Happenings

When the towchang was a distinctive symbol

Oct 2003    
Methodist Boys' School in Kuala Lumpur. -- Methodist Church Archives picture.

The Rev Dr Ho Seng Ong, for many years Headmaster, Anglo-Chinese School Malacca and Methodist Boys’ School Kuala Lumpur, and Methodist Education Secretary, District Superintendent and Editor of Methodist Message, recounts his early days as a schoolboy in Kuala Lumpur.

‘I CAME to the Methodist Boys’ School in 1906 when the main building was new and the late Rev William E. Horley was the Principal. He had started the Mission in Ipoh in 1895 and for some forty years this genial and fine Christian leader was to set the foundations of many school and church buildings through the length and breadth of Malaya.

At that time he was at the height of his missionary career, fighting valiantly against opium, gambling, strong drink and impurity. His voice was heard everywhere and I gladly pay my tribute to my first headmaster – an Englishman like his colleague of Penang, the late Rev George F. Pykett, who rendered invaluable service to the cause of education and religion in this country.

What were school days like when I went to school? First of the students I remember was that there were many big boys, boys who would never be in our regular schools today. No wonder teachers had to discipline them. I don’t mean such things as detention classes and deprivation of certain privileges, for one of the “memorable” days of my boyhood was the morning when many of the big boys were publicly caned and some were expelled. On the right side of the account I recall that our big boys were often more than the equal of the football teams in the town. Many of the students came to school clothed in their national garb and many were barefooted.

We Chinese boys had our queues on and strangely enough we were proud of them until, of course, when we wished we hadn’t the wretched thing. Fortunately for myself and my brothers, my mother bravely consented to Mr Horley cutting our towchangs (pigtails) off and we became the pioneers of Chinese lads minus this distinctive symbol as early as 1906. We were indeed a very small band in those days; I can only remember Dr K. K. Kwong, now of Malacca and Mr W. T. Lee, who got rid of their towchangs long before the Chinese Revolution.

As I review this touching episode in my life I again wish to pay tribute to the memory of Mr Horley, and the wonder never leaves me how a missionary’s labours got tied up with the towchang problem of a Chinese family who lived in Kuala Selangor in a little unknown corner of Malaya.

What of the teachers? Mr Cheeseman has said that when he came to Malaya in 1907 there was not anywhere in the country a single locally-born and locally-trained school master in our English Schools. I survived under such a system because I think I was lucky enough to pass through the hands of some very good teachers, who although academically without the learning were nevertheless good practising school masters.

I therefore wish to pay tribute to such teachers as Miss Thornley, my first school teacher – she was all kindness to me; Mr Arab, a very strict master who spared not the rod – as I think of him and teachers like him, I think for a small quiet boy like myself, what did the “trick” was that the fear of the rod was the beginning of wisdom.

And what of the Church? When I came up to KL fifty years ago the main landmarks of our Christian witness had already been established – St Mary’s (Anglican), Bluff Road Chapel (Brethren), the Catholic Churches on Bukit Nanas and the other on Brickfields Road, and our own little church on Malacca Street. Mr Horley was my first pastor and I can easily recall how, clad in full ministerial garb including a straw hat, he would ride on his bicycle to church.

Unlike Methodist churches of today, the KL church had rather an old-world atmosphere – the wall facing the congregation was richly decorated to represent Christian architecture and symbols (a make-do, as it were, in place of the real thing) and before the advent of electricity it was always dim inside the building. The pews were such that as a little boy I was lost in them, once I got seated – not too bad, as I always was asleep for the most part of the service and was awakened by my eldest brother when the service was over. And I must not forget the punkahs to keep us comfortable.

For something like six or seven years as a little fellow I studied and played and lived like all other boys of my age, on the periphery of the life and activities of the Church. I had learned to sing a few hymns. Often we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “Jesus Loves Me”, and “We Are Out on The Ocean Sailing”.

My first Sunday School was at the old MGS which was burnt down in 1916. The Bible I remember first reading was an illustrated one used in Catholic schools. The time when I really made my entry into the Church was when I joined the Epworth League in 1911. Hilda Perera (mother of Rex Ebert of Singapore Wesley) was President and Miss M. L. Rank the Secretary, and Rev T. C. Maxwell the Pastor. The following year Lum Mun Yoke (afterwards Dr Lim) was President with Rev F. Lee the Pastor …’ — MM, Aug-Sept 1957, p. 21-22.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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