Monday, April 03, 2006

My father, Basketball, and the late President Chiang Kai-shek

[Abridged version published at Yesterday.sg], 4 April 2006]

Over the years, I've told people that my father used to play for the Singapore national basketball team in the 1960s. But when pressed for details, I wasn't able to give any, simply because I had none.

My earliest awareness about my father's basketball days stemmed from one particular photo, with a particular man in it. When I was old enough to learn who was that man in the centre of the photo (which you'll soon see if you read on), I started to pay a little more interest but still not a lot.

Growing up, there were times my father would relate some memorable events but again, I didn't attempt to find out more (let's just say that in my growing-up years, my relationship with my father was typical of most Asian families of our generation then -- where the father was the disciplinarian and heart-to-heart conversations between fathers and sons existed only in American TV shows).

All that I knew thus far were that: (1) the 1960s were the heady days of basketball in Singapore, and (2) my father had represented Singapore to play in the Asian games and overseas tournaments.

My father's story was made all the more credible by my mother. She usually stayed out of his other stories but she'd add a brief word or two about his days as a national player.

Recently, when I emailed my brother about my (immensely small) part in Yesterday.sg, I suggested that we interview my father for a basketball story. My brother liked the idea about posting in Yesterday.sg but he'd rather that I do the interview.

"You know how Pa is like. Once he starts with his story, he will never stop", wrote my brother. That was that.

So yesterday, when my wife and I dropped by my parent's place for one of our weekend dinners, I took the chance to ask my father about the photo.

“Pa, 你还有没有你以前打篮球的 photo?”
[Pa, do you still have those photos from your basketball days?"]

“有! 很多.你要哪一个?”
[Yes. Plenty. Which one do you want?]

“那张有 Chiang Kai-shek 在里面的.”
[The one with Chiang Kai-shek in it.]

He brought out a photo album. This was what I was referring to:
1955 Malayan Basketball Team in Formosa (front)

I asked more questions (it wasn't that hard, now that I had a specific purpose -- which was to write a post for Yesterday.sg). And this was what I learnt:
My father played for the National Squad (if it could be called that) from around 1954 to 1976 1966. He was around 21 when he joined and remained the only left-hander during those years. He finally retired from the squad at the age of 33, after 22 12 years.

According to my father, basketball clubs existed in the pre-war years (i.e. pre-1942) and continued well into the post-war, post-colonial, and post-independence years (Singapore gained Independence in 1965).

The above photo was taken in 1955. It's particularly significant because it was taken with the late leader of Taiwan ROC, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong May-ling (click on image to see larger version). Don't believe me? Cross reference with this photo and this one.

My father is/ was the young man at the front row, second from left.

I asked how the picture came to be. My father said a basketball tournament had been organised in Taiwan as part of the celebrations for Chiang Kai-shek's birthday. Various teams had been invited to play (I forgot to ask from which countries). The team my father was in comprised of players from Malaya and Singapore (this was in 1955, before Merger, Separation and Independence).

The team was known as 马华 (Ma- Hua), taking the first Chinese character for “Malaya” (马来亚) and Chinese (华, to mean Singapore). The players in the photo were the selected few from Malaya and Singapore.

I asked my father if he and his team mates shook hands with the late President Chiang. He said no. There was heavy security and teams were simply ushered in and out of the palace like a production line.


I play basketball, in case you were wondering, but I doubt if I'm as good as my father ever was. Certainly not National Team material. So I'm doing what I can do slightly better, which is to write about it.

Last year, a Chinese newspaper reporter took this picture. My father's the taller guy on the left of the picture, with Mr Ho (also an ex-national player who played with my father) on the right.
2005 He Liansiu and Zhou Anjin

Both men are now in their early 70s.

As I write this, my father is still in relatively good health for his age. From the way he works the garden at the Community Centre, you'd never tell he has a Defibrillator in his chest. He can out-lift some youngsters more than half his age (flower pots filled with soil aren't light at all). Benefits of a sporting lifestyle, eh?

He and his basketball buddies are also working as part-time basketball coaches for students in some primary and secondary schools. I doubt if his students know of their backgrounds and glory days. Perhaps one day they'll read Yesterday.sg and say, "Hey, that was my basketball coach... and I had no idea."

It's funny... while I'd seen that 1955 photo with Chiang Kai-shek as a child, it was only yesterday, 2 Apr, 2006 (writing for Yesterday.sg) that I've learnt a story behind it. And as I write this now, I realised I almost my father's age when he retired from playing basketball.

Perhaps I should come clean.

Writing for Yesterday.sg is just a catalyst, almost an excuse (albeit a very good one) for me to tell the world, "That's my father."

