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Broken Bone, Wholesome Spirit

November 12, 2012 4 comments

So I had a whisky infused cake in one hand and a cup of coffee on the other. The right leg had been giving me trouble lately – 3 days to be exact. I was going to call the doctor the next day. The day of the unfortunate event was Hari Raya Haji and a public holiday, so I could not make an appointment.

Alan had taken the dog for his pee-poo and I was alone in the house. The minute I took the small step from kitchen to living room, I knew I was in trouble. To this day, I had no full recollection of what happened. I sort of floated in the air, my right thigh looked kinda spongy, and then I was on the floor staring at the ceiling.

I suppose I must have shrieked – I don’t remember. But apart from being totally angry at myself for the foolishness of taking a step unsupported, given the weak and aching right leg, I really do not recall my reaction. All I knew was I stared at the ceiling, taking note that there were coffee stains there. I knew Alan would be home in just a few minutes, so I sort of composed myself to the wait. I do not even know whether I was in pain or not – I suppose everything had gone numb.

Alan got home, taking his time through the door. One look at me and he said, “Oh no! You’ve broken your leg.” Thank God for his calm. “I have to call an ambulance.”

Now the dog was a major disappointment. I had been reading about ultra sensitive dogs – dogs who would comfort the owners?? Not so with Indie. He headed straight for the cake and gobbled it up before ambling over to check me out. What a dog!

While waiting for the ambulance, the thought in my head which I vocalised was, “Can I walk again?” Alan on the other hand was not worried about that. Instead he kept asking me if I wanted to wear a bra on the outside of my home dress – err yes. I believe in freedom of the breast at home. I thought his concern rather funny – as if I cared about modesty at that stage!

Anita – the neighbour who baked the whisky laden cake, popped her head in.

“What happened?” she asked in alarm.

“It’s your cake,” I answered feebly. Whereupon we both laughed – she convinced I was intoxicated hence the fall. I was told her daughter later scolded her for laughing.

“It’s no laughing matter, mum. Auntie Sophia must have been in great pain,” she admonished her mum.

“But Auntie Sophia started it first,” Anita protested – which was true.

That was the start of a ten-day hospital stay.  My bone broke – a pathological break – meaning cancer had weakened that bone and it finally gave way.

I will not bore you with the details, safe to say that prior to the surgery on Tuesday morning, I was in great pain. There were times when I teared from the sheer agony – especially when they shifted me for the MRI. There were times of fear – wondering if my compromised bones would be suitable for surgery at all. Definitely there were periods of abject self-pity. However, instead of constantly worrying and focussing on the pain, I found ways to cope.

First and foremost, I have God and His grace to thank as I lay there coping. He really strengthened my spirits and because He was and still is constantly by my side, I was able to keep calm and cheerful.

Secondly, I always try to remember that Prov 17:22: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

I thought of things to be grateful for. For a start, I was in New York recently. I was sooooo grateful this did not happen while I was in the States. I was grateful I was not alone when it happened. I was grateful for the super-efficient paramedic team and the wonderful doctors and nurses who attended to me.

I was not trying to trivialise matters when I joked with Anita. It was an attempt to laugh to encourage the production of endorphins – the body’s natural pain killer.

While in the hospital, I made it a point to smile at the nurses, to thank them constantly, to greet the doctors brightly.  I like to be embraced by their smiles and good spirits. These medical professionals see patient after patient – mostly in some form of depression or other. I do not want this sombre mood to surround me – I want the sunshine rays of good cheer. And cheerfulness, I noticed, is highly infectious – they always smile back and even when giving me my medical reports, they do so in good cheer and with encouragement.

Well, I am now back home and recuperating. No weight on my right leg for another 4 weeks. Then there will be physiotherapy to learn to walk again. Stability on right leg will only be possible after ten weeks.

I feel well. I feel blessed. My neighbours cook for me occasionally. They pop by to check on me ever so often. My daughters uncomplainingly assist me, even waking up several times in the night to take me to toilet. My husband tirelessly made ramps for the kitchen and the toilet, assembled a bed and did so many things to make sure I am safe at home. There are many people praying for my recovery.

By the way, people’s care and concern is a privilege, not an entitlement. So even for my daughters, I thank them for their assistance. I want a gracious environment around me, and I recognise it starts with me.

I cannot end without mentioning this bit. When I was admitted, I was examined for other injuries – after all I did fall. They checked my head, my back, my collarbones. There was nothing. I did not even remember any part of my body that was hurt. On reflection, it was as if an angel cushioned my fall, and probably administered some form of divine anaesthetic to ease the pain. How I wish that anaesthetic effect lasted the days before the surgery!

