Sunday 30 December 2007

Uncle Tang

This morning I received an sms from my cousin, Cheng asking me if I would like to go over to her place in Ulu Langat because her father, my "Uncle Tang" was down from Penang. I thought, well why not? After all, Cheng's husband Nordin Hamid had passed away just about a month ago and I had promised to visit her in the weeks following the funeral. I had also not met "Uncle Tang" (who is married to my father's sister), in years.

No one and I think, including this uncle of mine knew how he became known as "Uncle Tang". Born almost 80 years ago as Lee Kheng Cheang, I have always known him as "Uncle Tang" or "Ah Tang" to his comtemporaries. He was a couple of years older than my father and they were great buddies; it was not surprising that Uncle Tang featured very much in my younger life. He would have known me since I was born.

Uncle Tang has always been an outdoors man and when I was old enough to be aware, I knew he was a rubber estate manager in Kulim. I vividly remember visiting the estate that was referred to as "Foothills" numerous times. Savoring "estate" life away from the towns was something that created a lasting impression on me. Give me the town anytime!

I do not know why he gave up a planter's life and went into pig farming but I remember him doing very well in the business initially. I do remember once when we were living in Parit Buntar (1966 to 1968) there was a big commotion at our house when Uncle Tang had a big quarrel with his business partner. They were obviously drinking quite a bit and that was the first time I had seen with my own eyes grown men fighting; I was about 7.

Unfortunately for Uncle Tang, a swine fever epidemic wiped out his business almost overnight. I remember hearing from my father that his pigs were dying at such a rate, he could not bury them fast enough. I believe he would have been financially wiped out too.

During that period, my father who was headmaster of a lower secondary school in Parit Buntar, was posted to Kroh for a year before ending up in Pengkalan Baru (Dindings District, Perak) near Pantai Remis in 1969, where he ultimately served for about a decade. The family moved back to Taiping in 1969 since Pengkalan Baru was only about 45 minutes drive away and my father commuted. It was there that he got to know Raj who was the manager of Huntly Estate. Raj was the son of the well known Kalyana Sundram who had struck it rich during the estates fragmentation era. Raj and my father remained great friends till my father 's death in 1985.

The Gula Perak sugar factory was also in the vicinity and heating must be an important aspect of the whole process of sugar manufacturing. That gave rise to the requirement of lots of fire wood. It appeared that the "stars were aligned", what with Uncle Tang looking for opportunities and having the requisite domain expertise, Raj in the process of re-planting and my father, the brains. The two brothers-in-law got into the business of supplying rubber wood to feed the hungry furnaces of Gula Perak. That was also how Uncle Tang ended up staying with us for the next couple of years. I remember they started with one, then two Ford 5000 tractors. It was also the first time I learnt that the only thing straight about a chinaman is his hair! One ton could become two because the weigh-bridge operator had personal problems that he needed help with. Well, that's one perspective anyway!

Later, when the firewood business tapered off, Uncle Tang came up with the idea of tapioca chips for animal feed or something. That was when they leased a piece of land in Air Kuning, planted acres of tapioca and constructed a tarmac for drying the chips. That somehow turned out to be a hare-brained scheme possibly because Taiping is the wettest region in the country. Uncle Tang moved to Bidor after that to manage a rubber estate; a full circle.

The time when Uncle Tang stayed with us in Taiping coincided with my pre-teen years, from Standard 5 to about Form 1. Those carefree days when school work was a cinch and one was just discovering one's environment.

He made an important impression on my life as he was the one who taught us many boyish outdoor activities. Though my father grew up in the rural surroundings of Selama, at that time he was busy running the school and outdoor physical activity was just not on. Uncle Tang taught us to catch fighting fish in water puddles in the outskirts of town, ikan haruan fishing using bamboo poles and line at mining lakes and bottom fishing using hook, line and sinker, off the coast of Pangkor and Penang. He even took me wild boar hunting and to shoot flying foxes, snipes and wild pigeons. I was no stranger to using a shotgun even at that age. Uncle Tang also had an air-rifle that fired pellets and I look back with amazement how he trusted us with it. The pellets could not kill humans but certainly they could maim (eg. cause blindness) since we used it for target practice and to kill birds and small animals. My schoolmates who definitely had the same exposure at that age were Paul and Meng Hock.

When I met Uncle Tang today I found that he is now almost totally deaf but otherwise very much the same jovial and carefree person who seems to have endless patience. Being still spritely and mentally alert, he was in the midst of cutting bamboo to make a bubu (fish trap) for Cheng who lives with her 3 boys in her hacienda style home on 16 acres of agricultural land with fish ponds. He says this is the first time he is making the fish trap after 65 years! That must have been when he was about the same age as me back in Taiping those days! Even for me that was more than 35 years ago! Time.

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