Plaque: A tribute to mum

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Star - Sunday June 9, 2013

Three important goals of a sin-keh

Tan before he passed on. Tan Book Lin before he passed on.
By all counts, they seemed simple enough, but achieving them all was no mean feat.
My father’s biography of how he came from an impoverished life in China and his search for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end in nanyang (Chinese term for the southern Nusantara region) is probably a typical story of the immigrant experience in the 20th century.

The majority of the immigrants were not successful, even after a lifetime of struggles, due to many circumstances such as opium smoking, gambling, accidents or sickness. Here’s the story of one immigrant who made it.

During the old days in China, it was imperative to survive and keep the family intact. Only when one has experienced hunger, can one talk about other matters.

My father’s family was impoverished like many others before him. China was so weak then that it was derided as the “Sickman of Asia”. Like many families, the hope was for my father to go to nanyang to seek his fortune and in the process, save his family from poverty.

Eventually, he embarked on the long journey to nanyang in 1947 at the age of 22. For a sin-keh (translated as “new arrival” to mean “fresh off the boat”), the three important goals in life are to take a wife and raise a family, build a new house and then, build an ancestral family tomb. By those standards, my father outdid himself on all counts.

The 36-room mansion in China that Tan funded. The 36-room mansion in China that Tan funded.
Firstly, he was fortunate enough to meet my mother, Kwan Kim Kee, who proved herself to be an extraordinary companion through good and bad times. My mother accepted my father even though he was just a poor man with a (meagre) monthly wage. My father then was handsome, and at his prime, well-built, resembling a Chinese Tarzan.

He was a sickly youth in China and it was only here in Malaya that he gained his bulk. This was without guidance from a gym instructor and it was achieved with rudimentary equipment; he also barely had enough to eat then. He took two years to build up his body.

My parents courted at the beautiful seaside near my mother’s home in Jeram, Selangor. My father looked dashing on his “iron-horse” (bicycle); he was like Prince Charming on his white horse wooing a princess.
It must have been a lovely time for them during their courtship by the beach. Meeting up with this extraordinary woman was the most significant event in my father’s life.

By winning my mother’s hand in marriage in 1955, my father accomplished possibly the most critical goal of his life. Not only was my mother instrumental in getting their business running in 1963, she also helped him raise a family.

In the beginning, life was difficult, raising a family with my father being the sole breadwinner. Several years later after three children, my father was technically dismissed from his job as a shop assistant since one of his bosses disliked him.

Tan Book Lin in front of the shop where he worked in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan. Tan Book Lin in front of the shop where he worked in Kuala Pilah,
Negri Sembilan.

It was a disaster, but this misfortune became a turning point for them as they were forced to start their own business in Mentakab, Pahang, dealing in auto spare parts.

It was truly a blessing in disguise, especially after my grandfather, Kwan Tang Ho, who ran a bicycle shop in Jeram, agreed to fund the business. I’m forever grateful for our grandfather’s generosity in extending a crucial helping hand that launched my parents’ business venture.

My father periodically sent money back to his family in China. He later sent funds for his second goal, which was to build a family cemetery complex.

The project came at an opportune time as China was so poor at that time. Many relatives at the home village had difficulty feeding themselves, so they were engaged to work on the construction of ancestral tombs. With the completion of the tombs, my father accomplished two of his most important goals.

In December 1970, my parents took a trip to China. My father had finally returned home after leaving in 1947, but he was now no longer a simple country youth but a successful businessman with his wife by his side.

It must have been a happy, yet emotional and heart-wrenching time for my father and his surviving mother since their last meeting was 23 years ago.

With wife Kwan Kim Kee when they just got married. With wife Kwan Kim Kee when they just got married.
Eventually, he fulfilled the dream of his parents, especially his father, who often said they will rebuild the house should they have a bountiful longan harvest. It was not to be.

My father went on to buy a parcel of land and got his elder brother to organise the construction of the house that eventually became a 36-room mansion.

This massive mansion was gradually completed in stages after 13 years. The cost for the later stage of the construction was borne by my cousins who had by then, started to earn money after they found jobs overseas.

My grandmother was able to move in and live in her dream house. It was a great consolation to my father, despite not having his father around to see his life-long dream fulfilled. Thus, my father had done exceedingly well by achieving all three goals of many a Fujianese sin-keh.

