Archive for April, 2013

This morning I was at Ah Kam’s stall to pick up some vegetables when the ruling party’s candidate for my area came to the market for a walkabout with his entourage that made up of a few uncles, aunties, young men and women handing out pamphlets and caps bearing his party logo to the hawkers and housewives doing their marketing there.

When he reached Ah Kam’s stall, the grumpy lady whipped out today’s Chinese newspaper and pointed out the head-line to him.

“Hey, what do you think of this?” she demanded an answer from him.

Like most Malaysians, she was very upset to read of the recent murder of a lady who was hiking at Bukit Gasing with her young daughter. The poor victim was robbed and killed in broad-daylight. Many of us do not feel safe anymore in our own country and this is one of our main concern in our daily life.

Well, he just gave her an apathetic smile and extended his hand to her but Ah Kam refused to shake his hand. She wanted an answer to what the authorities could do to lessen our crime rate but he could not give her an answer.

Seeing Ah Kam was so angry, he just left her stall nonchalantly and continued to drop by at others, followed by his entourage of course.

“Such a useless fellow! Can’t even answer my simple question. What can he do for me if I vote him in?” she swore under her breath and gave him a glaring look.

I too, shared Ah Kam’s sentiment.

I guess with this kind of politicians (good at singing karaoke, cooking up a plate of fried koay teow, pulling a glass of teh tarik, carrying someone’s baby for the camera, planting a tree here or there or giving out some food vouchers) on offer, it is not difficult for us voters to make a choice, is it?

It does not take a genius to figure out who Ah Kam will vote on polling day.

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One hot afternoon in 1973, Grandma complained of severe chest pain and had to be rushed to the hospital at once.

Both my sister and I could not sleep that night. We turned and tossed for hours on the bed and silently prayed that she would come home soon for we began to miss her.

“Sister, will Grandma die?” I asked her all of a sudden.

She was stumped by my unexpected question. The same thing was on her mind and it was bothering her too.

“I don’t know, I’m not the doctor. Anyway, why don’t you ask Mom or Dad when they got back from the hospital?” she snapped at me, annoyed that I would ask such a dreadful question.

“If you can’t sleep, let me tell you a short story and then we go to sleep. Don’t forget, tomorrow, we need to go to school,” she tried to bait me.

This is how her story goes…..

“Once upon a time in a little village in India, a mother was mourning the death of her young son who had died after drinking some contaminated water from a well in the village and got very sick.

She wailed loudly, beat her chest and pulled her hair. She cried until her voice became hoarse but still, he did not come back to life.

Just then, the Lord Buddha and a few of his disciples passed by on their way to the woods. The Enlightened One bent down and asked her gently why she cried so bitterly. She told him of her misery.

Go to every household in the village and ask for a bowl full of rye from any family that Death has not visited, he told the grief-stricken mother and she did just that.

A week later, she came to him empty-handed. The poor mother had understood what the Enlightened One had tried to tell her – that nothing is permanent and that no one can escape from death.”

Grandma died that night.

At nine years old then, I do not understand the pain of losing a loved one but this story, somehow, remain with me all these years and it did eventually serve me when I lost both Mom and Dad.

They said time will heal the pain but for me it did not.

The pain I feel today is exactly the same as what I felt six years ago when Dad left on 24th April 2007. The only difference now is that I have finally learned to accept it, thanks to the simple yet profound story that my sister once told me one night forty years ago.

Several months back, I have a strange dream where in it, I saw Dad came to see me and told me it is for the last time for he was going to Alaska soon.

What, Alaska, such a cold cold place! Well, he just smiled and left.

And when I woke up and told my family about it, they were equally puzzled.

As a Buddhist, I firmly believe in reincarnation. Perhaps he was trying to tell me that he will be born in Alaska soon.

I am not sure how to interpret this strange dream but I remember he looked young, healthy and cheerful when he came to bid me goodbye.

Alaska or not, Dad will have a special place in my heart forever.

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Today is a very sad day for those of us who knew and love Uncle Koh Leng Seah, 95. His funeral ceremony started at ten o’ clock in the morning at Nirvana Funeral Parlor off Jalan Sungei Besi. Uncle’s final resting place is at Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih, next to his beloved wife, amidst lush greenery and beautiful hills.

