Monday, May 1, 2017

WHAT MY DADDY TAUGHT ME

Mr Lee Hong Wah in 1951
My father was no socialist, nor was he by any stretch of the imagination a capitalist, though his own dad was a self-made man of means  - a registered dentist who, through skill, dedication and a healthy sense of humor, pulled himself up by the bootstraps and died a wealthy, popular and respected human being.

Indeed, my dad was no subscriber to any acquired or inherited belief system and proudly described himself as a freethinker. Too often, being a freethinker is confused with being an atheist and my dad was no believer, though I strongly suspect he saw himself as an incarnation of Eros, son of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

And so every First of May when he marked another solar orbit, my dad would quip that the whole world was united in celebrating his advent on earth, even if they believed they were only paying tribute to the Dignity of Labor. As an aside, it has always struck me as the ultimate irony that in Nazi Germany, every forced labor camp displayed the slogan "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets you free") at its entrance. But this is about my dad and the valuable life lessons I have learned from him.

1. If you have to drive, be the best driver you possibly can.

Dad teaching me to swim when I was 4
My earliest childhood memories of traveling by road to holiday destinations with my dad at the wheel and me sitting at the back are all pleasant. His confidence and competence as a driver made everyone feel safe and relaxed. I don't recall a single incident in which his driving put his passengers in any danger, although he did recall one major accident that happened before I was born, when the steering wheel jammed and his car ended up in a shallow ravine, luckily with nobody hurt, just a little shaken. As I grew older my dad was fond of offering me advice on the finer points of driving. He taught me to be constantly aware of the sound the engine made, and to shift gears only at the correct rev, so as to maximize on momentum and extend clutch life (there were no automatic shifts then). 

On long-distance drives, he would remind me to keep changing my visual focus, to let my eyes refocus momentarily on the dashboard, then sweep across the horizon, glance at the rear mirror, side mirrors, and so on - which ensured that the eyes were kept exercised and alert, and to enhance peripheral vision, the best guarantee of being able to anticipate hazards ahead as well as approaching from the rear and from either side. At night he would remind me to dip the headlights whenever I saw the beam of another vehicle coming from the opposite direction; and also when approaching another vehicle from behind so as not to annoy the other driver with the glare of the high beams.

Dad, me & Uncle Kong Beng in Port Dickson @ 1956
Apart from simple courtesy, he added, being a well-mannered and considerate driver contributed to road safety. He would point out examples of good and bad driving, a clear indication being how often the brakes were engaged: competent drivers would slow down at bends by lifting the foot gently off the accelerator or shifting to a lower gear if the bend was acute, while nervous and incompetent drivers would overuse the brakes, even on gentle bends, a practice that could result in the wheels skidding on slippery or sandy patches of road. He showed me how to gently accelerate in the middle of negotiating a sharp bend, to gain traction - a technique known to all race car drivers. I realize now that his subtle coaching has made me a far more conscious and considerate road user, the best insurance against unnecessary accidents. He taught me that keeping calm at all times was preferable to being easily panicked, reminding me that quick reflexes and sound judgment served to minimize the consequences of any mishap. These lessons in good driving can be applied in every circumstance, not just on the road - if you experience life as a journey.

2. Never be in a hurry, even if you're running late.

Mr & Mrs Lee Hong Wah @ 1964
I remember my dad as a man who took his time dressing and grooming himself. He showed me different ways of tying a neat necktie knot (assuming I would someday have a silk tie collection as impressive as his). He would apply grease to his hair and meticulously comb it till he was satisfied with the results. In this one respect, I broke free of his tutelage first by maintaining a crew cut, then by letting my hair grow long, because I disliked the feel of vaseline on my hands.

He recounted in vivid detail how his own practice of never being in a hurry actually saved his life at the beginning of the Japanese Occupation. After the victorious Japanese Army took over the day-to-day administration of Malaya, a directive was circulated to every government office, instructing all civil servants to assemble at a specified location at a specific time on a specific date. Attendance was mandatory, the directive emphasized. 