This is a condensed version of the eulogy for Tan Book Lin who passed away on March 14 at the age of 88.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

With the passing of dad in March 2012; the chapters had closed on the Nanyang Narratives that is essentially about the eventful life stories of two persons from vastly different parts of the world yet sharing common cultures and values to come together and met up; then to join in marriage and struggled mightily to ensure a better life for themselves and families. So I thought of producing a music video comprising of many photos taken (mom and dad are superb chronicles who liked to take photos for remembrances - a cultural trait of Chinese civilization that are historians extraordinaire; many countries of Asia would be vastly impoverished if the Chinese historians had not recorded their early histories) as a tribute to mom and dad for their meaningful lives. Both mom and dad are very diligent and they were highly decent individuals whose lives were sermons for they both walk the talk.... Mom & dad, we love you and will always miss you both. thanks so much for everything...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Classic song: Gu Xiang (Home Village)

Hi All,

Mom loved songs, she would record the lyrics in a notebook.
Anyway, this is a little story I want to share. There was a song that she like named Gu Xiang, I managed to find this song on youtube. Its from a 1953 Mandarin film entitled: Father Marries Again. I wonder if mom watched the film in the 1950s, she liked to watch films also. Anyway, I read a feedback on youtube that this song was banned during the Emergency period in Malaya; it may seem nonsensical but it was a time of turmoil with the cold war in earnest and China was in turmoil and communist insurgency were happening in many parts of the Third world. Many Chinese still have links to China and the Malayan colonial government thought this popular song could have propaganda effects on Malayan Chinese. Anyway, this song sing praise of the ancestral home village. 

I think in the late 1980s, mom & dad went to China for a visit and one day, dad introduce his favorite song to our relatives and sang it for them. The song is "Ni Chen Mei" (You are so beautiful) was from a classic Mandarin film of the 1950s (Chui-Chui: the name of the girl). Dad wasn't much of a singer as mom observed and his tune and keys were off and the song came across as monotonous and flat! Then mom offered to sing a song for them... a song competition! She sang this Gu Xiang which was warmly received and she came up as the winner against dad and his offering. 

Anyway, I have below the original song with some stills from the film but the quality is not so good with much statics. I got another video recorded in 1972 which is much better. This song has became a staple in Chinese classic songs. I heard it many years ago but was glad to see it on youtube after searching for it. If mom if still alive, she would appreciate youtube and would learn to use the computer and the internet just so to watch offerings such as classic songs and films. This is a very well written and beautiful song and inspirational to boot.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Dedication of two wonderful songs to Mom during this Qing Ming period.

This coming Chinese All Soul's Day or Qing Ming; I would like to dedicated two songs to Mom. The first one was written and sung by Hong Kong's famous Beyond: Really Love You. This famed band was a phenomenon in 1990s Hong Kong until the lead singer died in an accident during a concert in Japan. Anyway, this song was about the love and appreciation for the mother of the writer whom did not agree with his career path as a musician but still gave him unconditional love and kept encourage him to try again after setbacks. This song was really inspired as a tribute to the mother of the writer and also to all those who owe so much to their moms; they will appreciate the genius of the writer for coming up with such a beautiful and powerful song:

The second song is a personal favorite of mine. It was the signature song of Taiwan singer-Fong Fei Fei who unexpectedly died from cancer at the relatively young age of 60 this year. She was such a gifted and fine human being. The name of this famous song is sometimes known as Applause or Here Comes the Applause. Its a wonderfully sentimental song that always brought out the tears to Fong Fei-Fei when she sang it during her concerts; she sang it with great emotion as this song refers to the struggles and hardships of a singer as she stand on the stage. I remember well how the elderly wife of famed US Air Force General Chennault appeared in a TV show several years ago commemorating the (?) anniversary of the Flying Tigers during the war against Japanese. Anna Chan weared gaudy makeup but seemed a nice person who was still active in US government circles; having known many US Presidents. It was said she played a key role in the election of President Nixon by getting the South Vietnam leader to pull out of a peace talk with North Vietnam at the eleventh hour. She acts as a bridge between US and China. Anyway, during the TV show featuring surviving members of the legendary Flying Tigers pilots (who are bona-fide heroes); the host asked her questions and near the end of the show; the grand old lady who was still sprightly suddenly mentioned a song she like which helped to expressed her emotions about the heroics of the Flying Tigers and she sang several lines of this song which she found so moving.... Here Comes the Applause which I specially dedicate to dearest mom who is like the spirit of Lincoln that still dwells in the hearts and minds of the people; so does the spirit of mom still dwell in our minds and hearts. How lovely Fong Fei Fei looks as she sang her most famous song and see how the tears flow so freely as she lets her emotion fly with the song... there is also a lady musician who played this melody via an ancient Chinese musical instrument; and how well did she play an up beat version... very talented indeed.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Paying tribute to Mom on Mother's day: An Intriguing Idea ...

