Knowledge is best gained from experience , and I am blessed that my children get to experience life in very different environments. Once every couple of years, we exchange our city slicker lifestyles in Singapore for a few short weeks with the in-laws in the English West country.
My in-laws settled in the UK over 50 years ago and have been living in Torquay for the last 40. While firmly Chinese (they make their own Char siew, roast duck, fish balls and pau), they’re also very British. MIL Anne is an avid soccer fan, tea drinker and a maniacal gardener. Here’s a preview of just some of the gorgeous blooms in their garden:
Apart from a large front and back garden, they also have a massive allotment at the back of their house. Dating from the first world war, the concept of allotments was to provide plots of land for returning soldiers to grow crops and find means of subsistence. The practice continues today and Anne rents her 1/5 acre plot for about £35 a year. It comes with free water for watering the plants.
My MIL is 76 but she is out at her allotment everyday. She hoes, turns the soil, weeds, and plants everything by herself. She also makes her own fertiliser out of wild comfrey and nettle, as well as ash from cutting back her plants and burning them every year. She also has a large compost bin in the allotment that freaks me to no end because of the family of small adders that live there.
So whenever our family goes over, we turn into farmers, helping grandma with the weeding, planting and pruning. The kids also engage in a healthy dose of DIY as there are always things to be fixed in a household of ageing people. B&Q, the British DIY megastore, becomes our new hangout.
When the work is done, Sean engages in his favourite country pastime, shooting targets with grandpa’s old air rifle.
So when people ask me if I’m going on a holiday, I tell them technically, not really. We won’t be engaging in a frenzied schedule rushing from one tourist attraction to another. We will be going native and working hard at grandma’s, in a very different, and refreshing environment.
This post would be appreciated most by the Tseng clan, but anyone with an interest in old letters and China in the last days of the Qing dynasty may find something in it.
My Uncle Michael (Mike) Tseng faxed me an old letter a few weeks ago. It was dated 1978 and possibly the last letter from a relative still residing in China to our family. It was written by our Grand Uncle, Professor Gordon Kuo Cheng Wong, to Roland Tseng, eldest son of Harry Wei Han Tseng.
The letter sheds a little light on the childhood of Peter and Harry, the forefathers who brought us Tsengs to Singapore. I’ve tried to copy it verbatim so you’ll see some grammatical mistakes (this was not his native language), but bits have faded away and the Chinese characters are garbled.
Bear in mind that when he wrote this, he had been living in Communist China for decades already and correspondence with family and friends outside China would have been limited. It’s long but it is family history, after all:
Peking, March 10, 1978
My dear Roland,
It is indeed a great surprise to me to receive a dear letter from the Tseng’s family. Your brother John’s last letter to me, was about a year ago. I was longing for his answer, but no result. I don’t know the reason and I am intending to write to him, and I get yours.
As relatives, the Wong family and the Tseng family were very closely and intimately related to each other. In the olden days, I and your father lived, ate, drank and slept under the same roof, and went to school together. That was a joyful and delightful memory. It is my duty to tell you your family tree and our relationship. It was so many years ago, and now I am already seventy-five years old and have a bad or poor memory of the past which was so many years ago. But anyway I shall try my best to recollect and to tell you what I can remember (of) the old facts. To begin with, in regard to your family tree. As far as I can remember your great grandfather when I was only three or four years old, I saw him. He was a tall fellow, with a small moustache under his nose and wearing spectacles. At present, I cannot recall his name.* He spoke very good English and was educated in Hongkong. He had a wife and a concubine with six sons and nine daughters. His first son or eldest one was your grandfather (Ho Tung) had a wife and two sons. The eldest son (Wai Mun)** your uncle, you must have seen and his family when you were young in Singapore. The younger son was your father (Wei Han).
