Friday, February 03, 2006

A silent witness to history, changing times

The three-storey building located at the junction of Clare Street and Anderson Road (and opposite my old house) was once the legendary Tong Ah or Oriental Hotel which was a secret hideout of the Kuomintang-Force 136 operatives during Japanese occupation (see Tan Choon Tee's Story of a Resistance Fighter - Force 136, Singapore, Asiapac, 2001; pp.222-245). According to Mr. Tan, the hotel was raided by the Japanese and the incident led to the destruction of the KMT-Force 136 secret operations in Ipoh and the arrest of Lim Bo Seng @ Tan Choon Lim. In his memoirs Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History (Singapore, Media Masters, 2003), Chin Peng reasons that the network were betrayed or sold out by one of the indisciplined KMT operatives, Ah Ng. (pp: 105-106)

When I was a child, my own grandmother used to tell me stories about Tong Ah Hotel being " the grandest hotel" in British Malaya outside Singapore and Penang in the 1930s and 1940s. It was said to be a favorite rest and recreation center for rich and powerful men or women from China, including many top-ranking Kuomintang leaders of both its Left and Right wings (like Hu Hanmin) who visited Perak. Tong Ah Hotel was open for business a few months after my grandparents started their coffeeshop shop business in 1919.

(The photograph at the bottom is said to be taken in 1950 by a former Force 136 operative Yi Tian Song and is reproduced in Tan Chong Tee's memoirs cited above; the hotel in the photograph was exactly the one I saw everyday opposite my shop in the 1960s and 1970s)

By the 1970s when I used to send orders of drinks and food from my shop to its guests (like what our Pizza Hut mobile units do nowadays), the hotel had already degenerated into place where only lumpen-proletarians like swindlers who used the covers of 'Buddhist monks' or 'Taoist priests' or 'intermediary between the living and the dead', loan-sharks, 'snake-oil' salesmen, triad leaders, operators of illegal gambling, rogue police detectives, pimps and regionally mobile prostitutes (many of them regularly travelled to 'Saigon' in 'South Vietnam' to serve the 'Free Market' there) 'dared' to live.

To be very frank now, whenever I sent orders of drinks and food into the hotel rooms those days, especially to some windowless ones at second floor, I carried a pencil-knife in my pocket as a precautionary self-protection measure. Sometimes, I also asked my younger brother to accompany me as a rear guard.

One always well-dressed man was particularly frightening because I saw him frequently kicking the cats in the hotel brutally - with grim smiles- for no reason. Nowadays, this type of abnormal behaviour is most probably described by psychologists as being psychopathic or antisocial.

The hotel ceased to function as a business in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Now, it is a very decent shop selling electrical and electronic ware. However, the architectural structure of the building remains unchanged.

Looking back, my encouters with all kinds of room guests of the Tong Ah Hotel in the 1970s had given me insights into many aspects of what academics now called social psychology and even psychology of abnormal behaviours (like the well-dressed cat-kicking man). Above all, my younger brother and I were taught by our real-life experiences to be less gullible or credulous and more willing to confront crooks and bullies, if well-intentioned engagement is interpreted as cowardice.