Still I praise the Lord and thank Him for His goodness toward me.

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The Dining Table

One of my favourite childhood memories must surely be that of the dining table at No 10 Loh Boon Siew Rd– Grandma’s house. Ever so often, mum would visit No 10. After all, her sense of filial piety was extremely strong, and her loyalty to family was what made her life meaningful. We usually visited over the weekends. Two of my aunties would invariably be busy in the kitchen, while my first uncle would be in the living room, reading.

I love that old kitchen. It had a terracotta red cemented stove. There were at least 3 to 4 charcoal stoves. It was fascinating watching my aunts manage so many stoves simultaneously. In order not to get in the way, mum and I would sit at the dining table, gossiping with the aunts. Sometimes we would be helping by cutting up vegetables, peeling shallots or shelling prawns.

When grandma was alive, she too would join us. Grandma, to my young eyes, really looked old. Her skin was paper thin, mottled brown and crinkly. But she had a kindly face. I really wished she would pay more attention to me. Beyond the usual pat on the head, however, she would usually just ignore me. What more could I expect? She had 13 children and countless grandchildren. I doubt if she could remember many of our names! Anyway, the aunts all adored grandma, and amazingly for such a stoic Chinese family, showed their affection openly Grandma on the other hand was reticent. She had kindly eyes and exuded a sort of detached warmth. But she hardly spoke. The one time she did speak was when my senile aunt got her incensed. Senile third aunt was being her usual vicious and caustic self, relentlessly scolding 1st aunt and her daughter. Grandma lost her cool and for the first time – and possibly the last, I saw her fury as she berated third aunt. It was quite a shock for me.

Anyway, back to the dining table. It was a nondescript wooden table. On one side was a blackwood bench. That was where grandma usually sat. Stools were placed on all other sides. It was a large table, and could easily seat 10 people. On festive occasions, a huge wooden table top would be placed on it, and then all my uncles and aunts would be seated there for the family meal. It was quite amazing really. Considering the size of the family, sometimes as many as 18 people or more, if all could make it home, would be seated at that table.

I loved that table because it invoked so many memories. It was at that table that I discovered many family secrets. Of all the sisters, mum was possibly the best one at keeping secrets. She certainly believed that dirty linen should not be exposed, EVER. Hence it was only at that dining table, especially when other aunts or older cousins turned up that I would get to hear the juiciest of stories. Stories like how second uncle ended up with 2 wives, mum’s old suitors and more. If cousins were around, there were even more stories – stories of the decadent world. Cousins from 4th Aunt had seen a bit of the world. I think it was Ah Kuen Jie who told us about tiger shows fromThailand .At that time I really did not understand what she meant – especially the part when she described how this Rose could smoke a cigarette under there. No matter how I tried, I could not picture where she could be smoking from! And what did that have to do with tigers? Through all the conversations, Grandma would either just nod, or kept quiet. Yet, it was that sense of being together as a family that infused me with warmth,

Years later, when I was married and living inSingapore, I appreciated yet another dining table – my mother-in-law’s. Every Saturday, my husband and I would try to make it home for lunch. Dad would have driven toKandahar Streetto buy Nasi Padang from Sabar Menanti. Dad certainly hated to menanti (wait in Malay) and would never have been sabar (patient) about it. So it was a special sacrifice for him to make that pilgrimage for the family lunch. On top of that, he would buy lots of limes and lovingly made the best lime juice in the world. It was a meal that the entire family looked forward to – a time to catch up and to spend time together.

Things changed, and after dad passed on, mum did not quite have the same energy to keep Saturday lunches going. While we were still close as a family, we usually ate out when we did get together. It was no longer as regular as before. Then mum got quite ill. We decided that what made mum happiest was when her entire brood, grandchildren and all, could gather for a meal. Since she found it difficult to leave the house, dinner was served back at her home. That started our Sunday potluck dinners. We were not brilliant cooks, but somehow the meals tasted wonderful, just because we were having it together.

Alas, mum passed on in October last year. Still we decided that the family dinners must continue. So many times, once the elders were gone, the family ties got loosened. We were determined to make an effort to still have our meals together. The venue changed. The family home has been sold, and it was time to move on.

Nowadays, Sunday dinners are held either at my home or at my brother-in-law, Ken’s. As we sit and eat, what is memorable is not the food – though our culinary skills have improved! It is just the easy camaraderie we have. Sometimes we get all het up when we talk about politics. Other times, we will be laughing at some our past boo-boos. Then there are the sharing of memories of mum’s and dad’s exploits, or the escapades of Alan, Ken and Jef.

