Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dreaming of Tiger Lily

As we approach the Chinese New Year which begins on 14 February 2010 we are reminded by Chinese astrologers and feng shui masters that it will be the year of the Tiger with all its attendant nasty ferocious characteristics. My accompanying post over at KTemoc Konsiders discusses these characteristics, and some historical events and incidents associated with Year of the Tiger.

Though the post here is inspired by the Tiger year, it is on a totally different topic.

It is a very human story, one of relationship, love and sorrow. It is in particular about the unthinking and unthoughtful idealism of youth, which brought about an inconsiderate immutable separation of a daughter from family members, the consequential heart-wrenching sufferings of her parents and their constant burning but never realized hopes. And it is about the hypocritical selfishness of propagandist recruiting agents.

As a wee child I learnt, or rather heard of the story from my mum when she told my aunts the sad tale. Much later I came to know more of it myself.

This heartbroken story of disconsolation is about a neighbour, who grieved ceaselessly over one of his daughters until the day he died. Let us call him Uncle X - no, he wasn’t my blood relative but I have addressed him in the traditional Malaysian way with a honorific title given to elders, even those who aren’t related to them.

Uncle X was an English language teacher in a Chinese school. He had five children. The elder three were very beautiful girls. However, I have to confess I had never seen the eldest, but based on Uncle X’s very gorgeous No 2 and No 3 daughters, I reckon No 1 would have been just as beautiful, if not more. There was quite an age gap between the sweeties and the two boys.

Let’s give them some names to help with the story telling and for you to follow.

The girls were respectively Lily (No 1), Anna (No 2) and Betty (No 3), while the boys were Paul (No 4) and Harry (No 5). Yes, their names in real life were pretty similar but I have tweaked them just a tad (not much) to protect their identities.

Through our years of friendship I came to learn that Uncle X’s favourites were Lily, the No 1 sweetie being his first child I suppose, and naturally Paul, the male heir he and his missus wanted and finally succeeded in having after a considerable period of desperate but unsuccessful tries, interrupted in no small way by the advent of WWII and the draconian Japanese occupation. Both boys were born some years after the war.

Uncle X told me that Lily was born in the year of the Tiger. From the events surrounding her which led to Uncle X’s lugubrious state of mind, I deduced that the particular Tiger year in which she was born had to be 1938.

An earlier Tiger year, 1926 would have make her too old to fit into the storyline, while 1950, the Tiger year after 1938 would see her as too young for the sorrowful tale to happen.

The early to mid-50’s was a time of fervent Chinese nationalism. Japan was by then defeated, the corrupt gangster-linked warlords of the Kuomintang were driven out to Taiwan, and China as a nation was once again under Chinese rule, after a long period of indescribable humiliation and sufferings. The jubilant political emotion was shared by many Chinese, particularly those educated in the Chinese language with its curriculum on Chinese history, literature/culture, geography and language.

One needs to remember at that time that there was no independent Malaya yet, let alone Malaysia. One can use euphemistic terms to describe the government of the day to salvage nationalistic pride, but the ugly reality though was the country came under British colonial rule. Penang in fact was a British Crown colony.

Thus, while a few (mainly English-educated upper middle class) Chinese considered themselves British citizens, the majority of Chinese in Malaya at that time looked at China as their homeland. Mandarin was then termed as Zhongguohua (the language of China) or the 'national language'.

The nationalistic Chinese propaganda being promoted at that time reminded Chinese throughout the world, including and especially those in South-East Asia, that a China devastated by recent wars would have to undergo massive infrastructural, social, economic, agricultural and industrial reconstruction.

Resources for the reconstruction were badly needed, and these could be in terms of money, material or human resource – of course the word ‘human resource’ in its form today didn’t exist in those days, but the recruiting agent for the ‘new’ China wanted young overseas Chinese to help in the reconstruction of the Motherland.

The propaganda was not so much about the communist ideology per se but rather the well-being of China as a proud nation again.

