Visiting Kuala Lumpur last week, I checked into Hotel Majestic for a couple of nights to be near the Malayan Railways headquarters and train station. It had been a long time, and I wanted to wander around this part of my hometown.
I knew that the hotel built in 1932 had undergone a massive restoration and redevelopment, but I wasn’t expecting the highrise block, shiny lobby and chandeliers that greeted me when I arrived. The Majestic in my memory was a low-rise white block with white-framed windows, a sloping driveway which led to a grand entrance and porch, above which the hotel’s name appeared in large black capital letters. That is now the heritage part of the hotel, the front desk manager informed me.
The first thing I did after putting my backpack down was to head over to the Colonial Café, in the heritage block, and I found it transformed into a stylish restaurant and tea room. It was mid-afternoon and a smartly dressed crowd had descended to take high tea and photographs of the café, and their tiers of scones, sandwiches and petite desserts.
It was nothing like this in the late 1970s. As a rookie reporter earning under 1,000 Ringgit a month, I would sometimes splurge on the Tiffin Lunch at Hotel Majestic and treat my New Straits Times colleague and friend Philip Lim Chin Guan. The ageing Hainanese waiters in white uniforms would attend to you and ask gruffly what you wanted for your three-course meal. For about $15, possibly less, you got a soup that tasted distinctly like Mr Campbell was in the kitchen, followed by grilled lamb chops, fish or roast chicken accompanied by suitably bland vegetables, and somehow I remember chunky sweet mango chutney on the side. Dessert was straightforward and likely included canned mixed fruit.
“This is daylight robbery!” Philip would exclaim scanning the menu, because you could eat well for a whole lot less. He was so notoriously thrifty that our friend Phylis Ooi had a nickname for him in the Hokkien dialect which translated to mean “five cents is bigger than a bullock cart wheel”. As in: “Oh Philip, don’t act like five cents is bigger than a bullock cart wheel!” Phylis was enormously fond of him and he enjoyed being teased, pleased that we knew he was careful with his money and had better things to do with it than splash out on a car or drinks or holidays that cost too much.
Until I started working in 1976 I’d never stepped into Hotel Majestic although I had grown up seeing it there. This was a Kuala Lumpur landmark next to the splendid Malayan Railways headquarters where my stepfather had worked before he retired, and the beautiful railway station from which I took my first great solo adventure, aged 10, riding the night mail train to Penang and not sleeping a wink.
By the late 1970s if you were charitable the hotel still had a faded charm. To be truthful, it was run-down and well past its heyday when sultans, tycoons, and the cream of KL society headed there for celebrations, weddings, and Sunday Curry Tiffin. When I went with Philip, the weekday set lunch was passable and the service was bad, but the place had an attraction for me and we were two 20-somethings comparing notes as rookie journalists, grumbling about our bosses and plotting ways to escape the effects of the most recent newsroom change. We also got to know each other and our time out at The Majestic helped establish a friendship that would stretch over 37 years.
Everyone who knew Philip says this, and I too liked him the day I started work at the newsroom in September 1976. He and Patrick Pillai had started a day earlier, but pretended to be old hands as they showed me where I could sit. Philip had a cheery face and a hearty chuckle that made you laugh too. He was born in Taiping, a small town in the state of Perak, attended St Michael’s Institution in Ipoh, a Christian Brothers School like the one I’d attended in KL. He would return to Ipoh whenever he could string together some days off, and when I asked what he did at home, he’d describe taking his mum grocery shopping to fill the fridge before leaving. He was the devoted son.
I took Philip to lunch at the Majestic and he took me to gongfu movies. “You haven’t heard of Jackie Chan?” he’d asked, incredulous, then fixed the situation by getting tickets. So well before Hollywood discovered Jackie Chan and made him wear western suits and make ridiculous movies, Jackie Chan the Chinese martial artist entered my life. We saw movies like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master and Philip could go on about how all those flying-men stunts were for real. That probably explains why a highlight of my first visit to Beijing nearly three decades later would be catching a performance of Shaolin monks leaping across the stage.
I spent four years at The New Straits Times before moving to Singapore in 1980, unaware I was leaving Kuala Lumpur for good. I lost touch with most of the people I knew in my 20s, but Philip was one of the few I remained connected with even as career, marriage and children blanked out the next couple of decades. There was no Facebook. Or WhatsApp.
One reason we stayed in touch was that we were born two days apart, and the proximity of our birthdays was another reason why we liked each other. Our friendship went like this: Four years of working together. Several years of not seeing each other. Christmas cards and birthday cards when we were not tardy. Then e-mail was invented and, like magic, Philip and I were talking again. Brief updates about work, wives, children and mutual friends. Most Septembers, he would send me birthday wishes for the 24th and two days later, I’d send him my greetings. We kept this up for a decade before Philip shocked us all by dropping dead of a heart attack in August 2013, a month before we turned 60. I filed away a clutch of our e-mail exchanges and re-reading them reminds me of the happy person that he was, with a powerful faith in “the Man Upstairs”.
In September 2003, when we turned 50, I told him: “I was surrounded by 300 of my nearest and dearest at work, and then family and friends at home. Tortured all day and night about being 50, not looking 50, being so old, not seeming so old. Inside is still 20something what. Haha.” He replied, on vacation: “I feel like 30, behave like 18 and sometimes talk like I am about 100. Friends are confused but I tell them that in the Land of Elves and Hobbits, I am just a baby. Fifty is nothing. The best years have yet to come. Hang in there. We are going to enjoy the ride from now on.”
