My paternal grandfather, who we refer to as Ah Ta, was born in 1893 at a time when China was in great turmoil and the common people were facing great hardships. In 1900, the Boxer Uprising broke out in the north, targeting foreigners who in turn responded by dispatching militia from the Eight-Nation-Alliance comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Britain, Italy, United States, Russia and Japan, which attacked and ransacked the Forbidden Palace. The emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi ran away from Beijing. The Eight-Nation-Alliance imposed a humiliating treaty on China and demanded payment of £67 million in war reparations.
Ah Ta was the youngest of 2 elder boys and a sister. The family was so poor they could not afford to send him to school, and he would loiter outside the classroom where his richer cousins and village peers were studying. What he lacked in proper education, he made up with his deft and agile mind. He would memorize what was taught in the classroom faster than the rest of the class. However, for economic and survival reasons, at the tender age of 12, he had to leave his village (大埔县 Dabu, Huliao) and his beloved mother (his father had passed away earlier). Little did they realize their parting was final and mother and son would never see each other again. He headed for 汕頭 Shan Tou port, 176 km about 3 hours from Dabu, for his boat voyage to Malaya and came and settled down in Malacca. Dabu to Shan Tou is about 176 km (about 3 hours away) apart. Little was told on how he managed during those times when he arrived in Malacca, but he was quite an affable fellow and would just laugh off praises or criticisms with a, “Heheheh.” Although he was a good-natured person, he was a very fast learner for in a decade or two he was able to set up a cloth shop with two shop lots combined into one. But he was over-trusting of his nephew (never know him), and in one of his business trips to Indonesia, his nephew absconded with his entire stock, never to be heard of again. Thus he came back with only his shirt on his back and had to start his life anew.
In late 1920s, he met two Liew brothers from the village of 梅县 Meixian, who introduced their younger sister to him. Meixian is about 90 km (1 hour 40 mins) away from Dabu. They were soon married – Ah Ta was 16 years Ah Nei’s (my grandmother) senior. A year later, in 1931 at the age of 38, their first child, a girl was born. She was pretty and smart, but most of all, she was the pearl in his eyes. Those were the Great Depression years and jobs were scarce. Ah Ta had to hawk and sell pepper beef tripe noodles to survive. It was said his home-made noodles was very delicious. In rapid succession, he had four more girls, one each year. Unfortunately the second and third daughters were lost soon after birth due to poor health and possibly malnutrition. Later on, the two new-born girls were given away for adoption because of poverty and the fear of losing the babies again. In 1936 a boy was born, the first male in his family as his two elder brothers were childless. At this time, Ah Ta’s financial situation had also improved as he was partnering with a few friends in business. There was a big fanfare in his home village in Huliao where the baby’s name was officially recorded in the village ancestral hall. The eldest boy grew up rather obstinate and aggressive and soon earned himself a nickname “man” 野蠻. The boy was followed by another girl (1937), and 3 more boys in rapid succession. Er Peh 二伯, my second uncle, was born in 1938 in a breached position (legs first) and when he was delivered he was all black and blue with hardly a whimper. The midwife exclaimed it would be like bringing a salted fish to life if he could survive. But with the fighting spirit displayed throughout his life, and the careful nursing of my grandmother who we refer to as Ah Nei, he survived. Because his head was a little pointed when he was born – he was nickname pointed head 尖頭 (jian-tou). A third boy was born in 1939 but was lost due to diarrhea (it is a superstition that being born in the year of the rabbit, he found it hard to survive between a tiger and a dragon). Soon after a fourth boy was born in 1940, who my sisters and I call San Peh 三伯.
On December 1941, Japan invaded Malaya riding bicycles through Thailand to control its rubber and natural resources. The British army were awaiting the Japanese in the South instead, protecting what they thought was the Japanese’ ultimate goal – Singapore. Within 10 weeks, Malaya and Singapore were captured by the cruel and ruthless Japanese.