Buddhist mantras were chanted for him to guide and comfort his soul. Then it was time to offer him our final respect and to have a look at his benevolent face for the last time before the casket was sealed. The loud noise that came from the act of hammering in the nails of the casket sent all of us present to break down in tears. It was heart wrenching knowing we could no longer be able to see him or hear his voice again.

We walked solemnly behind his hearse in a procession before heading to the burial ground for more prayers.

The sky opens up and pours when it was all over, what an abundant blessing!

Birth, aging, sickness and finally, death.

Uncle Koh had completed a cycle of life. One cycle has ended and a new one will begin.

Farewell, my oldest friend. It was my family’s good fortune to know you and to receive your generous affection. Thank you for this meaningful friendship and beautiful memories we shared together all these years.

May you find eternal bliss in Nirvana and we will always cherish you in our hearts.

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The bad news came as I was writing the piece on Michelle Yeoh and her mammoth dinner.

Uncle Koh’s son called this morning to say he had lost his beloved father. I feel so sad to lose a very dear friend but I was not surprise.

I first got to know Uncle Koh Leng Seah in 2005 when I used to take Alexandra to the kindergarten near Peel Road each morning. Before class start, we used to visit the playground just near where he stayed. Alexandra love to play on the swings and see-saw there. Whenever he sees her playing, he would tease or smile at my little girl. And from a simple yet affectionate gesture from this senior citizen, our beautiful friendship was born. He was to become my oldest friend.

For nearly nine years, we used to go back to Peel Road as often as we could, just to visit him because he was such a pleasant being. Uncle Koh is so different from other old people. Far from being grumpy or reserved, he was very humble, warm, friendly and cheerful and that was why we enjoy his company so much despite the big generation gap.

Due to his very advance age, he had some hearing problem and you need to talk very loudly to him. Sometimes he could not hear properly and our conversation is more like “chicken and duck talk.” “Cow head does not fit horse mouth” as the Cantonese people would like to say. You asked him whether he has eaten his meal and he would reply that the weather is hot and he need a hair-cut soon. A better way to converse with him is by using hand-signs or just write down what you want to say in a piece of paper and show it to him as he still has pretty good eye-sight.

Uncle Koh came from China in 1945 after the war has ended, leaving behind a wife and son. He came on a steamer that took almost ten days to reach Malaya and landed in Port Klang. He then found a job as a coolie, carrying goods on his back, first for a rice dealer and later a grocery shop, earning RM30 dollars a month plus accommodation, food and hair-cutting allowances.

According to him, it cost only 80 cents to have a hair cut in those days. Life was very tough for Uncle Koh and his new family. To supplement his income, he even dabbled in “ji far.” As luck would have it, a patron did not turn up to collect his winnings and it goes to Uncle Koh who used it to buy a flat as an investment. Life began to get better for him from that day onwards.

After having retired as a coolie, Uncle Koh went on to rear ducks and chickens and also plant vegetables on a small plot of land near Chan Sow Lin Road for sale at the Pudu Market before being evicted in 2005. He then moved to stay in a flat on Peel Road.

A true-blue Teochew, Uncle Koh’s diet is very simple. Throughout his whole life, everyday, for lunch and dinner, he ate nothing but steamed fish and plain porridge and sometimes bitter gourd and chicken which he cooked himself. But he could not do without his wine called “Ng Kah Pei” which he must have a small cup before going to bed. He believed these are his secret to longevity.

At the age of 95, Uncle Koh did not have any serious medical problem. No heart ailment, no diabetes, no hypertension, nothing; he don’t have to visit any doctor and he could walk faster than any man half his age. He could climb up staircases before you could say Jack Robinson. But what really made him stood out was his amazing memory. Despite his age, he could still remember the name, age, year of birth, zodiac sign and occupation of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in detail. There were almost 60 of them. He could remember time, days, months and years very well too. You could not find a better time-keeper than Uncle Koh who has a watch on his wrist 24 hours a day. According to his daughter, he was still wearing his watch when he drew his last breath and of course he was buried still wearing it.

“You have not come to see me for two months already!” he pointed out when I visited him one day several months ago.

That was before he had a fall on Chinese New Year’s Eve as he went downstairs to collect his morning papers and letters. His knees were injured and so too, his chest. Uncle Koh did not recover from that fall. He became ill and had to be hospitalized for some time. He died at Tung Shin Hospital this morning, surrounded by his family who loved him very much.

