By Yong Soo Heong
Shuttler Tan Aik Mong’s sudden demise in the evening of May 31, 2020 was indeed shocking, to say the least, for me.
One of my Penang badminton contemporaries, Lim Teong Khoon, had forewarned fellow members of our group chat to brace for something depressing as he disseminated the information. I sat stunned in my car after receiving the sad news.
Stunned and sad because it was just 10 days earlier that Aik Mong had shown how fighting fit he was by mowing the lawn of his Bukit Jelutong home. Later, he was seen strolling the greens at Kelab Golf Negara Subang for his second favourite game – golf – to the cheers of his many friends and club members.
Aik Mong was well-liked and had many friends as he was a good conversationalist although he may have had some unorthodox ideas on certain issues. He was open, opinionated but yet not offensive.
But as they say, life is unpredictable. And I was devastated to learn that Aik Mong, 70, had finally succumbed to liver cancer which he fought for many years without the aid of chemotherapy on that fateful Sunday as I was beginning to get used to being a good friend to him.
I was comforted that he had Irene Ch’ng, his confidante of 22 years, by his bedside as he breathed his last breath. His son and family in Singapore were affected by the MCO restrictions then in place but they subsequently came in time for the funeral.
Irene had said that Aik Mong knew the end was near about three days before he was to go and did everything to set everything straight. In other words, he had fulfilled what he had set out to do and was able to let go of the material world towards the end. He was at peace with the world.
Earlier, Aik Mong in fact had planned to go to Johor just after Chinese New Year (CNY) with me and two other more accomplished shuttlers, Thomas Cupper Saw Swee Leong and six-time national champion Sylvia Ng . Besides wanting to sample the glorious food in Johor, he had wanted to meet two other badminton legends, Roland Ng and Billy Ng, elder brothers of Sylvia, and also a mutual friend, Albert Goh Teong Hoe, who had built a 19-court badminton complex in Johor Bahru. (Incidentally Roland died a few days later on June 10 at the age of 89).
Ever since Aik Mong left his second Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) coaching stint abruptly in 2013, he had always wanted to find ways to contribute towards coaching the young. The Penangite, who was once BAM coaching chairman in the mid-80s, thought he had some interesting ideas to be put across to Teong Hoe in JB.
These thoughts actually germinated last November when the four of us – Aik Mong, Swee Leong, Sylvia and myself – had gone to Penang on a food extravaganza! But the MCO curtailed our movements this year and now Aik Mong, whom we affectionately called “Mahaguru” (Master) because of his deep and profound thoughts, is no more with us.
I had actually “known” (note the inverted commas) Aik Mong since the late 60s. “Known” is actually a safer word for I hadn’t got close to him due to our age gap although we passed each other almost every other day as we cycled to school in opposite directions – me to Westlands Secondary School and him to Methodist Boys School in Penang. He’d always nod his head in my direction. I reckoned he may have seen me practising at the Penang Chinese Girls High School Hall, then one of the nurseries of Penang’s many badminton players.
While I was a small fry, Aik Mong was already in the Big League then as he was a Thomas Cupper and played in the SEAP and Asian Games. He had already wrestled for individual honours with then Indonesian maestros like Muljadi (Ang Tjin Siang) and Iie Sumirat. His best achievements was winning the 1971 Asian championship in Jakarta when he beat then Japanese star, Junji Honma. Three years earlier, he had also beaten Honma for the Asian schoolboys’ title in Tokyo.
In fact, Aik Mong played one of his best matches in the semi-finals of the Singapore Open in April 1969 when he beat Dhamardi (Wong Pek Shen) of Indonesia, who had just won that year’s All England men’s singles title about a month earlier, in a three-game thriller of 14-17, 15-14 and 18-14 lasting 69 minutes! Aik Mong, as a thinking player that he was, was observed to have changed tactics by placing many of his shots far to the baseline to thwart Dhamardi’s fast pace game.
Incidentally Aik Mong also partnered his elder brother, Aik Huang (best known for his 1966 All-England men’s singles triumph in 1966) to gun for honours in the men’s doubles event. As a pair, they had even beaten the top doubles combination comprising the late Punch Gunalan and Ng Boon Bee in the 1972 Singapore Open! In the same year, they had advanced to the final of the Indonesian Open but only to lose to the crack Indonesian pair of Ade Chandra and Christian Hadinata in another three-game thriller.
