For the last ten years or so, whenever my father was asked about his age, he would ask the questioner, “How long has Taiwan had its own government?” Inevitably, the questioner would ponder for a while, but eventually give a figure, to which he would say, “Yes, that is how old I am.”
My father was born in 1912, and by Chinese reckoning, a person is one year old at birth. Since Taiwan first had its own government in 1911, he would be as old as the Taiwanese government. The problem is, sometimes, the questioner got the year wrong, and my father would give the wrong age. I tried to explain to my father that it might be better to link his age to something less politically sensitive, and I suggested the year Hong Kong had its first university, namely the University of Hong Kong which was also founded in 1911. Somehow, it would not stick with him.
My father certainly had lived a rather long life, by any standard. However, there was not much to go by as far as written records are concerned, except that he was born in 1912 and married my mother in 1941. The marriage lasted for nearly 60 years, until our mother died in January 2000. When we were young, and even after we have grown up, my father always referred questions about his past to our mother. We had very little or no information about his past.
About 25 years ago, my mother wrote a book in manuscript and had sufficient copies made for each child in the family. She was about to go through an operation which she thought could be life threatening and she wanted to put on the record and in her own words the first 30 to 40 years of their life together. As with nearly all autobiographies, the author is always the hero or heroine.
The story began with how he met a Mr. Wan, who was gentle, kind, charismatic and resourceful, and who decided that they should live together and raise a family because war was imminent. She trusted him, bore him children and had a reasonably good life until there were too many children and Mr. Wan was not bringing in enough cash to pay the bills and support the lifestyle the family was accustomed to. One day, Mr. Wan came back with one side of the face bruised as if he had been in a boxing match. Mr. Wan explained that it was a freak accident. Unfortunately, there were more accidents and she became suspicious. She put on her fine dress and went to his office, only to find out to her horror that Mr. Wan had been out of work for sometime.
The story went on to suggest that our heroine was then forced to take up the yoke of the household: she became the fountain of wisdom, and the ultimate source of strength and inspiration for the family. She set up tuition classes at home for children in the neighborhood, with both of them teaching. The classes soon became rather successful, and she set up a private school with a few classes, which in turn brought them in close contacts with the early day government bureaucracy and corrupt officials. She waded through all that and made a reputation in the area. Her manuscripts had it that she had single-handedly organized the finance of the family, including the education for all the children, and took all the important decisions in the family.
She decided, for example, that I should go to Wah Yan College when I was allocated a place in St Paul’s Co-educational College. She instructed my father to take me and my results to Wah Yan College on the day school began. The Prefect of Studies – a very kind Jesuit priest – saw us at the entrance when we were looking lost. I did not know what transpired between my father and the priest, but I found myself going to Wah Yan College in the next five years.
The book was rather detailed in places with the mistakes my father had committed and the steps she had taken to right those wrongs. It ended with a signed affidavit from my father that everything recorded therein was true.
There was supposed to be a sequel to the book. My mother wrote a few pages on different occasions, often when she was upset, and did not go further than that.
After mother passed away, I had prompted my father to put on the record his version of the story. He smiled. He was not young at the time, close to 90, and he had no motivation to do such things. He’d rather play more mahjong when he still could. To keep his mind agile, we asked him to keep a sort of diary of what he did during the day. My wife used to take great pleasure in reading his logs which would record our every visit and meal with him, where we went, what we ate, how much he won or lost on mahjong games and so on.
It is thus that my father had been used to living under the shadow of his wife for the most part of his life. He had never complained about it, not even in private, and not even under the influence of alcohol. It seems that he was content with a life planned for him by his wife. He never spoke ill of his wife of nearly 60 years, before or after her death, even though all his children had been thoroughly convinced that he had been somewhat abused by her, at least some of the time. He was an honorable man indeed.
Rosita and I tried to interview him a few months after mother died. We began by asking about his parents whom we had never met, nor heard him talk about. We learnt that his father actually taught in a school in Hong Kong. His father was known by three names and he died when my father was 16, probably in Canton. His father had two wives. My father’s natural mother died when he was 8 and he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of his father’s second wife. My father studied in King’s College until war broke out. He said he used to walk to school from Shaukiwan.
In her book, my mother said he was almost killed or mauled by a Japanese soldier for straying into a restricted area accidentally. She talked to the soldier in Japanese and hence saved his skin. Later, my father said he could not remember the incident.
They went back to Canton during the war. I was born there, shortly after the war. The family then returned to Hong Kong; and my father became an advertiser for the Star, one of the early English dailies in Hong Kong. He had a very old camera with a Leica lens on an accordion mount which took 127-size films. I think my brother still has it.
Looking back, it seems that the things about my father that have stayed in my mind are the little things he did when I was small. My mother had made it very clear from the start that we were not to live with them after we got married and that she would not baby sit our children, not even over a weekend. As a result, there are many things about my father, or for that matter, my mother, that I could not say I understand very much or very deeply. Then, of course, one can spend a life time trying to understand oneself or one’s spouse, and end up not getting too far. I had tried to get to know my parents better after our children had grown up. I did not get very far either.
Such could be the nature of a relationship that is ascribed as opposed to being acquired. Parents did not choose their children, nor the other way round, unlike husband and wife, and for that matter, friends.
Sometime ago, I came across a poem in Chinese, which was translated by somebody as follows, “A duck flies across the limitless sky, casting down its shadow upon the freezing water side. The duck does not have the intention of leaving its trail behind; nor the water the heart of keeping the shadow in its confine.”
I would not go as far as describing my relation with my father as the duck and the water in the poem, but there were times in our lives when both of us were busy with our separate lives and different priorities, such that the analogy could be fitting. I would never know, for example, how much my father loved my mother, nor would my father know or want to know how much I loved and still love my wife. When I went to tell my father that Rosita died, all he said was, “We would all die eventually,” or something to that effect. He was of course right; and in the final analysis, all relations, as with any other things in life, are impermanent, regardless of whether they are ascribed or acquired.
My father died peacefully at home. He must have outlived most of his friends and relatives. Most of the people at his funeral are friends of his children, and most of them would not know him in person. I thank them all and those – including many of you – who had sent me consoling and comforting words. I pray that my father is now resting in peace and would be bestowing his children and their friends love and peace.