龍 Dragon

While catching up on my newspaper reading (I read the newspapers only sporadically and usually a few weeks after the actual dateline), I came across an article written by Dr. Lee Wei Ling. Dr. Lee is of course the daughter of that ‘well-known’ first prime minister of Spore, LKY, and sister of the current PM LHL.

Dr. Lee has been writing a Sunday column (fortnightly I think) which apparently has been attracting its share of supporters for her folksy, down-to-earth and ‘humble’ outlook on life; as well as not an insignificant number of detractors critical of her moralistic, patronizing and (despite her ‘humility’) gilded-ivory tower tone.

Still, I found this particular article interesting.
[Besides the fact that it was published not in her usual Sunday column, but in the Editorial pages on a Wednesday, 10 Feb 2010. Perhaps the editors and the Editor found it relevant for publishing before Chinese New Year that coming Sunday, 14 Feb 2010?]

Anyway, in the article, Dr. Lee speaks of the struggle common to any person who is part of any Diaspora (the “forcing of any people or ethnic population to leave their traditional homelands, the dispersal of such people, and the ensuing developments in their culture.”), where he/she naturally feels the inner tug-of-war between the history culture traditions of his ancestral homeland and those of his adopted land.

Here Dr. Lee speaks of her struggle between her (and her family’s) Anglicized tendencies and yet, remnants of a still smouldering Chinese chauvinism:

I think in English, and prefer to communicate in English, though I am Chinese by race and partially Chinese by culture and values. I have enough memory of colonialism to make me cringe at the thought that I might be more Western than Chinese at heart.

But that is an illogical feeling. How often have I not boasted that I am race neutral, though not colour blind? I treat people of different races as equals although I remain aware of cultural differences. Logically, there is no reason for me to feel that Chinese culture is necessarily superior to any other culture. Yet when I read Dr Chan describe how in Chengdu, in the very heart of China, Western culture, attire and behaviour now seem to have greater appeal to the masses than Chinese culture, which has a far longer history, I felt saddened. And what disturbed me more was what my reaction revealed about me.

I thought I had outgrown any hint of Chinese chauvinism that nine years in a Chinese school, plus four years in a Chinese kindergarten before that, may have instilled in me. But I misjudged myself. The thought that I might be Westernised never occurred to me, and I would have taken it as an insult if anyone had suggested I was.

*italics and bold mine

(The redirected link points to a locked subscription-only portion of the online newspaper. Dunno how long this link will continue to work.)

Ignoring the ‘chauvinistic’ elements in the article for now, Dr. Lee’s words made me ask myself:
When did the Chinese-ness in me awaken ?

An easy question — I know the answer almost as soon as I asked the question.

As a young boy in kindergarten, I had to bring back report cards for the parents to appraise and sign off. Up till then, I had seen plenty of Dad’s signatures; in his study at home, he always have work documents carrying the large and bold signature of his chosen English name and his surname. Dad and Mum both went to Chinese schools but English and Chinese/Mandarin were used almost equally at home, so I did not think too much of Dad signing his name in English.

One day, Mum signed off on one of my report cards and I was puzzled at this curious-looking sprawling shape which did not resemble any Chinese character and certainly not an English one. In fact, it looks like the picture of the rat here (the bottom one with its tail pointing right).

So I asked Mum what her signature represents. Mum smiled and said its a secret. I ranted and pumped my fists and insisted. She laughed and said: Okay but its a kind of magic, and you must keep it a secret.
Then she took a piece of calligraphy paper and smoothed it out neatly on the table, and taking up a red wide-edged felt pen, began drawing out her signature, slowly and more deliberately than usual. Done, she slid the paper with her signature on it over towards me and asked me what I see.
Just the same rat with its funny curling long tail, except its red now, I said.
Mum smiled and said: Now, for the magic…
She picked up the sheet of thin paper and raised it up just in front of my eyes, and first slowly rotated it 90 degrees clockwise and before turning the whole sheet over so that I was now looking at the signature from the back and rotated.
Now… what do you see? asked Mum.

I went goggle-eyed and was amazed. There on that thin piece of calligraphy paper held up against the light, a red dragon flutters ever so gently in the breeze, with its tail snaking downwards as it reaches for the sky — the Chinese character for 龍-Dragon and Mum’s family name.


Mum had made magic and turned a crawling rat into a soaring dragon.

And in that moment, Mum awakened in me, the sense of magic for my language and culture, and the yearning of every 龍的傳人-descendant of the dragon, for his homeland and it’s culture traditions and history.


4 thoughts on “龍 Dragon

  1. Don, I remember when I would have my mother sign my report cards, and the anguish it would cause both me and her. Finally, by 3rd grade, I could sign her name as good as she could and we had a quid pro quo that I wouldn’t get real bad grades, and I would spare her the nervousness, and she would leave me alone. Great post. Jeff

  2. Jeff,

    Like you, I applied myself towards learning my mother’s signature, though maybe for a different purpose. I was determined to master Mum’s upside-down, back-to-front reverse writing; and while I eventually produced a copy that was definitely less rodent-like, I never quite achieved the majesty of a dragon.

    When I showed Mum what I could do, she joked that I could now forge her signatures on my school reports; but the real temptation was in producing excuse notes for those all-important “Ferris Bueller & Don Chu’s Days Off”.


  3. Here’s a look at the many ways red dragons may be rendered in chinese calligraphy:


    But none of the above resembles Mum’s upside-down, back-to-front, reverse-rendered stylized dragon. The closest example is this one:


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