Thursday, 15 March 2012


THE DAI FAMILY: Grandfather Dai is surrounded by his three sons and their families.
The author is the little girl on the left, holding her father's hand.
Her sister Loy is in her mother's arms at far right.

GRANDFATHER DAI was a native of Gutian in the province of Fukien. There were six brothers in the Dai family, and none of them was known to do a day’s hard work. It is not recorded how many daughters great-grandfather had, but I have heard accounts of one who spent three days beautifying herself to attend a relative’s wedding.

It was fashionable in those days for rich landlords to encourage their brighter sons to sit for the Imperial Examination, which required much diligent study. Those who were successful would increase the family’s honour and prestige, not to mention its prosperity. There was  nothing to stop young men from poor families from attempting the Imperial Examination, of course, and there were instances when the sons of peasants had overcome all odds and passed with distinction, bringing a dramatic change of fortune to their families. Ideally, this should have made Imperial China a splendid model of democracy – but the poor, as to be expected, were so thoroughly oppressed that upward mobility was rare indeed. While the peasants toiled and died under wretched circumstances, the dull and indolent sons of the landed gentry indulged in opium smoking, gambling, wine, women and song.

Grandfather Dai, whatever his faults, was determined to achieve something worthwhile with his life. He had no desire to share his brothers’ idle and parasitic existence. So he became a candidate for the Imperial Examination and threw himself wholeheartedly into the gruelling preparations.

Perhaps he was overzealous and strained his nerves, for he never made it to the big test. The report I’ve heard is that he suffered a debilitating shock while travelling through a forest on his way to the examination  hall. Apparently he was startled by a werewolf – a fairly common hazard in ancient China, judging by the numerous hair-raising tales handed down to us. The details are vague, since no one knows for certain exactly what happened to Grandfather Dai that fateful day. It is also possible that he was ambushed by bandits and narrowly escaped death with arrows whizzing past his ears.

In any case, he was never quite the same thereafter. At the slightest sudden noise, he would tremble and break out in a cold sweat. All it took was a door slamming shut or a creak on the stairway. So intense was his anxiety that the mere act of sitting on a chair would take him ages, for he would repeatedly check to see if the legs were secure, or if he was correctly aligned with the seat.

The most routine transactions became extraordinary feats of will for him, and life would have been sheer hell were it not for the constant care and comfort he received from his devoted young wife, whose loyalty deserves to be recorded. Like most marriages in those days, theirs had been arranged by professional matchmakers when she was still in her early teens. Now, in the hour of his helplessness, Grandmother Dai came into her own as the young and dutiful wife. She tried every apothecary prescription on her husband, but to no avail. She invoked ancestral gods from far and near, but in vain. Her husband remained a human wreck.

Then one day she met a long-lost kinsman from overseas, home on a visit and a recent convert to Christianity. He suggested that her husband attend a prayer meeting at a nearby town: “We have a foreign pastor who has an excellent reputation as a faith healer.”

Grandmother Dai had nothing to lose. She finally persuaded Grandfather Dai to go to church with her – and after several visits, many prayers and much laying on of hands, the required miracle happened. Grandfather Dai recovered his self-confidence and became a Christian.

More specifically, he became a Methodist. It was an era of vigorous outreach for the Methodist Church, which was very active in the most remote and paganistic parts of the Far East.

In China, however, the evangelistic thrust did not penetrate very far – possibly because the Chinese are obstinate about their own traditions and jealously guard their age-old superstitions. Besides, most Chinese were convinced that all foreigners and their beliefs were inferior.

And so, many young Chinese Christians with the crusading spirit eventually found themselves seeking greener pagan pastures amongst the “savages” across the seas. This accounts for the many Foochows in Sitiawan, Sepang and Yong Peng, and also in Kuching and Sibu, over in Sarawak. Most of them had sailed forth as missionaries of the Foochow Methodist Church.

Grandfather Dai, being a well-educated and enthusiastic convert, had no difficulty getting ordained as a pastor. With a small band of Foochow faithfuls, he arrived in Kuching and established its first Methodist Church. Around the same period, another group led by Rev. Horley headed for Sitiawan, Perak. They wasted no time building a church and a school in Kampong Koh.

GRANDFATHER DAI had only three sons, but he had had countless daughters.  Countless… because many of them had been drowned at birth in huge jars of urine kept as manure for the fields. (I assume, of course, that this was before he became a Christian.)

