Toh Boon Huah
The Last of the
Born in 1919, he was the last of the prewar Pillars of the V.I.- Old Boys who were taught by some of the earliest VI teachers, imbibing the V.I. spirit and in turn joining the teaching profession to pass on the traditions to the next generation. Toh Boon Huah saw the V.I. in its formative years: he went to the old V.I. in High Steeet, then the newly built Batu Road School and finally the present V.I. He was a school prefect, a cadet and represented the school in football and cricket. He rubbed shoulders with many of the great and famous who would dominate Malayan life in the postwar years.
Boon Huah taught science at the V.I. and later became Senior Science Master. He was the Hepponstall House master and the school football master. His departure from the VI at the end of 1961 on transfer to the Education Ministry (followed soon after by Mr Ganga Singh's retirement in 1962), saw the last of the prewar Old Boy teachers. However, Boon Huah continued to meet up with many of his old colleagues and pupils in Kuala Lumpur whenever he returned from Brisbane. His brother-in-law was Tan Chin Guan, a classmate and fellow educationist who was the 1936 Rodger Scholar. Boon Huah's instant, encyclopaedic recall of names, dates and events from his inexhaustible V.I. memory bank and his irrepressible loquaciousness were legendary. The writer, who was taught by him, was able to catch up with him in 2003 to record his expansive reminiscences. Boon Huah passed away in 2007 soon after meeting (yet again) with his band of illustrious ex-pupils from the late forties.
t was in 1927 that Toh Boon Huah first stepped, if ever so briefly, into the hallowed corridors of the V.I. – the old V.I., that is, in High Street. After finishing kindergarten at Puay Chai School, the young Boon Huah found himself waiting patiently outside the headmaster’s office to be interviewed. However, as his uncle who had taken him there did not speak English, it was likely that his name had been called out by the school clerk but his uncle had not responded. As a result, Boon Huah missed an early chance at being a Victorian but was accepted by the Pudu English School instead. The school, then housed in two shop houses, accepted boys as well as girls, in those days. Boon Huah did two years of primary education there till 1928. He was finally accepted into the V.I. where he repeated his Primary 2 in 1929. He lived at Kampong Attap in those days and walked to school. He recalled that the Klang River had wound its sinuous way in front of his house. There were government quarters at Watkins Street which faced the railway station.
Boon Huah recalled there was a tuck shop in the basement of the Block 1 building of the old V.I. Sardine sandwiches cost two cents each then. There was the H.M.’s bungalow and the adjoining tennis courts in the school compound. There was actually a school song sung by the boys but he could not recall the words. His teachers were themselves Old Boys – Hoh Chup Mee, Chin Yoon Thye and Choon Wing Hong. The latter became his teaching colleague when Boon Huah became a teacher himself. The Chin Woo site was the site of Yap Ah Loy’s house, then occupied by his descendants. The Majestic Hotel was the top hotel of its day.
During P.E. lessons, the whole class would kick the ball around the field which was bounded partially by the Klang River. And there were crocodiles in the river then. This was brought home to Boon Huah when an Indian friend of his took him for a walk one day along the railway bridge that straddled Brickfields and Lornie Road. The bridge overlooked the town abattoir. The two boys could see crocodiles feeding on the entrails tossed out from the abattoir. At the central market in Rodger Street, there were steps leading down to a landing by the flood-prone Klang River. And when it rained, bells from the nearby High Street Police Station would be rung to warn the townspeople of any impending floods. When the floods were bad, no one could go to school as the premises would be knee-deep under water.
Mr A. L. Foenander was a good teacher but one didn’t fool around with him. Once Boon Huah saw him hit a Sikh boy with a ruler so hard that his turban unravelled onto the school corridor. Some of the teachers, most of them Old Boys, weren’t exactly paragons of virtue. The school gates were locked the moment the school bell rang for the start of school. One day, Mr Yap Swee Kee, grandson of Capitan Yap Ah Loy, found himself locked out of school and contrived to get a medical certificate to cover his embarrassing absence.