We both forgot Christmas greetings and by the time I wrote, Chinese New Year 2004 was almost over. He replied right away: “We are at the tail end of the celebrations. I have had my fill of the various Nyonya dishes. The family is fine. The newspaper business is plodding along. There’s much about journalism that needs to be told but nobody dares to write it. … But there’s always joy, happiness, peace and love, and these surpass everything earthly. And I have faraway friends like you, few and far between. There’s comfort in the thought that they call up now and then and we relive the past, if only for moments. Am I getting nostalgic, sentimental? Maybe, it’s good to catch up with these feelings now and then. I feel too many people leave them behind. Stay in touch. One day (my famous words), we shall meet and have a teh tarik together and enjoy those moments that were never lost.”
When I had a mild heart attack a few months later, it was good to hear from Philip: “Hi Alan, an informed source told me you had a minor health scare recently. I am praying for your rapid recovery. Take it easy. Will ten Our Fathers and two decades of the Rosary do? Anyway, I am concerned for you and at the same time very glad it wasn’t really that serious. I will be “watching” you from a distance. Take care.” We met in Kuala Lumpur that year, with our good friend Patrick Pillai.
Birthday greetings, 2006: “It’s time to take stock of your good life. God has been kind to all of us. None of us is really suffering. Since you are the same age as me, I guess we both can take comfort in the fact that most of our teeth are still around. This can only mean we get to enjoy good food. Our legs, though sometimes wobby, are still fairly functional. The important thing is you are enjoying the good years and the wonderful news is we are all here!”
In 2008, he sent me one of those video presentations meant to jolt you into realising that the most important things in life are your relationships, not the money you make or the lifestyle you lead. We turned 55 and in Malaysia, Philip was about to retire after 32 years at The New Straits Times. He was the last of our batch of 24 rookies hired in 1976 to go. He said: “October 10 is my last day in NST. After that, I am on leave prior to retirement. Haven’t given a thought whether I want to be the Prime Minister yet! I thought it’s time to take stock of my generally uneventful life and consider visiting old friends who may not want to remember me for good reasons. Haha. My two children are now working, so I can relax and can afford to forget to bring home the bacon now and then. Hang in there, brother. I heard Singapore only “lets go” of its valued people at 60 or 65! You are mighty lucky. Yes, go on working till you are Deng Xiao Peng’s age (95!). Good luck.”
The following year I sent a few friends some similar words of encouragement that had come my way via the Internet, and because I hardly ever do that, I wondered if I was going soft. Philip replied: “No, Alan, you are not going soft. You are just getting wiser in old age. Mortality seems more real after middle age. Most of the wise ones among our age group do not relish the thought of returning to our 20’s. The time to enjoy life is now, just as it was when we were young. It has always been Now, never Tomorrow or regretting about Yesterday. Thanks for the reminder. I am sure you have booked your suite in that heavenly mansion. It has always been there, the suite I mean. It’s just that we need to confirm the booking.”
I don’t have any e-mail from 2010, and the last was in 2011. I wrote in August to say I’d just heard that our friend from the New Straits Times, Swithin Monteiro, had died. Replying, Philip listed everyone I might know who had passed on, from old age, cancer, in accidents and two suicides. “I have attended my fair share of funerals of colleagues who sort of died in their boots. I dislike saying goodbyes to good friends because I know they are in good hands. The Big Man told me so. A long life doesn’t mean a good life. It is just a long life. Did I tell you that when I was an altar boy back in the late 1960s, I served at a long list of requiem masses? I think somebody Upstairs was trying to tell me that life is short, enjoy it and don’t take life too seriously. Friends like you do make life enjoyable. Take care.”
At the end of that year I finally made the trip to KL I was always talking about, and met up with Philip and Patrick for breakfast. The conversation picked up comfortably from where we had left off, as if we were three friends who saw each other every week for breakfast. When we met in 1976 we were young men starting at our first jobs. Now we were talking about turning 60, our children were young adults, and what lay ahead was the mystery of growing older. That was the last time we saw each other and took a photo together. I didn’t go to Philip’s funeral. Patrick delivered the eulogy, saying: “Philip never changed one bit in the four decades I’ve known him. He never had to change because he was absolutely convinced about who he was, what he believed in, and what was important in life.” Spot on.
When I checked into Hotel Majestic last week to wander around the Malayan Railway buildings next door, the last thing I expected was for Philip Lim Chin Guan to turn up like he did and remind me that he still occupies his place in my heart. At the end of my stay I was ready to leave for the airport and my flight to Singapore when I decided on a whim to have lunch at the Colonial Café. I ordered the Hainanese Chicken Chop, a house specialty honouring the hotel’s Chinese chefs of the old days. My phone rang and it was Phylis Ooi, calling from California where she lives. I told her where I was and that only a moment before I’d been remembering Philip, and how she used to tease him. We spoke for a while, two dear friends who go back to 1976 as well and do not see a lot of each other. And then I could see Philip across the table, scanning the menu, frowning, his eyebrows arched. I could hear him say: “Eighty Ringgit for a Hainanese chicken chop? You’re crazy, Alan John! I know a place off Campbell Road where it’s only 10.50 Ringgit.”