Sunday, February 25, 2007

Way of the Penang water babies

Last year in September I posted The Penang Straits Swim.

It was about a Bernama report that 16-year-old Ahmad Shauqie Abdul Aziz, a student from Sekolah Menengah Abdul Aziz in Perak, swam 10 km across the Penang Strait in three hours 10 minutes.

Ahmad Shauqie did it all in the spirit of Malaysia Boleh, and to get into the Malaysia Book of Records for being the youngest person to swim across the Straits solo without using a cage. His brother and personal trainer, Azmin, accompanied him in a boat to ensure his safety.

I commented that Penangites would be proud to know that Ahmad Shauqie was born in Penang. Shauqie said that he was proud for having succeeded in setting a record as the youngest swimmer to have swim across the Straits.

While I congratulated Ahmad Shauqie for his feat, I also pointed out that many others had done it eons before. I didn’t want to disappoint him about his claim to being the first youngest to swim that leg, though he could make a claim for a place in the Malaysia Book of Records, because in those days no record was taken for the following reason.

Then, I brought out what most Penangites know, about the swimming prowess of the boys in a Penang school called the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS), subsequently becoming the Methodist Boys’ School after Merdeka. I wrote:

Those newspapers reports should be able to show that the ACS had annual cross-Penang Straits swim where several dozens, if not hundreds of their students and teachers took the plunge from Butterworth and swam across to, I was told by an old timer, the Chinese Swimming Club in Tanjung Tokong.

Then no sophisticated cage existed, nor bananas eaten. It was just an annual school swim by ACS students with strong encouragement from and training by teachers who themselves were powerful swimming instructors - most instructed at the Chinese Swimming Club.

Some of the students were very very young, studying in the old Form III's to Form V's. Using my own age just as a rouge gauge, I was in the equivalent of Form V at 16, so I would surmise those swimmers must have been very young.

Well, the Star Online indicated that in 1957, 12-year old Kuan Guat Choo swam the Penang Channel, though she drifted down south to Pulau Jerejak, a fact making her swim distance even longer. In subsequent years, there could well be even younger kids (especially from ACS/MBS) taking the plunge during the school annual swim to cross the Penang Channel. So she might well not even be the youngest - aiyah, we Penangites were and, I suppose, still are extraordinary people, Raja Bodek notwithstanding.

12-year old Guat Choo and dad

I reproduce the Star Online article (plus all 3 photos) in full, starting with a letter by Guat Choo and then the article titled 'Hats off to the Water Baby':

To every child, their father is the best and likewise for me though I am no child but a very senior citizen. My father, Mr Kuan Huah Oong, is an unforgettable character. He was in the swimming team that went to the China Olympics in Shanghai in 1948. He was the Secretary of the Penang Chinese Swimming Club for many years, and only relinquished the post when he went to work in Brunei in 1968. He used to raise funds to send teams down to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to compete. He is now 85 and declining. It breaks my heart each time I look at him – a dashing young man reduced to this weak shell. If a feature on him were published, it would bring back many memories for his contemporaries.

– Kuan Guat Choo
It should have been his moment of glory! He was the first to complete the race in the inaugural Penang cross-channel swimming competition, which was held in 1957, and should have been basking in media attention and showers of congratulatory wishes.
Instead, Kuan Huah Oong got on a boat and went in search of his daughter who was among 200 swimmers still bobbing in the sea along the 4 km swim route.
“He found me way off course near Pulau Jerejak. Despite being dead tired and suffering from muscle cramps, he got out from the boat and swam with me,” recalls Kuan’s daughter Guat Choo.

“He would not let me hold on to him as that would be cheating. He told me to always finish what I've started despite the odds. He was 35 and I was 12, the youngest participant.”

Everyone has a hero and Guat Choo’s is clearly her father.

Thus, it pains her to see how a man who had embraced life with such zest is now vegetating after suffering a series of strokes.

“My father can't talk and I'm not even sure if he recognises me nowadays,” says the 62-year-old grandmother.

Before the stroke, he was never the type who could sit at home and do nothing, she says. “Swimming was his life.”

Kuan was in the Malayan team that competed in the Seventh National Shanghai Games in 1948.

They emerged second in the team relay and he won third and fifth respectively in the individual 400m and 1,500m.

“The cold weather adversely affected their performance,” says Guat Choo, who has a photo of her father shivering by the pool in Shanghai.

She describes him as an unorthodox person who believes that accomplishments don't have to come with monetary rewards.

Kuan was working in the state immigration department before becoming a volunteer with the St John’s Ambulance during World War II in 1941.

As a volunteer, he brought the injured to the hospital, the dead to the mortuary and any jewellery he found on these persons to the hospital supervisor.

“It was at a dispersal camp for war refugees in Thean Teik Estate (now Bandar Baru Air Itam) that he met my mum and romance blossomed between them,” says Guat Choo, smiling.

Her mother Lim Pek Hock, 83, adds: “It amused me to hear him singing O Sole Mio and Serenade at the top of his lungs when he bathed in the public shower cubicles.

“During our courtship, he would climb coconut trees like a monkey to get the fruit for me because I like to drink coconut water.”

After the war, he joined the state information department but he resigned soon after because his superiors wanted to transfer him to Kelantan. He then opened a bicycle shop at his house in York Road.

“He seemed to have a knack for anything he set his mind to,” Guat Choo relates.
“During a family vacation in Cameron Highlands, his old Renault overheated and broke down. He hiked to the nearest stream to get water for the car.

“And when the car stalled, he fixed it with only one tool – my mother's hair pin!” she laughs, adding that he had bought the car from the Thai consulate for RM700.

