What’s in a Coke? If you asked the kids back in the 70s and 80s, they’ll tell you: “It’s the real thing” (one of the marvels of advertising, no doubt).
And just like that iconic Cola that he sold on top of the steps of MBSKL’s football field for over three decades — along with a fine choice of ice-cream — Johnny Loke Fook Cheong was “the real thing” to the boys at that school.
Real, because he was, as the Cantonese term implied, their Tai Kor — or “big brother” who kept them safe from the bullies of rival schools in the vicinity, and the more dangerous gangsters and extortionists from triads and secret societies in the adjacent Chinatown.
Real, because to Johnny, a promise was a promise, meant to be kept and not broken. Tough, streetwise but also a faithful church-goer, he had made a solemn promise to himself to protect the unfenced grounds of the Methodist Boys School Kuala Lumpur and its Wesley Church that became not just his place of trade but also worship and virtual second home.
Except for Sundays, when he attended church, the other six days you’d find him standing over those grounds with his beverage and ice-cream cart — an assuring sight indeed to anyone needing a thirst-quencher or delicious cold treat on a scorching day. While he chatted amiably with those who bought from him, his eyes were constantly scanning the grounds for signs of trouble.
It was an odd position really. Johnny was neither the school security nor staff. Yet, he acted with the authority of a cop on the ground.
And he was loved by the boys at the school for being their “Big Brother” and favorite Coke/ice-cream guy; quietly appreciated by its long-serving principal for the protection he gave (despite school rules that forbid unlicensed vendors like him on its grounds); and respected by the clergy of the Wesley Church, who saw in him not just a businessman but a Christian doing the Lord’s work.
So much so that his passing on September 26, 2022, sixteen days short of his 78th birthday, after a protracted battle with lung cancer, saw a flood of tributes from two generations of MBSKL students, teachers and Wesley Church community members. Many eulogized a man who was somewhat of a guardian angel and treat fairy combined in one, and who became a permanent fixture under one of the trees straddling the school field from the mid 60s to the 90s.
“Johnny will always be a MBS legacy figure,” Loo Choo Keong, one of the school’s head boys from the mid 80s, wrote in a group text. “For us, at least, school is not complete without him.”
As a prefect — or senior student who helped enforce discipline in school — Loo’s relationship with Johnny was “strange”; the latter was an unlicensed vendor on the school’s grounds, and the head boy had to set an example by avoiding business with such types. Yet, what Johnny sold was too good for kids like Loo to ignore.
“I always enjoyed buying ice cream from him whenever I had spare coins, which was very rare,” Loo said. “But most of my school life, I was a prefect and could not afford the luxury as we were not supposed to buy anything from him.”
Nick Teh, who was at MBSKL during the same years as Loo, recalls Johnny giving away as much ice as the fizzy drinks he sold.
“I will always remember his generosity in allowing us to fill up as much ice as we wanted in the plastic bags he poured our drinks into, to ensure they were super-chilled to quench our thirst after our games of football back then,” Teh wrote.
Ron K. Yew Leong, another alumnus of MBSKL from the 1980s, says it would be easy to reduce Johnny to a mere beverage and ice-cream salesman, only he wasn’t. To Ron, Johnny’s street-smarts in navigating through any situation made him as great a teacher as any at MBSKL.
“He taught us what the school didn’t teach us, facts of life; as someone put it, he was the ‘educator of life’,” said Ron.
A Brilliant Footballer
Indeed, Johnny’s life wasn’t just about sodas and ice-cream.
He was a brilliant footballer who once played for his country and could have turned professional if he wanted.
In 1962, before there was Malaysia, it was Malaya and 18-year-old Johnny played right fullback for his home state of Selangor, winning the Burnley Cup. That same year, he represented the country in the Asian Youth Football Tournament. His teammates included two who would go on to become among the most famous names in Malaysian football — Chow Chee Keong (keeper) and Soh Chin Aun (striker). The three of them also played for one of the famous clubs then — the SCRC or Selangor Chinese Recreation Club.
