I Have Old Stuff From My Dad’s Office Too: Part 1

The picture above is of former Minister of Culture Mr Jek Yuen Thong giving a speech at the opening of the Oriental Development Corporation Limited (Marble And Plastic Factories) in 1972. My father is seated at the extreme left in the photo.

28 October 1972: Check out the hand-painted banner

Since PM Lee Hsien Loong is slowly going through his family’s treasure trove of historical artefacts, I thought I might join in with mine.

The picture above is of former Minister of Culture Mr Jek Yeun Thong giving a speech at the opening of the Oriental Development Corporation Limited (Marble And Plastic Factories) in 1972. My father is seated at the extreme left in the photo.

I was really excited as a three year old when my father told me he was helping to set up a marble factory, and was very, very disappointed to learn that it actually made ornamental marble slabs and vases and not the kind of marbles one could bring to marble battles with the other kids in the neighbourhood, with the other kids protesting, “Wah lao, liddat he sure win one lah, his father open marble factory one leh!”

Just Like My Dad Did

I’ve been packing to move office for a fortnight now, and it’d have been faster if it wasn’t for my office being a treasure trove of museum grade paraphernalia. Today alone I found my Dad’s old passports spanning three decades.

My parents had their offices in and around Raffles Place and Tanjong Pagar from 1966, the year after they got married. My father knew the streets like the back of his hand. To shake off his afternoon lethargy, he used to take long walks spanning the waterfront, then at Shenton Way, to Beach Road, to North Bridge Road, to Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar, and then back again to the office.

About a decade ago, before Parkinson’s got the better of him, I joined him on his walks. These walks were often dotted with stops for a drink or a meal. Restaurants at Purvis and Seah Streets, stalls at Amoy Street and Maxwell Road food centres were our ports of call.

He’d shuffle towards an available seat, sit, look up at a stallholder/waiter and make eye contact. A nod was exchanged, and his usual dish from the stall/restaurant would arrive at our table a few minutes later. Sometimes, it was a raising of a palm – a silent Hainanese greeting – that would signal the transaction.

Every crappy work day I’ve had at the office in recent months, I’ve had the respite of some similar walks, clearing my head, getting some air. Then one day last week, I stopped at Amoy Street food centre, and sat down at a table. I looked up and saw the chicken rice hawker and he saw me. We exchanged nods. A few minutes later, he served me a plate of chicken rice – drumstick with gizzards. My usual. My father’s too.

Best lazy Sunday ever

Kai, snug on Papa's chest
Kai, snug on Papa's chest

It’s mid afternoon and I’m sleepy, and before I know it, I’ve put my head down for a nap. Naomi pats Kai for a bit, and puts him down next to me, where he falls asleep in two seconds, and while drifting into sleep, I can hear Naomi’s breathing enough to know that she’s also catching forty winks, and I can hear Kai’s quick little snores, and I can hear my own breath against our bedsheets. It’s the best nap ever, knowing I’ll wake up to a dream.

#joy

Things that bring us happiness these days tend to revolve around Kai. His name in Japanese means “The World”, so he’s our world after all.

We’re happy all of the time because we have Kai. Happiness tends to be an enveloping state of mind. But there are little moments that happen throughout that are just simply moments of joy.

You can put a finger on it.

What’s your finger on?

***

IMG_0677 Last weekend when we went to visit my parents at their home, my father looked a little worse for wear because of Parkinson’s. His stiffness and gait was more pronounced than it had ever been.

As it was a hot day, Kai was a little more than cranky when we arrived, and Naomi and I had wanted to let his grandpa hold him, if that was at all possible, for a little while.

It was possible, as grandpa was seated on a wide armchair, so he didn’t really have to carry Kai, who was all of 8kg last week, but just allow him to settle across his lap.

We were kind of worried Kai would start wailing once we placed him there, and were at the ready to pick him up again if he did.

More than the opposite happened. First, Kai smiled at his grandpa, and grandpa reciprocated the best his facial muscles knew how.

Then Kai laughed. For a baby who’s only started how to chuckle a few days earlier, he let out a stream of chuckles, complete with deep audible intakes of breath in between.

Grandpa really, really smiled, and then as he cradled Kai in his arms, they both gurgled and cooed nonsense to each other.

Kai’s starting to drool a lot these days, and he’s making a mess of grandpa’s hands and arms just as grandpa is doing the same to himself because of Parkinson’s Disease.

It’s a slimy, icky, gummy, grinny, gurgly bonding session between Kai and his grandpa, who suddenly looks like he’s turned back a decade.

