In loving memory of Ah Kong (1926-2010)

Ah Kong
My grandfather, Peter ES Tan, passed away sometime in the morning of Friday, 10 September 2010, surrounded by loved ones. He was just over a month short of his 84th birthday, and we will miss him dearly.
As the oldest grandchild, I probably had the most exposure with Ah Kong, as we called him. Love may linger, but being human, our memories will fade. Thus I write this post as a reminder of the legacy he has left for us, with as many salient details as I can still recall.
**Ah Kong at my birth**
Ah Kong was, presumably, one of the first few family members to see me after birth. When I was preparing to be born, having kicked my mother’s water bag, it was Ah Kong who drove my mother, father and grandmother to hospital as he was apparently in the best state of mind to do so!
**Ah Kong the family man**
Ah Kong, as we called him, took his responsibilities as a family man very seriously. You could hear him shuffling in his slippers around the house, doing hands-on work: making sure the driveway was swept clean and all the doors and gates were secured at night. He would clean the pool regularly by taking the water from the dehumidifier, mixing it with chlorine powder, and pouring the solution into the pool. He would keep irregular hours, staying in the office till the wee hours of the morning, and nap in the afternoon. A burglar would have found it very difficult to rob this house.
Ah Kong sometimes went to the office, but he would always be home for dinner – which is something not all fathers are able to do these days. He used to be the life of the dinner table, boisterous and not shy to use strong words, which my grandmother would chide him for. Dinner table conversations were wide and varied. As the oldest grandchild I had the privilege of dining at the ‘adults’ table and heard him talk about Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and other politicians. As a child I had no idea what was going on, but as I matured I began to understand better. Perhaps this very early initiation into the world of international politics fuelled my later interest in the subject, in school and now at work.
**Ah Kong as a grandparent**
As a child, I would greet Ah Kong and he would respond with a whistle that usually sounded like “wheeo-wheet!”. In the old days when our telephones still had dials (i.e. no intercom system), my grandmother would sometimes use me to pass messages to him, and that “wheeo-wheet!” would be his usual answer, even when I called him for dinner or said other things to him. That was his sense of humour. He also used to whistle some of his favourite tunes, one of which I can still recall even though I have no idea who the singer or what the song title is!
As a family, we visited many different countries. During our New York trip, I was told of how Ah Kong took care of me. He held my hand and we walked slowly through Central Park. I remember that the family used to say he and I were both ‘slow’. I also recall that we climbed the Statue of Liberty as a family. As a kid I got tired after a while, and stopped to rest. Meanwhile, the rest of the family was wondering, “Where’s Ah Kong??” Turns out he had climbed all the way to the top of the statue! Slow and steady won the race.
Once, again as a child, I was alone at home with Ah Kong and told him I was hungry. He grabbed a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup, read the instructions and proceeded to make me a piping hot pot of soup. It was dilute and I scalded my tongue, but I was grateful. I recall telling the other adults in the family later on that Ah Kong made me something to eat, and they looked surprised.
Ah Kong - "Do you remember the time...?"
*My grandparents used to travel together on a scooter, so Ah Kong was probably reminiscing about their youthful past!*
Ah Kong occasionally used to send or fetch me from SCGS in his old white sporty Mercedes (with a black foldable roof). Spoiled child that I was, I used to complain that the air conditioning was not so powerful and he would tell me to bear with it. Later on I sat in another car of his, an olive green Mercedes. I liked to sit on the low hump in the middle of the car. Later on, Ah Kong bought an even grander vehicle and, when my parents were busy, he would use it to fetch me from school with grandmother. Sometimes we would all go to the market together, or to visit his mother in Pasir Panjang, or some other places, me being their curious little companion.
It was a privilege to be chauffeured by one’s grandparents. In a way I was glad that now, we grandchildren are driving them and supporting them as they walk. It is now our privilege to serve them.
**Ah Kong, the DIY man**
Ah Kong had his own workshop. The younger grandchildren may not have seen him at work but I recall vaguely that noisy things used to happen there, and I was told to keep away. At his wake, the “adults” (which is what we call our older generation, ie. parents, aunties and uncles) spoke of how he was able to fix any broken-down vehicle in that workshop as he had a passion for it. That workshop platform is no more, but you can still a trace of it in the ground.
Ah Kong also stored many spare parts in his basement, which to me was the creepiest place in the house. I would muster enough courage to enter the basement, quickly turn on the light, and explore his many boxes. Being a huge Transformers fan I was excited to find a few boxes labelled ‘Transformers’, only to be disappointed that there were no robots inside. Of all his spare parts, I grew to like washers the most, because they were like Chinese coins. I used to ask for his permission to nick some of them every now and then.
And of course, we would all remember Ah Kong in his home office, which was beside the workshop. He was in his element there, surrounded by his immaculate files and at least 3 TV/computer monitors showing the news or some other TV show, playing a computer game and monitoring the home security system. We would go there if we wanted to chat with him, especially in difficult times, and he would usually give some wise advice and restore some calm to the situation.
