It’s Fathers Day today so I would like to celebrate the life and times of my father Lim Keng Watt. Actually, some friends will say that the book I recently wrote about him called Memories Of A Malaccan is tribute enough, but I feel that I could have done better as his daughter and the self-appointed custodian of the things he left behind.
You see, my father had many stories that he wanted to share with us while he was alive, but we children were too young to appreciate them then, and later when we had started working outstation, we were too busy to listen to his tales of the past.
What a pity that many precious family stories are lost this way! My one big regret while writing his biography is that I did not write it while he was still alive, when he could have elaborated on all the memorabilia that he left behind and identified some of the people and events shown in his photos.
Instead, I found most of his photos, documents, letters and postcards after he had passed away, mostly uncaptioned and undated. Whatever could I do with them? When Bert Tan who had started the Malaysian Heritage and History Club (MHHC) in October 2012 invited me to give a talk on my father, I grabbed this offer to share some of my father’s mementos with the public.
My presentation went well, and showed the audience that, far from being a sleepy hollow, Melaka was quite a “happening” place, with my father involved in many of the activities. I also produced a 2014 calendar that I had created out of some of my father’s photos.
So this book initially grew out of a calendar and a talk – in fact, out of many talks based on my father’s memorabilia and disparate notes, which I gave to clubs, schools, at MHHC events and for TEDx MMU Melaka.
I resisted the idea of a book, as I was well aware that writing a book was a different – and a much more difficult – kettle of fish from giving oral presentations. But fellow Malaccans and history buffs like my good friends Colin Goh and Josephine Chua encouraged me to do so.
I started my initial writing in late 2015, with a self-imposed deadline of 2017 for publication. This was because 2017 was the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, and my father Sergeant #80047 in the 4th battalion of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force was actually there when the seemingly invincible island surrendered to the Japanese, and was one of the lucky ones to escape slaughter.
However, deadlines are tricky things, especially when one is easily distracted as I am when I dig into the past.
My first challenge was choosing from literally a thousand plus photos, postcards, documents and newspaper cuttings to put into the book.
How would they relate to the book? My father had written nothing or little about them. This meant interviewing older relatives and friends who were alive during the war, doing a lot of research and cross-referencing with books, magazines and newspapers, and sometimes I felt just overwhelmed. It also didn’t help when I visited my fifth aunt who was 95 (my father’s only living sibling) to get her to identify the people in the photos and she ended up asking me to identify them!
The third challenge was the writing itself.
I was also worried that Memories Of A Malaccan would only appeal to a limited readership (those who knew my father, those who were keen on history and collectors of vintage photos) and that I would make a loss if my book did not sell well.
Despite these challenges, I kept polishing my labour of love dedicated to a man whom I had taken for granted. In the course of researching for the book, I learnt many interesting things about my father’s early schooling, his myriad interests and his narrow escapes during the war.
For instance, while I knew LKW started his primary schooling in the French Convent where he learnt knitting from the nuns, I didn’t know that there were also boy boarders there, including the future Datuk John Cardosa, better known as Bapa Hospice!
As for his interests, I knew that my father played the violin and the cello, but old photos showed that he could also play the trumpet, the bugle and the euphonium. I wish that I were as musically gifted or versatile as he was.
His other accomplishments included being one of the first King’s Scouts of Melaka, serving as the first Secretary of the newly-formed Badminton Association of Melaka and being a champion badminton player, acting in various amateur productions, and collecting postcards, stamps, first day covers, etc.
But I think the highlight of his life was being chosen to represent the B (Chinese) Company of the SSVF/4 in the Victory Parade in London on June 8, 1946. Also chosen were his good friend CSM Mohammed Ali of C (Malay) Company and his schoolmate Lt. Alfred Machado of D (Eurasian) Company.
Though my father was an enthusiastic letter-writer, his 1946 diary entries gave rather cursory accounts of the Victory Celebrations. I found out why, as about two weeks after my book was published, when I was looking for something else, I found a whole stack of letters from him to my mother detailing his trip to London from the time he left from Singapore with the whole Malayan contingent to the time he sailed back! I am not sure to be sad or relieved that this could not be in the book.
Nevertheless, I hope that my biography does justice to this ordinary man who lived through some extraordinary events, and that it will encourage younger generations to talk with their elders who have so many interesting family stories to share.
Happy Fathers Day, Pa!