New Countries for Old Girls

Last Saturday, Bukit Bintang Girls’ School celebrated its 120th anniversary with a party in Kuala Lumpur. A day later on the other side of the globe, 23 ex-BBGS girls met in Satay House, London to do the same. Ai-Leen Lim (class of ’86) was one of them.

My friends and I used to joke that you can spot a BBGS girl a mile away: “Got chop on the forehead like that.” What were the distinguishing features? Was it the modest pinafores that had to cover the knee, not a millimetre higher? The hair that had to be plaited—white or black ribbons only—once it grew too long for a mere ponytail? Or the socks that had to be folded down to the ankle just so?

From the eclectic mix of hairdos and outfits of the old girls who turned up for lunch last Sunday, it’s clear the hallmark of a BBGS girl isn’t about superficial appearance. Everyone present had left school and country for many years yet we all seemed to share not just a common bond from our formative years, but a common set of values as a result of being educated in this particular school.

 This school began in 1893, when Miss Betty Langlands taught girls to read in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. In 1930 it moved to Jalan Bukit Bintang, from which it acquired its name and grew its reputation as one of the top schools in the country. Its prime location proved costly; in 2000 its iconic buildings were demolished to make way for Pavilion KL, a shopping mall. The school changed its name to SMK Seri Bintang Utara and moved to Cheras.

Despite these changes, last week’s gathering proved the school’s spirit and values live on. What sort of values? Punctuality, service to others, teamwork, a sense of pride in doing things properly: all this was ingrained in us through the strict rules, the hours of choral speaking practice, the dreaded toilet-cleaning duty. Stretch these traditions across the decades—the oldest girl there was 60, the youngest, 26—and it’s no surprise that lunch ran like clockwork, with many helping hands and much camaraderie.

Even the self-confessed ‘naughty girls’ spoke fondly of their experiences. “Till today, I find that most people don’t know to stack chairs properly, whereas we do,” said one proudly. “The prefects used to make me rub my eyes because they didn’t believe I wasn’t wearing make-up,” chuckled another. And a poetic mother of two said: “You can let the tree grow, but you still need to prune and shape it.”

Still, there were latecomers, and rebels who ignored the green-and-white dress code. (We BBGS girls have a wild side too). There were even no-shows who left us to fork out an additional £10 each. But these were trifling matters compared to how far some had travelled for the reunion: all the way from Scotland, Belgium, France and Italy. And the effort put in to bake and ice a cake, hand-sew a pinafore and form an impromptu alto section for the singing of the school song. In fact, singing was a big thing at BBGS, so we—now serving society as chemical engineer, actuary, nurse, radiologist—followed that up with a rendition of NegaraKu and Happy Birthday. The only thing missing was a piano. And maybe some prefects patrolling about.

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