Wong Peng Soon was born into a large and wealthy family in Johor Bahru, Malaya. Wong lived in a large mansion in Jalan Ah Siang, Johor Bahru, with his parents, Mr. Wong Ah Yam and Madam Mak Tong and many siblings. He was the seventh son among nine brothers and seven sisters. Of his many siblings, five of his brothers and a sister were well known Johor badminton players.
Having grown up in a family with a love of badminton, he started playing when he was very young. His mentor was A.S. Samuel, Malaya’s first champion. As his birthplace of Johor Bahru only had outdoor grass courts, he cycled from Johor Bahru to train at the Mayflower Badminton Party in Singapore even though it was many kilometres away. It was there that he met Ong Poh Lim. Wong excelled in singles and practiced with his younger nephew. He was first noticed at the 1935 Singapore National Championships even though he lost in the quarterfinals. The next year, he beat the reigning champion in an interstate championship. His first title came the year after at the 1937 Singapore National Championships in Mixed Doubles with his sister, Wong Waileen. After his first title, Wong would reign supreme at the Singapore National Championships from 1937 to 1950. He won six titles from 1937 to 1949 in Mixed Doubles with his sister Waileen, three titles in Men’s Doubles and a whopping seven titles in Men’s Singles from 1938 to 1950. Wong continued to win many numerous club and interstate competitions and he quickly rose in fame. He became a well-known figure in households across Singapore and Malaya.
It was on home soil that Wong truly excelled. In 1940, Wong won his first title in Men’s Singles at the All-Malayan Open – now the Malaysia Open – and accumulated a record-breaking total of eight titles of which five were won in a row from 1940 to 1953. Wong’s record would only be surpassed by Lee Chong Wei with his eleven. In addition to his eight titles in Men’s Singles, Wong added three in Mixed Doubles of which two were won consecutively with his sister in 1937 and 1938. One cannot help wondering how many more titles he could have won had the All-Malayan Open not been postponed for five years from 1942 to 1946 due to World War II.
In August 1947, Wong married Doreen Poi Chim and moved permanently to Singapore. The couple lived in a single-story home in Jalan Jarak, Seletar Hills and had 3 children together – Patricia, Audrey and Dennis.
In December 1948, the Singapore Free Press dubbed Wong as “the man who may one day be the world’s first badminton champion.” Over time, Wong would prove their prediction to be correct over and over again. During Wong’s era, the All England was considered the unofficial world championship. Wong tried his hand at the All England in 1949 and lost badly in the semi-final to David Freeman with the scores of 2-15, 4-15. Freeman advanced to the final round and claimed the All England title of that year.
The year after, Wong returned and systematically defeated the 1948 All England champion, Jørn Skaarup of Denmark, 15-11, 12-15, 15-11 at the semi-final stage and 1947 All England double crown champion in Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles, Poul Holm of Denmark, 15-7, 15-10, during the final round. It only took Wong 30 minutes to claim victory over Holm in front of 5,000 people. Vernon Morgan of Reuter reported that Wong “took off his second sweater” at 12-10 in the second game and dubbed Wong as the unofficial world number 1 after his victory. “I always felt confident that I could win,” said Wong when asked about how he felt when Holm came back at 10-12 in the second game. Wong became the first Asian and second non-European after Freeman to win a Men’s Singles title at the All England. Incidentally, Wong’s victory in Men’s Singles prevented Denmark from sweeping all five titles at that year’s All England.
At the 1951 All England, Wong had a tougher time in Men’s Singles final against compatriot, Ong Poh Lim. It took him three games with the scores of 15–18, 18–14, 15-7 to successfully defend his title. The next year, he met compatriot, Eddy Choong, and claimed a third All England laurel with the scores of 15–11, 18–13. His third triumph at the All England won him the coveted trophy to take home. Wong dropped his streak of three consecutive titles at the All England to Choong in 1953 and 1954 but the world has not seen the last of Wong.
After a two-year break, Wong came back in 1955. He glided into the All England final to meet Eddy Choong who had a similar run. Wong previously lost out on two All England titles to Choong and had a score to settle. The two Malayans clashed in a seventy-minute marathon battle that ended 15-7, 14-17, 15-10 in Wong’s favor. A fifty-four-stroke rally was recorded during the match. Wong, at the age of 37, was the oldest winner since George Alan Thomas. Herbert Scheele wrote that “Only because of his perfect footwork and incredibly easy and wristy style of play was it possible for this remarkable player to remain so long at the top and to win the All England at the unusual age of 37.”
Regarding that precise match, Judy Hashman wrote: “I also hold in high esteem the tactics of Wong Peng Soon in 1955, his final visit. At an exhibition in Sheffield he lulled the young upstart Eddy Choong into a false sense of security, by appearing to tire in the long rallies and losing. A short time later Peng Soon won the All England 15-10 in the third with no evidence of tiredness.”
Wong was also instrumental in helping Malaya win the first three editions of the International Badminton Championship for the Thomas Cup in 1949, 1952, 1955. The inaugural 1949 Thomas Cup Finals was held in England was just a few days prior to the All England. It took the Malayans a month to reach Europe. The Malayans tried to stay fit during the journey but Wong’s health was reportedly affected by the long journey. He played against Freeman on the second evening and was defeated 4-15, 1-15.
