Two Interviews with Mr Ng Seo Buck
Mr Ng Seo Buck – or N S Buck as he preferred to be known as - will be remembered as one of the more cultured Old Boys and Old Teachers of the V.I. – a man of learning and letters, with a deep love for history and the literary arts. He was a V.I. pupil in the early 1900s and on graduation taught at his alma mater for many years.
He was born in 1893 and as a boy in his home village in Swatow, China, collected sticks and dried leaves for fuel. One day, after experiencing a vision, he became a medium - for a while at least - dispensing talismans to the local folk, a rather strange vocation for a future V.I. teacher! His father first arrived in Malaya in the nineteenth century from China and worked as a labourer in a godown hauling sacks of rice. After a few years he became a kepala and sent for Seo Buck. On arrival in Malaya in 1902, Seo Buck lived initially with his father in the godown, subsisting daily on rice gruel. He was then sent to live with a Baba family and, running errands like going to the market and pounding rempah, quickly picked up Malay. At the V.I., Seo Buck was a bright student and when he finished Standard 6 (Form 2 today), his father wanted him to leave school and work as a clerk. However, Mr Shaw begged the father to let him stay and it was he who saw to Seo Buck’s education and eventual employment as a V.I. teacher.
As he could not afford to go overseas for a degree, Seo Buck did an in-service course and acquired a degree equivalent ACP (Associate of the College of Preceptors) qualification in English and History. He spoke and debated well, performed in school plays and took up the violin. He was a Cadet Corps master and every Saturday morning he would be seen smartly togged up in his uniform with shiny boots and brass buttons to review his cadets.
However, he did not get along with the Inspector of Schools and was transferred from the V.I. after a few years to Kajang High School which at that time had a rather bad reputation. In a few months Seo Buck managed to turn the school around and it began to produce a number of brilliant students. Grateful Kajang residents called at his house with gifts of fruits, live chickens and eggs, and, to his embarrassment, some Indian parents even went to the extent of kissing his feet.
After a few years Seo Buck was transferred back to the V.I. In the thirties, he was the Shaw House master and his son, Ng Kok Teow, who later became a doctor, was Shaw House secretary under his father! Seo Buck founded the History Society in the school as well as the V.I. Literary Circle, which had a rather short life as war soon engulfed the region.
Few are aware of Ng Seo Buck’s brief role as temporary Headmaster – the second Asian head - of the V.I. as it struggled to re-establish itself in the aftermath of war in 1946. His pre-war colleague and fellow Old Boy, Mr M. Vallipuram, had acted as V.I. Headmaster from October 1945 to August 1946. When the latter retired, Seo Buck took over just as the V.I. was moving back to its own building after using the borrowed premises of the Batu Road School and Maxwell Road School. As Headmaster, he invested the first postwar prefects with their badges on September 9, 1946. He stepped down when Mr F. Daniel arrived a few weeks later to assume the V.I. Headmastership. Seo Buck taught history at the VI until his transfer in 1948 to Radio Malaya where he was liaison officer for schools until his retirement. He passed away in 1975.
Following are two interviews with him published in the 1954 Victorian and the 1963 Tenth Anniversary issue of Seladang.
(The Victorian, 1954)
arrived in Singapore for the first time in April 1902 together with my father and an elder brother. We made our way to Port Swettenham by one of the small coastal steamers and from Port Swettenham we came to Kuala Lumpur by train. Looking back into the blank of my boyhood, the first thing I can remember as standing out by themselves from a confusion of things, was the jungle on either side of the railway track from Port Swettenham to Kuala Lumpur. It was jungle, jungle everywhere and not a rubber tree to be seen.
What else do I remember? Let me see. Everything was strange to me. The houses, all one-storeyed, appeared to me to be very big compared with those of my own native village. The streets were paved with brown laterite and were illuminated by flickering kerosene lamps each about eight feet high. Towards the evening Indian labourers placed ladders against them to light them and every morning the same labourers climbed up to put them out. During the day water-carts, drawn by bullocks, went round the streets to lay the dust. Stand-pipes were seen here and there and from these the inhabitants drew their supply of drinking water. Every shop-house had its own well inside the shop and the water from the wells was used for purposes of bathing and washing.
