It’s that time of the year again. Chinese people who still embrace ancestral worship head off to the cemeteries and columbariums to visit the departed. Like during the Lunar 7th month, they burn offerings to their ancestors, hoping that they would be blessed with good fortune. For me, it’s just an opportunity to catch up with my uncles and aunts in Malaysia when we pay our respects and present our offerings to my Ah Kong and Ah Por.
My Ah Kong came to Malaya from a Hakka community in Zengcheng, Guangdong Province, but spent most of his life in the town of Kampar in now Malaysia. When I was in P2 (1972), 3rd Uncle bought a house in Johor Bahru and moved there. He rode a motorbike to Singapore every day to work at the iron and steel mills here.
Ah Kong and Ah Por moved out of Kampar and went to stay with 3rd Uncle and for decades, 3rd Uncle’s house in JB was a place where the extended family gathered. Ah Kong passed away in 1984 when I was doing my second year in NUS. They buried him at a Chinese cemetery just 10 minutes’ drive away from 3rd Uncle’s house. Ah Kong was blessed with filial sons and daughters. Over the years, his grave has been repeatedly upgraded with new tiles, new headstones etc. I’m proud to say that it looks a lot prettier today than it did 30 years ago. And not just for my Ah Kong. Everybody’s Ah Kong buried at the cemetery seems to resting in style – a sign of their descendants’ rising wealth and prosperity. Some of the graves were even decked with glistening polished marble. I’m not sure if my thrifty Ah Kong would cringe or smile if he knew about all this extravagance, but deep down, we all understand that it’s more for the living than the dead. Even though I don’t believe in all this, the ritual serves as a rare and important opportunity for the family to gather.
The highlight of the day’s function is the burning of offerings. These would always include “money” which the dead might need. Looking at the astronomical denominations, we are reassured that Ah Kong is even richer than Najib. After all the offerings were burned, we headed back to 3rd Uncle’s new house. His old house which once overlooked a vast field of lallang, is now sitting opposite the main entrance to the bustling KSL Resort. Over the years, his elder son and daughter got married and moved out. He rented the place out to workers in the area when his younger son bought a new house near Jalan Sultanah Aminah. Like my uncle, my cousin would ride his motorbike out to Singapore every day, working as an air-con technician. 3rd uncle retired at 55 and never had to work a single day since then.
It often amazes and amuses me how some arrogant Singaporeans boast about our strong currency and their ability to enjoy durians and seafood at ridiculously low prices in Malaysia. If only they knew who are the ones who are laughing their way to the bank. Would you believe that this house is owned by a Malaysian zer cha stall cook in Singapore?
Like many retired Malaysians, some as young as 50, 3rd uncle busies himself every day with gardening and horticulture. He is very fit for someone in his 80s. At his new home, there is a cement path that leads from the estate to the seaside. They didn’t bother to complain to their MP when the path was covered with overgrown grass. The old folks and anyone who was free just went down with their hoes and sickles and cleared it. The poorly maintained basketball court would have been a disgrace to many Singaporeans, but I could see that it’s very well-used by residents who actually have time to play basketball; not just a decorative piece like so many “kitchens” in Singapore homes.
On the empty plot of land in front of the houses, there are no territorial markings. Trees are not labelled and planted almost randomly. Nevertheless, everyone knows who planted what and fruits are often shared among neighbours anyway. When 3rd Uncle’s neighbour saw him raking the field under the sun, they gave him a Vietnamese farmer’s hat to wear. He was so touched that he took care of the hat as if it were some family heirloom. With the bread winners all working in Singapore on a Monday morning, 3rd Uncle’s home sits in a quiet and friendly community with true kampong spirit. Unfortunately, this kampong spirit may not be compatible with the “good governance” as we know it. Are we prepared to take ownership of all the issues in the community good or bad? Or are we pampered and sheltered kids who reluctant pay and happily depend on others to manage the estate/community for us?
Of the five sons that my Ah Kong had, one had gone back to China (in his teens), two moved to Singapore (my father being one of them) and two others had remained in Malaysia. Ah Kong and Ah Por could have come over to Singapore and lived with us, but they chose to remain in Malaysia. I’m not sure if there are any plans for renovation or upgrading at my Ah Kong’s resting place (to one decked with marble, perhaps), but I think I know what Ah Kong would say about not moving to Singapore. “Heng ah!” or in Hakka “hao choy oh!”
© Chan Joon Yee