in the University College Hospital Medical School (UCHMS).The University’s study leave plan provided that a staff member on more than six months study leave should be accompanied by his spouse, sad experience being that prolonged separation often led to marital problems.

So in September 1953 our little family, Papa, Mama, Sing Po, Su Min, Su Chong, and Amak (!) and her maid Mei Kin (!!) boarded the P&O liner Carthage for London. Amak paid the expenses of herself and the maid, though the maid was as much for my family’s benefit as for her own. Amak had, of course, been subsidizing my family at Oberon for I don’t remember having paid her anything, just accepting her generosity in return for allowing her to enjoy her grandchildren’s company. If Rosie ever paid Amak anything it could not have been much for Rosie was afraid to handle money and left financial matters to me. She did have her own bank account after she started to earn a salary, but I paid her income tax on the principle that what was mine was ours and what was hers was hers! This inverted housewife’s principle was my idea, not Rosie’s, for although she was frugal by nature Rosie did not have a mercenary thought in her head. Not once in her life did Rosie ask me to buy her jewellery or fine clothing but she did appreciate my effort when I bought her, un-asked, a half-carat solitaire diamond ring as soon as I could scrape up the money. It was nothing to compare with the one carat or one and half carat rings Amak’s mahjong friends displayed as they clicked the tiles, but it was given her by her Ann.

We rented a house with a garden in the district of Morden in south London on the direct underground train to Gower Street where the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (its full name) was located. The children attended a local school and Rosie registered as a student in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, fulfilling an undreamt-of ambition, for Rosie was a drama fanatic and had played stage parts on every occasion she could, from school, through college and later. She had never thought of going to drama school but being in London with me gave her the chance to get the professional training that RADA gave and it thrilled her no end to walk the halls where the great English players learned their craft. The best part of it was that RADA was also in Gower Street, right next door to the School of Hygiene, and it became our routine to take the train together to Gower Street in the morning, though we found our way home separately because my classes stopped at six o’clock while hers stopped earlier.

3.4 Lim Chong Eu returns from China

To return to our domestic affairs: soon after I started work Chong Eu turned up in Singapore, disembarking from his plane with a microscope in one hand and his wife in the other. Chong Eu had found his way to Chungking via the Burmah Road and joined the staff of my uncle Robert, Surgeon-General Robert Lim He-Shing (Mandarin for Kho-Seng), one of Chong Eu’s duties being that of personal physician to General Cheng Ch’eng.

When the Communists seized power in 1947, Robert Lim’s boss, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek evacuated his forces to Taiwan. Robert Lim took the occasion to disband his own staff and to ask Generalissimo Chiang for leave of absence to attend to some personal matters. As the Chinese Government was still on a war footing (and still is!), no general could resign, so Robert Lim asked for leave. Most Chinese generals managed to put by something for a rainy day, but I take pride in the fact that Robert Lim left Taiwan without a cent in his bank account though he left the Chinese Army Red Cross ambulances with two years’ spares of tyres and batteries. Robert became director of the laboratories of Miles Ames in Chicago, a company that made Alka-Seltzer, the popular fizzy beverage. Miles Ames also made sedatives, barbiturates and such, and Uncle Robert’s job was to test each new preparation for effectiveness and safety. I thought it rather tough that Uncle Robert had to start a new career at the age of sixty; I did not know that I was to do the same, though in far happier circumstances.

Sing Yen (Joyous Swallow), Chong Eu’s wife, came from a prosperous textile family and met Chong Eu when she served as a nurse in Chungking. Her father was much opposed to her marriage to a “barbarian” but love won the day. Becoming a housewife in small-town Penang was hard going for Sing Yen because she did not speak either English or Hokkien and few in Penang spoke Mandarin (Hua-yu).

Chong Eu joined his father’s practice in Penang but soon found his metier in politics by joining the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). The largest political party in Malaya then was the United Malay National Organisation UMNO lcd by Tcngku Abdul Rahman whose platfom, was that Malaya belonged to the Malays who should govern the country and that the other major races should be (junior) partners, the Chinese through the Malayan Chinese Association and the Indians through the Malayan Indian Congress (MJC).

Chong Eu’s view was that Malaya belonged to the people living there while the “special position” of the Malays should be taken into account On this issue, Chong Eu eventually left the MCA and formed his own Party, named the Gerakan, based in Penang. While still a member of the MCA Chong Eu was elected to the Malayan Parliament and among other things, had a large hand in framing the Constitution of the proposed Federation of Malaysia in which his phase, the special position of the Malays” was adopted. Most Malays read this as meaning the “rights” of the Malays, but Chong Eu’s wording did not accord the Malays any constitutional rights that were not defined. On my part, I had refrained from taking part in politics, not having a clear vision of what was ahead for us. As a member of the Federal Budget Committee, Chong Eu gave me this piece of political wisdom on economics: Any capital out-lay that is a one-time conunhtmerit might be acceptable, but it is the annually recurrent expenditure that can kill a project. Is not the failure of the Welfare State due to ignoring this elementary principle? On the question of emigration to find pastures new, Chong Eu’s view was that the world was getting smaller and what you seek to avoid in one place could catch up with you, expressed succinctly in the question, “How far can you run?”

3.3 Chee Phui Hung
To augment our staff Hale recruited recent graduates as Assistant Lecturers, one being Chee Phui Hung and the other Lee Liang Hin. Phui Hung was one of the students with whom I had played a lot of bridge. He had married a fellow student by name of Diana Lim whose father was Dr. Albert Lim and a family friend, going a long way back. Albert Lim’s father had been a suitor for the hand of my Grandma Hwang Tuan-Keng and having lost out to Boon Keng, named his first grand-daughter Tuan-Keng in fond memory of what might have been. Albert Lim and his brother Harold had their schooling in Edinburgh and were school-mates of my Uncle Robert at Heriot Watts School, and both graduated as doctors from Edinburgh University. Both returned to Singapore and established themselves as doctors. Albert had four daughters including Tuan-Keng, also named Margaret, and Diana, and a son named Jimmy. All four girls graduated in medicine at Singapore University and all married doctors. Jimmy also took a medical degree in Edinburgh.“One-track minds” was Phui Hung’s comment.

Phui Hung was a great leader in the medical fraternity and played a major role in organizing the medical alumni. He was largely responsible for the building of the present Alumni club house in College Road in the grounds of the General Hospital off Outram Road and may be found there most days presiding over the doctors’ lunch. Phui Hung stayed with us only a couple of years, he had wanted to get a feel of academic life before he settled down to general practice.

(Editor's Note --Dr Chee Phui Hung is still leading the medical alumni now in 2008. I last saw him at the Medical Dinner -- where he was greeted with much affectionate applause.)