- Before careers and school runs, weekend sport, weddings and babies, before university pressures, before boyfriends and first loves, before the I entered the world of adolescence, I had my ah kong. My first male role model, my Humphrey Bogart in cool sunnies and a man determined to conquer the colour TV.
- Yeo Siew Keng born in colonial Singapore in 1914, was the ultimate Baba in my eyes. He had five siblings. Kong Kong was a Ford and Vauxhall enthusiast and claimed to know everything about cars. He held poor opinions about a person’s character if they drove a Datsun. Everything British, American (even German) was considered Bagus while anything Japanese was scorned at.
- Ah kong lived through WWII, a time where food was scarce, education was limited but family was everything. He married young, to a Nyonya who bore him two children but was brutally killed during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Being a single parent with two young children did not bode well for a man in his time, and he was quickly married to my mama who naturally became a loving step mum to Robert and Rosalind. Towards the end of the Japanese Occupation, Ah kong and Mama conceived their first son, Willie, followed by in quick succession by Fanny, twins Maggie and Peggy, Florence and their final baby girl, Audrey.
Ah Kong was a man on a mission. He worked hard, smoked hard and scolded hard. He loved movies and would often take mama on movie marathons. Together, they would escape into the nexus of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Ginger Rogers, Ava Garland, Bette Davis and more. They would then return to the real world world of hungry mouths in a cramped two bedroom flat which housed not only their children, but an extended family of sisters, in-laws, cousins and two dogs called Blackie and Rover. All relying on ah kong’s miserly salary as a salesman to house them, put food on their plates and fund their children’s education. His temper was foul and his language was colourful. His annual shopping expedition leading up to Chinese New Year with the family was a hoot – every kid was allowed to choose one pair of shoes and fabric for their home designed and sewn outfits. No arguments and certainly no negotiating. He was also a conservative dresser….only an Arrow branded shirt would do. No more, no less.
By the time grandkids came along, Ah Kong had mellowed considerably. He was also retired and had plenty of time to tinker with his records and highly prized black and white TV. He loved BBC news as much as he loved Elvis and the Beatles. He taught me about the value of education and often wished he had the means to send all his children to university.
In between bouts of chocolate and lollies (Hacks and Rolo were his favourites) that he piled on himself, my cousin Ivy and me, he would make us girls promise that we would work hard and make something of ourselves. He wanted more for us than his own children ever got. When I whinged about how deprived I felt compared to my more wealthy friends, he would say,
“Lin, apa ni? Mungka macam panjang panjang, come, kita pergi beli golden coin chocolates and pretend kita makan real gold. Next time, when you ada kerejah, then you boleh beli real gold for your mama and mummy, ok?”
(Lin, what’s wrong? You are pulling a long face. Come, lets go and buy some golden coin chocolates and pretend that we are eating real gold. Next time, when you grow up and get a job, then you must buy real gold for your grandmother and mother, ok?)
And with that, he grabbed his tongkat, held my hand and walked us to the corner shop to indulge in golden coin chocolates like there was no tomorrow. For every piece that he bought for his other grandkids, I was given an extra two or three, to munch on, while accompanying him to the mechanic to yet again repair his crumbling beloved Ford or listen to him rant about why the neighbour’s colour TV reception was better than ours. No wonder I had bad teeth and yet to rid of my love affair with everything chocolate.
Ah kong died in the wee hours of 3 March 1983. A mix of Chinese natural herbs and prescribed medicine. A life cut short of because he self medicated. A strong mistrust of the doctors who were treating him for gout and heart disease. That day I went into denial about his passing and was more worried about whether I had to go to school. I clung to Ivy. Both of us stunned and bereft of a world without our Ah Kong, our imperfect perfect grandfather who once pretended to sleep and let two giggling girls put stickers on his reading glasses and roared with mock anger when we were discovered.
Ah kong, you classy Baba you…the only one who could say, “puki mak” with the aristocracy and class of Sir Laurence Oliver.