Alan and his merry band from England -
They flew in from all over the world, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Singapore, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and, of course, Kuala Lumpur. The black mops of hair that once crowned young adolescent heads half a century ago were now grey or gone and there was a noticeable shuffle or limp in some gaits. Some had arrived a few days earlier, in the heady aftermath of the 2012 London Olympics, for some preliminary sight-seeing in London and elsewhere. On the evening of August 30th 2012, thirty-six of them, including the chairman of the Organising Committee, Alan Tan Woo Tee, gathered at the Imperial China Restaurant on Lisle Street in London’s Chinatown for a sumptuous pre-Reunion dinner. By evening's end, everybody was in high spirits and all primed for the coming three days.
Fittingly, this was the same restaurant where three years earlier the idea of a UK Reunion – its scope and locale - was fleshed out. Alan Tan’s dream had come full circle. It had all begun in June 2008 after the successful reunion gathering of Alan’s own batch of 1962/64 in Kuala Lumpur, where he had been the MC. Alan was asked to organize a follow-up 50th anniversary celebration in 2012 for his batch. Then someone then went a little further: why not hold that Golden Anniversary in London where another big event, the 2012 Olympics, would be held?
On his return to the UK, Alan made contact with the VI Webmaster Chung Chee Min and, encouraged by Peter Koh Tong Bak, he launched a worldwide email forum of VI Old Students (VIOS). Old Victorians connected with each other to discuss and debate all sorts of subjects and to share interests and experiences (and not a few saucy jokes). Through this forum Alan was connected for the first time to other UK Victorians - Khong Teck Keong, Lee Kor Voon, Dennis Loh Kok Kin, Sujit Sen, Lo Ka Hang, Dibakar Raye, and Balwant Singh. Here were the troops he needed for his project. He also reconnected with an old classmate, Ernest Kong Cheng Wai. Ernest and Yin Fook joined the Committee in November 2010, while Balwant joined in May 2011.
At that first meeting at the Imperial China on 16th May 2009, it was suggested that the gathering be renamed “The Grand Celebration of the Victoria Institution.” Roles were assigned for finance, administration, venue selection, entertainment and communications and logistics. A tentative three-day programme was agreed upon. Crucially, Teck Keong introduced Alan to Kay-Tee Khaw, an Old Girl (class of 1968) and a professor at Cambridge University. Clare College, Cambridge University, was clinched as the venue for the Grand Celebration.
Eleven more meetings of the Organising Committee were held after that seminal meeting, with a final meeting on 12th August, 2012. (Youthful Dennis got to some committee meetings on bicycle, once cycling 80 km in total from London to Herts. and back) In addition to the face-to-face meetings, constant communication was maintained through email and Skype. Ernest and Dennis took care of day-to-day financial controls and procedures, maintaining spreadsheets to control income and expenses. Kor Voon designed a unique website for the event and masterminded the programme for the final night’s entertainment. With his invaluable experience in management, Yin Fook was responsible for drawing up agendas and check lists. Before he came on board, the OC used to have lunch first. Now Yin Fook insisted on a strict agenda with timings for each item, an owner and the desired outcome for each agenda item. The sequence was changed to meeting first from 11 a.m. (2 hours maximum) followed by lunch at 1 p.m. It worked wonders.
Meeting aboard the Ivy
The most unusual OC meeting was in August, 2011. Ivy Humphreys (former Old Girl and Old Teacher Ivy Ang Swee Gek) invited the Committee to Birmingham and offered her husband’s boat (christened the “Ivy”, what else) as a meeting venue. Ivy so enjoyed the OC’s company on the “Ivy” as it plied the canals that she signed up and attended the last five or six meetings. By which time the splendid stalwarts of the OC had achieved an admirable dynamic, with things well in hand. Which left Alan as the Chairman to promote the event worldwide. He lobbied enthusiastically at the August 2010 VI reunions in Sydney and Melbourne, and again in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in June 2010, June 2011 and February 2012. He collared and cajoled the likes of Datuk Mahadev Shankar, Dr. Ron McCoy and his wife, Susheila, Ooi Boon Leong, Wong Kuan Sing and Lee Chee Kuon (who is organizing the class of 1963/65 Golden Reunion in KL). A fund was set up by Tong Bak, Tong Chui, Alan, Ivy and Kay-Tee to bring some ex-VI teachers over. In the event, only Mr Vincent Voo was able to accept. His fare was paid by Ernest. By March 2012, Alan had signed up close to fifty Old Victorians and their spouses for the Cambridge Celebration.
