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My Father The King Of Kuachee

IMG_7088My father vacillated between a stable career and adventures in enterprise. He had the former in establishing his own chartered accounting practice – which he later sold, and which still bears his name  – and the latter in a series of remarkable and unconventional business deals which made our family pretty well off.

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

He tried coaxing me to become a “businessman” in the true, vague definition of it, trading in whatever opportunities fell into our laps. In his capacity as the Honorary Consul-General for the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, he gave me a box of raw PNG Highlands Arabica beans, and asked me to see if I could find any buyers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t motivated enough to make that work.

Then he gave me a box of Agar wood, and sent me researching on the subject, and urging me to see if there were any interested buyers. Again, this didn’t stick, and I’m sure he was disappointed in my lack of interest.

There were other exotic mystery boxes –  sea cucumbers, logging concessions, selling second hand computers to New Guinea – they never stuck.

Instead I did something my friends thought even more unconventional – I started a business teaching gymnastics to primary school children. It tanked after five years – and that’s a long, drawn-out business failure. It didn’t frazzle my father a bit. He just said, “do something else lah” – which I understood to be “keep doing what you want to do, and what you’re good at”.

My father never seemed to be discouraged by setbacks. There seemed always to be silver linings in the darkest clouds. Or rather, he painted those linings himself. If a business deal failed, he would pick up the pieces and make something out of them.

I remember most about the time he invested heavily in a factory that produced roasted melon seeds and pumpkin seeds – the type you eat at Chinese New Year and at funerals – and for some reason or another, the other partners in the factory made off with the money and the factory closed. Creditors claimed the factory’s equipment, and my father was left with an inventory of perhaps several hundred kilograms of melon and pumpkin seeds in tins, bags, and jars.

What did he do with them? He had them brought home of course. And to my mother’s lasting dismay, every nook and cranny of our house – including the shoe cabinet – was stacked with tins, bags, and jars of melon and pumpkin seeds. I think we only threw them out when we sold and moved out of the house ten years ago.

In the years between the kuachee factory fiasco and when we moved out, my father could be seen spending his days on his sofa, cracking open melon seeds and eating them. He’d laugh and say, “Not bad, what – Chinese New Year no need to buy kuachee ever again”.



Preparing For The Departed

Originally published on

You will need to be detached in order to do the things that need to be done when a loved one dies. It’ll be easier when you’re prepared with a checklist before they leave. Here are some of the things my siblings and I had to prepare when our parents passed away in 2011 and this year:

Reporting The Departure 
You have 24 hours to register the departed’s death at either the ICA or at any police station. What you need is your IC, the departed’s IC and a certificate of cause of death — usually given by a hospital or a doctor.

You want visitors to the wake/funeral and people who make it a point to read the obituaries to see a photograph they want to remember your loved one by. You may think this is simple — you just open your laptop and scroll through pics — but when your loved one is an elderly person who’s spent a large part of their last decade bedridden and not looking particularly photogenic, you may want to start looking through old photo albums and collections of passport photos. Pick a nice, happy picture.

You might find some of the photos blur or pixelated when blown up, so be prepared to spend some time on this if you need to have consensus between family members. There is also this convention that the departed needs to be depicted in a photograph wearing a suit. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why there was a dress code, and let the funeral home’s resident Photoshop expert blend the sharpest-looking suit my father never wore. Seriously, they do it quite well.

On hindsight, I would’ve left the photograph as it was — my father smiling in a batik/hawaiian shirt, probably stained with gravy from some pork dish — and I’m quite sure his friends would have remembered him this way too.

Funeral Director / Undertaker
Do some research, confer with family, and have a number handy. The company we used was a subsidiary of a church, and the staff involved in both my parents’ funerals handled everything, and us, with immense respect and sensitivity. You will need to confer with family regarding religion and ritual — I’ve seen many families squabble over what beliefs their departing loved ones held, and I can tell you, it will add to your anguish. My maternal grandfather’s funeral wake was a compromise made by his fourteen children — there were Christian hymns and prayers in the morning, and Taoist rituals in the afternoon. I think nights were reserved for the secular activities of eating and mahjong.

