How Should One Live and Die?

This article is dedicated in memory of Mr Fu Weng Leng and Mrs Masako Deguchi, whose warm friendships my wife and I will always cherish.

It’s a trite saying that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. While death is inevitable as part of the natural cycle of birth, life and death, taxes, on the other hand, are created by man and could be minimised or even avoided legally if one is rich enough to afford the services of a clever lawyer or a tax adviser. Throughout mankind’s history, human minds have been preoccupied and gripped by the fear of death except the very brave or selfless among them who would deem it a great honour to sacrifice their lives as a patriotic act or for a worthy cause. However, to live a long, healthy and happy life would be the ultimate goal of most people everywhere.

Despite the inevitability of death, some rich and powerful personages would do their utmost to reverse the law of nature in the hope that they could prolong their lives indefinitely. A well-known example was China’s mighty First Emperor, who had the country’s Great Wall built at the cost of numerous lives and who aspired to have his dynasty lasting a thousand years. He devoted a good part of his reign to finding an elixir of life that would give him eternal life, but only to die of gradual mercury poisoning in the hands of his desperate and helpless imperial physicians!  At the other extreme, there had been instances in the past decade of some obsessive multi-millionaires who would instruct their loved ones to keep their dead bodies in cold storage in the hope and belief that in the not too distant future, medical science and technology would have advanced to such an extant that they could then be resurrected from the afterlife and live again! Well, it would appear that nothing is beyond the fertile human mind in its quest for immortality.

Just as in ages past, today most of us would also aim to live to a ripe old age and to leave this world peacefully and painlessly. This would indeed be a perfect ending. In reality, however, this is often beyond our control. For instance, we can be inflicted with a lingering death caused by a dreaded illness like stroke or cancer, or meet with a fatal motor accident or die in a capital crime committed by a felon or be a hapless victim in an earthquake, war or civil disturbance.

One of the saddest things in life is to lose one’s spouse or family members or close relatives and good friends. They would all have enriched one’s life, give it fuller meaning and make it more complete. Be that as it may, this must,  eventually happen and one must accept it as part of living, no matter how painful and unbearable such a loss can be. It is therefore all the more important and necessary that we must treasure every moment that we have with them while it is still possible for us to do so. When they are gone, the fond memories of them would comfort and sustain us for the rest of our lives. The anguish of parting from our loved ones, through death or other circumstances, has been most poignantly captured by China’s celebrated Song poet Su Dongpo in his immortal poem “Shui Diao Ge Tou” 水调歌头, which all educated Chinese, young and old, are familiar with. May I, in my  amateurish way, translate its most well-known lines into English for the benefit of viewers who do not know Chinese. Here it goes: “We humans have moments of joy and sadness, parting and reunion, just as the moon has its cycles of brilliant brightness and contrasting dimness. This has been so since ancient times and, alas, nothing in nature or human life can ever be perfect. So, I can only wish that we will all live long in order that we can always share the sight of the beautiful moon even when we are thousands of miles apart from each other.” Su dedicated this poem to his beloved brother, a fellow poet, who was far away from him when he feelingly composed this poem.

In recent months, my wife and I had unexpectedly lost two valued friends in quick succession. We were quite stunned by the unexpected news because when we last met them not that long ago, they both appeared to be in good health then. We will always remember them with fond memories and cherish the warm friendships between us and them and their respective spouses. I would like to share with the viewers some of their admirable personal attributes which had made them very decent and likeable human beings.