I wonder if that will have to change in the near future. Currently, Ken and I still have dining tables and homes large enough to host everybody. We are both thinking of downgrading. Our children, when their turn comes to buy homes, will probably buy 4 room flats at best – how to afford anything else? Will we still be able to find that all important “dining table”?

As we get older, people in my generation are likely to, as the Minister of Finance suggested, downgrade to studio apartments or 3 room flats. Will this very integral part of the Chinese family life – the family dinner, be rendered a thing of the past? Restaurant food is expensive, and if the meal could not be had at home, then family dinners may well be reduced to the annual Chinese New Year Reunion dinner only.

That will be a sad day indeed.

Categories: Memories, The Dining Table

Hello Mrs Tsang, Goodbye Mrs Tsang

I have written for some time – busy preparing for a wedding, then busy with a funeral. The following was written as i was reminded of what strength mum had in the face of having a son and daughter-in-law arrested under the isa.

The only person I have ever known who laughed, like Santa, with a ho-ho-ho, was chuckling. She was delighted to drink the tea her new granddaughter-in-law served, entirely bemused when her grandson nodded in cheeky approval as his bride pledged submission to his leadership and beamed with pride as the newly weds presented a duet,

Lucky– cover by Jason Mraz. She ate with gusto the entire day, so pleased was she to say hello to the newest Mrs Tsang. As my daughter wheeled her around the restaurant, she waved to her relatives in a queenly manner, certainly no less royal than the Queen herself. She was after all born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth, and must have imbibed some regality.

So imagine my shock when the phone call came early the very next morning, Sunday. 9 October, that she was not well. That afternoon, when I visited her, she held my hands and would not let go. I told her I loved her, and knew the end was near.

I did not know how I would take her passing, for I truly loved her – all of us did. When the end came 3 days later, it turned out that while all of us would miss her, we were all glad that she went peacefully. We were determined to celebrate her life. The first night was supposed to be a quiet affair, since the obituary would only be published the next day. A whole crowd came. We had a time of worship and tributes. The next day, the wake service was hilarious with more laughter than tears. All the grandchildren presented their eulogies – each sharing contained touching moments, and humorous incidents involving their grandma. During the funeral service, it was the turn of the daughters-in-law. Through it all, there was much joy exhibited – a sharing of the life of a person who handed out laughs the way Santa handed out presents. If the services were not held in a funeral parlour, people would never have guessed they were wake services.

What a mother-in-law I had. I was so privileged, so honoured to have had such wonderful in-laws. Casting my mind back to the sharing, I would smile at the words of some, and tear at others. Something that struck me was what my sister-in-law Jenny shared.

“Mum and Dad, by showing so much peace when Kenneth and I were incarcerated under the ISA gave my own parents hope, and helped them find God and the strength that only He could give.”

Yes, mum may have been an ordinary housewife, but even as her heart was broken when her eldest son, to our bewilderment, was taken away, she made it a point not to burden the rest of us with her woes. She encouraged each of us to continue to live as normally as we could, for there was nothing much we could do except trust God. Dad was the same. It must have been extremely difficult for them. On the one hand, they had to suffer the raw pain that this dealt their hearts. On the other hand, there were other children and their careers to think of. The other children and their spouses were all working, in one way or the other, with the government.

Those were difficult years. None of us dared to ask too many questions; we could feel the pain that my in-laws hid in their hearts. We had no clue why Ken and Jen were arrested. We did not know many of the so-called co-conspirators, and as we found out later, Ken and Jen did not know all of them either. It was agonizing to watch them being interviewed on TV – we listened hard, but nothing made sense.

I was reading DPM Rear Admiral Teo’s comments on the need of the ISA. All these years, for me at least, the question was not whether or not there was a need for the ISA. I can even accept the existence of the ISA if it is indeed necessary for the security of the country. However, when such a system is in place, surely there is a chance that the wrong people could be arrested? What then is the proviso to right a wrong? What redress is there for those wrongfully arrested, especially since there will be no public trials? If there is no courage to face our mistakes, no proviso in the event we are wrong, then we do not deserve this blank cheque to put someone behind bars without trial.

Yes, we are family members and obviously we believe in Ken and Jen’s innocence. After so many years, we still have no concrete evidence otherwise. While mum and dad carried their unanswered questions to the graves, many ex-ISA detainees are still alive. Were they really guilty? To tell us that there was a need to put away what were perceived as security threats is one thing, but if there were mistakes made, should not an apology, at the very least, be made? Or are we always perfect?

Frankly we have moved on. The generation below us did not even know this part of the family history until recently, when social media brought this to the fore. To receive answers now will make very little difference to our lives. Answering the questions, however, will give credibility to the people who are advocating the continuance of the ISA. It will assure the people that moral transparency is practiced.

