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Large families, cheating death, appropriating kites

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with my dad for the first in a series of interviews about his life story and experiences. I approached the conversation chronologically, starting with his family background and childhood memories, and tried to let him talk as much as he wanted. In the hour that we chatted, I discovered numerous things about my dad which I never knew, or he had never shared with me before. Some examples:


1. My dad is the youngest of eight children.


He had four brothers and three sisters. His eldest brother was born in 1928, his second brother in 1929, third brother in 1931, fourth brother in 1934, three sisters in 1937, 1942, and 1944, and then him in 1946. My dad rattled off their birth years without a pause. Wow!


2. My dad’s father - my paternal grandfather - had a second wife, who bore my dad’s father two sons and a daughter.


My dad said: “She only came to our family when my father passed away (in 1959). Otherwise, she dared not come to see my mother.”


But his mother had known about her all along.


“My mother complained to (her uncle. He) said, ‘I got four wives, you know. So long he takes care of the family, gives you money and everything, leave it lah!’”


I asked: “She didn’t think of leaving him?”


My dad: “Hah? No.”


He continued: “After my father passed away, one of his legal officers brought her to see my mother, to visit and pay her respects. So you know all those relatives... (they told my mother) ‘Aiyah, let it be lah, forgive her lah…’ So ok, my mother accepted. (The second wife) had to serve my mother tea, (for her to accept her) as a sister.”


My dad’s family subsequently lost contact with the second wife’s family.


“After that... of course they wanted a share of my father’s estate. So my brother paid her off. After that, no more. She went her way, we went our way.”


My dad saw the second wife’s obituary in the newspapers in 2009. She died 21 years after my dad’s mother.

3. My dad might never have been born.

At the beginning of the Japanese Occupation in February 1942, during the murderous islandwide purge known as Sook Ching, all the adult men in Kim Chuan Village (east of Upper Paya Lebar Road) were rounded up by the Japanese. My dad’s father was one of them. Their fate: To be trucked away and executed.

Kim Chuan Village in the 1975 street directory.

For some reason, the lorries that were supposed to take the men to their certain deaths never arrived. They waited until midnight, and then the Japanese inexplicably released them. My dad related: “My mother asked my father, how come you all can come home? (My father said) ‘Oh... someone knew how to speak Japanese, (and the Japanese said) “these people are very good people”, so they let us go’.”


My dad suspected it was actually his father who had persuaded the Japanese to release everyone. He suspected his father could speak Japanese, even though his father never revealed it, because at the time, “those who spoke Japanese were (considered) traitors”.


That was how my dad’s father survived Sook Ching. Four years later, in 1946, my dad was born. And that, in turn, allowed me to be born.


4. My dad’s description of his parents.


I asked: “How would you describe your father?”


My dad: “He’s quite strict with his sons... I once saw my father whack (my fourth brother) one day... no joke. I saw him beating him up.”


“But why did he beat him up?”


He laughed. “Don’t know... If I was naughty, he would ask me to kneel before him. That’s my punishment.”


“Kneel only?”


“Yeah.”


“Would he hit you?”


“Nah.”


“That seems quite mild.”


“And my servant, he (would) bring (my father) a cup of coffee and then take me away.”


“That’s his way of saving you!”


My dad laughed.


I continued: “And how would you describe your mom?”


A pause. Then: “My mom was very good. She’s a good mother. She took care of the family.”


5. Some of my dad’s earliest memories as a kid.


My dad said: “I liked to go to the drain and catch fish.”


“Which drain?”


“Outside (the family) house. When it flooded, I went and caught fish.”


“What kind of fishes?”


“All the drain fish. Guppies, those sort of things. When it flooded, you could catch a lot. Sometimes, red swordtail, black swordtail, because all those were from people’s aquariums. When it flooded, all the fish swam out.”


My dad also shared that there was an open field near his family home in the Tanjong Katong area, which many used to fly kites, and for kite-fighting.

“When the string burst, the kite would fly (to our house) and get stuck on the roof. When (the kite-owners) wanted to come in (and retrieve the kite), we closed the gate.”


“And you took the kites for yourself.”


“Yeah. No need to buy kites, you know? Always free one. All come down, wah, shiok.” And he laughed at that memory.