In Penang and probably other Chinese-majority areas in British Malaya and Singapore, the other British Crown colony, there were recruiting agents who collected money, clothing, and material for China’s reconstruction; and as mentioned, they also persuaded young Chinese to ‘return home’ to China where they were badly needed.

Now, it so happened that Lily and Anna were educated in Chinese while the other siblings went to English medium schools. Anna was still too young to understand or know what was going on so let us leave her out of the main storyline.

Though Lily was still a teenager, probably in her sweet 16, as a Chinese educated student she was undoubtedly influenced by events in China and its dire needs, and would have been naïvely idealistic, impressionable and probably adventurous, or perhaps even under immense peer pressure to help China reconstruct.

Tiger lily

She was one of many hundreds, if not thousands of young Chinese in Malaya and Singapore who fell for the recruiting propaganda and volunteered to go to China to help rebuild a war torn nation, which was still reeling from the devastation of a series of recent wars (both against the Japanese and the civil war between the Communists and Kuomintang).

Naturally she kept her family in the dark as to her intention, knowing her parents would never permit her to go. Secretly packing her bags or whatever little she had, she slipped away quietly on a fateful night in one of those earlier years of the 1950’s, to embark on a journey which would be only one way without any prospect of ever returning.

Whether she realized the implications of her commitment, we wouldn't know for she left without a single word to her family.

When her family eventually discovered she was missing, Uncle X went through a couple of days of frantic search for his favourite daughter before finding out where and why Lily had gone.

He made desperate appeals to the British authority to stop her ship at Singapore before it left that island for China, but of course this was way back early 1950’s when communication was still very inaccessible and slow, and the colonial authority wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the personal problems of one of its local Chinese citizens. Perhaps the ship on which she was on board had already left Singapore, and the authority couldn’t do anything.

Whatever the reason was, Uncle X was left in utter helplessness and despair. Imagine his agony and tears as his Lily sailed farther and farther away.

Tiger lily

As I said, Lily must have been born in the Tiger year of 1938 to be able to leave Penang for China as a teenager in those earlier years of the 1950’s. And frighteningly for our thoughts, this teenager, if still alive a couple of years after reaching China, could have been a possible victim of Mao Zedong’s unforgiveable mismanaged economic scheme, blasphemously called the Great Leap Forward.

The period most affected by the ordeal was from 1958 to 1962. Lily would have been in China for around 3 years before the nationwide suffering started. It was one of China’s major catastrophic disasters where some 36 million Chinese died, mainly from starvation. There were even hints of cannibalism in some rural parts of China which were most affected by starvation.

Did Lily perish in that human calamity created by the so-called Great Helmsman? Had Uncle X considered this possibility?

A propaganda poster during the Great Leap Forward era which showed giant melons being harvested

News in those days weren’t exactly brilliant as they are today, and in that, perhaps it proved to be a blessing in disguise for Uncle X, for in all likelihood he would not have been able to survive the anguish of knowing or even imagining his beloved Lily had starved to death in China. But such a sad ending for Lily was undeniably a strong possibility.

If somehow she had survived the lack of food, she would have to cope with other natural disasters and communist party purges in the years that followed. For example, as a reaction to the Hundred Flowers campaign, the Anti-Rightist campaign took place which saw severe persecutions of more than half a million people. Was she among those persecuted, and perhaps died as a result of punishment and torture?

How would Uncle X have handled this? In those days we were oblivious of what was really going on inside China but now I dread to imagine her father being handed information telling she was a victim in the Anti Rightist campaign.

In 1959 the Yellow River flooded East China and killed 2 million people through either drowning or starvation because of crop failures. Was she in the region and fatally affected? Or did she survive until 1976, when at the age of 38 she became a victim of the Tangshan earthquake, which has been described as the largest earthquake of the 20th century by death toll.

If I shudder at these possibilities even now, consider how Uncle X would have felt.

