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.

 

 

 

Simple Lives: The Tale of Nelly and Rosy

Nelly and Rosy Tseng in 1949

Nelly and Rosy Tseng in 1949

This is the tale of two sisters, Nelly and Rosy.

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 in her hey day

Rosy in her hey day

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.

Nelly and Rosy, 1987

Nelly and Rosy, 1987

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.

But. But…

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.