Ma’s younger sister, Ahyi, is close to exiting this world. Three nights ago, they FaceTimed each other. A poignant moment of a likely final goodbye. Ma left Penang for Australia in 1988. Her children were all already here, except for one daughter in KL and one in London. It did not cross my mind that Ma might have missed her siblings. A great distance now too far to bridge. They used to correspond by letters and then frequently by phone when overseas phone cards became popular. The popularity was of course price driven – which meant we had to go to Chinese grocery stores to buy them; any real bargains could only be found in Chinatown or in Arndale where the Vietnamese community congregated. It was many years later that such phone cards became available in Post Office shops. Before the advent of the phone cards, international phone calls were restricted either by ISD barring or to important occasions such as Chinese New Year and birthdays. Ma never caught up with digital technology till much later. The phone cards were cheap enough, dialling seemingly never ending codes to call “home” was no bother when the cost of an overseas phone call was something like six cents a minute! For Ma, it was illogical to consider buying a mobile phone to take advantage of free calls using Skype or Viber. But now with free Wi-Fi, FaceTime via her iPad has consigned Skype and Viber to the same fate as the overseas phone cards. Irrelevance. A distant memory.
Ma spoke very much like the older sibling. She always has been, I suppose. Their eldest sister, Jie. For their generation, Jie represents seniority, a ranking that is bestowed special respect. In her mind she may have earned it. No one disagreed, at least not publicly. Jie believes it and therefore expects it. Respect and therefore obedience. The generation after them would not enjoy such unquestioned privilege, no matter how big the gap in years may be. I never heard the sisters argue. Whatever their Jie said, no one countered. Although Ma left home when her sisters were both still very young, she was their go-to sister for advice and support during their early adulthood. “Be brave, sis, there is nothing to be afraid now”. Ma told her sister they had much to be afraid during their childhood and during the war but everyone has the same journey to face at the end. The path to the next world is a path we all travel alone. They had a tough life but there were also lots of good times. Ahyi’s husband succumbed to TB quite early, when their five daughters were still very young. Ahyi herself was also very young then, a widow at 34. Tuberculosis was a common death sentence in the 1950s to 1970s amongst the elders. It is now a treatable and curable disease. To my surprise, over 1.5 million people die from it each year, 44% of new cases occur in SE Asia. Match-made by my Pa when she was 17 to a Shanghainese man, Ahyi gave a slight nod to the proposal. Ma said her sister was visibly happy when she left for Ipoh to marry the handsome man. Six years younger than Ma, my Ahyi is also a nonagenarian. Quite a remarkable achievement, considering Ahyi was always a sickly woman. Fair in complexion, her high cheek bones and beautiful eyes that shone kindness made her very attractive. Coupled with her elegance and porcelain-like fragility, her feminine qualities were such that she was known in Bayan Lepas as the beauty from Shanghai. Had Ahyi been born into a wealthy family, she would have assumed the role of a classical Shanghai woman with aplomb, such was her beauty and poise. I imagined she would have played her “dia-dia” card in her “Qibao” or cheongsam, overtly and overly gentle and charming. When I was little, it worried me that she was so light and petite that she could be blown off her feet by a light breeze. Her usual posture was sitting down with her right hand feeling her forehead whilst complaining about dizziness or headaches. When we were kids, we knew it to be rude to call our elders by their names. No, it was a no-no to call her Wei Leh Ahyi. That is her name in their Ningbo dialect. Instead, it was somehow alright to call her by where she resided. She has always been my “Balapai” Ahyi, or auntie from Bayan Lepas. We love you, Ahyi.
My thoughts have been with my Balapai Ahyi all day. I shared my “prayer” with friends and family, hoping the power of the zeitgeist may work miracles. I have not prayed since 1977 – at that point in my life, it dawned on me that God was too busy with so many crises that my problems were too petty to bother Him. I rationalised that there was no point talking to Him – it became obvious to me the way to contribute was not to add to His workload. “Don’t ask for favours!” I yelled at myself.
“May she be free of suffering and pain. May she be comfortable and at peace. May she know we all love her dearly.” When one of my family sent me his condolences, I said “oh no! I have misled you! My Ahyi hasn’t passed away!” Indeed, I did mislead them.
Last night, two sons in Singapore shared their meal with me on WhatsApp. Their Teochew steamboat had the usual favourites – slivers of wagyu beef, drunken prawns, cockles and other delicacies. A scrumptious meal always reminds them of home, especially a hotpot using shark bones as stock. The Mrs was right. A mother’s radar from yesteryears proven spot on, yet again. Cook the boys good meals, and they will always come home (or remember home, at least). “Steamboat? In Singapore?!” I protested. “Don’t you know a steamboat dinner spread COVID-19 to a family of ten in Hong Kong recently?” A steamboat is a cauldron of boiling soup from quality stock in which diners dip their bite-size pieces of meat, seafood and veggies to cook in. Once the food is cooked, it is usual to then dip it in a variety of different sauces of one’s choosing. The communal way of sharing a meal has never been a problem for us Chinese, but the coronavirus is yet another reminder that the practice of touching a shared dish with one another’s chopsticks or spoons is best discarded. China’s largest steamboat chain, Haidilao, has closed all its outlets in mainland China whilst the outbreak is not contained. “And you guys are still so reckless to have steamboat?!” I did over-react, succumbing to the mass paranoia temporarily. Indeed, I did.
Coincidentally a friend, Swee Fuan, posted the latest COVID-19 statistics from thestar.com.my. 80,248 cases, 2,704 deaths. In Singapore, 53 have recovered from 90 cases with zero deaths. Perhaps, a good enough reason for my sons to behave normally. Most disturbing are the stats from Iran, 15 deaths from 61 cases, zero recovered. The fatality rate there is 24.5%, well above the 3.3% globally. Apparently, the officials in Iran are refusing to impose quarantines, believing quarantines are old-fashioned and do not work. The Shia shrines in Qom are still open, despite Qom being a hotbed of COVID-19. I woke up this morning, and simply shrugged my shoulders. Indeed, I did.