My Pa, My Pal

I was very much glued to Pa when I was a young lad. Pa was not just my father to me, he was also my hero who could do no wrong. I would have followed him everywhere, ardently like his shadow, but I was only a kid. You know the ones, keep silent and know your place, be invisible. But, Pa didn’t treat me like a kid all the time. Sometimes, he would invite me to follow him. Even day trips to faraway places. I would wake up no matter how early – it would always be dark before the sun rose – and follow him excitedly to catch the early morning ferry to Prai and from there the long drive to inspect rubber plantations in Selama and Sungei Petani. Most times, the “tao-yu-tiam towkay” (Soy sauce King) would meet us at the ferry terminal but when he didn’t show, I would be doubly happier. It meant I could sit in the front of the car. Every trip was a cherished memory. I would watch Pa do what he did best, and that was to manage the operations and audit the results of the business by casually chatting with the supervisors and workers. He would take me to Penang San Kiang Association not for ping-pong games and tai chi lessons but for mahjong sessions. You would see us there, every weekend and even on the occasional week night. San Kiang Association was a club for migrants from the three Jiang’s in China, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Chejiang. Pa usually won at mahjong. More often than not, I would see him pocket the winnings into his baggy trousers. It did not annoy me that I was sucking in all that stale air and tar-filled nicotine from the players’ breaths in the enclosed room. Pa was there smoking as well, and therefore, it would be nothing wrong with that. Pa was always smartly dressed and suitably attired for any occasion. He was my dear father, my pal. Whilst he was alive, I could never dream of calling him a friend. My young eyes saw Pa as way above that – superior, a higher authority that demanded respect. The patriarch. I did not question or doubt our patriarch, ever. Of course, I was wrong. I was just a kid. Pa was not the enlightened one. He did not belong to the noble class, he was not knighted. If anything, he was benighted during his youthful years. Ignorant, uneducated, and by today’s standard, rather deprived. He never pretended to be anything but true to himself – he never forgot his roots and regularly sent money home to his mother. He just carried himself so well – I felt he was simply faultless, as a son anyway. It was only after Pa passed away that Ma told me he sent back enough money for his siblings to buy a shop-house in Shaoxing.

11 June 1959, Pa visits his mother on his 2nd homecoming

Pa left home when he was just nine years old. Home was in Shaoxing. In those days, it was more than four hours away from Shanghai, the place of his apprentice indenture. During his apprenticeship, he quickly learned one rule – gobble down his food quickly or go hungry. There was never enough to share. He never learned the luxury of enjoying his food slowly and chewing deliberately. The skinny lad that was Pa went home penniless after two unforgettable years of hard slog, sweat and tears. He never admitted to crying, but I imagine he did. His masters reneged on paying him his paltry wages for the two years. They explained to him that he broke the contract when he returned home for Chinese New Year. It was a bad time to be living in China during the 1920s and 30s. I suppose that would be true right up to the Cultural Revolution also. Survival was the only game in town. If you wanted more, if you had a bigger dream but you were penniless, then the only option was to leave. Not long after he returned home, the reality of desperate poverty forced him to accept the offer from his boss and move to Malaya where greener pastures were promised to him. He arrived in Malaya in the early 1930s, with just a few dongpan (copper coins) to his name. His travel bag was made of cloth and contained only a few personal items. Unlike me, throughout his life, he never saw the need to carry a leather bag. Pa did not see the need for unnecessary flouting of material goods. In Malaya, opportunities were aplenty. Pa even taught himself basic book-keeping and English. But, life wasn’t meant to be easy for a new immigrant. During the Japanese Occupation, he was arrested for spying against the occupiers. Unknowingly, all he shared was a chess game by the roadside with an alleged communist sympathiser. That was enough reason to capture and torture both men. My father shared a chess game with a man he hardly knew. His battle strategies were on the chess board, nothing as serious as a resistance fighter plotting against the invaders. In jail, his own survival was being challenged and his life was a day-by-day proposition. At any moment, he could have been summoned by the Kenpetai for a beach-side execution. He reckoned he only survived because a fellow cell-mate, a teacher, had given up the fight to live. The dying man spurned his plain rice porridge and pushed his rations to my father instead. By the time I was born, Pa had built a profitable laundry business which catered to the needs of European expats, wealthy tourists who flocked to the Pearl of the Orient and RAAF personnel based in Butterworth. By then he had a small share in a coconut plantation and he managed the consortium’s first rubber plantation in Sungei Petani. He invited many relatives and clansmen from the San Kiang community to join him in these ventures. Many made comfortable livelihoods from the laundry operations that serviced the hotel industry in Penang. Those who joined him in the plantations business made a tidy fortune from the land sold off after the rubber plantations and oil palm estates were no longer productive. But, we do not have perfect stories to tell. Pa sold his shares too early when he moved to Australia – he missed out on the real estate bonanza. Others had bad stories to share too. There will be those who regretted moving to Penang, a big city in those days. Some of their children became addicted to drugs, some got involved with crime, some died young. There were illicit sexual escapades, broken marriages and failed investments. There were success stories but there were many flops too.

