Top: From left, Ee Ling, Jai Jun, Saw Gek, Tze Siang, Jiang and Hock Guan pose for a photograph in the plaza of CentralWorld shopping mall in Bangkok, near Ratchaprasong intersection and the Erawan Shrine. Photo: Neoh Huey Shinn / Courtesy
BUTTERWORTH, Malaysia — They planned the trip on a whim. The family pastry business was going to close down for the long weekend, and Lim Saw Gek, 49, decided to wrangle the relatives together for a quick trip up to Thailand. As always, it was an open invitation. Anyone who could manage to steal away for the four-day vacation was welcome to join.
In the end, seven boarded the Bangkok-bound train from Penang: Saw Gek and her husband Neoh Hock Guan, two of their children, a son-in-law, their 4-year-old granddaughter, and Saw Gek’s older sister. It was going to be a quick trip. They would leave Saturday and return home in time for work Wednesday.
But on the last night of their trip, that plan and much more were shattered when a powerful bomb exploded several feet from where they were praying in front of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine on 17 Aug. When it detonated at 6:55pm, six of them had just lit incense and were facing the golden statue of Brahma housed inside the shrine, while Saw Gek’s sister, Lim Soo See, sat behind them on a wooden bench. A bench under which, minutes earlier, a young man had calmly but discreetly placed a backpack investigators believe contained the bomb that would kill all but two of them along with 15 others.
The force of the blast knocked Hock Guan to the ground, but he quickly scrambled to his feet, and was relieved to see his 33-year-old daughter Ee Ling nearby, unscathed. Yet they were standing amidst a scene that can only be described as a living hell. The very street was burning. Bodies were scattered in pieces, and the sound of screams and sirens reverberated through the air. Hock Guan had shards of glass in his back and hands but couldn’t feel any pain. His first thought was to find the others, so he ran back to the shrine to look for them.
He does not want to talk anymore about what he saw there.
One week after the Erawan shrine bomb took much of Hock Guan’s family away, life in the Thai capital drifts back toward normal. But for those who lost someone and the many more seriously injured, Aug. 17 will forever delimit two lives: before the bomb and after. Arguably none more so, by the sheer scale of their loss, than Hock Guan and his family.
After identifying the bodies of his dead relatives in Bangkok, he returned home Wednesday to his family’s street in Butterworth, Malaysia, a gritty industrial city just across the strait from Penang island on the mainland.
Butterworth lacks Georgetown’s colonial charm but embodies Malaysia’s multicultural society with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim houses of worship all found near Hock Guan’s home.
Hock Guan found his street transformed Thursday into a long dining hall, with white tents erected over rows of tables and plastic red stools in preparation for a traditional Chinese wake. For three consecutive nights, hundreds of relatives and friends packed in to pay their last respects to the dead. One-by-one they visited altars erected next to the relatives’ wooden coffins, which were laid outside to show that they had died away from home.
24-year-old Lu Pinquan looks on from behind an altar to his mother, Lim Soo See, who died in the Erawan Shrine bombing.
The visitors took turns bowing before the smiling portraits and placing smoking incense sticks into ash-filled urns. Some burned paper money as offerings to assist the dead in the afterlife.
Many friends stayed until morning to accompany the relatives, who are required by Chinese tradition to keep all-night vigils during a wake. The guests were served several rounds of hot soup and plates of pork that were replenished by a group of men who ferried at least half-a-dozen, whole-roasted pigs through the bustle of the tents.
Each evening, troupes of hired performers took turns beating traditional drums and gongs, singing wailing tributes, and chanting Buddhist prayers, all acts of entertainment that are believed to keep evil spirits at bay and ease the dead’s journey into the next life.
On Sunday, after the five bodies had been cremated or buried, the tent was dismantled and the tables were cleared, returning the street to an eerie calm.
Mourners gather before burning incense and candles on Sunday at the family home of Hock Guan in Butterworth, Malaysia.
Caskets for Jai Jun and Saw Gek are prepared on Sunday.
Jai Jun’s older brother Kah Loon and others lead a final ceremony before the caskets were taken to the cemetery on Sunday.