To my mother-in-law’s credit, whatever pain she bore, she did not allow it to affect the lives of those around her. Apart from shouting death threats at Serena Williams when she wanted her to lose, she showed no visible bitterness. That is the way we Tsangs live, by the grace of God, and by her example. We will try to walk in her footsteps, continue to laugh and love, to leave bitterness aside.

Goodbye Grandma Tsang. May all the other Mrs Tsangs make you proud and continue your tradition of strength and joy.

Life with Fourth Aunt

I spent a year living with fourth aunt and her family. I was six years old then.

mum, sei yee, yee cheong and tong kor kor

Of all the aunts, I think mum was closest to fourth and sixth aunt – hardly surprising since she was no. 5. My aunts were real characters. Sixth aunt told me she ran away from home to pursue her own life and career, and only returned much later. I must ask my cousins the details when I next see them.

Fourth aunt married fairly early – as was the tradition then. According to my cousin from 2ndaunt, fourth aunt was fierce, and she was terrified of her. To me, though, 4th aunt was aloofly warm – if you can understand what I mean.

The thing I remember best about her was her fabulous cooking. Of all my aunts, I think sei yee (Cantonese for 4th aunt) was the best and most natural cook. She worked magic with all her dishes. I remembered helping out in the kitchen, pounding spices with the pestle and mortar – and often shooed away from that post cos I was not strong enough to get the consistency she wanted. My eyes would tear from peeling shallots, my fingers would swell from being poked by prawn feelers, or burn from cutting chillies.

Sei yee worked every dish from scratch. Watching Australian Junior Masterchef, I wish I had the sense to pick up her cooking skills, rather than simply obeyed instructions like a brainless kitchen helper. I could have been a brilliant cook too!

The kitchen smelled divine, with the various curry pastes. Each meal took hours to prepare, and since we neither had gas nor electric stove, the kitchen was often smoky. The task I loved the best was fanning the coals till it burst into flame. I guess there is an arsonist in the soul of every child!

We owned no fridge, so going to the market was a daily affair. When I did not have school, it was quite fun to go with my aunt. It was always noisy and very happening with all sorts of stalls, from selling trinkets, to all manner of street food.

chickens in a basket for sale

Eating chicken was a treat, and whenever we bought chickens, sei yee would thrust her hand into a basket, grabbed a chicken and pressed at its ribs to test its fleshiness. Then the chicken seller would slit the throat, drained the blood into a bowl and threw the bird into a drum-like device. A few swirls later, a de-feathered chicken would appear. Such magic!

Of all my cousins living at home, I was closest to Ah Kuen jie jie. She was attached, but not yet married, and stayed home rather than worked outside. The two of us were sei yee’s main kitchen slaves.

One of my most vivid memories was when Ah Kuen jie jie was tasked to slaughter a chicken. Occasionally, we had one or two chickens in the backyard – either gifts from some visitors who reared them, or bought early for some festival, since the market would be closed during the time. In any case, my cousin was quite squeamish about slaughtering the chicken by herself – usually sei yee did that on her own. If I remember correctly, auntie was not home. My cousin simply could not bring herself to catch the chicken and slit its throat at the same time. My memory gets a little hazy here, cos it was a traumatic affair. I seem to recall one of us saying it was cruel to pin the chicken down and then kill it. We should let it have a chance to escape death (how ridiculous! As if sei yee would ever let it live!). So I vaguely recall ah Kuen jie jie running after the chicken a chopper in hand, both of us giggling hysterically. Somehow or other, she managed to chop the head off. But the chicken kept running round and round still. By that time my laughter had turned into terrified tears.

mum, ah yuet jie, 9th aunt, ah kuen jie, yee lin, ah hing jie, suet lin, chee chong, yee cheong, 1st uncle

I do remember my other cousins too. Ah Yuet jie jie was married, and always looked beautifully glamorous whenever she visited. Her husband played the Spanish guitar beautifully. Sometimes he would bring it with him, and I would just sit there and gawk. Ah Hing jie jie worked in a bank – and she drove a little car to work. She stayed at home but I barely saw her since she worked on the mainland, and spent most of the day away.

As for my male cousins, I remember the youngest one the best. He was in secondary school and very athletic. He spent a lot of time playing with the neighbourhood boys. Sometimes my auntie would get so exasperated at his disappearance that she would go in search of him, cane in hand. When she spotted him, she would first shout, then prepared to hit. Ah Tong kor kor was an athlete, and many a time I would see him run in the front door, and out the back, with my slightly portly, not too young auntie huffing and puffing after him. Ah Kuen jie and I would stifle our giggles for fear of turning sei yee’s wrath on us instead!