This was the trigger for the Committee to arrange and confirm logistics. They began chartering coaches to and from London and Cambridge, coaches for the Norfolk Tour and coach transfers from Memorial Hall, Clare College to University Arms and back. It was also time to arrange lunches and refreshments, the chauffeured punting and tours of Cambridge City and the Colleges. There were the nitty gritty of the grand dinners for all three nights to finalise. No detail was too small to overlook. Dragging along their wives, Kor Voon and Alan visited three different English country pubs to finalise the choice of venue for the Cambridge lunch. They had wanted the participants to experience local pub food but were disappointed with the very poor customer service and the quality of food. They settled for the Yippee Noodle Bar. And there were dry runs by Kor Voon, Yin Fook and Alan to Castle Rising, and to Sandringham House. They personally checked out the tours of the City of Cambridge and the Colleges. That way, the Committee satisfied themselves that everything - visits, tours, and lunches - laid on for the participants had been truly tried and tested.
So was it any wonder that the August 30th 2012 evening at the Imperial China was just the opening act of a well-scripted programme? A small but most welcome OC error occurred at meal’s end though. The participants had expected, as previously arranged, to pay their own share of the food but Ernest Kong, the treasurer, announced the pleasant news that there had been a surplus and that the dinner was on the house! Hooray!
London - Starting Point of the Adventure...
As the number of participants grew, the idea of hiring a coach from London to Cambridge became a viable option. On Friday August 31st afternoon the bulk of the participants met outside the Sainsbury Supermarket at Kingsway at 2:30 p.m. where Dennis was waiting. They were directed to Lincoln's Inn Fields to await the 49-seater coach which, unfortunately, was delayed 45 minutes by traffic congestion. The London 2012 Paralympics had just started two days earlier and had played havoc with London traffic. Along the way to Cambridge, the coach passed by the Olympic Park and the Victorians had a glimpse of the Olympic Stadium, the Velodrome, the Hockey Arena, and the Orbit Tower.
Memorial Court, Clare College - Arrival, DNA Helix, Registration and Reception
On their arrival at Cambridge at 5:45 p.m., OC members and members of their families as well - spouses and even children – welcomed the attendees and helped them register and check into their rooms at Memorial Court, Clare College. The visitors took in the splendour of Clare College, founded in 1326, the second oldest of Cambridge’s thirty-one colleges. A large aluminium model of the DNA helix erected in 2005 at the corner of the lawn was a reminder that former Clare resident James Watson and his colleagues had first cracked the structure of DNA in 1953 in Cambridge.
It was a pity that the participants had arrived late, as tons of refreshments had been laid on at the Common Room for reception and registration (thanks to Ivy and Kay Tee). Much food was unconsumed as the participants had to hurry to their rooms to prepare for the evening’s dinner at the Great Hall. Visions of Spartan accommodations associated with medieval universities were banished when attendees discovered en suite bathrooms, hot and cold water, clean towels and linen and even Wifi access in their rooms.
The Great Hall of Clare College
The evening’s programme, MC’d by Yin Fook, began with a Welcome Address by Alan Tan in the Great Hall. Then followed the singing of the school song, as is de rigueur at all VI reunions, except there was this evening a delightful difference. Mr. Vincent Voo, the art master who used to conduct the weekly singing of the school song for some eleven years in the sixties and early seventies was present. It was Monday morning assembly all over again! The vertically challenged septuagenarian was helped up onto a chair to enhance his visibility. Posed and poised, the former conductor now waved his hands to take his ex-schoolboys and ex-schoolgirls through yet one more round of “Let us now with thankfulness…”
Just like old times...
Dinner followed, in the manner observed by generations of Cambridge dons and students since the seventeenth century. Beneath a high ceilinged roof, oil paintings of illustrious personages gazed down as the diners dug into Scottish smoked salmon, followed by the main dish of duck leg and crispy duck liver in red wine jus. Members of the OC and the evening’s speakers sat at the high table presiding over two longer tables running lengthwise. It called to mind Harry Potter’s Hogwarts sans flitting wizards on broomsticks and the Nearly Headless Nick floating above. Joining in just for that evening’s festivities was the youngest participant, 22-year-old Andrew Man, who had finished his Form Five in 2007.