The first thing that people want to tell you about Hock Guan’s family is how devoted they were to one another. Neighbors and relatives in Butterworth’s tight-knit Chinese community, which has been called “more Chinese than China itself,” repeatedly described the fallen as exemplars of xiao, that all-important Confucian value of filial piety. Indeed, even as his children began to grow up and move out of the family house, they stayed close by, and returned to visit on most weekends. During holidays and other occasions, the family would often cram into one house for the night, even if there was hardly enough room for everyone to lie down.
“We would rather squeeze together and stay together than rent a hotel room,” said Koay Siew Eng, an aunt of Soo See and Saw Gek. “The kids loved to spend time together, even if they didn’t have enough space to sleep.”
But the close family was also known for smiling at strangers and treating their neighbors with a rare graciousness.
“They were very popular among the local community here,” said Lim Gim Seong, a family friend. “If you ask every neighbor, they will say only good things.”
Speaking to Khaosod English inside his home on Monday, Hock Guan said his family hasn’t had any time to discuss what they will do next. He said his first priority is to help his daughter Ee Ling, who made few appearances over the weekend but has not spoken to the press.
“But we really need to know what happened,” he added. Ee Ling’s younger sister, Huey Shinn, said the family has been trying to follow the news, but noted that there have been few updates on the Thai police investigation, which seems to have run cold.
“We are worried that if the person is not caught, more people will die,” Hock Guan said.
From interviews with family, friends and neighbors between Thursday and Sunday, here is what we learned about those who lost their lives in the attack.
A stylized photograph of Hock Guan’s family hangs on the wall of his home.
Lim Saw Gek, 49
Every afternoon, Lim Gim Seong would hear his named called from across the street.
“The food is already cold, come to eat!” Saw Gek would say.
“Not only to me, but to other friends too,” recalled Gim Seong, a friend of the family who once ran a T-shirt business in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t only the kind gesture that Gim Seong appreciated – Saw Gek’s cooking was also unusually good. She liked to fire up traditional Hokkien dishes from a thick book of recipes that she had been compiling for more than 30 years, as well as new recipes she invented on her own.
“Sometimes when you visit someone’s house for a dinner, usually one or two dishes will be only okay,” said Gim Seong. “But for me, everything Saw Gek cooked was always very delicious.”
Gim Seong thought the invitations would stop after he moved his business to a new location around 30 minutes away. But even though Saw Gek could no longer call him over from her terrace, she continued the tradition by inviting him over WeChat, which she also used to send enticing photos of food she had prepared.
Saw Gek’s culinary talents were no secret in the community. When she wasn’t serving up free lunches, she was helping Hock Guan run the family’s successful pastry business. From an outdoor kitchen next to on the terrace of their home, Saw Gek and her staff prepared and sold batches of colorful Chinese-Malay desserts known as kuih to the owners of local stores and bakeries. One guest at the wake this weekend said he regularly traveled from Penang island to Butterworth, which is located on the mainland, just to purchase Saw Gek’s kuih to bring back to stores in his community.
Despite working long hours to expand the kuih business – they even opened a store in China – Saw Gek always found time for charity. For years, she spent every Thursday preparing meals that she personally delivered to a retirement home, despite the long drive. Right before she left for Bangkok, she and other friends in the neighborhood bought 100 sarongs to donate to the nursing home. Saw Gek, the seamstress in the group, had planned to personally embroider the sarongs after returning from Thailand.
“Now we don’t know what to do with the sarongs,” said a neighbor involved in the project. “Saw Gek was going to do all the tailoring work.”
A handpainted sign stands outside Saw Gek’s outdoor kitchen where she prepared ‘kuih.’
Lim Soo See, 52
For Soo See, age really was just a number. She was the oldest sibling in the family, but had a youthful energy and an eye for elegance. Even into her 50s, she entered beauty pageants, took belly dancing classes and jogged regularly. She liked to get dolled up and look good.
She designed and sold jade jewelry in Singapore, where she lived with her 24-year-old son Lu Pinquan. She also worked as a hairdresser, making wigs for loyal clients that continued visiting her after she closed down her salon and set up a home studio to save money on rent.
