When Paulians gave the bell-bottomed 70s in Seremban some flare

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Frankie D'Cruz - January 16, 2022  (Free Malaysia Today)
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A group photo of the Paulian class of ’71, attired in a specially designed T-shirt in the green and white SPI colours. (Tee Yoon Poh pic)

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The way they were: Class of form five arts one in a group picture with their teacher Kenneth Kulasingham (centre, second row from the back).

SEREMBAN: On a peerless Sunday afternoon, 50 fifth formers of St Paul’s Institution (SPI) in 1971 came together to resample their youth and slyly gauge the impact of time on one another.

A treasure trove of stories emerged as the men, many of whom split as teenagers and met again as grandfathers, excavated ancient friendships.

The relationships were the same, but the conversations obviously had moved on. As had their appearances, some looking too young for the pandemic-delayed 50th anniversary reunion.

Having come from a school of ethnic and racial diversity, the men talked about the times, then and now, about the nature of man, and about being young and growing old.

They were products of a mission school at Mont La Salle, Lobak, that was a breeding ground for movers and shakers in society and one, as a citadel of learning, which insisted on togetherness, fair play and sportsmanship.

“In many ways, this was a celebration of human relationship. By the end, we agreed we were made for each other,” said Ivan Christie Jeremiah, a teller of Seremban tales.

Jeremiah, who helped organise the golden anniversary with some old classmates, described an old friend as a guardian of memories whether good, painful or deeply enjoyed.

“Such memories are the best part of your life and only school friends can understand what you were at that time,” said Jeremiah, a retired superintendent of police.

The convivial Jan 9 catchup at the Old Paulians’ House provided earlier versions of the “Boys of ‘71” as they took stock of the journey they had travelled.

They included those who had retired from the government service, current community leaders, a few still in the business world and others in their family-owned businesses like Yong Meng Sang, the well-known watch shop owner.

Countless stories on devoted teachers, sporting and academic excellence, boyhood pranks and nicknames from the past flowed. Straight-talking rants and witticism ruled.

Joining them in the good natured, knockabout fun were their Form Five History and English Language teacher, Kenneth Kulasingham and a primary schoolteacher cum scoutmaster Lee Kok Keong.

Kulasingham, who was later SPI secondary school principal from ‘91-95, said the flashbacks were imaginatively captured and reflected the intensity of friendships formed in early years.

So, as if no time had passed the class of ’71 was laughing and singing like a bunch of schoolboys who just happened to be 67 or 68 years old.

While they appeared content with the way their lives have panned out, some of their recollections were hilarious and rose-tinted while others had sharp edges.

Leong Kim Foo was the notorious giver of nicknames and while various monikers were up in the air, Jeremiah flung a teaser about an old friend they had not met since 1971.

“Who’s Thava?” he asked and when someone said, “Thava who?”, he happily lapped it up, “Thavarajasingam, the tall guy who wore short pants throughout form five!”

If Thavarajasingam wore shorts, many boys wore flared trousers with pride when they went to places like Lee Kee Milk Bar, Milo Snack Bar and Tong Fong Hotel and Restaurant where they sought solace in jukebox music and to socialise with girls.

Old Paulian, Lee Soo Kok, whose family owned Milo Snack Bar said: “These three places were well-known dating hangouts that served milk shakes while the western meals were prepared by Hainanese chefs.”

Those who dared to go to school with their white bell-bottoms had the flares, sometimes up to 26 inches, snipped by teachers.

If one had another pair of bell-bottoms, he wore it together with his platform shoes to one of the most awaited parties – the year-end SPI and Convent Seremban joint party, closely guarded by brothers, nuns and teachers.

The pride of the Class of ’71 at such parties was the band “City Burners” that included the late Too Ah Lek and Lam Chee Cheong. Alvin Philanderson had a group called “Cultivated Iron Steps”.

It was a liberal period in Malaysia and it was hard to resist watching soft porn films like “Swedish Fly Girls” that were screened in cinemas.

Playboy magazines were also easily available at newsstands in the town but as Kevin Chan said, “no harm done as it was an age of innocence when the virtues of self-restraint and respect were drummed into children by parents and teachers”.

Those who did not get allowances from their parents during school holidays worked as casual workers including at the New Pacific Bar and Nite Club, owned by stripper Rose Chan who gained national nudge-nudge notoriety over her profession.

The club on the sixth floor of the Ruby Hotel on Lemon Street was the go-to entertainment spot frequented by high-flyers who came from afar as Singapore. A big bottle of Martell cost M$55 and a casual worker was paid M$4.50 a night.

As sport was a must back then, some of them played different sports in a day at the NS Padang, Rahang Square Lobak field and Happy Valley at the Lake Garden.

Others took to the windswept, muddy or stone-littered grounds in their neighbourhoods to play football and hockey or to play badminton on the road.

In school, SPI brother director Felix Donahue forced the mischievous students, like Bala Vethachalam, to rumble in the rugby pitch while cricket master SA Roy ordered the naughty boys to play cricket under the mid-day sun.

People like Low Tuck Seng, Kevin Chan, Jeremiah and Titus Gomez shone at state-level football, rugby and athletics. Gerald Gibbs and Douglas Chan are still actively playing golf.

The more serious ones spoke about the hoary topic of racial integration, about being in school at a time when no child knew anything about racism and about neighbourhoods that were a mixture of all the races.

“The race barrier was never a problem then because families were all the same,” said Gomez, a politician. “It never crossed anyone’s mind to raise an eyebrow to race.”

Wong Fui Min wrapped up the reunion, saying: “Old friends matter, the Paulian spirit prevailed and the reunion added yet another emotional element to our lives.”

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A toast to the Paulian spirit: (L-R) Ivan Christie Jeremiah, Steven Chan Kam Wah, teacher Kenneth Kulasingham, Leong Siew Kooi, Chow Kim Seng and Douglas Chan Wing Hong. (Tee Yoon Poh pic)

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Wong Fui Min (left) and Jeff Chua entertained their former schoolmates with songs and jokes. (Tee Yoon Poh pic)

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Cheers!  "Yam Seng"

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