Thursday, August 23, 2012
My Mom's Story II
"We would go marketing and she would refer me to the vendors as Ah Ying. With Ng-ku's kids, she would say 'my daughter or my son this-and-that'," said my mom. This would become a sore point with her in her later years. As a child deprived of parents twice, I can understand her need to be acknowledged. Besides, wasn't she the one making all the sacrifices?
Before Geylang, my family had stayed in Changi. My mom then leased an apartment along Sims Avenue/Geylang so Say-ku and Ng-ku and their brood could have a place to stay. It was more so they could get away from Kok Leung-suk and his detrimental ways. He was by then racking up gambling debts. Earlier, my mom had been the one helping the family pay off those debts, even once working as a tea dance hostess to make ends meet. She didn't have much of a choice then.
But for all that my mom had done, there was little gratitude from this odd-ball bunch. By the early 60s, Ng-ku had succumbed to cancer. Her dying wish was for Say-ku to take over her brood. Thus Say-ku, who was my mom's foster mother, became the mother of another set of children - children she considered more her own. Kids that I would later call my uncles and aunts.
After the death of their mother, my uncles and aunts did not address Say-ku as their new mother; they still addressed her the same. When not in her presence, they would however call her "Ah Tun". That's Cantonese for dim-witted or clumsy. Say-ku was not the brightest bulb in the room. But in life, what matters more is not how smart you are but knowing what you want. Of course, having average good looks help too!
In a sense, Say-ku was lucky. Ng-ku's children were all coming-of-age. Pretty soon, they would leave home to find work. Say-ku could continue to stay at home and be the dutiful parent. More of the same and that's what she did.
From Changi, my own family moved to Sarawak. My dad had an Engineering posting there. My eldest sister could not join us as she was schooling and so stayed behind in Geylang with Say-ku and my uncles and aunts. The younger ones were closer to her in age. Although she got along with the girls, the boys were another matter. One was in particular very mischievious. His name was Ah How. One day, he scratched the family's piano and put the blame on my sister.
Say-ku, instead of finding out who the real culprit was complained to my mom. My mom fired back and said that since my sister enjoyed playing the piano, she couldn't have been the one damaging it. Say-ku then insisted that my sister leave the house and stay somewhere else. That sent my mom into a boil. Here she was giving these people a roof over their heads and they demand that her child leave?
My mom was very close to my eldest sister and knew she was not the sort to lie. In fact, my sister had confided to her earlier that Say-ku was not feeding her well, putting her own family first. Say-ku also did not give her enough pocket money for school. My mother had to get a neighbour to help out first. This despite the fact that my mom gave Say-ku "for sake" or household money even when we where away in another country.
Back from Sarawak, my mother experienced her own unpleasant encounter with Say-ku. The money she gave her for marketing, usually twice the normal amount ($5 x 2 or $10, was already very good for meat, fish and veggies in those days) but Say-ku would spend the money unevenly buying more food for her family. She would even cook in a prejudicial way - favoring her bunch and not our family.
This and the piano incident exasperated my mom. She had no outlet and so confided in my dad. My dad was less tolerant of ingrates and suggested that my mom stop giving them aid. In fact, since Say-ku's kids were coming-of-age, he suggested the family to find their own accomodations. In short, he wanted them to leave. My dad also had his reasons. His own children were growing up. But more importantly, he also knew that some of my uncles and aunts were bullying his kids. (An incident involved an aunt taking my mom's earrings and claiming it was hers. A sister of mine saw that and went to take it back. The aunt insisted it was still hers!)
Say-ku, in a surprise move, told us to move out instead. She claimed they were staying in that Sims Avenue house first. It was then that my mom blew her top and reminded Say-ku that the apartment was in her name and that she was the one who had leased it for their use. In the end, Say-ku and her brood had little choice but to move out to then-new Toa Payoh New Town. Their application to HDB had earlier been successful.
In our Geylang home were three bedrooms, a main hall and a smaller sitting room just before the kitchen. The kitchen was open on one side and needed to be protected from the elements by a bamboo blind. Bath and toilet facilities were further back, right next to the back door before a spiral back-staircase. This spiral staircase is a common sight in the backlanes of Geylang.
When Say-ku and her brood stayed with us, my mom had given them two rooms - one for the boys (there were five) and another for the girls (two + two (adults)). Our own family of nine stayed in the one remaining room. Nine of us in that one small room!!!
To accomodate all of us, my dad had to build an alcove so we kids had space to sleep in. Each nite, half of us would sleep on top, another half would sleep below. So you see, we were not being mean to ask them to leave. We were already making sacrifices for them. But if they posed to be such difficult housemates, there was little choice in the matter.
In Geylang growing up, I had more fond memories of my uncles and aunts than bad. Since they were were older and closer to my eldest sister's age, we spent little time playing together. But they did initiate activities for us kids. The smoking incident was one. The firecracker fight was another.
I also remember accompanying my aunts out on dates as chaperons kind-of. They were blossoming into womanhood and checking out the social scene. What fun it must have been to be of that age in the '60s era of Rock and Roll!
My uncles the boys were more studious. They were a brainy lot and loved to study and play English chess. We were also smart but loved more to work with our hands to build and paint things. Of the uncle lot, I think Ah Chin was the most friendly and well-behaved. Ah How was the worst and would later be estranged from the family. Ah Hin was the youngest son and perhaps the most sociable. He was an intellectual and his inquistive eyes were piercing and questioning. As a kid, I enjoyed being with him, he would teach us things. But I also recognised that he was an adrenaline junkie with a dangerous edge. I would keep my guard up and not be blinkered. Ah Hin was certainly one very cool and steady cat. It was not a surprise then that he joined the Intelligence Service of the SAF when he came of age.
