Lee Kuan Yew: Not the Leader, but the Man

Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015, photo from The Straits Times
Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015, photo from The Straits Times

The mourning for Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed. This week, as we go back to our daily duties, I wonder if we will continue with the status quo.  Already, the naysayers are slowly coming out of the woodwork and populating social media, bringing up the negative aspects of LKY’s legacy to provide balance to the overwhelming positive tributes of the local media in the first seven days following his death. I suspect the literary juices of many will continue to flow: The Man, his policies, history, personal life, public life, the good and most definitely the bad – all these will continue to be dissected and covered in minutiae.

What really touched me, however, was how we Singaporeans reacted. Watching the emotional eulogies at Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral service that was broadcast live on TV, I was surprised at the depth of feeling that we displayed at his passing.

100,000 people came in the rain to bid LKY goodbye
100,000 people came in the rain to bid LKY goodbye

Last week, emotionless, sterile, robotic Singapore came together in a beautifully touching show of grief and solidarity that has never, ever happened in this young nation’s history. Our apathetic hearts thawed when we saw Lee Hsien Loong barely hold it together as he fought back the grief of a son, to deliver the message of his father’s passing, as Prime Minister.  Then over the days, we read the stories of LKY’s deep, abiding love for his wife, stories of his immense frugality, the random acts of kindness, and that unwavering sense of duty to his country.

We saw the tremendous queues at the Padang as State funeral for Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yewalmost half a million Singaporeans patiently waited up to 10 hours to pay their respects to LKY at Parliament House. We saw the millions of heartfelt notes, tributes, flowers and tears. We saw the 100,000 people lining the procession route as they came to bid the Man farewell.

I am a daughter of Singapore. I have known LKY all my life. Every Singaporean of my generation has. For the first 20 years of my life, LKY was Prime Minister and he was my other father. Just as strict, he was always telling us Singaporeans what to do, who we should marry if we were graduates or not, if we should stop at two children or have three, not to litter and definitely not chew gum. Some of his policies and laws bordered on the draconian, but if you tried to stand up to him, be ready to get smacked down. Many of his opponents, real or perceived, were swiftly removed and put away under the Internal Security Act.

Lee kuan yew pictures10_0_1“If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.” The Man and His Ideas, 1997

Even after giving up the reins as PM to Goh Chok Tong, we could feel the long arm of papa LKY. He was a punishing taskmaster and ruthless in his goal of building a first world Singapore. His exacting requirements and attention to detail were legendary. Friends in the diplomatic service and media pool would tell me of the feverish preparations they would make before meeting the Man, for anything short of perfection would be a mortal sin and they would have been roundly chastised.

It was said that Deng Xiao Peng used Singapore as a case study in modelling Chinas economic reforms
It was said that Deng Xiao Peng used Singapore as a case study in modelling Chinas economic reforms

Before his death, LKY, to me, was a superhuman. A man that I greatly respected from afar but with no deep emotional attachment. After all, he was a demi-God operating in another sphere, too far beyond the reach of mere mortals like me. Generations of leaders from the US and China sought his advice, for heaven’s sake. I suspect, like most Singaporeans, we were lulled into complacency that LKY would live forever.

Didn’t he famously say at a National Day Rally in 1998: “And even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

But the inevitable happened, the demi-God died.

lee-kuan-yew-funeralThe pathos and outpouring of grief that followed is perhaps a reflection of the foibles of human nature. we had come to realise last week that we had lost a living hero of our time. One that we had not truly appreciated enough. We cried because through the many beautiful stories and anecdotes that have been shared, we had now come to realise that this demi-God was actually one of us.

convent girlsLKY’s youngest son, Hsien Yang, nailed it in the final eulogy of the service. “And although he kept the two threads of his private and public life apart, and shielded Mama and the children from the glare of the media, in his passing, the two threads come together as we share the grief of loss.”

As a communications professional, I know of the power of stories, but reading the personal anecdotes of people who have interacted with LKY have really touched me, and I suspect many other Singaporeans. We saw facets of the Man that we were not privy to before. As a tribute, here’s a compilation of anecdotes, quotes and excerpts of LKY, not as the feisty leader, but as a father, husband and friend:

The Love Story

lky-bridge-2503eEven his children did not know that LKY had secretly married his sweetheart, Kwa Geok Choo, in Stratford-Upon-Avon when they were both reading Law at Cambridge. This was only revealed when he published his memoirs. Their love spanned 60 odd years.

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Eulogy: “They were a deeply loving couple. She was his loyal spouse and confidante – going with him everywhere, fussing over him, helping with his speeches, and keeping home and hearth warm. They were a perfect team, and wonderful parents. When my mother died, he was bereft. He felt the devastating loss of a life partner, who as he said had helped him to become what he was.”