Mr Fu Weng Leng

We first met Mr and Mrs Fu Weng Leng several years ago through an old friend, Dr Chee Choong Seng, a prominent surgeon in Singapore. Dr Chee had invited us to join a 9-day tour of the world-renowned Hakka tulous 土楼 (earth buildings) in the Yongding county in China’s Fujian province, where many Singaporean Hakka Chinese’s forefathers, including Aw Boon Haw of Tiger Balm fame, came from. Some of the extant tulous date back to the Ming dynasty. The tour was organised by Dr Chee and Mr Fu, under the auspices of Singapore’s Yongding Clan Association, of which they were then the president and deputy president respectively. We gladly accepted the invitation as we had always been fascinated by these tulous which are now an UNESCO World Heritage site. The trip was a resounding success, thanks to the efficient efforts of both the organisers. During the tour, some of Mr Fu’s manifested character traits had made a deep impression on my wife and I. First, he arranged for our group to visit his ancestral tulou, still inhabited by some of his close relatives, where we were given a hospitable rousing welcome. He and his charming wife then took leave of our group for half a day in order to pay their respects to the Fu ancestors at a hilly grave site, as all filial Chinese descendants there or overseas would do on special occasions. To ensure that all of us were satisfyingly and happily fed throughout the tour, he, without our knowledge, had generously subsidised us with additional more expensive dishes whenever he felt that the standard menu provided by the travel agency fell short of his expectations. When we later found out that the excellent food that we all had been raving about came from his own pocket, we offered to reimburse him but he cheerfully declined saying that if the food was palatable to us all, then that would make him very happy. Another example of his sincere and helpful disposition emerged when a tour member was anxious to contact a long lost relative, whom he had never met, he came to his rescue by enlisting the help of a prominent local friend to trace the whereabouts of this relative. As luck would have it, his friend was successful in doing so and the two sides had a happy meeting which would not have materialised without the spontaneous and timely intervention of Mr Fu. A further example of his generosity was his hosting a sumptuous dinner at an expensive restaurant and invited the group, 22 of us, to share the joy of his wife’s 60th birthday celebrations. At the conclusion of the holiday, he gave all of us presents of specialty local products to bring home. After this holiday, My wife and I continued to meet up with Mr and Mrs Fu at regular intervals, usually in Dr and Mrs Chee’s residence or as the latter’s guests at social events at Yongding Clan Association. The last time we met Mr Fu was barely six months ago when he and Mrs Fu had decided to join the Chees, us and other mutual friends on a 19-day trip to Eastern Europe, but Mr Fu later changed his mind as he had new plans to take his extended family on a separate holiday elsewhere later in the year.

We only learned of Mr Fu’s death through Dr Chee after his funeral was over. He told me that it was Mr Fu’s wishes to keep the wake and funeral as simple and private as possible and therefore only his close relatives and a few old friends and business partners, including the Chees, were informed by his family members of his death and they were at the wake. No obituary appeared in the newspapers. However, a memorial service would be held later for those of his relatives, friends and business associates who might wish to bid Mr Fu farewell. Dr Chee asked me to look out for the press announcement as my wife and I would like to attend. The memorial service was called “Celebration of Life”, and took place at the ballroom of Ritz Carlton Hotel, followed by a buffet high tea. What an unusual memorial service it turned out to be, the like of which we had not experienced before. A large group of several hundred people were there, including not a few who had come from overseas countries. This is a signal testimony of the popularity and respect that Mr Fu commanded among his relatives, friends and business associates.

The service began with the master of ceremony announcing that Mr Fu would very much like this occasion to be a joyful celebration of the happy times that he had shared with all present, and not a mournful event. To the surprise of us all, a video, made shortly before his death, was shown to the gathering. A well composed Mr Fu, sitting comfortably on a sofa surrounded by all his caring family members, telling the viewers calmly that he has had a short illness and that he is unlikely to recover from it.  After much discussion and persuasion, his family members have finally come to terms that he will shortly be leaving them. He is much comforted that they have promised him that they will continue to cope well with life without him. He is most blessed to have a good and caring wife, filial children and lovely grandchildren, all of whom he would dearly miss. He has also been blessed with a good and full life. He is glad that his family business has been built up through sustained sound management and hard work, with continuing strong and loyal support of his staff, partners and business associates and he would take this opportunity to thank them all. After the video presentation, poignant tributes from his children and a nephew, laced with interesting anecdotes, to show what a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and uncle that Mr Fu had been to them all. Several other sincere and moving tributes also came from his close friends and business associates, both from Singapore and overseas, from which I caught glimpses of Mr Fu’s fine human qualities as a true friend and a principled businessman. In my view, the tribute that most aptly encapsulates Mr Fu’s life came from his long time doctor friend who said: “Mr Fu not only knew how to live well but he also taught us how to die gracefully. This should be an inspiration to us all”.  To end this memorable service, all Mr Fu’s children came on stage again to bid their beloved father a final farewell by singing their parents’ favourite Mandarin song, which had a sentimental significance for them both. I chanced to look around me and observed that not a few ladies in the audience were wiping off their tears at the conclusion of this celebration of life.