The second Sunday of May is celebrated as Mother's Day. Today is Mother's Day and during this Mother's Day, I had earlier came across an intriguing idea which I would like to share with my family and relatives.

Some time ago, I was reading up on Corazon Aquino to see her connection to the Confederate marching song-The Yellow Rose of Texas (Yellow was the color of her party); I came across her famous address to the joint house of congress following her ascendancy to the Presidency of the Philippines. I remember her speech because I used it for a paper on rhetorical criticism decades before but this was the first time I watch her in video, thanks to Youtube. Previously, I was only able to watch part of her speech on TV and to read her entire speech in print. Anyway, I enjoyed the speech that brought back memories of the tensed and eventful days during 1986 when I followed the travails of that tragic country that saw the ultimate fall of Marcos. I later surfed the other videos and it slowly dawn on me that some of the photos of Cory Aquino do rather resembled mum... Then other details of her life came to me and I started to do a little research. For example, her great-grand father came from China over a century ago to seek his fortunes in the Philippines. He was originally from Hongjian village which was near to Xiamen in Fujian province. Cory Aquino went on a state visit to China in 1988 during which she dropped into her ancestral home village and seek out her distance relatives.

Mum's ancestors, as we know; came from Putian (Paternal) and Hockchia or Fuqing (Maternal) which was also not that far from Xiamen. The other similarities are that mum and Cory were both born in 1933 and they both experienced Japanese occupation during World War II. Finally, they both were stricken with cancers although mum's was breast while Cory's was colon. In fact, mum also share a common experience with Cory in that she also visited The US Congress back in1986 when she along with my sister and myself visited Washington D.C. We were given the security clearance to observe the Senate Chamber via the visitors gallery. Cory and mum both also shared the character of unassuming traits, humility, decency, kindliness, etc. The thing is... perhaps they might be of common ancestry? If we take the theory that if we go far back enough, we all ultimately share a common ancestry; so this is not something impossible if mom and cory in fact shared common ancestors generations ago. After all, scholars are in agreement that the human specie ultimately came from the "Eden" of Africa long long ago... Anyway, this is not really a serious thought but its just that I admired and respected both of these women who did much good during their lives although Cory's stage was of a national and also international scale while mom role loomed large within our family.

Note: Mum was wearing a wig in this photo.

Below was the historic speech by President Aquino to the Joint Houses of the Congress.

Here's looking at you, Mum: Music Videos of Kwan Kim Kee

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Eulogy for Mom from almost 10 years ago still rings true

Mom's favorite portrait of herself
1933 - 2001

I wrote a heartfelt eulogy for mom shortly after her passing; it was posted to a site at Yahoo's geocities that was unfortunately taken off after a few years. Fortunately I found a hard copy and decided to post it below; however, I gradually realized that this was not my final version as some things were left out. Such as I mentioned we prayed for a miracle from the Miracle Worker and how my mother was persuaded to seek a last ditch treatment at a cancer research hospital but it was to avail. I also quoted a famous verse from Matthew 11:28 to rationalized how in a sort of way, Christ had ultimately fulfilled his poignant promise to help in her sufferings: "Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

The death of a loved one is certainly one of most heart rending experience a person can go through. A letter of condolence by Lincoln to a girl whose father (whom Lincoln knew personally) recently fell in battle during the Civil War was a interesting display of the deep personal understandings Lincoln had in experiencing deaths of loved ones:


December, 23, 1862

DEAR FANNY:--It is with deep regret that I learn of the death of your kind and brave father, and especially that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all, and to the young it comes with bittered agony because it takes them unawares.

