Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Fifth Uncle

How many of us have a really great uncle ?

I think most of us do and remember their kindness and love.

I have many uncles but one outshone the rest in his lifetime. He was an uncle who walked the second mile;he was the uncle who was generous to boot;he was the uncle who was at the beck and call of the uncles and aunts - his own brothers and sisters. He was the man who could do the dirty deed if need be.

But to me, he was the ideal uncle:someone who lent a shoulder to cry on, some one who gave good advice and someone who was just there to be called uncle - a sounding board, a listening ear, a supporter,a proctector.

He was not a man to give up in spite of the fact that he had a series of misfortunes in his life. He lost his mother, when he was about five,and then his education was interrupted by the Japanese Occupation and as a result he did not get the qualification to make him an engineer. He also had to share the love of his father with 19 other siblings and that was tough for anyone.

When you are given lemons, you make lemonade. And that was what he did. He did not take revenge instead, he went all out to gain love from his step mother, from his brothers and sisters, half brothers and half sisters and from his friends.

When I was studying at the Methodist Primary School in Sibu,one of the things that I liked to do was to look out of the window to watch whatever was going on, the gardener using his scythe, the missionaries visiting each other and the lovely doves flying from one roof top to the other. I loved watching in particular the staircase which went up to my grand aunt's apartment in the Methodist Memorial Building.

Sometimes I would catch sight of my aunts visiting my grand aunt. Sometimes it would be my step grandmother going up the stair case. And very , very rarely, my father would climb all those stairs to pop in and make a duty call on Aunt Yuk Ging, as he was a busy man who worked away from Sibu in Sg.Aup in the brickyard. But the happy sight was that of my fifth uncle, carrying a small bundle walking up the stair case! We would have special recess food.

Grand aunt Yuk Ging was the closest and dearest relative that my fifth uncle had when he lost his own mother at a tender age. She, even though being a young widow herself, was able to provide the comfort and love of an elder for a young child and later a youth. She had lots to love really, all 20 children of her only older brother, and that is indeed a record for any aunt. And all of them loved her to bits and especially Fifth Uncle.

As a mechanic my uncle loved tinkering with engines, machineries and old cars. He would never want an engine to "die" so he would make them cough into life. with today's technology, my uncle could have his own TV show " Workshop Magic" and I truly believe that he had the TV personality for it. He would have been better than perhaps Tim Allen.

But what I remember most about him was how he met and married Fifth Aunt. He was the young eligible Foochow bachelor with a car of his own and she was the first woman bus driver of Sibu. He had seen her often driving her bus but one day he caught sight of her at her window just as he was backing his car out in Sg. Merah. Unaware that there was a cyclist with a tray of eggs behind him, he crashed into him.

A commotion ensued and Kow Tie, the lady's father who was a man of some means, managed to mediate between the dashing young man and the angry egg seller. Face was saved, the eggs and bicycle paid for and a match was made!!

It was a Foochow tradition then for all relatives to see the bride on the wedding night, to tease the bride groom and to have a look at the dowry she brought over to the groom's family. So my father brought all of us and mother to see the bridal room. And even though I was only about 7 years old then,I was amazed by the dollar notes thumb tacked on the wardrobe. All four thousand of them. (I was told later that Fifth Uncle took two years to pay off the money he had to borrow from a friend). The Heng Hua bride was worth a lot of money and this Foochow man was willing to pay for it!!

He was a generous and compassionate uncle. He was not wealthy by any means but I remember he paid for my medical fees when I was extremely ill for a while, not long after my father passed away. With only a few hundred dollars for our monthly expenditure and debts to pay, my widowed mother at the age of 40 was at wits' end. But he was not afraid to visit us and he was not afraid to dig deep into his pockets for his fatherless nieces and nephews. He and fifth aunt would always be there to help out.

And later when I married a man of another race he would warmly welcome my children and my husband whenever we dropped by to see them. He and fifth aunt would get up to their food safe or fridge to dig out every possible biscuit or pow for my children. He would pour coca cola for the kids and have a ready beer for an adult visitor. Kids were not scared of him because he had a special body language that was so naturally welcoming and warm.

Yet another example of his big heartedness was this family story. Once he and his family went to Genting for a holiday. His daughters took a long time to bargain with the taxi driver for a good fair price. But when it transpired that they had knocked down the price by five ringgit, he told them that it was not right to do so. The five ringgit was a lot of money to the poor taxi drivers and the family would not have missed the five extra ringgit. The family paid the original price.

In 1984 he and his family moved to Bintulu where he started the voluntary funeral service for the Methodist Church there. He would always remind the casket maker in Sibu not to give him a commission but to reduce the price for the bereaved family and he made sure that every single step of the funeral must be perfectly carried out by the funeral committee. Old Uncle Tiong , as the church members called him,was the leader of this committee for 23 years! Whenever a bereaved family asked for help, the Church pastor would always say," Ask Uncle Tiong, you can trust him." His effectiveness was pre-Stephen Covey.

He passed away in July 2006 at the age of 74 . His own funeral service was conducted in four languages - Iban, Bahasa Malaysia, English and Chinese because friends from so many different races came to pay their last respects. Church friends were in tears and so many would have wanted him to live longer so that he could serve more.

From the pulpit his own daughter, a fully ordained pastor,related the touching story of how he went to the studio to have his photograph taken. As usual, the proprietor would ask,"Is the photo for Identity Card or Passport?" My uncle said,"It is for my passport to heaven."

He is definitely in heaven now.

And that photo captured his compassionate nature and all giving character. Every inch a kind gentleman: he was a man who stretched himself to the limit for others.

And the post funeral banquet? He had selected the best menu and prepaid the banquet. He told the restaurant owner that he did not want his family to worry about anything and he would have done everything possible.

He was to the last, thinking of and managing for others only.

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