A propaganda poster during the Great Leap Forward era, showing golden harvests of crops shooting up like rockets

Could she have died from sickness or other causes in a China which as a teenager she had viewed through rose tinted glasses, and was obviously unprepared for? The conditions in that country would have been horrendously different for a young girl brought up in the comfortable environment of a Penang family, in a relatively benign climate. She might not have been able to cope, both physically and mentally.

Maybe she was ravished by immoral people who wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of a beautiful teenager from the Nanyang (Southern Ocean or South-East Asia) and worse, kept as a sex slave or killed after being raped? After all, Mao himself was notorious for his voracious sexual appetites for young impressionable young female socialists, and some of his officials in the huge country were known to be corrupt and lecherous. China was and still is a huge country, where anything could have happened without most people or even the authorities knowing.

The sparrow campaign where Mao ordered the killing of sparrows to minimise loss of rice harvests to these birds. In reality the loss of rice and other cereal to sparrows were insignicant. But the campaign upset the balance of nature, where with the massive killing of the sparrows which were the natural predators of locust, there was a consequential population explosion of hungry locusts. These insects severely ravaged the harvests.

Uncle X would have gone mad thinking about the possibility of such dire consequences for Lily.

One may be forgiven for believing that the saddest part of her story must be her immutable separation from her family, where they never ever saw her again, but there was worse!

Yes, her family had no contact whatsoever with her – they just did not hear from or about her since her departure for China. It was as if she disappeared into an alien world. Surely this was far more terrible than just her physical absence.

The communication void was probably due to either her incapacitation or death, perhaps as a result of one of the above calamitous reasons or periodic political purges and upheavals.

We have to ask ourselves why she didn’t write a single letter to her family, for correspondence from Communist China, while restricted, censored and controlled, was still permitted. In all likelihood, dear sweet teenage Lily perished at sometime and somewhere in China.

If by a miracle she didn't die, she would have been around 37 years old in 1975. This was one year after Tun Razak visited China and established diplomatic relations with the communist nation. Surely the desire for a mature woman to contact her family in Penang after a separation of 20 years would have been strong, especially when the political climate became even more congenial and convenient for her to send a letter. And I recall there were many villagers in my kampung who corresponded with their relative in China, usually to send money to them to help ease their sufferings.

But Uncle X and family did not ever hear from her again.

Her departure left Uncle X totally devastated, demoralised and defeated. He couldn’t accept that he would never ever see her again, and succumbed to fantasies of Lily’s return.

Basically he was mad with grief and became delusional. When I was growing up together with his sons, I personally witnessed him every couple of years expressing such fantasies of reuniting with Lily.

A typical sad scenario would have him seeking out and joining his sons while beaming happily and telling them that he dreamt of a tiger. The girls weren’t involved as Anna was already married and living with her husband, while Betty didn’t get along well with her father and stayed clear of him.

The first time I heard him say that, I noticed Paul and Harry ignoring him and remaining silent.

Puzzled and curious as well, I asked Uncle X what was the significance of his dream? I saw Paul glaring at me. But my innocent question was a wonderful invitation for Uncle X to let me know that the tiger represented his beloved Lily - "Kaytee, Lily was born in the year of the Tiger" - and the dream signified her imminent return to the family. His impossible hopes had been transformed by his unceasing grief into wistful dreams.

Of course Lily never did return but that didn’t stop Uncle X from ‘revealing’ his dream fantasy every other year, which explained why his children were embarrassed into silence whenever he broached the subject.

With each narration of his dream story he would initially smile with joy before he eventually realize himself it was only a fantasy, and cry. And when he was crying he would curse the recruiting agent for that man’s evil in persuading the children of many local families to go to China, while keeping his own children safely back in Penang.

I certainly agreed with Uncle X’s denunciation of the agent for the latter’s hypocrisy in protecting his own children against the ‘call of the Motherland’, a clarion call which he propagated to the children of other families. In destroying the happiness and hopes of those families who lost their sons and daughters, through his propagandist machinations, to a harsh China from which none had returned, he was truly evil.

