Tang SiFu

53095_476760003543_3112716_oI’ve never been hugged by my dad.  Growing up, I was under no illusion that I was anywhere near the favourite of his 9 kids.

I thought he was harsh, dictatorial, mean-spirited; I couldn’t stand watching him pander to those with social standing.  I was appalled when he once grabbed a little Indian kid out of the Odeon by the ear and told him never to come back.  The kid had been hawking curry puffs from a basket and the way my dad saw it, was threatening our own livelihood.

He was never quite sure how old I was, let alone remember my birthdays.  He once threatened to break my legs for wearing shorts.  It was a rough relationship and I used it to milk for sympathy from anyone who would listen.

Ironically it took a privileged Scandinavian to help me see things from a different perspective.  I had relayed these stories to Steffen (my boyfriend at the time) in anticipation that it would win me some brownie points; his response took me aback and somewhat annoyed me.

Yes, but did he remember ANY of his kids’ birthdays?  Did he hug ANY of his kids?  Never having met my dad, Steffen, at all of 21, was nevertheless wise enough to the fact that my dad probably had a tough upbringing and A LOT of responsibilities AND was of a different era and culture where affection was not freely displayed etc. etc. etc.  But, but, but – what about his tolerance towards some of my other siblings’ perceived misbehaviour and hardline towards mine?  By that stage, even I knew I was splitting hairs.

My dad, Wa Koy Tang, was born in 1927 in Malaysia from immigrant Chinese parents.  His dad was an alcoholic who died when my dad was some 13 years of age.   Dad had to leave school to take up the breadwinner mantle for the family, having only completed primary school education.

There are gaps in my knowledge of his early years; I know he was sent to labour camp during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, where he worked for a not-completely-evil Japanese industrialist.

He was fed a diet solely comprised of yam which made his face swell up – it gave his mom some relief when she finally got to see him after a long absence, thinking he must have been well-fed by his oppressors, when in fact he was severely malnourished and at the brink of death.  It was also during this stint in the labour camp that he developed an injury to his knee that was to haunt him late in life.

His marriage to my mom was pre-arranged; he met her when she first got off the boat from China – they were both kids back then.  He laughed when he relayed in his twilight years that he thought at the time she was really ugly, with buck teeth.

My parents went on to have 10 kids, 9 of whom made it to adulthood.  My dad worked 20-hour days 7 days a week – that’s 20 hours of hard, physical labour.  He started out selling street food;  he was enterprising enough to diversify, eventually taking up a canteen at the Odeon Cinema.

He borrowed money from friends to buy a bus and start a school bus run.  He then started a factory bus run.  He ran most of these ventures at the same time.  On top of that, he somehow managed to find time to learn, and excel in, martial arts.  And lead a martial arts school in Seremban, earning him the title of “Tang Sifu” (Master Tang) among his followers.

He even travelled to Port Dickson some twenty miles away once a week to teach additional night classes there.  And he’d hire his bus to daytrippers on weekends driving them to the beachside resort of Port Dickson or to KL.

As a kid, I once found a very nice sketch of a girl back when we were living in Templer Flats.  I tried to cut her out with a pair of scissors so I could play dress-ups with her, but with my poor scissor skills, I accidentally chopped her head off.  Growing up in relative poverty does not preclude one from throwing a tantrum, and I did – I wanted whoever drew that picture to do another one.

Nobody owned up to it, so my stepmom helpfully tried to replicate the drawing to appease me.  Her sketch was awful and I bawled my eyes out.  It wasn’t until many years later that I found out the mystery artist was in fact my dad.

I’ll never fully learn the scope of my dad’s talents.  I know that despite having very little education, he could speak every Chinese dialect, some of which are so obscure I’ve (still) never heard of them.  He could communicate in Malay and seemed to have a better and quicker grasp of English on arrival in Australia than his much younger wife, despite never having learned them formally.

