In a sea of Chinese-speakers who are unable to converse in English at VWO O'Joy Care Services, grandfather of five Choong Hiong, 86, is a rare find. He speaks fluent English as well as Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Malay. “In the old days, before World War II, I didn’t take any Chinese courses. If you went to a Chinese school during those days, it would mean it was all in Chinese and if you went to an English school, it was all in English. I went to English school in Penang as I grew up in Malaysia.”
His English skills proved useful when he landed in the Army and worked as an interpreter for British soldiers in Malaysia in the 1940s when he was in his 20s. He was there for less than a year. “I didn’t do much work as we didn’t meet any Communists.” He remembered that in December, he followed the Army into the jungle for two weeks to capture Communists but that never happen.
After the Army, he became a resettlement officer in Johor, issuing ID cards for a village surrounded by barbwire so they could travel outside with ease. After a two-year stint, he couldn’t find a decent job in Malaysia and decided to come to Singapore, where he joined the Singapore Police Force’s traffic police motor squad for two years.
After that, he became a salesman for Van Houten Far East selling cocoa powder, chocolate and canned products to Indian stores and provision shops. He shared that he did that for 10 years from 1953 and got a handsome commission plus salary. He also sold food flavourings and chemicals for industries.
“Money was quite good,” Choong Hiong said of his work. But it also took him away from his family as he had to travel, sometimes being away for a month’s time. He visited Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak twice a year to take orders. “I would have to take a boat to Labuan in Sabah, then to Jesselton. There, I would visit my father’s friend and have lunch or dinner with him. Then it was off to Sandakan, Kudat, Tawau and then back to Labuan. I would then take a bus to Brunei, and then later to Miri, Sarawak and Kuching. I would also hit Sibu and then go back to Kuching, before I headed home to Singapore.”