Fathers and Sons

Hu Shi’s poem “My Son”, which I quoted in the previous post, and his further elucidation:

What I have said, is from the perspective of the parents, and from what I personally feel for my son, that is why my title is “My Son”. My intention is to let this son of mine know that all I have for him are apologies, never to claim credit, never to bestow upon with grace. As for how my son shall treat me in the future, that is his matter. I shall never expect him to repay my favours, for I have already declared I have no favours to give unto him.

almost seemed like they could have been written by my own father.

Words like:
“My intention is … never to claim credit, never to bestow upon with grace. As for how my son shall treat me in the future, that is his matter. I shall never expect him to repay my favours, for I have already declared I have no favours to give unto him.”
have certainly passed from father’s lips before. A thoroughly proud and principled man who gives no favours and in turn, expects none from the world.
And yet, time passes and things change…
A proud, robust and fiercely independent man in his prime, may still give way to time and age, and weaken into frailty and dependence in his dotage.

Father, more than anyone I know, is a Pragmatist and pragmatic in every sense of the word. A fifth-generation Malaysian Chinese, eldest son of the family and part of a rather substantial extended 朱/Chu family and clan in those parts (the Chus in the area had over the generations, worked the land–from the time of rubber to oil palm, opened shops, set up schools, been schoolteachers, and been involved in area politics) which by his generation, had accumulated a fair bit of land, notwithstanding the FELDA policies of the 60’s and 70’s to restrict non-Bumiputra landholdings.

Father, in his teens, won a scholarship to study at the Chinese High School in Singapore (then and still is now, the only real rival to Raffles Institution, academically, culturally and most definitely politically, at least up till the 1960’s when the English-educated political faction gained the government and a whole page –nay, entire chapters, books!– of the Chinese educated polity was expunged from Singapore’s history), where he was a prefect, student leader and became Top Student; and was one of the few students/scholarship-holders to board with the Principal’s family.

Father is a natural linguist, his ear and tongue for languages is amazing and even when I was a child and he was already middle-aged, he was still picking up languages/dialects whenever his business required it.
He speaks Mandarin, his native Cantonese, Hokkien (the common patois of Singaporean Chinese), Hainanese (which he picked up within months to win over my mother’s family and clansmen), Teochew (many Teochew business associates), Guangxi (a west Cantonese dialect version), a smattering of northern Chinese dialects (he did the Go China thing in the late 80’s/early 90’s and had an F&B import business — remember 冬瓜茶/winter melon tea? and the ill-fated 山楂汁/hawthorn berry juice…), Malay, Bahasa Indonesia (no big stretch, similar to Malay), English, German (he worked at a large Swiss-German trading firm before setting up his own commodities trading business), some Japanese (many heavy/farm machinery suppliers were Japanese, as well as clients), and he understood Thai (sweet sugar business) and Tamil (many Indian associates, amongst them lawyers of course and even a PP).

But it is father’s Mandarin, and especially his written Chinese, that is exceptional. His school-time essays were allegedly so well-written, that his teachers had a hard time finding faults to penalize him so as to avoid awarding a full score. Father, rather unabashedly, used to say that he would hand in his essays late just to allow his teachers to have a reason to deduct marks.
And as a child, I was constantly reminded of this: when I was young, there was a period when we lived in the same neighbourhood as my father’s former principal from Chinese High. By that time, this genteel Chinese gentleman 赖校长/Principal Lai, was already an octogenarian and had suffered strokes, but still maintained his daily walk to the neighbourhood park and benches, shuffling stiffly along with a walking stick. Father had instructed me before in very clear terms, that Principal Lai was his 恩师/Benefactor-Teacher, and so every time I see him, I was to bow and greet him, and to help him get to wherever he was going. Many times when I see Principal Lai on my way home after school when he was walking, I had to shelve whatever afternoon adventure that I had planned, to help him walk to the park. I would have to sit with him and answer his questions on: how’s school, and most especially, how’s my Chinese studies…
He would then regale me with stories of how studious and diligent my father was (Father apparently practically made the library his second home), a model student for the rest of the school, how wonderful his Chinese and literary studies were, how his essays were getting published even in major papers and newsletters…
I would nod and nod along, but really, I just wanted him to finish so I can help him walk back to his house and I can get away… The upside was, usually when we got back to his house, the Principal’s wife would be pottering about in her herb garden and smile and wave me in and fetch me a bowl of whatever soup, juice, drink she was brewing up in her wet-kitchen; I especially loved her aloe vera-milk drink, so cool and refreshing on scorching hot days…

Father’s literary skills did not just win him accolades from his teachers, principal, peers and publishers. It may have won him mother’s heart as well…
Mother studied at 德明/Dunman High School, in those days, considered a ‘sister’ school to Chinese High.
[Both are premier Chinese schools and both were hotbeds and indeed, ground zero of Chinese student political activism in the 50s/60s, with a lot of association and exchanges between the active student leaders.
Mum and father were only a few years apart in age and so would have been near-同窗/contemporaries/similar cohorts.
But Mum always joked about how they did not know each other from school days or from the fiery passions of student protests and activism (that would have been so romantic); they only met much later.
There’s a good reason for that of course…]

Mum eventually studied and graduated from art school, but her first job was in her other great love, literature; and she started work in a Chinese publishing house. She apparently came across some old articles and essays from the publisher’s archives, and was gushing over how well-written the essays were, and which turned out to have been written by father many years earlier. The chief editor, an old acquaintance of father’s, noted mother’s enthusiasm, decided to play cupid and introduced them to each other.

The rest, is history… and me!

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