Penang Chinese Swimming Club: Birthplace of Olympians
By Eugene QuahNovember 2023 LEST WE FORGET
THE MELBOURNE SUMMER OLYMPICS of 1956, held in Victoria, was a game with many historic firsts. It was the first Olympics ever held in the southern hemisphere and outside Europe and North America, and the first to be held in November—summertime for the Australians. It was also Malaya’s first Olympic Games. (In fact, Malaya’s independence was still eight months away).
Among the 30-member strong contingent from the emergent country was a 19-year-old swimmer, Fong Seow Hor. Standing 162cm tall and weighing 64kg, he was among 19 swimmers participating in the newly introduced event, the 200m butterfly. He went on to create Malayan swimming history when he competed in the third heat and completed it with a time of 2:56. What was noteworthy about this Penangite was that, not only did he come from a family of top-class swimmers, they were all products of the Penang Chinese Swimming Club (CSC). So, what is this CSC?
A Long-Felt Want Fulfilled
The Penang Chinese Swimming Club was formed on August 3, 1928 at a meeting held at the Penang Old Frees’ Association on Leith Street. Khoo Sian Ewe, a respected Straits Chinese philanthropist and community leader, presided over the meeting. A large crowd had gathered for the meeting that Friday. “There was a slight trace of nervousness in the Chairman [Khoo] as he stood up to open the meeting.”
“The formation of such a club as the CSC,” Khoo told the attendees, “is indeed a long-felt want.” Teoh Cheng Hai, the convenor, “then read out the notice convening the meeting.” A young Hutchings school teacher from Singapore, Lee Hong Lim, “proposed and Mr. Cheow Yew Meng seconded [the proposal] that a Chinese Swimming Club be formed in Penang.”
The crowd responded “with spasmodic bursts of applauses” and the resolution was carried unanimously. Seeing Ong Huck Chye smiling “with a gleam of satisfaction as to suggest that everything was all right, Mr. Khoo Sian Ewe’s anxiety vanished immediately.” Dr. Ong and his brother, Huck Keat, together with Lim Swee Hun, the chief clerk of the Penang Library, Lim Hay Guan and Tan Wah Kim, a teacher, were elected into a Provisional Committee.
Two weeks later, a general meeting held at the same venue confirmed the previous resolutions. The rules, regulations and by-laws drawn up by the Provisional Committee were discussed in detail and passed, followed by the election of office bearers. Khoo Sian Ewe became the first President of the Penang CSC, while Lim Eow Thoon was chosen as one of the three Vice Presidents. Lee Fong Lim was made the Honorary Swimming Captain.
Lifesaver and Sportsman
The idea of forming a Chinese Swimming Club in Penang was the brainchild of Lee Fong Lim, then a young government school-teacher. An alumnus of the prestigious Raffles Institution in Singapore and a member of the Singapore Chinese Swimming Club, he frequently won swimming and lifesaving competitions as a student.
Lee was recommended for the Teacher’s Certificate in 1926, but by 1927, he had been posted to Penang to teach at Penang Free School, then located at Farquhar Street (the current State Museum building). Shortly after that, in January 1928, the Hutchings School was established, occupying the former building of Free School after the latter moved to its present site on Green Lane. Lee was not transferred and continued teaching gymnastics at the new school.
In November 1924, Lee, still a student, was already an excellent lifesaver. He won the Inter-School Life Saving competition held at the YMCA pool in Singapore. The Life Saving Society Malaysia (LSSM), which began as the “Royal Life Saving Society Malaysian Branch”, credits Lee as a pioneer in lifesaving training in Malaya. The society’s official history on the International Life Saving Federation’s website, noted that “a group of lifesavers had been trained in the Bronze Medallion under Lee Fong Lim at the Penang Chinese Swimming Club” as early as 1927 or 1928.
