Ma turned 97 last week, we had a small feast at The Empress for our Empress. It is her 98th birthday today, so tonight’s party will be bigger. You get the feeling she is racing towards the century mark like a T20 cricketer on an adrenaline rush? Have a birthday a week, and anyone will soon get there quickly. I am just being facetious – idiotic, some will say. Today’s birthday is her real birthday. Ma observes the Chinese lunar calendar. Last week’s was more for us, the so-called “banana” generation. Those “white” on the inside but “yellow” on the outside. We only observe the Gregorian calendar. I should admonish myself, for I can never remember our “Chinese” birthdays, no matter how hard I try. Ma is 98, I think I should make it a point to know both her birthdays by now. Her “Chinese” one is on the 23rd day of the 7th month. The 7th month?! Isn’t that the month of the hungry ghosts? See? If we do not pause and think, we will never be enlightened. It is only now that I am aware Ma was born in the month when the hungry ghosts returned to our world and roamed for food and entertainment. It is deemed inauspicious to be born during this month but I think Ma has decisively put this theory in the category of “Fake News”.
Ever since Ma turned 90, we have been ordering the dish she enjoys on her birthdays – the dish is so politically incorrect I shall not mention its name. It is a soup that rarely meets Ma’s lofty standards. If it is poorly cooked, then it is surely a waste of a fin. The stock has to be rich, prepared with lots of chicken carcasses. The viscosity must be perfect, not too runny and not too gooey. Generously garnished with real crab meat (none of those fake seafood sticks please), fish meat and chopped prawns and we are well on the way to please the birthday girl. Sprinkle a few drops of her favourite Martell XO on it, and you will witness her sweetest smiles. Last week, we celebrated her birthday with the politically incorrect dish. No exceptions, anyone who turns 90 and beyond deserves whatever they fancy. When someone reaches that landmark, they deserve special entitlements that we ordinary folk don’t. Who are we to say no to the most venerable? They have eaten more salt than we have eaten our rice portions. Our elders drummed this wisdom to us when we were kids. 我吃盐多过你吃米. Let us respect their age and experience. Maybe others will soon show me that courtesy also. I hate to admit it but I would love to be able to say to a young punk, “Hey, I have crossed more bridges than you have crossed roads! So, do not cross me now.”
By Ma’s reckoning, everyone has two birthdays a year. To her, it is the Chinese one that is the accurate one. It is based on the moon and for auspicious days, it is the moon she turns to. Yet, she remembers all our birthdays. By all, I do not mean just our lunar and Western ones, and not just her siblings’ and children’s. I mean all, including her elders – uncles and aunties, her nephews and nieces, and all her grand-children and her nine great grand-children. Whilst on the subject of dates, Ma with her photographic memory (until recently), remembered all of them – wedding anniversaries, the dates her eight children left home for the first time, our graduation dates, dates her grand-children graduated, dates her daughters residing in KL and London visited (I am not kidding) and of course, bereavement dates of those departed. Ma has out-lived all her elders and most of her peers. She is very surprised she remains “not out” (in cricket parlance). She survived a childhood that was shortened due to poverty. The impoverished ones tend to grow up quickly. Deprived of a proper childhood education, she had to grow up quickly or wither, I suppose. She avoided the Japanese attack on China just before WW2 but she couldn’t avoid them when they bombed Penang. Worse was to befall her, as they dragged away her husband from their bedroom on March 23rd 1942. My generation has not experienced war first-hand, so we are totally ignorant of the sheer tenacity required to survive years of hunger and hardship. Years, not months. Years of total deprivation of anything that resembles a typical day here. There would be no waking up to a cacophony of busy cockatoos and kookaburras, no hearty breakfast to be made, and no guaranteed meals during the rest of the day, let alone the week. A walk in the park? Do not dream. A visit to the shops? Forget it. Wait for the telephone to ring? Turn the lights on when the day becomes night? No, no no. You avoid the Japanese. You keep to the clan – trust no outsiders, they may be the spies who dob on you, and accuse you of being a communist sympathiser. You hide from the Kenpeitai – those who would chop your head off, without any hesitation, without reason. You dress like a homeless boy, dirty and smelly so they won’t give you a second look. Forget the long hair and the cheongsam. You do not want to look attractive to anyone. You do not want to be seen. It is no wonder I, like all her other children, grew up to be poorly dressed and contented to be quiet in the background. Habits die hard, Ma still enthusiastically cleans her dinner plate at the dining table. Nothing is missed – the minutest crumbs of food and the most stubborn dried-up sauce that coats her plate will be lifted by some water or soup, before being scooped up gently with a spoon. No stress, no distress. Every drop is consumed purposefully. Ma is not known to be wasteful. All of us cannot understand her thriftiness but that may be because none of us have experienced a war.
