Wednesday July 25, 2012
Lee Chee Neo: Thinking like a champion
By GRACE CHEN
Life has been a series of good games for this chirpy lady who, literally, played hard.
THE year was 1939 and the Penang Free School Hall was the scene of the All Malayan Badminton Championships. A report of the thrills that were part of the game can be found in The Straits Echo, dated April 10 that year, which had the headline, “Miss Moey Chwee Lan Overcome by Negri Star”.
The upstart responsible for wresting the ladies’ singles title from the reigning champion was Lee Chee Neo, then a precocious 17-year-old and the undisputed badminton queen of the Negri Sembilan courts.
According to the now-defunct daily, Lee played a marvellous game. Her smashes and net drops were beautiful and her court craft, excellent.
Penang’s Moey had been leading by many points when Lee suddenly put up a keen fight and sealed the game by two points, at 12-10. The defining moment came when she lobbed the shuttlecock to the baseline and Moey returned the shot on the high side, a costly mistake as her opponent wasted no time in going in for the kill.
Today, 73 years later, Lee’s eyes still light up when she recalls her days as the darling of the badminton scene. She went on to become the Malayan women’s champion in 1941, but for her, 1939 will always remain a momentous year as it was also when she met her husband-to-be, Lim Ewe Law, former general manager of the Plaza and Sapphire theatres in Seremban, and the-then Negri Sembilan badminton champ.
She can still remember their conversation at their first meeting.
“I could see he was nervous when he asked, ‘Miss Lee, would you mind partnering me in the mixed doubles?’
“I was young and spoilt then, so I turned to him haughtily, looked him squarely in the eye and said, ‘Are we sure to win?’ Very humbly, he said he would try.”
As it turned out, on the day of the Negri Sembilan singles final in January 1939, Lim came down with a fever. And like a true heroine, Lee told him not to worry. She would watch his back while he took the front position. They won the mixed doubles match against Goh Hean Chye and Letty Cheah by 21-13 and 21-12.
For Lee, her years as a badminton star and later, Negri Sembilan’s first Malaysian tennis champion, were heady ones indeed.
Among her fond recollections is that of staying in former Singapore President Wee Kim Wee’s house during a badminton match in Singapore. The late Wee, then a reporter with The Straits Times, invited Lee and her family to put up at his house. Till today, Lee continues to keep in touch with the Wee family.
When Eng Hwa, Wee’s daughter, launched her book, Cooking For the President: Reflections And Recipes Of Mrs Wee Kim Wee in 2010, a copy was mailed to Lee in Port Dickson. Eng Hwa did not have Lee’s full address; she just wrote her name on the envelope. The package arrived safely at her door – such is Lee’s fame and popularity, till today.
As a tennis champ, Lee became the first Asian lady to win the ladies’ singles in the Negri Sembilan lawn tennis championships in 1950. She represented Malaysia in the South-East Asian Peninsular Games (SEAP) in 1957 and 1960, and led the Malaysian contingent at the 29th Annual Lawn Tennis in Kuala Lumpur in 1970 – during which event she got to shake hands with former Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
One of the highlights of Lee’s sporting career was being conferred the Pingat Jasa Kebaktian by Tuanku Munawir Ibni Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the ninth Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. She describes it as a proud but funny moment.
“Protocol decreed I had to walk backwards and then bow to the Yam Tuan before going back to my seat. But in my cheongsam and high heels, I knew I’d fall if I did so. So as he was pinning the medal on me, I whispered my predicament to him. He whispered back that I should walk to his right, bow and then turn,” Lee relates.
All this did not escape the eye of Lt-Col Tunku Datuk Tolha Tunku Ahmad, aide de camp to the Yang di-Pertuan Besar, who was present at the awards. Later, Tunku Tolha, a close friend of Lee’s, revealed that he almost burst out laughing.
“I simply told him if I had not opened my mouth, I would have fallen backwards for sure and everyone would have laughed at me,” she explains.
The early years
It was Lee’s late father, Lee Teck Nie, who put her and her sister, Kim Neo on the badminton court.
“At that time, he employed the veteran players and budding champions to train us. One of them was Wong Yew Chong. These trainers took turns to stay at our house for two weeks each and I played badminton with these champs all 365 days in a year.
“Having men as practice partners certainly me made faster and stronger. To build up my stamina, my father cycled round the field and made us chase after him,” she recalls.
The Lee sisters went on to became state champions and together they won the Malayan doubles title in 1940 and 1941. Kim Neo who is one year younger, retired from the game at age 28. She died of cancer in Adelaide, Australia, six years ago.
