Swimming into the history books

New Straits Times: Swimming into the history books

By Alan Teh Leam Seng - December 2, 2018 @ 8:03am


THE two vintage magazines with the words ‘SWIM – A quarterly of the CSC Penang’ clearly emblazoned across their front covers catch my eye during one of my regular visits to the Lorong Kulit Flea Market in Penang. CSC is the acronym for the Chinese Swimming Club. These magazines, in any condition, are not easy to come by and the 1948 publication date makes them both rare and desirable.

Established in 1928 by an informal group of swimming enthusiasts and dedicated trainers, the CSC had a simple but noble aim of promoting swimming, water polo and life-saving in catering to the needs of the Chinese community in Penang.

Comprising primarily of Peranakans or Straits born Chinese, the group started off by swimming in the sea and playing water polo in the waters off North Beach during the weekends. North Beach is the stretch of coast to the north of George Town, stretching all the way from the Esplanade to Tanjong Tokong.

With the two magazines safely in my hands, I discreetly step aside to carefully evaluate their contents. I’m quite certain that the vendor will quote a high price for such rare historical items.

The select group of Penang swimmers chosen to participate in Shanghai.


The first periodical details events and activities that happened during the third quarter of 1948. Its front cover features a very interesting photograph depicting six representatives of the CSC posing in front of an aeroplane prior to their departure for the China Olympics in May 1948.

Several aspects of the photograph pique my interest. The first comes in the form of the airline company operating the flight service. The Trans-Asiatic Airlines (Siam) (TAAS) was a shortlived aviation company registered in Thailand and established on Apr10, 1948. It was owned by the Siamese Airways Company (SAC) and an American investor, William D Davis.

During its early days, TAAS made its mark by carrying cargo and passengers for the Union of Burma Airways. TAAS also operated freight and passenger routes connecting key Asian cities like Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok, Macao, Saigon and Singapore using Douglas DC-3 fixed-wing propeller-driven aeroplanes. In November 1951, TAAS was absorbed into SAC when the latter bought out Davis’ 49 per cent stake in the TAAS.

My next source of excitement is the rather inaccurate photograph caption. The 1948 Olympic Games or the Games of the XIV Olympiad was held in London from July 29 to August 14. The China Olympics as inscribed on the cover actually referred to the Chinese National Games (CNG), which was open to both local and overseas Chinese athletes.

The CNG was first held in 1910 during the Qing Dynasty and ran until 1948. The competition was relaunched as the National Games of China in 1959, following the end of the Chinese Civil War and the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

Beach Street promoting the sale of swimming trunks and swim suits.

The participation of the Penang swimmers in the penultimate edition of the 1948 CNG was the result of events that happened in Malaya after the Second World War. The return of the British after the end of the Japanese Occupation in September 1945 marked an era of national rehabilitation. Sport became an instrument of identity creation and the administrators strived to establish an international profile for Malaya.

At that time, there was a desire to forge a Pan-Malayan sporting body whose priority was to seek membership in the Olympic Movement. Tensions arose between interdependent organisations and the individuals representing various interest groups. The civil administrators were predominantly British while the Chinese, who retained strong affiliations to nationalist China, represented a substantial portion of the population.

Both groups had their own ideas on how best to promote sport. A complicating factor was the growing threat of communism and the transition in political power in China. Two plans evolved that created a unique setting for representative sport in Malaya.

Membership of the International Olympic Committee was the first step for athletes aspiring to represent the newly-formed Federation of Malaya in Feb 1, 1948 while the Chinese took an alternative path. They became motivated to participate in the CNG held in Shanghai that year, with the hope that it would lead to selection for the China team at the London Olympic Games.

Seow Yoke (third from right) emerged the winner in the 100 metres Penang Championship free-style category during Gala Day.


The next few pages of the magazine provide details about the six Penang CSC swimmers. Prior to their selection to participate in the CNG, the Penang swimmers had to first prove their mettle by taking on fellow competitors from Singapore and Perak at the Malayan Chinese aquatic trials held at the Singapore Chinese Swimming Club pool in Katong on Apr 4, 1948.

During the trials, the Penang swimmers achieved distinction in many events. Their success was made even more significant by the fact that they were the only team who didn’t have a proper swimming pool to train. The Penang team prepared for the Singapore trials and Shanghai CNG by braving the relentless waves and strong currents while perfecting their strokes in the sea off North Beach.

The best swimmer during the trials was Penang champion, Fong Seow Yoke. He won nearly all the events despite joining the CSC just 18 months earlier and won the rights to represent Malaya in the 50 and 100 metres free-style as well as the 100 metres back-stroke events at the CNG. Participating with Seow Yoke at the trials were his younger brothers, Boo Day and Seow San.

The other notable Penangites who made their mark in Singapore were Lim Cheng Im and Kuan Huah Oong. The latter’s reputation as Malaya’s fastest long-distance swimmer was cemented at the Singapore trials when he won both the 400 metres and 1,500 metres free-style events.

At the same time, Cheng Im emerged from Katong with her reputation as the fastest lady swimmer in Malaya intact. She crossed the finishing line first in both the 50 and 100 metres free-style events. At the Shanghai CNG, she only conceded first place to the more experienced and better trained Hong Kong girls.