Ah Kong’s filing system was an example to behold. He kept every important document we gave him – even a photocopy of a good exam score I received. If I later lost my copy, I knew that Ah Kong would have kept the duplicate. He was also the first to teach me basic accounting, showing me how to balance my books – 20 years before I did my MBA.
**Ah Kong, the technophile**
Even at his age, Ah Kong embraced technology. He could use Mac OS9, X and Windows – good enough to make any geek grandchild proud. He was also quick at completing Solitaire and Shanghai games. Recently I thought he might like playing games on the iPad, since he was no longer mobile enough to go down to his office by himself. Using my own iPad, I showed him how to use his finger to click on the mah jong pieces, and he learned fast, completing a game of Shanghai before I knew it. However, he said that he still preferred using the ‘Alphabet’ tiles (which wasn’t included in the free version of the game)! This happened about 1.5 months ago, on a Sunday right after church.
**Ah Kong in his later years**
Ah Kong was known to be a strong swimmer. His children recalled how he would disappear into the horizon and then come back. As a child, I myself saw his strength in the water on a few occasions. Once, while in Penang I think, he looked wistfully at the waters, knowing he had not brought his swimming trunks with him. He went into a shop, and chose a bright red pair of Speedos (briefs, not trunks!) as that was apparently the only suitable thing left. He was probably in his late 50s or early 60s at the time, and he looked OK – if seeing grandfathers in tight red briefs is anything to go by!
By the late 1990s, Ah Kong’s health started to deteriorate. 3 of his children were medical doctors and one of them noticed his ankles were swollen – a symptom of something more serious. He underwent a triple bypass and I recall being on standby while studying Law in Bristol, mentally bracing myself to fly back if anything happened. During that period I would keep my mobile phone (an Ericsson with a large antenna – state of the art at the time) on hand, even in the dining hall. Another Singaporean thought I was showing off that I had a mobile phone, and passed a snide comment. I snapped back at her, “My grandfather may be dying!” and she apologised. Part of the reason why I came back to Singapore after graduation, instead of looking for work in the UK or doing my Bar there, was because I wanted to be near my grandparents, especially knowing that Ah Kong’s health was unstable.
After a successful operation, Ah Kong’s health was more closely monitored, but he still had fire in his belly. The Tan clan spent one Chinese New Year in Cebu. After dinner, some of us took to the dance floor. He watched us enviously for a while. Then a catchy number played, and he stood up suddenly, dancing like a robot. He then pulled up my surprised grandmother and they danced for a while, surrounded by my watchful aunties and uncles. That was one of the funniest moments which also captured his outgoing, fun-loving spirit.
Ah Kong’s health continued to deteriorate and we did all we could to support him while also allowing him to enjoy life. My dad took Ah Kong on a Mediterranean cruise a few years ago, before he started undergoing dialysis. After returning from a day trip to some European port, I was charged with ensuring Ah Kong was brought to his room. By this stage Ah Kong was already walking slowly, and so other tourists would cut the queue and squeeze ahead of him. After seeing the lift doors close in our faces several times I became increasingly annoyed and tried to move him to another set of lifts further away, but again we were swarmed over. Ah Kong, ever the peacemaker, kept telling me “Never mind…” with each attempt. Eventually the crowd got thinner and we got through, but I won’t forget how angry I was, and how patient and forgiving he was.
Ah Kong
*Ah Kong whistling atop a fort in Barcelona, shortly before we embarked on the Mediterranean cruise*
While Ah Kong’s physical strength and mobility diminished, his mind was still sharp. Over the last 1-2 years, under my aunt’s guidance, he completed maths problems and began reading the Bible out loud, pronouncing every syllable like “Gethsemane”. He started joining us in church in November 2009 and I was thankful that the topic preached was on Peter – his very name! That made him sit up and take notice of what was said. That really Rocked.
While he was no longer his boisterous self during family meals, he would surprise us by the questions he’d ask (which indicated that he had been listening all along). Even while in ICU last Thursday night, he was alert. I spoke my last words to him, which I recall were: “Ah Kong, we are all here with you… You have the best team working on you… Mama (grandmother) is just next door… Be strong.” His eyes were open; he looked at me, and nodded his head as much as he could, with all the tubes strapped into his mouth.
That would be the last time I would speak to him while he was conscious. I also recalled that the nod he gave me was similar to the nod I received from my maternal grandmother, a couple years back, also in ICU, when she was conscious but no longer able to speak. Sometimes the final moment together boils down to that one look of understanding between loved ones, when nothing else can be done.
I strongly encourage you to write down every single memory you have of the dearly departed. Like the Bible and other texts written by man, not every memory may be perfect or interpreted in the way that was intended, but still it is better than keeping it all to oneself. To me, it is also a form of coping. For me, writing this will ensure that Ah Kong’s legacy lives on and serves as an example to all future generations, until the end of time.