Friday, November 4, 2016

The Chinese Interpreter

Oh Boon is a legend to many, one of most memorable characters I have known. I met him not long after I arrived in Butterworth in 1971. I had bought my first bike, a 1964 Norton, from Monkey Tan who ran a bike repair shop close to the Base. Less than a week later I flipped it end-to-end on the Island and had it repaired by Bulldog Kaun. Bulldog is a motorcycle racing legend in Malaysia.

Boon at his shop
Bulldog’s shop, as I recall, was located on an intersection. In the typical - at least for the time - Asian way his workshop spread out over the footpath onto the road. This resulted in a permanent oil stain on the road surface. One day in light rain I saw a motorcycle rider slide off as he was rounding the corner. What better place to come off your bike than right outside a bike repair shop. I did wonder if the oil on the road was part of the business plan.

In those first months in Malaysia it seemed the Aussies had their bikes cared for by either Monkey or Bulldog. It wasn't long however until one of our number began singing the praises of this bloke Boon. Evidently Boon had been the Penang agent for Norton but they were no longer imported in 1971. My 1964 model must have been one of the last sold new as I can't recall any post 64 models in the country.

Boon turned out to be a very good mechanic and it did not take long before he developed a loyal Aussie client base - if he didn't have one before I met him. He had a particular fondness for English four-strokes, the most famous of which was Boon’s Boomer.

Not long after I arrived in Butterworth I became involved with the RAAF Butterworth Motor Club. One activity we ran regularly was Scrambles, or as it is now known Motocross. Most of the bikes raced were stripped down English four-strokes - BSAs, Nortons, Aerials etc. One I remember was a 750 Norton. Within my first 12 months some of us started competing on Japanese trail bikes - Suzuki 125s and 250s, with the odd Yamaha and my Honda SL350. Henry Lindner imported a Suzuki TM400 which was the first dedicated motocrosser. It wasn't long before some of the guys brought motocross machines with them from Australia. But the ‘Trucks’ as we called them, the stripped down road bikes, predominantly of British origin, lived on. Which brings me back to Boon’s Boomer.

Here my memory may fail. As far as I recall the Boomer had a Triumph 650 engine in an Aerial frame. It had been built by Monkey Tan for Henry Lindner and passed on to Claudio Da Re. Claudio was a fearless rider and in his hands the Boomer was extremely competitive, at least while it functioned. Keeping any machine operating on the Bukit Gelugor track was quite a challenge because of the significant water hole in the course. If a bike didn't fail in the swamp it could still fail on the hill faced coming out of the slime. And, as the day wore on, the water carried up the hill from the swamp made the hill more treacherous.  Hence there was a great quantity of silastic used to try and stop the water getting into the electrics and much CRC on hand for when it invariably did.

Water Challenge, Bukit Gelugor

Boon was always on hand at the track to help his customers, one of whom was Claudio. Over time this bike, No. 69, became increasingly associated with Boon. It passed from Claudio to Ron Vella, who in time became son-in-law to Boon. And so the legend came to be.

Unidentified rider making waves
Boon was more than a mechanic, he was friend. There was always a supply of cold Anchor on hand for his regulars. Then there were his steamboats, put on at regular intervals for the clientele. I find it challenging to describe a steamboat for the uninitiated, but here goes.

Steamboat is prepared in a specially made utensil that probably has some resemblance to a spinning top. A charcoal fire burns in the bottom section of the utensil with the heat and fumes exiting through a chimney exiting at the top. Surrounding the chimney is a circular cooking bowl and a lid can be placed on top of this to retain the heat.

Preparation begins by adding water and stock to prepare a basic soup and bringing this to the boil. Once this happens diners select their own ingredients from those prepared into bite sized pieces and placed in nearby bowls such as chicken, fish, pork, and vegetables and drop them in the soup. As these cook they add to the flavour of the soup. It is a real experience, one that if you have never tried is highly recommended.

I remember one evening he had a supply of small green chillies. By this time I thought I could handle hot. Boon challenged me to try the chillies, so I took one, chewed and swallowed. ‘Nothing wrong with that’ I thought, so I took another. Before I could swallow it the heat from the first one hit me. I had far exceeded my ‘hot’ limit.

Boon’s shop was a real meeting place, part of the social fabric of Butterworth.  Part of this may have been the stock answer to the question ‘When will my bike be ready Boon’? to which the answer was invariably ‘Tomorrow can.’ This did take some getting used to because ‘tomorrow’ meant something akin to ‘not today’. This I came to understand as cultural, not only to the Chinese but many other cultures in the world who do not operate with a Western mindset.  And when you live in their culture it is not their place to change, it is our place to accept.

Boon, of course, was a native Chinese speaker, the predominant Chinese dialect in Penang being Hokkien. This brings me to an event I have always remembered as it is in many ways humorously odd. One of Boon’s customers was an American who worked on the off-shore oil rigs, probably in the Straits of Malacca. One day this bloke asked one of our number if he would do something for him - something that was not too difficult. ‘No sweat’ replied the Aussie.

‘What, you won't do it for me?’ responded the Yank.

‘No sweat mate, she’ll be right’ came the typical Aussie response.

Our American friend still failed to understand and was becoming more agitated as the conversation progressed to the point it caught Boon’s attention.

‘What he means’ interrupted Boon, ‘is that he’ll do it’. The tension eased and all was well, thanks to a native Chinese speaker interpreting between two native English speakers who, in all reality could only speak English.   

I didn't see as much of Boon during my second posting mainly owing to my interest - read obsession - in Tae Kwon Do. He remained however my bike mechanic and I continued to enjoy his hospitality.  Boon has sadly gone the way of all flesh, but the Chinese interpreter lives on in my memory as one of life's more memorable characters.

1 comment:

  1. He saved us many times with my husband's bikes and the steak boats were memorable