According to journalist K.S. Chia, when Lee Fong Lim first arrived in Penang in 1927, “Penang had not a single Chinese who had any real knowledge of orthodox swimming.” After work, Lee would gather some of his teacher friends and give them swimming lessons at Ujong Panchor, a wide and deep ditch near their school just beyond the Protestant Cemetery at Transfer Road, which once marked the early boundary of the town. By July 1928, he had brought up the idea of having a proper swimming club in the settlement.
The neighbouring Penang Swimming Club (PSC) further up the road had been established in 1905 by the ruling colonial elite. The local Chinese referred to it as the “Ang Moh” Swimming Club (European Swimming Club in Hokkien).
To be sure, gentlemen sports clubs for cricket, hunting and swimming were set up by the British in Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong “for the male-dominated colonial society to let down its hair”. Within the confines of these exclusive spaces, the European men were able to “suspend the constraints of everyday rules, and to feel a temporary sense of liberation”—they could have fun.
Non-Europeans were excluded from being members of these clubs, a stark reminder of the “immutable divisions [which] existed within the society” of the time. In Singapore and Penang, the Straits Chinese went ahead to create their own alternative systems or copy the British establishments. The European-only policy at PSC was dropped only in the late 60s.
The Chinese Swimming Club never had a specific policy to exclude women from any part of the club, unlike its European counterpart, which barred women from its main club house. However, at the CSC, although women were welcome to participate in all the activities, they did not take women members. Apparently, it had “its first unofficial lady member a year after it was formed”, while “many Chinese women still considered there was something rather indecent about going to the swimming club.”
By 1932, attitudes had changed, and there was considerable interest from women to take up swimming at the club. On August 25 that year, “six daring daughters” took part, for the first time, in the 30m free-style race. The Chinese consul, impressed with the Penang women’s participation in competitive swimming, “describe[d] their break from tradition as a significant forward move and a healthy sign typical of the times”. He awarded the pioneering ladies “a medal struck in the form of a National Flower”.
Nevertheless, some members of the then all-male club thought it was still improper for women to be admitted as full members of the club. That same year, a meeting was called and a voting slip containing the caustic words “Keep the females out!” written on it was put to a vote. The resolution to admit women prevailed and “caused quite a commotion in the club and in the press”. Women were finally admitted as official members in 1940, years ahead of the neighbouring European swimming club.
Today, membership at both swimming clubs is open to the public. The only barrier to membership now is just a hefty membership fee.
Though they could not be official members of swimming clubs, in the 1930s, the activity became increasingly popular among Penang Chinese women. By 1935, four Penang female swimmers—all nurtured at CSC—represented Malaya in the Far Eastern Olympic Games in Shanghai. They were Goon Gook Chin, Goon Poh Chin, Leong Yut Hoon and Peggy Oh.
By the late 1940s, the CSC had acquired a reputation for consistently producing star swimmers for Malaya. A sports columnist in a Singapore newspaper half-jokingly remarked, “for [Lee Fong Lim’s] good deed [in setting up CSC], Penang has been paying back Singapore ever since by feeding it with some her best swimmers”. Some of these exports from CSC included the Bukit Mertajam-born Xaverian, Kee Soon Bee, who would later become Singapore’s top swimmer, and Eu Cheow Eang, the goalkeeper of Singapore’s water-polo team.
Much later, in 1998, Kee Soon Bee laughed while recalling to an interviewer the time he snuck in to use the Olympic-sized pool of the Europeans-only PSC as a teenager. “We used to swim across the pool and then... what you call the mandor (supervisor) will chase after us.” Before the current club house and pool at Tanjong Tokong was built, the CSC was just a beach bungalow negotiated by Khoo Sian Ewe for the club’s use. The members conducted all their activities in the open sea in front of the property, somewhere around the vicinity of today’s Mercure Hotel and closer to the PSC.
