Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Fred Leong - The Legend

Frederick Charles Leong (1952-2016) - The Legend
It's been 27 years, almost to the day, since I first walked into the office of the Borneo Mail in Kota Kinabalu. Aside from the fiery-tempered editor, C.C. Pung, the other person I remember well from that fateful first day was the equally straight-shooting and hot-blooded Fred Leong.
Coincidentally, I had just turned 27 then, so I have now known Frederick Charles Leong, also known as Dick, for exactly half of my life.
At work he did his job and I did mine. After work, we shared many good moments together. Those who know him, and me, would know that these were pretty wild moments. I was young, he was 10 years older, but then again, he never grew old. Some would say he, like Peter Pan, never grew up.
Two old timers from an ancient era.
I had been interested in 4X4 adventures for some years then, having covered the Trans Borneo series of expeditions that explored both my home state of Sarawak as well as Sabah. When those trips evolved into the Borneo Safari, Fred and I followed their activities with keen interest, as journalists and also as enthusiasts ourselves.
This interest culminated in my participation, as a journalist, in Borneo Safari 1992, with Fred's keen support and endorsement.
I recall he was already driving a 4X4 back then, a Daihatsu Feroza, when I could afford only to dream of owning one. Some day. (That day did come while I was still in Sabah, albeit just a couple of months before I packed up and moved off to seek my fortunes with The Star in the peninsula.)
In those pre-social media days when even mobile phones were a luxury, Fred and I did not stay in touch regularly, although we did bump into each other occassionally, on the job.
Happy times at Kuala Penyu, BS 2008
In 2008, one of these bumps took place at a 4X4 jamboree at Ulu Yam in Selangor, while Fred was a member of the delegation from the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club.
It was then that he invited me to make a long-overdue visit back to Sabah for that year's Borneo Safari. And when Fred invites one to the Safari, he really wants you to go. Which means you don't really have much of a choice.
A few short weeks later, I was on a plane from KL to KK, and soon after, driving a D-Max as part of the Media team, with Fred as Chief Media. That was when I got to know Fred much better, especially a side of him that I had not seen before.
As Boss, he tolerated no nonsense. What he says, goes. And he commanded the total respect of the team he assembled and led, a team comprising many members whom I count among my closest friends in 4X4. Sadly, several of them, including the late Andy Wong, David Wong and Clarence Labo, have since passed away from illness.
(L to R) Andy Wong, Fred Leong and Clarence Labo.
One particularly memorable incident was when we had struck camp and moved off when a report came in over the two-way radio, pointing out that there was still a fire burning. Despite Fred's stern instructions on trash disposal, someone had decided to burn some rubbish and, worse, did not ensure the flames were completely doused before leaving. Furious, Fred made the convoy turn around and return to the site, and saw to it that every member of the crew scour the whole areas, leaving not one piece of litter. That was so Fred.
After a memorable Borneo Safari 2008, I returned to my base in the peninsula, and we communicated intermittently. He did ask me a couple of times to return for the event in later years but things did not work out because of my then work commitments.
It was not until 2012, when I had moved back to Kuching, that I returned to the Borneo Safari, and reconnected with Fred as if I had never left Sabah at all. Since then, I have not missed a Safari, plus made numerous other trips to Sabah. On several of those trips, I stayed at his apartment but even if I did not, there was never a trip when we did not catch up for his favourite activity (and mine, truth be told), which is shooting the breeze over beers. Lots of beers.
His sons, Alvin and Alex, who were just kids when I first knew Fred, are now all grown up, married and have families of their own. And, in many ways, they took over the roles that Fred used to play as he gradually took a back seat.
Doting grandpa Fred with Nathan, son of Alvin.
Fred had become a doting grandfather. But he was still, as ever, the inimitable Fred. Outspoken, firm in his beliefs, and ready to stand 100%, and loudly, by his principles and his friends.
We did not agree on everything. In fact, we argued a lot, and he seemed to enjoy these animated bouts as much as I did. Or maybe it was the beers that fuelled these debates which we enjoyed. But we had fun, we had great memories.
Along the way, we spent a lot of time doing what we enjoyed the most, messing around with our 4X4s, and exploring the hard-to-reach places that we could reach only by 4X4, and only with great difficulty.
Fred enjoys cooking ...
In the latter years, Fred decided he, as an elder in the fraternity, would no longer suffer the hardcore bits but would still pull the strings and put the pieces in place, and then drive into the last camp site to greet us as we emerge, muddied and wearied, and treat us to some of his fabulous cooking. Those who have not tasted his unique version of Hainanese chicken rice, well, you will never know what you are missing.
Stories about Fred would fill a book. Of several volumes. But it is not my intent to tell his entire life story, just a few anecdotes from the moments we shared on the journey, and the impact these had on me.
Just after 4.00pm on Tuesday, 29th November, 2016, at 64 years young,
And everyone enjoys his cooking.
“Angkol” Fred has driven his last safari, in his beloved Toyota 80-series Land Cruiser “Ninja”.
He was supposed to have flown over to Kuching the next day, to join me in the SAKTA (Sarawak 4X4 Adventure and Travel Club) Sarawak Jamboree.
In the off-roading fraternity, there have been many strong characters, each of whom have stamped their own unique mark and left indelible legacies. Still, we do not use the term “legend” lightly.
Fred Leong, you are Legend. Rest In Peace.
As Malcolm Jitam (left) said: "The total age of these 4x4 off roaders span back to time before the Spanish inquisition."