The Happiest Family In Sanc Ville
Which is what my mother called us, and for a time I think it was very true. From seven to ten I was really very happy. There were still tears and fears, disappointments and upsets, but on the whole it was a good time – quite possibly the best time of my life. Ah, but everyone says that about their childhood, don’t they?
What’s Sanc Ville? My second home after Dei Po Road. That was sold and we moved to a new place, an apartment block right next to a shopping centre which had BOTH a video game store AND a comic shop – which to my young mind meant that basically it was as close to heaven as you could get. Plus our new home even had a swimming pool! What bliss.
I believe that at this point it would be a good idea to give you an idea of who my parents were and are. They are, after all, the people who made me, and they will figure quite prominently in everything that comes next.
Let’s start with my mom. Her is name is Liew Sim Mei, though she also took the name Clarice when she studied in Australia.
I am of course biased but I have always thought my mother was on the pretty side. Certainly the few photographs of her that we still have of her earlier days would seem to lend credence to that fact. She was (and still is) uncommonly intelligent, fast on her mental feet and very well-educated indeed.
She was an aspiring poet, a editor of plays, a teacher (her job for most of her life) and lover of books. Among her other achievements, at the tender age of seventeen she wrote a which when produced, ended up with her being invited to talk to a man who would later become the Prime Minister of Singapore. I was so awed, impressed and proud of her when I learnt of this fact years later.
She is and was also the most critical person I have ever known. Nothing was so bad that it could not be made worse by complaining about it. There was always something wrong with something. It could be the government, the world in general, industrial pollution, men…anything, really. Most often it was my father, but you can rest assured that in any given situation there would be a problem and it would be someone else’s fault.
As you can probably expect a lot of this got transferred to her children as well. Most Asian parents (especially women) set very high expectations for their brood, and my mother was no exception. I think even when I was a child I was hard on myself. Everything had to be done just so, no excuses, no exceptions. Very good was just acceptable. Work hard, study hard and don’t slack off! That was drilled into me pretty much every day as a kid.
She could be tender and caring, and often was. She prized learning about all else, and our house was always filled with books upon books upon books, so much so that visitors would remark on “the library”, a tall brown study at the back of the house. She (and my father) were most definitely very very academically oriented, which meant lots of reading for everyone in the family.
She also shouted, and scolded, and her rages would be things to be feared. As a child whenever she got angry I would run and hide and just wait for Mum to get over it. It seemed to work pretty well.
Oh yes, and she beat me. A lot. I know all you Westerners must be shaking your heads and tut-tutting up a storm by now, but at this period of time in Singapore, beating children as a form of discipline was not exactly uncommon. Though I must say that the amount and the intensity that my Mum whacked me with was most probably outside the norm – though I had no way of knowing that. She would beat and beat and I would cry and cry but it would all be ok because at the end Mum would come back to being Mum again and love me and everything would be ok once more.
As a child, she doted on me (when she wasn’t shouting or scolding) and I on her. I was the happiest when Mum was there, reading to me or playing a game – which due to her work schedule often was not as often as I would have liked. She would print out cards with words with which to teach me reading, and read to me a lot besides.
Then there were games, some of which I did not like. She had this thing about tangrams and often tried to get me to unsuccessfully play with them. But most often it was books. Books and books and more books! As a lecturer she had access to the university library and brought back books nearly every day. Some of my happiest memories are of my mother coming up the driveway, smiling, with a bunch of books in her arms, and me running to see her.
Children’s books, so many of them! I read the Wind and the Willows, Frog and Toad, and almost anything by Janet and Ahlan Ahlberg. I guess one of the advantages of having a lecturer as a mom is that you get access to the Very Best of British Children’s Literature. I would roll around in the big bed that we had and read to my heart’s content.
Which child does not love his or her mother? It’s a rhetorical question. I sat on her lap and she would read me stories and even sometimes play computer games together. We played Moon Patrol and I wanted to shoot, (man did I wear the spacebar down) she could drive. The same went for Space Invaders (actually the game wasn’t really Space Invaders and I can’t remember the name but it was close enough!)
She was pretty hip and cool for a Mum, even if I do say so myself. She had her ultra-traditionalist, Do As Your Mother Says and Respect Your Parents side (which probably came from HER parents) but her time spent aboard had given her a wider view of the world. She used to smoke and even played Super Mario Brothers for a while – although she never made it past World 2.