File photo shows Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee and his wife Kwa attending a May Day rally in SingaporeLee Wei Ling, daughter of LKY: “… over the years, especially after my mother’s health deteriorated after she suffered a stroke, my father was the one who took care of her. She clearly indicated she preferred my father’s care to that of the doctors’, in itself a revelation of the quality of his care.

He remembers her complicated regime of medications. Because she cannot see on the left side of her visual field, he sits on her left during meals. He prompts her to eat the food on the left side of her plate and picks up whatever food her left hand drops on the table.

I have always admired my father for his dedication to Singapore, his determination to do what is right, his courage in standing up to foreigners who try to tell us how to run our country. But my father was also the eldest son in a typical Peranakan family. He cannot even crack a soft-boiled egg – such things not being expected of men, especially eldest sons, in Peranakan families.

But when my mother’s health deteriorated, he readily adjusted his lifestyle to accommodate her, took care of her medications and lived his life around her. I knew how much effort it took him to do all this, and I was surprised that he was able to make the effort.

lkyvalentineLKY at his wife’s funeral: “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life… I should find solace in her 89 years of a life well lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.”

lky wife funeral

LKY’s wishes addressed to his children: For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

Total Commitment to the End:  LKY’s Red Box

This was publ20150324_redbox_mciished in The New Paper: Mr Lee Kuan Yew always had a little red box with him at work. The box would arrive at work before the man and he would bring it home with him after work. The red box, a large boxy briefcase about 14cm wide, was a hand-down from the British days, when ministers would use them to transport documents between offices. Singapore’s early ministers all had red boxes as well, but Mr Lee was the only one who continued using his 50 years on, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat recounted in a Facebook post. Mr Heng worked for Mr Lee as his Principal Private Secretary from 1997 to 2000.

Mr Lee’s box contained a wide range of items, including his draft speeches, letters, readings, and a whole range of observations, reflections and questions that he had scribbled down. Mr Heng wrote: “It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway.”Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.”

He added: “Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.”

Even when Mr Lee was in hospital in 1996 to for balloon angioplasty to insert a stent, he asked his security officers for his red box – soon after regaining consciousness and sitting up in the hospital bed.

Mr Heng said that the red box symbolised much of his former boss’ “unwavering dedication to Singapore”.

“The diverse contents it held tell us much about the breadth of Mr Lee’s concerns – from the very big to the very small; the daily routine of the red box tells us how Mr Lee’s life revolved around making Singapore better, in ways big and small.”

Mr Lee was admitted to hospital on Feb 5. He continued to use the red box until Feb 4.

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat: “As his PPS (Principal Private Secretary), I saw the punishing pace of work that Mr Lee set himself. I had a boss whose every thought and every action was for Singapore. In fact, I think the best description comes from the security officer who was with Mr Lee both of those times. He was on Mr Lee’s team for almost 30 years. He said of Mr Lee: “Mr Lee is always country, country, country. And country.””  

Frugal LKY

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has said that one key lesson he learnt from Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew was on frugality, something that he exercised both personally and in Government.

shortsHe said: “His exercise shorts for example – for 17 years he wore the same shorts. And when it tore, he patched it up, or his wife patched it up for him. That is the man. And he was very careful with Government money in the same way because it is your money.”

Lee Wei Ling on LKY’s frugality: We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.

My father’s frugality extends beyond lights and air-conditioners. When he travelled abroad, he would wash his own underwear, or my mother did so when she was alive. He would complain that the cost of laundry at five-star hotels was so high he could buy new underwear for the price of the laundry service. 

LKY, The Friend 

The Tale of Four Powerful friends

ST-Lee Kuan Yew & Henry Kissinger
LKY with Henry Kissinger

Once they were powerful. Dreaded. Admired by many, hated by some. Their lives are coming to an end. Yet, there is still one story to tell, the story of a friendship. It is about four men who cannot be more unemotional. Helmut Schmidt, Lee Kuan Yew, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz: cool, if not cold, power-hungry politicians. Yet, for more than forty years their friendship has been close, almost intimate. Now they are slowly saying their farewells to each other.

ST-Lee Kuan Yew & Helmut Schmidt
LKY and Helmut Schmidt – their last meeting

Singapore, at the beginning of May, conference room “White Magnolia” at Shangri-La Hotel. Helmut Schmidt wanted to meet with Lee Kuan Yew, the founding premier of the Asian metropolis, for the last time. He has not looked forward to a trip for a long time as much as this one to see “Harry”, how Lee Kuan Yew has been called among his friends since he was a student at Cambridge in England. From Singapore he will be travelling to China for five days, also a long-cherished wish.

Schmidt is 93 years old. Who would still go on a 15-hour trip from chilly Hamburg to hot and humid Singapore at that age? In March, his doctors gave green light: the thrombosis he is suffering from does not prevent him from flying.