Glimpses of Johnny’s wizardry in soccer could be seen whenever the ball crossed over from the MBSKL field onto the steps near where his ice-cream cart was stationed. Like a child, his face would light up and he’d run to retrieve the ball, often doing foot stalls, dribbles and balancing tricks with it, before sending it back down with a thunderous strike.
Thanks to his footballing skills, Johnny got another career break in the 60s, when he was hired for a promising position at tyremaker Dunlop, just as Malaysia began to lead the world in rubber production. Had he stayed with that job, he might have become one of Dunlop’s senior most managers, or even directors, in Malaysia.
Yet, fate decreed otherwise with both his footballing career and job at Dunlop, and he ended up with an ice-cream start-up instead.
What led to that twist is his life is unclear.
But economics appeared to influence the decision: The eldest of six siblings, Johnny was married by the age of 19, and in quick order, he had five children.
He needed something more than an ordinary job to feed his six dependents, including wife.
Fiercely Independent Streak
He also couldn’t seem to hold a desk job, where he had to take orders from someone all the time.
“Johnny had a fiercely independent streak that shone throughout his life,” says his younger brother Pastor Loke Weng Yew, who’s a member of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in the Petaling Jaya suburb just outside the Malaysian capital. “A business where he could be his own boss was best for someone like him.”
That business turned out to be the Walls’ ice-box on wheels. The British frozen dessert brand owned by Unilever set foot in Malaysia in the 1960s, with a business model that could turn anyone into an ice-cream seller.
“It was simple,” Pastor Loke said, describing the model. ”You register with them and they provide an ice box at the back of your bicycle [in Johnny’s case, it was a motorbike]. They let you take a stock of ice cream and a bell and so you just ply the streets, ringing the bell to attract customers. No capital was required. It was a business based on trust. At the end of the day, you take your profit minus Walls’ cost.”
It was perfect for Johnny.
Within a couple years, he built up a bustling practice, starting his afternoons before the field at MBSKL, then moving up toward the Confucian School that was on the other end before returning to the MBSKL side by the evening bell. Sometimes, he’d station himself outside the Wesley Church that was between the two schools.
Johnny could ply back and forth between these locations easily because of the very nature of the MBSKL access road. It was a curvy lane that formed an elongated U, beginning with the primary (or elementary) school compound, then the secondary blocks (consisting of the middle and high schools) followed by Wesley Church, before ending up at the Confucian School.
Because so many properties were located on the same windy lane and each had to be accessible, the road was practically open 24 hours a day. That also meant a security issue, as anyone could prowl the area at any time. Adding to the problem — or convenience, depending how one saw it — was a stairway across the Wesley Church that connected to the city beneath. The great thing with those steps was they could be used to reach the capital’s main bus terminal or Chinatown below. The bad thing was one could easily get waylaid by extortionists there, especially when it got dark and quiet.
Johnny sensed these and intervened when any kid got into trouble on those steps or anywhere in the vicinity. His motto: No one messes with these boys on my watch.
Mike Lai, who attended MSBKL in the 1980s, remembers how Johnny came to his aid once after a couple of thugs harassed him on those steps while he was on the way to school.
“He took a hockey stick from his motorbike and rushed off in their direction after he heard what happened.”
“He caught up with the two while they were waiting for more victims at the steps. He threatened them to never step foot inside the MBS compound ever again. ‘No one disturbs my boys in this school’s compound!’, he shouted at them,” Mike recalls.
Pastor Loke said no one asked his brother to become the school’s guardian angel; Johnny just put himself up to it.
“The demographics and dynamics of Chinatown in the 60s and 70s were very different,” the pastor said, explaining what pushed Johnny into doing what he did. “You had extended families living in the shophouses there. You also had the secret societies, triads and gangsters. And because Johnny used to sell ice cream even to the children there, he knew those groups too, including the notorious Long Foo Tong triad.”