Back in Malaysia he would watch English movies and TV shows without subtitles and understand the entire plot and get the gist of the dialogue without knowing the language.  My dad never had the privilege of education, never had the luxury of indulging in his creativity and exploring his potential; he worked himself nearly to death, driving his buses till, on many occasions, he could no longer keep his eyes open.

And when it came to the dinner table, he always let his family eat first, claiming he was full until there were only scraps left for him.  Only when my stepmom threatened to throw out the leftovers, would he reluctantly eat up.  This pattern of behaviour continued his entire life, even when his kids were all grown up and we were no longer impoverished or in danger of ever going hungry again.

In “throwing away” all my higher education and promising career to pursue my passion for Malaysian food, my dad was the only person in my family who seemed to get it.  My family doesn’t get it; my stepmom with her occasional nagging about my waste of a good education, and the deafening silence and lack of moral support from most other quarters are the kind of stuff I’ve resigned myself to.

And yet, the gleam in my dad’s eyes when he occasionally inquired about how things were going made it all worthwhile – he’d ask with a smile about adding this dish or that dish to my repertoire, or reminisce about his own experience in selling the same dishes back in his younger days.

The first time I was featured in a half-page spread in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Living section, he laminated a copy of it and kept it as a souvenir.

My dad is dying.  He’s suffering from dementia and doesn’t have much time left.  He sleeps most of the day and my stepmom looks after him.  He shows signs of lucidity once in awhile, eg. when interacting with baby Noah, even if I doubt he really knows who he is.

Recently at family dinner, my brother-in-law who’s been in Australia probably about half a century, tried to crack a joke by speaking very broken Malay to my dad.

He gave up when he couldn’t remember the Malay word for “fishing”.  My dad, seeming to be in his own little world up to that point, piped up – “pancing ikan!”  Happy Father’s day, Dad.  I love you.

Odeon Cinema lobby

Odeon Cinema lobby at Chinese New Year


Chinese Ghost Stories

When my mom and her adoptive family first arrived in Malaysia in the 1930s, the only place they could afford to rent was an apartment above a Chinese funeral parlour. It was cheap because the owners had problems leasing it out; living among the dead is taboo within most cultures; even more so among the highly superstitious Chinese.

In line with Chinese belief that the spirits of the deceased remain on earth for some eight days after death, I’m told mom would often see ghostly figures in their apartment. These were supposedly the spirits of those whose funerals were taking place downstairs.

There was the apparition of an old man sitting in their living room on one occasion, and another time, a young girl who wouldn’t stop crying. My mom asked why she was upset and she replied that it was because she had to leave this realm and she didn’t know where she was going.

My eldest sister remembers looking on in fear as mom consulted spirits by laying out some kind of cloth with writing on it, and seeing the divining saucer move by itself and land on the answers as she asked questions. I’ve never seen it myself, but it sounds like some kind of Chinese Ouija Board.

Then there was the day the principal at Choong Fee’s school had to summon my parents to school to tell them their young son was in his office, so terrified he had refused to go home. The reason?

He’d had a premonition that he was going to die young. After that incident, it was well-known that Choong Fee lived his life with a death fixation, seeking out fortune tellers and trying to get in contact with the other side, like my mom before him.

I don’t know about my siblings since I’ve generally lived my life quite apart from any of them, but I too have a death fixation. I guess it started with my mom’s passing. To have to spend 3 nights at the foot of her coffin in the funeral parlor and to be instructed to tell my mom to ‘cross the bridge’ if I saw her ghost would make an indelible mark on any six-year-old, I guess.

I remember my older sister recounting a vivid dream she had not so long after my mom’s death, about mom sitting at the foot of her bed and telling her she was very cold where she was. Not to mention my own morbid dreams about mom that continue to pop up every now and then.

When I was a teenager newly arrived in this country, a friend, whose dad was a renowned fortune teller, gave her a chart with my life path drawn out – completely unsolicited.

Despite my dread and trepidation, my curiosity got the better of me and I let her explain its meaning. It highlighted 3 years in which my life would be threatened; if I made it through each of those years, my life would continue unharmed until the next date on the chart.