The well-sated audience then settled down for after-dinner speeches. Chee Min (also a former teacher at the Old School) led off with a revelation of the connection between the VI and Cambridge. Several VI Headmasters were Cantabrigians, he said, including the school’s second Headmaster, Mr Richard Sidney, and Mr Edgar de la Mothe Stowell. It was under the latter that the school had acquired its crest in 1930. And, not surprisingly, one of the school colours turned out to be Cambridge’s light blue!
Ronnie McCoy, a well-respected O&G, talked about his post-career passion, leading a global movement of physicians against nuclear proliferation. Vincent Voo recounted his interactions with the three Headmasters he had served under – Dr G E D Lewis, Mr Alan Baker (also a Cantabrigian) and Mr V. Murugasu. Dennis’ father, Mr Loh Kung Sing, a VI biology teacher and later Senior Science Master, recalled the very bright VI students he had taught and how he could forecast who would do well. He recounted how, as Headmaster of a KL school, he had “dialogues” with a local gang boss to persuade him to keep away from his school.
Breakfast every morning was at the Buttery a floor below the Great Hall. There were only few Cambridge students around as it was still the summer break. After breakfast on Saturday September 1st, the participants gathered into four groups, each led by an expert local guide, to be taken around Trinity College and King's College. Again, the OC had had a dry run three months earlier with a “test guide” to check the timing! The idea was that the guides would go in different directions but still covered the colleges to avoid a “people jam” in some places.
Notwithstanding that, one enthusiastic guide (who worked full time at the university as a student liaison/welfare manager) took more than the allocated two hours. Someone actually complained of information overload after the walk! Indeed, the feedback later from some others was that they got more out of this guided tour than the tour they had had when they visited Cambridge some months back.
The groups toured King's College Chapel, one of the world’s most iconic buildings of late Gothic English architecture, dating from the fifteenth century. It has the largest fan vault ceiling in the world and the Chapel's stained-glass windows and wooden chancel screen are considered some of the finest. The Chapel's Choir is one of the most accomplished and renowned in the world.
Trinity College Chapel’s Great Gate and interior were littered with statues and plaques of its Nobel Laureates and eminent men of various fields. (Trinity has produced 32 Nobel Laureates.) Yeow Khean was observed to drift away from the Group Guide, to closely scrutinize each memorial, including that of Isaac Newton’s, utterly lost in scholarly bliss. There was one cobblestone outside the Great Gate inscribed with the initials 'TCN' in memory of a past Senior Bursar, T. C. Nicholas, who was a Fellow of Trinity from before the First World War. Chang Soong quipped: “I think they meant to etch it as TCS, lah.”
The groups also checked out the famous college courtyard where in 1919 Harold Abrahams became the first person to ever complete the Trinity Great Court Run – running around that courtyard in the time it took for the college clock to strike twelve, an event depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire. The guide of one group deliberately got her charges to arrive five minutes before 11 a.m. This was to let the group hear the Trinity clock striking the hour twice - first a low note (called the Trinity chime) and then a higher note (the St John’s chime). So at 11 a.m., that lucky group got to hear the clock strike 22 times!
King's College, its Chapel, the Great Gate, TCS and cobblestones, the TCN stone, N&N - Newton & Norman, the Trinity clock
Soon it was lunch time and the participants, thoughtfully divided beforehand into Green and Red groups by the OC, filed into the popular Yippie Noodle Bar to enjoy its Chinese dishes. When the OC originally decided on the Noodle Bar, named presumably after its manager, a Mr. Yip (a relative of Yap Ah Loy, no less, and thus a distant VI connection), he would not accept more than forty customers in his restaurant. So Alan and KV tested three English pubs but their food and service were not up to standard. The OC decided to go back to ask Mr Yip if he would consider a two-shift lunch, to which he agreed. So there were two sittings - at least in theory - from noon to 1 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Everyone sat at long wooden tables - if people in Cambridge ate in any other way it was not readily apparent - to gobble down the delicious fare.
After lunch participants either went shopping or visited the Fitzwilliam Museum, regarded as Europe's finest small museum, housing works of art and antiquities that spanned centuries and civilisations. There was a bonus for visitors that afternoon. The Fitz was hosting a visiting exhibition featuring over 350 treasures in jade, gold, silver, bronze and ceramics, from 2000-year-old Chinese royal tombs.