On the appointed morning, my dad as usual took his time dressing and combing his hair, and when he glanced at his watch, he realized he was running late. Instead of panicking or getting stressed out, he opted to have his morning coffee first before making his way unhurriedly to the assembly point. When he arrived, almost 30 minutes late, he found the venue deserted. He hung around for a few minutes, but nobody else showed up, so he shrugged and went home to a hearty breakfast, then decided to take a nap. The next day he learned that everyone who showed up punctually had been herded like cattle into lorries and carted to the train station, where they were compelled to board a waiting train and transported directly to a remote region of Thailand where they found themselves part of a massive chain-gang forced to build the Burma-Siam railway (better known as the Death Railway). In later years it was reported that only a third of those thus recruited into slave labor survived the ordeal.

3. It's courage, not cowardice, that wins the day.

Wedding Day @ 1938
Dad was not a particularly macho type, although undeniably an alpha male in his own subtle manner. He wasn't one to carouse with the lads and indulge in arm wrestling, drinking binges, and the like. In other words, his was never a competitive ego, although he was undoubtedly an extraordinarily self-assured, confident man. He chose to be charming and gentlemanly, mainly to impress the ladies, not other men. But when push came to shove, he was no coward either. As a youth he met a kungfu master from Shangtung and decided to learn the basics of self-defence, learning the art of swordplay and nunchaku (wooden sticks linked together with a short chain). Later he acquired a double-barreled shotgun, a .22 long-range rifle, and a Browning pistol. He did attempt a few times to get me interested in learning how to use firearms and even let me try out his rifle and pistol in a forested area where no one was likely to get hurt. Occasionally he would join some friends on a flying fox shoot but after accompanying him once on such an expedition, I decided shooting animals for sport was not to my taste and stayed home. In any case I never once saw my dad lose his temper and get involved in any brawls. A natural diplomat, he invariably chose to disarm potential threats and neutralize tense situations by speaking quietly and reasonably - whether to policemen or other enraged road users. 

The Lees in 1958
The only time I can recall his actually picking up his .22 rifle and using it to resolve a dispute was when a relative found herself in trouble: as a naïve teenager she was seduced by an older man and persuaded to elope with him from Batu Pahat to Johore Baru (where my parents resided after 1971). She found, to her horror, that her smooth-talking boyfriend was actually a pimp and had every intention of living off her body. After being kept prisoner for days in a cheap hotel, she managed to escape his clutches and miraculously found her way to my parents' house, where she broke down in tears and explained the danger she was in. My dad assured her she was safe in his house and undertook to protect her from harm. Somehow the crime syndicate that had abducted her discovered her whereabouts and within hours, a car was spotted, slowly cruising up and down the street in front of my parents' house. At one point, someone actually got out and stood at the front gate, shouting threats. My dad rose to the occasion by emerging from the house, rifle in hand, and proceeded without a word to take aim. The gangster dashed back inside the car and sped off, never to return.

Thinking back on how my dad taught me by example never to cringe before bullies, I recall he was always prepared for defensive action. He made it a practice to have some sort of weapon close at hand at all times. He once owned a steel blade concealed in a walking stick, which he kept on the floor behind the driver's seat. On the floor beside the bed he always kept a short wooden staff made from a guava tree. Though only 2 feet long, it could effectively break the arm of any machete-wielding would-be assailant. This was the only defensive weapon I salvaged from the old homestead before the property was sold. Not once have I known my dad to be an aggressor, but he had lived through enough hard times to be constantly wary of unforeseen aggression from others. 

Mum & Dad on vacation, 1983
After I experienced being robbed at knife point one Chinese New Year in my hometown while out on a date with my future wife, I realized my dad was right to maintain his guard, even though he was never one to succumb to fear or paranoia. The few occasions when I found myself facing physical harm, my dad's influence stood me in good stead. One such incident occurred the same day I bought myself a new Casio watch and went to the movies with my wife. I parked the car in a back alley, locked it and turned around to find a junkie brandishing a switchblade at me and demanding my watch and wallet. My wife was a few feet away and she happened to be carrying an umbrella. I quietly told her to toss me the umbrella and start walking quickly towards the main road, which she did. The umbrella was hardly the ideal defensive weapon but it had a sharp metal point. I began to circle around the junkie, ready for action, and was relieved when he chickened out and started running away. So we proceeded to buy tickets and watch the movie. Afterwards, we stopped at a coffeeshop and ordered supper. Halfway through the meal. my wife spotted the same junkie at the counter buying cigarettes and quietly mentioned it. I got up and walked towards the guy who instantly took flight, forgetting his cigarettes. The absolute panic on his face is indeed a cherished memory. I'm pretty sure this incident happened during a particular phase of my urban life when I took to imagining myself an undercover cop by encasing my wallet in a plastic sleeve emblazoned with the Royal Malaysian Police insignia. This $1 investment served to cure me of acute fear and loathing of law enforcement officers, as well as their criminal counterparts.