Two of the three years have come and gone, and his forecasts have been seemingly accurate both times (I was the victim of a violent robbery one of those years, and I was in an accident the other – I think). The third year is yet to come.

Because of this kind of history, I’ve never been of the ‘all psychics are fake’ or ‘there’s no such thing as ghosts’ schools of thought, but rather that there is something out there, even if their origins and nature are unexplained.

The strident church teaching I was raised with, that frowned on any dabbling with spirit communication, meant that my fascination with the after-life was limited to watching scary movies and, when the genre took hold, paranormal reality TV shows.

At my first Australian school camp, I even tried to get exemption from a compulsory yoga class on account of my religious beliefs.

For the best part of my life, I saw people who consulted fortune tellers as weak-minded individuals who were susceptible to fraud, and held them with equal measures, I guess, of derision and pity.

That was, until late last year.

(to be continued)

Yin Chee

This is our ‘san goong yan’ (new maid) – I whispered to the neighbourhood kids – as we sneaked our heads over the doorway to our flat.  We wanted to stealthily check out the lady who was washing our clothes in the bathroom but she spotted us immediately.

Yin ‘Chee’ (‘sister’ Yin) was only about 17 when she started working for us; she still remembers the scene and thought the sight of a bunch of heads popping up to take a peek at her to be  really cute.

I was about 5 years old and we’d already been through a number of low-skilled nannies/housekeepers since my mom used to help with the family business.

I remember the horror stories about the one who used to sit precariously on our 11th floor balcony ledge, an eye-blink away from certain death, and even worse, place one of us kids up there with her.

Or the one who burnt the rice and to cover her tracks, stored it under one of the beds until she got found out when it started to stink up the house.

Yin Chee, somehow, was different.  She came to work for us when my mom was hospitalised with cancer.  She was intelligent, hardworking and seemed to care for us.   I was concerned that her cooking might not be as good as mom’s, but she turned out to be a great cook.

Somehow, she took an immediate liking to me; at that age, I was extremely docile, quiet and as she saw it, prone to being bullied by the two sisters either side of me.

Yin Chee came from an impoverished family; she grew up in a remote area due to her parents’ work on rubber plantations, and their RM$4 per day wage meant they couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend school.

She used to catch the bus to her nearest school anyway, and would sit outside the classroom trying to absorb what the teacher was teaching.  The teacher finally took pity on her and let her join the class without letting the principal know.

Then the bus stopped showing up and she had to walk an hour and a half to school each morning, so she gave up after awhile, having attended only 2 years of schooling.

When, at 19, she decided to marry my dad, 28 years her senior, there was some opposition to it from my older siblings.

I remember being coached by Min Foong to ask them not to marry each other, and getting my speech mangled in the process and having to run back to my sister to double-check what I was supposed to say, which only served to make the situation comical.

At the wedding, we were instructed to no longer call her ‘Yin Chee’, but ‘Ah Yee’ – which means ‘young aunt’ –we were to view her as a younger sister to my mom, here to fulfill her role in her absence, but never to replace her completely.

Which is a shame, because I think it did affect the way she has been treated over the years.

She was married to my dad for some 40 years until his passing two years ago, so whatever doubts there may have been about her motivations, her loyalty to our family has stood the test of time.

I don’t know if she still feels the need to prove herself all the time, or if it’s just her no-frills personality, but she prefers to avoid the limelight and usually stays in the background cooking away at family get-togethers.

She is always the last to sit down to eat, often after everyone else has already had their share, which makes me uncomfortable as it is reminiscent of her days as our maid.

It also means we never celebrate her birthday or Mother’s Day etc., unlike with my Dad, for whom we always had a big celebration accompanied by ang pows.

Frankly, I think she deserves better;  in a family of Type A personalities, left rudderless by the untimely passing of my mom, Yin Chee turned out to be the right person, at the right place, at the right time, for us all.


Choong Fee

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.

The Car

This is my mom in our first car.  In the early years, my parents used to get around on a scooter.  Road safety laws have come a long way since those days when several of us would pile on top of each other on the scooter to get around town.

