Monday, November 25, 2013

Chapter 24: Reflections by Joseph

Chapter 24
Reflection by Joseph

Chan’s open door and one big Family

The Chan’s household was an amazing one where friends, old and young came and went. From their early days of their wedding, Father and Mother had brothers, in-laws, cousins, nephews, nieces and grand children under his wings living under one roof, at some stage or the other. Sometimes two generations stayed with us. There was no boarding fee; at most they did chores and babysitting for Mother. This extended family was very atypical even in a Chinese setting. Blood is thicker than water.

3rd Aunt Kong Wah Sam
After the war, she was in her early teens and it was not easy learning A B Cs. Father had to tutor her to help her catch up.

5th Uncle Mark
In China, at 13 years old, Uncle Mark joined the youth communist party. The family quickly sent him to Nanyang.  When he arrived, he was the subject of the minor family disagreement.  He stayed with us. Father also tutored him his English.

4th Aunt Kong Wah Mee
She babysat Ann and claims to be her favourite niece.

5th Uncle David Kong
He was the same age as Francis Chow Fei, Say Bo’s oldest son. He went to the same school. In the evening, these two uncles entertained us with their magic tricks.

Youngest Uncle Kong Seng Kee, Ah Boon
Seng Kee Ah Boon stayed many years with us. He followed us to Kanowit and back down to Sibu.

7th Uncle Peter Chan Ying Fei
When he was born in the village in Lanang Road, Mother bathed him and discovered there was something wrong with his eye. At around 15 years old, he had problems with that eye. It was operated on and his eye ball was removed. We were in Padang Road when he stayed with us to recuperate.

Cousin Ah Mei, 3rd Aunt Siew Ying’s second daughter
She was not a very healthy baby and 3rd Aunt Siew Ying was too busy working to take care of her. Mother babysat her.

Cousin Vincent Kong Chak Kam, Mother’s nephew
Ah Kam is Ann’s age, and Grandmother Kong was very proud of her number one grandson.

Cousin Cecilia Kong Shui Ngan, Vincent’s 2nd sister
The intention was for Margaret to teach her Roman Catholicism and learn English from us.
Cousin Wong Kee Fior, 3rd Aunt Kong’s son
He was a year Ann’s junior, the idea was for him to be tutored by Father and Ann.

6th Uncle Francis Chan Chou Fei
He was working for SESCO, the company that supplied electricity to every household in Sarawak. The Communist activated and soldier led him to stay with us.

Cousin Kong Choi Yok, Vincent and Cecilia’s sister
Father got her a teaching post in some school in the country in the Sixth Division. It was too far for her to go home in the weekends, so she came and stayed.

9th  Grand Aunty Patricia Chan
Grand Aunty is a distant relative, not in the Clan. Like Chok Yok, she was in a similar situation, spending her weekends with us.

Cousin Teresa Chan Kit Siong, Uncle Mark’s daughter
While Teresa was waiting to go to university in Kuala Lumpur, she worked for Pan Sarawak in Sibu and stayed with us

Rose and Brother-in-law Chai, Elizabeth and Brother-in-law Kallang and their Children
The Chais: Flora, Raymond and Andrew, The Kallangs: Wayne and Jane were around when their Grandpa was the DEO. Wayne was often in the newspaper photographs following Grandma when she went for prize giving ceremonies.