Along the streets there were rickshaws, bullock-carts and hand-carts and here and there could be seen a horse gharry - the last being the mode of travel for longer distances, say, from Kuala Lumpur to Ampang, a distance of about six miles. For short distances most people travelled on foot. Street accidents were rare and there was no officer in charge of traffic. Everyone went about his business in a leisurely way.
My first day at school - 7th May, 1902 - very nearly proved to be my undoing. I was a singkeh, a term applied to all new arrivals from China. I could not speak a word of Malay nor could I understand any of the other Chinese dialects but my own. The bully of the school knocked down my brand new 25-cent straw hat and trampled on it. We had a fight and like Tom Brown I got the worse of it. I returned home with a black eye and swore to my father that I'd never go back to school. Luckily my first teacher - the late Mr. Tan Lye Huat - knew my father. He came and coaxed me and said he would take me under his personal protection. So I went back to school, where I spent the major portion of my life both as a pupil and subsequently as a teacher.
In those days Chinese boys came to school dressed in Chinese slack trousers and loose coats with their towchangs (pigtails) tucked away in their pockets. Malay boys came in their sarong and songkok and Indian boys came in their verti but nearly all of them were barefoot, Chinese, Malays and Tamils alike. In the Victoria Institution the old coloured charts of the four seasons were relics of our conversations, but I still feel that the live pictures we ourselves made, using teachers and pupils as subjects, were more appealing to the young minds. Truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness and punctuality were our favourite abstract subjects for talks. As a teacher I can now look back with satisfaction upon a happy journey. Some of the boys I had taught are now leading merchants, prosperous lawyers, busy chemists and practitioners of note.
On one hot day in 1910 there was a very thick hailstorm. Each hailstone was about the size of a naphthalene ball. Halley's comet was seen in the same year. Astrologers and soothsayers regarded these two phenomena as messengers of evil. They were very nearly right. The Chinese Revolution broke out at Wuchang on October 10th, 1910, and the First World War broke out in 1914.
During all these years I have seen phenomenal changes not only in the appearance of the town, but also in the manners, customs and habits of the various peoples who make up the inhabitants of this country.
In those delightful days when Government servants began with a salary of $15 a month, men went to work clad in tutups but everyone wore a hat. In fact, hats of all kinds could be seen bobbing up and down the streets of the town. There were straw hats, felt hats, double-terai hats, Panama hats, Ellwood corked helmets, bonnets, turbans, songkoks and fezzes. Today very few people use hats, and if they do, they carry them in their hands.
There were very few places of amusement. In the gambling dens one could watch either a Punch and Judy show or a marionette show. In the theatre-halls in Petaling Street and Sultan Street, Cantonese wayang played year in, year out. The plays they staged were episodes taken from either The Romance of Three Kingdoms, Si Yu Chi, Wan Nien Ching or Chin Ku Chi Kwang.
To me the one most important day of the year was Chinese New Year. I am ultra-modern. No one can accuse me of being conservative. But although the Chinese Republic had declared first January as the official New Year, I always preferred the Old New Year. The shops were all closed and every Chinese walked out in his finery. Men were dressed in silk, either blue or black, and women all wore samfu made of either black, blue or pale green silk. The cheongsam was yet unknown.
Most of them went to the High Street Temple to pray for good luck and when they met in the streets the customary greeting Kung Hei Futt Choy could be heard a quarter of a mile away. Children carried rotating lanterns and rabbit lanterns, and gambling stalls were set up at every street corner. Towards the evening red candles burned brightly on the mantelpiece of every Chinese home and at night there was the bomb bah or fire-crackers. The firecrackers have a way of shaking the Chinese heart that no European knows.
I am afraid my time is up and so I'd like to conclude with Thomas Moore's:
The Light of Other DaysOft, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me!
The smiles, the tears
Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
When I remember all
The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather,
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall, deserted;
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus in the stilly night
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
An Interview with Mr Ng Seo Buck
(The Seladang, 1963)
r. Ng Seo Buck astounded us when he revealed that he was seventy-two. He still looks so young and energetic that at first sight anybody would believe him to be in his late fifties. However, at the end of our interview with him we had to admit that having led such an interesting and active life age would affect him but little.
Mr. Buck is one of the four oldest surviving V.I. Old Boys. "Unfortunately, I cannot claim to be one of the first generation as I only joined the V. I. in 1902," he told us. In 1902 Mr. Bennett Shaw had already been Headmaster for eight years, having joined the school at its very inception.