During the invasion, the family ran off to hide in the Hakka cemetery temple in Tampoi village (where Ah Ta and Ah Nei are now buried). At that time, the cemetery was surrounded by vast jungles and the roar of tigers could be heard at night. San Peh 三伯, my third uncle, (discounting the one who passed away) would wail away day and night in the temple (probably due to mosquito bites), much to the chagrin of other Hakka clan members who were also taking refuge in the temple. They stayed in the temple for a few months not daring to venture out after the Japanese had taken control of Malacca. The few women who were brave enough to venture out, despite repeated warnings and advice, were reportedly raped by the Japanese soldiers immediately after the occupation.
My father was born in 1943, at the height of the Japanese occupation of Malaya, in a rented room in a three-story corner shop-lot in First Cross Street, Malacca. It was their abode for many years, until Er Gu 二姑, my second aunt, got married in 1965 and moved in with her husband to a 9-storied municipal flats in Wolferston Road. He was the youngest of the brood and thus much-loved by the older siblings and Ah Nei.
Life during the Japanese occupation was difficult, where people lived in fear and suspicion. Food and medicine were scarce and many people succumbed to the mildest of sicknesses. Despite the situation, Ah Ta managed his business well and provided for the family. Ah Nei never had to lift a finger to do any work even during difficult times, as all the marketing (food shopping and preparations) and other chores were done by Ah Ta – such was his devotion to his wife. Of course, my Ah Nei would cook Ah Ta’s meals. Ah Nei was a teetotaler and would get drunk even with a spoonful of liquor, and so during her confinement period she would use the brandy to bathe herself to rid her body of “wind” (old wives tale).
On August 6 and 9, 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. My grandfather passed away on August 18, 1945 when my father was just a toddler. Three days earlier, the Japanese Emperor called for his forces to lay down their arms. With the impending surrender of Japan, his business partners and “friends” went to my grandmother and gave her gunny sacks of Banana notes, telling her the money was her husband’s share of their business, and my grandmother, being ignorant and unaware of the situation was even thankful to those cheating, no-good-for-nothing scums of earth. The Banana money soon became worthless when the Japanese officially surrendered on September 2 1945. My grandmother single-handedly brought the six children up herself, being illiterate, ignorant and totally dependent on her husband to do everything before his passing.
Life was very hard on the Chongs upon the passing of the sole breadwinner of the family. Even his burial, which my grandmother scrap together the little money they had left, they could only afford a wooden tombstone for my grandfather. She carried this heavy tombstone, made of wood, for more than 20 km in the rain to the burial site of her dearly departed husband. (Back in the days, the roads were not as direct and the cemetery was deeper inside the village)
They were so impoverished that my father never knew his birth date, until much later in life. This was so that he would never hope for “something” on that special day. If you never knew, you would never wish for it.
Growing up, my father would always remind us of how lucky we are and that we can never waste food. He would tell us that when he was growing up, he would skip breakfast just to keep the 5¢ for his pocket-money. Before school, he, together with his fellow “flatmate” (who is now a close family friend), would run to the coffee stall next door and wait for the owner to discard bread crusts. There, they would share their measly meal. During special festivals, ie. Chinese New Year, they would have a “grand meal” consisting of fat pork meat. He would reminisce on how he would take one piece of meat and hide it under a mountain of rice and top it off with loads of gravy. This, he thought, was a feast.
When he was younger, his mother always told them, “‘not to envy others or to look at people who have good food on their tables.’ She always says, ‘We may be poor in wealth, but let’s not be poor in determination and spirit.’”
My father never grew up to be a tall or large person. In fact, because of his lack of nourishment he always had stomach problems. As my dad retells,
“DC – Dua Cheh 大姐 (my elder sister) – came back during the weekend for her friends wedding, and we managed to get together for dinner last Friday at a restaurant that was featured in The Star (a local newspaper). As usual mommy complained she was still hungry when we came home, and she had to make herself a drink and ate other things in the house, while I was very full, having to finish all the food left unfinished by the 2 ladies. Luckily my stomach has been quite flexible – being well trained from young – since as an infant, I was told, I could eat a whole tiffin-carrier full (something like 3-4 bowls) of rice.
Ever since young, I have had stomach problems. In fact almost every year I would suffer severe stomach pains with violent vomiting and sometimes diarrhea, and Ah Nei would be worried sick because seeing doctors would cost money too. She would either take me to see a friendly sinseh (Chinese doctor) whom she knew, or to a charitable clinic operated by the red cross which charges only 40¢ for consultation and medication. The chinese sinseh was also a hakka, operating from a Chinese medical hall just 2 blocks down the road in Kampung Pantai (a place in Malacca).
