Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Beneath the Picture

by Adrian Young

My son called me up and ask me to get him an old family photograph, I kept wondering what the hell was he up to now?

"Pa, I want to tell your story," my son tells me, there was something in his voice he was serious about this pet project of his.

He specifically asked for a photograph from one of our old photo albums. The old black and white photograph is at least 50 years old and has survived the many silverfish that infest our ancestral home. The picture shows a smiling family, as any family photograph should. Every picture should on the surface portray that impression for it to be considered a good picture. But beneath every picture lies a tale. Beneath this picture lies silent story that has been hidden for many years. A story that is never discussed. Much like in all old Chinese families traditions, nothing is spoken. Everything is dealt with within the family. Only what the family shows on the outside is important.

Beneath the smiles, the picture holds much. It is a story of jealousy, pain and hate. I really wonder who invented the line that blood was thicker than water. The Chinese family always keeps their dirty linen well hidden deep inside the closet. I look at the picture again, there is my aunty, whom we called Yee Che which means Second Sister, she is actually Ah Ma's younger sister, Next is my eldest sister Ling Ka. Who is now unmarried, and has devoted her entire life to taking care Ah Ma and Ah Pa. Now her legs are stiffening and she has to undergo yet another operation. Another headache. Next to her is my third sister, the shortest of all my sisters, we used to call her "3 inch nail" in Cantonese or most commonly, Pik Ka. Next to her is my second sister, I was very close to her as she was the one who was in charge of taking care of me, when I had measles. She has a birthmark painted by God over her face. We now called her Maureen, her Catholic name from when we attended a missionary school. Next to Maureen is Ah Ma.

Ah Ma, my mother, the dragon lady of the family, now reduced to aged baggage regarded as burden by every single person of the family. It's amazing how a mother can bring up nine children but not one is willing to take her. It came upon my shoulders to bear this burden, but it was my wife who suggested we took mother in. All she said was "We have two sons also Pete. One day we'll be in Ah Dak and Ah Yip's mercy". True. Mother has survived one world war, a few recessions and many family squabbles that would put some of Chinese television dramas to shame. Dad was the melancholic man, one who toiled and worked as if there was no tomorrow, whereas Ah Ma was the sanguine one who oiled our family business. She was the competent communicator, the people person, she organized lavished dinners during Chinese New Year, commanded the children and relatives, adopted children, servants alike with military precision. General Patton would have been proud to have her as an officer. Our family was very liberal. We were business people. We survived the war because we adapted. My mother did business with the Japanese during the war, that’s how we survived, all of us. She did business with the British when they came back. I remember how she would walk to the resident's office and do her stuff. She was known simply as Madam Yong, no fancy title no nothing. She didn't speak a word of English but somehow she managed to teach the Resident's wife the finer points of quilt work. At 96, she can still entertain Chinese New Year guests with rather candid stories of her golden years.

Ah Pa on the other hand, was one who would to bury himself in work. Without Ah Ma as second officer of the ship, Ah Pa's business might not have flourished so much. Maybe he was worn down because of his second business squabble, the one that I had to intervened in. He could have picked the eldest son, but he didn't. He picked me. For what reason I will never know, the business was being torn apart in two by my second uncle. When it comes to money, there is no such thing as water or blood, just cold hard cash and victory. I had to come all the way back from Australia, I had dreamt of becoming a teacher there but fate took a different turn for me. I settled the business dispute for Ah Pa at 21. Gone was my innocence. Mum has always been behind me after that

That's when the hate began, almost 30 years that dad passed away. That night, after the will was read, my family and I became public enemy number one. My eldest was in his teens, the youngest only 5. Even after 30 years, their hate and jealousy still survives, sibling love being less attractive than hate. My empire that I built by my own hands was torn to pieces. How did I survive that? The younger siblings in the picture are on the first row. I am the one on the right. Behind me is my eldest brother. The rest were all too young to know the truth, all they new was appropriate half truths. I had kept myself dumb on the facts, for the facts were much too hurtful. It is better for one to suffer than all to bear that pain. Ah Ma knew, maybe that's why she has decided to follow me. Until she draws her last breath, she says. I smile, for every year she lives she, my wife and I jokes, takes two years out of us. I looked at myself in the picture again. Although my youngest son looks like his mother, his zest, his nature reminds me of myself. One of my few hopes that I cling too now.

He should have been the pragmatist but he's the idealist. The eldest is everything he should be as a son. But the youngest is adrift. I lost that at 21. He'll lose it too, when reality weathers and drags his flying soul down back to Earth. Sad but true. He graduated in marine biology, when I would have rather he became a lawyer. Now he's left his job. Says he needs to find himself. What will I do with this son of mine? Not to mentioned that he has never once brought a girlfriend home unlike the eldest. My wife and I wonder.

"Pa, I want to tell your story."

My story? Where do I even begin? I think, turning my glance back to the black and white photograph lying on the coffee table, I can only shake my head and shudder at the thought.