Along the rages though was also the agoraphobia. And the panic attacks. I never realized (until much later in my life) how much those two things must have burdened her and shaped her life. She couldn’t go out of the house alone, and so she took me everywhere with her. To shopping centres, to buy clothes, to see her family…as a child I just took this as a matter of course and I followed docilely, almost always with a book in hand. Everyone I met cooed and smiled and told me what a smart boy I was to be reading so much at such a young age.
This was of course related to the panic attacks. My mother had suffered from them most of her life, and sometimes her face and hands would tense and she would look around for a danger that was not there. It was pretty scary to be around, especially for a young child. A lot of her behavior could be traced back to that fear – never going out alone, needing somebody around, and not going too far from the house. Agoraphobia and panic attacks both is a deadly combination.
Oh, and the high-blood pressure. My mother has had high-blood pressure since before I can remember. There was a trip to the doctor’s office where I can remember looking concernedly on as the doctor attached a strange-looking device (which actually was just a pump) to her arm. She just smiled and said that it was something Mum had to have done.
It’s kind of obvious now that my mother wasn’t the healthiest of individuals. These things would take their toll on her in the later years in ways which we couldn’t see at that time. But once again to a child they were just things that Mum had and did and that didn’t matter. I loved her and she loved me – what else was there to know?
And now I come to my father. My dad is a tallish, kind and gentle man who worked as a researcher for the Housing Development Board of the government. He was that rarity of rarities – a gentleman who was actually gentle. Perhaps due to his years in the United Kingdom, I have always thought he carried himself with a certain refinement. He was intelligent, learned (perhaps not as much as my mother) and loved (and still loves) motorcycles and detective novels.
He was also (and continues to be) the most negative person I have ever met. In his world there was a cloud behind every silver lining – or better yet, no silver linings at all! If something could go wrong, he would assume it would. Like my mother he was giving to brooding, and when I was a child, I could remember him sitting, staring into nothing, for the better part of an hour. He was adept at seeing the negative quality of any situation and dissuading you from doing anything to improve it. To him it was just being realistic.
A maxim of his was “prepare for the worst.” And boy would he prepare – checking things over ten times and getting to the airport four hours early in case “anything happened.” A born worrier, he used to drive my Mum (and to a lesser extent, me) nuts with his anxiety.
Cheapskates had nothing on my father. He would make a pan-handler looks like King Midas. When it came to purchasing anything his view was that the exchange of goods and services was a battle, and you won if you didn’t buy!
He was a born rationalist. If there was no scientific study on it, it as good as didn’t exist. He analyzed everything. He always looked, asked, but never touched. It wasn’t safe to do anything without rules, use-by-dates, or instruction manuals.
People have many talents, and two of my father’s were cooking and art, especially the latter. When he was younger he was selected to represent Singapore in a regional art competition, and then later on, was offered a position at the Birmingham College of Art in the UK. There’s a whole story behind that as well, but that will come in time. His cooking was never chef-quality but he could whip up quite a few good meals in either the Western or Eastern style.
Strange for such a negative person, perhaps, but my childhood memories of my father are often of him smiling. And yes, he did smile a great deal and was great fun to be around most of the time. I can remember him spending almost every weekend tinkering with his motorcycle in the open space below the stairs of our apartment. He would give me rides to wherever we wanted to go and I can still remember the feeling of the wind streaming past my arms and legs, the helmet two sizes big and heavy on my head.
Of course I didn’t see my parents like this when I was younger! The good and bad were there, but they are very different in a child’s eyes. Mum was the one I went to for advice, the one I was closer to, the one that I had to obey. (or beware the consequences!) Dad was good for games and stories, not so good for help or for work, and the one that I should not get too close to. For even when I was young I knew certain things – the laws of the world, if you will.
Namely, that there was no love lost between my parents. I mean that quite literally, because actually there was no love at all. Perhaps there had been earlier (they DID get married and had me!) but the time I was six they didn’t talk to each other much, if at all. Those of you who are reading this and come from families with divorced parents (or maybe are divorced yourselves) are probably quite familiar with the perpetual Cold War that rages.
There is a relationship of a sort but it’s largely based on false pretenses. No one says anything, and if they do, it’s all very practical and polite. There’s little to no conversation, and absolutely no touching regardless of the circumstances.
But as a child I thought this was the way all families were. And individually, my dad and mom loved me very much. My loyalty to Mum (whom I was closer to) also came with a certain distance to Dad – aided in no small part by his own distance from everything. I was taught (perhaps unconsciously) that Dad was no good. Dad himself was there, but in a sense never really there. For instance, he did nothing whenever my mother scolded me or beat me. I now realize that he was probably terrified of her, and with good reason – she could be pretty scary when angry!
