Ho Kwong Pin mentioned this book in passing in a commemtary he wrote for ST a few weeks ago. Aunt C, who had read it called me up and highly recommended it. Jurong Library stocks many copies and so, it’s a shove (rather than a pull or push factor) that got me to read the book.
This book has many firsts for me. I believe it’s my first time reading an autobiography, and also my first time reading about Singapore pioneers. (Yes, I’m ashamed I’ve not read the books LKY wrote, or Wee Kim Wee, or Men in White etc.) So I congratulate myself for actually finishing it.
Ho (1917-1999) wrote simply, a plus factor when you don’t need to keep skipping words or check dictionary. The first few chapters about his earlier life kept me going. It was as if you were being introduced to a man for the first time. He was tall (6ft), dashing, captain of many clubs and very handsome, as seen from the photos included in the book. I’m sure he had many girls’ hearts fluttering without his knowledge. If he were an American instead of a student in China, he’d probably date the captain of the cheer leaders.
Ho was born in Singapore and lived in Tanjong Rhu where his father had a boat repair business. He was sent back to China to be educated as at eleven and had never lived permanantly in Singapore until after Singapore gained independence. He led a rather nomadic life, often travelling in order to finish his education during the turbulent years in the early 1930s. Travelling to and through China was tedious and required many days in ship and trains. When the sea route was blocked during the Japanese’ invasion to China, he had to travel via the Thai-Burma railway and had an opportunity to vist Angkok Wat. WOW! In his book, he acknowledged many friends who had come to his aid whenever he was in trouble.
His teacher in Nanking University was Prof John Buck, ex husband of Pearl S Buck, author of The Good Earth. Ho’s aim was to get to USA for further education and he had to pass an examination which was held in Chongqing. So despite having a job with Prof Buck, he resigned to relocate to Chongqing. He passed the exams and was sent to USA, where his life changed.
He met his wife, Li Lien Fung, an American Chinese from a wealthy family, herself an accomplished writer with her own newspaper column in St many years ago. His father-in-law became his mentor in business and provided him with the opportunity of running a business, first in Burma and then in Thailand.
It was interesting for me to read these few chapters as Wah Chang was dealing in chemicals like Tungsten and carbon black (a black pigment)and many companies he mentioned in passing was familiar to me, like Dupont and W R Grace, which are both giant chemical companies today still. Back then, chemical companies also use trading agents, which reminded me of my own short career working in chemical trading companies.
There were a few chapters devoted to Tapioca business, a main business for Tai Wah (Wah Chang subsidery in Thailand) in 1940-1960 which may be too much in details.
The last few chapters were devoted to his career as ambassador to Thailand and Belgiam. It was funny to read about the many social events for ambassador, something he disliked and I can sympathize with.
As i read his book, I thought, what a lucky man he was!
As he wrote, "Many people believe that the outcome of their lives depend not on chance but on the choices they made or the effort they put into their work. Perhaps they are right, but it seems to me that although I too have made choices and have put in much effort in my work, yet what successes and failures in my life were more often than not a result of chance." (Remember, luck is when opportunity knocks and you answer.)
Reading his book reminded me of the phrase – Life is a journey, not a destination. For Ho, it was more than a journey. It was an adventure.
A highly recommended read, also an opportunity to learn more about the high profile Singaporean family who owns Banyan Tree.