In 1947, fundraising began for a proper building to house the club as well as a swimming pool. After many years, the members were able only to collect $175,000—far too short of the required amount. The president then, Heah Joo Seang, a well-known millionaire and Xaverian, “forked up a huge sum for the sake of having a training [ground] for the future swimming champions of Olympic standard”.
For the project, Heah engaged the award-winning Danish architect, B.M. Iversen, who had designed many iconic buildings throughout Malaya. Completed in 1954, the three-storey modernist club house building is still in active use today.
While star swimmer Fong Seow Hor’s hope of training in an Olympic-standard pool at home had to wait, he still went on to represent Malaya in 1956 at its inaugural participation in the Olympics. Fong created history again, in 1960, by becoming the newly independent nation’s first two-time Olympian swimmer. The club’s longstanding dream of having an Olympics-standard pool was only realised in August 1962, at a staggering cost of M$300,000. In the late 1980s, the club produced another Olympian, Jeffery Ong, who went on to represent Malaysia at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympics.
As the CSC approaches its centenary, this venerable Penang institution’s place in sporting history remains assured, thanks to the efforts and foresight of its founders and generous patrons throughout the years.
-  “Chinese Swimming Club,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, August 21, 1928, pg. 6.
-  “Chinese Swimming Club,” The Straits Echo (Mail Edition), September 12, 1928, Page 580.
-  “Club Needs $300,000,” The Straits Budget, June 26, 1952, pg. 18.
-  “CSC a Club for the Family—Says Heah,” The Straits Times, January 2, 1953, Page 11.
-  “Education in Penang,” The Straits Echo (Mail Edition), December 12, 1928, Page 827.
-  “Heah Gives $50,000 to Penang CSC Pool Fund,” The Straits Times, December 4, 1952, pg.10.
-  “Life Saving Competition,” Malaya Tribune, December 1, 1924, pg. 8.
-  “Local Chinese Sports Personalities,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, February 5, 1937, pg. 5.
-  “Mainly About Malayans,” The Straits Times, July 9, 1939, pg. 8.
-  “Penang C.S.C. 21 Years Old Next Month,” The Straits Times, July 17, 1949, pg.16
-  “Penang C.S.C. Opens Swim Pool Fund,” The Straits Times, August 19, 1947, pg. 12
-  “Penang Chinese Swimming Club,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, August 7, 1928, pg. 5.
-  “Penang Chinese Want to Own Pool,” Malaya Tribune, May 5, 1941, pg. 2.
-  “Penang in 1853,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, July 20, 1933, pg. 46.
-  “Penang Used to Frown on Girl Swimmers,” The Singapore Free Press, July 30, 1949, pg. 4.
-  “Penang—Home of Swim Stars,” The Singapore Free Press, July 23, 1949, pg. 4.
-  Aplin, N.G., & Quek, J. J. (2002), "Celestials in Touch: The Development of Sport and Exercise in Colonial Singapore," The International Journal of the History of Sport, 19(2-3), 66-98.
-  Chen Kien Lai (2005), “Concrete/Concentric Nationalism, The Architecture of Independence in Malaysia, 1945-1969,” pg. 185Government of the Straits Settlements (1926), “Annual Departmental Reports of the Straits Settlements for the Year 1926,” pg. 217.
-  Ho Seng Ong (1965), “Methodist Schools in Malaysia: Their Record and History,” pg. 267.
-  International Olympic Committee (1956), Official Report of the 1956 Summer Olympics, pg. 581, 585, 602.
-  National Archives of Singapore (1998), “Kee Soon Bee - Oral History Interview,” Interviewed on February 4, 1998, by Chong Ching Liang.
-  New Straits Times, “Olympian Seow Hor Dies at 85,” March 9, 2022, Accessed: [https://www.nst.com.my/sportsothers/2022/03/778437/olympian-seow-hor-dies-85]
-  Olympedia, “Fong Seow Hor,” Accessed: [https://www.olympedia.org/athletes/49078] (https://www.olympedia.org/athletes/49078).
is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.