When Father died, except for 5th Uncle David who was in New Zealand, Kee Fior, Ah Mei and Flora in Australia and Choi Yok in Sibu, everyone came to his dying bed. Most of them had to fly in from other places. Some have to take time off from work. They had not forgotten that at some time when they were young, Father had been good to them.
        How did Father and Mother manage to accommodate so many people?
Well, I never slept on my own bed until I was 14. We lived in Sarikei at Repok Road. That was the first time, I had my own bed and I was sleeping at the servant’s room downstairs.
We did not have a fridge in Sibu. Everything was bought fresh or from the garden. Because there were so many of us and relatives staying at our place, Father and Mother had to supplement our diet by planting vegetables and fruit trees. We had our own wild vegetables like Paku and Midin. Mother grew the wild ferns. We kept chickens and ducks. It was Ann’s job to feed them with rice husks.  Ann and Margaret related their stories on collecting the sea weeds from the drains and the embarrassment.
Four times a year, we reared a little piglet and fattened it for special occasions. Grandpa assembled all the uncles to slaughter the pig. Those were the happy times when we all have plenty to eat. We shared them with our aunts. What we could not finished, we dried them to make waxed pork. Up to now, I am the only person in my island growing my own organic vegetables and fruits. I even kept hens for eggs.
Mother was creative and made brown beans paste in a clay basin. We also have pickled vegetables.
In Embang Road Grandfather Chan set traps to catch moor hens, squirrels, foxes and monitor lizards. These added protein to our diets. Henry is now with WWF and he would not approve us eating exotic wild life.
Bean Sprouts, toufu (bean curd) and potato leaves are cheap and nutritious. Mother bought them on a daily basis for lunch and dinner. We had so much that we were sick and tired of them. Now they are expensive cuisine in any Japanese and Chinese Restaurants. Ann and I have a policy to never ever order these cuisines at restaurants. Let say, we were not over the fact that the toufu was 0.5 cents a block and now we have to pay $20.00 per dish at a fancy restaurant in Australia. In fact, Ann absolutely refuses to eat them.
We have our own make shift oven. Mother had a wood fire and then baked cakes in homemade oven. The cakes were excellent. They were never burnt. Those were the days when Mother gave those presents to family and friends particularly during Chinese New Year. We kids have to beat one hundred eggs with a hand held spiral whisk, and creamed with butter in big blue laundry bins. Butter was a luxury. Later mother learnt how to make Chiffon cakes with no butter. For the flavour, it was my job to pound the pandan leaves in the mortar and extract the essence for the cakes.
When the twins Henry and Helen were toddlers, Mother bought the Lactogen Baby Formulae in 20 gallon tin. There were so many empty tins.        The used tins were used to boil chungs, glutinous rice with pork fillings wrapped in leaves. Mother would make the small ones. Making Chungs was a family event, everyone was involved. It was the boys’ job to make the fire downstairs and I loved starting fires.   Grandfather Chan made his as big as half a loaf of bread with plenty of fat pork. Up to these days, we prefer chung with fat belly pork.
Sweet Potatoes and Mung Bean Soup were our occasional sweet treat at 4 p.m. Unlike our neighbours who have high tea, we have this soup to keep us cool and a tonic to avoid sickness. If anyone of us was sick, then all of us would have to drink the Leon Cha (cool herbs). We were always reminded of the demise of 3rd Uncle and the “heaty” moon cake.
Our garden was full of herbs.  Cheng Hit Chai (small green leaves), Andrographis paniculata was the King of all Bitters was the dreaded medicine we were made to take. Mother would harvest the leaves and pour boiling water in a mug full of leaves. If we were sick we had to drink the green bitter concoction. It was so bitter that we have a spoonful of sugar on standby. It just numbed the brain. It has the same effect or feeling as mistaking wasabi for avocado. You can still find them growing at Rose and Elizabeth’s place. Ann would even pretend not to be sick to avoid this horrible bitter concoction. That’s why she never wagged school. I believe it is an instant cure for headaches and sore throats and I still take them.
Whenever we have an infected bruise, Ah Tai would look for the green moss growing on moist walls. Then she pounded them in mortar and applied them to the wound. We never had to use penicillin or anti bacterial cream. The cure was imminent.
Cousin Kee Fior was staying with us and had constant nose bleed. Ah Tai took him for a haircut. She collected his hair and burned them in ashes. She and Mother boiled the ashes in water. Kee Fior drank the extract a few times. His nose stopped bleeding. Was that a myth or a coincidence? Kee Fior is a big towkay in Sydney.
We did not have telephones and television till Father’s promotion as DEO in Sarikei. Before, we relied on borrowing our neighbour’s phone in times of emergencies. It was a very exciting time when we saw the first Mohammad Ali and Joe Bugner’s heavy weight boxing fight on TV. Then we watched the 6 million dollar man. For the record, Father and Mother never bought a fridge or TV in their entire lifetime. These were later standard household equipments in the Government bungalow for senior servants.
A tradition has been formed, Charles in turned has had relatives staying with him in New Zealand and Australia, Uncle Mark’s John and Luke, Margaret, Joseph, Helen and Grace, and Cousin James, son of Father’s cousin Fung Fei.

