When I was growing up, I thought my father would be around forever. Many of us make this same mistake. I was lucky he was around to see me through some milestones in life. Tomorrow is Ching Ming again. This year, we are praying at Kong Meng San Kark See Monastery, having moved his ashes here three months ago. My father was born in Vietnam, was a soldier. He went to China where he married my mother. They had a daughter, then he came to Singapore to find work. After several months, my mother and eldest sister joined him in Singapore. When I was born, my father was already in his 40s. As we were poor, a large part of my childhood was about survival.
Like many Hainanese, my father was a cook. In addition to his day job, he would also work nights, cooking for private parties. We would wait for him in the evenings. Looking at the distant road ahead, we could spot his bicycle as he turned into the home stretch. There was no telephone at home. By a certain time if we didn’t see him, we would know he was ‘doing night work’. One day as his bicycle turned the corner, we noticed there was blood on his head and hands. He had had a traffic accident. He went to the hospital for stitches but continued working. That was the first time I felt something bad could happen to him.
My father had a temper. He would hit us. There was a strict code of discipline within the household grounded on rules which changed with his temperament. My mother helped out with part-time work at home. She would also lose her cool. The result was a traumatic family in the 60s. We lived with the effects of such chaos. At some point in my twenties, I started to understand the stress my parents were under as new immigrants trying to make ends meet. And I had thought I had a difficult childhood. Until, in a course I took, we were asked to relive our memories as a child. Interestingly, what floated into my consciousness were happy images.
I remembered my father smiling and laughing. He would take us to the movies. I would pray for sunny days because if it rained, such outings would be cancelled. He bought me my first fountain pen, my first wrist watch. I also remembered my father teaching me to read and write Chinese. He was ‘the scholar’ in the neighbourhood. He was the go-to guy when someone wanted to write letters to their relatives in China. In the evenings, he would passionately discuss politics with the neighbours and enthusiastically recite stories from his hometown.
In the 70s, he was older and less angry. We saw more of the man who was our father. My eldest sister met her husband through matchmaking. During her marriage, he gave her away with a wide smile fixed on his face. And I remembered his praises. He praised me for my good performances in school, but most significantly, he praised me for my budding talent in art. He would show my drawings, paintings and metal toolings to friends and relatives. I started to feel his pride in some of my achievements.
In the 80s, after repeated extensions to his retirement age, he stopped working. My sisters put together some money to set up a duck rice shop so that he could fulfil his dream of running his own business. As we expected, he was too anxious, took it too seriously and within months, had his first heart attack. Then he retired for good.
By then, I was the angry one. I would be angry he took a bus instead of a cab. That he walked to the supermarket, crossing several busy roads carrying groceries at his age. When I quarrelled with my brother, he would be helpless trying to stop our fights. I cannot remember when, it must be after his stopped working, when he started collating our family paraphernalia systematically and neatly. These would become an important resource for all of us when we dug into our family history. Old photographs. Letters. Items we thought we had thrown away would emerge carefully bundled in a box.
In 1991, I joined the state broadcaster, the start of my career in media and entertainment. It was also the year I bought my first property. A corner terrace. I wanted my parents to stay in a landed property, what the Chinese called ‘eat wind house’. During the three months of legal transaction for this property, my father passed away from a stroke.
At the hospital the day before, he complained the lights were too bright. I thought the lights were dim. As I left the hospital, I turned back to look at him. His back was facing me. I left without waiting for him to turn around. Early the next morning, we received the call. We rushed to the hospital. While waiting for the lift, I told my mother and brother that I would take the stairs. So I was the first to walk into the hospital room.
Like the movies, my father was covered over by a white cloth. The nurse told me he had died early that morning. The door opened behind me and I turned around to face my brother and mother. My lips were dry and I said, “father has passed away”. My mother started to cry. I helped a nurse who was changing my father from the hospital clothes into his own clothes. I was numb, in a daze, trying to deal with this reality. He was cold with a frozen incomplete expression.
Weeks later, we would find a tape recording by him. Playing from the cassette recorder, it sounded like he was in the room. He spoke of the tough times in China and Vietnam as a soldier. Of his own tough father. Together with the tape, I found press articles of me in a book, pasted in an orderly manner. The dates and details were written in his Chinese handwriting. I also found pictures of my paintings and artworks folded in another book. Even my passport photographs were properly aligned in an album with recordings of the dates they were taken.
My father had a hard life. He was very hardworking, very thrifty, was risk averse, a worrier and a hoarder. It is difficult to describe someone who was your father. He was anxious and quick-tempered. Yet when he was older, he was a picture of calm. Being a cook was just a job for him, it was not a passion. He was protective of the family, in later years we were protective of him.
We can be shy or even ashamed of our parents in some situations when we were younger. My parents were loud, especially my father. I would feel awkward when they spoke at the top of their voices in public. But the horror of my childhood has to be my father cutting my hair! He would cut my hair all through my years in primary school. I used to cry because he would cut it too short and it would take weeks to grow to a decent length. His tools were less than professional, so such episodes could be painful. Like his cooking, he was not a particularly good barber.
On this day before Ching Ming, one image of him, one I have forgotten, shows up again. We didn’t have a TV. We would carry chairs and sat outside a neighbour’s house to watch. My father loved watching TV. On nights he wasn’t working, or discussing loud politics, he was watching TV outside a neighbour’s house. This is the image. My father sitting outside a neighbour’s house watching TV. Transfixed. At times the neighbour would switch off the TV and he would carry the chair back home. When we had our own TV, his favourite programs were wildlife documentaries.
It was unspoken, but there was never a doubt he was a responsible, caring, loving father. He was 77 when he passed on. His name is Woon Sung Keng and I miss him. Especially today.