That boy from Bentong

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The signs for Bentong, Pahang, appeared barely two hours after I’d set off from Subang airport on my road trip to find a lighthouse in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. “I had a friend from Bentong,” I told my travelling companion Chin Kin Yong, who was driving. “He lived on 101, Main Street.”

“Really? Let’s have lunch there then,” he said, making a quick detour from our intended route and pulling up near a big wet market. So we stopped at the town of just over 100,000 people north of Kuala Lumpur, a place most travellers skip while heading east to Kuantan or northeast like us to Kota Baru. I thought I recognised Main Street, lined with old Chinese shophouses, in the town centre.

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Jerome Maximilian Liew Meng Kit came from Bentong to Kuala Lumpur in 1969 to join my school, St John’s Institution, and we were in the same fourth form class. He was a star student, a maths whiz, became a school prefect like me, joined the school band where he played the clarinet and I played the bass drum badly. He was bespectacled with a mop top hairstyle, a growly drawl and infectious laugh, though he wore a poker face that made him appear more serious than he was. He had trouble keeping his school necktie tied neatly, the knot was almost always askew. We became friends in Form 4 Science II, and would nip out of school for lunch in one of the coffeeshops nearby, often with Larry Poon Yew Meng who was also in our class.

One time in the Biology lab, Meng Kit offered to teach me a powerful bit of Chinese dialect, provided I agreed to memorise and repeat it to a classmate. And so I learnt the ultimate Hokkien swear line and realised it was so when I repeated it and my unsuspecting classmate paled and gasped, but did not strike me as he should have to defend his mother’s honour. Meng Kit watched and thought it was hilarious.

During the school holidays I took a bus to Bentong to visit him. I recall little of that day, only that his family lived upstairs in their two-storey shophouse, that his mother struck me as being very thin, and she cooked a tasty chicken curry for our lunch. Afterwards, Meng Kit took me on a walking tour of Bentong, showing me his old school and going along some of the streets near his home. I also used to write to him during the school holidays, when he returned home and I remained in Kuala Lumpur, as there was no other way to communicate then. He wrote back in his artistic handwriting, with an elaborate signature that occupied a lot of space.

We went in different directions in sixth form, when I switched to Arts while he stayed in Science, choosing the double-maths subject combination that would lead him to mechanical engineering. By the time we were both at the University of Malaya, we weren’t close any more, merely on nodding terms when we ran into each other. He’d been slightly built when he first arrived in KL, but looked pretty buff in university, like he’d been working out seriously.

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Part of SJI Form Four Science II 1969: Meng Kit is seated at right, and I am second from left, with Joe Fonseka between us. In the top row, left, is Kirk Loh Wung Yip, who told me that when he thinks of Meng Kit, he thinks of DIY bodybuilding!
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Meng Kit (centre) played the clarinet in the school band.

 

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Meng Kit and me at the annual dinner of the SJI board of prefects, 1970.

I didn’t know what became of him after university. But I always remembered that I’d once liked this guy enough to take a bus to Bentong to see him. I wasn’t much good at school reunions over the decades that followed but some time in the early 1990s, meeting some schoolmates in Singapore, I was shocked to learn that Meng Kit had died. He was one of the first from our year to pass on, in his early 40s, and left a wife and three young children. Someone thought it was a massive heart attack.

Now it is 2016 and here I am in Bentong once again. I find Main Street and learn that its proper name is Jalan Loke Yew. The low-rise town centre comprises mostly two-storey shophouses with covered five-foot ways, and the few newer buildings rise no more than four floors. There was a lot of traffic on the road, and advertisements for mobile services and foot reflexology, but also ancient provision and sundry shops, and a crumbling place devoted to making false teeth. Most of downtown Bentong looks like it hasn’t changed much since the day I visited Meng Kit.

Kin Yong and I stop at Kedai Kopi dan Makanan Choong Kee because the coffeeshop with a decidedly retro look is clean and the noodles and yong tau foo are appealing. The stuffed eggplant, lady’s fingers, tofu and fishballs have a home-made appearance quite unlike the mass-produced yong tau foo found across Singapore. When I tell the woman preparing lunch that I am looking for an old friend’s home at 101, Main Street, she says in English: “This is No. 95, so that is just a few shops away.” Hoping I’ll get lucky I ask if she knows of the Liew family who lived there years ago, but she doesn’t. “Go and see, maybe the people there will know.”