Pa and Ma at Penang Botanical Gardens in 1966

One of the earliest regrets I have was that of getting Pa in trouble when I was at pre-school age. I was playing by myself on the five-foot way in front of our shop-house one evening. It must have been just before 7pm when the daylight was about to disappear. It was getting dark but not pitch black that I could not see. I looked up as a car sped by and I thought it was Pa’s sky-blue 2-door 1962 Opel Rekord. Maybe it was my enthusiasm to enjoy an evening ride – my mind was quick to tell me it was him in the car, as a rear passenger. Excitedly, I yelled out and waved my hands “Pa! Pa! Stop, I want to go with you!” Ma rushed out from the shop and asked me what the commotion was about – what I saw and who I saw. Later that night, I was awakened by a huge row. Ma was confronting Pa over the incident. To say that their exchange was deafening is to put it mildly. I was so scared by the intensity and aggression of their voices yet I was curious to see what was going on. Hesitatingly, I lifted the pillow ever so slightly from my face and peeped out from behind the shadows. My small movement did not escape Pa as he continued with his denials that it was his car that zoomed past the house. My eyes met his sad eyes, as he moved his index finger up and down at me, as if to say “Hey son, you have really got me into trouble with your big mouth.” To this day, I cannot understand why he was rebuked for that. Maybe, he forgot to buy a loaf of bread that he promised Ma? Big Sis later corrected me – Pa’s Opel was metallic blue in colour. I respect my father. A lot. It would not have been easy to live with a woman like Ma. She has always lived frugally. A Ningbonese, a Penangite. Both exceedingly infamous for their extreme thrift. They carry the reputation as the “Chinese Jew or the Chinese Scotsman”. By that, I do not mean their religion or faith or race but their natural inclination to be extremely wise with their money. Ma would haggle about one cent with anyone in the wet market. Some of the seafood vendors and grocers would visibly shudder to see Ma approach their stalls. With eight children at home, how did she share one apple? Ma would slice that apple into eight pieces, equally. If one piece was slightly thicker, a slither would be cut from it to compensate the child who was short-changed. She taught us to be fair and equitable at all times but I also had to unlearn that to stop myself from being annoyingly exact in later life. Ma has a lifelong propensity to lose things despite being a very careful and fastidious person. She kept her precious jewellery and collectible coins hidden in nooks and crannies that people would not find and/or under layers of linen and clothing. I suppose she hid them so well even she herself had trouble finding some of them. For the record, I do believe some of her things were stolen and perhaps that was the reason for her paranoia. Her detailed account of what she lost in the shop-house convinced me there would be some truth in the matter. Too many workers and tenants lived in that house with us. Her fridge and food larder were daily audited and inspected also. Today, we know to eat our food freshly cooked and prepared from fresh ingredients for maximum nutrition but Ma The Frugal insists on living the way she has always lived, i.e. choose the oldest food in the fridge to eat first or those closest to or past their use-by date. She cannot bear to throw away food, even if they show early signs of decay. Can you imagine how long it would take Ma to prepare a meal? Selection of the ingredients alone would take a good half an hour. How did Pa put up with her fussing around at her fridge? Her fussing and rummaging at the nooks and crannies? How did he cope with her remonstrations when her mind told her some precious item was missing? How did he keep his sanity from her insane suspicions? Ma was here at my home for lunch yesterday. She decided it was her prerogative to also inspect my larder and fridge. Maybe it was just her curious mind at work, checking price tags to see if I am a shrewd shopper. Relax, Ma. I am a Ningbonese. A Penangite too.

