Share This

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A man of his time, Samuel Kam

Samuel Kam: A man of his time


Having lived through wars and peace, a nanogenarian believes everyone can be useful. One just has to grab the chance to do so.

WHEN Japanese enemy planes circled the sky and dropped bombs on China’s wartime capital of Chungking in the summer of 1940, Samuel Kam, at that time a government official, sought refuge in an air raid shelter with 60 colleagues.

When incendiary bombs destroyed the shelter, Kam, then 25, found himself assigned to yet another shelter, the same one as some of the top-ranking officials in the Chinese army.

And if you think it is just in period war films that grim and gaunt war generals recite Tang dynasty poetry while waiting out the bombardments, think again.

Engineer in charge: ‘I never imagined that I would be an author,’ says Samuel Kam, 96, who wrote Through Wars And Peace. 
I recently had a long chat with Kam, now 96, at his home in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. He tells me that his eyesight is not as good as it used to be and he walks with small, careful steps with the aid of a walking stick. But when he talks, he maintains a consistent pace, breaks into laughter easily, and expresses his thoughts with an eloquence that men half his age would envy.

“I am very busy every day. I have a secretary come in to help me do some necessary things. There could be numerous phone calls to and from friends and families here and abroad, as well as friends dropping by for a visit. Of course, in old age, you don’t have the speed that you want to have. You have to do things very slowly. So although I am busy, I feel that I cannot achieve much,” he says, laughing.

Born four years after the 1911 Chinese Revolution, Kam grew up in Hong Kong, served as the governor-general’s de facto foreign affairs officer in Hainan, returned to Hong Kong and taught in a girls’ school, and then sailed 19 days on a ship to America to do a master’s degree in chemical engineering at UC Berkeley (where some lectures were conducted at night because a professor was involved in top-secret research work related to the hydrogen bomb during the day!).

He stayed on to work as a chemical engineer in the United States before a varsity mate extended an invitation to go to Singapore to help develop Lam Soon Cannery, a family business started by the friend’s father in the 1930s.

Today, Lam Soon produces many household brands – Knife cooking oil, Daisy and Naturel oil and margarine, May and Fruitale soap, Drinho beverages and Zip detergent, just to name a few.

But back in the 1950s, the company was not doing well. Initially a producer of soy sauce, it envisioned being a jack-of-all-trades and added cooking oil, laundry soap, canned food and coffee to its product repertoire.

Unfortunately, its machines were badly maintained and the unplanned layout of the factory floor resulted in a production process that was far from optimum. Besides, machine operators were untrained. Thus the company could barely keep its head above water even with the help of overdrafts.

Young Kam and his wife, Lin Kwok Fong.
“Both the technical and management aspects were in a mess. No one was even able to tell me what the product costs were.

“At this time, the main business of the company was cooking oil, but the product was of poor quality. The company marketed the oil, refined from coconut oil extracted from copra, as clear and fragrant. But in reality it was neither clear nor fragrant, and retained the copra smell,” says Kam, adding that he made many technical changes, which eventually led to the company improving its financial situation.

“Lam Soon had never had a professional engineer before and I was given the post of chief engineer, even though I was really the only engineer there!”

Lam Soon in Malaya

So that was how Kam started out in South-East Asia in 1955, where he has – barring a stint in the US as an engineer when a former boss secured him an immigrant visa – lived since. He became a Malaysian citizen in 1969.

After three years with Lam Soon Singapore, he moved to Malaya and played an instrumental role in setting up Lam Soon Oil and Soap Manufacturing Company. When the country gained independence in 1957, high import duty was imposed on goods and building a factory here seemed like a step in the right direction for the company. But financial and manpower constraints meant it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

“I was sent to Malaya without any budget, without manpower, and I was told to build a modern factory with minimum cost. We had to compete with the multinational Lever Brothers (later known as Unilever), which had well-established brands such as Planta and Lux.

“The company had no money; often when the machines arrived, we were not able to pay someone to install it! Creditors chased me for money all the time. It was hard work and I had a really tough time. But I was still young, in my early 40s, and I had courage,” he says.

