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:
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.
“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.
“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
I salute these Boleh Malaysians.