At 4:30 p.m. all gathered at Mill Lane on the Cam River to board chauffeured punts which had been booked beforehand at £10 per head. Well, not all, for three score plus Victorians and partners were as hard to herd as cats, even in a small town like Cambridge. Yin Fook was in the last punt having paid the outstanding balance and there were still vacant seats.
Thillainathan and Stan Lee and their spouses had been shopping and – in a minor hiccup of the programme - got a little confused over where to meet for the punting and had wandered a few hundred metres further north. They positioned themselves prominently on a bridge near Trinity College to scan for the VI Flotilla. They were not lucky with the first two punts packed with VIOS, who only waved back, probably thinking that Thillai and company preferred to enjoy the view from the bridge. Then along came saviour Dennis Loh in his punt. The chauffeur was asked to stop to allow the lost souls to squeeze aboard for the remainder of the trip.
Meantime truant master Kor Voon located and rounded up stragglers Siew Mun and Yoon Kwai at Mill Lane and bundled them onto a punt. Though the VI punts had a capacity of twelve, only one was completely filled. Still, the fleet of VI punts was able to complete the experience known as viewing the “Backs”, running past famous Colleges and under bridges. Throughout, each chauffeur kept up a running commentary.
Socialising in the Scholars Garden
Before the evening’s programme began, there were drinks at the Scholars Garden where, in a leisurely setting, the number of attendees was augmented with new arrivals: Khong Teck Keong (class of 1970), Eugene Hui (class of 1968), Petra Chong (Siew Meng’s daughter) and Rachel Tan (Dennis’ girlfriend, herself a Cambridge engineering grad). Retired dentist M. Pathmanathan, made it too and was introduced by his 1948 classmate Ronnie McCoy with the quip, “Pathma pulls teeth, I pull babies.”
After the singing of the school song, the formal dinner began. After an appetizer of scallops and smoked bacon, the diners tucked into fillet of Norfolk beef and five-spice infused duck breast. (There really has got to be a lot of duck farms in the Cambridge area.)
Chee Min was called upon by the MC, Ernest Kong, to introduce the recipient of the Special Award. He recalled his first impressions of Norman Foo Yeow Khean in 1955 – a precocious First Former, noted to frequent the V.I. library to devour the volumes on philosophy, science and other subjects. He developed into a formidable debater and commentator cum columnist for the Seladang. Norman was made editor of the school newspaper when he was a mere Fourth Former. He pioneered the setting up of the novel Psychology Section in the Annual Science Exhibition and led the School Debating team to two consecutive triumphs in the annual Thuraisingham Shield encounters with the MBSKL. Norman was the first to achieve the hat trick of becoming the school's Treacher, Rodger and Lewis Scholar – a formidable feat repeated only twice since. He won a Colombo Plan scholarship to read for an electrical engineering degree. He began his professional career as an engineer, later switched to Computer Science and only retired recently from his position as an Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the UNSW in Sydney, Australia. A veritable polymath, he is respected by all who know him. Alan Tan and Tong Bak, Norman’s long time buddy, then presented Norman with a tribute that was specially crafted for him. It was a full-page spoof of the Sydney Morning Herald with “news” items reflecting Norman’s schooldays, his wide interests, abilities and eccentricities. In reply, Norman cracked his inevitable off-colour joke, possibly the first time in centuries that the walls of that Hall had reverberated to such irreverence.
To wrap up the evening the audience heard three speakers, including two former School Captains. Choo Min Hsiung, the 1960 Head Boy, recalled his V.I. days. He related how, as a novice on the rugby field, he did not know when to pass the ball until Dr Lewis yelled at him on one occasion. When Min Hsiung was eventually interviewed for the post of School Captain against another popular candidate, Dr Lewis apparently remembered his correct passing of the ball. Min Hsiung got the VI School Captain’s job; at least that was his theory why! Krishna Rajaratnam, the 1959 Captain, modestly eschewed discussion of his achievements in school. He spoke instead on renewal energy and the various options for baseload power generation. The final speaker, Tan Chang Soong, from the class of 1961, recounted briefly the early years of independent Malaya. A former Senator and Registrar at TAR College, Chang Soong had witnessed historic political change as an insider. He also related his experience doing business in China in the years before his retirement. And with that, the assembly adjourned at midnight wrapping up a long but enjoyable day.