This coming Sunday morning, he will join his wife and mother at Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih.

Goodbye, Uncle Koh. Rest in peace. The playground at Peel Road will be a lonely place without you.

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The other day, Dr. Anthony Pun wrote about the Chinese diaspora, the effects when these people spread themselves across the globe and also their lives in their adopted countries.

Today, it’s my turn to touch on an important issue which I think many Chinese took seriously again in recent years – planning and preparing for one’s own death. Notice how I use the word “again” so emphatically because this practice has been missing from the scene for quite sometime only to emerge as a trend today. Yes, it’s a sort of cultural or spiritual revival.

In my first book, “The Stories of the Scissors Sharpener’s Daughter,” there was a chapter where I wrote of how my paternal Grandpa, a humble bean curd maker, got a coffin and a plot of burial land on a hilltop in Batu Gajah (enough to accommodate three persons as he had two wives) on his 70th birthday. Besides a large coffin and a spacious plot of land, a complete set of “Longevity Suit” called “Sau Yi” was also bought for that auspicious occasion. The silk suit came with a cap and a pair of shoes made from the same material. It was gold in color and generously covered with the motif “Sau” all over it. “Sau” means longevity while “Yi” means “suit.”

This practice, strange it may sound to westerners like Tom Parsons, made perfect sense to the Chinese. Besides getting him to eat plenty of pink-colored peach or tortoise shape “Longevity Buns,” on that day, giving such items to the birthday boy (in this case, my Grandpa) is akin to bestowing longevity to the recipient, hence the term “Tim Sau” where “tim” means “to add.” Put together, it simply means “to add longevity,” something every Chinese greatly and openly desires for. Everyone wish for long life, right? This suit, together with the cap and shoes, will be worn by Grandpa on the day he died and before being placed into his coffin. So the whole thing is about adding longevity to that person besides easing him of his worries of whether he would be properly buried once he dies.

But Grandpa is not the only person to make plans for his  final journey. Since time immemorial, the Emperors of ancient China too, had magnificent mausoleums constructed for them and elaborated “Longevity Costumes” weaved years in advance. You can’t build a large tomb and weave a glorious garment all in a single day, can you? These tasks are very laborious and time-consuming, thus they have to start preparing much earlier before the sovereign die. Ever heard of jade burial suits used by the Emperors of the Han Dynasty? If weaving a silk robe is tedious, just imagine the time and effort it takes to sew a suit made from pieces and pieces of jade bind together by golden threads! Look further and you can even see how the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt shared the same view to that of the Emperors of China. They have millions and millions of slaves laboring away to build their final resting place called the pyramids on the fertile valleys of the Nile. See, people in ancient times are already planning and preparing for their deaths.

But somehow, the Chinese people began to change their mentality. As recently as thirty years ago, when an insurance salesman were to appear at your doorstep with, “Excuse me sir or madam, in the eventuality of your……..” and the poor salesman will be shown the door. “Choy, choy, choy, you want to curse me to die early?” is a very common and immediate respond. I can’t think of the English equivalent of “Choy, choy, choy.” The nearest I can think of, and for the benefit of Tom, is “Taboo, taboo, taboo! Don’t mention this subject!” The Malays called it “Pantang.” You are not allowed to mention about death when that person is still alive. A lot of people don’t like it. It frightens them to be told of something as scary as death. You are reminding them that they are fragile.

The Chinese had forgotten a universal truth or simply refuse to accept that everybody will die someday. From the dirty beggar lying on the dusty roadside to the mighty monarch or “Son of Heaven” sitting on the golden dragon throne and lording over everyone, everybody will have to die when the time comes. No one can escape death no matter how wealthy and powerful one is. “Nothing is certain but death and taxes is,” as how Benjamin Franklin bluntly puts it. You just cannot run away from death just like you cannot run away from taxes. Grim Reaper and the taxmen would let no one off.

Even if you don’t mention the word “death” or allow others to mention it in front of you, you will still die someday, right? So, why are the Chinese, who once upon a time, do not hesitate to plan and made preparations for their final day in advance are so fearful now? The answer is simply this – they have a very profound fear for death. But why would you fear for something that is as natural as the air you breathe? “Even death is not to be feared for one who lived wisely” the Buddha said. For every birth, there is death, just like morning followed by night.