Afterwards we find No. 101 easily, but the shopfront is nothing like I remember. It is a car battery, air-conditioning and accessories shop which looks quite rundown, packed to the ceiling with batteries and boxes and stuff. On one side and gated is the wooden staircase leading to the living quarters upstairs. Spotting two strangers gawking and taking pictures with smartphones, shop owner Chow Kam Yaw comes out to ask what we’re doing there. When Kin Yong explains in Chinese that my schoolmate once lived here, Mr Chow breaks into a smile and immediately starts telling us what he knows.

Yes, the Liew family rented the place for many years. The father was a petition writer whose office was in the shop area downstairs, and the family lived upstairs. He remembered the elder son, Liew Meng Kong, who was a bus company manager before he died. Meng Kit? The name does not ring a bell. When I ask, he says yes, the mother was a thin woman, though she outlived her husband.

Mr Chow tells us he is 63 and was 18 when he started working at the shophouse next door. A big fire gutted his shop and in 1990, after the Liews had moved out, he bought No. 101 for RM26,000 and has been there ever since, running his business downstairs and living upstairs. He did not know much more, except that Meng Kong’s widow was related to people who owned a petrol station. He was happy to pose for pictures before we left.

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It was the right shophouse, but it looked nothing like I remembered it. The Liew family were long gone.
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Mr Chow Kam Yaw bought No. 101 in 1990, but remembered the Liew family as longtime residents. He said he knew Meng Kit’s older brother, Meng Kong.

Later, I sent a Whatsapp message to a group of my schoolmates in Singapore reporting news of my afternoon in Bentong, and said: “Who was last in touch with Meng Kit? When did he pass on? I’ve been feeling strangely happy and sad at the same time.” What followed were 48 hours of remembering Meng Kit, the boy from Bentong who made an impression on several of us in different ways before he left too soon.

 

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Mike Tai (right) with Meng Kit in SJI. Photo from Chan Kwan Yew.

First up was Michael Tai, who said: “Meng Kit was my close friend, I visited him in Bentong too.” They’d lost touch after school, as Mike went to university in Singapore while Meng Kit remained in Kuala Lumpur. “Vaguely recall he was in an oil palm estate as manager. I may be wrong, heck must find out.” As for how our friend had died, he said: “Heart attack, if I recall.”

Chan Kwan Yew turned up with more of the facts. “Meng Kit was an oil palm plantation manager in Johor. He came to Singapore in 1988 or 1989 to attend a conference when he had a stroke and was hospitalised at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.” Kwan Yew visited Meng Kit in hospital before he returned to Johor. “He never quite recovered and when I visited him at his plantation several months later, he was depressed he couldn’t do his job as he had restricted mobility. He returned to Kuala Lumpur where he passed away not too long after.”

 

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Meng Kit hanging loose at Mike Tai’s home. Photo from Michael Tai.

Mike provided pictures – one a formal group photo of the school prefects in 1970, and another of Meng Kit at Mike’s home, his shirt hanging out, long sleeves unbuttoned, his prefect’s badge still pinned on. Mike, also a school band member, shared the brief, belated eulogy he’d penned in 2009. In it he recalled that while at SJI, Meng Kit lived with his elder brother in Petaling Jaya, near Mike’s home.

“He had a black Honda 125cc bike. On days when I had to lug my tenor saxaphone case for practice, he would come to pick me up. He played the clarinet. We visited each other often. One weekend he came to my house wearing a pants he said he’d sewn all by himself! Skilled with his fingers, he was good in mah jong too – ‘as all Bentong folk were’ – though that was something he confessed only after sapu-ing us all of our chips the first time. We talked a lot after school – he was insightful in life, philosophical and had a unique laugh and sense of humour. Miss him.”

 

Kwan Yew, who got to know Meng Kit well in sixth form, confirmed his sewing skills. “My house was like his second home and he would drop by late at night after supper with Mike. My parents got to know him well too. He became interested in sewing because he had to carry a lot of stuff and couldn’t find a readymade bag to compartmentalise his things so decided to design and make his own. I think my mother taught him to sew but he went on further to make leather stuff.”

It was sometime around 1988 or 1989 that Meng Kit contacted Kwan Yew about coming to Singapore to attend a training course. “I was shocked when he called from the hospital after his stroke. At that time doctors were not sure what it was but apparently it was diagnosed as a congenital condition.” Kwan Yew said he visited Meng Kit in hospital with two of his childhood friends from Bentong, Ng See Ket who was also an old boy of SJI and Boey Wah Keong, both doctors in Singapore.