“Johnny offered to speak on behalf of the students whenever there was trouble with the triads in Chinatown. The parents of those kids were extremely grateful to him.”
Pastor Loke said Johnny was especially protective of the younger boys because bullying was rampant then.
“Stay beside me until your Dad comes to pick you up,’ he used to tell some kids whose parents were running late,” Pastor Loke said. There were, of course, no cellphones then. Many parents had a frisson of relief to find their children beside Johnny on their arrival, with the kids often enjoying a free ice-cream or soda while waiting.
Pastor Loke said Johnny’s street-smarts helped him keep surveillance on the school. He said his brother could have easily made a real detective if he wanted and tells a humorous story of how Johnny caught a shoe thief once.
“We brothers lived as a family in a flat not far from MBSKL and, at one time, all of us had lost at least a pair of Adidas sneakers, which were the rage then,” said Pastor Loke. “Johnny suspected the shoe thief was a schoolboy himself and possibly from MBS. So he set up a sting, passing word within the school that he wanted to buy quality, used Adidas sneakers. Sure enough, someone approached him and Johnny told the guy to bring his shoes to the bottom of our flat that evening so that he could check them out before buying. He then told us, his brothers, to wait in hiding. When the so-called shoe seller turned up, he was carrying my sneakers, as well as those of my brothers. We seized them all back!”
Someone else appreciated the extra-curricular security that Johnny provided at MBSKL: the school’s long-serving principal Yong Chee Seng.
Formally known as Mr. Yong, or otherwise Yong-sook (with sook being the Cantonese endearment for uncle), he was another one who had an awkward relationship with Johnny.
As principal, Mr. Yong wasn’t supposed to allow — or at least encourage — an unlicensed vendor to do business on the school’s grounds (hence the no-buying-from-Johnny policy among prefects such as Loo). Yet, MBSKL itself was so much safer with Johnny around that Yong-sook just decided to let him be.
The principal had another reason: Almost the entire clergy at Wesley Church, which Johnny joined as a parishioner in 1980, loved the ice-cream man. He had waltzed his way into their hearts with Walls ice-box, contributing free treats whenever the church had an event. So popular he was as both congregation member and Wesley’s go-to ice-cream man that the church magazine even featured him in a 2003 edition.
At the top of Wesley’s order was a Reverend Denis Chandraraj Dutton, who was particularly fond of Johnny. Over a more than 40-year period, the two men had stayed in touch, with the present U.S.-based Bishop Dutton even sending an eulogy to be read at Johnny’s wake.
Kindness That Found Payback
Pastor Loke said it would be easy to think that Johnny’s association with Wesley Church was primarily motivated by business, but the truth was his brother was more spiritual than the average person.
“He was an extremely devout and loyal Christian. I may be with a pastoral ministry but he could even recite the Nicene Creed,” Pastor Loke said, referring to the 224-word passage, which is the defining statement of belief for mainstream Christianity.
Over the years, Johnny’s generosity and kindness found its payback.
Mr. Yong helped approve free cancer treatment for Johnny’s father at the hospital where the MBSKL principal was once a trustee.
Johnny himself received heavily subsidized medication in his final days from former MBSKL students who had become oncologists and related experts for cancer.
In summation, his daughter Vivien expresses her amazement at how an ice-cream seller could have earned this much love and respect from society.
“Me and my siblings’ favorite childhood memory with my Dad is when we light up fireworks during Chinese New Year’s Eve,” Vivien said in a text. “As little kids, we always thought it was so magical and amazing. Now that we’ve grown up, we may not light up fireworks with our Dad during New Year’s Eve. But he manages to light our day every day.”
Johnny Loke Fook Cheong was born on October 12, 1944 and returned to be with The Lord on September 26, 2022.
– by Barani Krishnan, Founder & Americas Editor