Life is a series of planning and preparations. When a woman became pregnant, she will plan which hospital to go to for her delivery, which doctor or midwife to help her during the labor, which brand of milk formula to give to the newborn, what auspicious and nice sounding name to give to the baby and even which education fund to invest in for the child. When we are preparing for a wedding, we will have to plan which reputable studio to have our photos taken, which gown and suits to wear for that big day, which restaurant to hold the reception, who to invite to the dinner and which country to go for the honeymoon. So you see, it’s all about planning this and that so that everything goes smoothly and accordingly.

But how many of us ever sit down to think where we want to be buried and what ceremony we want to have when we die? Not many and in the end, we just said something like, “Aiya, I don’t care because by that time, I’m already dead and do not know what will happened to my body” or maybe, “Just sprinkle my ashes into the sea and let the sharks eat them” and also, “I’ll leave the matter to my children to handle, they’re smart kids!” But how sure are we that our children will give us a dignified exit or even a simple one?

If you are wealthy and have a fortune to pass on to your children, most probably they are more concern with how much they will get than to care for how you, a piece of dead meat, will be buried. And if you are penniless, then your children would most probably said to one another, “You’re more loved by Dad when he was alive or you’re more capable now, so you handle!” Worst still, if your children have different religion from one another, then one will say,”I’m the eldest, I’ll do it my way,” or the other would say,”I pay more, so I’ll  do it my way!” In the end, with all the differences between them, you will end up neither here nor there, not in Heaven nor in Hell but with your soul caught somewhere in between! 🙂 If this is not a nightmare, then I don’t know what is.

I am glad to learn that many people had wiser up these days. Maybe they heard enough about the horror stories from their friends or relatives of being abandoned or mishandled after death by those they thought they could depend upon. So instead of depending on others to handle your final journey, why don’t you plan it yourself while you can still think logically, before Alzheimer sets in?

That is exactly what I saw many people were doing several nights ago when my husband and I attended a talk cum dinner organized by Nirvana Memorial Park to explain why we need to plan ahead for the eventuality. I think we deserve and own ourselves the privilege and right to know where our final resting place is and how gracefully we could go once we breathe our last. That’s better than going away without knowing anything or what will happened to our bodies and of course, our souls too.

I could still remember how on the morning after Mom died, very stunned and bereft, we went in a daze to the Paradise Memorial Park in Tanjung Rambutan to choose a columbarium for her. Her death came so suddenly, it caught us completely off guard. Confused, heart-broken and inconsolable, we wished, at that moment, we had planned and prepared earlier for this eventuality. It is difficult to do things when you feel sorrowful and there are many things for the mourning family to do – choosing the right coffin, arranging the nuns to chant prayers, preparing her wake and informing friends and relatives of our loss. There is one word to describe that experience – painfully chaotic. With Dad, seven years later, things were more organized as we are prepared this time around. Therefore, his departure is more dignified and orderly although we felt equally devastated by our lost.

My parting advice is this –  one does not have to wait until one is old and sick and with Death staring into one’s face to plan for that day, just do it while one is still alive and kicking. At least you know you have a hand in the planning and preparation.

Of course I do not mean to ask people to keep coffins and longevity suits in their houses in this age or like how my Grandpa stored them away in his store-room. At reputable memorial parks and Nirvana is one of them, all you can do is just to pick a burial plot, or a columbarium and a service package and they will keep these things for you until you need them one day! Easy, right? That is why this practice is getting accepted and popular again. One feng-shui master who talked on that night even said that’s the best gift for your own birthday or that of your family members, be it your parents, your spouse or even your children.

I just have to say it here, Grandpa Yip Soo, you’ve done the right thing! 🙂

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Sometime last week but I am not sure which day, I went to the market behind my house to buy the weekly groceries and still had RM10 left. Since I did not bring my purse along as it was rather bulky, I just tucked the RM10 into the right pocket of my pants. When I got home, I began to unload all the meats and vegetables I had just bought into the refrigerator and had totally forgotten about the RM10 in the right pocket of my pants and it sat there for several days.

