The red packet
FROM 1980 to 1991, a RM10 ang pow was a luxury. Especially if you were living in a small kampung in Malacca. And if you were not yet in your teens, McDonald’s was as alien to you as VCRs, and junk food was sold for as cheap as 20sen a packet.
Ten ringgit then could buy you a whole lot of goodies. While my cousins, all 20 of them, would usually revel at the coins in their ang pows, I was absolutely sure I would get one RM10 ang pow at least!
While I was at that age, I was focussed on the money. Which kid wouldn’t have been? My life was not actually brimming with luxury.
My young mind could not grasp the love and hardship, or the sentiment, that came with the cash. It was not to buy my love, but it was due to love that I got it in the first place. And that made it very, very special. I must elaborate. This ang pow did not come from my parents. Nor did it come from any member of my family. It was given to me by a friend I called “Datuk”.
Datuk was easily as old as my grandparents. And he was more of a grandfather to me than my grandfather ever was!
Imagine this, on my first day of school, my mother was in school long enough to inform my teacher that if I ever stepped out of line, the teacher had her permission to discipline me! After that, my mum had to go to work.
Also, my mum wanted me to be independent. I was old enough to identify my school bus and my kampung-mates were on the same bus as well.
Without me knowing, Datuk was there as well, watching from a distance, making sure I was safe.
It was not just about him being there, it was about him cycling all the way from home to be there. It was a good 30-minute ride, but he did it every school day in my first year.
I would be home every day at approximately 1pm and lunch time was spent eating with Datuk at his dining table.
As he was my neighbour, I would bring food (my maternal grandmother would cook) and coffee, and we would spend time eating, talking and looking out his door, watching cars go by.
I was an active child back then. I did not sleep in the afternoon (an afternoon spent sleeping was daylight wasted unnecessarily!).
Datuk taught me how to play checkers. We did not have Nintendos or Xboxes back then. Instead, we spent hours playing checkers and walking out to have ais kacang in between games. Naturally, I won most of our games; I was that good!
Most nights, I would just fall asleep in Datuk’s house. We spent the nights watching television (he loved P. Ramlee movies) and weekend mornings watching cartoons. He was my confidante, my best friend.
As I grew up, Datuk grew older. As I gained more knowledge, he began to lose some of his memories.
I learned that Datuk was a widower; his wife passed on long ago and his children went to Kuala Lumpur to look for a better life. They would visit him once in a while, but always for a short period of time. He never complained; Datuk was an independent man and a proud one at that. He never asked for money or sympathy, and I guess at that young age, I gave him something he truly craved – undivided, sincere company.
Datuk passed on in 1993. He was in the company of his grandchildren and great grandchildren. He suffered a stroke a year before that and they took him in.
One day, I cycled for an hour, from my house in Ujong Pasir to his grandson’s house in Telok Mas. That was a week before he exhaled his last breath. I talked about checkers and school with him.
He always stressed the importance of educational excellence till his dying day. He believed education freed a person’s mind and shaped one’s personality.
Have I mentioned Datuk was a Muslim? Me ... a young Chinese boy from a typical Chinese family, brought up partly by a Malay man.
He never judged me, nor did I ever judge him. I loved him as a grandson could and should. To him, my kuning langsat skin was no different to his sawo matang. I was a boy and that was that.
Every Chinese New Year, I think of his RM10 ang pow. On a personal note, I miss him, his guidance, his laughter, his sporting spirit when it came to playing checkers to make a young boy happy.
I look at Malaysia today, 20 years after these events and wonder, will there ever be another odd couple like us.
For in this beautiful tapestry we call Malaysia, we do not need to learn how to live together. We can live together, happily and harmoniously. The main ingredients? Honesty and love for one another.