1988, Pa after his daily morning exercises, at our Highbury home

Pa settled in Australia in 1988. He was only 71 then. At the time, I thought he was a very old man with a bad limp, compliments of a stroke which struck him on his 60th birthday party. Pa fought the disease with every ounce of will he had. He was a fighter, the type who would just not stay down. It was inspiring to see him beat the disease with his tenacity and remarkable discipline. Pa spent a good chunk of his mornings going through his very thorough exercise routine which included long walks followed by the gentle yet strenuous Tai chi moves. Ma and my eldest sister, Big Sis arrived a couple of months later. They had to make sure all Ma’s precious belongings were packed properly in the container and more importantly, accounted for. Many of Ma’s boxes and bags of belongings remain unused or should I say, useless. Unused but not unpacked. Of course, she regularly unpacks them, inspects and checks before repacking them carefully. They are still precious to her – once upon a time, paid for with hard-earned money, prised from proud savings, with big plans to use them for so-and-so and for whatever occasion. They remain valuable to her, brand new but destined for the rubbish tip if Vinnies or The Salvos reject them one day.

Pa suffered two more strokes during his years in Adelaide. They were mini ones. The problem with mini strokes was that they were not alarming. Sure, we were more attentive to Pa’s diet but most of us did not heed the warning signs seriously. Some of us continued to take Pa to his favourite fish and chips joint. The fish is fine but the chips? They are deep-fried and contain high salt. Not recommended for a stroke patient. Pa came to stay with me for a few weeks when both Ma and Big Sis went back to Penang and Kuala Lumpur for a holiday. They were Pa’s carers, they needed more than a brief respite. A sister took Pa for a medical check-up after his stay with me. His blood pressure and cholesterol levels were high. A letter came soon after. From her, who else? In it, she accused me of providing Pa with unhealthy food. Did you take him to KFC all the time, perhaps insinuating that The Mrs was too lazy to cook? Nope. I did not. Pa ate what we ate and for the record, we have not consumed KFC food for many decades. But, I did not bother to reply to that unreasonable letter. After Ma and Big Sis returned from their holiday, it was decided Pa had to be moved to a nursing home permanently. He had fallen down whilst putting on his coat and broke his leg. After that, his health started to deteriorate slowly but surely. Although Pa fervently exercised every morning, he was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. If only back then the science existed to inform us that Type-2 diabetes is reversible simply by fasting. Our ignorance ultimately led to Pa losing his left leg. His foot was always freshly bandaged, professionally and properly. My eyes never went past the clean, bleached-white bandage. It made me assume the nursing home was doing everything right to treat his wound. They never told us it was so bad that there was a risk for gangrene. Pa, I am so sorry I did not do all I could to take better care of you. I trusted the professionals unreservedly. We all did. How foolish and ignorant of us. Despite my daily visits, despite the time spent with you, I did nothing to prevent the loss of your limb. I remember the subsequent years you suffered from the phantom pain. I remember your reluctance to lose your leg due to the old Chinese belief that we must enter the next world with our whole body intact to ensure a good next-life. I admire your consent to the amputation without a whimper. No complaints, no protests, no finger-pointing. I sensed your huge reluctance but thankfully, you kept it brief.