Kuan learnt to swim by dog paddling at the age of 12 in a stream near his house.

Fearing that he would drown, his family forbade him to go out swimming. So, when he returned home each day, one of his older brothers would touch his belly button to see if it was cold. This was to test if he had been in the water.

Each time he failed the test, his brother would whack him, but Kuan was undeterred.

When he was studying at the Anglo Chinese School (now Methodist Boys’ School), he joined its swimming class in 1938. However, he turned out to be the worst student there and was expelled as a result.

This further fuelled his resolve to succeed, and he began to watch national swimming champ Kee Soon Bee practise at the Chinese Swimming Club.

He was elated when Kee offered to teach him. In his first swimming competition under the club in the same year, he came out third.

Soon, he went on to win in other meets. In 1959, Kuan was elected as the club's captain and after two years, became its secretary.

According to Guat Choo, he often took his students to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore for swimming events.

“He raised funds for these low-budget trips by publishing souvenir programme books and seeking sponsors. They would travel third class by train and only ate at coffeeshops.

“Sleeping arrangements were usually in a club where they slept on camp beds. He once told me how they ordered a bowl of bah kut teh to be shared among 10 people. Glory was only in the participation,” she says.

In 1966, Kuan represented Malaysia in the Royal Life Saving Society in London where he attended a dinner at the Buckingham Palace and was presented to Queen Elizabeth II.

Kuan with the late Princess Margaret

“During the toast, he raised his glass of water while everyone else had wine,” Lim relates.

“Curious, Princess Margaret asked him about his action. He told her that he had promised his wife that he would not drink.”

Two years later, Kuan, fondly referred to by his friends as the “water baby,” was offered a job as superintendent in Brunei’s first swimming pool. He served for the next 15 years, and among his students were members of the Brunei Royal family, the Royal Brunei Police Force and the Women Police swimming and life saving team.

After retiring at the age of 62, her father would hike up Trail 84, which is the halfway mark to Penang Hill, daily at 2pm, says Guat Choo.

At the rest point, he built a shelter where he brewed tea for hikers. This was his daily routine until he suffered the first of three strokes in 1992. However, hikers can still enjoy tea at the shelter as his friends have continued the practice.

formidable Penang water-baby dad and daughter 50 years later

Kuan now lives with his daughter and wife at their home in Lengkok Barat, Penang. He has three children, three grandchildren and a great granddaughter.

I salute these Boleh Malaysians.


  1. thanks for posting this, KT! i didn't know this article appears in the sunday star as have not read it yet (fact is have not even read the paper from thursday!).

    i know uncle kuan personally. met him via the defunct weekly 'malaysian post' (which earlier was 'new thrill'). long story there so maybe i'll write about it in my blog.

    i remember interviewing him once for an article in malaysian post. must look for that article.

    uncle kuan is indeed a great swimmer!

  2. Lucia, let me know if you can find out more about the great father and daughter swimmers - whta a great family.

  3. Hi ktemoc,
    Thanks for highlighting this story. What a touching story. It encapsulates much of what life is all about.
    1. It's sad that Kuan has become so diminished in life today. But then that's the reality of life. His story should make all of us humble as we never know what fate has in store for us. A glorious past does not guarantee anything at all in one's old age.
    2. Pursuing a personal challenge such as swimming the Penang Channel and accomplishing it after much sacrifice and hardship can be just as satisfying as doing it for money, fame or glory.
    3. One will always be remembered for doing something good for one's fellow kind. On a visit to Malaysia in 2001, I took my daughter and son (then 17 and 13) up Penang Hill by the funicular train but wanted them to experience the hikers' trail that leads to the Waterfall Gardens so we walked down instead of taking the train. The half-way mark shelter was highly-appreciated by the three of us, both for its scenic view as well as for a much-needed respite. Without asking, we were served free tea by total strangers and didn't know which kind soul to thank for this. So, six years later, kindly ask Guat Choo to send our grateful thanks to her great father. Let him know that the good he has done many years ago is still being appreciated.
    4. Kuan did not do well at school but that did not prevent him from shining in another activity. This should be an inspiration to all school dropouts. One need not be doomed for life just because one did not do well in school. Determination will still make one find one's way in the world
    5. The great devotion of Kuan to his daughter Guat Choo and now the devotion of Guat Choo to her father should inspire all young parents to treat their children with loving care. Little as they are, children do know instinctively if their parents genuinely love them or are doing it just out of a sense of responsibility.
    Finally I wish also to congratulate 16-year-old Ahmad Shauqie for his feat. To be fair to Ahmad I think it is much harder to succeed in feats that require great discipline today than in the olden days as today's achievers have also to battle against the numerous distractions and the much easier lifestyle that come with modernity.

  4. AHH!!! Now that's pure inspiration

    Phew, more motivation to keep doing my work now :D been staying up for the last 20 hours or so.

    Certainly can go on for another 10!!! No problem!! Energy flowing after reading this post

  5. Dear friends,

    Thank you for keep informed the story of "drifted swimmers". In Marathon swimming challange, drifted from target is not recognised, but the attempts in taking the such challenge is a great job.

  6. 4 km is hardly considered a 'marathon' - according to a couple of senior citizens from MBS, the cross channel swim was an annual fun event that hundreds (maybe thousands including my uncles) of the (ACS) MBS school boys (some as young or who knows, perhaps even younger than Guat Choo) took part in. It's a pity that event stopped in current time. Certainly (ACS) MBS was a swimming power house in those days.

  7. Hi, Loved your book. Am new in Penang and LOVE animals. Does Autumn Fern live near Penang. Could I volunteer to help her? Please let me know.