The funeral director will handle everything, including the layout and publication of an obituary. Note that it’s not compulsory to have an obituary, but it does serve a purpose — the departed’s old friends and acquaintances may only know of their demise through the papers.

The Wake
Some churches and funeral homes have rooms, and void-decks are also an option. The only thing about void deck wakes is that you will want to have someone guarding the casket and other things through the night. Whereas if you held the wake in a funeral home or a church, you would be able to set a cut-off time for visitors.
The funeral director will also ask you what you require. You may want to order the ubiquitous wake buffet or just packet drinks and snacks. You can return any unopened peanut and drink cartons. You won’t need to get anything else — the director will provide you with condolence books, red thread, and other necessities like playing cards and so on.

You may want to assign the collection of condolence cash gifts to a trusted friend or relative, and ask givers to put down their names so you can thank them later.

Friends and workmates will want to give wreaths and floral arrangements — but you have to be mindful of having to dispose of these later. No, they can’t be cremated or buried with the departed. A reasonable option is to state in the obituary that you prefer not to have floral arrangements and wreaths, and that the money that would have been spent on these be donated to charity instead.

“Paying respects” to the departed describes how visitors attend a wake, some saying a prayer before going to the head of the coffin where the glass panel is, and sometimes making a comment on how the departed looks. Be prepared for awkward comments.

The NEA gives you seven days from the day of death to when the remains are dispatched. If you intend to extend the wake past seven days, you can apply to the NEA for permission.

The Funeral and Beyond
You will need to choose between a cremation or a burial — which may be a given because of your religious practice, but all burials in Singapore a limited to 15 years. The only active burial ground in Singapore is at Choa Chu Kang, and is actually a complex of concrete crypts which will contain the departed’s coffin. After 15 years, the NEA may exhume remains and families are given the option of cremating the remains or re-interring (if there is an available burial ground by then). That’s right, burial is not freehold.
The crematorium at Mandai is a modern complex complete with service halls and an automated furnace with a viewing gallery.

The collection of the departed’s ashes can be traumatic. It’s as if you’ve had to say goodbye again, by putting the skeletal remains of the departed into whatever receptacle your funeral director may have recommended. It doesn’t help your emotions that the NEA gives you a Toyogo box to collect the ash and bone from another receptacle. It is a dusty affair, and some bone fragments may end up on the table or floor. If you’re not up for it, tell the funeral director, and they’ll do everything for you.

You will have the option of keeping the ashes of the departed at home or in a niche at churches, temples and also government-run columbariums. Scattering of ashes at sea is also permitted with an application, but limited to an area near Pulau Semakau. Think of it as a smokers’ corner for the dead.

After all that is done, you will have some more time to grieve, if you need to. And if you need to, you must.

Resource: NEA Care For The Dead Services



Ceremonies Are For Eating

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did. He would mumble through hymns, anthems and carols and once was even caught holding a hymnal upside down. He liked nothing better than to sit in a quiet corner and stuff his face with his favourite foods – and there were many – and then chuckle when he was found doing so.

When his mother passed away in 1999, my father, being one of two offspring, was tasked with marching and chanting around her coffin with the Taoist priest-mediums every few hours. They made perhaps about 8 rounds each session. At one of these sessions, my father dragged his feet mournfully around his mother’s coffin, lips pursed as if in protest at having to repeat whatever Taoist mantra that was being sung/shouted.

I remember watching him do two laps and then losing sight of him among the robes, ribbons, and incense. I thought at first the he might have stumbled and fallen, but the others in the procession would’ve helped him up. I thought he might’ve been overcome by grief and excused himself, so I got up from where I was seated and looked around the family’s Hose Road Seremban house for him.

I found him at a corner table, feeding himself a plate of funeral caterer’s beehoon and curry. When I asked him if he was alright, he said, “two rounds enough lah, no need to do so many times”, and carried on stuffing his face.

So, while I may not excuse myself and sneak out this afternoon when we hold the Catholic service that was arranged by my brother, I might sneak a handful of groundnuts, kwa chee or M&Ms in my pocket and stuff my face a bit. Don’t mind the crunching ok? Papa wouldn’t have.