Oh, and he used to play for Singapore.

15 comments:

  1. Dear Ivan, that's a sweet story of greatness!

    Our fathers and forefathers seem to have gone through more difficult times compared to us. They may be more accustomed to working on the grander scale of things and thusly rise to be noteworthy people in society.

    Do you think people of our generation can ever live up to their level of importance in Singapore? Or are we destined to live our quiet lives as citizens? (unintentional pessimism) :)

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  2. Thanks for writing this personal story and also submitting it on yesterday.sg Ivan.

    It has all the various elements that our gahmen would be proud of:
    1) Intergenerational bonding
    2) Sporting excellence and triumph
    3) Community spirit
    4) Cross border regional diplomacy
    5) Sense of identity and rootedness

    To me at least, the most important point is the emotional connection that this resonates with others who have also had similar experiences.

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  3. Hi Kevin, our fathers and forefathers have gone through more difficult times. But I doubt they (in general) would agree they're noteworthy people or that they're important people. They would say they were just doing what they had to do. At least I think that's what my father would say. I also think "greatness" and "importance" are qualities for others to judge, not ourselves.

    Alamak, Walter! You keep reminding me of work... just kidding. Thanks for leaving the comments. At least I know I have a second reader to this post and I'll try to write more about other interesting photos.

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  4. what a wonderful story - and beautifully written.

    i'm not a math wiz, but isn't his retirement age 43?

    it is great how a single personal story can say so much about history, culture, humanity.

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  5. Ivan, Victor knows that I like to give out blogging assingnment. So pls talk to your dad some more and blog about some of the great matches in Gay World Stadium.

    You got your dad's tall genes.

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  6. Ivan, you should check out how many reads your post at yesterday.sg has garnered. The latest count was about 52 readers when I last checked.

    Interestingly, your post came just after June's report on the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Villa (Wan Qing Yuan). The story of both gentlemen, their lives and their wives (the Soong sisters) makes for a fascinating read about the beginnings of modern China (and Taiwan).

    If you do have the time, I encourage you to visit that museum which traces the path of the Chinese revolutionaries. Sorry lah my job is to sell the museums....

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  7. hi ivan,
    just want to let you know that i shared your story and photos with my mom who just came back from nanjing yesterday. she absolutely enjoyed your story and the photo. of course then i nicely tied it in with the nanyang memorial hall posts and photos on yesterday.sg. then we started talking tons about the soong sisters and their men.

    so basically, im a real life coincidence.. or example to what "cool insider" was talking about.

    thank you for sharing and you should be very proud of your father :)

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  8. David, you've got a sharp eye for facts. Yup, it was a typo. I meant to correct it when I got back home but you spotted it before I could do it.

    Chun See - I'll ask my dad if he could talk about the tournaments played at Gay World (oh boy, we've got to explain to non-Singaporeans what this ISN'T!)

    Monkey - thanks for sharing the story with your mum. :)

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  9. Hi there,

    I came across this post when I typed in 'basketball', being a big big fan of the sport.

    But after reading the story, I am just wondering if this is also the same tournament that my dad participated in.

    I know that my dad had visited Taiwan in the 50's to represent Burma in a basketball tournament. I am just wondering if this is the same tournament.

    FYI, the Burmese team in that tournament weren't really serious basketball players. They were basically just a bunch of guys who were tall and had heard of this opportunity to go to Taiwan (freeloaders basically and got trashed!).

    Please check this with you father (whether Burma was at the tournament that he was involved in).

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  10. Hi Ivan,

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring story not only of your father's contributions towards national sports but your own rediscovery of your father. Keep on posting!!

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  11. What good is a life that doesn’t experience some trace of all possible lives? What’s the point of being only who we are? Indeed, and this is why we read.

    Thanks Ivan

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  12. aargafella9:33 am

    this is a really heartwarming story ivan, even though i dun think you meant it to be so. i'm glad you're taking the effort to share a bit of your dad's past (often, the older generation likes to say that nobody cares about the past)...

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  13. To sputty -- I asked my dad and he says he really can't remember which were the countries that played at the tournament. Sorry. I suppose if you really wanted to find out, it could be a research question to be submitted to the library's Advisory & Enquiry service (ask @nlb.gov.sg)

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  14. Interesting story. To add on a part regarding 马华。In 1955, "马" refer to Malaya, "华" refer to Chinese and not Singapore. At that time, Singapore was regarded as part of Malaya. Another e.g. will be 马华文学 (Malayan-Chinese Literature)

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  15. Thanks for pointing that out Gelyn. Singapore was popularly associated as the enclave of Chinese in Malaya, rather than "Singapore" itself (as we know it now), I suppose.

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