The day I found my father’s lighthouse in Tumpat, Kelantan, I also found the Malayan Railways rest house where he posed for pictures in February 1952 with his good friend, the man who later became my stepfather.
I was there in March this year with my old friend Chin Kin Yong and as soon as I was sure we’d found the house where my two dads were photographed, we stayed a while, taking pictures, taking it all in.
We quickly became aware that our every move was being observed. An elderly man, wearing a sarong and white shirt, was watching us from his chair in front of his home a short distance away and facing the rest house.
“Maybe we should talk to him,” Kin Yong suggested.
As soon as he spotted us walking towards him, Mr Wee Hock Hua leapt out of his seat and called out. His daughter Ms Wee Pou Lis, visiting from Malacca where she lives, emerged from inside the house and that’s how we started talking.
Like my father and stepfather, Mr Wee was a Malayan Railwayman all his life but could not have met them that day in 1952 because he was in Singapore at the time. He worked at towns up and down the railway lines, and was caretaker of the bungalows that Malayan Railways maintained as rest houses for visiting officers.
His daughter Pou Lis filled in the blanks for us. Mr Wee was 84 years old, and spent the last years of his working life looking after the Tumpat rest house that my father and stepfather had stayed at.
When Mr Wee retired after decades of service, the Railways let him have a plot of land to build himself a home across from the rest house. He was proud to tell us he had designed the house himself, to have his garden in front, and ponds in the lower-lying back area. There were floods during the monsoon season, but he had planned his house to keep the living areas flood-proof.
Mr Wee reminisced for a while about the towns where he’d worked and told us that Malayan Railways staff everywhere knew him well, but if you asked them if they knew Mr Wee Hock Hua, nobody would recognise him by his Chinese name.
“You must ask them if they know Awang Banglo,” he said with a laugh.
Because he was the famous rest house caretaker, Mr Wee was given a Malay name by his Malay colleagues – “Awang who looks after Bungalows”, or Awang Banglo for short.
Mr Wee and his daughter were happy to pose for pictures with me, and with the bungalow in my father’s photographs that had brought me on this journey.
Awang Banglo. He made me want to return to Tumpat to talk with him some more.
PICTURE POSTSCRIPT: FROM TUMPAT TO TEMENGGOR
After our morning in Tumpat, Kin Yong and I left the east coast taking the East-West Highway that goes from Kelantan over the Malaysian peninsula’s Titiwangsa mountain range to Perak on the west coast. It proved a beautiful drive up, down and around mountains, with some stunning views.
Then we turned a corner and were blown away by the sight of the serene lake of the Temenggor Dam. Spotting a billboard for a hotel, we pulled over at the Royal Belum resort and decided this was too good to leave, so we stayed a night.
It’s a place for peace and quiet, guided treks into the rainforest, and slow cruising on the dam’s massive lake. We were surprised by the tour vans that unloaded quite a few European visitors of all ages, who clearly were aware that Temenggor was a place worth visiting for the rainforest experience.
Before we left Royal Belum, boatman Fauzi Abdul Aziz took us out on Temenggor Lake in his speedboat for an hour of spectacular views of calm, deep water and forested hills and mountains.
Afterwards we wondered why we’d never heard of this beautiful place. Dumb city slickers, forever chasing Char Kway Teow in Penang instead.