Thursday, December 25, 2008

Uncle Khoo Eng Kim

Courting Days

When I first began seeing Jee, her parents were strongly opposed to the idea of their youngest daughter going out with someone who was not Chinese and not even from Malaysia. Theirs was an understandable position taken to protect their daughter. Back then (early 1970s), the reputation earned by Australian soldiers stationed at the RAAF base in Butterworth ensured that families in Penang looked down on girls who dated foreigners. For some time we had to see each other surreptitiously.

Jee lived in Bukit Mertajam but I couldn't meet her there. So, on the weekends when I came, Jee would tell her parents that she was going over to Penang Island shopping with her girlfriends. We then would meet in Penang where we could join our friends going to the beach and visiting local sites.

After several months of meeting like this, we faced a dilemma. We didn't want to keep our love secret but Jee felt it was too difficult to raise the subject with her family. We needed an intermediary.

Jee had told me about her "uncle" Eng Kim whose daughter had married a Englishman. As I thought he might be sympathetic to our situation, I decided to approach him. At the time, Khoo Eng Kim was a hospital administrator in Kuala Lipis which was close to where I was living in Bentong.

Although Kuala Lipis was only 60 miles from Bentong, the trip took nearly two hours on my Honda. Timber lorries slowed all traffic on the hills as the road twisted and climbed its way past one rubber plantation and then another. In those days, the road ended at Kuala Lipis. Beyond the town was just the jungle. Kuala Lipis, with its combination of British and Chinese architecture, was one of those quiet colonial hill towns that had once enjoyed a period of fame and importance but was now well past its days of glory.

When I arrived at the Kuala Lipis District Hospital, I asked for Mr Khoo and was quickly directed to an office. Somewhat nervously, I knocked at his door. Lifting up his head, he smiled and motioned for me to come in and take the chair next to his desk. What I noticed about him right away was his calm, pleasant manner. Although he didn't know me, he was happy to take time from his work to talk with me. He seemed neither surprised nor concerned when I explained who I was and why I had come to see him. In fact, there was a twinkle in his eyes when he began asking me questions to determine how serious I was about Jee. During our conversation he asked me my thoughts on many things from work to religion to relationships and especially how I saw my future with Jee. After an hour or so, much to my relief, he shook my hand and said he would be happy to speak to Jee's parents about me.

About a month later, I received an invitation from Jee to come meet her family. Three months later, in September 1972, we were married.

Over the years, we didn't hear much news about uncle Eng Kim. Then in 1980 he surprised everyone by renouncing the world to become a monk. We had all known of his devotion to Buddhism and his desire to take up the saffron robes. But none of us expected that at age 60 he would leave his wife, his children and his home to enter a monastery. Although he had provided for his wife so that she could live comfortably, his decision made many wonder whether he was truly aware of what he was doing.

As a monk, uncle Eng Kim became Bhante Suvanno. Over the years, his reputation in Buddhist circles throughout Southeast Asia grew. He was cherished for his knowledge of Buddhism and his ability to present Buddhist teachings in a way that all could understand. Preaching to audiences in both Hokkien and in English, recordings of his lectures became very popular. People were attracted to him not only because of his message but because in his life as a monk he truly embodied the simplicity that he preached. Always approachable, he listened carefully to the many problems that the faithful brought to him and in return he offered them words of wisdom, comfort and hope.

We always tried to visit Bhante Suvanno whenever we came to Penang. But he was often traveling, bringing his Dhamma teachings to others. We felt fortunate when we were able to see him. In August 2000, we were brought to a Penang Hill temple where he was preaching. While there were many who had come just to be near and to hear what he had to say, we were able to sit in front and speak with him for some time. We last saw him six years later when he was at the Bukit Mertajam Meditation Center. Once again the room was filled with those who had become devoted to his message. And once again we enjoyed reminiscing with him about family, friends and daily concerns. On each occasion when we met, he was full of life and merriment with that same twinkle in his eye that I had seen so many years ago in Kuala Lipis. While he took his responsibilities very seriously, he always conveyed a sense of fun and joy when anyone was with him.

Bhante Suvanno, our uncle Eng Kim, passed away on Sunday March 11, 2007. He was 86.

Bhante Suvanno. August 2000
Bhante Suvanno with Jee. August 2006


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Michael said...

Hi Frank,
Great to see you both again.

Very interesting stuff here, on your courting Jee! Hadn't know that!

I like how the blog is a collection of snippets and tales drawn from rich and varied experiences, and presented in no particular order but told as you would in conversation, something recent here, something from years ago there. Thank you for sharing them.

I look forward to your other posts. I hope you'll be scanning your old photos quite soon!


Traveler said...

Thanks Michael! Glad to hear you are enjoying these "snippets" of biography.

As I go through my photo library, the pictures help me to remember events and people from years past as well as from more recent trips.

While I'm currently taking a break from posting, I hope to add some more posts when we are back home again later this month. Right now, we're just enjoying our time in Malaysia. Cheers!

Michael said...

Sorry about the typo, should've been "known" in that first line.

Just a note to wish you well on your journeys. Not just the boats and planes and physical places visited, but more, the situational places that life brings you both to. And may the waiting rooms in life's stations be as interesting and as fulfilling as the journey itself.