Documentary on 1949 Thomas Cup team

A project by local film-making company, Prodigee Media Entertainment, to produce a documentary on the players in the badminton team who won the Thomas Cup in 1949 brought the crew to Johor Baru recently.

Old newspaper cuttings from Uncle Roland's scrap book
The inaugural games in 1949, was to become the most important men's badminton competition in the world.  Malaysia, then known as Malaya, was the only Pacific zone participant and beat Denmark 8-1 to become the first nation to win this prestigious title! 

As the project members did their research on the 1949 team, they looked at archive records in Malaysia and Singapore and even those in the United Kingdom.  Among other information they found on line, their research brought them to My Johor Stories, in particular to my "grandfather stories."  Here's where I shared stories about our grandfather or Ah Kong who was the trainer of one of the greatest singles players of the early post-war period and a member of the first Thomas Cup team, Wong Peng Soon.

Old newspaper article from Uncle Roland's collection
I had written that when Ah Kong passed away in 1980, the headline of a newspaper report said that he was "The Maker of Champions."  That was because he not only trained badminton greats like Wong Peng Soon, he also equipped his children with the skills and tactics to become champions in their own right.  His eldest son, our Uncle Roland was Johor champion for consecutive years - taking over from Ah Kong who was reigning Johor champion for several consecutive years.  Uncle Roland's last international title was singles Veteran Champion and he also partnered the late Datuk Eddy Choong to become doubles Veteran Champion.

As Prodigee Media (www.prodigeemedia.com) tracked down family members and friends of the 1949 Thomas Cup team, they travelled to the North to meet their contacts for interviews and to document their memories about that momentous event.  They also contacted me by email to ask about the family of Wong Peng Soon and I told them that since Ah Kong had passed on, the best person for them to speak to for first-hand info, was Uncle Roland.

Uncle replaced Ah Kong as Johor
champion for several consecutive years
Uncle was just 19 years old then but he has vivid memories of past badminton heroes, local and international, and is a fountain of information on all things to do with badminton.  In a series of email exchanges with Prodigee Media, we discussed the appointment to meet with Uncle for an interview.  I explained that he is now a senior citizen of 84 years, who would require advance briefing to prepare him for the appointment set up for the interview.  

When I received a list of 20 discovery questions from the producer to give to Uncle as a guideline for the interview, I enlarged the font before printing it out.  Then I took a drive to Kota Tinggi where he lives and spent time to clarify each question so that he could jot down brief notes for easy reference during the interview.  There was another week to the appointment so it gave him plenty of time to think through each question and dig out any old newspaper cuttings and articles to support his comments.

Meanwhile I finalised the arrangements with the crew who was coming to Johor Baru with the producer to meet Uncle for the interview.  I was told that they will drive from Kuala Lumpur to JB to meet me before I accompany them to Kota Tinggi to interview Uncle.

Preparing Uncle for the interview with Prodigee Media
We agreed to meet at the Mutiara Johor Baru, a convenient landmark for visitors who are unfamiliar to JB.  I would head there to meet them when I received a call as they exited the toll gates but I however, got a call from them a little earlier telling me that their car suffered a puncture when they passed Seremban but were already safely en route to JB.  

My friend, Sam the Director of Rooms at Mutiara JB stopped by to have a chat when he saw me waiting in the hotel lobby and I told him the reason I was there.  In a few minutes, two young ladies approached me and introduced themselves as members of the crew from Prodigee Media.  Producer, Alicia Tan, told me they aim to produce this documentary on time to enter the coming Busan International Film Festival in Korea (Oct 1 - 10) and before we left for Kota Tinggi, I had the opportunity to brief them about Uncle, what to expect and what to do when he talks (out of point!) on a topic that he is so passionate about!

Uncle was indeed, in his element that day and even before the crew could set up the camera and microphone, he was showing them old newspaper articles from his collection that he had carefully laminated for better preservation.  The cameraman needed to decide on the angle to shoot while the sound person had to clip the mic onto his collar and conceal the wires... but Uncle was already on a roll, telling them about who's who...  

On the table, I also saw Uncle's old scrap books filled with yellowed newspaper cuttings and next to the table, were the two wooden trophy shields mounted with smaller silver plaques with engraved names of the annual champions in the 1950s.  His wife, Aunty Elizabeth, joined us and I sat with her on the sofa as the interview was recorded over the next three hours.
Ah Kong [Standing 2nd from Right] with the
Wong brothers, were Johor team champs
in the 1939 Foong Seong Cup tournament

I'm familiar with our family's badminton stories but it was good to hear it again while it was being recorded from Uncle's answers to questions that Alicia asked and prompted him to further elaborate on any particular points.  

Uncle talked about Ah Kong's Companion Badminton Party where he trained many young people in the game.  He said Ah Kong first met with Wong Peng Soon and his brothers, Peng Yee and Peng Nam, when he started dating our grandmother, Mak Cheng Hai, who was a cousin of the Wongs.  At that time, the Wong family and their extended families lived in the san pah or new village that had developed around a freshwater pond near Jalan Ah Siang and Jalan Lumba Kuda.

These Wongs belong to the family of Wong Ah Yam, better known as taukay Yam, the nephew and business manager of Wong Ah Fook, one of JB's founding fathers.  When Ah Kong used to frequent the san pah to see his then girlfriend, who later became our grandmother, the Wong brothers recognised him as the Johor badminton champion and asked him to help build a badminton court there and to train them in the game.