When Aik Mong was 24 years old and working as a computer analyst for Malaysia Airlines in 1975, he announced his retirement from competitive badminton. In citing his reasons, he said that demands were too great for him and that badminton at the national level was not a part-time thing or a pastime because the game was becoming more scientific and demanded a lot in terms of stamina or fitness, court-craft and strategic thinking.
“You have to do so much training and play to stay at the top. No, I don’t want to play badminton all my life. It’s not my whole life.
“I enjoyed playing badminton because it was good for me and good for my country. But when the demands are so great as they are today and the going is tough, it is no longer a joy to continue playing.
“But somehow I had the satisfaction of being among the respected players in international tournaments. I couldn’t ask for more,” said Aik Mong then.
During the course of my career as a journalist in the 1980s, I had actually stumbled into Aik Mong’s office at Kumpulan Guthrie in Damansara Heights for a news story totally unrelated to badminton. It was for a business story and I was referred to him as he was then the group’s top computer analyst and had been successful in laying the foundation to clinching many top-level computer-based government contracts for his employers.
After a long absence, I got “re-connected” with Aik Mong sometime in 2012 at the annual CNY dinners thrown by Teong Hoe at Restoran Oversea in Jalan Imbi, KL. And Aik Mong was always careful with what he ate because of his medical condition.
Somehow, I got along well with him as I was able to respond to what he had to say, no matter how bizarre or twistingly philosophical the topic may be. In 2015, we got closer as I was involved in the publicity part of a birthday bash for Teh Kew San, skipper of the victorious 1967 Thomas Cup team in Penang. We continued to stay in touch via WhatsApp and we would meet occasionally whenever he had an idea to discuss as I’d happily go along as I had nothing to lose by listening to his interesting insights.
But it was in 2019 when we got really closer as Aik Mong had planned to visit another badminton great, Ng Boon Bee, in Ipoh. Boon Bee was off the radar when he retired from a coaching position at the Royal Ipoh Club. At the same time, we were also going to see Swee Leong as he had bought a gated dwelling in Ipoh and was extolling the virtues of food served in the Perak state capital. For a Penangite to sing praises of Ipoh food, we thought we had to find out.
While in Ipoh, Aik Mong tried connecting with Boon Bee from two telephone numbers that he had gotten from another badminton legend, Tan Yee Khan, in Pulau Pangkor, whom he had met about two months earlier. Aik Mong struck gold when the second number was answered by Boon Bee’s wife. And we got connected with Boon Bee at Tesco Ipoh.
An amusing incident happened at the shopping mall. As I momentarily left the group while the former national team-mates caught up with old-time reminisces, it seemed that Boon Bee had asked the trio — Aik Mong, Swee Leong and Sylvia — how on earth did they get associated with a burly guy like me whom he hadn’t known at all. (Like I said, being a small fry in a big pond, I did manage to speak to Boon Bee in Ipoh at the Perak Open in 1972 but how could he, as an already famous player then, remember me, either as a player, fan or human being?)
When told that I used to play competitive badminton with Swee Leong, Boon Bee said they must be joking as I was more suited for sumo wrestling!
They all didn’t tell me this until we were in the car on our way to KL. As Aik Mong related this conversation to me, he guffawed loudly in the trademark style of his father, Cheng Hoe, a noted football and badminton official in Penang in the 1950s and 1960s.
Aik Mong and I got along even better after that Ipoh trip. We would go for occasional lunches and at one instance, we even visited Lee Guan Chong, a noted badminton player and coach from Selangor, when he was hospitalised for a heart attack at PJ’s University Hospital in early November 2019.
Aik Mong, Swee Leong, Sylvia and myself had some of our best times together when we went to Penang later that month. We had travelled on the speedy Electric Train Service (ETS) operated by KTM (Malayan Railway) to Butterworth from KL Sentral and later hopped on a pre-booked taxi that took us to all the popular eating joints in Malaysia’s island food paradise. Aik Mong had joked that I needed to buy two ETS seats in view of my girth. So, two seats were bought in my name but somehow Swee Leong could squeeze in the seat next to me as he came on board from Ipoh to Butterworth. (So I wasn’t that huge after all!)
