I have mentioned before I am a first generation Singaporean-Hainanese. My dad came to Singapore from his hometown in Hainan Island exactly 50 years ago.
Because there are 3 women in the family, my dad was naturally (or would I now say deliberately) ostrasized, because what would he know about females and our works? Being an extremely quiet man, he doesn’t help bridge the conversation gap unless necessary.
My dad seldom talks about his past, much less his childhood years. Last Friday, I decided to ask my dad about his childhood. What was YeYe (paternal granpa) like? How did YeYe and NaiNai (paternal grandma) meet? These simple questions I should have asked years ago revealed to me a side of my dad I have never made the effort to know…
My grandparents were match-made, as were most if not all marriages in those days. My dad never knew his dad. YeYe died of illness when my dad was only a 40-day old infant. If YeYe had lived today, he would be 80 over years old. With tears welling up in his eyes, Dad recalled how my widowed NaiNai would often sit under the tree by the entrance of the village and sob her heart in grief. And how he was always asked by his own NaiNai, my great-grandmother, to fetch her back. His young heart went out to her everytime he saw his grieving mother but was unable to help her otherwise.
YeYe helped out at the provision shop my great-grandfather owned in town. YeYe was well-educated during his time and also helped to draft letters for the illiterate. YeYe wrote beautifully and I see my dad has inherited the gift of writing from him.
YeYe was in his twenties when he died. Distraught his only son had left this world, my great grandfather gave up his business and went back to the village, where he and my great-grandmother helped to take care of my dad. They doted on my dad, the only grandson.
When my dad was 7 years old, my NaiNai remarried to Malaysia. Upon reaching Malaysia, she went through ways and means to get a relative to adopt my dad so he could leave for Malaysia too. But he didn’t make Malaysia his home; he couldn’t stay with my NaiNai.
My dad came to Singapore when he was 9 years old. He was enrolled into Primary One even though he had been attending school. Dad straddled attending school with helping out at our relative’s food stall. His day began before dawn, and ended late at night, where he slept on his bed made up of a row of stools and a wooden plank placed on top.
The low point in his time in Singapore had to be in the 1970s, when he received news that my great-grandparents passed away. He was not allowed to go back to pay his last respects to them and that really broke his heart. Dad recalled he was serving his National Service when he received the letter then, and how he crumpled the letter in his fist while he broke down in tears. Choked with emotion as he recalled this incident more than 30 years ago, my dad couldn’t carry on with his story anymore. Embarrassed we’ve all started tearing up, I quickly changed the topic. That was enough for a day.
No doubt, this is probably the typical story of many families in those days. But this is part of my history and intend to tell my children the story of their grandfather when they are older…