Your grandfather was a customs clerk for the Ching dynasty which was controlled by the Imperialist British and other foreigners. The foreign service commissioner, because your father was in ill health, dismissed him. He was out of a job then. So since 1908, he and his family came to Hankow and lived with us and were taken care of by my mother and father. We were getting along very happy and well. Your father and uncle’s education was taken care of by my father*** because your grandfather was out of a job, without any income. Their early education, in the middle school in Hankow was (XX–couldn’t make out the Chinese character) middle school. I and my sisters with your father and uncle went to the same school. Later your father and uncle were graduated from XX school, and they were sent for higher education to Shanghai, St John University, this was also taken care of by my father. While in the University, your father was a good athlete, he was chosen to be the team member of the football and crew varsity team.
In 1914, my father was transferred to Singapore as the Manager of the Bank of Communications, then my family and your family were all sent to Singapore and lived together. Your father and uncle then worked in the Bank of Communications as accountants and ever since your family has settled in Singapore.
In 1919, I as an overseas’ representative, took an examination in the Chinese Consulate office, got the scholarship and entered the Tsing Hua College in Peking. This college was sponsored by the American Boxer Indemnity Fund board and was controlled by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. When I graduated (I was) automatically sent to America for high education. When I went to America in 1926 I entered Oberlin University in Ohio and in 1923 I went to New York to take up graduate study in Columbia University till 1931, then I came back to China and worked in the banks***. After liberation**** I and my family came to Peking and got into the Institute of Foreign Trade, as professor. In 1972, I retired with a monthly pension. Now I live in a suburb in the northern part of Peking.
Your ancestors’ place of origin or native place was the village (Sai Kiu San or Xi Qiao Shan) in the county (Nan Hai) Kwangtung (GuangDong) Province in South China.
Your great grandfather (Tseng Hai) was born in Hong Kong and educated there an once the Consulate-General of Honolulu for several years, after retired he died in Hongkong.
Your father (Harry Wei Han) returned to China twice:
1)In 1925, I was in Tsing Hua College then, so I did not see them. Your father and mother came to Shanghai, to paid a visit to my father and mother and your sixth granduncle and they also visited Hangchow, I was told they had a very good time. Your granduncle had no son, so he adopted your father as his legal son. My father was the witness, and your father was entitled to at least a share of your granduncle’s inherited properties. But after the death of your granduncle, his second wife ran away with the inherited properties, perhaps to Hongkong, nobody knows.
2. In 1932, when he came to Shanghai to attend your sixth granduncle’s funeral, which I did not see him also because I was not in Shanghai then and went for a business trip. So far the above summary, are what I remember now and later if I recall anything regards your family shall write and tell you about it. Good-bye and good luck to you and your family.
*He was referring to Tseng Hai, father of Tseng Ho Tung, my great grandfather
**Wai Mun was my grandfather, Peter Tseng
***I know, the dates don’t add up but that’s what was on the letter
****Notice that he called the rise of the Communist regime “liberation”
*****KC Wong was the son of Tseng Ho Tung’s sister, who married into the Wong family who managed the Bank of Communications.
Some botanists have a weird sense of humour when it comes to nomenclature or their EQs are pretty bad. This came to mind as I was pointing out the names of plants to my kids in a bid to rub some of the city-slicker off them.
Interestingly, a number of these unfortunate plants are often cited as examples in the local primary school Science syllabus.
Yeah, right. Just because it looks like one doesn’t mean you have to call it out. And to think that legions of nonyas use this pretty blue
flower as a dye for their kuih-kuih or bak chang.
Many of us growing up in the 80s and 90s would have seen these in the Science textbooks too. I really can’t remember why these flowers were featured specifically. Probably because they were commonly found throughout Singapore at the time.
Freudians would have a field day with this poor bud I’m sure, given the chance.
Bauhinia Kockiana or Kock’s Bauhinia
My son smirked and the daughter blanched when I told them the name of this gorgeous but luridly-named plant the other day.
So Mr Kock created this hybrid, and I’m sure he’s very proud of it. But for goodness’ sake, how about another more suitable name for this very pretty flower?