Kam wrote his memoir especially for his grandchildren (from left) Timothy, Priscilla and Philip.
Lam Soon’s new factory, built on a three-hectare plot of land in Petaling Jaya in the late 1950s, was to have an oil mill and oil refinery, a margarine section, a soap section and a glycerine treatment plant.

“The factory that I built in Malaya had a United Nations of machinery – the best automatic soap machinery from Italy, efficient German oil press, and other machines from America, Denmark, and England, as well as locally. I sourced machines from all over the world, provided that they were economical and worked well.

“Labour in Malaya was cheap, so people asked why I thought automatic machines were necessary. But I said – you have to look ahead. And it is important to have good machines if you want good products.”

Kam believes that a technical man has to be at the helm during the start-up of such an industry. The accountants and marketing people can come and serve later, he says.

“After helping to set up Lam Soon in Malaya, I went to America to work. But my heart was always with Lam Soon and I felt that I could maybe contribute more in South-East Asia, so after a while, I decided to come back. I considered it lucky for me that I could put my skills and knowledge to good use.”

And what a contribution it turned out to be. When he returned to Lam Soon in the 1960s, cooking oil was still refined from coconut. Palm oil (from the palm fruit), now commonly used as a cooking ingredient, was not commercially used then. Insufficient local supply of copra (at one time, large quantities had to be imported from Indonesia) and an increasing supply of crude palm oil got Kam wondering whether palm oil might make a good alternative raw material.

“Malaysia produces lots of palm oil every year so I tried to find out how to turn it into cooking oil. I was also looking forward to using palm oil to produce soap. We started with palm kernel oil and moved on to producing cooking oil from palm oil. We bought a centrifugal machine from a Swedish company in the late 1960s and got a two-year exclusive use of the new technology.”

Kam during an oil palm plantation inspection in his Lam Soon days (centre).
Lam Soon built the first oil fractionation plant to manufacture cooking oil in the country and sales of the palm-based oil grew when the Malaysian Medical Association declared in a research report that refined unsaturated palm oil is beneficial to health.

“After all its early troubles, Lam Soon is a huge success today,” he says.

Kam adds that he would like to think of the switch from coconut to palm oil as a small contribution to society.

“It is a healthier alternative to coconut oil. Once the country began to know the value of palm oil, the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (Porim) was set up to carry out research in this industry. I was one of the advisors for the research programme. Malaysia took a wise step in getting all kinds of oil experts from America, England, Holland. Palm oil is now one of the biggest pillars of the Malaysian economy.”

He retired from Lam Soon in 1982, at the age of 67, but stayed on as one of its directors until up to about five years ago.

East and West

The eldest son and second oldest of six children, Kam grew up in what he describes as a close-knit “typical Confucian family”.

“My mother was a very gentle woman and treated everyone very well. My father was a Confucian scholar and magistrate of two counties. At that time, to get ahead in life, you had to pass your examinations. He got the best private tutors for me and at a young age, I had to memorise and recite Confucian analects and the writings of Mencius for six to eight hours every day.

“At that time I didn’t even know what they meant, but because I was young, the memories are vivid and even today I am still able to recite what I learned as a boy.”

After an education in Chinese classics, he went on to a Chinese primary school where he was given a firm grounding in Chinese historical readings. Then his father, convinced of the importance of English in westernised Hong Kong, enrolled him first in the English-medium Wah Yan College, followed by King’s College.

“My father decided that I should be well-versed in the English language so I went to these two secondary schools, the best in Hong Kong at that time. The teachers at the senior classes at King’s College were all from Britain and graduates from Oxford, Cambridge, London University. So basically I got a very good English education also.”

Kam was then awarded a scholarship to study at the prestigious University of Hong Kong, but his father continued to arrange for private tutoring in Chinese literature, foreseeing the possibility of his eventually taking up a job on the Mainland.

“The university is ranked among the best in the world and even back then was very expensive. If I didn’t to get that scholarship, I don’t think my father could have afforded to send me there,” says Kam, adding that Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics were his favourite subjects in secondary school.

