Tales from a survivor

KUALA LUMPUR - I am known as "The Survivor" in my neighbourhood. I live alone in an apartment in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur. I was teaching for more than 40 years, before the first of three strokes in 2003 ended my career as an English lecturer.

Today, at age 71, I try to cope as best as I can. I had two toes amputated, and my vision has been greatly impaired because of diabetes. I have no one to blame but myself, for indulging my sweet tooth all these years.

I have lived long enough to hear rumours that I was dying. When news of my health woes got around, friends dropped by to visit me. I could see the sympathy in their eyes; they probably thought I did not have much time left. Days turned into months, and years, and I am still around.

I am largely confined to my apartment, due to my reduced vision and poor mobility as I am not very steady on my feet. Robbed of my passion for teaching, I now pursue my other love - writing.

I come from a family of physicians who spanned several generations. Today, I have several cousins who are still practising medicine in Beijing, China. My great-grandfather, Ho Yong Tien, was a famous physician. He hailed from the Sinkiang (now known as Xinjiang) province in north-western China.

Great-grandpa rose to fame when he successfully treated a villager who had a very bloated belly. The man sought various treatments, but none worked. A German doctor came to Sinkiang and treated the villager for worm infestation, but even that did not produce the desired results.

Great-grandpa wagered that he could perform the "miracle". Bemused, the German doctor thought it was an incredulous claim and senseless boasting, and told the elderly man that he could try but he had to cease practice if he failed. It was tantamount to losing his livelihood.

Great-grandpa was undaunted. He boiled pot after pot of herbal brew and forced the man to swallow bowls of the nasty black concoction. That did the trick. It expelled the worms, and the villager's belly flattened out eventually. The German doctor was amazed beyond words.

In 1915, great-grandpa came to visit his son (my grandpa) in Penang. After some months there, he boarded a tongkang to return to China. Then tragedy struck. The tongkang was hit by a gale in the Straits of Malacca, and sank. One of the coolies tied the old man to a wooden raft. The raft bobbed in the choppy, chilly waters the whole night as a storm raged. The cold proved to be too much for the elderly man.


Great-grandpa was barely alive when a rescue team chanced upon the raft the following morning when an uneasy calm had settled on the straits. When they untied the sodden ropes that held great-grandpa to the raft, he slipped under the water, and disappeared from view.

Meanwhile, back in China, great-grandma waited for the return of her spouse. Every evening, she would stand on the shores and looked into the far horizon. She stood watch for years until her hair turned white and her eyes grew dim. Eventually she lost her mind.

My grandpa, Yick Yin, followed in the footsteps of his father and became a famous physician, specialising in stomach ailments. Grandpa's expertise was often sought, and he would make his rounds on a carriage pulled by coolies. His reputation spread from Penang to Singapore.

Grandpa was sailing to Penang when his ship stopped by Aceh in Sumatra. There he met and fell in love with grandma, the daughter of the Kapitan Cina of Aceh. Their marriage was blessed with four boys, one of whom was my father, Keh Yew.

Father grew up into an anglophile, and even gave himself the Anglican name, Kenneth. Grandpa packed him off to the Thomas Hanbury School in Shanghai to continue his tertiary education. Father rounded off his education with a degree from the University of Hong Kong.

Father was enraptured by the beauty and demureness of the Soochow girls. I was tickled pink when he told me years later: "The Soochow girls had such graceful manners that they seemed to be talking even when they were quarrelling!"

Being the anglophile that he was, Father longed to go to England to find himself a bride. Father returned to his home-town in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, upon graduation. Grandpa was so happy to see his second son back home. The old man refused to entertain any thoughts of Father leaving for England.

On the quiet, Father bought a one-way ticket to London on the SS Chusan. He also bought two trunks with the label SS Chusan pasted on them. The evening before he was to set sail for London, Father informed grandpa that he was leaving. Grandpa pleaded with him not to go but Father had made up his mind. Both men came to blows. The shop assistants in grandpa's medicine shop rushed forth to break up the fight.

Still fuming and perspiring effusively, Father took a shower to cool down. That night, his temperature shot up and he was delirious. The next day, the SS Chusan set sail for London without him.


Father was stricken ill for weeks. Grandma nursed him back to health. When he had fully recovered, grandma sat by his side and said to him: "Ah Yew, I looked after you when you were sick. When I am gone, who will look after you? Don't look for a white girl; find one from our own community."

Father reluctantly agreed. His hopes of getting a British bride were dashed.

Once Father relented, grandpa and grandma got into action. It was not easy getting match-makers to find Father a bride as grandpa was an illustrious figure in town. He was the first Chinese man in Bukit Mertajam to cut his touchang (ponytail) as a symbol of defiance to the Manchu Dynasty, and he had a driver to chauffeur him around in his own car.

Many names of suitable candidates were tossed before Father but he was not impressed. Then one day, they finally hit the jackpot. A match-maker mentioned a certain Tan Chew Kooi, a girl who was advancing in years. Back in the 1920s, it was considered old to be still unmarried at 24.

However, this lass was considered a very experienced "home-maker" as she had raised a brood of siblings after her mother died at childbirth. She was also famed for her nyonya cooking and was an excellent seamstress.

Father's interest was piqued. He wanted to know more about this "super girl". Furthermore, he discovered that three of Mother's brothers were his students. And they were outstanding students, too. With such brilliant brothers, Father figured the "super girl" could not possibly be dull.

Mother had a really tough childhood. Grandma had more children than I can remember.

As the eldest daughter, Mother had endless nappies to wash and had to wake up early every morning to help with household chores. She was only 11 years old when grandma passed away. Mother was left to look after her numerous siblings. She took over the cooking, and by the time she married Father, she was a marvel in the kitchen. She could cook a whole range of dishes, from Hakka cuisine to delicately flavoured nyonya fare.

In those days, there were no ready-made clothes which one could buy. So Mother sewed all the clothes that her big family needed, and her workmanship was superb.

She could embroider very well. She sewed her own beaded slippers which were the accoutrements of the Straits-born nyonya. Mother was an exceptional woman - she looked immaculate at all times.

The thought of marrying had eluded her, as she was always busy looking after her brood of siblings. Her father never thought of marrying her off as she was the pillar of the family. Then one day, a match-maker approached her father. My maternal grandfather was flattered as the prospective in-laws were of such high social standing. A meeting was arranged.

Mother was told to walk from one room to another. The prospective in-laws and the prospective groom sat facing the rooms. Mother made her entrance and Father, out of shyness, looked down at the floor. Paternal grandpa stepped on Father's foot and said: "Look, Ah Yew."

Father looked up and saw a slight figure with very fair complexion. Years later, I asked him: "Papa, what did you see when you first set eyes on Mother?" Father replied: "I saw that she was extremely fair, but it could be due to bedak sejuk (a powder made from rice grains)."

Paternal grandpa was happy with what he saw but my maternal grandfather objected to the match. He was a well-to-do grocer who dabbled in fortune-telling, and he found that their horoscopes were ill-matched.

Enraged, paternal grandpa thumped his fist on the table and bellowed: "What? You turned me down? I, Ho Yick Yin!"

Being the meek, gentle soul that he was, maternal grandfather cringed and acquiesced: "It's all right. It's all right."

That started half a century of liaison that spun a legacy of its own. Father and Mother were married in 1928.