My parents were orchid enthusiasts and even today, we still have these most difficult of plants, maintenance wise, in our garden.
Did you know though that the Orchid comes from the greek word Orkhis meaning, ahem, testicle?
Ah well, you learn something new every day.
Puffball or Lycoperdon
There’s also the puff ball, yet another strange organism that appeared in a leading girls’ primary school exam paper as an example for reproduction through spores.
This is a direct translation of the puffball according to wikipedia: The name comes from lycos meaning wolf and perdon meaning to break wind; thus the name literally means wolf-farts.
Uh huh. I’m sure the teachers who set that paper knew this when they created that question.
Finally, plants are not the only ones. Animals too are not spared. I present to you a fine specimen: The Longdong stream salamander or Batrachuperus Longdongensis.
If you really have nothing better to do with yourself, check out http://www.curioustaxonomy.net for more weird and fantastic stories about how plants and animals get their names. It will make for sparkling dinner conversation. I guarantee it.
By the way, as I was googling about botanical nomenclature, I came across this charming description in Home & Garden (http://nwsdy.li/1jfqUhW) of the honourable guy who started it all: “Carl Linnaeus, the father of botanical nomenclature, was considered a pretty rude and offensive guy in his day. His classification of plants largely focused on their similarities to human genitalia and sexuality. Back in the 1700s, he referred to stamens as husbands, and pistils as wives, shocking the community at large. Pretty much, he was regarded as a pervert.”
Nelly was born in 1924, the fourth of a family of nine kids. She was small, rail-thin and frail. Plainer, quieter, gentler and more retiring than her other sisters, you could call her the runty one in the family. The one who would stay home and serve, the one who would not likely marry.
Rosy, born three years later, was vivacious and smart as a whip. She had a formidable memory, and even without the benefit of any schooling had taught herself enough to do simple accounting and book keeping. Less kindly people would have called her calculating because of her strong personality and frank tongue. To me, Seventh Aunty (let’s call her Gu Por as that’s what my children know her as) would have been a brilliant CEO if she had the chance.
My aunts were like chalk and cheese, but they were inseparable, bound by the tiny horizons set upon them as women of that generation and the circumstances in their lives.
Like the heroines in any Jane Austen novel, marriage was the sole ambition of most Chinese women with no education right up to the fifties. Those who did not get the chance to marry ended up as servants, sam-sui women labourers (lady construction workers), hawkers or seamstresses. Otherwise, they ended up as the spinster aunties to be called upon to help with the nieces and nephews of their married siblings.
Breaking out of the mould, to go out into the workforce and to lead an independent life, this would have taken sheer courage and a devil-may-care attitude for a woman with no schooling in those times. Even now, most of my friends would have at least one unmarried aunty or two, and yes, it was and still is usually their lot to look after kids, grand-nieces or nephews and the old ones in the family.
Okay, back to my aunties.
Gu Por had a beau when she was young, a strapping, handsome young man. He was her grande passion. They pledged their hearts to each other and when he went away to America to study, he promised that they would marry when he returned.
And yup, you guessed it. He never returned.
He died tragically in a car crash while in the States. Gu Por’s heart was broken, and from that day on, never looked at another man. Finding a future beyond the family for herself, contemplating a career somehow was never an option or even a consideration. She just turned inward to her family, and thus to her mother, my grandmum, and to Aunty Nelly, who remained while all the sisters married out to larger lives beyond Number 12, Siang Lim Park, Geylang.
My childhood is filled with memories of my two aunts. They were always there in their flowered samfoos. If they were not helping my dad out at our home during the times when mum was in hospital, they were pottering around in the kitchen or sweeping the garden of their pre-war home in Geylang. They used to make little paper monsters for me when I was very little (they had the strangest names – Hood-tutus – must throw in Cantonese accent), and taught us all traditional Cantonese rhymes, cute verses that my sisters and I remember to this day.