After breakfast at the Buttery, it was excursion time. Two hired coaches pulled out from Memorial Court at 9:00 a.m. heading northeastwards to Norfolk county. The signs of good preparation by the OC were again apparent. Bottled water – thanks to Yin Fook who had carted all the cases from his home to Kay-Tee’s house for storage during one of the Committee meetings - and snacks were available at the back of the bus throughout the trip. Sek Kum, ever the liquor guy, discovered, to his delight, an onboard minibar from which to dispense his wine!
The thoughtful organizers had noted, during their dry runs, that the Norfolk countryside was flat and uninteresting, save for an occasional windmill or two. So Ivy (who used to teach Geography at the VI) came up with pages of notes on the terrain of Norfolk, its history and geology. These were passed to the coach leaders, Ivy and Ernest in one group and Kay-Tee and Yin Fook in the other, to be read out over the PA system when the occasion warranted. (On pain of death no one was to prefix his or her lecture with “according to Ivy.”)
At about 10:30 the coaches pulled up at Castle Rising, one of the most famous twelfth century castles in England. The stone keep, built around 1140 AD, is amongst the finest surviving examples of its kind anywhere in the country. There are remains of a Norman church in the massive surrounding earthworks. In its time Rising has served as a hunting lodge, and royal residence. The mother of Edward III, Queen Isabella, bought this castle in 1327 as a retirement retreat. That morning of September 2nd 2012, though, the serenity was broken by the strains of an unlikely serenade echoing off the ancient walls. Meng Keong, doubtless inspired by memories of all the lovely girls he had ever known in school, suddenly burst forth with some lines from Rosemarie, “… Of all the queens that ever lived I choose you, to rule me, my Rosemarie-e-e-e!!” History buff Siew Meng made the interesting observation that the spiral stone staircase of the castle went anti-clockwise downwards. This would favour right-handed defenders, giving them more room to swing their swords to repel attackers fighting their way upwards. Touché!
Then it was a short drive to Sandringham Estate. Ah Kim - true to his Dunlop legacy - was observed to be checking out the tyres of the buses at Sandringham for their year of manufacture. The VI party had their lunch at the Sandringham Restaurant where everybody’s choice had already been pre-ordered. Earlier, it had almost come to the point of the OC packing sandwiches for everyone and eating outside the restaurant, as the management had insisted that the VI party preselect the dishes before arrival. Hence a flurry of frantic emails from the OC to all participants asking for their choices before they arrived in London.
Exploring Sandringham House and the vast Sandringham Estate
After lunch it was a short walk to visit Sandringham House, the Norfolk country retreat of the Queen. The existing property was bought in 1862 by Queen Victoria at the request of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) as a home for himself and his new bride Alexandra. The present house was extended and improved in 1865. Sandringham House is on 20,000 acres of land and has been the private home of four generations of the British Royal Family. The tour party wandered through the ground floor rooms and examined the décor and rooms collected by members of the Royal Family. Outside the House, visitors walked around 60 acres of glorious gardens and visited the Museum which housed vintage Royal motor vehicles including a 1900 Daimler Phaeton. And then, all too soon it was time to board the coaches to return to Memorial Court to freshen up for the final night's event.
The two tour coaches disgorged the participants at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge for food, entertainment and what was billed as "A Walk Down Musical Memory Lane." The original plan was to have dinner at the Great Hall for a third night. The cost looked a bit high, so the OC checked out the University Arms where Kor Voon's daughter wedding reception had been held. They liked it and so the venue was changed. The OC asked the management about staying beyond midnight but it was a no-no.
Buffet dinner; entertainment by Model Village
At the Newton Suite, a buffet dinner was served – salads, cold meat, smoked fish, English beef and carved loin of local pork. One more Victorian joined in, Jonathan Siao, class of 2006, from London. Dr Mike Rowland, married to Norm's cousin, Julia Suan Goh, was present as a guest. After dinner, participants were entertained to 45 minutes of music by a Cambridge Indie band, Model Village, whose members were not professional musicians and held full-time jobs. The drummer was none other than Kenny, Kor Voon’s son, who obviously had inherited his father’s musical abilities.
Now came the time for the Victorians to provide their own entertainment, with Dennis at the digital piano and Kor Voon with his guitar. Ernest Kong belted out his favourite tune On the street where you live from the musical My Fair Lady. Next, the Australia contingent, led by Chooi Hon, marched out en masse to sing I Still Call Australia Home, finishing with Waltzing Matilda. Zen Min, an Old Girl from the class of 1973, a fervent karaoker, rendered a beautiful Mandarin oldie, Qing Ren De Yan Lei (Lover’s tears). Next it was Vincent Voo’s turn. This talented man of art and music first belted out Frank Sinatra’s popular My Way. Then he pulled out two types of harmonicas – diatonic and chromatic – from his pocket and played, in turn, a medley of tunes: the mournfully beautiful Last Rose of Summer, Skip to my Lou (a children’s song from America’s frontier period), Little Serenade (Piccolissima Serenata, an oldie), and O Weel may the Keel Row (a fo'c'sle song from the Tyne River).