The two wooden trophy shields kept by Uncle
Uncle impressed the crew when he spelled out the international standard measurements of a badminton court, the size of a typical court that Ah Kong built with the Wong brothers back then, under the chiku tree.  There, he trained the Wongs and as they acquired the skills, they formed the Johor team of 1939 who became champions when they won the Foong Seong Cup, a trophy donated by a Chinese businessman.  When Tan Sri Mohamed Khir Johari became president of the Badminton Association of Malaysiam (BAM) in 1960, he renamed the trophy, the Khir Cup.

On the subject of the BAM, Uncle declared that Malaysia is not treating our former players fairly.  In those days, players did not play for personal fame or glory but for the nation.  He regretted that some players even passed away lonely, miserable and forgotten.  In fact, the great Wong Peng Soon passed away after suffering a stroke.  He said unlike Korea which gives sportsmen a pension for life, Malaysia does not have a retirement plan for older sportsmen who had given up their careers and fortunes to represent the nation in the international sporting arena.  Sports personalities of today have sponsorship incomes and prize money but in the old days, players had to rent halls to train themselves, bought their own rackets and paid their own way to travel to tournaments.

Uncle sharing his badminton experiences with the crew
Uncle emphasized that badminton is not about making money.  If Malaysia ever wants to regain its position in world-class badminton, he said BAM must revive the process to identify young talents at the grassroots level.  Begin with Primary school competitions before going on to Secondary school and inter-school competitions to identify young champions.  Then coach and motivate them to participate in state and national events to give them more exposure and experience.

Uncle shared his own experiences about observing his parents playing the game (yes, they were Mixed Doubles champions!) and also learning to string badminton rackets.  Later he joined Ah Kong in training his siblings in the game and discussed the skills in "reading the game" especially to anticipate where your opponent would return the shuttlecock.  In those days when centralised training did not exist, he and other trainees would run up and down steps like those at Batu Caves and the back staircase at Bukit Timbalan!

When the first Thomas Cup team went to participate in the inaugural Thomas Cup, they travelled by steamship and the finals was played in Preston, England.  Over the weeks in their journey across the ocean, the team kept a strict routine of daily physical exercise including skipping to build up stamina - for the estimated duration of an entire game.  

He said Wong Peng Soon did not have a foreign coach but yet he became a world-class player.  He was probably born with a gift in the game and with a good coach and the right attitude, he excelled in his game.  Others who were trained by Ah Kong and excelled in their game include his younger brother, Billy who was a member of the 1967 Thomas Cup team who brought the trophy home as well as their youngest sister, Sylvia, who still holds the prestigious title as the only Asian women to win Gold for badminton in the 1976 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada.  

New and talented players emerge from China, Thailand and Indonesia every now and then because they have proper long-term planning by people who understand the game.  These nations do not have foreign coaches and are yet able to identify good players and successfully train them for international competitions.
  
Uncle enjoying his chat with Alicia in the interview
I could see that Uncle thoroughly enjoyed himself sharing his thoughts about past players, local and foreign, quoting tournaments, years, names and even the scores.  He also lamented about so many generations of young people being lost due to the lack of long-term planning in identifying young sports talents from the grassroots level.   

Uncle recalled the unforgettable thrill of hearing the news reports about Malaya emerging the champions of the 1949 Thomas Cup, especially as his own uncle Peng Soon was part of the team.  The news was first reported on radio and later published in the local newspapers.

We did not know where the time went that afternoon as Alicia brought the interview to a close.  Except for the pauses taken to change the camera chips and battery packs, it was a fruitful solid three hours of Uncle's non-stop story-telling.  The team packed up and left for KL while I returned to JB and a few days ago, I received an email with an update that they have successfully transcribed the 3-hour interview with Uncle.

While the crew continues with the project, I assured Uncle that he will receive a copy of the documentary when it was completed and submitted for the film festival.  It was both fun and interesting to be a bit-part of this project.  To me, the documentary is already a winner as it will go a long way to record the courage and commitment of a few young men from a recently war-ravaged Malaya, who trained hard to earn a prestigious place in badminton history as the first team to ever win the coveted Thomas Cup in 1949.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Peggy,

    I'm Edmund, director of this documentary :) it's unfortunate that we never got to meet during the session as I was in Seoul then for a film festival! I never had the chance to meet and speak with you, but thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to meet Uncle Roland. And also thank you so much for keeping this blog, which has served as an invaluable source for our researches. Going through the story of your family in these different blog posts had been a very illuminating experience for myself.

    The first thing I did immediately after I came back was to listen to the 3-hour interview before it was even being transcribed by the team. And I immediately wished that I was there in person as well. My intention originally was to make a story of the 1949 Thomas Cup, but I feel that, in these many months of interviews and meeting different badminton heroes of different eras like your Uncle, the documentary might have actually been about them as well, the people of our country who had given so much to badminton.

    I think one of our biggest tragedies is our disconnect from history. I promise you that I will do my absolute best to make this a worthy documentary!

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  2. Hey Edmund, It was my pleasure to connect your team with Uncle, They must have told you about the exciting time we had in recording the interview! It's heartening to see your determination to produce a an award-winning documentary and I'm glad to have played a small part in your success!

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