Maybe it’s the richness of the Cantonese language, but my aunts also had the absolute best descriptions of people they encountered. Aunty Nelly was particularly adept. A young nephew with fair skin and a sharp nose was “bird-head” and “white board boy”; a skinny man was “Mr shoulders-higher than-ears”; a cousin that hunched was “camel-back girl” and another one “tortoise-boy”. Nobody was immune, everyone was labelled. Forget political correctness and sensitivity. It was not ill-meant and it was just their way. If you had a nick-name, consider yourself lucky. You were family.
My aunts’ little lives revolved round household chores, gossip and the church. Like frogs in wells, they bickered and chafed over the pettiest things. They were complete OCD cleanliness freaks, and I often marvelled how many times they could sweep one floor in a day. Yes, they’d fight over cleaning too, but come end of day, all was forgotten. Umbrellas in hand and rosaries in tow, they would then walk amiably arm in arm together to Queen of Peace church for their daily mass and devotions.
As a child of a luckier generation and the benefits it brings- education, career opportunities, travel and wide, wide horizons, I have often wondered what it would be like if our lives were reversed and I lived the life of my aunts. It is said that those who have more will always want more, and I guess I am no different. One thing I know. I would have totally hated the confines of their tiny worlds.
I do not think they were any less happy than I. They accepted their lot and they gave grace in the fastidious way they tended to the simple details of their day. They have since passed on but the memories of their presence, the Cantonese culture that they passed on have left their mark on me and my sisters. It is part of who we are.
Perhaps that Paulo Coelho adage is true, and one I should constantly bear in mind should I get tetchy and discontented: The simple things in life are often the most extraordinary.
If you see a flowering Angsana tree, those massive, beautiful grand dames of Singapore, stop and take a whiff.
Amazing, right? That smell takes me right back to childhood.
Back then, we had many more graceful Angsana trees lining our avenues. They hardly bloom, but when their vibrant, yellow blooms burst forth after hot, dry seasons, it is a sight to behold. And all around, the unmistakable scent of their blossoms.
Angsanas are now being cut down round the island as they have been deemed as “risky” trees. The fiercer thunderstorms we are experiencing mean that branches could come hurtling down onto roads and cause hurt. That, unfortunately, has resulted in five or more beautiful trees along Old Changi Road near my place, at least 40 years old, being gleefully hacked down to nothing. I suspect that the greedy condo developers have taken the advantage to lop down a few venerable giants too to make way for their crass condos.
To me, it is such an awful waste.
The Angsana blooms last only a day or two so if you catch one flowering, go underneath and take a deep breath. It might be an aroma that you might not get to enjoy for much longer.
It’s Easter weekend and there’s much to be grateful for.
Once again, the pink Amaryllis lilies have bloomed in my neighbourhood. Like clockwork, they never fail to share their beauty once a year during Lent, right through to Easter.
My red Amaryllis also decided to favour us with her brilliance on Good Friday. This is a special flower for the family as I brought the bulbs over from dad’s place when I moved to my new home years ago. When it blooms, I think of dad and I believe that he is not far from me.
It’s also time for Hot Cross Buns, a favourite of mine since my school days in Oz-land. The kids enjoy them too, so while Good Friday is for fasting, abstinence and long church services, Holy Saturday is for baking.
I am no Delia Smith or Martha Stewart and my creations don’t make a pretty picture, but I’m grateful that they’re good enough for thefamily.
Easter is a celebration of light, love, joy, renewal and hope. Here’s wishing everybody light, love, joy and blessings this holy season.
I don’t observe Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day but a coffee chat with one of my oldest friends, V, reminded me of the quirkiness of this Chinese festival that recently took place in early April.
Qing Ming falls on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox. On that day, many Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects and also to give the graves a good cleaning. When I was young, dad used to drive the family, complete with pails, brooms, brushes, detergent and gardening tools to remove stubborn weeds and wash a year’s worth of grime from Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves at the Bidadari cemetery. These visits became less and less frequent with dad’s advancing age. Eventually, they petered out altogether when the cemetery land was reclaimed by the government and the graves all exhumed.
