Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Dentistry runs deep in the family, particularly on my father’s side. My paternal grandfather Lee Kiang Choon must have arrived in Singapore from Guangdong, China, around 1905. A bit of guesswork here, as no one in the Lee family has bothered recording these details. I recall hearing that as a teenager he served as an assistant to a Japanese dentist in Johore Bahru, who later made him an apprentice, taught him everything he knew, and even left him all his tools. In those days nobody enrolled in dentistry school, they only had to register with a dentists’ guild to practice their craft.

My paternal grandpa was the Sultan of Johore's personal dentist

Lee Kiang Choon was reputed to be a very fine dentist with a light touch. He was recommended to the Sultan of Johore who was so impressed with his work he handed him a fat contract to visit every school in Johore state and fix the students’ teeth. Kiang Choon prospered and married a shopkeeper’s daughter, a pretty Teochew girl with a weakness for gold ornaments.

By the time the Japanese invaded in December 1941, the couple already had six grown children - my father Lee Hong Wah being the third, born May 1st, 1916. My father was offered the option of studying dentistry but chose a less academic path and became a government health inspector. His younger brother Hong Wai decided to carry on the tradition and studied dentistry in Australia.

I recall that both my brothers, Lanny and Mike, had considered dentistry as a career – but neither had the required academic merits to be accepted. However, Lanny’s daughter Candy did become a dentist in the U.S. – and not only that, she married a dentist named Leo in 2004. And her email nick is still “sweetdntst” 😁

My niece Candy with hubby Leo and "kids" on vacation

Years later I heard my sister Mae had been dating a member of the Tan clan but it didn’t work out; her beau went on to become a superb dentist, got posted in Batu Pahat with the government clinic, and made me my first dental plate when I was 15. Years later I found the same dentist practising in Kuala Lumpur and sought him out again. He still swings by my house every so often with goodies for the family. (Seow Than, thanks for being such a durable, generous friend and faithful follower of my blog!)

My daughter Moonlake didn’t become a dentist but she fell in love with one and married Dr Ansgar Cheng in 1992. In July 2010 they were in Hong Kong attending a reunion dinner organized by Ansgar’s university classmates to celebrate their 20th year as professional dentists.

I believe I have had to bear the karmic burden of so much dentistry in my family. Caries and odontalgia began plaguing me soon after I lost my milk teeth. When I was a kid, the prospect of sitting in a dentist’s chair and getting your teeth drilled represented the worst kind of torture. Drills in those days were intimidating belt-driven contraptions that made a horrendous bone-juddering noise and caused excruciating pain each time the drill hit a nerve.

At some point I began experimenting with mind over matter whenever I was stricken with a toothache. The procedure involved visualizing the interior of the affected tooth as the side of a mountain through which bacteria disguised as humanoid workmen were tunneling - blasting, chiseling and pounding away incessantly. I would approach the gang of workers with a stop-work order, telling them to down tools and take the day off. Almost immediately the pain would cease.

I got so good at this I didn’t have to see a dentist for years. My teeth would quietly, painlessly rot away and snap off without bothering me at all. Very rarely did I need to even pop an aspirin to relieve the pain.

Alas, one has only 32 teeth to lose. By the time I hit 40 I had lost more than half of them, luckily mostly in the back portion, so nobody could see how few teeth remained unless they peered right into my open mouth with a flashlight.

When a couple of front teeth snapped off in 1993, I went to see Dr Nathan, the only private dentist in Kuala Kubu Bharu. He recognized me instantly as his old schoolchum from Batu Pahat. The benefit of this old boys’ connection was that Nathan almost never accepted any payment from me. In fact, after making me a beautiful dental plate with four functional incisors and a canine, I had to insist that he at least allow me to pay for the materials. Reluctantly, he accepted RM50 from me. Such an angel – and a superb craftsman too, even if his equipment isn’t exactly state-of-the-art (I bet he doesn’t own a couple of digital x-ray units that actually speak to you while they scan a 3D image of your jaw).

Miraculously, eating was not at all a problem with a well-fitting dental plate. However, the plate was attached by chromium-plated steel wire to standing teeth – and after a few years the enamel would chip off these supports, loosening the grip. When this happens, embarrassing moments can occur.

For instance, one day in class when I was guest lecturing at a private mass communications college, I got passionate speaking about a pet topic and suddenly felt my dental plate shoot out of my mouth and onto the floor. Without missing a beat, I dropped the chalk in my hand and bent down to pick up both objects, turning my back to the class as I coolly stuffed the dental plate back in and immediately proceeded to draw a mystical symbol on the board. I’m pretty sure no one was aware what had happened. Phew!

Dr Nathan easily solved the problem by adjusting the steel wire with a pair of pliers. It took him a total of 10 minutes.

In March 2010 the inevitable happened. One of my last surviving canines snapped during the night and my dental plate was left hanging on by sheer force of habit. Again, Dr Nathan came to my rescue by giving me a tube of Polident (the denture adhesive preferred by Olympic gold medal winners). Nevertheless, I knew this was only a stopgap measure. Sooner or later I would have to face up to the blood-chilling truth - I no longer had any meaningful teeth.

Part 2