Mrs Masako Deguchi

My wife and I first met Mr and Mrs Hisaki Deguchi in late 1980s when we were dinner guests of our mutual Japanese friends Mr and Mrs A Ishiwara. Mr Deguchi spoke very good English and his wife had picked up enough of it in Singapore for us to communicate with her in that language. They immediately impressed us as a very friendly, cosmopolitan and likeable couple. They first came to Singapore from Tokyo around the late 1970s when Mr Deguchi accepted a key executive position with a well established local firm with operations here and in Malaysia and which had much business dealings with Japanese and Korean firms. Mrs Deguchi, skilled in Japanese flower arrangements and had an artistic flair, opened a florist shop in Orchard Road. Apart from the local Japanese and Singaporean customers, she also specialised in exporting high quality cut orchids to the Japanese market where the demand for these was growing. Besides his full time job her husband, together with a couple of Tokyo-based Japanese partners, set up one of Singapore’s earliest authentic Japanese restaurants in Orchard Rd area. Mr Deguchi later resigned from this local firm in order to devote himself fully to expanding his restaurant business in Singapore and Malaysia and to pursue other business interests.

A few months after meeting Mr Deguchi, I received a surprise telephone call from him. He told me that, although he already had a legal adviser for some years now, he would like to come and see me on some legal matters which needed urgent attention. From then on, the legal consultations on his business affairs became more frequent. At the same time I was also asked to look after his wife’s legal matters as well as acting as their legal adviser on their personal matters. We got on very well in our professional relationship, and, over time, he  became one of my highly valued clients. With my help, he and his wife became permanent residents of Singapore. They were both delighted with their new status, which they said was an important milestone in their life. Once the client and lawyer relationship was firmly established to his satisfaction, Mr Deguchi began to introduce some of his fellow Japanese and other friends to me when they needed a lawyer. Apart from work, my wife and I also met up with the Deguchis for social evenings, sometimes at one of their restaurants, as our guests at  Chinese restaurants as they both liked Chinese food  and also at each other’s house and, occasionally, at each other’s clubs. So, from a purely  professional relationship, a warm personal friendship had thus developed between us and our spouses.This friendship has continued into the present time, after my retirement from my law practice. We would continue to meet up at regular intervals. Just two weeks before Mrs Deguchi passed away recently, I telephoned her husband intending to invite them and our other mutual friends for dinner at our home. He thanked me warmly but had to decline our invitation as his wife had taken ill with an old health problem, but he assured me that her doctor had diagnosed that her medical condition was not life threatening. He also told me that in a fortnight’s time he and his wife would be taking another holiday in Europe and that they were looking forward to it. He ended the conversation by saying that they would tell us all about the European trip when we meet again before long. I wished them bon voyage.