Despite living in Singapore, she remained close with her three siblings in Malaysia, visiting nearly 10 times each year and speaking to her sister Saw Gek on the phone every night. She shared her sister’s passion for food and once flew to Butterworth simply to eat fresh durian when it was in season.
“One thing I know about my mom is – she liked to be free,” said her son, Pinquan, who was raised solely by his mother after his parents divorced when he was 5. “She didn’t like to be tied up with a regular job. She liked flexibility.”
Pinquan flew to Bangkok immediately after the bombing to search for his mother, who was initially reported missing. He was accompanied by his father, even though the two are not close. Pinquan said he began preparing himself for the worst after he learned that his mother was last seen sitting on the bench under which the bomb was believed planted.
In a grim twist, it was Soo See’s beauty habits that helped Pinquan finally identify his mother’s remains. After arriving in Malaysia for the funeral, he told local media that he was only able to recognize his mother’s badly scarred body by the polish on her fingernails.
“It was traumatizing experience seeing my mother that way,” he said. “That awful moment will forever be etched into my memory.”
Neoh Jai Jun, 20
Things were looking up for Jai Jun. He was celebrating his 20th birthday that day and awaiting word on whether he’d been accepted into an international business program at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
Jai Jun wanted to join his best friend from high school, Tim Eu Xun, who was already enrolled at a Taiwanese university. The pair, who carpooled to and from high school every day, had hatched their plan last year to both attend a university in Taiwan after they graduated.
Jai Jun never got to see the official letter announcing he was accepted. It arrived two days too late.
Tim said he last heard from Jai Jun just a few hours before the explosion. Jai Jun had sent a short video from a floating market in Bangkok, and Tim wrote back that it looked like they were having fun.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard to the news,” said Tim, who flew from Taiwan to attend the funeral in Butterworth. “I had just contacted Jai Jun the day before. I really could not accept that it was true.”
Dozens of other friends from high school also attended Jai Jun’s funeral Sunday and helped carry his casket from his home to the hearse.
Jai Jun was humble and often quiet, they said.
That is until he stepped onto a stage.
“Drama released something in him,” explained Lum Chun Yen, a friend from high school. “He acted with very skilled emotion.”
Several days before the bombing, Lum got in a minor car crash on the way to drop his brother off at the airport in Kuala Lumpur. When he called Jai Jun to tell him about the accident, Jai Jun noted that August was a dangerous month for those born in the Chinese Zodiac’s Year of the Pig.
“He told me to be careful and said that it was good luck that I was safe after the accident,” Lum said. “I never thought that an accident would then happen to him.”
Lee Tze Siang, 35
Tze Siang was a family man. Friends said he loved spending time with his children, a 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, and “never said no” when his wife Ee Ling asked him to help take care of them, even if it meant changing diapers. On Facebook they seemed to post little else than photos of their children.
When Tze Siang wasn’t with the family, he was running a clothing company that sourced textiles from around Malaysia and neighboring countries, a job that gave him an excuse to travel often and bring other family members along. But when he found out several months ago that Ee Ling was pregnant with their third child, he told her father, Hock Guan, that he wanted to stop traveling and find his supplies locally because he wanted to spend more time with his wife.
“He told me he was planning to buy a better car and go get new stock every week from Kuala Lumpur, instead of having go to places very far,” said Hock Guan, who would tell friends Tze Siang got “100 marks” as a son-in-law.
Hock Guan said Tze Siang’s “sweet mouth” endeared him to his elderly in-laws, who he always greeted politely and visited with food and other gifts.
“We won’t be able to find a person who could replace him,” Ee Ling’s aunt, Neoh Lee Wah, said. “Ee Ling was very lucky to marry a person like this.”
Lee Jing Xuan, 4
Jing Xuan liked to pretend she was a princess. And even though she was only 4, she had already started looking up to the older women in the family.
“Sometimes when my wife would get ready to go out for dinner, Jing Xuan would quietly watch my wife while she put on makeup,” recalled Hock Guan, a smile spreading across his face.
“Then she would turn and look at me, and I would act like I didn’t see her, so she would continue to stare. And after my wife left, she would take all the makeup and put it on her face.”
Clarification: Some names have been updated to reflect preferred spelling.