In those days the Patriarch’s word was law. The Patriarch was the Progenitor – and the Progenitor held the lives of his progeny in his hands. Taking a daughter’s life was not regarded as murder. It was simply a means of ensuring fewer mouths to feed. After all, it was one’s sons who carried forward the family name; only sons could establish a dynasty and assure one of immortality. Furthermore, sons were valuable members of the family mafia in times of territorial strife.

Although daughters were generally considered a liability to their parents, they soon became assets to their husbands’ families, who saw to it that they earned their keep.

Anyway, Grandfather Dai moved to Sitiawan with his three sons.

THE ELDEST SON became a sinseh (traditional Chinese physician) and would have done very well, were it not for the extremely large brood he sired – and his wife’s obsessive fondness for durians. She was a Nyonya, a female Peranakan* prone to indolence and gluttony, especially during the durian season, when she would pawn her best sarongs to buy vast quantities of the rich and creamy “king of fruits.”

[*Peranakans are people of Chinese descent who have adopted some aspects of Malay culture through long settlement in Malaya.]

Eventually, the family went broke  and relocated to China, where they lived off the Dai family land. I’m told that my Nyonya aunt, suffering acute durian withdrawal, soon abandoned her family and hastened back to Malaya – where she found a successful durian farmer to settle down with (I hope)!

Grandfather’s second son followed in his footsteps and became a Methodist minister. Like his father, he produced far more daughters than sons – but mercifully none of the girls was drowned (I suppose “progress” can be measured by such small mercies).

Through sheer hard work and frugality, Second Uncle managed to bequeath rubber estates to his children. Unfortunately, the legacy was rapidly squandered and did not survive into the next generation.

Grandmother Dai used to say that losing one’s inheritance was the penalty for misdeeds committed by one’s forbears.

Dai Chui Lian several months before
his death in 1969 (Antares)
MY FATHER, Dai Chui Lian, Grandfather Dai’s youngest son, was in his late teens when he was shipped off to Singapore to acquire a proper English education.

Having grown up in sleepy Sibu, Sarawak, my father wasted no time seeking out whatever sin he could find in Singapore. However, he did finish school, and went to Kuala Lumpur. Being bilingual, he easily qualified for the post of Court Interpreter – a highly prized job in the Colonial civil service.

He settled into a lifestyle that he followed for many years to come. By day he was a highly esteemed Court Interpreter. By night he was a ronggeng-loving** Romeo, serenading his assorted Juliets with his fine baritone voice and his fancy accordion technique.

[**ronggeng, a popular Malay folk dance in its day]

He was also adept at Chinese calligraphy, turning out lyrical poems in the classical vein. On Sundays he would appear in church as the angelic chorister.

It was on one such Sunday that my mother first saw him: huge bible under one arm and an open hymnal in the other hand. He was immaculate in his formal suit of pure white khaki, cut somewhat like a Nehru jacket, with gold-plated buttons down the front. Underneath he wore a singlet with sleeves, for shirts were still a rarity. Dad’s posture and manners were as impeccable as his grooming. Always soft-spoken and charming, his complexion (nourished with Hazeline Snow throughout his life) was smooth as velvet. He was the perfect dandy, the consummate Malayan Baba-about-town.*** It was a role he enjoyed playing.

[***Baba – male Peranakan]

What won Mama’s heart, finally, was his fluency with classical Chinese poetry and his superb penmanship. He was a true romantic, and a man of profuse letters. In addition to all his obvious assets, young Dai Chui Lian also promised to see to the welfare of Mama’s poor, helpless mother and her precious, spoilt kid brother.

When the wedding date was fixed, Dad had to borrow two hundred dollars from Grandfather Dai, who seemed to have grown more Scrooge-like as his fortunes improved. The loan was granted on condition that it be repaid within a year, with interest. Maybe this was the Foochow way, I really don’t know. To Dad’s credit, he bore all this without a grudge. In fact, when his parents returned to Gutian in China to spend the twilight years of their lives, my dad not only volunteered to accompany them all the way, he also footed the whole bill.

