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.

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