Pa stayed in a nursing home for four years. He would have hated it there, at St Basil’s nursing home in St Peters. But, being the wise and considerate man that he was, he understood the circumstances and never complained. Earlier on, he asked to go back home but Ma explained it very well to him – she and Big Sis were not able to take care of him anymore. Pa was susceptible to falling and they didn’t have the physical strength to move him let alone lift him off the ground. That was that. Pa just accepted it and never insisted on having it his way. He never made it ugly for us. He didn’t try to make us feel guilty. There were no tantrums, no whingeing, no ploys to manipulate any of us. He always greeted me with a smile whenever I visited him at St Basil’s and that was daily. Occasionally, twice daily if he wasn’t his usual chirpy self. It was habitual for me to stop in front of his room and wash my hands at the wash basin directly opposite his bed, before entering his room. If he was awake, he’d be sure to call out my name to welcome me. “Yung-gor, nung yu khung lei ah?“, he asked in his Shaoxing dialect how is it I had time to visit. Pa was always pleasant to be with, right to the end. His end didn’t come quick enough for him though. He told me to “help him go” if ever he was bed-ridden. That was about 18 months before he lost the ability to move by himself. I told him if it happened, hopefully by then it would be legal to do so. Pa didn’t agree it should be illegal to help a loved one die with dignity. But, the pro-life lobby is too powerful. It should not be a crime but it still is in South Australia. It should be seen as an act of love. The offender should not have to face the consequences of which there are many – legal, emotional and psychological. Pa lingered on and the last year of his life was pretty ordinary. He had trouble swallowing his food, and once he could no longer enjoy his meals, he lost interest in the meaning of life. One day, he told me he missed a good plate of Char Koay Teow, a famous Penang street food. I served it to him, blended and therefore gooey. He finished it without a sigh. And later on, he did not even want to go out anymore. It became too hard to move him from his bed, even with a mechanical lifter. The straps hurt him, maybe the nurses were too heavy-handed and bruised his bed sores but his dignity was likely bruised too. If you can picture cattle being lifted high for slaughter, then you can understand his feelings at the time. His last six months would have been tortuous for him. His eyesight was failing, he had become incontinent and he had even lost the enjoyment of an outing. Visits to his favourite restaurants ceased. I used to push him to the nearby Jade View Chinese Restaurant for the occasional lunch. He would be on his wheelchair, bright and attentive of the surroundings as I deftly manoeuvred his two-wheeler along the footpaths leading to the restaurant. I knew every root-damaged pavement and every bump on the footpaths in that section of the neighbourhood.

One graffiti artist thinks the plural for graffiti has an ‘s”

Pa loved life. I think he was thankful of the life that had been dished out to him. No matter that he had it tough at the beginning. The bitter days away from home at such a tender age. The nights he went to sleep hungry and cold. The loneliness and fear the young boy would have felt in a foreign place far from his mother’s bosom. And then to arrive as a teenager, on a foreign land with foreign smells and foreign-looking people, alone without family and friends, with just a few copper coins to get by? Scary. The sense of adventure may have been a thrill, the limitless potential for a new life exhilarating, even. But, the uncertainty and the unknown would have been equally daunting. I think Pa counted his blessings and appreciated what he had. He knew life could have been a whole lot worse than what he had carved out for himself. He was never one to complain about bad luck or to dwell on negatives. Two months after he turned 91, Pa left this world on 10 April 2007 but he hasn’t left me. I keep him in my heart, always. He calls out to me to be strong when times are challenging. He tells me to look at the positives when troubles direct my attention to the negatives. He reminds me of his wisdom when my impulses want me to be rash. He insists I walk on the right side to avoid the Urghhlings on the wrong side. Pa, you’re my pal and my beloved father. I thank you for everything you did for me. You were the stepping stone for me to build our next generation. The luxury of vocation, the opportunity to follow our dreams, is the legacy of your toil and sacrifice.

My family in 1960, I am on Pa’s lap