Now most Chinese pay their respects by visiting the niches in the neatly laid out blocks of the various columbariums throughout Singapore. Yes, these are the perils of living in a land-scarce country. Even the dead are relocated to HDB block-equivalents!
V paid her respects during Qing Ming by visiting her late grandparents’ niches. Being the caring eldest grandchild that she was, she went one further. Her grandpa never got to travel in an airplane in his lifetime, so she thought that a little springtime jaunt would be a nice gift to him.
V bought an airplane, complete with air tickets and itinerary, as well as a passport.
All these were purchased at a very reasonable $20. The next step was to make sure he got his gifts. These were offered before his niche before burning.
When V told me what she did during Qing Ming, I just knew I had to share this. It was bizarre, funny but also very, very sweet. Love shows itself in various forms, and I’m sure V’s grandpa would have been very touched by his grand daughter’s loving, filial actions.
Once upon a time in China, there were two brothers, Peter (Wai Mun) and Harry (Wei Han).
Coming from a reasonably illustrious and wealthy family, Peter and Harry were privileged boys. They wanted for nothing and true to Chinese tradition, were spoiled by indulgent family members and servants. They were males, and unlike females who get married out to other families, Peter and Harry would carry on the family name.
Harry was a studious, fastidious young man. When both young men were sent from their hometown in GuangZhou to university in Shanghai, Harry studied hard and passed his Accountancy exams with flying colours.
Peter, on the other hand, was the proverbial firstborn dandy. As the eldest, he was treated as a princeling and given into at every turn. As with the Tsengs of that generation, Peter and Harry were blessed with good looks. Peter, in particular, had the high, scholarly forehead that was the hallmark of the Tseng clan, high cheekbones, the almost aquiline nose, and a pleasant bearing. He was also a great fan of parties and and dance halls, and there was probably not a dance hostess in Shanghai who did not know fun-loving Peter. At home however, he was petulant, short-tempered and used to getting his way in everything. He was also a spendthrift, and spent all his allowances on fine clothes and shoes for the dance halls.
In time, both boys graduated (Peter just about scraping through) and were recruited to work as accountants at the family bank in Hong Kong. Both were match-made with girls from suitable families. Peter got to work immediately, and babies started appearing in quick succession. However, to the disappointment of the family, one girl after another was born, with no male heir. In time, Peter grew disillusioned with his sweet, docile wife who gave him no heirs. To show his disdain, his daughters were not given special names but named after books. They were to have no education, no special treatment. He often left the wife and babies at home and continued carousing at the bars.
Hardworking Harry had his fair share of trials too. His first wife passed away unexpectedly, leaving him bereft and devastated. The family, already alarmed at the lack of male heirs, proceeded post haste to find another wife for Harry. Ever the good son, Harry remarried and was blessed with many boys, seven, to be exact and a very healthy girl. Very early on, like the Book of Wisdom, fortune favoured the wise and industrious, and left nothing for the foolish wastrel.
The lure of business opportunities in the lands of the South China Seas was great and both Peter and Harry were eventually sent to Singapore, with their parents and families, to expand the bank’s operations there. They had a house in Devonshire Road that was big enough to house two families. Unfortunately, Peter’s truculent behaviour and stubborn pride led to a falling out, and he soon moved his family out to a little rental house in Geylang.
Actions beget consequences and the tale of the Tseng brothers is a living legacy that spans a generation.
Peter, you see, is my grandfather.
I never knew him as he died from his excesses even before my dad and mum got married. I would very much have liked to tell a tale of a loving grandpa (Ye Ye) but this is not to be. Everything that I recount here is based on the reminisces of my dad, uncle and aunts. They too, have passed on now, but what struck me is that not one of them had anything nice to say about their old man.