My childhood world was interrupted by the arrival of a little sister. Meimei would become (and still is at the time of this writing) the most important person in my life, but I didn’t know it at that time. In fact, I actually thought she was kind of a bother. I loved to eat out, and now with this new and most unwelcome addition to our family, we could not do so any longer. My mom tried to counteract this by eating out a lot beforehand so that we would have a reservoir of sorts when Meimei came along…but try telling that to a kid! Delayed gratification is a concept that not even the most intelligent seven year can comprehend.
What else does a child remember from his childhood? Video games! I loved (and still love) video games. Except that this love is more akin to what Christians have for Jesus, or parents have for their children. No, I’m not kidding – when I say I loved video games, most people had no idea how much.
For though I did not know then, they were to save my life, open the world to me, and teach me almost everything important about Life, the Universe and Everything. Not to mention being incredibly fun!
I had no gaming consoles as a kid, and so my dad used to bring me to a place called PP Park to watch games instead, which I would do for hours and hours. There was Super Mario Brothers (of course) and Dragon Spirit and Pooyan (who remembers that?) and Megaman and a whole host of other games that I couldn’t identify because I was six years old.
I had an uncle who gave us his Nintendo when he was done with it and that was like the Best Present Ever. Finally I could play games instead of just watch them! I think my favorite game in my childhood had to be the Legend of Zelda. I used to play that with my Dad quite a bit. He completed the game before me, staying up on several nights to make maps and chart dungeons. There was one night where he couldn’t get past a room with eight blue Darknuts and I had to help him fight through it. I almost beat all of them before the last one got to me and I burst out crying – which lead to Mum to coming in and berate him for letting me stay up and play video games on a school day.
So I played video games, and when I say I played I PLAYED. I think now that had I not been so lonely at school and at home, and had parents who spent more time with me (not to mention each other) I would have had more outlets for my youthful enthusiasm. But as it went most of my childhood was spent in front of the TV screen – not an uncommon phenomenon. Contra, Castlevania, Super Adventure Island, and of course Super Mario Brothers – all the classics.
I didn’t just play video games (although my mother would have disagreed with that statement most vociferously) I read a lot – anything I could get my hands on, really. There was absolutely no shortage of books in the house. But I think my favorites had to be fantasy and sci-fi. I read Dragonlance (didn’t everyone at some point?) and I had to endure my mother’s scathing comments about how it was so derivative of the Lord of the Rings and I should read that instead. Whatever. Beverly Cleary was another childhood favorite of mine.
I also remember being really into Arthurian legends when I was younger. The sense of chivalry, heroism and virtue in those tales would stay with me my entire life. I guess all young boys dream of slaying dragons and rescuing maidens in some fashion. I loved myths and legends from all around the world and would collect every folk and fairy tale I could find. The Fairy Book series (The Red Fairy Book, Blue Fairy Book etc) was another childhood favorite of mine.
How about what was on the TV? Star Wars! I never was that big into the whole franchise when I grew older but when I was seven years old I watched the single VHS tape we had of Star Wars (recorded straight from the TV no less) so many times that it wore out. Same goes for Transformers – I loved it to bits as a child (I probably watched the movie the same amount of times I watched Star Wars) but I sort of fell out of it as I grew older.
I also met my first good friends during this time, Connor and Calvin Ying. They were brothers – Connor the younger and Calvin the older. I was Connor’s age but given our mutual bookish nature, I sometimes felt a lot closer to the older brother, Calvin, giving rise to some feelings of shame and misplaced loyalty. But I liked them both and so we all got along – except when the brothers fought, as all brothers do.
Connor was most definitely the best friend of my childhood. We had all the same interests – video games (for him it was computer games, actually. He was an early PC adopter and was always faster with the latest technology than me) comics and telling each other stories. We even had our stuffed animals introduce themselves to each other!
I liked Calvin a lot too. We shared a mutual interest in tabletop RPGs that Connor never really got into. I remember a silent, starless night in which he invited me over to his room to look at his prized collection of RPG books (which were really hard to find in Singapore at that time) and feeling such a sense of togetherness that I could read all the “big boy” stuff with my dear friend. He was four years older than me – a lifetime to a boy of eight or nine.
We had great times together. Like I said, these were some of the best days of my life. We played games all the time and ran around and did all the things young boys do. I ate with his family and they ate with mine. We watched movies and played more games and each day that I spent with them was filled with fun and joy and laughter.