Upon reaching Penang in the late afternoon, we soon “attacked” a coffee shop in Pulau Tikus known for its sizzling “mamak mee goreng” (Indian Moslem fried egg noodles) and “mee rebus” (egg noodles cooked in spicy gravy) in Bangkok Lane. In the evening, we “cornered” another coffee shop known for “char koay teow” (flattened rice noodles in fish sauce fried with bean sprouts, garlic and prawns), “sotong kangkong” (steamed cuttlefish & water spinach mixed with sweet chilly sauce), “lor bak” (Chinese meat rolls) and other local goodies.
We were again in Pulau Tikus at sunrise for more good stuff – this time for “heh mee’ or prawn noodles (egg and rice noodles, bean sprouts and water spinach cooked in spicy prawn & meat broth) and “apong” (fermented rice pancake cooked with coconut milk) at a popular coffee shop opposite the long-standing police station. Later Aik Mong took us to his secret hideout of a coffee shop at Jalan Cantonment (also in Pulau Tikus) only known to locals for its Chinese-styled “nasi lemak” (rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fried fish & pawns with a dollop of pounded red chillies mixed with prawn paste) as well as “otak-otak” (steamed spicy fish custard wrapped in banana leaves). They certainly brought back memories of yesteryears. Over the next two days, it was the same story – food, food, food.
But of significance was a dinner on Nov 18 where the thoughtfulness and diplomacy of Aik Mong shone through. He had wanted to throw a dinner party that included Kew San, affectionately known as “Ah Peh” (Old Man), among Penang’s close-knit badminton fraternity. Teong Khoon had picked Nov 18. Little did we know that it was also the date of his wedding anniversary.
Aik Mong ordered a cake for the occasion but soon sensed something wasn’t right as it turned out that Teong Khoon’s daughter from his first marriage had also wanted to attend the party. This definitely put Aik Mong in a tight spot.
Amazingly he soon had a brainwave when he discovered that very day was also the birthday of Rosalind Singha Ang, another badminton great who coming all the way from Alor Setar, for the dinner. So, Rosalind got to blow the candles, then Aik Mong also announced that it was also Teong Khoon’s wedding anniversary and asked him to kiss his wife! A sticky situation was averted.
His wry sense of humour and a caring attitude will be sorely missed. Our “fireside chats” at the Jalan Macalister Airbnb late into the night about life in general and badminton specifically turned out to be some of the best times for our reflection. Aik Mong had also spoken of his rather short stint as a coach with BAM, how he had struggled to juggle between his studies and competitive badminton, and how he was living life then.
We did broach on the interesting subject on how the next Malaysian badminton great could be produced. Aik Mong’s views came in a roundabout way as he also spoke of Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia’s star player in the first two decades of the 21st century, and what he had done to achieve fame and glory. Aik Mong conceded that they came with a great price of sacrifice and sheer commitment that included long hours of toil at the gym and on-the-court training.
To put it simply, he was of the firm view that fitness is key to today’s fast-paced game. Without that, a player can’t go far because of the scoring system. We asked him how best one should attain that.
Aik Mong coolly said that if a player could skip 5,000 times a day as part of his or her training regime, then he or she would be on to something. The strokes and strategies can come later. Those words sounded like those of our Penang state schools badminton coach in the 1970s — Lawrence Barbosa!
His confidante Irene recalled that Aik Mong always took on a positive attitude all his life and emphasised that one should always look on the bright side and be happy. For instance, Aik Mong, being the doting grandfather that he was to his grandchildren in Singapore, they would always look forward to his visits because while he was there, there was no curtailment on wi-fi data or gadgets!
Aik Mong also used to say – “live life well and in the most humble way for only God is greater than us. We men are all equals.”
According to Irene, Aik Mong had confided in her that he was concerned for my well-being, especially my weight, as he felt that the demise of my wife, Amy, had affected me somewhat and hoped that I could move on. Such was the kind of concern of Aik Mong for the people he cared for.
I remember one amusing incident when I was sitting alone in a Penang cuisine restaurant in a Petaling Jaya shopping mall and was gorging myself silly over a bowl of spicy noodle soup: Aik Mong spotted me, came over to the open-style restaurant and bellowed from the aisle,”You shouldn’t be eating that!” And he laughingly cautioned me on my food intake.
I shall certainly miss Aik Mong’s sense of humour and his stimulating conversations, especially the cosy “fireside chats”. You were truly a Mahaguru, my friend. Rest well, my champ!