Pat Davis describes the encounter: “The second evening commenced with the Freeman v Wong match, the principal feature of which was the really superb play of the American captain… In the second game, Wong attempted to play more aggressively, but Freeman’s defence was equal, not only to returning all the Malayan’s smashes, but to returning them most accurately indeed, and exactly where he wanted.” His loss to Freeman would be the only blemish on an otherwise perfect winning record at the Thomas Cup event. Wong is said to have sustained an injury during the match and did not play in the final round at all. Malaya crushed Denmark 8-1 in the final round to win the first ever Thomas Cup.
At the 1952 final round held in Singapore, Wong won all his matches and helped successfully Malaya retained the cup. At the next Thomas Cup in 1955, the finals were held once again in Singapore. Wong secured important tie points from his victory over Jørn Skaarup 15- 5, 16-18, 15-4 and Finn Kobberø 12-15, 15-0, 15-7. Sir George Thomas presented the trophy to Wong who acted as the captain of Team Malaya.
After winning the cup for the third consecutive time, he hung up his competitive racket and became a badminton coach in November 1955 for the Singapore Youth Sports Centre. He also coached the Malayan team in its bid to retain the Thomas Cup in 1958 but Malaya lost the title to Indonesia in the Challenge Round. In his later years, Wong could be found coaching in places all over the world such as Thailand, Canada (Montréal), India, Japan, and at the Haarlem Badminton Club of Holland in 1966.
Wong’s results were doubly impressive due to his short stature. Wong was a short man by even Malayan standards and was undoubtedly the shortest man on the Malayan team. Pat Davis wrote: “Wong never appeared to run. He had a steely backhand, clears and drops of impeccable length, very accurate placement – and patience. He always wore trousers and had a mannerism of twiddling his racket round before serving.” He was an ardent advocate of physical exercise, mental preparation and studying opponents before facing them. He was renown for having a healthy diet and never staying up late. Wong was also known for being very protective of his own equipment to the point of even repairing and stringing his rackets himself to the key of G on the piano.
Wong was somewhat critical of today’s athletes: "In our time, we had to fend for ourselves. There was no sponsorship nor financial aid to compete around the world. We even had to pay our passage and other expenses to play in the All-England." He was of the opinion that athletes should always put country first and prove themselves before asking for privileges and benefits. His famous motto was “Don’t talk big. Think big – and play with big heart.”
After his retirement, Wong did not stop receiving awards. It first started in January 1956, when the Queen of England made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to sport in the Federation of Malaya during the New Year Honours. Wong was the first Singaporean athlete to become a MBE. In 1960, five years after Wong’s retirement, Erland Kops declared that the Asian would still win the All England if he had not retired and turned into professional coach. In 1962, he received the extremely prestigious Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honour) by the State of Singapore in the first-ever list of National Day honours.
In 1985, IBF president, Poul-Erik Nielsen, flew to Singapore to present Wong Peng Soon with the IBF Distinguished Services Award. The following year, Wong and Ong Poh Lim were immortalized in the Sports Museum Hall of Fame of the Singapore Sports Council. Wong Peng Soon’s autographed racket and his match-winning shuttlecocks are on display in the museum. Princess Sudasiri Sobha of Thailand also honored Wong in the Racquet Club’s Hall of Fame gallery in Bangkok.
Ironically for a man who was so keen on physical fitness, Wong suffered a stroke in November 1981 at age of 63 which left him partly paralyzed and in a wheelchair. In his memoirs, Oon Chong Teik recalls that the 60-something Wong was training to play a match against the then-reigning All England Women’s Singles winner, Hwang Sun-ai!
Wong later regained some mobility but his health was declining. He finally passed away from pneumonia on May 22, 1996 at the age of 78 years old. According to the New Straits Times, he spent his last 10 years at home in Seletar Hills in Singapore and preferred not to talk about badminton.
Even three years after his passing and forty-four years after his last competition, Wong was named Singapore’s Sports Personality of the Century in a 1999 survey conducted by the Straits Times. His widow, Doreen Wong, accepted the award from the then-Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong. In the same year, Wong was inducted into the IBF Hall of Fame.
In 2004, the Olympic Council of Malaysia included Wong Peng Soon in its Hall of Fame.
1956 – Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)
1962 – Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honour)
1985 – IBF Distinguished Service Award
1999 – IBF Hall of Fame
2004 – Olympic Council of Malaysia Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
All England 2010 Official Programme
Badminton – The Complete Practical Guide (Pat Davis)
Badminton Story (Bernard Adams)
Danmarks Badminton Forbund gennem 75 år (DBF)
Dr Oon Chong Teik: Shuttlecock and Stethoscope – The Memoirs of an Extraordinary Sportsman
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Histoire du badminton (Jean-Yves Guillain)
International Badminton – the first 75 years
International Badminton Federation 1955-1956 Handbook
International Badminton Federation 1956-1957 Handbook
Nas.gov.sg (National Archives of Singapore)
New Nation (June 17, 1975)
New Nation (November 19, 1981)
New Straits Times (May 23, 1996)
Singapore Free Press (December 22, 1947)
Singapore Free Press (January 8, 1960)
Singapore Monitor (May 6, 1984)
Straits Times (1950-1987)
Supplement to the London Gazette (January 2, 1956)
Thomas & Uber Cup 2010 Official Programme
Thomas / Uber Cup Finals 1992 Official Programme
Uphold the Legacy – Singapore Badminton (Tan Chong Tee)
-- By Yves Lacroix