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Remembering my heritage

My gong-gong was found to have died peacefully on Wednesday morning, 25th January 2006, in the nursing home he was then staying at. His health had deteriorated to such a degree that he required full-time professional care. I visited him once there last year when I was back in KK for holidays just before we moved to Sydney. He had changed so much over the years. But I was more surprised that he seemed more talkative then. He was always so quiet when we used to visit him at his house. Perhaps it was because he was not constantly being overwhelmed by my more talkative grandma. Or perhaps his hearing condition had deteriorated so bad that he couldn't hear anything we said, so he tried to talk more to keep up his end of the conversation. Or perhaps we all seemed more inclined to listen to him more now, so he felt more comfortable speaking now that he had an intent audience. Or perhaps he somehow knew his time was coming to an end, so he was making up for lost time to pass on whatever words of wisdom or thoughts on to his family. Who knew?

When I think about my grandad, he makes me remember all the stories and anecdotes of my heritage: i.e. the early Hakka settlers that first came to Sabah. Okay, although I may be considered a "failure" as a Chinese or a Hakka because I don't know how to speak my so called "mother tongue", I am nevertheless truly proud of my heritage and always eager to know more about my family history. It gives me a sense of belonging to be able to picture in my mind how my forefathers worked hard to build a legacy for future generations. I'm not sure if these fine thoughts passed through the minds of my forefathers as they laboured in their new land, Sabah... but it's certainly what they accomplished. I truly love Sabah and am proud of my home state, and I am proud that I descend this line of hardworking and steadfast people. It doesn't matter if they are not royalty or blue-blooded... this is who I am.

Whenever I think of my grandad, I start reflecting on the life of my forefathers, and I try to piece together my simple family tree from snippets of conversation with my dad...

Both my great grandfathers were one of the early Hakka migrants to arrive in Sabah. They came as labourers... one was a plantation worker and the other split timber and logs for a living. They worked hard every day and had arranged marriages according to the customs and traditions of that time.

My po-po's mother was actually a local native woman. I find her character especially intriguing because she managed to break through cultural barriers to pick up the Hakka language. My dad seemed to have fond memories of visiting her and playing in the river behind her house. Plus she was responsible for passing on her native blood through our bloodline, giving me the sino-mixed-blood look which I now I possess. My po-po grew up being able to speak both Hakka and the local Kadazan-Dusun language. But I unfortunately picked up neither.

My gong-gong became a tailor's apprentice from a young age. I always picture him as the conscientious young apprentice diligently learning all the skills of the trade and over the years building up his own little tailoring trade. It must have been a hard life because the family was relatively poor even though he must have worked very hard every day. Actually sometimes I wonder if he had more enterprise and better business sense (like how the Teochew are reputed to have) he would have made more money. But my dad says everyone else was poor in those days, so it was hard making money from poor folk. Maybe he was too kind-hearted and didn't charge a high fee for his work. Or maybe he let too many people "hutang" him. But I'm certain that my dad and his siblings wore the best looking school uniforms back then... profesionally tailored bah!

My gong-gong's marriage to my grandma was also an arranged one according to the customs and traditions of those days. I don't think there was much romance and passion in their marriage as we know of today. But something certainly compeled my gong-gong to be a responsible husband and father, with no nonsense and squander about him. Dad said he never drank or smoke or gambled like other common labourers. I read (from the book "Hakkas of Sabah") that the migrants who were members of the Basel Church had more decent and moral lives than other Hakka migrants. So my gong-gong must have been a rather unusual man: he was bright enough to take up apprenticeship as a tailor, and he attended church faithfully and live a moral and upright life.

I couldn't communicate much with my gong-gong due to the language barrier. I did however dutifully greet him with the usual "gong-gong" and smile every time we visited him and grandma. He always seemed content sitting quietly in his corner, listening to the chatter of conversation around him, and watching us grandkids play among ourselves. He was a born worker, even when he was quite old, he was still sewing pants for the whole family. Each of his sons wore the same familiar tailored pants sewn by him. I used to like exploring his work table and investigating the interesting items in his work box; especially the different coloured threads and hundreds of buttons. And he liked to use old style razor blades to cut thread; my dad does the same to this day.

I am glad he fulfiled his wishes in being able to visit his homeland China. He talked a lot about that trip after he returned. I know it brought great joy to him. But one thing I am sad about is that the many good deeds he did when he was alive were never told to us grandkids until only after his death. Like how he was the church's official tailor, and how he bought goodies and sweets for his children after work every day. It's little anecdotes like this that keeps the memory of a loved one alive. So I made a resolution to pass on whatever memory I have of my parents and my family to my own kids. Otherwise who is left to remember our heritage? It will be too sad if we forget. So I will help by remembering and passing it on.


  1. I am so touched to read all the little details you picked up when I told my children long long ago or not so long ago the "not again grandfather's story"


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