For our dearest grandma, everyone who knows and loves her, and for God, who makes all kinds of love possible.
The morning of 20th January, 2014 was exceptionally warm in the middle of a cold winter in Hong Kong.
Struggling to climb out of bed, I finally fell into my daily routine of preparing for my medical class, only to be interrupted abruptly by a phone call from my dad. In a trembling and distressed tone, he informed me that grandmother had just passed away.
Grandma was already sick for a few months now; I just didn’t expect such news to come so soon. I was shocked and speechless, with my emotions caught totally off guard. But I knew of all things, I had to keep myself together to book my flight ticket back home, arrange leave from school and not break down at that moment. After seemingly countless of hours and minutes later, I arrived safely in my hometown, Klang, to meet my other family members and to get ready for the funeral service.
As I could recall, my grandma, or Ama as I fondly call her, was one of the most vivacious, headstrong person ever I knew. She lived up to a ripe age of 84 years and successfully raised 3 beautiful children (One of them was my dad of course) with my grandpa (Now, 92 years of age) whom all married and produced grandchildren and great grandchildren based in different parts of the world.
Since young, my grandparents stayed with us to help out in the household as both my parents were busy working. It almost felt like yesterday, where my Ama will put me and my siblings on the back seat as she drove her vintage white Mitsubishi Lancer to the pasar pagi (morning market) for her daily grocery shopping. I could still remember the familiar whiff of stale air permeating at the back seat every time I entered the car. And just as the car was about to start, Ama would have this really endearing way of shaking the gearshift to “loosen” it. Well, more often than not, the air-conditioning of the vehicle would break down, and Ama would ask me to roll down the windows to let the cool breeze dry my hot and sweating body. After getting the groceries, she would sometimes stop by the kedai runcit (sundry shop) to get my favourite childhood snack: round, mini-biscuits topped with icing of various colours, stored in massive brown tin cans. In fact, the constant gratification for my sweet tooth was the main reason for my frequent visits to the dentist’s when I was young.
Well, it was pretty much hard to imagine life without my Ama and Akong (Grandpa). And this is the story of how they met.
Ama met Akong at the age of 15. Being the sister of one of Akong’s friends, and staying just opposite each other, they often played together in a big group. However, they developed feelings for each other in the course of joining Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Party Choir in Kuala Kangsar, Perak; as Akong said, “I don’t know how I started to like her, but anyway love grew as we sang together,” (唱唱一下就喜欢了咯，我也不知道我怎样喜欢她).
I remember Ama telling me over and over again how Akong was in his heydays; he was a state basketball player studying in Chung Ling High School, Penang, which was one of the most reputable high schools in the country. Not to mention with a flair for music. Ama would also often emphasize how tall and handsome grandpa was, “so I set my eyes on him from the very start“(所以我一早就看上他了). I’m sure I would be smitten by grandpa as well. It was a pity that Akong only managed up to Form 3 as his studies were later interrupted by the invasion by the Japanese into Malaya. One of our relatives also mentioned that akong’s grades were so good that he would have went on to higher academic greatness, he was only limited be history and circumstance of the war.
It was commonplace for one man to have many (unofficial) wives in that era, and this was also evident in Akong’s family. Ama knew what was in store for her if she married Akong; she would have to take care of his 3 mothers and also 3 of his younger brothers. One year after their marriage, Akong’s father was beaten to death by gangsters and their responsibility further increased. To support the family, Ama sold off all her dowry, gold necklaces, bracelets and all, without a single word of complaint (according to grandpa, up till now). Akong couldn’t really recall how they actually survived the early years of their marriage, just that they barely did. As they reached their 30s, they started a noodle and drinks stall in the local school canteen, which provided them with a more stable income, but it was tiring nevertheless. They would have to wake up at 3am every morning to prepare food, and often went to bed as early at 7pm (which is a practice they still maintain up till now).
It was in their 50s that they quit their canteen job and moved from Perak to stay with my parents in Klang (me being nonexistent at that time). They took care of my siblings till they left for US and Singapore, and later when I was born, took care of me since I was a baby.
Needless to say, Ama was a great cook. Her trademark dishes were her prawn fritters, fried popiah, and heavenly Penang Laksa. But she would always work with her assistant chef, Akong, to put together those delectable masterpieces. The three of us would later have a mini post-meal evaluation on what to improve next time, was it too salty or too sweet etc. Good things are meant to be shared, and I would sometimes bring her fried popiah to school to share with my classmates, and my mom would bring some laksa for her colleagues, always coming back bringing good feedback from her new customers.
Besides my parents, my grandparents were also my teachers in the early years of my life, especially when my parents were busy with work. I picked up conversational Hokkien from them, and also fragments of Hakka from Ama (who often discouraged my usage of the slang as I often got the terms mixed up). Akong would sometimes help me with Mandarin and Mathematics homework as well. Up till now, Akong has amazing calculation; he always sums up the exact amount of his goods in the sundry shop even before the shop owner manages to whip out his calculator.
Ama suffered from a mild stroke 10 years ago, and since then, she didn’t drive to the market anymore and my mom would help with cooking. But generally, she was still fit and active, and was always hospitable to all my friends who visited my house. She was always very inventive in coming up with nicknames for my friends who came; she called Chai Cheen, my friend who often came to bake cake, “the cake baker” (做cake的), and Suat Hoon who sometimes learned piano at my house “the piano learner” (打钢琴). Friends who were on the plump side would receive a bigger blow: “big fat lady” (大肥婆). But though I was reportedly their favourite grandchild, I was not spared too; she would call me “the rascal” (鬼马) behind my back (or so she thought).
As Ama’s legs grew weaker, my Akong’s eyesight deteriorated as well due to glaucoma. So then, she became his eyes, and he became his extra pair of legs. Ama would get food for Akong during dinner gatherings, and Akong and I would help Ama as we went from stall to stall in the morning market. As they grew older together, as my brother would say, it’s almost as if their love would grow just a little bit stronger to overcome their physical limitations. He would observe quietly very loving moments of loving banter between them as they would wile the time away in the long afternoons. In a way, it was a fairy tale romance that everyone dreams of, growing old together forever. While they watched TV, grandma would report the finer words of news to grandpa. As I helped mom with cooking over the holidays, grandma would be the executive supervisor, commenting as I cooked, and sometimes adding her own ajinomoto as she would always complain that my food lacked taste. I was named the “small chef”, grandpa was “middle chef” while grandma was “big chef”. When she was too tired to stand for long, she would assign grandpa to monitor my cooking progress (and add ajinomoto for her).
Old age never got to Ama’s brains; she was still very alert and cheeky up to the last few months of her life. Finally, it was heart failure that got to her, but thankfully she did not have to suffer long from her disease.
The night before she passed away, she was too tired to say anything at all and simply held my grandpa’s hand, tighter than ever. Maybe it was to declare her undying love for him, or it was her way of saying her final goodbyes and to ask him not to worry about her anymore.
The morning of 20th Jan, 2014 was exceptionally warm in the middle of a cold winter in Hong Kong.
That warmth reminded me her warm, firm hands that carried me when I was a baby up to the same pair of hands, now crinkled, which would be so reluctant to let go every time I said my goodbyes to her, leaving to Hong Kong where I did my studies. That same pair of hands also held the hands of many of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and also her husband of a full 65 years.
Once a person feels the sun’s warmth, he will never forget it. Same goes to grandma’s warm, enduring love. She left the world without leaving anything behind, but of all things, love always stays behind, and this always reminds us of her.
Ama, you know we love you till forever.
From Tze Hui, Tze Ching & Tze Ling