Part I – Paternal Grandparents
I owe my comfortable living today to my grandfather who was an entrepreneur in the rubber trade in the 1960s to 1980s. He was able to provide comfortably for our Mok family by setting up a rubber business. I remember his shop (利生) at bustling Liang Seah Street. Opposite was a shop selling traditional cakes and another shop selling towels. Of course, there was my favourite duck stall at the nearby coffeeshop. I always looked forward to grandfather buying back the biggest duck drumstick for me. Yum! Yum! As grandfather's eyesight was not too good, sometimes, the duck seller would replace the drumstick with the duck wing which did not have any meat. However, I would still savour it with relish.
I would look forward every evening when my paternal grandfather gave us coins which we would place into our coin banks, which we would shake to hear the clinking sound, comparing whose was heavier. I remembered vividly that mine was shaped like a Mickey Mouse, while my brother’s was a Dumbo Elephant.
He would also use a pocket penknife to cut a piece of ginseng for himself. If I insisted, he will give me a piece too. I recalled I was only six years old then. Guess that was when my taste of sliced ginseng was acquired.
Somehow, living in an extended family had its pluses and minuses. We had relatives visiting us at all important occasions. Most memorable was grandparents' birthdays. Relatives - all 50 of us- would pack into our house at Mulberry Avenue and add a lot of fanfare to the occasions. There would be lots of food to go round. Kids like us even extended our dining table and played ping pong.
Unluckily, there was once we travelled to Brisbane but one of the grandparents was ill, so we had to cut short our trip. That was the sacrifice we had to make as the main caregivers for our paternal grandparents.
Part II – Maternal Grandmother and her Family Bonding Soup
My maternal grandparents’ house was just a few doors away. That meant that I could go over in the mornings when my parents were working and my stay-in nanny was busy with my brother. I used to enjoy those visits to my grandparent’s place a lot. My maternal grandmother kept me entertained by letting me count her mountain of coins. We would eat our favourite snack – haw flakes.
One interesting episode I recalled was when grandmother drove grandfather and mother to the Central Business District (CBD), it was compulsory for four persons to be in the car. I accepted my role as the fourth passenger with glee. I dutifully waved to the policewoman at the gantry and was delighted to receive a wave and a smile back. Impressed by her, I wanted to be a policewoman when I grew up.
Once, my parents went on holiday so I stayed with my maternal grandparents. Before the sun rose, we went to Botanic Gardens. To me, it was a beautiful place full of orchids and large trees where I could run about freely. I watched on as my grandparents did their taichi, after which, my grandparents and their friends proceeded for a sumptuous breakfast.
My maternal grandmother used to boil herbal soup for all of us. Knowing how the daily strains of life might have taken toil on our health, she would lovingly brew this herbal soup for all of us.
I remember fondly how we used to rally round the kitchen, eagerly waiting for the “miracle” soup to be served. All the family members, including uncles, aunties, cousins would be busy chattering away, while the soup was being transferred into porcelain bowls to be served to us, piping hot.
Holding the bowl of herbal soup in my hands is pure bliss, tasting the fragrant soup, the essence of love and all the ingredients, pure happiness.
To me, the brewing of herbal soup symbolises my grandmother’s love for all of us. I really cherish her for this touch of tender, loving care, which is irreplaceable in my heart.
Part III – My Grand Aunt’s Memories of Japanese Occupation
In the voice recording, my late aunt, Tan Lee Huang (1930-2012) narrated her life story since coming to Singapore at age 7 years old in 1937. (Audio recording done in Teochew attached.) It provided valuable insight into her tough life, being the eldest in a family of nine children.
During the Japanese occupation, Japanese soldiers liked to disturb girls, hence, the girls’ hair were quickly cropped and they changed into boys’ clothes so as not to be recognised. Charcoal powder was rubbed on their faces. To keep safe, they took refuge in a nearby mental hospital and dared not go home even on Lunar New Year, for fear of being harassed.
The Japanese soldiers also took away milk and biscuits meant for the children. Those who refused would be killed. Left with nothing to eat, the family would dig sweet potatoes and tapioca to feed the family. Luckily, a high-ranked Japanese officer was told about their woes. He commanded that milk be returned to the family and pasted a notice outside their door so that the family did not face harassment and the girls could return to their home once again.
I was really touched by these war time stories of sacrifice and survival. Grandaunt was indeed a gutsy lady who set up a provision shop business to provide for younger siblings. What an amazing lady!
Part IV - My Journey to Trace Family Origins
My journey to trace my family origins and roots is fraught with ups and downs------some sunny, some unpleasant and some clear signals to "shoo off and leave us alone". Alas, some information is incomplete and leaves much to be desired.
Nevertheless, it is a nostalgic journey for me so go thus far for this special family tree project. Thanks to the organisers for making it happen. Special thanks to maternal side cousins Chen Xiaoming (aged 34) and Zhang Zhitang (aged 26) for starting the process of collecting data at my maternal grandfather and grandmother's end. If not for this initial fieldwork, I would not have been able to start off this project on the right foot.
Along the way, I have indeed forged closer relationships with my extended family. I gathered facts which I would otherwise not have known about. I would break into a smile when I hear good news such as new babies along the way; I would frown when I receive some not-so-good news, such as divorces within the family. Sometimes, my incessant questioning is seen as probing too much into their private affairs.
To my dismay, my maternal grandfather's family (陈家) is even bigger and he had a brother who gave birth to eight children, whose nationalities span Singapore, Canada, Malacca and Johor Bahru. I learnt that the diverse nationalities arose due to my grandfather and his brother escaping during the Second World War. They hired a lorry and the whole family went up north and hid in a remote area in Malacca. After the war, some families settled down in Malaysia. Some also came out to Johor Bahru and to Singapore. To me, this was a colourful part of my family history which I did not know prior to this project.
Luckily, Auntie Liu Fang (aged 64) was kind enough to take up this part of the project. With her late sister’s voice recording, I was able to understand how difficult life was during the Japanese occupation. I thank her profusely for taking the trouble to connect the dots and fill up the missing pieces of puzzle.
Information gathering on my father's side was also arduous. There are five children in my father's generation and many more in my generation. However, like an inverted triangle, the younger generation is getting smaller and giving birth to fewer children. If not for this exercise, I would never have known the impending birth of my grandniece 曾侄女, Grace Mok. Welcome in advance and to Singapore and look forward to celebrating SG50 with you.
I am indeed grateful to my teachers who nurture me to be effective bilingual. Equipped with both languages, I was able to proceed with my journey smoothly.
Having said all that, I am glad that I embarked on this journey to document my family tree. It is a memorable task and I look forward to showing off fruits of my labour to my loved ones.