1929 was the historic year when the new V.I. building was ready on Petaling Hill and all the secondary boys moved away to the new premises during the year, leaving the Boon Huah and the primary boys behind. However, the following year when the Batu Road School was ready, it was primary boys’ turn to move to a new primary school home where Boon Huah started Standard 3. He remembered the first BRS HM as Mr Wheatley. In those days there was an orchard in the land between the school and Batu Road belonging to the Indian leader and V.I. founder, Mr Thamboosamy Pillay. In the BRS he joined the scouts. Whenever the annual MAHA exhibition was held, the scouts did duty there. There used to be a football stadium next to the MAHA grounds in Ampang Road, Boon Huah recalled. One evening he was cycling home from duty, he was stopped by a policeman because his bicycle did not have a light.
In the new school, the ex-V.I. boys refused to identify themselves as BRS boys; they still saw themselves as V.I. boys. Some of the BRS boys later went over to the Pasar Road School while some went over to Maxwell School. All three schools became feeder schools to the V.I. Mr Chin Yoon Thye was his class master in his Standard 5 year. Boon Huah recalled that one day after playing on the school field, his hair was rather dishevelled when he entered the class. Mr Chin promptly took out a pair of scissors and cut his hair short. In those days, the entrance exam to the V.I. was held at the end of the Standard 5 year and successful candidates joined the V.I. in Standard 6 (Form Two today).
One European teacher was Mr L. I. Lewis, brother of G. E. D. Lewis who would become V.I. HM in 1956. All Malay boys who had initially attended Malay Schools, were obliged to attend two years of SMC (Special Malay Class) taught by specialist teachers before joining the English stream. In his Standard 4 year, Boon Huah was taught by venerable Old Boy Mr Ganga Singh. He recalled being taught by Mr Rajalu and in art by Mr Chan Hung Chin. Societies included the Debating Society. In Standard 5, he recalled the masters were Choon Wing Hong (5A), A L Foenander (5B), and Tham Siew Tit (5C). The school clerk was Old Boy Richard Pavee, who was a Goanese. He loved the school so much that he refused any promotion that would take him away from the school. Pavee stayed at the school almost forty years well into the nineteen seventies.
In the new V.I. there was a fencing club when he was in Standard 7. He had picked up his cricketing skills playing in the Brickfields area and in Standard 7 he was recruited into the Second Eleven. He recalled fellow cricketer Hera Singh who was a year his junior. Hera would unfortunately be killed in the Japanese bombardment in Singapore in February 1942.
Some of the teachers from the old V.I. went over to the new V.I. and Boon Huah was taught by them again. Mr Rajalu taught maths and Mr S. V. J. Ponniah Latin. But Boon Huah was no goodie two-shoes in his school days. He got into trouble once with English teacher, Mr Ganga Singh, when he sneakily did some homework for a classmate.
“Is this your handwriting?” demanded the sharp-eyed Ganga.
“Then how come it is in this other exercise book and not yours?”
In the new V.I. prewar classes were 40 in size and the school enrolment was a maximum of five hundred. Detention classes were daily and not during weekends. Come to school late and you got caned – no first warning. Boon Huah had a close escape from that when he saw that he was going to be late one morning in Standard 7. He did some quick thinking, stopped his bike and messed his hand with grease from the bicycle chain. He pushed his bike to the front gate where the duty prefect stood on guard.
Prefect: “You are late!”
Boon Huah: “Yes, my bicycle chain came off, that’s why.”
He was let off with a warning. Still that was not the end of the matter. A little later, he was called up by the headmaster, Mr F. L. Shaw. Boon Huah showed his still unwashed hands again.
“Next time start earlier from home,” advised Mr Shaw. It was a narrow escape.
In the new V.I. building, Boon Huah recalled that there was a Union Jack in the room below the stage but he reckoned that the Japanese who occupied the building during the war apparently did not notice it. Boon Huah pooh-poohed the myth circulating in the 1980s that there was a tunnel dug during the war between the V.I. and the M.B.S. The pavilion had a motto painted on its wall: "Play up! Play up! And play the game!", the epic line from Henry Newbolt's poem, Vitaï Lampada.
