Monday, April 23, 2007

Lincoln Tan: Sharing stories will keep family memories alive

5:00AM Monday April 23, 2007By Lincoln Tan

If February is the month for love, then April must surely be the month dedicated to the dead.
This is the month when Christians remember the death of Jesus on Good Friday, Taoists/Buddhists remember their ancestors during the festival called Qing Ming, and New Zealanders too will be honouring their own glorious dead on Wednesday, Anzac Day.
As a child growing up in Singapore, it was an annual ritual at this time of the year for me to accompany my parents to the cemetery to clean up my two grandfathers' graves and to honour their memory.
Mum would wake early to prepare food, comprising a basket of fruit, some confectionery and coffee as if we were going for a picnic. There would also be a paper box filled with joss sticks, paper clothes and paper money.
The food was used as offerings for my two grandfathers and joss sticks were burned in their memory.
During the rituals, my parents would tell stories about the lives of my two grandfathers, and I had to update my dead grandfathers on how my life was progressing.
So even though I had never met either of my grandfathers, both of whom died before I was born, the Qing Ming rituals, which sadly we no longer practise since we became Catholics, made me feel like I knew them.
Over the years, I have heard many stories, but the ones that stuck in my mind were Mum's horror stories of the war years - which was also the first time she mentioned anything to me about New Zealand.
In one story, she spoke of how the Japanese soldiers came to the house for my maternal grandfather, promising him a job because he had been a civil servant under the British Government.
With hundreds of other men he was herded on to the military trucks. But instead of the office, they were taken to a rubber plantation to be shot.
Grandpa cheated death by timing his fall just before the bullets hit him during the mass execution, and crawled out after nightfall.
In another of Mum's stories, she spoke of how the arrival of soldiers from British India started another round of terror. With no enemy to fight, they instead went from house to house in search of women.
Had it not been for Grandpa grabbing her from the hands of one of these soldiers and flinging her over the second-storey balcony to safety, she too would have been raped by them, she said.
It was Mum's belief then that the last story before we left the graveyard had to be a happy one, so we walked away with happy memories.
In one of these stories, she told of when the real heroes came. Officers from a New Zealand battalion approached an aunt asking if her huge backyard could be used as a temporary base for his soldiers. She agreed.
For about three weeks, my aunt cooked for these soldiers and in exchange they gave her butter, milk powder and medicine, items which were near impossible to get at that time. It was the inability to access medicine that led to my paternal grandfather's death.
The New Zealand soldiers became friends of the family, and it was they who helped to restore Mum's faith and trust in uniformed men again, she said.
It was sad when the New Zealanders eventually had to leave my aunt's backyard for their base at Pulau Belakang Mati, an island now known as Sentosa.
But they left a strong enough impression for Mum to believe to this day that New Zealand men are true gentlemen.
On Anzac Day, New Zealand will remember its heroes from those who died in the Gallipoli conflict and the many others who have fought in Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, the Gulf and Afghanistan, among others.
But in the way Anzac Day is commemorated through parades, memorial services and wearing the poppy on the chest to honour our glorious dead, more can be done to share their stories to inspire the living.
Each one of these heroes is someone's father, grandfather or great-grandfather and surely, each one of their lives must have an interesting, colourful and inspirational story behind them. At last year's National Memorial Service, Dame Silvia Cartwright said: "It is in the faces of our young people who have not witnessed the horror of war and in the everyday freedoms we enjoy today, the freedoms we have come to expect in a way our grandparents never did or could."
Perhaps this Anzac Day, as we honour New Zealand's glorious dead, mums and dads could pack a picnic basket and make a conscious effort to share more stories of the Anzacs, our real heroes, to inspire our young Qing Ming style.
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