‘A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.’
–Jorge Luis Borges, Afterword, El Hacedor
Several years ago I took a road trip with Pa up north to Seremban, where we were to settle some family things.
We had some time to spare, so he asked me to drive slowly, and said that I must ‘turn up out the exit’ when he tells me to. Pa’s directions to drivers are often exasperatingly cryptic. Many times, my road rage is directed at him.
What is ‘turn up’? Left or right? Tell me left or right? Don’t tell me ‘up’ or ‘down’ the road, can?
This time, he asked me to ‘turn up out the exit’ somewhere south of Seremban, and take the rickety old trunk road we used to take when I was a kid.
Pa required several toilet breaks as I did smoke breaks. At the various stops along the highway, I took out a notebook and started interviewing him, asking him about my family’s history.
We drove to the township of Mantin, Negri Sembilan, where, according to Pa, the coffee shop that stood in the middle of town still looked the same as it did sixty years ago. With the Plus expressway, Mantin has more or less lost its purpose. It remains a typically dusty Malaysian town, with people drifting around on little motorbikes, dirty Malay kids running barefoot, tired looking Chinese schoolchildren lugging their Mickey Mouse bags back from school.
Pa said he used to work at the coffee shop as a coffee boy. His eyes welled up as he spoke of sellling coffee powder and yew char kuay at the market; of cycling the twenty odd kilometres to Seremban to school; of how Grandfather and Grandmother lived separately; of how Grandmother sailed from Hainan to Malaya to look for Grandfather, but didn’t know where Malaya was, and how, as a result, her route was Village – Haikou – Canton – Hanoi – Saigon – Bangkok – Hatyai – Ipoh – Seremban; and of how, when he was six years old, Grandmother sent him on a boat to Singapore to look for Grandfather, not knowing Grandfather was in Port Dickson, and couldn’t come to Singapore to meet him because he owed a substantial amount of money to some Hainanese gentleman there.
My notebook was soon filled, noting these and many other stories, some involving Malaysian royalty. Some about thugs. And some about how our family came to run nightclubs and hotels that rented rooms out by the hour.
Pa was laughing as he told me the odds and ends of his life. He was tearing as well.
I asked Pa why he never told me or my siblings these things before. And he said, voice breaking as he did, ‘I don’t want you all to know about poverty’.
On Tuesday night, Pa called me on my mobile (even though we live in the same house), and asked if I could see him in his room. I went, and he told me he went to the neurosurgeon’s who confirmed he had Parkinson’s Disease.
He then said, Old already is like that one lah.
I said, Good, Saturday morning you make breakfast. Scrambled eggs. No sunny side up in this house anymore!
Pa laughed again for a good minute, again hiding his hands behind his back so I wouldn’t see him with his shakes.