It’s very hard for me to write about my father. He died almost 20 years ago but I still find it difficult coming to terms with how I felt about him when he was alive. My behaviour towards him was mostly correct, most of the time. But there were times when I showed a lack of respect by responding rather curtly to his remarks. I seemed to always have this uncomfortable feeling of resentment towards him.
A few years ago my family took in an old and sick uncle so he could die with family around him at our home instead of alone in his flat. He had some mental issues, never married and lived like a hermit. He wasn’t well-liked and it was convenient for everyone to just leave him alone. It seemed the right thing to do to take in a lonely and sick old man so he could die with some dignity, which was why my wife and daughters ganged up on me to take him into our home. But I only agreed to reluctantly. I didn’t exactly relish the idea of having to care for someone I didn’t particularly like, but my ambivalence had more to do with my feelings toward my father who died about a dozen years earlier. It’s strange and unsettling, but somehow, I felt I was treating someone I didn’t like better than I’d treated my own father. It was as if by being kind to a sick old man I was betraying my father because I had not been kind enough to him while he was alive. I know, it’s bizarre.
What I know about my father are bits of information picked up from my grandmother and others through many years, and pieced together in some coherent fashion. I never did ask my father about his family or about himself, and he never offered to tell me. So, this is what little I know.
My father was born (1917) and raised in China during a time of great turmoil and upheavals. His family was relatively wealthy and he was well educated – I know that from the responses of people when I wrote down my Chinese name (in Chinese). They always said, “the person who gave you this name must be a highly educated person.” Apart from being able to have a good education, what told me that his parents were wealthy people was what happened to them when the communists came to power in China (1949). As the communists approached his village, my grandparents took their own lives; it was common knowledge then that landowners and other rich people would have had to face the judgement of the peasants, and many were lynched.
My father must have already left his home in China by then. He left behind a wife and two sons whom he would never see again for the next 40 – 50 years (I came to know about this other family when I was in my teens). I can only guess that his siblings fled China as well although he had no blood relatives in Singapore or Malaya as far as I know. However, I did know he had a sister in South Vietnam – I found that out when he visited his nephew in a holding area in Singapore for refugees awaiting repatriation to a third country. He was one of the boat people who escaped from Vietnam after South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.
My father left China with millions of other Chinese men escaping war and starvation. Each man dreamed of finding his fortune overseas and returning home to his family after a few years. Often, the few years turned to decades, or forever, as the path home became impassable for various reasons. Many started new families in the new lands. My father married my mother in Singapore soon after the Japanese surrendered in WW2. He must have been close to thirty and she was just sixteen; her mother thought it was fortunate she found her a good husband at a time when life was hard and food was scarce. Birth control wasn’t well known or practised and large families of eight to ten children were pretty common. My mother had five children before she died of cancer at the tender age of twenty seven. After my mother died, my father married again and had another two daughters and a step son.
Growing up, for much of the time my father did not leave for work in the morning and return home in the evening like regular fathers. My mother died when I was four and I couldn’t remember much of anything except that we lived in a large wood and attap house with our grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. My father worked for a soft drink company and he was managing an outlet in what was then Malaya. A few years after my mother died, he got married again and we moved to a house of our own (this one was made of bricks and had a red tiled roof and there were flush toilets!). Soon after, my father went to prison for eighteen months for embezzling some money – I guess his income didn’t quite match his new lifestyle. When he was released he used his knowledge from his previous employment on a business venture. That failed, so he hooked up with some people and took up deep sea commercial fishing. Unfortunately, on his second or third trip when they were somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the crew was arrested by the Indian Navy which accused them of spying and threw them in jail. It was during the time when India was having some border problems with China and the Indians thought they were spying on military installations in the Andaman Islands.
When the charges were dropped and he was released from the Indian jail, he came home and tried producing soya sauce in a rented house. The stress of financial and absentee problems finally got to him and his wife. They broke up and my siblings and I moved back to the house of my grandparents. I didn’t know where my father went but he came back every now and then to look in on us and give us some pocket money. I think I was twelve or thirteen then, so I guess a lot happened in the few short years. My siblings and I didn’t get to see him very much, but the times must have been very hard on such a proud man like himself.
So until I reached my teens, life was a lot of moving and adjusting, and deprivation. I didn’t see much of my father. Things were never enough. I resented him because life was pretty shitty sometimes. I guess I blamed him for that.
As the years passed, we grew up, got through school, built our careers, bought our own homes and raised our own families. Being the last to marry, my father lived with me as one by one my brothers and sister moved on with their lives. I’m sure he tried his best for his family. He probably loved his children as much as I loved mine. I don’t really know. And I don’t know how much hurt he felt when I didn’t always give him the respect and obedience he must have dearly wanted, the way, I’m sure, he was with his own father.
My father had a life that was more colourful and eventful than most other men, but he and I never had a chat about it. We never spoke to each other about anything close to that of an intimate nature, the sort a father and son/daughter would like to have sometime in their lives; there simply was no connection. I didn’t cry when he died; if I did it was only for a few seconds. The tears just weren’t there. I finally broke down and cried when my cousin said during his eulogy that he had waited until I had returned from overseas before he succumbed. I guess I loved and didn’t love him at the same time.