Describing herself as daddy’s girl, Lee adds: “I was the apple of his eye. He never called me by name. All the time it was either ‘darling’ or ‘honey’. I was his daughter as well as his ‘son’. He insisted I should not grow up soft and reticent but bold and outspoken.”
So pampered was she that when her mother asked her to peel garlic, her father quickly intervened, fearing she would cut her finger. Naturally, her mother worried that she might not be able to fulfil her domestic duties after marriage.
But Lee had little else on her mind except her game. “When I played, I played to win. Being No.1 was all that mattered.”
But the pressure proved too much, even for the strong-minded girl. Sometime in her teens, she suffered burnout.
“I was studying at Convent Seremban and one day the Reverend Mother found me sleeping at my desk. Immediately, she phoned my father. I took to bed for a whole month and the doctors said I would never play badminton again.”
She proved them wrong when she simply got out of bed one day and made the switch from badminton to tennis. “I told myself that I’d be state champion in a year and, true enough, I made it,” she adds, smiling.
Her tennis training took place in a sports village where breakfast was served in between 3km runs and sessions on the court.
“In those days, we were trained to hit the ball 100 paces to the line. Where your shoulder pointed was where the ball went. That was the kind of accuracy we went for.”
As for how she stayed at the top of her game, Lee reveals that she tuned herself mentally for the task.
“Whenever anyone asked if I was going to win in a match, I’d just turn around nonchalantly and say, ‘Of course.’ And whenever I stepped into the court, no one was my friend. The only reason I was there was to beat my opponent.”
Standing on her own feet
Lee married Lim, who was eight years her senior, at 24. When his family came to propose, she was sitting on her father’s lap!
“It was an arranged marriage. Our parents were good friends and my father liked Lim very much. I can still remember him telling me, ‘He is a nice man.’ I was young then and also a tad rebellious so I answered back, ‘If you like him so much, then you marry him.’”
As it turned out, Lim was really a “very nice man” who tried his best to cater to his bride’s every whim. Lee remembers an occasion when both of them had to attend a dinner. Although they had a driver, she wanted the evening to be theirs alone.
“I turned to my husband and told him I wanted him to drive me, or else I would not go. He got behind the wheel and crashed into the front gate. I realised he was just nervous, so I showed him how to press the pedals,” says Lee, who describes herself as the more adventurous of the two.
Lim treated his young wife to holidays abroad but most of the time, she travelled without him as he had work commitments. But on one occasion he joined Lee, at that time a beautiful 27-year-old, on a cruise ship, after learning about the potential danger of on-board romances.
The couple went on to have two children, a daughter now aged 61, and a son, 59. As they were growing up, Lee had little to worry about.
“All my life, I never had to think about money. I seldom carried any with me, anyway. If I wanted to buy something, the driver would pay for it first and then my husband would reimburse him. Neither did I have to bother about housework. Just look at my hands,” says Lee, as she lifts them up to show perfectly manicured nails.
Two years ago, this chirpy dame had a pacemaker implanted.
“The doctor looked very grave as he told me they had to operate. He was fairly taken aback when I simply said, ‘Operate lah.’ He was lost for words when he told me my condition was serious and I replied with a curt, ‘So?’”
The operation over, she still has not let up on the poor chap. “He once called and asked if I was still driving around. I had been advised not to after the implant. I told him ‘no’. Intuitively, he asked if I was lying. I said ‘yes’,” recalls Lee, with a gleeful clap.
Ever positive, Lee now passes her time in her orchid garden, and with friends who take her on day trips. She is still a well-loved personality in Port Dickson, where she lives. A trip to the coffee shop inadvertently finds her surrounded by well-wishers who never tire of her witty one-liners.
“I always tell people, why worry about tomorrow when you have today.”
Although Lee has long hung up her racquets, she still follows badminton and tennis matches avidly. She is diplomatic when asked if she has a favourite sportsperson.
“To me, the best man should win. I have no favourites. When I watch a match, all I want is to enjoy the game. As an athlete myself, I still think I am the greatest among all the other players,” she adds, with a wink.
As for the Malaysian badminton team that’s currently in London for the summer Olympics, Lee thinks “their chances are good” despite China and Denmark being strong contenders.
“At the end of the day, it will all depend on the players’ fitness,” says Lee, who has a personal message for Lee Chong Wei, who, she observes, “plays like a tiger”.
“It is an uncanny coincidence that we are both Lees. I was once great. Now it’s your turn. I wish you the best of luck!”
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