Mr.Shaw, Mr. Buck informed us, was "a very strict but kindly man" who was very much loved by his pupils. His views on education were much respected and he was often consulted by the Government on this matter. However, he was very angry when his advice was not followed and as such Mr. Shaw was not much liked by the Government. In fact, Mr. Buck revealed, it was only with great difficulty that the Government could be persuaded to name the present Shaw Road (now Jalan Huang Tuah) after Mr. Shaw.
The first Headmaster was very particular about the recruitment of teachers. He tried to maintain the school spirit by employing Old Boys as far as possible. Mr. Shaw succeeded in his objective as these teachers, being his former pupils, respected him and also had a sincere interest in the school. The form teachers in Mr. Buck's days had to teach every subject studied in their classes. Pupils studied the usual subjects, except Science. However, Physiology and Hygiene were taught in the Senior Classes. Mr. Buck recalled that, as early as his school days, Malay was taught. However, this was stopped after some years.
Mr. Buck next went on to tell us about the examinations of his days. The first government examination was taken in Standard 4 (present Standard 6), its purpose being to assess the grants-in-aid which were based on the number of passes in this examination. The Cambridge Examinations were taken in 3 stages - Preliminary, Junior Local and the Senior Local. After completion of the Preliminary Cambridge Examination (Standard 7) a boy could get a job as a government clerk quite easily. Mr. Buck told us that the number of boys in the Senior Cambridge class was very small; the class of 1909 from which he graduated had only six boys.
The boys in Mr. Buck's days enjoyed playing tops and marbles as much as boys do today. "The smaller boys," he informed us used to play "Round the Maypole." Two very popular games were "Basketball" and "Badminton". In "Basketball" the players had to throw the ball into a wastepaper basket, while in "Badminton" a small wooden ball was used. Mr. Buck recalled that one of the highlights of his school days was the annual football match between the staff and the boys. The boys invariably won but one memorable year (1920) the staff forced a draw. Mr. Shaw was the goalkeeper in that match. Mr. Buck suggested that perhaps the legs of the boys became "soft" when they were confronted by the "Bulldog" (Mr Shaw's nickname) in the goal.
After completion of his education, Mr. Buck was requested by Mr. Shaw to join the V.I. Staff. Mr. Buck had been offered an opportunity to study at the Medical College but had to decline the offer because of financial considerations. After two years as a teacher he resigned to join the China Civil Service. But the First World War interfered with his plans. As there was a shortage of European teachers, Mr. Shaw persuaded him to return to the V. I. So in 1914 Mr. Buck was back home teaching the Senior Cambridge Class.
In 1923 he was appointed the Headmaster of Kajang High School. Although he was unhappy in his new appointment, he was not able to return to the V.I. until 5 years later. And here he remained until his retirement in 1947. During his years in the V.I. Mr. Buck founded two societies, the Literary and Debating and the Historical Societies. At society meetings, Heads of Government Departments were invited to address the members. After the V.I. moved to its present site on Petaling Hill in 1929, Mr. Buck was the first person to introduce mixed debates, which were held weekly with the Pudu English School. He also introduced mixed debates to the Schools Broadcasting Section of Radio Malaya where he worked for seven years after his retirement as a teacher. Mr. Buck recalled that there was no School Captain and no Prefects in "those good old days." The prefect system was only introduced in 1923 by Mr. Richard Sidney. It was also Mr. Sidney who changed the name of the first school magazine (its only issues being in 1923) from VIE (for Victoria Institution Echo) to The Victorian.
Towards the end of our interview Mr. Buck quoted Mr. Shaw's last words of advice to the school: "Carry on," he said "the great tradition of the V.I." Mr. Buck also advised present boys to emphasise the training of character. He said, "I would like every present V.I. boy to develop a character worth speaking of, for without good character no one can go far. Polished brass is just as brilliant as rough gold..... Cultivate your loyalty to yourself, your family, your community and your school."
Just before we bade goodbye to him, Mr Buck handed us a piece of paper on which was written these words:
Let him be your minister,
And whosoever will be chief among you,
Let him be your servant.
Last update on 23 November 2003.
Contributed by: Chung Chee Min