As it turned out, this was a calamitous episode. While in China, Dad’s playboy nature got the better of him and he frittered away all his funds on White Russian women – refugees from the October Revolution. To raise his passage home, Mama quietly appealed to her brother-in-law for a small loan, which he refused. Instead he demanded that she sell him her share in a rubber estate for a pittance. Having no choice, she agreed, but thereafter a deep rift divided the family and I never met my cousins till after Mama’s death, when we had all grown up.

I WAS THE ELDEST of Dai Chui Lian’s three daughters from his first marriage. When it was time for me to marry, Grandfather Dai set the dowry at one thousand dollars – and demanded a share of it. Dowry, what dowry? My fianc√© was at that time a trainee Court Interpreter – strange how these patterns recur! – with a monthly take-home pay of eighty-five dollars. But in retrospect I can only take it as a compliment that the old Scrooge reckoned I was worth a thousand dollars. You see, dowries were established on a sliding scale to the estimated value of a prospective bride. An impoverished would-be groom who could only afford a hundred-dollar dowry, for example, was likely to land himself an illiterate, loud-voiced, pock-marked rubber tapper’s daughter; whereas a slightly more prepossessing specimen might fetch four or five hundred dollars. Only a bride with undisputed beauty – plus brains and education and family background, and bilingual to boot – could demand a thousand dollars in the market!

GRANDFATHER DAI outlived his sweet-natured, faithful and quiet wife by more than a decade. He even outlived my dear Mama, who died soon after undergoing a hysterectomy, because antibiotics were unknown then. Both Mama and Grandfather were experiencing medical crises at that time; and friends and relatives whispered among themselves that the old man ought to release his hold on life so that my mother could live. The Lord of the Underworld would be satisfied with just one soul.

But the old man wouldn’t let go. He lived to almost ninety, remarrying a woman nearly forty years his junior. After his death, my dad felt duty bound to support his widowed stepmother. He was a truly filial son.

My paternal grandparents left Sitiawan when I was seven. I remember them well, though. The funny moments remain the most vivid. Like the morning I saw Grandfather Dai striding up to our government-issue bungalow in great haste, a very determined look on his face. Sensing trouble, I ran in and warned Dad of Grandfather’s approach, whereupon Dad put one finger to his lips and gave me a conspiratorial wink, before vanishing into the toilet. Not wanting to be questioned, I hid in the other bathroom and kept very quiet. Grandfather stormed up the steps and could be heard all over the house, calling for Dad, but seeing nobody about except the servant, he stormed off in a huff.

Dad never bothered to tell me what the fuss was about. I suspect it had to do with late repayment of a loan or a default on his monthly contribution towards his parents’ upkeep. Or perhaps some cuckolded old coot had complained to Grandfather about his wayward third son. How times have changed! I can’t imagine such a situation today: a crusty old father terrorising his adult son, himself already a father.

Dad, on the other hand, was incredibly tolerant of my misbehaviour, even when I destroyed his accordions one after another by poking holes in the bellows (I was curious to find out what produced the sound). Or when I threw out all his stationery and used the large drawer he kept it in as a boat (to sail across our flooded backyard).

I CANNOT RESIST recounting the story of Grandfather Dai’s salted eggs. I know it’s not the kindest way to remember him, but it does reveal a great deal about the man.

Once, he bought a hundred salted eggs (on special offer, probably) and acquired such an addiction for the delicacy that he would consume a whole egg at every meal. After he had devoured ninety-eight salted eggs, he suddenly thought of his loyal, docile and frugal wife – and very generously offered her his last two!

Grandmother Dai was in the habit of visiting us once a month, and Mama would cook some nourishing chicken soup for her. It was during these solo visits that she would pour out her woes to Mama, who was a sympathetic listener and a very compassionate soul. Mama was disinclined to speak ill of anyone, and so she kept these reports to herself. Her own mother (my maternal grandmother who was then living with us) was just the opposite: she was the archetypal busybody who relished a juicy scandal or two. And it was through her that I learnt about Grandfather Dai and his amazing egocentricity.


  1. Wonderful story/stories. Gives a very real sense of the people and places. Thanks for sharing.

    masterymistery at
    cosmic rapture

    1. My Aunt M.Y. would have enjoyed meeting you, Steve. My niece introduced her Dutch beau to M.Y. at her nursing home when she turned 90 and M.Y. had no memory retention whatsoever - so she kept smiling and asking my niece, "Who is that handsome fella?"