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Remembering Malaysia’s chess icon, Tan Chin Nam

The Star Online logo The Star Online 6/11/2018 quah seng sun
Kim Jong-il sitting at a table with wine glasses: Datuk Tan Chin Nam was the one who, in 1974, initiated the Malaysian Chess Federation that took over from the defunct Chess Association of Malaysia. Photo: Handout © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad Datuk Tan Chin Nam was the one who, in 1974, initiated the Malaysian Chess Federation that took over from the defunct Chess Association of Malaysia. Photo: Handout

The text message came in at 6.14pm. Sent by See Swee Sie, president of the Penang Chess Association (PCA), it read: “It is with great sadness that I inform you, though you most probably already know. Datuk Tan has passed away.”

Barely five minutes later, my good friend in Kuala Lumpur, Hamid Majid, texted me: “It is with sadness, that I announce the passing away of Honorary Life President Datuk Tan Chin Nam at 4.30 today, Sunday, 21 Oct 2018.”

I felt devastated. I had dreaded the day and with each passing year of the Malaysia Chess Festival, I became more certain that the moment would happen soon. After all, he was already 92 years old. Yet the news floored me.

I called Hamid and Swee Sie but they did not have much additional information. Hamid said the family was making final arrangements. I could do nothing but wait. That night, even as I went for the Old Frees’ Association annual dinner in Kuala Lumpur, my thoughts were far away.

I first met him in 1974. At that time, he was plain Tan Chin Nam but already a well-respected property developer. Of course, being a mere 20-year-old at the time, I didn’t know much of him. Who was the man who had initiated the new Malaysian Chess Federation that took over from the defunct Chess Association of Malaysia? I was in Kuala Lumpur with then first PCA president, Fang Ewe Churh, to attend that inaugural meeting of the Federation, and got to know Tan.

That was 44 years ago. Whenever I was in Kuala Lumpur for several days, I would try to visit him at his office or former home at Desa Kudalari. Initially built to look over the Selangor Turf Club – horse racing was one of his other great passions in life – his condominium unit later commanded a grand view of the KLCC Twin Towers.

Once, he invited me to his home for “some games of chess” but before we even played a single game, he excused himself to take an afternoon nap. So there I was, enjoying the view from his balcony while he slept in his reclining chair in the living room.

While he was still able to travel around for corporate meetings in Penang in the 1990s and 2000s, I would meet him with my chess board. In between chess games, he would ask me about the progress of chess in Penang. He took a very keen interest in the affairs of the association. If we needed money for chess activities in Penang, we looked no further than his company on the island. He would ask me to go see his niece and present my proposal to her. And occasionally, I’d buy some street food to share with him. Once I brought some Penang chee cheong fun which he ate with gusto.

Tan celebrated his 80th birthday in March 2006 in a grand affair at the Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Each of his guests was presented with a copy of his memoirs, Never Say I Assume! They were all pre-signed copies as it would have been impossible for him to sign them all on the spot. He called me over. “Seng Sun, give me your book,” he said. Then in his shaky handwriting – he was already suffering from Parkinson’s – he added the words, “Dear Seng Sun, my good friend of 32 years.”

In the last few years of his life, he had been sickly. About five years ago, he suffered a fall which restricted his movements. For several years, he gamely tried to continue walking but later gave it up and remained largely confined to a wheelchair. He had his good days and bad days, according to his personal secretary. When I visited him at his house last year, I was warned that he might not be awake. True enough, he never stirred from his bed the whole time I was there.

This year, I was lucky. Tan was lucid enough to turn up at the closing ceremony of the Malaysia Chess Festival. But I could see the fatigue in his eyes. Like always, everyone milled around him and greeted him, and he acknowledged them with a stare, sometimes a nod. But he never spoke. And that was the very last time I met him. Eight weeks later, Tan was gone.

On the morning of Oct 22, his obituary appeared in the newspapers. I told Swee Sie that I would go to the funeral home to pay my last respects that Monday even though the obituary notice said the wakes would be opened to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I turned up at the Xiao En Centre in Cheras that afternoon. Of course, nobody was there yet. There were no guests, no family members, just two representatives from Xiao En. Rows of chairs were arranged while the staff was still preparing the ballroom. Tan’s body was in the holding room, I was informed by the Xiao En people. Suddenly, one of them turned to me and made an incredible offer, “Come follow me. I can give you some private moments with Datuk.”

I followed her to the holding room and thus there I was, standing beside the Big House and looking down at the most serene Datuk Tan Chin Nam, dressed in a light blue shirt with a yellow tie and a dark jacket, and having his final rest.

“Goodbye,” I mouthed silently, “I’m going to miss you.”

Quah Seng Sun wrote the fortnightly Chess column in Star2 from 1980 to 2012.

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