In 1892, Kwok Soo Kha, a 31-year-old widow from Guangdong, Southern China, and her two children, aged 10 and 12 years, came to Taiping, Perak, to find work as a domestic servant for the British. Upon the untimely death of her husband, a merchant, she decided to forge a new life for her small family after hearing about Malaya from her friends who had found work here. With meagre savings and after having spent torturous weeks at sea on a Chinese junk journeying across South China Sea, and then by coastal steamer to Penang, Kwok and her children finally stepped foot on Taiping soil.
Kwok quickly found employment as a servant at a British officer’s residence but she had bigger ambitions. To cut the story short, by the time she passed away in 1917 at the age of 56, her estate, which was inherited by her son, Ho Yuk Phooi, included two rows of shop-houses in Taiping, rubber estates in Batu Gajah plus some units of shop-houses in Ipoh, Perak.
In a span of 25 years, Kwok, whose first business venture was a Chinese medicinal shop, amassed her wealth through her gambling parlour, pawn shop and other businesses, which were legal at the time via a sublease of the Revenue Farm.
Fast forwarded to year 2010, Kwok’s great-grandson family physician Dr Ho Tak Ming, fascinated by her life as well as inspired by her courage and resilience and of women like her during that era, began earnestly researching about Kwok and other pioneering Chinese women. His years spent researching and interviewing bore fruition in his social history book, “Phoenix Rising, Pioneering Chinese Women of Malaysia”, published in January, 2015.
On why he chose to write about Chinese women, rather than Chinese men, Dr Ho said, “I felt that a lot had already been written about the men and thought it would be a good idea to write about the women instead. There is a gap in literature about the lives of Chinese women, even though they were the backbone of the family and contributed to society equally. Compared to men, their contributions, although just as important, were much under-appreciated.
“Obviously, Phoenix Rising, which carries the stories of about a dozen women, is a mere scratch on the surface as there are many more women whose lives are worth documenting but hopefully, this is a step forward.”
Despite it being his fifth book, Dr Ho considers himself to be an accidental published author. Although he had always had a love for reading and writing, and was the editor for a medical journal “The Family Practitioner” and which was subsequently renamed “The Family Physician” for 12 years, where he also diligently contributed articles for every issue, it came as a surprise to him when his manuscript was accepted to be published by the first publisher that he approached.
Recalling the time, he said, “One day, I had the idea to compile my series of articles into a book. I had written so many articles that they turned out to be two books, Doctors Extraordinaire (2000) and Doctors In The East (2001). “Doctors Extraordinaire” recounts the history of medicine in Malaysia since 1874 to the present day, while “Doctors In The East” deals with the impact of Western medicine on Chinese medicine in China and the East during the last 300 years.
“My third book, Generations: The Story of Batu Gajah (2005), is naturally about my hometown, Batu Gajah, and the pioneers of the administrative capital of the Kinta District.
“These titles were followed by the 2-volume “IPOH: When Tin Was King” (2009), about how tin built Ipoh, the capital of Perak.”
According to Dr Ho, although Ipoh was a sizable town during the tin mining era, there was hardly any official history on her. “No doubt, tin is Ipoh’s past history but it is not a heritage that the community wants to give up on. Chatting with the locals, especially those from the older generation, they reminisce about Ipoh’s Golden Age. Growing up, I have heard numerous stories about miners turning into millionaires overnight when they struck a tin lode. My grandfather was also a small-scale tin miner, besides being a planter,” he said.
The 69-year-old history enthusiast hoped that the younger generation whose lives may not have been touched by the mineral would learn about the city’s illustrious background during the tin mining boom through reading IPOH: When Tin Was King. The modest doctor added, “I am just doing a minor part to preserve her history.”
When asked for his advice to aspiring authors, Dr Ho shared, “It is not easy being an author, so start off by writing what you know best, what you can easily find out, or have access to resources.”
Dr Ho’s books can be purchased through his clinic (tel: +605-241 8081), publisher Perak Academy (tel: +605-241 3742) or distributor GB Gerakbudaya Enterprise Sdn. Bhd. (tel: +603-7957 8342).
Note: An edited version of this article [Doctor’s eye for history] was published on 11th July, 2015, in The Malay Mail.
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