This sinseh was almost 60 years old when he married a second wife, and the first wife would sleep in between him and his young bride. Ah Nei also knew his first wife, and we youngsters couldn’t help but listen to juicy stories when older folks were gossiping, even though I might be in pain at that moment.
And the Chinese medicine I was given was so black and bitter, it might have done more harm than good, and made me vomit even more. I threw up so much that I even coughed up bile – so it was bitter and sour. Then Ah Nei would appease me by buying wanton mee for me to eat, but then again my mouth had no taste at all after vomiting and worse, whatever food I ate had no flavour at all. Right until I was in Form 4 I still had this problem and my form teacher wrote in the school report card that I was sickly.
Then I had another severe attack in 1971 when I landed in Assunta Hospital for a couple of days. I think now because mommy (my mom) takes better care of my food, I have less recurring problem.”
When my father was in Standard 4, they were taught cursive writing and it was compulsory for the students to each have a fountain pen. My father, knowing his mother’s plight, could not bring himself to ask her for more – even if it was for school. The day before, he worried himself sick thinking up excuses that he could give to the teacher for not having that piece of stationary. But, he also prayed. In the evening, after dinner, he went for a stroll in his neighborhood and he stumbled upon a Sheaffer’s fountain pen laying on the roadside. Till this day, that pen sits in its cushion case, inside a drawer, in my father’s room.
My father remembers how his mother, even through sickness and fatigue, would stay up to the wee hours of the morning tailoring/altering clothes just to feed the family. This she would do, with a cigarette in one hand, clothes in the other, and her youngest boy cradled in her lap. His mother, my grandmother, was truly a strong, brave and loving woman. Even though she was illiterate, she put the educated to shame by quoting idioms from memory.
Growing up, my father was never envious of other children who had toys. He likes to remind me that he was such a “dull” boy that he never was bitter. He made his own toys to play with, using iron wires and bobbins, which they had plenty of, to make cars and others things. They also made paper horses and tigers – origami – to play with.
My father’s regret, is that my grandmother never lived long enough to enjoy the kind of life that she should have had. She died of stomach cancer when he was 19 years old, just when he was almost ready to “provide for her.”
Oldest sister is a housewife who lives in Malacca. The Tan family has two sons, 4 daughters and nine grand children. Her husband passed away in May 2009.
Oldest brother, was a carpenter who lived in Malacca. He has three daughters and a son. He passed away from a heart attack in Dec. 1986.
Second brother retired as a teacher and lives in Singapore. He has a daughter and a coming grand-daughter (Sept. 2010).
Third brother also retired as a teacher and lives in Sabah. He has two daughters and a son.
Second sister is a housewife too, who lives in Malacca. The Lim family has two boys, a daughter and four grand children. Her husband passed away in 2007.
My father became a civil servant who worked with many international organizations around the world. He set up roots in the capital city of Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur. He was able to succeed because of his diligence, perseverance, patience, strong will and strive to better himself. His second brother also played an integral role in supporting his further studies. Both his older sisters cared for him after his mother’s passing – more so his eldest sister, before he left for his studies in the city.
My father met my mother in March of 1971. He was looking up a friend who happened to work in her office. The introduction was of pure coincidence, but the courtship was no fluke. Their offices were right next to each other in Petaling Jaya. Everyday, they would meet each other for lunch and then walk back, hand-in-hand, to work.
They were married in September 1973. My maternal grandfather, Kong-Kong, never thought my father was good enough to marry his daughter, as my father came from such poor standings. He ensured that my father had to jump through enough hoops before he permitted my mom to be married.
My father is wise, patient, virtuous, loving and most importantly, has three very lovely but quarrelsome daughters.
My elder sister was born in 1974 in the year of the wood tiger in Kuala Lumpur. She is the intelligent one of the family named snow.
I were born in 1976 in the year of the fire dragon (double the whammy!) in Malacca. I am the odd one of the family, and inaptly named intelligence.
Credit: My father helped with writing this piece, especially with the facts and locations. I just added salt and vinegar to it.