Father stayed for many years with Margaret.
The last half year when he was very sick, he stayed with Henry. When relatives visit Singapore, they stay with Ann and Grace.

Grandfather Chan said, “The good, you propagate, the bad you nip in the bud.”  That’s the Chans’ philosophy that has been passed on to generations.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Charles opened their doors to Margaret, Cousin Chok You, Ah Chung, Helen, Grace, Father and Mother and I.
In Kuching, Margaret opened her house for Cousin James, and Father. Her house is like a hotel to the family on their holidays.

I have nieces stay while they study.

The Chan houses are always full with relatives and friends during the school holidays.

Ann’s conclusion:

 I like to highlight the hospitality of the Chans as I conclude this section. We were in Embang Road and one day, a blind man came to 3rd Aunt’s shop and insisted that she led him to our house. Mother brought her home; a complete stranger except his surname was the same as us. He learnt Father was a very kind person and would help him contact Dr. Wong to get a referral to go to China and treat his blindness. Mother agreed to take him, and it took a long time to get an appointment. When the doctor said he could not be treated, and would not give him a referral, he was stubborn, and wanted a second opinion.
In the mean time, he stayed with us for a long time sharing Grandfather Chan’s bedroom, billeting on the floor. He ate as though he had never eaten before, he was a scrawny thing when he came, and we really fattened him up. Grandfather Chan did not mind him so much, but this blind man kept talking to him late into the night, and when Grandfather Chancsaid he had to sleep, he turned on his transistor radio. It irritated Grandfather especially when he was always talking to him and us children, disturbing us in our homework. He went, but he came back again. Finally his relatives came to take him home and apologized for overstaying his welcome.
I was sweet 16 and never been kissed. The blind man needed someone to hold his hand and led round the house. If not, he said to tap on the wall, and he would listen to the sound and be guided this way. I felt embarrassed to hold a man's hand. One day, I led him to the dining room by tapping. I tapped on the door way, and "BANG!" he crashed his head on the door frame and had a big gnash on his forehead oozing with blood. Rose was very good, and quickly washed his head, and put on a band aid plaster.
Mother scolded, "What were you embarrassed about? He can't even see you."
For a couple of days, he enjoyed Rose' tender loving care. The blind man went home, and told the whole village how good this "Brother John Chan" was to him.
They nattered, “He is so good, and why don't you go there?
One day, Mother saw him in 3rd Aunt’s shop with a "Haj's head."  He was beaten up so badly that no way was Mother going to let him return home.      His relative said he raped his niece. We could not believe he cannot even know where to go, how he could rape a girl. Mother said, they just want an excuse to send him away.
Father approached our ex neighbour, Mr. John Wong Siong Cheng, Charlie and Edmund’s dad, about a placement at the Bind Centre in Bukit Lima.  John was the secretary of the Blind Centre. Mother said he was sent to the blind centre in Kuching. He was much happier with his flute. We never heard of him again. Mother wondered why he was not sent there a long time ago. Of course, he did not have connections that Father and Mother had.
As I finish this book, I pause and ponder. Am I blowing our trumpet? Have I painted too honourable about Father and too virtuous about Mother?
I leave you with these words from Orlando Chua Siao Hui, a lawyer in Sarawak. I taught Orlando in 1974-75. When I left for Canada, I had not seen him since.
In 2012 he wrote on my Facebook:
“I will never forget you Miss Chan. I was 13 and representing Binatang in a sports meet in Sarikei. You came with a pile of blankets and pillows for us students.”
I have no recollection about this, and I believe it was Mother and Father who told me to do it. Mother knew these kids had to sleep on top of school desks without any bedding.

Before Father died, he left written instruction and directions for us if we decided to return home to Hui Veng, Kwang Zhou in China.

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