The Aussie Contingent, Kor Voon, Ernest, Chee Min, Vincent, Zen Min
Next was Chee Min’s item, cryptically entitled Taumata. It was a contraction of the 57-letter name of a Maori landmark in New Zealand. The audience was challenged to pronounce it at which they, of course, failed miserably. Chee Min then belted out a song which incorporated that long, long name at the end of each verse! Next he read out a marriage proposal by a lovelorn Punjabi whose English left much to be desired. His near perfect Indian accent left the audience in stitches. Another letter was read out, one from a fellow named Murphy to his boss to explain why he wasn’t at work. Poor Murphy’s misadventures at a construction site would fill a thick volume at the local ER. Finally Chee Min rendered what must been the first public airing in at least half a century of the VI School Song, entitled The Old School, the version before the current one that everyone knows. Talented Dennis was the person who had a few years ago first captured in digital form the music written by G. C. S. Koch, a prewar Old Boy. It was a song that evoked visions of an old school beside a stream and harked of tradition, rules and glory. Dennis provided instrumental backing to Chee Min to treat the audience to what VI boys had sung way, way before 1949.
Kor Voon had had his musical fame at the VI in 1959 as one half of the Kaverley Duo. Now, 53 years later, many of those same Victorians who had heard him had the chance again. Kor Voon did not disappoint. He sang Walk right back, Dream and his version and interpretation of the composition by his Kaverley Duo partner, Stan Loh - The Monkey King in the kingdom of the Mystic Mountain. It was a virtuoso performance and the audience showed their appreciation of Kor Voon’s talent.
Keelah & Alan bebopping; Tong Chui & Rex crooning; Clement bird-dogging; Meng Keong hungering for love
With that the floor was turned over to audience participation. Each person had been issued a song book for that evening. A lot of sweat had gone into making those books. 2000 sheets of song lyrics - whose words were thoughtfully printed a few points larger to allow for senior eyesights - had been photocopied and collated by Kay-Tee and then personally transported sixteen miles to Kor Voon's place to be assembled into folders. To set the right tone for the rest of the evening, Chee Min belted out the old favourite Enjoy Yourself teasing the audience with the alternative… “imagine all the fun you have in your old rocking chair.” The audience took up the challenge. Rex and Tong Chui sang the old favourite O Malaya, Tong Bak partnered Ivy with Sloop John B, Clement Wong belted out Bird Dog. Meng Keong the baritone unleashed his charged version of Unchained Melody, with Kor Voon and Dennis frantically trying to keep up with him. Alan Tan went to town with Diana, and then partnered Keelah (Mrs. Lam Ah Lek) for Be Bop A Lula.
There was an unplanned surprise when Old Girl Meng Eng suddenly stood at the mike and said that she was a psychiatrist. Her job, she said, was "pulling the dirt from people’s minds." She brought the house down when she confessed that she would dearly love to work on the likes of Tong Bak and Norman. She also complained how VI Old Boys could not remember things that happened the day before. Yet they could remember incidents that occurred fifty or sixty years ago in the school. VI Old Boys, she observed, had this peculiar habit of needing reunions and singing school songs to feel alive. Meng Eng also wryly observed that no ladies had been invited the previous two nights to recall their school days. So how about it, she asked.
With that the flood gates opened and Old Girls trooped up to have their say. 1957 Head Girl Siew Mun spoke of a time in youth but “we've not really lost it. It's been locked away in us.” That was a much simpler, uncomplicated life where one didn't have to worry about position, power, and even wealth. “You remembered the good friends that you made, the funny escapades that you went through, and through it all, you did it your way.” Comparing the only two schools she went to, Siew Mun said, “In St. Mary’s, my old school which I loved dearly, we began our day with prayers and a hymn, which soothed our minds and prepared us for the day ahead. In the VI, they did not pray, and the only song they sang was the school anthem. I thought that despite their different way of doing things they seemed to be doing quite well, and I therefore set my mind to adjust to their lifestyle.”