Anyway, one day, my mom rode the scooter to the butcher’s to buy some meat for dinner. She saw his prices and asked why his goods cost more than the neighbouring butcher’s.  His reply – Well, who says we have to copy everything other people do?  These other customers drive cars, and I don’t see you driving a car.

According to my dad, my mom went home and cried her eyes out.  And asked him to buy her a car.  So he did – a Hillman.  For years, I thought it was called a Hay-Lay-Man, because that’s how he pronounced it.

The TV

We lived on the 11th floor of the 14-storey high Templer Flats – Seremban’s Twin Towers – a welfare project for low-income families.  11 of us (9 kids plus our parents) crammed into a tiny 2-bedroom apartment.  Each night the mattresses would be rolled out on the bedroom and living room floors to accommodate everyone.

There was one toilet, which doubled as a dark room – my brother Choong Fee had taken up photography and had converted it into his personal photo-processing lab.

I remember the thick black curtain which we had to draw aside to get into the toilet, the funny lights, the chemicals, the trays and all the negatives hanging from the toilet ceiling.

I remember the narrow balcony where the neighbourhood kids and I would hang out on, with our legs dangling through the rather wide rails , looking down at the activity 11 floors below.

Sometimes the kids would stick their heads through the rails for a laugh.  I tried but couldn’t because of my over-sized head.  I think I did manage to get it through once but got stuck and needed help to pull out again.  My big head was a running joke in those days.

There were eight apartments on each floor, all lined up in a straight row, and 2 elevators to service the building.  Except for a couple of pot plants, there was almost no greenery.  I never saw a caterpillar until I was probably about 8 or 10, and I remember the first time I did, I thought about it for a second before deciding I was terrified of them.  They freak me out to this day.

We played with the kids on our floor, in a pseudo-communal environment.  One day, my sister Min Foong, five years older than me, came home crying.  My mom asked what was wrong and she said one of the kids wouldn’t let her watch TV at their place.  That upset my mom.

We didn’t have a TV and had been freeloading off them for our TV fix each night.

My mom was our strongest advocate and most tenacious defender.  I remember she saw me crying once and asked what was wrong.  I said one of the other kids had been mean.

He was the resident bully on our floor, and had picked on me lots of times before.  But not that time.  To this day I don’t know why I said what I did.  Anyway, my mom stormed up to his and got into a fight with her because of me and my lie.

Back to the TV thing; that’s the story of how we ended up buying our very first, black and white TV.   My mom was a proud woman and protective of her children.

There were 9 of us, and yet I never felt from her that there was not enough love to go around.  She loved us equally and in great abundance, something I would miss for the rest of my childhood.

Disney’s Jungle Book was playing at the The Odeon, our local cinema, at the time.  On top of his photography, Choong Fee was a gifted artist.  My dad sewed a cover for our new TV and Choong Fee painted it with characters from that movie and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs .  It was exquisite.  This is a pic of me posing next to our new TV.  Next to it is a pic of playtime in the narrow corridor of my apartment floor, with my sister Chooi in the foreground.

The Fortune Teller


According to my dad, mom planned on having four kids.   This pic shows the four oldest kids – and that would have been it – neither I nor half my siblings would have existed. Then my mom visited a fortune teller.

He told her he could see her husband marrying a second, younger wife in the future.  That enraged her.  She decided there and then, that if that were to happen, she would make sure the new wife had her hands full raising a bunch of young kids.  That’s how the rest of us came into being.  Turned out the fortune teller was right.  My dad remarried, maybe a year or two after my mom passed away.  My stepmom was 19 when she married him.  Ironically, she had been the housekeeper/babysitter brought in to help when my mom was hospitalised.

Mom’s Smile

Found a pic of my mom smiling today.  That’s rare.  She usually looks wistful, stoic, maybe a bit weary.  I don’t know if that was just how she was, or whether she was ill without yet knowing it.

