“You were born in China, right?” “No. My passport says China, but I was born in Panipahan, Indonesia,” Chu replied nonchalantly. The revelation was dumbfounding.
Chu sits in his personal study, surrounded by clusters of key chains in all forms Chinese, Feng Shuicoins, 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 with comfort, appeasing the tranquil figurines of Fuk Luk Sau (Three Star Deities) who eavesdrop on our conversation.
“Our boat took 7 days to travel from Indonesia to Malaya. Did you know how much we suffered?” Chu questioned in his thick Hokkien accent with a forlorn gaze. At the back of Chu’s head, a red Chun Lian(couplet) wishing ‘Yi Lu Shun Feng’ (‘Smooth Sailing’) is peeling at the corners. Before him, an eerie taxidermy lobster sleeps lazily next to a painting of a calm blue sea. Chu stares at the wall decorations, reminiscing a time when the sea was his enemy and best friend.
Civil war in Indonesia
It was after the World War II in Indonesia, in the midst of the Indonesian revolution. When the Japanese revolutionaries retreated amongst returning Dutch forces, anti-Chinese sentiment grew chaotic, causing sporadic riots by radical Muslim groups. Chu’s fishing village of Panipahan was caught in the crossfire. They ambushed the sleepy village, throwing Molotov cocktails onto the corrugated metal roofs of their wooden houses. The sound of explosions on metal was a call for Chu and the boys of the Panipahan Young Men’s Society to defend their village.
“It was stab or be stabbed”, he says as his hands held an imaginary dagger, reliving the moment he knifed his enemies. He saw his enemies hid behind houses and attacked his comrades. He saw friends, bloody from the battle drag half-dead bodies and flung them into the open sea. “We won the fight!” Chu proclaims proudly, he was only 16.
Yet, the battle was not over. Indonesian police returned the very night, looking for revenge. Frantic sounds of clanging pots and pans warned everyone hysterically to escape. Chu, his fisherman father, mother and 4 brothers found enough space in an already crowded boat and fled the country empty-handed.
The sea was unforgiving. There was neither wind nor current, only did the changing of tides moved the boat. He shared little food and even less water with a hundred other refugees. It was hot, humid and emotionally draining. Two of his neighbours died under the combination of heat, dehydration and exhaustion. They drifted aimlessly at sea, docking at the first sight of habitable land. Seven long days later, they claimed home to where they would later learn was Kuala Selangor, Malaya.
Kuala Selangor, Malaya
Kuala Selangor was another fishing village so similar yet different from Panipahan, but Chu had no time to notice that. He was immediately put to work, pleading the sea for bountiful catch to fetch his family enough for rent, food, and his brothers’ education.
Chu rests his belly from the scrumptious family dinner his daughter-in-law prepared. He clears his throat and spits some phlegm into the plastic bin beneath him. “My Panipahan home, they burnt it to ashes,” a tinge of heartache tremors in his voice. He runs his fingers through a wad of cash for his next holiday to Hat Yai with his wife, distracting himself from the sorrow. “I bought this land when I had the money,” he said while securing the money with a rubber band. “It took me two long years to build this house”. Visitors to this grand bungalow would envy of the lavish life Chu lives- a vintage Mercedes Benz sits in the porch, a cupboard filled with top grade Chinese tea, wrist full of gold watches and jade rings (albeit fake), and a caring family that visits him regularly.
The heavy wooden door beneath the lobster suddenly creaks open. Yap gingerly peeks into the room. “I married her when I was 20-something,” Chu looks tenderly at his Panipahan next-door neighbour turned blessed wife. “She used to be very pretty,” he said with a nod and continues to shamelessly praise himself. “I used to have quite the swagger, a lot of girls fancied me!” His excited voice grew louder, and suddenly softens. “I didn’t have any money, but I would always buy something for her just to see her smile”. 6 decades, 5 sons, 4 daughters and 30 grandchildren later, he still surprises his wife with the occasional gift.
From fishing to construction
Chu pushes aside large scrolls of architect paper in search of his mobile phone. One unrolls onto the floor, displaying drawings of intricate floor plans. At the edge of the paper, a stamp mark reads ‘Hua Construction Co. Bhd.‘.
Despite sacrificing school at 10 to help his family make ends meet, Chu had all the smarts to successfully start his own construction company. He started with buying and selling farmlands, and moved on to developing Klang town, where he would call home. The company flourished for 45 years, until he surrendered his company to retirement. “At that time, we only earned RM1000 for each plot of land, now construction companies earn at least RM10, 000!”
Selling land alone was not sufficient to support Chu’s family, yet he earned enough under the table to send all his 9 children to college. Though he dedicated his life to work, Chu has never miss a family dinner, except when he used to return to Indonesia for business. As Chu describes how he evolved from fisherman to businessman importing rubber band and coffee, he explodes into an erratic laughter, recalling how the Indonesian Navy caught him after only one week of marriage.
The Dutch captain
En route for a regular business trip to Indonesia, Chu and his crew was barely off the coast of Port Klang when the Indonesian Navy arrested them. He outsmarted the Navy 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’s deceiving lips and said, “If I ever see you again, I will shoot you”.
“Beep beep!” Chu’s mobile phone flashes ‘8:00 PM’, awaking him from his flashback. “Time to go forTai Chi,” Chu says as he walks towards a mirror and carefully combs every strand of hair into place. He owes his youthful figure to 40 and counting years of Tai Chi, Cha Cha, and morning walks. “All my friends at the clubhouse have passed 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. I laughed along, warmed by the gentle cheerful creases around his drooping eyes.
“But Gong Gong (Grandfather), you haven’t told me why does your ID says you’re from China?” I watch as this old man vainly puts on his perfume. At 85 years old, Gong Gong stands strong and proud, the complicated wrinkles on his face a testimony of his adversity, the head of silver hair an inkling of his wisdom.
“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, Gong Gong takes the keys to his Mercedes-Benz and closes the door behind him.
Written based on conversations with my 80-something-year-old Gong Gong whom I have lived with all my life, this is one short story that is very close to my heart. Historical details are based on my Gong Gong’s memories of the past.