Five Old Girls recall their schooldays: Kay-Tee, Siew Mun, Susie, Meng Eng, Chooi Hon
Kay-Tee reminisced about her VI classmates, like Szu Hee, also present in the audience, and a certain Choo Hooi Sin (mother of Dennis!). She remarked how intimidatingly clever everyone in her class had been and, somehow, the VI boys were very good at thinking outside the box. She related how once her class was shown a beaker of alcohol and a live worm was cast into it. Sure enough the worm died. When asked for their conclusion, a boy spoke up, “Drink alcohol so you don't get worms in your body.”
The VI Netball Captain of 1962, Chooi Hon, recalled that the VI girls team was the only team to win at the VI-Anderson Sixth Form games, the boys having lost all their matches. Netball Colours were awarded to several of her Netball team, the first and perhaps the only time this has happened.
Fast forward some 18 years later, after she and her husband, Yik Chee, had migrated to Australia. One day, the two of them walked into a well-known Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne. The proprietor/chef walked up to their table, pointed at her and said, “You, VI girl!” Chooi Hon was flabbergasted as he was a complete stranger. He explained that he had been some years junior to her and he had watched her netball practices. Chooi Hon exclaimed “You were still wearing short pants – what were you doing watching the girls play netball?” His response was “You were the tall one, and there was a short girl too”. Chooi Hon and Yik Chee still patronise his restaurant to this day!
Susie Lim’s father practiced medicine in Klang, so she lived in rented accommodation in K.L. to attend the VI. Consequently, she hardly had any time after Fridays for extramural activities or to get to know many people as she would be dashing back to Klang for the weekend. Now, Susie said, she was happy to finally get back to the VI fold again to attend all the reunions.
Then it was back to the singing again. As with many memorable get togethers, there was a surprise item. As Zen and Chooi Hon belted out Will You Love Me Tomorrow? out pranced Tong Bak and Alan, clad in outsized underwear. Each brief was marked ostensibly with a large “H” for “Hings,” the much maligned brand won by young VI men of fifty years ago, and the, um, butt of many jokes to this day among Old Victorians. The lady singers were equally surprised but didn't bat an eyelid despite the laughter in the room and bravely kept going. Then it was all over as midnight approached. Alan then gave a farewell speech in which he thanked his Committee and their spouses and children for their contributions and hard work. It was followed by a final round of the school song, with another difference. In addition to the full three verses, a fourth verse was sung, composed three years ago, which was most appropriate for this reunion:
Now on distant shores we dwell;
All present spontaneously linked hands to form an unbroken chain to sing Auld Lang Syne and the three-day celebration was finally over. It was a little past midnight when all reluctantly clambered onto their coaches for the ride back to Memorial Court. If only there had been a little more time, another two or three hours perhaps… ?
A quick head count revealed one short in one coach. Krishna went back to the hotel and found Dennis who was still packing his electronic piano. With Dennis safely on board, another count now revealed there was one person extra! The interloper turned out to be Jonathan Siao who had come for the dinner but not the tour! When the coaches dropped the party off past midnight, some of the high-spirited guys were still singing. Next morning over breakfast one of Cambridge students returning to the residence for the new term swore that there had been a ghost thumping up the staircase around 1 a.m. If only he knew.
After breakfast, it was check-out time. Rooms were vacated and keys handed in – no, not to hotel reception - but to the porter; these were student digs after all. This being a Monday and a working day, Chee Min ran to the Cambridge University Library for a little mission. The Library had earlier requested a copy of his VI Anthology and he now personally handed over a copy to Jane Kelly, the English-language Collections and Cataloguing Specialist. The Victoria Institution would now forever be part of Cambridge just as Cambridge had been part of every Victorian’s consciousness during his school days!
A few lingering farewells and at 10 a.m. the coach for London pulled out. For many Victorians their holidays were not over. Some stayed behind as guests of members of the OC; others headed north for private tours of their own. Even many of the London-bound passengers had extended vacation plans – in France, Germany, Italy, Croatia and Greece.
As the three days wound down, it was apparent that this was the best ever VI reunion and that the OC deserved a tremendous accolade for their time and effort. The promise of a great gathering had already been hinted at in the pre-Cambridge get together of August 30th. Prof Jim Croll - Norm's roommate in New Zealand and his closest Kiwi friend who had been invited along - had been amazed at the fraternal bonds that effortlessly bridged yawning age gaps. He could only gasp in admiration, “Such camaraderie is not known even among public schools of England.”