Yesterday when my son Nicholas complained of sore throat, I decided to boil some herbal drinks for the whole family since the weather outside is very hot. I put a RM20 together with the house key into my left pocket of the same pants before heading to the market.

At the stall selling traditional medicine, I picked a packet of “Pak Ji Choe” for RM3. While busy asking the chap how many bowls of water to use and how many hours needed to boil the herbs,  I quickly took out a note from my pocket to pay him, all the while thinking it was the RM20.

When he passed back RM7 to me, I was like, “Hey, just now I paid you RM20, so how come you give me back RM7? It should be RM17.”

“No, you gave me RM10. If you don’t believe me, here, have a look at the box where I kept all the notes and coins,” he replied while showing me the box. Yes, I saw with my own eyes that all the notes in his box are RM10, RM5 and RM1. There isn’t any RM20 there and this really had me puzzled. Is my eyes or my mind playing a trick on me, I asked myself.

Thinking it is futile to argue further with him and with so many pairs of eyes fixed on me, I decided to walk away, telling myself to be more careful next time. Maybe this is my unlucky day, I thought to myself. I have always heard of people saying the new notes issued not so long ago are very confusing. The colors are so similar to each other. For example, the color of the new RM20 is very similar to that of the old RM10.

When I got home and reached out for my keys in the left pocket, my fingers felt something and I pulled it out……it was the RM20. It quickly dawned on me that I have not even touch the RM20 in the left pocket. Instead, I had used the RM10 that I have put in the right pocket and had forgotten all about it that day.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of regret. I had wrongly argued with the chap just now.

Today, I went back to his stall and explained the mistake to him and he had a laugh. I felt better as I always like to buy his stuff.

All well ends well, right?

And by the way, do you find the new Malaysian currencies quite confusing, I mean, the color tone?

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I saw this story on Facebook and would love to share it out with my readers. Hope it will warm your heart as much as it did mine…..

A female humpback whale had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, a line tugging in her mouth.

This is her story of showing gratitude.

A fisherman spotted her just east of the Faralon Islands (outside the Golden Gate) and radioed for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so badly off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her…. a very dangerous proposition.

One slap of the tail could kill a rescuer.

They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her.

When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, nudged them, and pushed gently, thanking them. Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives.

The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eye was following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.

May you be so fortunate to be surrounded by people who will help you get untangled from the things that are binding you.

And, may you always know the joy of giving and receiving gratitude.

SHARE to let everyone know about this story!!

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Ching Ming Day which means “clear and bright day” is here again. It is a day to go to our ancestors’ tombs, pull away the wild growing weeds surrounding it, sweep the place clean and then offer foods, drinks and of course some money in the form of hell bank notes. Some even let off a string of fire-crackers or two to attract some good luck.

“Tomb Sweeping Day” as this practice is sometimes known, is not a Buddhist practice but a Taoist one. Of course Lord Buddha encourages us to respect our dead ancestors and hold them in high esteem but it was a Taoist practice to go to the tombs and make offerings each spring.

In the past, it is common to see people burning paper clothes, shoes, houses, cars, home appliances,  jewelries and even servants for their departed loved ones hoping to get their blessings in return. But today, this practice is getting more and more commercialized. This morning, I walked past a shop selling such items near my place and saw paper ipads hanging all over the shop. This is getting lunatic. Paper computers or mobile phones are now so passé.

As Buddhist or even Taoists, we are supposed to believe in the concept of rebirth. Our dead ancestors have died for so many years, surely they have been reincarnated, with some even a few rounds. So, if we were to burn these items, who will be there in hell to receive them?

“Hey, I’ve received the gold and silver ingots as well as the clothes you offered the other day and thank you so much!” – anyone heard of this before?

But there is something everybody heard of – those clever entrepreneurs selling these items will be laughing their way to the banks and also, with all the burnings going on for the past month, no wonder the air we breathe in is getting more and more polluted. Some may said, never mind, it’s a yearly affair, not a daily one. And so, this practice perpetuates.

Money is getting harder and harder to come by these days. I think it is a waste to spend several hundreds of dollars burning paper items for a host of dead ancestors and not knowing whether they actually got it or not. It is like burning our money. So what I did from now on is to chant some prayers for them and donate some money to the temple in their names. I chose this way to remember my departed loved ones.

How about you? What do you think of all those burnings?

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