Sometimes life can be cruel.
It was late 1969. Dad has a younger brother staying with us at #188. He was a carpenter at a furniture shop in Ipoh. A young man of just 23, he was healthy and full of life vitality. Everyone liked him. He was steady with a pretty girl next door and they dreamed of a happy life together. In fact, they were busy planning for their big day.
One night, looking into a mirror while combing his hair and getting ready for a date with his sweet heart, he saw a small lump on his neck, the size of a 5 cent coin.
Thinking it was an insect bite, he just applied some cream onto it and left it to heal by itself. But it did not, instead it got bigger by the day. Before long, it ballooned to the size of an adult’s fist. It was a malign tumor.
Dad was very worried for him. Being the eldest brother, he felt it was his duty to send him for treatments and was prepared to bear the costs. Treatments were sought for him in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur at private and government hospitals but to no avail.
In Singapore, doctors there advised Dad to send his brother for treatments in Canton, China. Overseas treatments are expensive but Dad did not mind paying to save a young life.
At first, he got better and stayed on for a year there for further treatments. But the tumor recurred and in the end, he passed on, after several unsuccessful operations. A wedding it was not to be but a funeral instead for this unlucky young man.
A few months later, paternal grandpa, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Again, as the eldest son, Dad did what is necessary for him but grandpa also lost the battle. The old man was given a proper last rite and burial. By then, Dad was almost broke to the bones.
Before he can even recover, along came a notice from the Ipoh municipality. Three conditions must be met before business license can be renewed again.
Firstly, operators of all eateries must tile the walls of their shops to 6 feet high. As the bucket system will be phased out in a few months time, all toilets must be converted to the flush system. Lastly, the whole shop must be repainted with white paint.
Dad simply cannot afford it anymore. Most of his savings were spent to treat his loved ones.
He went to see the shop owner, hoping to get some help. The shop owner stressed that he only let out an empty shop and will not bear any renovations done to it. It was clearly stated in the tenancy agreement and he was unmoved by Dad’s predicament. To add salt to injury, the rental was raise too. It has been a long time since the last raise, he pointed out.
As fate would have it, even the faithful stone grinder failed him too. After 25 years of heavy usage, the handle, made from hard wood, broke down. In fact, the whole thing, from wear and tear, is out of shape. It is time to order a new one from China. This will also cost a lot, especially the transportation’s fee.
Dad was at his wit’s end. No license. No tools. Rental has gone up.
Finally, he threw in the towel. The curtain came down on Nam Foong Coffee Shop in 1971, after 26 years of operation.
Our carefree childhood days abruptly came to an end when Dad lost his livelihood. What followed were the bleakest days of our lives. There were 8 hungry mouths to feed. We lived from hand to mouth for the next 2 or 3 years.
We did not celebrate Chinese New Year simply because we cannot afford to. It was just like any normal day for us.
No reunion dinner. No new clothes.
I still remembered how on the night of New Year’s Eve in 1971, Dad went out to buy 2 packets of fish ball noodles and asked Mom to divide it out among the children. Each of us would get a small portion it hardly filled up our hungry stomachs. That night, we all went to sleep early.
We could hear the fireworks outside welcoming the New Year and the children in the neighborhood running up and down merrily, playing firecrackers after their reunion dinner.
Her eyes red, Mom told us softly, “Go to sleep. Once you are asleep, you will forget you are hungry.”
I still remembered these words till this day.
Back in the 1970s, many people held their wedding banquets in Perak Ku Kong Chow Association at Jalan Yang Kalsom. Mom went there to work as a cleaner after the dinner has ended, to earn a few dollars. She would bring home some left- over food for us.
Succulent prawns, crispy fried chickens and tasty mushrooms which some people cannot take in anymore, we gulped these down hungrily. Sometimes, we could find some toothpicks and used tissue papers inside the gravy.
Despite the hardships, Dad held the family together and reminded us to study hard. He said, no matter what, we still have to go to school and learn. He believed, with a pair of strong hands, we will not be hungry again.
My late uncle was standing 3rd from left at the back row.
The couple in the middle, back row, were my parents while my grandpa was seated in the middle, front row.
The original photo has been framed up and hung on the wall.