***

Monitoring baby Yesterday afternoon, as I was struggling to put words to a song and a skit, the baby monitor I had on the desk crackled to life, its blue lights flickering and its speaker letting me listen to Naomi’s mother patting Kai and singing twinkle twinkle little star, which is the only song she sings to him.

But because she’s trying to put him to bed, she’s singing it lullabye style, which is slower and softer and doesn’t have any hand actions because you are carrying the baby after all.

She sings and pats for a good five minutes or so, and Kai doesn’t sound like he’s anywhere near sleeping, and keeps gurgling and cooing at Twinkle Twinkle Grandma, who is tiring quickly.

The patting stops for a moment, and then starts again, so I think she’s put him down in his cot and then resumed patting and singing.

Kai’s still gurgling, and Grandma gets a little impatient and tells him in Mandarin and Taiwanese to “quickly go to sleep”. She sings another few bars, and then says again “go to sleep, go to sleep”.

The patting becomes erratic and the singing stops, but the verbal urging picks up and Grandma says, “Come on Kai, go to sleep, go to sleep”, and starts to snort loudly and sharply in between saying “go to sleep”.

This snorting startles me for a few seconds before I realise she’s merely trying to mimic snoring in the hope that Kai picks up the cue, since he’s already missed the verbal and singing ones.

The snorting continues for a few minutes as I listen in, trying to control my laughter. Then abrubtly, it stops, and I hear in Mandarin a very resigned, “OK, since you don’t want to sleep, so be it. Grandma wants to sleep”.

Within seconds, real snoring is heard – a lot more rhythmic than the imitation ones, and in several more minutes, Kai stops gurgling. Some more rustling is heard, then all becomes quiet.

Goodbye Ah Mah

My Ah Mah, my maternal grandmother, used to sew pyjamas and quilts for every single one of her twenty odd (or is it thirty odd) grandchildren.

She’d buy yards and yards of fabric every year, and when we’d go visit her in Seremban, we’d come home with a new pair of jammies, knowing that every cousin would be kitted in identical jammies that year.

It was 1981 and the last pair I got before I was too old for pyjamas was the most embarrassing pair of mickey and minnie pyjamas a boy could ever be caught wearing when visitors came to the house later than usual.

Ah Mah spoke no English and very very few words of Mandarin. She could yell a lot in Hokkien, and in that household my mother grew up in, you needed a strong pair of lungs to go with the strong pair of hands that held the family of 15 siblings together.

Mission schooling in pre and post-war Malaya meant that a generational gap widened into a cultural and linguistic one as my mum and some of her siblings started going to church and appending Anglo-Celtic-Judaic names to their Hokkien-Chinese ones, which were often mispelled by inept officials at the birth registries (I have an uncle called Lim Songkok).

Grandchildren arrived from the 60s onwards and were christened, named and in the case of my brother and sister and myself, did not (and still do not) understand the complicated hierarchical nomenclature of the many uncles, aunties and cousins. We’d know of an Uncle Michael, who’d be Uncle Number Something to other cousins, or an Auntie Wendy, who’d be Auntie Some Other Number.

Ah Mah on the other hand, had lots of difficulty remembering all our names, and used to complain about my brother’s and my name.

“Haiyah, mm chye simi Benny Kenny lah. An chua sama kio ka Nee Nee lah!” she’d say.

(Haiyah, dunno what Benny, Kenny lah. Why do they have to all sound like Nee Nee lah!)

And as if adopting foreign names wasn’t bad enough, several of my mother’s siblings married outside of the wider Chinese population.

My half-Sephardi Jewish cousins’ names came in for Ah Mah’s shelling too.

“Haiyah, mm chye simi Nathaniel lah. An chua sama kio ka neow neow neow neow lah?”

And my half-Welsh cousins’ names, Teckwyn, Selwyn, Edwyn, Eilwyn and Colwyn…

“An chua sama kio ka win win win win win lah!”

Ah Mah loved every one of her grandkids, and that’s no mean feat – I remember being part of a family photo – of almost every kid and grandkid, numbering up to 50 plus – where the photographer had to cross the street to get everyone in the shot.

That’s like having to run a pyjama factory. And the patchwork quilt that she gave me before I left for Sydney is made of many hexagonal pieces of scrap cloth she’s collected and painstakingly sewn together. It doesn’t look like much, but it does keep the warmth in.

Ah Mah, Madam Chua Chu, passed away last Thursday in Seremban.