At first glance, Ah Joon’s workshop looks like the place where old electronic equipment goes to die. It is packed right to the front shutter with the wounded carcasses of amplifiers, old VCRs, speakers and vintage turntables, all disemboweled with their wires and circuit boards hanging out like entrails, the bodies spilling onto the five foot way outside. But, far from it. This is where these pieces of equipment are revived, brought back to life by Ah Joon’s tender ministrations. His doorway is a patch of light in the dark, open until one or two in the morning in case of an emergency speaker blowout at one of Kuching’s many clubs, in which Ah Joon steadily resurrects each one, a miracle worker in a world of built-in obsolescence and throwaway goods.
Ah Joon can fix anything electrical. Watching him work is a revelation as he deftly dismantles each appliance, exposing its interior like a small boy exploring how electronics work for the first time. But at the age of 73, it is more than 50 years of experience that guide him. The moment his customers describe the symptoms, he says, he already senses the diagnosis – a burned out capacitor, a blown fuse – and he can get straight into the circuitry. He has all the appearance of a savant, visualizing circuits in his head as he meticulously tests each one, zeroing in on the problem – a loose wire or a worn out connection. Then the soldering gun comes out, a small blob of silver liquid, and the process reverses, the old machine coming together again in rewind.
#BAN HOCK ROAD
He has a steady stream of customers of all ages. A plasma TV gets dropped off, an amplifier is picked up, proof that Kuching has not yet fully embraced the discard and replace culture of the rest of the world, still regularly choosing to repair and recycle instead. Environmentally responsible this might be, but it also reflects a society where, for most, incomes are only just starting to become disposable and people prize their possessions. What’s more, the skills to fix things remain and at a reasonable price. For comparatively small change, Ah Joon will deconstruct anything, even taking an entire speaker right down to the copper wire, counting the coils and then painstakingly replacing them, often with extra audio oomph.
For him, this is for love as much as money, a lifelong passion which started in 1966 with the purchase of his first radio. He promptly signed up for a correspondence course from Hong Kong and took his beloved radio apart. The radio had come into Sarawak in the mid-fifties, a full five decades after the first public radio entertainment broadcast was made from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. At that time, radios in Sarawak were rare, tuning into Australian broadcasts for a brief two hours every day. So, in the mid-sixties, Ah Joon was still very much a pioneer. When he started, he was working as a waiter at the Aurora Hotel, fixing radios on the side out the back of the Aurora staff quarters. His competition came from the three radio retailers in town – Universal (still open on Carpenter Street), Kok Hua and Jik Kwang – so word got around.
From there, he took his self-taught skills to work for R E Morris, a Singaporean company that was riding the electricity rollout in Sarawak. Kuching was only just getting itself connected to the grid and Ah Joon was right in the middle of it. Armed with a Wireman Certificate from the Public Works Department – number 589, he recalls with crystal clarity – he was part of the team that gave the Sarawak General Hospital its power in 1973.
Not bad for a boy from Mile 30 on the Kuching-Serian Road. Born in 1946 to a father who had come direct from China in 1925 with his grandparents, his early days were hard. His father was a day labourer – sometimes working in a coconut plantation near Beliong, even going through a stint as a gold miner – and his mother was fully occupied raising their giant family of 13 siblings. He spent his early years catching crabs and collecting vegetables. Apparently, they couldn’t even afford to buy him a pair of trousers, let alone a hat! He tells a humorous anecdote about how he joined the Communists for just one day in 1961. Invited to a supposed ‘picnic’, he found himself caught up in a recruitment drive in the jungle and was forced to abscond in the middle of the night with three of the other conscripts!
Within that poverty, school didn’t start for Ah Joon until the age of eleven and then only lasted for four years. Everything that he knows about electronics has been entirely earned from experience. After 6 years at R E Morris, he started his own business again in another act of reinvention. It was 1975 and the tube TV was coming into town. At that time, all the TVs were imported from Japan, set up for the 110 volts of home instead of the 230 volts in Sarawak. Ah Joon experimented and suddenly he was in business switching copious TV sets to the correct voltage. Apparently, even the people at the port would recommend him to potential purchasers.
Despite his lack of formal education, learning has been a running theme in his life. His brain is full throttle, throwing out exact dates and the names of old acquaintances as he tinkers on a guitar amp. Nowadays, he keeps current by consulting the Internet. Even at his age, modern technology holds no mystery for him, handling his smartphone like any millennial. He remembers with some degree of pride how, back in the day, the electrical engineers who had been sponsored to university educations overseas would still consult him. He sighs at the modern young boys who learned all their skills at some expensive school and yet would still rather replace an entire component than fix the broken link. “Perhaps they do not like to do the work,” he muses. “They aren’t really that interested.”
In the end, Ah Joon just enjoys seeing how things work. He should be retired but prefers to sit in his shop until the small hours of the morning or until his wife chases him upstairs. But really, his career all stems from a passion for sound. He loves listening to a great record player and has even invented his own amplifier. He still works because he loves to play with these old appliances, coaxing them back to life again when, without him, they might be forced into early retirement. He has passed on his passion to his children, teaching them from young. Of his six sons and one daughter, four are in the business and his son Robert is set to take over from him. So, for as long as Kuching continues to repair, Ah Joon Electronic Electrical will be there to fix it.