Lee, 89 years old, wrote to him to say how happy he was about the visit. Also, that his friend would need some rest after arrival, at least one night, to overcome the jetlag. The next evening he would invite him to dinner.

Afterwards, they want to sit down together on three afternoons, to talk with each other. About China, America, Europe – the big picture, in the way they always used to do. A book shall be produced, a collection of their conversations on the world’s situation. Neither would accept anything less.

And then the conversation begins very softly. “My wife passed away and left me at the age of 91”, says Helmut Schmidt. “Loki died at 91?” – “Yes, it was a big loss. Must be the same for you.” – “Yes, it creates a deep hole in our life, nothing can fill it.”

Excerpt from article by Matthias Nass, Article in Zeit Magazin (5 July 2012)


Squatting By the Sea

It’s F1 weekend and the jetset are in town for some vroom.  With the impressive line-up of after track entertainment, Singapore’s all geared for some hedonistic partying in and around the deluxe tents set up along the circuit.

But just a few kilometers down along the ECP, there are tents of a very different variety.

photo 2 (16)Primary schools were closed today for the PSLE, so I went for an early morning beach walk with Megan. As we passed the usual joggers and aunties practicing qi gong, I pointed out the “permanent tents” set up on the beach to the daughter.

At first glance, you’d think that these are weekend campers but a closer look tells another story. The tents have an added sheet of tarpaulin to prevent wear and tear and trolleys bearing all manner of household items are parked alongside. An assortment of chairs are strewn haphazardly around the area and clothes recently washed at the East Coast Park toilets flap happily on lines strung up between coconut trees.

Welcome to Singapore’s “squatters”.

photo 1 (1)From newspaper reports, these are believed to be individuals displaced by divorce or bad times. With nowhere to go or stay, they have set up permanent camp by the sea. Campers generally need permits that are valid for a few days, but these are very obviously staying for longer. I saw a whole family that had parked their tents conveniently by a park gazebo, the stone benches turned into make-shift tables bearing newspapers, deck chairs, pots, bikes, canvas bags of clothes and I-don’t-know-what. You know, the kind of stuff you’d normally find in a well-lived home.

In the toilets, I see the families washing their clothes and utensils. Others are sleepily brushing their teeth. One of them turns to glare at me, silently accusing me of invading her private bathroom when I go in to wash my hands.

This weekend, Singapore will turn on the glitz to show the world her shimmering beauty. Just don’t look too hard under that glamorous veneer though. You might see a non-too-pretty underbelly beneath.

Selamat Hari Raya

The great thing about living in a multicultural society is that you get to enjoy the festivals and gastronomic delights of the various races. One celebration I look forward to is Hari Raya or Eid, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

I have utmost respect for the Muslims during Ramadan. I can’t diet to save my life (to me that’s the ultimate torture) so the thought of fasting from dawn to dusk without water or food for a whole month is completely herculean in my book. It must make their celebrations at the end of Ramadan all the sweeter after such a sacrifice.

Hari Raya at Nenek's
Hari Raya at Nenek’s

During the day, the makciks in my ‘hood cook up a storm to prepare for the feasts that occur at sundown when the Muslims “buka puasa” or break their fast. There are a number of Muslim families that live along my road and the smell of rendang, satay and baking cookies in the days leading up to Eid is mouth-wateringly tantalising. If we’re lucky, the neighbours next door would pass over a basket of kueh, dates and cookies so that we can break the fast with them too. Yums.

Hari Raya is special because I get to visit the Nenek up the road for some truly authentic Malay cuisine. Nenek and her helper, Fatimah, were my first friends when I moved to Bedok, and they have always welcomed me and my family. Nenek speaks no English and my Bahasa Melayu is probably limited to 50 words but we have a wonderful thing going.  Nenek, like all proper makciks,  has a well-stocked spice garden at her place. So whenever we’re out of lemongrass (serai), lengkuas or limau purut (kaffir lime) for cooking, we will run up the road to Nenek’s to grab some. Yep, it’s a real kampung, my ‘hood!

Whole roasted lamb in a bed of briyani goodness
Whole roasted lamb in a bed of briyani goodness

This year’s celebration was an orgy of feasting. First stop, my mum’s neighbours. The Alsagoffs are a venerable Arab family in Singapore, and each year, Hari Raya is celebrated in style at their home complete with marquee, hotel-style buffet spreads of Arabian and Malay cuisine, including a whole roasted lamb resting on a bed of briyani rice. Stomach groaning, we then make our way back to Bedok to Nenek’s for round two.

