A reader tells the story of an octogenarian with an interesting past.
“YOU were born in China, right?” I ask.
“No. My passport says China, but I was born in Panipahan, Indonesia,” Chu replies nonchalantly. He sits in his personal study, surrounded by clusters of keychains in all things Chinese – emerald hu lu (gourde), feng shui coins, baby Shao Lin monks, Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) – dangling haphazardly on every cabinet handle.
The fragrant aroma of pu erh tea fills the room, appeasing the tranquil figurines of Fuk Luk Sau (Three Star Deities) who eavesdrop on our conversation.
“Our boat took seven days to arrive in Malaysia from Indonesia. How we suffered!” he adds.
It was after World War II in Indonesia, in the midst of the Indonesian revolution. When the Japanese retreated due to the returning Dutch forces, anti-Chinese sentiment grew chaotic, giving rise to sporadic riots by radical groups. The fishing village of Panipahan was caught in the crossfire.
Molotov cocktails were thrown and the boys from the Panipahan Young Men’s Society were called upon to defend their village.
“It was stab or be stabbed,” he says animatedly as he wields an imaginary dagger, reliving the time he knifed his enemies. He saw friends, bloody and sweaty from battle, drag half-dead bodies which were flung into the open sea. “We won the fight!” Chu proclaims proudly. He was only 16 then.
But, the battle was not over. Indonesian police returned that very night, looking for revenge. Frantic sounds of clanging pots and pans warned everyone to escape. Chu, his fisherman father, mother and four brothers, found space in an already crowded boat and fled the country empty-handed.
The sea was unforgiving. He shared what little food he had and even less water with a hundred other refugees. Two of his neighbours died during the journey. They later claimed Kuala Selangor, Malaya as their new home.
Chu was immediately put to work, pleading the sea for a bountiful catch to feed his family, and have enough for rent, food, and his brothers’ education.
“My Panipahan home, they burnt it to ashes,” he says with a tremor in his voice. He runs his fingers through wad of cash meant for his next holiday to Hat Yai with his wife, distracting himself from the painful memory. “I bought this land when I had the money,” he says while securing the money with a rubber band. “It took me two long years to build this house.”
Visitors to the grand bungalow would envy Chu’s comfortable lifestyle: a vintage Mercedes Benz parked in the porch, a cupboard filled with top grade Chinese tea and a caring family that visits him regularly.
“I married her when I was in my 20s,” says Chu, glancing tenderly at his Panipahan next-door neighbour turned wife.
“She used to be very pretty,” he says, adding, “I used to have quite the swagger – a lot of girls fancied me!” Six decades later, with five sons, four daughters and 30 grandchildren later to show for it, he still surprises his wife with the occasional gift.
Despite sacrificing school at age 10 to help his family make ends meet, Chu had all the smarts to successfully start Hua Construction Co. Bhd, his own construction company. He started with buying and selling of farm land, and moved on to developing Klang town, where he would eventually call his home. The company flourished for 45 years, until he retired recently.
“At that time, we only earned RM1,000 for each plot of land. Now construction companies earn thousands!” he exclaims.
Selling land alone was not sufficient to support Chu’s family, but he somehow earned enough to send all nine children to college. Although he dedicated his life to work, he never missed a family dinner, except when he had to return to Indonesia for business.
En route to conduct some business in Indonesia, Chu and his crew were barely off the coast of Port Klang when the Indonesian Navy arrested them. He outsmarted them by insisting that he was not sailing to Indonesia, as the bow of his boat was headed towards Tanjung Karang. However, the Dutch captain was not convinced. When they released him a week later, the captain pointed a frightening gun at Chu and said, “If I ever see you again, I will shoot you!”
He owes his healthy figure to more than 40 years of tai chi, cha cha dance and morning walks. “All my friends at the clubhouse have passed on, one by one. If they don’t show up for a week, maybe they are on holiday. But if they disappear for months, something is wrong!” Chu laughs and shakes his head.
“But you haven’t told me why does your IC says you’re from China,” I say again, as the old man vainly puts on his cologne. At 85, the wrinkles on his face and silver hair belie his wisdom and experience.
“I came to Malaya without an Indonesian ID. So, when I was old enough to get my Malayan IC, I just said that I was from China!”
With that, my grandfather takes the keys to his Mercedes-Benz and closes the door behind him.
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