You can imagine how shocked I was when I received a telephone call from Mr Deguchi one week later telling me in an emotion charged voice that he had just lost his wife who passed away peacefully in her sleep at home last night,  just as he thought she was getting better and felt excited about their impending European trip. It was the most painful and unbearable moment of his entire life which would now be vastly different without her. They had been a most loving couple throughout their long married life. My wife and I went to her wake with a heavy heart and, for the first time in our 20-year friendship, I spontaneously hugged Mr Deguchi as words of condolences would have failed to adequately convey that we truly shared his profound grief. Many of their other friends and his business associates of different nationalities had turned up on both nights of the wake to bid Mrs Deguchi a fond farewell. Her Japanese siblings and their family members had specially flown in from Tokyo to attend her wake and funeral. I was told by Mr Deguchi that, after the Singapore funeral, he would shortly be bringing his wife’s ashes back to Japan for burial in the Deguchi family grave site, after their Japanese friends and relatives there had paid their final respects to Mrs Deguchi in accordance with the Japanese custom and funeral rites.

I would share with the readers some of the admirable personal attributes of the late Mrs Deguchi which had endeared herself to my wife and I, and we will always treasure the memories of the happy times that we he had shared with her and her husband. Our first impression of her was that of a friendly, personable, refined and well-groomed lady who was quite at home in the multiracial society of Singapore, which was so distinctly different from Japan. She told my wife that she had many Singaporean friends and enjoyed the informal life style and the different ethnic cuisines here. She had also adjusted herself well to the humid Singapore climate. However, she did miss the seasonal changes  of cooler Japan. As we got to know her better, we found that she always had good things to say about our mutual friends and was never critical of others’ shortcomings. Like most Singaporeans,  she also sometimes did her groceries at wet markets, including the Chinatown market, together with her local friends to ease the language difficulties. A devout Buddhist, she attended the famed Bright Hill Temple on special religious days in the Buddhist calendar. She spent a good part of her day running her florist outlets, with the help of her Singaporean and Japanese staff, and was glad that she had turned her love for flowers and plants into a viable business. When we periodically ordered bouquets from her shop, she would always ensure that the value of the content would exceed the price we paid. For almost two decades, she would, without fail, give us a beautiful floral arrangement during Chinese New Year, in addition to their festive gift of wine and mandarin oranges. Her floral arrangement had always drawn praises and admiration from our friends and relatives. Like Chinese Singaporeans, the Deguchis also celebrated the Lunar New Year by donning traditional Chinese attire, receiving guests in their house and visiting them with mandarin oranges. As her husband is in the food business, it is not surprising that Mrs Deguchi enjoyed good food of both East and West and was skilled in the culinary art of her native country. When she and her husband invited us and other mutual friends to their elegantly furnished home for dinner, she would personally prepare and serve up a delightful Japanese fare of good restaurant standard. Their guests would enjoy the food tremendously in the relaxing setting of their rear garden, surrounded by mature trees and fragrant flowering plants and  shrubs, sipping sake and wine and enjoying the congenial company of each other. The Deguchis must have put in a great deal of thoughtful effort to make the evening such a memorable one. In the latter years, Mrs Deguchi’s conversational English had, to our pleasant surprise, improved markedly. When we complimented her, she modestly admitted that the credit should go to the British Council courses that she had been attending, despite her busy life here. She came from a close-knit family, and she and her husband would visit her siblings and their families annually. They too would come to Singapore regularly, as one of Mrs Deguchi’s nieces did during her recent illness.

We will truly miss her as a good friend and may she rest in eternal peace.

Lam Pin Foo

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2 thoughts on “How Should One Live and Die?

  1. Dear Mr Lam,
    I stumbled upon your blog by chance as I was thinking about an old Japanese friend of mine, Masako. I googled her name and it led me to your blog-site.
    I was devastated to learn of Ms Masako’s death. Are we talking about the same person? From your description of her I gather we are…because Masako-san happened to be a florist and she also worked with her husband in their restaurant in Orchard area.
    I was met this dynamic lady and was invited to her house in 1981/1982 when she first came to join a Japanese club. I was drawn to her friendly disposition and unassuming character–she made friends easily.
    Please contact me by return email as I would like to have a ‘chat’ with you regarding this wonderful lady. With thanks, carrie

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