Ronnie McCoy gushed, too, about the instant chemistry and bonding, the genuine camaraderie, and the incredible, magical feeling of family, when he arrived. Despite a six-decade difference in age between himself and the youngest participant, Andrew Man, currently a student at HELP University, Ronnie felt that it was as if he had known everyone present all his life.
Zen Min observed that everybody forgot that they were grandparents and behaved like school kids again. It was as if time had stood still after Sixth Form. Reminiscing was very therapeutic for the soul as evinced by the daily laughter at meals or in the coaches, the giggling, the squeals, the schoolboy lingo and banter. The only hint of time’s toll, she commented, was the furtive peering at each other's badge to recall the name. On the final morning when everybody had put theirs away, there were embarrassing moments when participants misidentified each other. Still, over the three days, old school ties were strengthened, new bonds forged between Victorians whose times never overlapped at school.
Making it all possible was an Organizing Committee that had anticipated and planned for every detail. Every destination and travel time was checked out weeks beforehand. “Every time we arrived at a place, our guides knew where the toilets were,” observed Rex. Every ticket and every meal had been taken care of. No one had to pull out his or her purse to pay for anything, save his own personal purchases. Each person’s name tag had his or her name on both sides and in between was slipped the detailed three-day programme. A printed colored dot on each side reminded a participant of the coach or meal shift he or she had been assigned. Committee members and their family members had pitched in cheerfully, from registration and carrying the luggage of arriving participants to their rooms to checking out table settings. Kor Voon’s wife and daughter helped him set up the equipment at the University Arms Hotel and stayed behind till 1 a.m. to help pack up and settle the final bill. And there were the small unseen gestures, such as Kay-Tee rushing home as the last punt pulled out from its moorings at Mill Lane, so she could bring her car over to offer a lift back to Memorial Court for any tired soul who needed it after the punting.
This and a hundred unsung acts that went beyond the call of duty put the Cambridge Reunion on a very high pedestal. This Reunion has raised the bar many notches above previous ones. Three years of sweat and toil and personal sacrifice went into honouring the memory of two, five or seven years at a school half the world away. The gathering had tapped into a deep pining for the Golden Years of one's youth in one of the best schools in the country. This was one opportunity to reconnect with the people with whom one rubbed shoulders in the classroom, exam hall or sports field, and to meet on equal terms that great scholar or sports personality whom once upon a time one could only admire from a distance. Heart warming too was the sight of older Victorians befriending those young enough to be their sons and even grandsons. What they had in common was simply those magical words: Victoria Institution.
"It was one of the most gratifying experiences and the cream of our holiday," said Mee Lan, Stan Lee's wife. Someone lamented on the last day: ”I feel sorry for anyone who missed this Reunion.” To which Siew Meng offered this repartee, “I don’t feel sorry for them.” That same refrain was echoed by Min Hsiung, "You know, we cannot put a price on the camaraderie that we had witnessed that weekend. Those who did not come missed out on something very special that money can’t buy.” To Alan Tan and his team, one can only say, “Bravo! Bravo! and Thank You!”
Compiled from contributions by those present at Cambridge
Gathering at Holborn (photo by Chee Min)
Arriving by coach (photo by Chee Min)
The arrivals (photo by Yin Fook)
Memorial Court Gate
To the rooms at Memorial Court
Typical Room (photos by Siew Meng)
Vincent Voo takes everyone through "Let us now..." (photo by Chee Min)
King's College Chapel (photo by Chee Min)
Weary feet (photo by Yin Fook)
Punting on the Cam River (photo by Stan Lee)
Norman and Yoke Lin (photo by Yin Fook)
Ducky joins in (photo by Chee Min)
Passing King's College (photo by Chee Min)
The Grasshopper Clock (photo by Chee Min)
King's College at sunset (photo by Chee Min)
Castle Rising steps (photo by Siew Meng)
Castle Rising view (photo by Chee Min)
Visiting Sandringham House (photo by Chee Min)
Sandringham Estate Museum and Stables Tearoom
DNA Helix Scupture at Clare College
Steps of DNA Scupture (photo by Chee Min)
Even profs cycle around (photo by Dennis)
Final night table setting
Newton Suite on the Final Night (photo by Dennis)
Newton Suite - Model Village performing (photo by Chee Min)
Created: October 3, 2012.