Then one day I stumbled across a dark side of Uncle X’s earlier life when he was still teaching English at the Chung Ling High School, at that time Malaya’s premier Chinese secondary school. I was told this by a mate of mine who was his relative, also a graduate of the same school. Let’s call him Ah Hai.

When I mentioned to Ah Hai that I was puzzled by Uncle X teaching at an unknown primary school when he should have continued at renowned Chung Ling, Ah Hai snorted in disgust, initially not wanting to explain why he sneered at Uncle X. But eventually he told me very briefly that Uncle was booted out in disgrace from Chung Ling after the Japanese occupation was over.

Could it be that Uncle X had collaborated with the Japanese, and perhaps under duress? But Ah Hai refused to say anything more.

Since then, I have always wondered whether Lily’s decision to embark on that journey of no return was in any way influenced by this possibility, that she took it upon herself to return to help in the reconstruction of China as a form of repentance for her father’s disgrace during the Japanese occupation? In those days no one hated the Japanese more than the Chinese, and no one was more despised than a Chinese who collaborated with or obsequiously served the Japanese.

But for whatever reason she had based her decision to go to China, she was selfish, unthinking and unthoughtful of her parent’s feelings and the insurmountable sorrow she had visited upon them for the rest of their lives.

Though the lyrics of the song ‘The carnival is over’, sung hauntingly by the Seekers, is meant for two lovers, I see some extracts which could apply as a dirge by a father for his beloved daughter as she sailed away forever, never to be seen or heard from again.

High above the dawn is waiting
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again

Now the harbour light is calling
This will be our last goodbye
Though the carnival is over
I will love you till I die

And then, as if God was not already cruel enough to Uncle X, he lost his favourite son Paul in a road accident when the lad just turned 21. Paul was killed by a car while crossing a road in heavy thunderstorm.

As Kedar Joshi said “Philosophy is the only excuse God has for his cruelty and vanity”.

As I left Penang just before Paul was killed, I didn't know how Uncle X had fared in the second tragedy. But he would have passed away by now, totally broken hearted, punished by a very cruel god who sent him to his grave with unfathomable, indescribable and inconsolable sorrow.

On 14 February 2010, six cycles of the Chinese calendar would have passed since 1938, where we'll once again see a Tiger year. If Lily is still around, she would be 72 years old. I just wonder, when she was still around, whether she had ever thought of her parents, and considered a return to Penang? Even if she is still alive today, and visits Penang as a citizen of a new prosperous China, alas, her father won't be here to realize his dream of reuniting with his beloved Tiger Lily.


Anna said...

Oh Wow! A beautifully told story Kaytee!!!


Anonymous said...


Your story brings tears to my eyes.

My dad, an only son, left China to come to Malaya when he was 19, and he left just as Lily did, in secret without a word. Unlike Lily, my dad is illiterate. His parents lost a son who never returned until they passed away.

My dad returned to China in 1982 to visit the graves and his only sister, who was already into her 80s. She died a year later.

My dad passed away in 1996. I am still mourning his loss. Maybe I need to go back to China just for a visit but there is no one left that I can connect with.


KTemoc said...

Andy, I'm sorry to hear of your personal tragedy. Your wish to visit your father's home village is worthy of a most filial son.

Look, the new Chinese authority may be helpful so it could be worthwhile contacting them (or the Chinese Embassy in KL) to let them know your intention. They would most probably help with some advice and guidance or put you in contact with the regional authority in China oversighting your dad's hometown.

Anonymous said...


It wasn't Malaya yet when he landed here.

I don't read and write Mandarin though can converse little bit.

There is no more male lineage in China though I remembered him mentioning of an ancestral home which he gave up all rights to it. Materially, it is just a small hut but the HOME probably meant a lot to him but none to us.

I have no love for China. Malaysia is my homeland and I treat this country as number ONE though the government regards me a third class.

Anyway, many thanks for your kind words. I will see what I can do before the next generation will forget about the ancestral thingy all together.

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