This article is kindly contributed by guest writer Peter Chen from Singapore. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.
An Old Family Friend
Father had an old friend and Hinghwa compatriot by the name of Zheng Zhu. It was his real and proper name in full. He was a long time family friend and we remember him well. As children we all called him Zhū Bo (Uncle Zhu珠伯).
We remember Zheng Zhu at 70 as a grumpy old man with a gruff voice. He was hunched over – even when he was much younger, we were told – but was otherwise still able to walk with sprightly steps. Old Zheng Zhu was a bachelor all his life and lived his life fully. His name had become a figure of speech in our family. Mother would often teach the children the correct posture to stand or sit up straight, administering the warning at the same time, “Or else you will grow up a hunch back like Zhū Bo!”. Anyone who was well past the threshold of marriageable age and was still not married was referred to in the family as having become a “Zhū Bo”, viz., a “confirmed bachelor”. The name “Zhū Bo” had become a household metaphor.
We do not know when he first came from China to Malaya. But he had been a family friend in Kampar, Perak well before the Second World War. We remember him being with our family as we hurriedly left Kampar to take refuge in the rubber plantations in the Langkap area just steps ahead of the advancing Japanese army. Zheng Zhu had no family of his own and he just attached himself to us.
Our family, with Zheng Zhu tagging along, finally settled down in Ipoh when the Japanese had pacified Malaya. Zheng Zhu was given employment by some Hinghwa compatriots who had a successful motor spare parts shop in Ipoh. It was quite a convenient arrangement for Zheng Zhu and his employers. He slept in the shop premises at night and his job was that of the night watchman! Our family continued to maintain social contact with him.
Zheng Zhu was about five years older than father, and the two of them were quite unlike. Zheng Zhu was just about able to read whereas father was a learned scholar and school teacher. Father was a family man with a wife and five children to support, but Zheng Zhu was a carefree old bachelor who was never shy to boast of the sexual exploits of his youth.
Zheng Zhu at 70
When Zheng Zhu reached the age of 70, father wrote a poem for him:
郑珠为刻印 For Zheng Zhu – A Seal Engraved
镌名反体恰相宜 A name and its seal are mirror-like the same;
返老还童亦似之 From Old Age to Childhood, we return.
七十高龄成十七 Seventy could indeed be Seventeen again,
年光真有倒流时 Even Time could truly reverse its flow.
Paraphrase: A name and its seal works only when they are a mirror-image of each other. It is just like life, when in Old Age we revert to our Youth or childhood. Hence, a man of seventy could easily be rejuvenated into a lad of seventeen. The passage of Time could indeed reverse its flow.
Although a rather mischievous poem pulling the legs of old Zheng Zhu, it is also a realistic reflection of life. It is a short and simple poem written in everyday language without any classical allusions. Zheng Zhu would certainly have been able to at least read it. We can imagine Zheng Zhu feeling rather proud of the vindication of his bachelorhood and that despite his age, he had all the vigour of a lad of seventeen. He was very proud of the sexual exploits of his youth.
Zheng Zhu Takes a Wife
After his long period of bachelorhood, Zheng Zhu finally decided to take a “wife”. He met a lady who was just a few years younger than him. We remember her as a small built lady wearing the traditional Chinese “sam-fu” of silky black trousers and a floral blouse with a dark blue background. She agreed to live with him. Poor Zheng Zhu did not have a place for his matrimonial home. The local Hokkien Association was kind enough to offer him the caretaker’s quarters rent free and father helped him to spruce up the place and re-decorate it as a “bridal chamber”. When it was ready the “young” lady was taken to her new matrimonial home. To her dismay, it turned out to be the caretaker’s quarters located in the Association’s Hokkien cemetery. She baulked at such a prospect and Zheng Zhu’s bachelorhood thus remained intact.
Zheng Zhu Adopts a Daughter
At some point in life, even old confirmed bachelors begin to see the need for some “real” family ties. Zheng Zhu came to know a family with a teenage daughter. This girl was “adopted” by Zheng Zhu as his daughter known in Chinese as yì nǚ (谊女). The girl continued to stay with her own family and the relationship was sealed with the presentation of some gifts of jewellery for the girl and a token sum of money for her mother.
About the Writer
Peter Chen is a former oil company executive. After his first retirement, he was briefly in politics and retired a second time in 2001. He is currently engaged in the translation of his late father’s poems from Chinese into English.