KIRKBY REUNION 2008, MELAKA- An Occasion to Remember

by Wan Chwee Seng

 

The light of the Phoenix Ballroom, at the Equatorial Hotel, Melaka is gradually dimmed and the prominently displayed words of the backdrop ‘KIRKBY REUNION 10-12 JULY 2008’ soon fade and blend with the  darkness. The band strikes up the evergreen ‘Tennessee Waltz’ and a couple shuffle to the floor. A silver-haired gentleman on rickety legs is escorting his partner with a sprained ankle to the dance floor. Other dancers saunter in.

 

As I sit at the dining table, drinking in the sight and listening to the strains of the sentimental music that waft across the room,  I find myself being  transported back into time.  In my mind’s eye, I see young men with thick mops of wavy, black hair gliding gracefully and effortlessly across the wide expanse of the college gym floor as they guide their equally young and charming partners who spot flailing pony tails. Now, as I gaze at the dance floor, an entirely different scene meets my eyes. The small dance floor is packed with gentle swaying bodies. Overhead, concealed lamps cast muted light to add extra glow to shiny bald pates and lend a glint to silvery hair.

 

A gentle, feminine voice jolts me out of my reverie.

 

“And you are…” she says, as she gently grips the corner of my name tag to peer and squint at the bold printed words. ‘Wan…Chwee…Seng’, she repeats the words slowly to herself as she attempts to commit it to memory. She strolls back to her table, then makes a sudden turn to head back to my table. “Er... What is your name, again?” She bends to peer and squint at the name again, and I hear her repeating the name as she slowly retreats to her table. I am touched and overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and spirit shown by my super senior who has taken the trouble to get to know her fellow Kirkbyites.

 

“I hear LS is here,” I ask for confirmation from a lady friend at my table.

 

“Yes,” she replies. “There, the one in the pink dress.”  She points to a lady at the next table. I thread my way gingerly to the other table. Curious feminine faces pause from their hushed conversations to gaze at the intruder with the receding hairline. Through the corner of my eyes I try to make out the names on their name tags. A name seems familiar, but I cannot place the face. A face seems familiar, but I have forgotten the name. Finally, I approach the lady in pink. “Remember me? Chwee Seng…” I say. “Er. Yes,” she answers hesitatingly. We exchange some information about our children, but as I walk away from the table, I am still left to wonder if there is any flicker of recognition of the old man who has just left. After all, nearly fifty years have passed and we have all gone our separate ways.

 

At another table though, an excited voice pipes up in clear recognition, “ Eh! Remember me? We were in the same football team and you were so ‘kurus’ then. Now I see you are an all-rounder and a shining example to the others!” He laughs heartedly and pats his rotund and bald headed buddy on the back.

 

In the midst of the rejoicing I feel a tinge of sadness as I realise that age has inexorably caught up with us, and yet thankful, that we are able to make it to this occasion at all.

 

On the dance floor, couples are now waltzing to the lovely melody of ‘Changing Partners’.  Yes, some of us may have changed partners, others our professions, our nationalities may have changed and for sure, our appearances. But one thing remains unchanged- the spirit of Kirkby College that lives in all of us; a spirit kept alive by that small group of men and women who have sacrificed their time and resources and worked tirelessly to organise this wonderful Reunion. A Reunion that has enabled us to meet up with old friends, rekindle old ties and strengthen our relationships. Like the lyrics in our college song:

 

‘Though many the clans of our Father

And strangers in blood tho’ we are

Yet Malaya alone is our Mother

And she calls us from afar’

 

And so, from different corners of the world we have answered that call and congregated in Melaka to reunite old ties.

 

“Hi, Chwee Seng!”

 

A figure leaps from behind a pillar and gives me a big hug. I have not seen Johnny since our college days. A week earlier, he had emailed me to say he was coming from Canada for the Reunion. I told him that perhaps he would not be able to recognise me after all these years. “Don’t worry, I’ll recognise the dimples!” he reassured me. Beyond my expectations, we are able to recognise each other instantaneously.

 

Scenes like that are repeated all around me, accompanied by the sound of excited voices and a flurry of activities. Information is exchanged. Business cards are dug out from well-worn wallets. Phone numbers and addresses are written on torn menu cards. Then above the cacophony of voices, an irritated and raspy voice calls out, “Eh! You all don’t want your photo taken, ah. If not you all stay here and continue talking.” Like recalcitrant school children who have been reprimanded by a headmaster we meekly follow him to the makeshift, precarious-looking stage for the group photograph. There were more photo sessions that night.  