In essence, my Ye Ye’s selfish actions created a life of struggle for his family, and morass of missed opportunities for the children. I’m sure he did not have a mean heart, but an indulgent childhood, a perception that he would be first in all things and a temperament for the finer things in life made him what he was. Harry, on the other hand, stayed to the straight and narrow, and his children and grandchildren grew reap the fruit of his labours. Many of them, whom I am proud to call uncles, aunt and cousins, were and are scions of Singapore. They are leaders in their fields of Medicine, Law, Education, Religion and to this day remain a closely-knit family.
Ye Ye, on the other hand, left the family bank after some years (probably after another falling out) and became a salesman. He continued his partying at the dance halls and what little he earned was spent only on himself. Meanwhile, his neglected, stoic wife struggled, stinged and scrounged in order feed her nine children (seven girls and two boys that were born much later). The family was poor, and the onset of the Second World War made things much worse. The girls did not get the chance to attend a single day of school and the boys made it only to the “O” Levels. Although they were top students, the needs of the family were too great. Both my dad and Uncle William were obliged to leave school to look for work in order to ease their exhausted mother’s load and to feed the family.
Dad used to tell me that they were so deprived when young that there were days when the entire family shared one orange, a treat that they all relished. Looking though his diary as a seventeen-year-old, I learned that dad and Uncle William would walk 20 kilometres weekly to collect rice rations for the family. The bitterness at their father’s actions led to three of the siblings never marrying. My Uncle William vowed never to step into a bar or dance hall because of the misery his dad’s actions had given to his mother and ultimately to the family. As the eldest son, he took on the father mantle and supported the household, remaining a bachelor to the end.
If not for dad’s sheer grit and fighting spirit to make his way in the workforce, my sisters and I would not have the life we enjoyed as children too. Thanks to him, the values of economy and frugality are well ingrained in our psyche, and today, I still balk at paying too much for something that can be had for cheaper elsewhere.
Actions and consequences played out in reality. In my family.
The Straits Times beat me to this post, but it must be newsy enough to make it to our local rag.
Spring has come to tropical Singapore.
We’ve seen the latest depressing UN climate reports (http://bit.ly/1lGYRKz) and the local government machinery has already begun pre-emptive mumblings to the population to expect many dry, hazy days ahead. Singapore’s just experienced it driest first quarter in a century, and we have El Nino and that blasted haze to look forward to. In all that gloom and doom, however, Mother Nature has in recent days given us a respite with a glorious showing of her inimitable raiment.
The rain showers on our parched soil has brought forth a flurry of blooming. Nature is in a bit of a panic, I think, and is going full throttle to reproduce and ensure the continuation of her species. It is not lost on me also that this coincides with Spring time in the temperate zones. Many people I know are jetting off to Japan to see the Sakura. While that is still on my bucket list, I am grateful that we are experiencing the benefits of Spring right here in good old Singapore.
The streets, if one bothers to actually stop smart-phoning to look, are currently festooned with brilliant colour from the flowering trees and shrubs. I give the National Parks Board full marks for planting the very picturesque Trumpet (http://bit.ly/PBQ8vf) and Cassia Fistula (http://bit.ly/1oA9i4H) trees along our Singapore roads. I’m sure these would win hands down if there was a prolific flowering contest.
There’s another side benefit to Spring in the tropics. We also get to enjoy Summer and Autumn treats too. Summer because of the loads of fruit I see ripening everywhere I look. Autumn because the falling tissue-like flowers from the Trumpet Trees, as well as the detritus of the dry leaves from the recent drought have turned sidewalks and parks into seas of pinks, mauves, whites, reds and browns.
I’m not usually one to go on a soap box but this crazy weather makes me fret. We are treating Mother Earth terribly, trashing our only home in a voracious thirst for urban development and all things man-made.
She has been compassionate this time, blessing us with welcome rain and all this beauty. But time is running out, and I’m sure vengeance will be served. I hate to think that perhaps, just perhaps, what I enjoy today, will only be a fond but distant memory for my kids in their senior years.