What else was important during this time? School, of course. It is generally a big deal in most young children’s life and mine was no exception. I was both a mommy’s boy AND the teacher’s pet, which of course meant that I had no friends. I remember reading a lot. About the only attention I got from the other kids was when it was time to do homework, at which point I became the center of attention for the whole class. Why? Well, because then they could copy my homework and then get back to playing games of course. Me? I just wanted to finish up everything as fast as I could so I could get back to reading.
While I excelled (more like “beat the pants of anyone close in terms of grades”) at almost every subject, there was the bugbear that would plague my life for years to come. Namely, Chinese. Now, despite being of Chinese parentage, my parents did not speak any Chinese, and I stepped into the classroom in Primary 1 (first-grade to you US folks) without knowing a single word of Chinese. Guess what language the class was taught in? I can recall spending almost the entire lesson looking out of the classroom windows in complete non-comprehension, waiting for my Dad to come and fetch me home.
It was not a huge problem in Primary 1 but grew into one as I got older. At first I just ignored it – like most kids do when they are confronted with something that they don’t like. The thing is, you couldn’t. Or rather for the first year or so you could, and the second year I still got a few passing marks, but from then on no one could ignore the fact that Kain couldn’t speak Chinese to save his life. It was the only red mark on my otherwise pristine academic record.
To make matters worse there was this constant refrain of “you are Chinese, how come you can’t speak Chinese? You Have Brought Shame To Your Ancestors!” I swear I could hear the capital letters even when I was all of eight years old. Many people would tell me this in many years for years to come and internally I would always think “well, I don’t speak Chinese because no one at home does!”
All the usual panaceas were trotted out. I was bought children’s books in Chinese, I had tuition in Chinese, I tried to watch Chinese TV. Nothing worked. All that happened was that I grew to hate it more and more. My mother would also tell me about how she was forced to study Chinese by her own father and how she hated it (in my mother’s family they spoke Hokkien, a Chinese dialect – not Mandarin) All the teachers would tell me about how shameful it was that I was a Chinese person who couldn’t speak his own language. I just stared blankly back at them. Didn’t they know my first language was English?
Chinese lessons were horrors for me. I especially dreaded Wednesdays – two and a half hours of sitting around understanding absolutely nothing. I think it would be quite the ordeal for anyone, let alone a eight to nine year old child.
To be fair, the curriculum wasn’t designed for children like me. The teachers and educators probably assumed that a potential student would understand at least a BIT of Chinese (not an unfounded assumption) I would have been much happier in a Western-based educational system which taught language in terms of grammar (definitely my strong point) or phonetics, rather than the straight-out immersion and memorization approach that the schools in Singapore took.
I would continue to hate Chinese for the better part of two decades. It would get worse until getting better…and though I did not know it at that time, it would be an epic tale of forgiveness and redemption. But you’ll have to read on to find out how that happened.
I was lonely at school and also lonely at home. My parents didn’t get back from work until around seven or so, and there wasn’t much time for playing before it was bedtime (which I recall being about eight P.M or so when I was eight) All I had for company most of the time were games and books, and so I read voraciously and played ferociously. There were other kids on my block that I played with now and then, but none as close to me as C and C, and since they were only free to come over on Saturday, it was for Saturday I waited for with bated breath every day.
No matter how dreary or boring or friendless the weeks were (and they could be all three) it was all worth it when Saturday rolled around. I don’t think it was much of an exaggeration to my younger self to say that I practically lived for that day. Saturday was when I could be with my friends, where we could play the whole day instead of doing homework (that had been done at lightning speed on Friday night) and eat at McDonald’s, then go over to each other’s house and play some more.
I was also pretty close to my cousins, Andrea and Mark from my mother’s side and Jason and Chris from my father’s. The former I spent some time with back when we were all at my maternal grandma’s house. The latter often came over to my place (or I would go to theirs) to play and just generally spend time together. I remember once Jason saying plaintively once when Andrea and Mark were introduced as our cousins “but we’re YOUR cousins too!” Kids say the darndest things.
No mention of my childhood would be complete without talking about Robotech. Ohhhh, how I loved that series. Robotech was also my first exposure to anime – much like most of my generation, come to think of it. Though I had watched some anime before (mainly Sailor Moon dubbed in Chinese) I couldn’t understand it at all because…well it was in Chinese! And I wasn’t one of those kids who were just content to watch the pretty pictures. I wanted to know what they were saying, what the story was!
