My father vacillated between a stable career and adventures in enterprise. He had the former in establishing his own chartered accounting practice – which he later sold, and which still bears his name – and the latter in a series of remarkable and unconventional business deals which made our family pretty well off.
His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.
He tried coaxing me to become a “businessman” in the true, vague definition of it, trading in whatever opportunities fell into our laps. In his capacity as the Honorary Consul-General for the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, he gave me a box of raw PNG Highlands Arabica beans, and asked me to see if I could find any buyers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t motivated enough to make that work.
Then he gave me a box of Agar wood, and sent me researching on the subject, and urging me to see if there were any interested buyers. Again, this didn’t stick, and I’m sure he was disappointed in my lack of interest.
There were other exotic mystery boxes – sea cucumbers, logging concessions, selling second hand computers to New Guinea – they never stuck.
Instead I did something my friends thought even more unconventional – I started a business teaching gymnastics to primary school children. It tanked after five years – and that’s a long, drawn-out business failure. It didn’t frazzle my father a bit. He just said, “do something else lah” – which I understood to be “keep doing what you want to do, and what you’re good at”.
My father never seemed to be discouraged by setbacks. There seemed always to be silver linings in the darkest clouds. Or rather, he painted those linings himself. If a business deal failed, he would pick up the pieces and make something out of them.
I remember most about the time he invested heavily in a factory that produced roasted melon seeds and pumpkin seeds – the type you eat at Chinese New Year and at funerals – and for some reason or another, the other partners in the factory made off with the money and the factory closed. Creditors claimed the factory’s equipment, and my father was left with an inventory of perhaps several hundred kilograms of melon and pumpkin seeds in tins, bags, and jars.
What did he do with them? He had them brought home of course. And to my mother’s lasting dismay, every nook and cranny of our house – including the shoe cabinet – was stacked with tins, bags, and jars of melon and pumpkin seeds. I think we only threw them out when we sold and moved out of the house ten years ago.
In the years between the kuachee factory fiasco and when we moved out, my father could be seen spending his days on his sofa, cracking open melon seeds and eating them. He’d laugh and say, “Not bad, what – Chinese New Year no need to buy kuachee ever again”.