He reminisces that his life would probably have turned out very different if he hadn’t gone to the University of Hong Kong because he would have likely pursued his education in mainland China.

The combination of a Chinese and English education has served him very well in his life and Kam says that he owes eternal gratitude to his father for having the foresight to provide him with an education that straddled the best of east and west.

“The combination was a great advantage to me. If I only had the English education, I could have never worked in Lam Soon. And without the Confucian education, I could hardly have worked in China during the war.”

A book is born

Blessed with an impressive capacity for recollecting his younger days, Kam was struck by an urge to write it all down after he retired.

“I felt that I had gone through a very turbulent world. I have travelled throughout the whole world and I moved from one place to another all the time. I wanted to write a book, especially so that my descendants – like my son Paul and my three grandchildren – could read it. I wanted to write about my experiences, my sentiments and feelings about the dramatic changes in the world,” he says.

His friends were always captivated whenever he regaled them with snippets of his life.

“They found it really interesting and told me: ‘You must write, you must put all these down in black and white.’ They encouraged me, so I sat down and started to write seriously. I never imagined that I would be an author. I may say that I’m a good engineer, but not a good writer although I like to read literature. But I found that once I started writing, I had many things to write,” he says.

Originally, he wrote his memoir in Chinese by hand, in prose and verse. Then he got someone to help type out the manuscript.

Kam took about five years to complete A Memoir At 90: Life In A Tumultous Century and it was published in 2007. He hopes to use it as a medium to introduce his life to young people and those who are interested in how the world has changed, especially now that China is coming up as a world power.

“I started very slowly but as time passed, I gained momentum. Towards the end, I even sacrificed my time for exercise to finish writing the book. I never kept a diary so I had to write everything from memory.”

People who read his memoir were astonished that despite having to go many decades back in time, Kam was able to recall many minute details.

“People are very surprised at my good memory. When I think about a part of my life, the event comes to me immediately. It’s like a movie. Maybe it is in the genes; my sisters and brothers also have good memories. Sometimes I wonder about my friends who have very poor memories – I cannot understand how this can be!

“My memory is not that good now and I have problems remembering names. But I can remember events very well. As a result, my mind is always busy. I find that I use up lots of energy just by thinking!

“And when you grow older, you always think of the past,” he adds. Memories of his wife, Lin Kwok Fong, whom he married in 1944, remain clear. She died in 1993 after a stroke.

In his book, he writes: “My wife of 50 years left without so much as a goodbye... When I was having lunch at home the day after Kwok Fong’s passing, I sat at the table for a long time with tears streaming down my face. It dawned on me that I would never have my wife sit beside me again.”

For Kam, a typical day now starts at six in the morning. He does some simple exercises even while in bed and then takes a morning walk. Meals are kept simple, and after lunch he has an afternoon nap, a habit he has cultivated for the last 50 years.

“Nowadays, being an old man, my life is very simple. In my younger days I played golf, practised tai chi, and watched movies. Now, I cannot have these any more, so listening to classical music before I go to bed is the only amusement I have.”

Beethoven is one of his all-time favourites.

“I didn’t like classical music when I was young, but now I find it the most beautiful kind of music because it harmonises one’s emotions,” he says, adding that he has been a regular patron of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra since it started.

Kam has also been active in social work involving drug rehabilitation and scholarships for tertiary education.

With almost a hundred years behind him, are there any words of wisdom he would like to share?

“Life is never a straight path. But even when you are down, you must not give up. You must struggle to overcome. I believe there is always a way and I also believe that any man can be a useful person,” he says.

The tricky bit is finding out what you are good in and trying to develop it.

“Of course, people are born with different levels of intelligence, but I think everybody is given a few opportunities in his life. And when an opportunity comes along, you must recognise it as one and grab it.”

He has certainly done well with the opportunities that came his way. Perhaps, more importantly, he has helped create many opportunities for others.

An English edition of Samuel Kam’s memoir, titled Through Wars And Peace, will be available in bookstores next week. The book was translated from A Memoir At 90 by Sarah Yip, who also added more background information on certain topics to cater to an English readership.