 

“Batch of 1959-1960,” a voice announced. We make our way to the stage. Chivalrous ‘young’ men assist ‘young’ charming ladies to ascend the short flight of steps. My Block mate and a few of us sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage. Cameras click. “One more,” a voice pleads. My legs are already numb and my friend is twitching uneasily and grasping his aching knee. In front of us more cameras lay scattered on the floor.. Finally, the last camera clicks and flashes. Above the din, a voice moans, “I think my knee has given way…!’. Friendly but trembling hands somehow manage to support him to his feet. A few minutes later, he is seen dancing with a charming lady on his arm; all the pain forgotten in the excitement of the moment.

 

On the morning of the second day, four Panorama Melaka buses are seen in front of the Hotel to take the participants for a visit to some of the more well-known landmarks in Melaka. The participants disembark from the buses and stand at the foot of one of Melaka‘s famous hills. A few gaze nervously at the craggy terrain and at the treacherous track leading to the peak. It looked like a daunting task. Could they make it to the peak? ‘Don’t worry!” the able-bodied gentlemen cleared the doubts of those less certain, as they guided and helped them to the top. Once again the indomitable spirit of Kirkby College had prevailed against all odds. Perhaps later, in the comfort of their sitting rooms, they could tell their children and grandchildren how they had conquered one of Melaka’s famous peaks - St. John’s Hill. (Of course, keeping the fact that it is less than a hundred metres above sea level!)

 

As another of the buses screech to a halt at the foot of Bukit China Hill, the participants descend and start to scale the short flight of steps leading to Hang Li Poh’s well. Following their tour guide, they proceed confidently to the back of the temple. They gaze down into its dark depth and caress the weather-beaten, moss-covered stonework that surrounds the well. After all, it could be once in a lifetime experience: the experience of seeing and touching the oldest well in Melaka, a well built in 1459. As they slowly proceed back to the bus, someone yelled, “Eh! Hang Li Poh’s well is the one in front of the temple. The one at the back is for the employees daily use.” 

“ Aiyah! Never mind lah. After all it is just a well,” someone remarked. Obviously his coin had just gone down the ‘wishing’ well.

 

 Back at the hotel, we are treated to a delicious meal of nyonya cuisine, including the mouth-watering asam pedas and the indispensable sambal belacan. As we dig into the white rice topped with spicy gravy and mixed with sambal belacan, our hot breath hummed and our veined fingers tapped to the tune of  ‘Jingkli Nona’. Out front, the nyonya beauties are performing an almost flawless Portuguese dance, in spite of the baggy men’s trousers and over-sized shirts which were obviously pinched from their husbands’ wardrobes in a haste!  

 

On the first night, we were treated to a sumptuous Chinese dinner, but most missed out on the dishes served as we were busy making our rounds to meet up with old friends.  A sort of musical chairs was evidently in progress. We were either moving about the room or sitting quietly at our tables, listening to the rendition of ‘oldies’ that brought back happy memories of our college days- those dark and dreary winter nights when, in the warmth and comfort of the recreation room, we would listen to hits like ‘The Young Ones’ by Cliff Richard. And tonight, we are the ‘young ones’ again! 

 

“Time for lucky draw!” a voice announces. We wait anxiously for our numbers to be drawn. We find that it is no ordinary lucky draw, as our host, Phee Eng adds spice and colour to the event and a bit of ‘tau you’ for local flavour.

 

In the midst of all the excitement, a ‘nyonya’ has somehow strayed into the hall. In an under-sized kebaya and a loose sarung which keeps slipping from her waist, she strolls to the front of the stage. Soon, we are entertained to a Baba and Nyonya skit which leaves us in stitches.

 

Not to be outdone by the ‘babas’ and ‘nyonyas’ the Australian contingent gives a rendition of the ‘chicken dance.’ Despite having flown from different parts of Australia, they are able to flap their silent ‘wings’ and move their voiceless ‘beaks’ in unison to a lively tune. Our local, free range kampung chickens would have fluttered and squawked at the sound of the throbbing music!

 

Now, as the night comes to a close and the last strains of ‘Till we meet again’ drifts across the hall, we drag our heavy, reluctant feet across the floor. Most, if not all of us are stricken with nostalgia and overwhelmed by emotion. Holding back tears, we bid farewell to one another.

 

 

 

Acknowledgement

 

A big thank you to all of you, who have contributed in way or another to the writing of this article.