It would seem in hindsight that he never stood a chance, even from the moment he was named as a baby. All the girls in our family have the middle name ‘Min’ and all the boys, ‘Choong’. His name was Choong Fee.
Shortly thereafter, my mom saw a fortune teller. He told her it was a bad choice for a name. The Chinese are superstitious about homophonic words, ie. words that sound the same but with different meanings. Which is why you’d never see a Chinese number plate with the number ‘4’, which sounds like the word ‘to die’. And if you see a flashy car with lots of eights in the number plate, you can be sure it’s Chinese-owned, as ‘8’ rhymes with the word for ‘prosperity’.
See, in Hakka, ‘Fee’ sounds like the word ‘to fly’. The fortune teller warned my mom that it meant this new son would ‘fly away’ some day, in other words, depart from this world. So, it was decided that we would never call him by his real name. He was always called ‘Poh’, which means ‘to cradle/hug/embrace’ – to supposedly protect his spirit from flying off.
He grew up to be a very handsome young man, a huge Bruce Lee fan and a hardcore practitioner of the martial arts taught by my dad. And he had an artistic streak, which I think he got from my dad. Most of our old black and white photos were taken and developed by him. He used to buy me toys, and he got me the only Barbie I ever had, before anyone in my realm of existence knew what a Barbie was (myself included) – it was my favourite toy by far and I played with her all through my childhood.
When my mom died, he seemed to take it especially bad. I remember he would go out after working at the canteen at the Odeon (our core family business) and seemingly stay out all night. I think my dad assumed he was just hanging out with friends, and didn’t appreciate that it was affecting his performance at work.
He wasn’t happy when my dad remarried, and the wedding photos reflected that. That cheeky smile he used to have was gone. I didn’t find out until very recently, that Yin ‘chee’, our servant girl whom my dad married, was actually a friend of Choong Fee and he was the one who had in fact asked her to come work for us when my mom got sick. I can appreciate now, how that must have affected him.
I remember the evening he died, a week before his 21st birthday; we were at the Odeon. I’m told he’d forgotten some keys for my dad, who had a legendary temper, and he was anxious to ride his bike home to grab them before he got into trouble.
He came to an intersection just near the Odeon. There was a female learner driver on the other side. He had right of way but she drove forward and crashed into him.
I remember my eldest brother Choong Khee was first to report the news to us. We were told he was unconscious but there were no obvious injuries, so it seemed like maybe he would be okay. Then Choong Khee came back with a look of anguish to say – ‘he’s gone’. Apparently he’d suffered severe internal injuries. To this day, every time I come across incompetent Asian female drivers (lots of them in Sydney), I exhibit symptoms of road rage.
I learned lots of previously unknown facts about my brother after his death. There was one time his good friend and martial arts partner came to visit us with his arm in a cast. We were told he’d hurt himself at work or something. No one thought anything of it. After Choong Fee’s passing, we found out he’d actually been hurt by my brother, who was overwhelmingly powerful, during a sparring session. He didn’t want him to get into trouble, so it was kept a secret.
Another thing I found out was that all those late nights were because Choong Fee had been visiting my mom’s grave. This next bit sounds like something straight out of A Chinese Ghost Story but I’m told that’s what happened. Choong Fee went to see a fortune teller or medium one time, in fear for his life. Supposedly, he had seen a ghost at the cemetery while at my mom’s grave at night. The fortune teller told him it was a female ghost, and she’d fallen in love with him. His life was in jeopardy because she wanted him to join her in the afterlife. To protect him, he was given a talisman and was told he had to wear it everywhere he went.
The night he died, he had left the talisman at home.