Every boy had to be a scout or a cadet. To make his choice, Boon Huah reasoned: how many days a week to sacrifice for scouting? Answer: two days each weekend. The cadets only had Saturdays each week. So he chose the cadets, eventually ending up as a lance corporal. His good friend, Fred Arulanandom (who would later become an educationist and then a judge), was sergeant. Behind the V.I. was a valley where the Cadets had their shooting range. (This site would later become Coronation Park to commemorate the coronation of King George VI and, on the country’s independence, the site of the iconic Merdeka Stadium.) One day, because of some other commitments, cadet Boon Huah could not attend the shooting. The cadet master, Mr Rajalu, insisted that he had to qualify and so he scheduled a special shooting session. Boon Huah fired at the target several times but the target, on examination, showed only one hole. Mr Rajalu complained, “I cannot see the other holes!” What had happened was that every single one of Boon Huah’s shots had gone through the same hole!
There was even a fencing club when he was in Standard 7. There were cinema shows in the school hall in the evenings on some weeks. The boys sat in the hall and watched the flickering images on a screen set up on the stage. Every year there was an annual speech day. The School Captain and top scholars would stand on the stage and recite some poetry.
There was cross country running in Boon Huah’s days and the route approximated that of the post-war runs. Boon Huah remembered there was a Japanese runner by the name of Amafuji. The V.I. had many firsts of its time including the first swimming pool in 1938. The old government swimming pool in Travers Road, used by all the K.L. schools, had been so packed that there was no room to move. Here, Boon Huah revealed a secret. The V.I. pool was actually built on Government land, not on V.I. property! The arrangement was that the V.I. would administer it on behalf of the Education Office, but every other school in Kuala Lumpur had a right to use it. Honouring this arrangement, well in the forties and fifties, separate swimming periods were set aside in the afternoons for these schools and it was not uncommon to see pupils of other schools queuing outside the so-called “V.I. pool” to enjoy this facility. (In the Murugasu era, the swimming pool was “annexed” by the school and all other schools permanently barred from using it.)
And what happened to the old Travers Road swimming pool? During the war, Allied bombers attacking the railway roundhouse along Travers Road missed and hit the stately K.L. museum and swimming pool instead, said Boon Huah.
Boon Huah (middle row, 4th from left) and his 1936 classmates including Harry Lau (same row, 8th from left). Seated VI Staff include Mr F Daniel (Senior Science Master, 3rd from left), HM, Mr Shaw (4th from left), and Ng Seo Buck (3rd from right).
Among the famous contemporaries of Boon Huah’s time were (future Selangor Mentri Besar) Harun Idris and (future Magnum Corporation chairman) Lim Chooi Seng. This was the era of Queen Scholarships when boys through the F.M.S would compete for a handful of scholarships for undergraduate studies in England. The choice of subjects was crucial as it was purely a first past the post that determined the winner. Boon Huah himself had joined the 1937 Matriculation class but didn’t apply for the Queens Scholarship because he needed a credit in Latin, a subject which he did not take. Incidentally, Chinese and Sanskrit were also accepted in lieu of Latin in those days!
The headmaster at the time was Mr C E Gates. He was instrumental in offering (future Opposition politician) David Tan Chee Khoon of Kajang High School a scholarship. Chee Khoon took History and Geography in the matriculation class. He was a keen rival to future V.I. teacher Harry Lau who, according to Boon Huah, should have got a scholarship. Harry had been first in Standard 6 (Form 2 today) and in Standard 7. He had also topped the first term exam results in Junior Cambridge.
Boon Huah also recounted the plight of Rodney Lam who was in Senior 4 of the Scholarship class. Rodney lost in his first Scholarship attempt to two boys from Ipoh because they offered mathematics as one of their subjects. Rodney took history, a subject in which getting high marks was well nigh impossible to achieve; even David Tan Chee Khoon lost out. Rodney tried again in 1938 and failed. Finally in 1939, he succeeded only to be denied his trip to Britain when war broke out in September of that year. Rodney would finally get his chance again after the war.
Prefects Board with HM, Mr C. E. Gates, 1938.
Boon Huah is seated 2nd from left and School Cricket Captain Hera Singh is standing 2nd from right. Three future Queen Scholars are present: Rodney Lam (seated extreme R), Ismail Mohd Ali (seated 2nd from R),
and Yap Pow Meng (standing 3rd from L).