I know that just before she found out she had cancer, she had travelled back to China on a boat to reconnect with her parents.  They had given her up for adoption because they couldn’t afford to raise her.  Her dad was a lecturer or professor at a time in that country when it pretty much meant a life of poverty.  My mom did not get much of an education but I’m told she was a natural academic and had been offered a teaching job even though she lacked qualifications.  She had to turn it down as she was raising a family.

Her adoptive parents brought her to Malaysia when she was a young girl, and, now in her forties, she had hoped to be reunited with her natural parents.  She travelled alone on that long voyage, and lugged 20kg bags of dried foods with her as gifts.  I’m told her dad was overjoyed to see her, but her mom had rejected her.  She came back to Malaysia, broken-hearted.  Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately killed her.

The Funeral

All my parents’ martial arts friends were there.  A large group dominated by housewives my dad taught Tai Chi to.  There were one or two who remained life-long family friends, but I never cared for the majority of them.  Even at that young age, I saw them as a bunch of privileged, mean and gossipy women with too much time on their hands.

A few of them were sitting together at the wake (a 3-day-long event, per Chinese custom) at the funeral home, and were talking about my mom.  They talked about how her organs were still functional, even though she was dead, and started listing examples.  That her ears could still hear but that she couldn’t respond to all the chatter.  That horrified me, the thought that my mom was lying nearby, trapped in her body.  They saw me listening in, and beckoned me over.  One of them said, ‘Do you understand what’s happened’?  And another responded – ‘no, she has no idea; she’s too young to understand death’.  That made me really mad.  I hated those women.

I was pretty sure they hated me back.  I knew they thought I was ugly, whereas my older sister was beautiful and my younger sister, absolutely the cutest little thing around.  I was born with darker skin than my siblings – not an asset in that cultural setting, and I had the largest head of my ten siblings and satellite dishes for ears.

Once, during a Tai Chi class at the Lake Gardens, one of them called me over and demanded – ‘do you know what your name is?’.  For the record, it’s Min Nyok, which means Bright Jade.  Most of my circle of young friends had ‘Mei’ in their name in some sort of combination.  ‘Min’=bright, ‘Mei’=pretty.  I pronounced it ‘Mei Yoke’, which, in fact, was what most kids on my apartment floor called me.

She replied with some agitation, ‘you’re not Mei Yoke, you’re ‘Min Nyok’.  I knew what she was trying to imply – I’m not pretty.  I really, really disliked my dad’s group of housewife students.

We had to dress in funeral garb made of sackcloth.  My mom’s coffin was enormous – like those traditional Chinese ones you see in period movies.  And we had to sleep at the foot of the coffin until the day of the funeral, to keep her company.

We were told by the priest that my mom’s spirit would be wandering until the seventh day, after which she would come to a river and there would be a boat waiting for her.  We had to call out to her to ‘cross the river’ to complete her journey.  There were chants during the night, and incense.

I remember my eldest sister arriving for the wake, I think, in a cab.  She ran crying into my dad’s arms.  She’d flown in from Australia where she’d been studying nursing.  She’d left for her studies before I had any memory of her, and she was to return to Sydney shortly thereafter, so I never really knew her.

We were to wear no red clothes for 100 days after the funeral, as red in Chinese signifies happiness.  We also had to wear patches on our sleeves to indicate that we were bereaved.

A day or two after the funeral, I returned to school – I was still in Kindergarten.  I had to wear the patch.  I cried the first day back, silently.  Nobody asked, but I guess the patch would’ve told the story of why I had been off school.

The Hospital

I remember clearly the day my mom had to pack her bags to be admitted to the hospital.  At 5 or 6 years of age, my understanding of the difference between illness and death was that if you were ill, you went to the hospital, stayed for awhile, then you came back.  If you died, it meant you went, but never returned.

We were waiting together at the elevator at the 11th floor of the Templer Flats in Seremban, where we lived.  And I asked her – ‘are you coming back, mom?’  She replied, ‘of course I’m coming back’.  That was a relief to me.

My mom never came back.