Letter from The Past

An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past

An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past

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.  

Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.

Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.

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.

Yours affectionately,

K.C. Wong*****

*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.

 

 

 

Actions and Consequences

Seated on steps: Peter Wai Mun and Harry Wei Han; their aunt and uncle are seated behind

Seated on steps: Peter Wai Mun and Harry Wei Han; their aunt and uncle are seated behind

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 (left) with friend at a riding party

Peter (left) with friend at a riding party

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.

Peter, still in China, with a young relative

Peter, still in China, with a young relative

Peter with his wife, Hing Yee, 4th daughter Nelly and the first of the male children, William

Peter with his wife, Hing Yee, 4th daughter Nelly and the first of the male children, William

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.

Outside the house in Siang Lim Park, Geylang Lorong 40

Outside the house in Siang Lim Park, Geylang Lorong 40

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.

George and William with their beloved mother

George and William, now working, with their beloved mother

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.