Yummy Penang Char Kuay Teow

Sei yee taught me to be independent. At six, I was often tasked to go to the shops, on my own, to buy things she needed. I had to buy spices, or bread, or even to buy coffee from the nearby shops. She made sure that there was no crossing of road, since the road in front of the house was very busy. The sar hor fun and char kuay teow stalls however were across the road. So whenever she wanted to buy those, I had to walk till I was immediately across the road from the stall. Then I had to shout my orders at the hawkers. If you find my voice loud, you now know the reason why! Still, I was too young to be embarrassed, and the yumminess of the food made me quite eager to obey actually.

Living with sei yee was a blast. I just saw some of her children when I went up toPenanglast week. It brought back so many memories.

I may not be rich or famous, but I certainly had a varied and interesting life.

Those were the days – Kindergarten

Kindergarten Ayer Itam Penang

Looking through my old photo albums, I found one taken outside my kindergarten. It was obviously the last day of school. I finally appreciated the banana trees and such. Oh it brought back such memories. Backwoods memories.

I did mention in an earlier post that I was looked after by a nanny. When it was time for me to go to kindergarten, I was moved out of her house, and moved in with my 4th Aunt. My parents were working, and could not manage my schedule. Life with 4th Aunt was really something – a real blast. But that is the subject of another story.

My kindergarten was located in a little kampong like area, one main road and some back lanes away from my auntie’s house. I vaguely remember the first day of school. I was warned by my mum, and my aunt that only little babies cry. I was a big girl, and should be brave about going to school. Actually I was quite excited.

Now you must understand that I was more or less brought up by an uncaring nanny. My mum was Cantonese – so I spoke Cantonese very well. Dad was Teochew, but unlike mum had no relatives in Penang. So I spoke no Teochew. My parents communicated in mandarin, so my spoken Mandarin was passable. Nanny was Hokkien, so I could manage that too. Kindergarten however had all classes in English – a totally foreign language to me.

All my life I knew myself as 方雪 亮。Dad was very proud of my name. All my other relatives called me by my nick name, in Cantonese intonation – Liang Liang. On the first day of school, I was herded into the living room of this old, wooden cottage like house. It was strange to see so many children and their mamas. My aunt hung around outside the room, just keeping an eye on me. There were so many crying children. I just could not understand why they were crying. I suppose they were mollycoddled by loving mothers their entire life, whereas I had been pretty much left on my own by my cheroot smoking nanny. I think I must have stared and gawked for the longest time.

Then came roll call. Teacher was trying to take attendance. When it came to me, she cried out, “Hng Sok Liang.” I totally ignored her. I suppose when roll call was over, the only girl left standing was moi. She came to me and told me, “How come you did not recognize your name, Hng Sok Liang?” I think she must have spoken in Hokkien cos I could understand her. I retorted indignantly, “That’s not my name. My name is方雪 亮. She shook her head in utter exasperation!!

I have to take a short deviation here. While I could not manage English, my husband could not handle Chinese. For him, Chinese class was a nightmare. He had English educated parents and studied in St Andrews – double whammy! I think he said that whenever the Chinese teacher did a roll call, he would look around anxiously to see if anyone else identified with the name. If not, he would sheepishly put up his hand and hope he was right on the money.

Anyway, kindergarten was a blur. The only thing I was passable at was Arithmetic – since it required little knowledge of English. I could not read a word. I could not speak any more than a smattering of the language. I did not have any story books of my own – we could not afford them. While my cousins could speak English – they were so much older than me that to them I was a little pest, worth nothing more than to be ignored, or teased – depending on their moods. Somehow, I plowed through that year – did not have many friends, did not have the favour of my teacher cos I was too big to be cute and not bright enough to be noticed.

The only excitement I had during that year was crossing the main road. Sometimes my auntie was too busy to walk me all the way to and from school. There was only one main road worth worrying about. She would stand at the pavement just outside the door, and then commanded me to cross when it was safe. Then I would run across the road, and skipped along the back lanes to the school, sometimes fending off some fighting cocks – fearful creatures those, and the occasional stray dog. Coming back was even funnier. I would walk all the way, stopped in the pavement opposite my aunt’s house. If she had not appeared yet, which happened once in a while, I would have to shout for her above the din of the traffic and to the annoyance of the house owners. They must have very sharp ears, for almost immediately, either my stay at home female cousin, or my aunt would appear, and then gave the command to cross.

Life was simple and so good. Looking at the picture confirmed what I told my children. I was tall for my age. I wonder what happened to me. How did someone who was rather tall then end up being such a midget?