4. Life can be black and white or full color - it's how we choose to see the world that makes all the difference.

On his way to a bypass operation
in Melbourne. August 1981
My dad was a health inspector and served in this capacity his whole life until his retirement. Back in the 1960s his monthly salary was around $600 and though the value of local currency back then was at least 10 times that of today, we could hardly be classified rich. Yet my father was able to provide comfortably at all times for the whole family. We could afford to engage two housemaids and a gardener - at least until I was old enough to make myself between-meal snacks and wipe my own bum. Every few years we would trade in our car for something bigger and better. When my mother returned to work, first as a schoolteacher and then as a radiographer, we were a two-car family - and my brothers would ride around on their own motorbikes and scooters, later cars.

One day, as a teenager, I found an envelope in my dad's briefcase containing hundreds of dollars. I asked him why he was carrying around so much cash and he sat me down and explained that sometimes, on his rounds as a health inspector, he would find himself in a quandary. For instance, he might have found the wet market to be less than hygienic, with cockroaches hiding in dark crevices and rats scurrying around in gutters. His duty was to issue summonses to all the stall owners, even close down the operations till they renovated the premises. However, he would opt to speak to each stall owner, listing the breaches of health regulations, and asking them to choose between cleaning up their act within a specific period or paying a hefty fine. Invariably they would agree to voluntarily renovate the premises, thereby avoiding prosecution.

Newspapers were a lifelong habit
Once I accompanied him on his rounds and I remember how he would enter a coffeeshop and order a coffee, and the owner would come by and have a friendly chat with him He would then casually remark that a formal inspection was due in a month, and that he would be much happier if he could issue a clean bill of health on the premises. He might hint that the toilet seriously needed a makeover, or that the kitchen could do with a new coat of paint, and then continue on his rounds. In this way he negotiated a fine line between doing his job well and remaining a decent human being. This explained why every Chinese New Year many gift hampers would be delivered to our residence, some with a sealed envelope tucked among the assorted goodies, expressions of sincere appreciation from various businesses grateful to be dealing with such a kind and approachable public servant.

As his youngest son, I had the privilege of walking into any cinema on a complimentary pass and after a while, all the ushers knew me and simply waved me straight in. Riding around town on my bicycle, I would stop and buy roasted chestnuts or fried noodles - and almost invariably, would be given an extra large serving or even waved off without having to pay.  I was proud that my father was such a popular figure around town, but as I grew older I began to occasionally mull over the moral ambiguity of my dad's conduct. On the one hand, I was convinced that corruption was not something to be accepted as normal practice; and yet, on the pragmatic level, I couldn't think of any way my father's approach to doing his job was harming anyone. He was charismatic and personable by nature and, throughout his long career, appeared to be immensely well-loved by the townsfolk. He would never ask for money in exchange for looking the other way; his modus operandi was to carry out his official duties with a light hand and an understanding heart, and people liked that very much. So he got the job done without ever having to abuse his power or browbeat anyone.

Between two daughters-in-law in Pangkor Resort, August 1997
Civil servants were often transferred from town to town, to ensure they never became too complacent or corrupt. And yet my father was somehow able to remain in Batu Pahat his entire career without once getting transferred elsewhere. One day I asked him how he was able to avoid the inconvenience of being uprooted and he took great delight and revealing to me that he understood how the system worked. He made it a point to gain the friendship and trust of every medical officer who took over as his immediate boss in the government hierarchy, by organizing and hosting an annual dinner party in Singapore to which his colleagues and bosses were invited. They would eat and drink to their heart's content and be entertained by charming hostesses and generally have such a great time they couldn't possibly allow my dad to be transferred out of Batu Pahat. Sure, it cost him a tidy sum each year - but he reckoned it was a reasonable price to pay for being left in peace to do exactly as he pleased.