The SWIM magazine was issued quarterly by the Penang Chinese Swimming Club.


“Excuse me. Do you want the magazines? If not, the man over there would like to have a look at them?” the vendor’s voice suddenly startles me. I was just contemplating to start reading more about the Penang team’s exploits in Shanghai. Looking up, I ask for the price only for him to raise his right index finger. “One hundred Ringgit is just about the fair value,” I think to myself while pausing to decide carefully.

“Ten Ringgit for both. You want them?” the seller asks. His response is music to my ears. At that price, these magazines are a bargain. Without further deliberation, I quickly hand him the money and mutter softly when he comes within a whisper: “Do you have the other issues as well? I’ll be happy to buy them as well.”

“These are the only two I have here but there may be more at home. Come back tomorrow and we’ll see,” he quips before returning to attend to his other customers. Returning my focus to the page bookmarked with my hotel room key card, I spy from the corner of my eye the downcast look on the face of the person who’d failed in his bid for my magazines.

Participants making their way under the net during the Gala Day obstacle race.


The Trans-Asiatic Airline flight to China turned out to be the first trip in an aeroplane for all the six Penang swimmers. Departing from Singapore’s Kallang Airport, it took the team nearly 30 hours to reach Shanghai, including a layover for the night in Bangkok and a brief stop in Hong Kong.

The Shanghai CNG aquatic events were held at a 50-metre pool with temperatures hovering around 16°C. The crowd presence at the arena was so huge on the first day that even the cement barriers holding back the spectators gave way. That incident resulted in a lengthy delay. The Penang girls were ill equipped for the cold weather. While left shivering with their feet bare and clad in thin swimming costumes, they were green with envy when their Hong Kong counterparts arrived in heavy wraps and protective sandals.

At the end of the 12-day event which began on May 5, 1948, the Penang team members managed to break two long-standing games records. Seow Yoke broke the 100 metre back stroke record after finishing in 1 minute and 17.7 seconds. He later helped his teammates shave nearly 3 seconds off the previous 200 meter free-style relay games record of 2 minutes and 0.1 seconds.

It wasn’t all work and no play for the Penang team in Shanghai. After the end of the meet, the athletes were taken on a tour of Nanking (now Nanjing) and Hangchow (now Hangzhou). While in Nanking, the team were presented to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek when they stopped by at Gulou District to observe the Executive Yuan, the executive branch of the government of the Republic of China, in session from the public viewing gallery.

The narration on the Shanghai CNG ends with the team’s visit to several historical sites in Hangchow. These included the grave of the tiger-killer Boo Siong as well as the mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China.

The Penang Chinese Swimming Club Gala Day attracted many onlookers.


Apart from tide tables and reports on members’ activities, the magazines also discussed at length several special events like the 1948 Gala Day. Attended by notable European guests including Captain Lindsay Vears, Iris Parfitt, Dennis Roper and State Surgeon Campbell, the occasion was treated to a live broadcast by Radio Penang commentator, Jerry Salmon.

Salmon reported that most events were dominated by CSC stalwarts who participated in the Shanghai CNG. The Anglo Chinese Girls School, powered by Cheng Im, won the 200 metres free-style inter-school relay event while Seow Yoke emerged the winner in the 100 metres Penang Championship free-style category.

The relay between bitter rivals, Penang Free School and St. Xavier’s Institution was won by the latter. Penang Free School, however, managed to avenge their defeat in the water polo match thanks to the heroics of their goalkeeper, Kim Seng and spot-on shots by top scorer, Eddy Chung.

Several novelty events during the gala attracted the most applause. Apart from the nightgown relay, the people who crowded North Beach that day also liked the obstacle race. Although the hazards were quite easy to surmount, the worst came towards the end when the competitors had to crawl under a net.

Swimmers helping each other warm up before taking to the water.


Just before the prize-giving ceremony, the CSC life guards were given the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Eight stalwarts swam out to sea fully clothed and picked up bricks dropped to the bottom of the sea by their respective partners. After retrieving the items, each life guard proceeded to bring ashore their partners who feigned swimming difficulty.

Each of the two magazines ends with various swim wear promotions on the back cover. The advertisements, taken out by top Penang departmental store Whiteaway Laidlaw & Co Ltd in Beach Street, promoted the sale of all wool swimming trunks for men, ‘Jansen’ trunks for boys and telescopic swim suits for ladies.

As I head off to browse through the other items for sale at the flea market, I recall the establishment of the Chinese Swimming Club Properties Ltd. in 1952, just four years after my magazines were published. The new entity was formed to raise funds and finance the purchase of land and the construction of the club’s first Olympic-sized pool as well as a two-storey clubhouse.

Since then, the CSC had grown from strength to strength, producing many of Penang’s swimming best. Although the club’s core activity is still swimming, it also aims to be a premier sports club by offering its members a wide range of facilities and services.

As for me, I just can’t wait for tomorrow morning to come. Hopefully the vendor will have more magazines to help me shed more light on the CSC’s illustrious past.

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