An ode to my grandfather, and yours
My grandfather was the centre of my universe.
When the time came for me to enter primary school, my parents enrolled me in CHIJ Katong, just a stone’s throw away from my grandfather’s home. At that time, my grandfather lived with my aunt (his eldest daughter) and his long-standing housekeeper in a quaint one-storey house on Lorong N in Telok Kurau.
It was quickly decided that I’d spend my weekday afternoons with him until my parents arrived in the evening to take me home. I didn’t know how much I’d come to cherish the afternoons I spent by his side, but eventually, they were all I looked forward to.
I wasn’t a vocal child. I did, however, love books, stories and using my imagination. Other children in my school teased me mercilessly for being “blur” and a sotong (Malay for squid) each time they caught me daydreaming. But I couldn’t help myself – even at a young age, I much preferred to be within the walls of my imagination instead of sitting in front of the television. As a result, I didn’t have many friends.
School was pretty much a non-event for me, and I usually couldn’t wait for school to end. Every day, after the final school bell had rung, I’d walk as quickly as I could to my grandfather’s home, knowing I’d soon see him waiting for me in the doorway. When I opened the gate and dashed up the driveway, he always looked as happy as I felt. The joy on our faces would mirror each other as we hugged.
Together, my grandfather and I developed a routine that would last three years.
We ate our home-cooked lunch together, usually a balanced meal of meat, vegetables and rice, with achar (pickles) on the side. Although my grandfather was born and raised in Singapore, the Eurasian traditions ran deep. There was always a bowl of achar that accompanied each meal. I loved that achar more than any dish set out in front of me. It was my late grandmother’s recipe, and had been in the family for generations. His company, coupled with the achar, always made lunch a special occasion.
Our conversation mostly revolved around what I had done in school that day. Sometimes, these conversations would revolve around ethics. My grandfather never raised his voice or lifted a finger at me; instead, he chose to calmly explain what was morally correct in every situation.
After lunch, he’d help with my homework by meticulously going through question after question until I got the correct answers. Years later, when my grandfather developed shingles in both eyes, his housekeeper would read the questions to him so that he could continue to teach me. After we had completed some homework, my grandfather would take an afternoon nap, leaving me to continue on my own.
I’d carry on and then, like clockwork, I’d wake him up an hour into his nap, and ask if I could help myself to some of the chocolate in the fridge. He’d always say yes, and the go back to sleep. In all those three years, the chocolate never ran out. There was always a Cadbury milk chocolate bar waiting in his fridge, and I can only assume he made sure it was replaced during weekly supermarket runs.
If the afternoons were good, the evenings were better. You see, aside from being a source of unconditional love, my grandfather was also a marvellous storyteller. After his nap, I would sit on his lap in a black high-backed chair, inhale the lingering scent of his Imperial Leather soap, and listen to him recount days long past.
He told stories from a time I could have never imagined – his childhood, family life and Singapore under Japanese rule – but somehow did, thanks to the vivid pictures his words painted. Some of those pictures were horrific, while others spoke of a happiness that transcended time. One particular story took place in the early days of the Japanese Occupation.
One day, the Japanese kempeitai (secret police) were conducting spot checks on households and taking all the white women away. As soon as my grandfather got wind of the inspection, he quickly hid my grandmother and her sister (who were both very fair Eurasians) in the ceiling of their house so that the kempeitai found no women when they came knocking on his door.
When the soldiers had left, my grandfather and his brother-in-law stowed both women in the back of their vehicle and attempted to flee. The only thing standing in their way was the Japanese guard post, stationed at the end of the street. The minute the Japanese guard looked the other way, my grandfather sped past and straight on to Jalan Eunos. From there, the women and his son caught a train from Sime Road to the Bahau settlement in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, where many Eurasian families had settled. The men – my grandfather and his brother-in-law – joined their families in Bahau later on.
This was more than just storytelling. My grandfather was passing on his memories and in doing so, sharing a plethora of emotions – fear, anger, sadness and happiness. With each story, he entrusted a little bit more of his heart to me. I clung on to those pieces dearly, grateful for my grandfather, and the love we shared. I cherished each picture he painted, and squirrelled them away for a future when I could no longer sit on his lap and listen to his soothing voice.
Eventually, my grandfather died a happy death. I was nine when it happened. I had left with my parents for the day, and he settled down to have another home-cooked meal, his dinner. After he had finished, he gave a burp and then passed away. His housekeeper told us that it was a very quick and peaceful passing. Even so, his death was hard to accept and 18 years on, I still feel moments of loss. My only comfort is that I still carry all those pieces of his heart in mine. He taught me what unconditional love and sacrifice meant, and because of him, I will always base my interactions with others on those values.
It wasn’t only my life that he touched. His generation helped to build this country in ways I can only imagine. Our grandfathers survived the Japanese Occupation, worked hard to help Singapore stay afloat and struggled to help it succeed.
My grandfather and yours – they lived an extraordinarily difficult life, and yet, courageously stepped up to shape and mould future generations: people like you and me. Their stories of hardship live with us, among us and more importantly, in our hearts.
If anything, I’d like to think we could take away lessons of their resilience, loyalty, love and sacrifice. These are the same values we should pass on to our future generations, in ode to our grandfathers.
Words and images by Alisa Chopard.
Published by the Singapore Memory Project in association with Studio Wong Huzir.