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Chan Kwan Yew, second from left, with Meng Kit and SJI schoolmates Tan Hun Hoe (left)  and Ong Boon Cheng. Kwan Yew knew more than most of us about what happened to Meng Kit. He visited Meng Kit in hospital in Singapore in 1988, and again the following year at the Johor oil palm plantation where he was manager. He stopped working soon after and returned to Kuala Lumpur where he died. Photo from Chan Kwan Yew.

I contacted See Ket, who recalled that when he saw Meng Kit in hospital, he did not think his condition was serious. “He had suffered a mild stroke, and was resting in bed. We chatted, and he introduced me to his wife. As it was near dinner time, I offered to take her to have something to eat. We went to a nice zichar restaurant in nearby Chinatown. She told me about their kids, still young, and I remember being only a little concerned, because his stroke was a mild one, and would not be too disabling.”

The next thing he knew, he received news that Meng Kit had died. “He was my primary school classmate at Sulaiman Primary School in Bentong. I remember a boy who was bespectacled, quiet, even a little aloof. Although we lived at two ends of Loke Yew Street, we were not close friends, but I remember once at his house I met his parents – kind-looking mother, stern-looking father.”

Kwan Yew said: “It was quite distressing the last time I met him when my family and I drove up to his plantation in Johore – in December 1989, I think. He had to walk with a stick and needed assistance putting on his shoes. I think he was quite depressed and didn’t talk much. Later on I heard that he resigned his job and returned to KL where he passed away.”

From Kuala Lumpur, Chooy Wei Seong, who was classmates with Meng Kit, Kwan Yew and Mike in sixth form, revealed that he had stayed in touch to the very end, visiting Meng Kit in hospital shortly before he passed away. He said Meng Kit’s wife, Seok Hoon, was a strong woman who raised their two daughters and son, who all made it to university. The elder daughter lives in Kuala Lumpur, the younger daughter got married in October 2015 and is settled in Melbourne and the son – who Wei Seong says looks quite like his father – lives and works in Singapore.

After that afternoon in Bentong, my road trip took me to Kelantan, across the East-West Highway to Penang and then to Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur. At the Holiday Inn Glenmarie hotel, I had breakfast with my schoolmate Kirk Loh Wung Yip and we were meeting for the first time in 44 years. We go back well over half a century, but we had let time, careers and family get in the way of staying in touch over the decades. There was plenty to talk about and along the way I mentioned my brief visit to Bentong and how that had set some of us remembering Meng Kit.

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Kirk Loh Wung Yip and I go back more than half a century, and on March 21 2016 we met for the first time in 44 years. It was a precious two hours catching up on our lives, renewing an old friendship. And Kirk had his own story about Meng Kit too. I never had the chance to reconnect with Meng Kit in the years after we left school. If only.

 

“He was my good friend too,” said Kirk right away. He explained the muscled Meng Kit from university days. When Meng Kit decided to get in shape, he did it the way he did everything else – DIY style. He fashioned his own set of weights and bars and devised a set of exercises to achieve his goals. When he learnt that Kirk wanted to do a spot of weightlifting too, he set up his self-designed weightlifting contraption at Kirk’s home and showed him what to do. “I got myself some nice biceps and triceps,” Kirk said with a laugh.

Two hours flew by and Kirk and I hadn’t finished trading stories from over the years when it became time for me to leave. We promised to meet again, because we aren’t anywhere near done sharing all the details of our lives since SJI or the husbands and fathers and men we’ve become, let alone who we hope to be in the years to come.

I returned to Singapore, surprised that Bentong and Meng Kit were uppermost in my mind. I found our school magazine for 1972, the year we left SJI, and all graduating students had their picture in it with a few lines about them. Meng Kit’s mugshot appears with this message: “I say! What lah! What can anybody actually say about me!” I asked a few people to share a little more of what they remembered of him, and there are still some gaps in this story.

I’ve wondered several times this past week why that brief, unplanned stop on my road trip has had such a profound effect. All I can say is that something stirred in me that day. For a couple of years when I was a teenager, Meng Kit was a friend of mine. As my friends and I remembered what we could of him, I felt a deep sadness that he missed out on all the years that the rest of us have been so blessed to have – the boys in SJI’s Fifth Form Class of 1970 turn 63 this year. So this is for that boy from Bentong, and it says I wish we could have reconnected again as older men, if only for a couple of hours to swop the stories of our lives and be friends again.

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Signing off: Meng Kit had an elaborate signature and he signed across a page of my copy of Garudamas 1970, our school magazine. You can make out “Liew Meng Kit” going from left to right, even though Larry Poon decided to sign in the other direction! I wrote the story on the page, an account of the goings-on in our class, Form Five Science II, the pure science class that had more fun.

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