Hari Raya Goodness at Nenek's
Hari Raya Goodness at Nenek’s

Nenek is 82, but still whips up a mean Serondeng and her home made ketupat is the real deal. Fatimah has picked up all the culinary skills from Nenek and the meal they have waiting for us has been a week in the making: Apart from all the kuih-kuih, there’s Rendang, Masak Kicap, Sambal Goreng, Sambal Tumis, and of course Lontong. Fatimah tolds me that she slept about four hours in the last 48 preparing the food for Hari Raya.

I must have put about about 5 pounds in the last week, but I comfort myself that it’s only once in a while that this happens. Selamat Hari Raya!

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.




Easter Blessings

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.

Easter lilies

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.

photo (11)
Lemon cupcakes and very amateur hot cross buns


Of Qing Ming and Aeroplanes

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.

An Airbus 380, no less, for V's Grandpa
An Airbus 380, no less, for V’s Grandpa

V bought an airplane, complete with air tickets and itinerary, as well as a passport.

Air Tickets & itinerary for the afterworld
Air Tickets & itinerary for the afterworld
Passport for the dead, very authentic except for the typo!
Passport for the dead, very authentic except for the typo!

 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.

photo 4 (1)

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.


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.





Singapore Spring

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 Imagedepressing 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.

photo (7)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 AutumnImage 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.

A neighbour’s luscious mangoes

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.

Kedongdong or Buah LongLong fruit

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.

Chinatown Blues

A few days ago, I brought mum to Chinatown because she had a hankering for an old family favourite – Soya Sauce Chicken Noodles at Chiew Kee Nphoto 2 (1)oodle House on Middle Road.

Going to Chinatown every couple of months or so is a family tradition. When I was little, a holiday treat would be to trundle in a bone-shaking public bus with my Uncle William to Chinatown. There we would order Hainanese Beef Noodles, Dim Sum or Chicken Rice, followed by my most-loved desserts of iced jelly or sesame and almond paste.

After lunch, we’d traipse through the streets to visit the antique shops. Now these are not the new-fangled tourist traps that you see today on Pagoda Street, hawking wares in artfully decorated surroundings that seem sadly identical and wanting.  The antique shops of the seventies and eighties were musty dark caverns that looked more like junk repositories. There were shelves upon shelves or treasures, jammed together all higgledy-piggledy, and only the stout of heart would rummage through the rusty and oxidising chaos to find something worth buying.

I loved those shops.

While my uncle nattered on to the invariably Cantonese shop owners, I would be picking through the pieces and letting my imagination run wild. Over here, a little traditional iron that used hot charcoal instead of electricity (at least 90 years old), there a pair of tiny slippers for bound feet, and over there a whole shelf dedicated to elaborate Chinese teapots. I could spend hours in those shops, but indulgent Uncle William would only let me linger for about 15 minutes before marching me to Tai Tong, the venerable Chinese bakery famous for its Mooncakes, to get egg tarts and other pastries for the family.

Chinatown is an indelible part of my childhood and even my working life. For a number of years, the ageImagency that I work with was based in a shophouse on Pagoda Street. It was a beautiful office, complete with polished wood floors, loft and skylight. And when it came to lunch time, we had all the variety of foods we could wish for just downstairs. The Kopitiam across the street sold the best kopi in the world – according to my based-in-California VP. Two streets away, we had Kreta Ayer hawker centre, boasting hundreds of stalls selling many local hawker faves. Round the corner was Lim Chee Guan, producers of Singapore’s best bak kwa, or roasted sweet meat. As such, my family has developed a taste for only the best. To this day, it is a standing order from my son that I buy a kilo of Lim Chee Guan’s roasted yummies whenever I make a foray to Chinatown.

Back to Soya sauce Chicken noodles. While walking with mum down Middle Road, I noticed a few empty shops. These used to house Chinese Medicine stores, the kinds that would feature every appendage of every endangered animal known to man. Okay, while it’s good that there are a few less shops dealing in the cruel and profane, I was sorry  to see the forlorn, abandoned spaces. There was nothing now. While eating our delectable noodles that cost only $3.50, I asked the lady boss why the shops had closed down. What she told me saddened me, confirming that Singapore is indeed becoming the most expensive city in the world.

Rentals. At $19,000 good ones per month, how many plates of $3.50 noodles would she have to sell? She complained that it would only be a matter of time before she throws in the towel. Just three streets away, another street hawker had the same grouse. At close to $4,500/month just for a cart, she’d have to sell a whole lot of key chains and chopsticks just to cover the rent.

After 68 years, Chiew Kee still stands strong, but for how long?

I am afraid that soon, all my beloved eating haunts will be going the way of the dodo. This is not just in Chinatown. The same issue of high rentals is forcing all the good, true-blue local eateries to hang up their woks and spatulas. To foodie Singaporeans, this is a tragedy, but to me, greedy landlords and the economic machinations of our city-state will inevitably chip away at our heritage, and what makes us authentic and uniquely, Singapore.

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