Robotech was…quite a tour de force to a nine year old, which is when I started watching it. I don’t think I fully appreciated every aspect of the series at the tender age of nine (I definitely didn’t understand all the romance and wished they would get back to the fighting) But it rocked my world and I remember finding and reading all the novels I could get my hands on. Its sheer scope and depth left a deep impression on me – as did the animation quality (so much better than Western cartoons!) and the poignancy of its story.
And yes in case you’re wondering I watched Voltron. I think EVERYONE watched Voltron at some point.
When my sister was born my mother hired a domestic helper, Mary, to help around the house. She was the best hired help you could ever ask for, always remembering our birthdays, out favorite food and what we liked to do. She would wake me up at nine am every Saturday so I could watch Robotech. My mother never really took a shine to her, perhaps subscribing to the Great Asian Conspiracy that all hired help is out to cheat you and steal your money.
Mary used to sing Micheal Jackson songs in this incredibly high (and kind of irritating) falsetto, which in later years I realized is quite a Filipino Thing. Once I even tried to get her to play a video game with me (I think it was Jackal, for the NES) but she refused. Probably for the best.
Seven gave way to eight, and then to nine. I remember buying a Sega Genesis! Which was supposed to be a Super Nintendo (or rather, a Super Famicom, the Japanese equivalent) because it had Mario on it (Mum’s orders – get the one with Mario) but realizing that it did not work on our TV, which was only NTSC. The owner of the game shop himself came down to try and fix it – which to my eight year old mind was akin to the Emperor coming to give YOU gifts, rather than the other way around.
One of the happiest childhood memories I have is of my 8th birthday. My Dad bought me Phantasy Star 2 (which I had spent hours watching at the game shop nearby) and finally I could get to play it! It was a warm and dark evening when I opened the box to discover an instruction manual (I was my father’s son, I loved to read instruction manuals) and a map and a hint book AND the game. Truly an embarrassment of riches! So much material to go through before even starting to play! I was going to start on it but my father told me to have an early night – tomorrow was Saturday and I could have the entire day to go through everything. I went to sleep a happy boy indeed.
Phantasy Star 2, my first JRPG. The fact that you could level up and learn new skills and techniques and equip new gear and armor completely and utterly blew my younger mind. It was so different from all the other games that I played which were action-based – jump here, jump there, shoot this, shoot that. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I think I hungered for something more and PS2 definitely delivered. I must have put a hundred hours into that game at least. To this day my entire family (including Mary!) can remember its battle theme. Among other things it left me with a lifelong love of purple hair and pointed ears.
Those were good times, the best times. Very possibly the happiest times of our lives. Maybe everyone thinks their childhood is the best time of their life, and in some cases it is even true. That was when Mum and Dad read books to us, and played with us (sometimes) and even still slept in the same bed (but not together) and we had friends and books and games.
Every weekend or so all the domestic workers on the block would form an all-Filipino Alliance and have a barbeque downstairs. All the kids from every house would come down and ride bicycles and play badminton and generally have a grand old time. Even I managed to get my nose out of a book enough times to participate in the festivities.
How about holidays? We took more than a few but it was the one to Club Med in Malaysia that I remember the best. I made sandcastles on the beach only to have them washed away – but that just meant that I could make them again. I discovered that there was a thing called undertow and I flung myself into the sea just to feel the pull of the water on my legs.
I had my ninth birthday party, which was a big affair with ice cream cake! I think I was so excited that I forgot to enjoy myself. I was really into Super Mario Brothers 3 at that time (to be honest I think every boy I knew was) and my Dad, always the artist, decorated my room with paper cutouts of Goombas and Koopas and the smiling clouds of World 3. I was torn between ecstasy and a vague feeling of shame that I was having so much done for me without working hard enough to deserve it. It ain’t easy being Asian.
It was in almost all respects a normal, happy childhood. My dad gave all the kids on the block rides on his bike. I combed the bookstores of Singapore searching for every fantasy novel I could find. There were school trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the park. We went on more holidays and visited aunts and uncles once in a while. There were big fights about homework, and small fights about everything else. Games were bought, played, talked about, and tossed aside for well, more games.
We took home videos, we were happy, we were normal. I didn’t at that time know that it was not exactly “normal” for parents to almost never talk, or to have to follow your mother around everywhere she went and hold her hand (literally as well as figuratively) But I was happy, and I think so was everyone else.
As a child I thought those days would go on forever, but of course they didn’t. So here we come to the first major turning point of my life.