Down memory lane with Frank and Ema

Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.

— Oscar Wilde, Irish poet and playwright

When I was in Upper Six, I spent most of my time revelling in the sports field, and playing rugby at the Song Kheng Hai field. I walked or jogged to St Thomas’ school from the marine police base in Main Bazaar — directly across river to Fort Margherita where I resided with my parents.

When my father first arrived in Kuching in 1967, he built the first Sarawak Constabulary seven-hole golf course on which I mastered my way to becoming its inaugural champion. At night, I moonlighted as a part-time singer with Le Coq Dor, the first “international” nightclub on the rooftop of Electra House, the tallest building in Kuching where Senate president Tan Sri Abang Ahmad Urai played the piano.

I later sang at Aurora Hotel (now Merdeka Palace) with a quartet from Federal Hotel, Kuala Lumpur led by Lawrence Dragon, who became RTM Sarawak’s first band leader.

From Main Bazaar, I walked to the Malay enclave in Satok behind Kuching’s beautifully-domed Masjid Besar and sang with a Malay band comprising RTM’s Jimmy Drahman and Jalek Julai.

In 1969, I was St Thomas’ senior prefect and sports captain as well as a top athlete specialising in the javelin event — a record which still stands after 51 years.

I was a natural athlete but it was rugby that attracted me most, especially after I won my “badge of honour” in a match against Dragon School at Song Kheng Hai — I was kicked in the face and received three stitches. So I joined Kuching Rugby Football Club (KRFC) and that was where I met an Irishman with a booming voice, the red-haired Borneo Company manager Frank Burke Gaffney.

It was at the many rugby matches at Song Kheng Hai that the 6ft 4in tall Frank met pint-sized Ema, standing 4ft 11in. Frank led KRFC in the rough and tumble of rugby while Ema was his private secretary, cheerleader and
sometimes, water girl.

One of Frank’s heroic exploits was when he took on a dozen drunk airmen who attacked him at the open air market in front of Electra House.
Ema recalled: “They bashed Frank’s head with steel chairs and he was bleeding all over. I joined in and jumped on the back of one of the leaders and threw a few punches.”

“As the crowd gathered, the airmen retreated leaving Frank and the leader to fight it out. After a good beating, he dragged the leader to the Central Police Station 100 yards away and made a report,” she chirped.
I lost touch with Frank after I left for Malacca in 1970 to work as a teacher and when I returned to Kuching as a journalist 11 years later, I renewed my friendship with the duo.

By then I had played for Selangor, which won the Malaya Cup and MRU Cup, and also excelled in golf becoming 1979 Malaysian Intermediate Champion. For the next 30 years, Frank and Ema ran a petrol kiosk not far from Tabuan Melayu where she resided and later they spent time away in Indonesia.

On their return, Ema suffered a stroke and despite being wheel-bound, Frank was always by her side.

Despite her predicament, Ema always had time to laugh and talk about the good old days. When she passed away, Frank led a sad and solitary life and a few of his colleagues often visited his house to cheer him up. After he died, I accompanied another veteran rugby player, Captain Ian Nash, to his grave at the 7th mile Catholic cemetery.

I only learnt the whereabouts of Ema’s grave at the Pending Muslim cemetery recently and found it near my water hole next to the Kuching Port Authority. It was overgrown with shrubs and lalang, so I cleared the long grass to give Ema some dignity.

However, about two years ago her grave was upgraded and now has an immaculate marbled headstone.

Even though Frank and Ema are buried several miles apart, they are united in spirit, and they are well remembered by the local rugby community.

A year ago, Sarawak Rugby Union president Richard Song — the grandson of Song Kheng Hai — initiated the Frank Gaffney challenge trophy in memory of an Irishman and a Sarawak Malay lady who proved that love knows no bounds!

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.