They all loved my dad!
Whatever extra cash he happened to earn on the side enabled him to express his intrinsic generosity of spirit. In his last years, he would occasionally reveal some long-kept secret in a moment of openness. One day, years after my mother had succumbed to ill health, he brought out a precious photo album containing black-and-white photos of dozens of young women he had befriended and romanced over the years. He would point to a photo of a vivacious young woman and explain that this was a pig farmer's daughter he had met on his inspection rounds and become friendly with. He would reminisce about how he sponsored her tuition so she would have a chance to get better educated. Then he would add, she often wrote to him while she was studying in Taiwan, thanking him for his encouragement and help, and asking his blessings for her marriage to a young man she had met over there. I believe I was the only one he confided in, perhaps because he sensed that I was the least likely to be shocked or judgmental about his shadow life.

True, my dad had a soft spot for females but he was once known to be generous to a young man hired to paint the house. As a widower his sense of loneliness was assuaged by the daily chats he had with this young housepainter who soon took on the role of his gofer, helping him pay utility bills and helping get his TV or video player repaired when he began to find these mundane tasks too tiresome. My brother Mike who was sharing the family home with dad often grumbled about how my dad was being taken advantage of by this garrulous and always cheerful housepainter turned personal assistant to my father - and, to be sure, Mike's paranoia was borne out when my dad was persuaded to invest a few thousand in a karaoke bar which turned out to be operated by the young man's underworld acquaintances. Needless to say, my dad never saw any monetary return on this venture - and the young chap abruptly stopped popping around for a chat after he got what he wanted - but I had the feeling my dad wasn't at all upset, so grateful was he for a bit of human companionship, albeit shortlived and, ultimately, exploitative and illusory.

Dad's first & only visit to the High Hut in 1998
My dad was a true Taurean, always down to earth and practical, and he had little interest in intellectual or metaphysical pursuits. The only reading he did was newspapers and popular science magazines (he liked picking up ideas for home-improvement projects like rigging up a toe-operated pulley system so he could turn off the bedroom light without getting out of bed). In his youth he played saxophone and drums in a ragtime combo, rode a huge BSA motorbike, cherished a pet cockatoo - trained to perch on his bedstand and turn around whenever it needed to poop, so the mess would land on a newspaper spread out on the floor (sadly, when war broke out in 1942 the bird was donated to the Johore Baru Zoo and when it was all over he went to reclaim it but nobody knew what had happened to his beloved cockatoo). 

Last photo with my dad, April 2004
There are countless anecdotes about his life I failed to record and that are now lost in the mists of forgetfulness. My dad followed his own personal code of ethics and I don't believe he ever consciously harmed or hurt anyone (apart from my mum who wasn't too pleased that other women found him attractive; but why blame him for the genetic legacy that made him almost a Chinese version of Rudolph Valentino?). Nor did he, to my knowledge, have any enemies. He was regarded with deep fondness and respect by all his relatives, on his as well as my mother's side, and every female companion I brought home over the years to meet my parents invariably found him utterly charming and lovable.

As I attain increasing maturity I am inclined to cherish more profoundly what my father taught me, despite our outward differences and dissimilar lifepaths. He showed me that there are no straight lines or perfect circles in nature, nor does life entertain moral judgments over absolute rights and absolute wrongs as decreed by mortal minds obsessed with control and power over others. He was living proof that it's far more worthwhile to aspire to simply being a good human than to worry about being a sinner or pretend to be a saint. 

Dad with my daughter Moon at her sister's
wedding. He died on the morning of
14 October 2004 while being sponged by nurses,
one day after his 11th great-grandchild,
Hana, arrived
Celebrating his life on the 101st anniversary of his birth, I have come to value the ordinary every bit as much as I have always leaned towards the extraordinary. If my memory serves me right I was 5 or 6 when I asked my father, out of the blue, is Heaven real? Of course it's real, he answered without a moment's hesitation, even though he wasn't in any way religious. I pressed on: what is Heaven like, can we do anything we like, must we brush our teeth? 

There was a twinkle in his eye as he responded: "Well, you can do almost anything you like, as long as you don't make others sad, or harm them. And, no, you don't have to wear pajamas or brush your teeth, unless you want to, because your teeth won't decay in Heaven."

1 May 2017


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