The older have learned ever to expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress, perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say, and you need only to believe it to feel better at once. The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad, sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend,


Here then is my incomplete version of my eulogy to mom:


My 69-year-old mother-Kwan Kim Kee passed away on the 4th of December 2001. The days before and after my mother died were surreal ones in which we shopped for a casket and a plot of burial ground. It was difficult to contemplate the fact that our mother was gone forever. Our mother whom had devoted her life and made infinite sacrifices to ensure the welfare of our family was no longer with us and I can understand more profoundly the heartfelt words of Nehru when he said that the death of Gandhi was as if a light had gone out. My mother was the indispensable bedrock of our family; and we must somehow learn to live anew without her.

My mother was the second eldest daughter of my grandparents who came from China and lived hard lives both in China and Malaysia. Her childhood and youth was full of hardships and the incessant struggles continued after her marriage. Even after my mother achieved a measure of financial security, her life were continuously dogged with trials and challenges of which she managed to overcome again and again except for her final tragic bout with cancer.

My mother found out too late that she had breast cancer in late 1999. She then had her left breast removed in January 2000 and went through a series of treatments involving radiation and chemotherapy. Her hair fell off which made her look unsightly and she resorted to wearing head-gears including a wig. The effect of the medications took a toll on my mother's body; her weak heart was compounded by occasional asthma attacks that made breathing and sleep difficult. There was a time when she was in hospital in March 2001 when she almost passed away due to her weaken state; her blood pressure was so low that her doctors were pessimistic but she managed to pull through after having a powerful vision of having poured out her woes to a Christ like figure. By November 2001, my mother felt sick from her hernia in her abdomen and kept vomiting; we brought her to the local hospital where I was sadden by the sufferings my mother was going through. Her disfigured body laid on the narrow emergency room's bed where nurses stuck needles into her body as she winced with her eyes closed; it will remain indelibly in my mind as among the saddest scenes. I thought that she was going to die that night as I stayed with her. The next morning, water was taken from her left lung for the second time since a week ago and she made a recovery which proved to be her Indian Summer before harsh winter finally came.

Much as we regret the rapid passing of our mother even though the prognosis was that she could live for several more months; yet, she had always told me that it would be better to go quickly if recovery is not possible so as not to suffer needlessly nor to trouble us. Shortly before she died, she told my sister that she don't want us to cry at her funeral which reminded me of Socrates who chided his friends for crying before his execution and Roman emperor-Marcus Aurelius whom as he was dying during a military campaign, told his soldiers: "Weep not for me, think rather of the pestilence and the death of so many others."

My mother with her tenacious will and indomitable spirit had taken life as it came and through her diligence and ingenuity, had transformed the fortunes of her family and along with our father, afforded us the things in life denied to herself during much of her lifetime.In her life's battle, she had fought at the place of honor which is at the front where the fighting is the fiercest. While there were times when she had fallen, yet she picked herself up again and again to continue the struggle until cancer struck.

My mother whom had worshiped Chinese gods almost all her life was converted to Christianity by my brother-Francis when he and other fellow Christians showed up in the hospital to pray for her while she was having the operation to remove her cancerous breast. She had a liberal attitude towards religions in that they are all basically good. I took the opportunity during the Christian service on the second night to dedicate a sad but meaningful song by A.P.Carter-Can The Circle Be Unbroken? to her memory. Among the haunting lyric were these words: "Went back home Lord, my home was lonesome since my mother she was gone; all my brothers sisters crying, what a home so sad and lone."

The legacy of my mother consisted not only of the material things and keepsakes that she gave to us; she also taught us the values of humility, decency, being frugal, having a forgiving spirit, diligence, and the practice of filial piety. Her legacy is still unfolding and we hope that we will achieve many worthy goals in our lives so as to be more worthy of her expectations. I would like to quote Emerson in his eulogy for his friend-Thoreau which I feel can be equally apply to my mother in that her "soul was made for the noblest society wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, she will find a home."

A postscript: A strange thing happened after my mother passed away; my daughter who was then around 6-year-old had a dream which she related to her maternal grandmother who was then taking care of her during the daytime. I only got to know about this when my mother-in-law told me; only then did I asked my daughter to tell me about her dream. During the recent visit to my mother's grave on the occasion of the Chinese All soul's day or Qing Ming, I again asked my daughter who is now 16-year-old about her dream then which she confirmed. She dreamed that my mother brought her to a place which is white and bright with things like white clouds, white linens, roman columns... a place akin to heaven; so far as I know, no one else in the family experience such a dream. Although I am not a Christian in any sense of the word, yet I do like the idea of my mother being in heaven; she whom had more than her share of a life of filled with challenges and worries can at long last, rest in peace.