Other prizes were available to unsuccessful Queen Scholar aspirants in the prewar VI. Ten Raffles Scholarships, each worth $720 per annum, were offered annually for the whole of Malaya, five for the Straits Settlements and five for the Federated Malay States. Boon Huah and thirty-six of his classmates travelled down to Singapore to be interviewed for the scholarships. Of the five FMS Scholarships awarded, three were snared by the VI. The successful candidates included Ng Ek Teong, William Fernando and Tan Chin Guan. The latter was the 1936 V.I. Rodger Scholar and future brother-in-law of Boon Huah. The following year, the V.I. landed two of the FMS Scholarships. They went to Boon Huah and Fred Arulanandom. The latter had not taken science as he was in the Junior 3 class (the non-science Form 4) which did not offer that subject. He would become a noted judge in later life after a brief teaching career in schools and at the department of education. He was the person who would post VI Science teacher Lim Eng Thye to head the newly built Cochrane Road School as headmaster in 1962.
In 1938, Boon Huah enrolled in Raffles College in Singapore to read for his Diploma in Science. There freshies were ragged by having to push a mothball from one end of the hostel corridor to the other. Boon Huah graduated just as the Pacific war began. There was no teaching job for his qualifications and so he applied for work at a rubber estate owned by Tan Cheng Lock. He recalled being interviewed by his son, (the future Tun) Tan Siew Sin, whom he did not recognize at that time.
“How much do you want?” asked Siew Sin.
“One hundred and twenty-five dollars.”
“What? We should be getting one hundred and sixty-five dollars. If you can’t afford to pay,” retorted Boon Huah, “don’t ask us to apply. What sort of quarters are you providing? These look like coolie lines.”
He got the job.
After the war, V.I. resumed business at Maxwell School on 22 October 1945. No other schools had started yet. It was too late to hold the SC exams which only resumed the following year in 1946. Many pupils were affected, including the venerable Siew Nim Chee and S G Dorairaj whose education had been interrupted by the war. Double promotions were the order of the day to speed pupils through the system. The 1946 batch were taking Additional Maths and Mechanics (two separate papers) and needed teachers.
At that time Boon Huah had reported to the VI. The Headmaster Mr Daniel asked if he could teach those subjects. Boon Huah said, “I don’t mind, but ask Mr Lai Nyen Foo first.” And so it was that Lai Nyen Foo taught maths while Boon Huah became a science teacher instead. Then, not long after, the Education Department asked him to report to King George V School in Seremban for duty. It seemed his V.I. stint was over. But before the transfer came into effect, Boon Huah, who was in charge of the football team, had to accompany his footballers to play against the KGV team. There he met the KGV Headmaster, Mr E M F Payne, who told him, “You are lucky. You are supposed to come here. But since I am going to the V.I. as headmaster, I am going to ask for you to stay on at the V.I.!” And so the fates dictated that Boon Huah would stay on as a V.I. teacher for the rest of his teaching career. And he certainly saw the school through its period of recovery and the subsequent era of greatness.
When Daniel became HM in 1946, he found the science labs had been ravaged during the war, all the equipment and fixtures destroyed. Daniel summoned some contractors to begin the renovation. Boon Huah was asked to draw a plan of the school indicating where the power points were to be. Daniel was keen to get Old Boys to return to the school to teach because he believed that they would pay more attention to the school and would maintain the school’s tradition. He asked each staff member, including Boon Huah to help in the recruitment, assuring them that the sons of Old Boy teachers would also get priority in enrolment at the school. Nevertheless the school took in teachers who hailed from other schools: Mr Anthony Chin came from the SJI, which didn’t treat its Asian teachers too well then; Mr Lee Thin Chong who had originally taught at the MBS, and Mr T. Ramachandram who had taught at the PRS.
In 1948 the Malayan Badminton championships were held at the V.I. Hall because it was the only hall in the whole country with a ceiling high enough. Boon Huah recalled that Mr Daniel who lived alone in the corner room of the science lab regarded the school swimming pool as his private bath every evening. One boy was drowned there, he remembered. He recalled Lim Hock Han the school swimming captain (and future VI swimming teacher) loved swimming so much that he did badly in his examinations. Boon Huah gave private tuition to Ronald McCoy (the eventual Rodger Scholar of his time and future O&G) in Additional Maths which was not yet taught officially in the school. McCoy’s batch eventually produced a large number of doctors including Hooi Mun Ying and Chong Soon Fong.
Last update on 7 July 2009.
Interviewed by: Chung Chee Min