I have wanted Ma to tell me more stories about Pa. Especially during the war years and also how he carved out a business that catered to the hotel industry in Penang after the war. What made them decide investing in coconuts and rubber was a good idea? What were the mistakes Pa made – did he fall into a financial hole like I did? Which of their children brought them good luck? Was I the one? Did my arrival trumpet the renaissance of commerce for them? They bore a child almost yearly. Which year brought them their first major contract with a hotel to manage their laundry and dry-cleaning business? I have tried a few times to get these stories from Ma’s memory bank but lately, eager she may be, she has been easily distracted by recollections of people or places that are merely foreign pieces of a jigsaw to me. I have not been able to get Ma to focus on stringing a few sentences about a single topic. I don’t think she is confused or forgetful. Rather, I suspect her mind is like one long movie with too many sub-plots to describe in one scene. Her hearing is deteriorating very quickly. Half a year ago when she was living with me during the first wave of the pandemic, I did not find her hearing seriously impaired. I did speak slightly louder than at my normal decibel, but I had to do that with The Mrs too. It was not untoward. Finding the right audio volume is challenging. Slightly soft and I’ll need to repeat myself too often. Slightly too loud and The Mrs will accuse me of shouting at her. “Why are you angry at me?” “Why can’t you be patient with me?!” “Why must you yell at me?” Why. Why. Why! At times, I get into hot soup also when mucking about with First Son’s pup, Murray. Pretending to be upset with him, I would scold him in a game. The Mrs would, of course, assume I was scolding her, and a war chest of words would soon fly like armed missiles my way. Sometimes I wish there is an invention that will allow me to adjust my voice box remotely so that my voice is always kind, calming and perfectly audible.
I bought a robot two weeks ago. The iRobot that it replaced didn’t last three months. Murray decided vacuum robots are just like brooms, mops and garden rakes. These utensils are aliens that must be destroyed on sight. Poor iRobot. Whilst diligently scoping the dining room, sweeping up dust and dirt, it got attacked from behind by Murray. It died a terrible death, mauled to pieces by a mad dog. I hope iRobot’s replacement will last longer than three months. I have named the Xiaomi robot Mimi. Let’s hope Mimi and Murray will be friends. I would hate to have to bury another robot so soon. Ma was impressed with Mimi. “How much?” She asked. “$399, Ma. Not bad” I replied. Ma said that’s cheap. She wouldn’t mind one too. I had already decided to buy her one, once I checked out how powerful Mimi’s suction was. Big Sis rang a few days later. “How much? $39, Ma said. Surely not.” “My fault, I should stop mumbling when I speak”, I said. Perfectly timed, Mimi’s twin arrived today, just in time to be Ma’s birthday present tonight. It is customary for Ma to pay for tonight’s birthday party. Ever since she turned 90, she no longer accepts Ang Pows (red envelopes that contain money) from us. “What was our custom in China, Ma?” I asked. “Didn’t the elders in Zhejiang gladly accept Ang Pows for their birthdays?” Apparently, they did. But they collected them and gave them to their community to build a road, a bridge or whatever the village needed to be replaced or repaired. “But, weren’t our elders too poor to contribute to such infrastructure?” I was bewildered to learn of such generosity during their time. I think Ma almost sniggered when she told me “Ala mak dongpeh”, Ningbonese for “We did not have Tungpan”, (Chinese copper coin or money) to celebrate their birthdays during those early years. No birthday dinners. Therefore, no Ang Pows were necessary.”