Of all my uncles, I knew Ah Ping the least. He committed suicide the year I was born. He and his girlfriend in a lover's death pact. They were still studying and both set of parents had objected to their romance. Everybody felt sad because he was the brightest among the brood of kids, a scholar in the making. A nice boy even. I would later meet Ah Ping and his girlfriend many times when my family visited Pek San Teng during Qing Ming festival. Their ashes are interned there side-by-side.
Of my two aunts, the youngest, Ah Yim, was very sweet and spoke with an attractive lilting voice. She had an almond shaped face like some classic Chinese beauty. My older aunt, Ah San, was second eldest in the family. She's more gaunt and slim like her real mom; but attractive nonetheless in that way. Her personality was a standout because she had speed-fire wit (often sarcastic). It was also suitably matched to a machine-gun mouth. It was fun listening to her talk. Strangely, she would later marry a rather dowdy chap. If she had married a CEO type, I think she would have gone very far.
Kok Leung-suk eventually passed away in the late 60s. I am not sure how his kids took the news. I know my eldest uncle, Ah Sek, hated him, so it was unlikely they reconciled. With family, it sometimes is very complicated. Kok Leung-suk died of cancer like his fourth wife Ng-Ku, but it was cancer of the large intestine. Quite fitting perhaps because he lived life large and left his shit all over the place. His first wife, Kok Yan-sum attended his wake. Unfortunately, my mom was not around and did not have the chance to meet up with her. They would have so much to talk about and catch up on.
I saw my uncles and aunties more in the subsequent years, often without fail on Chinese New Year. They were, after all, family...even if in an extended and adopted way. We would meet, catch up and then get on with our lives. For me they were one generation ahead so I had little in common with them. With their kids it was the reverse: they were one generation behind. So my relationship with them and their families was somewhere in No Man's Land. That means gatherings can be awkward. Fortunately, after a while, a game of mahjong would save the day.
But for my mom, the fact remains that my eldest uncle is an ingrate (she had supported him until Sec 4), as is my so-called grandma. I wonder why she 'adopted' my mom in the first place when she obviously did not have much love to give. Perhaps their personalities clashed. Or intelligence. Either way, if she had cared a hoot, she should have just let my mom join Kok Yan-sum all those years ago. Wanting ownership of a child is not the same as having one to love.
In Keong Siak Road retired pimps and prostitutes would buy a child to call their own. They did not want to grow old alone. Perhaps my this grandma thought the same, only that she did not expect Ng-ku to pass away so early in her life. In any case, they were sworn sisters, so having joint-custody of Ng-ku's children was a given. Say-ku didn't need to have custody of my mom.
Some of Say-ku's action were downright unfriendly. I remember one time when she was about to change the dining table in her Toa Payoh flat. My mom had told her before to keep the marble top for her. It was still in good condition and marble was something my mom liked. Say-ku instead gave the table-top away to a karung guni man, a stranger. I felt it was rather thoughtless and heartless of her. Was she that "tun"?
On another occasion, after Kok Leung-suk died, he came back in a dream ("wui mong" or returning dream, something that happens during the customary mourning period), and gave her 4-D numbers to buy. Say-ku told her friends about the numbers but did not utter a single word to my mom. When her friends won big on those four numbers (like some $10,000), did you know what they gave Say-ku in return? Only $10 as "cha" or tea money. My mom was so furious upon learning this. She admonished Say-ku: "Why didn't you tell me? If I had won, I would have given you a larger share of the winnings. You really don't have me in your heart." In Cantonese, that would have been "mo ngoh sum".
Just before my uncle Ah Chin died (early of cancer), he told his children the story of how (as a kid) he used to pay Say-ku five cents for an apple. My mom remembers the occasion and had expressed surprise at the time. She had then admonished Say-ku for buying such expensive fruits. She told her it would have been better to buy cheaper and 'share-able' fruits such as watermelon, papaya or even bananas since there were so many siblings. I was also disappointed when I heard that because when Uncle Ah Chin was young, Kok Leung-suk did not quite support the family. Uncle Ah Chin told us he would often return with just $20 or empty-handed from his father's place in Lor 40 after asking for household money.
With Kok Leung-suk's passing, I feel an era had come to an end. He lived at a time when society was still rather chaotic - a time when people largely struggled to make a living. He was certainly a colorful character with his background as an "um pai" and a penchant for many wives as well as the seduction of other people's wives. He certainly left his seed behind.
My uncle, Ah Hin, the one who joined the army, would one day experience that fallout. He bumped into his doppelganger. It was already rumoured that there was someone who looked very much like him in that same army HQ. That person also shared his surname and middle name. Turns out, they were indeed half brothers. What were the odds of that happening?
Stories of men like Kok Leung-suk reminds me of other colorful biographies of folks like Yap Ah Loy from KL, Malaysia and Er Ge Feng (aka as Zheng Yi Feng) of Bangkok, Thailand. Er Ge Feng is seen by many as the patron saint of gambling. I think all their lives make great fodder for TV drama! You know, fiction made real, just like my mom's own fascinating tale.
(It is good to know that recently my eldest uncle had shown contrition and made up with my mom. Maybe the passing of my 'grandma' had something to do with it or that he's getting on in years. It is good to make peace and move on. I also learned in late 2013 that he has been sending my mom a token sum the past months. My mom did help his family settle a $3000 debt when their father, Kok Leung-suk was released from prison (and when he failed to provide the family expense money with his philandering ways). My mom has never asked for these monies back. And they were big sums then.
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Related story 1: Crazy Aunties; Related story 2: A Firecracker Fight