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   Past Feedback

Benjamin Ng (2011/05/18)

Dear George,
I stumbled across yr book in a sale..2 for $4.90. it betrayed the richness within! Probably why it took me so long before I actually started reading it.
I havent been able to lay it down since late last nite when I started. I cried several times..
I realised we grew up in the same neighbourhood, under similar circumstances. I would like to buy more copies of Breakthru so my siblings could relive the nostalgia! Would you be kind to autograph them?

Ephraim Chan (2010/11/14)

Last year, I made a rendezvous with a niece to meet outside of the Borders bookshop at Orchard Road. As I was early, I ventured into the bookshop.  After passing through the various shelves, my eyes fell on a book. On the front cover was the picture of a young boy. I continued my walk inside the bookshop.

After a while, I walked out to check whether my niece had arrived. She had not. I went in again.  Somehow, like a magnet drawn to a piece of steel, I found myself back to the shelf and to the book that my eyes fell on a few minutes earlier.  I picked it up and read the first two pages.  It was a description of a Chinese wedding held in China during the mid 1940s. I read the first two pages.  Somehow, it did not seem to be quite the book I was looking for. I put it down and went out again. My niece came shortly thereafter. It was just a simple meeting as the purpose of our meeting was for me to collect a pair of spectacles my wife had left in her house the previous day.

Two days later, I was in the Queenstown Library to return some books I had borrowed. Just out of curiosity, I decided to check on the title of the book I saw at Borders. Well, what do you know? The book was available at the Library and was available for Loan. I made a beeline to the shelf, picked up the book and turned to the first page. Yes. This was it. The picture of the boy and the description of the wedding. Somehow, on that day, I did not seem to have any interest in any other book. I decided I must have this for my next reading. I checked it out and went home and commenced to start reading, "Mao's Last Dancer".

I was so enthralled that I could hardly put it down except for little breaks now and then. It was an autobiography of a poor peasant boy who left home at age eleven to enter the Beijing Dance Academy. Fighting humiliation from the teachers, and poor grades in school, he persevered to win a scholarship to USA under the Houston Ballet group. In the seven years that he was in BDA, he became a lead ballet dancer. He chose to defect to USA despite the fear of what may happen to his family back home. He persevered to become a world top balerino.

A week ago, at Queenstown Library, I was again looking for books I would want to read. I looked at various ones under the Singapore Collection. I had read several since last year - including Men in White, autobiographies of Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, etc. This time, my eyes fell on Break Through. My initial thought was that it was an autobiography of an ex criminal offender who was free not only from prison but from drugs. After checking it out and when I started reading that I found I was wrong. I found myself reading an autobiography that was in some ways parallel to that of mine.

I am ten years older than George. I grew up in Tiong Bahru from age six till I was twenty eight. My early childhook was one of poverty. We were staying in a three room SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust house - predecessor of HDB). We were barely surviving as there were twelve of us. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family and eveyone had to obey her. My grandfather had died early (before I was born) and her adopted son (my father) had to obey her. She even robed in her niece and her two children. Our house was at the mouth of si ka teng (four legged shelter) just next to the now defunct King's Theatre. It was there that we had our share of sneaking into the theatre by tricks used by George. Sometimes, we could get two shows of price for one. For this, we would save frantically for it. Sometimes my younger sister and I would save to buy my mother a ticket for her to enjoy.

We were in constant dread of gangsters. Fortunately, our immediate neighbour was a cousin of one of the gangster chiefs. He would beat anyone he wants. Some of the other neighbours were beaten up. We played smart. When confronted by gangsters, we would say we were from his gang and he was our chief. That protected us as nobody wants to mess with him.

I could identify with the 'measley' pocket money, the frequent red Water and Electricity bills, and the impartiality of parents - my father doted on my eldest brother and youngest brother (my equivalents of Crown Prince and Little Emperor. I could only see the presents my father would lavish on them although he was not rich. While my father favoured the two other boys, my mother seem to show hers toward the two girls in the family. I was the George in my family. A jinx although I was suppoed to be the most privileged to have an elder and younger brother and an elder and younger sister. I was right in the middle but forget it if you think being the middle child I would be most noticeable. In terms of punishment, yes. I too had to look after my Little Warrior. My eldest brother was twelve years older had no time to take care of him. All of us live separate lives although we were under one roof. Being the male and the centre of my siblings meant I had to shoulder responsiblities such as helping to clean up the house, and during the school holidays, having to go to the market with my mother so that I can bring the food back before she went to work. Sometimes, I had shop alone. My brother (my own crown prince) helped out but after two years, he was considered as an adult (though still in secondary school) so was exempted. The two girls were also exempted because of their sex and my Little Emperor was considered too young.

Like George, I enjoyed the thrills of kite flying and pursuing after falling kites, catching and holding spider fight matches. These two activities are by far and large, unheard of nowadays. They were the simple joys of childhood. Being children, we would watch television at a neighbour's house. More than ten of us would peer through the window. The shorter ones would watch from the small ventilation holes below the window.

Unlike George, my father was not the disciplinarian. My mother was. She could also be loving at times but could also be merciless when it comes to discipline. I remember the various times she had to carry me 'piggy back' for medical consultation - to have my lip sewed after it split when I slipped and hit against a spitton when I was a toddler learning to walk, the time when my leg was injured because a bicycle I was playing with fell on me when I was six and seeking medical attention from countless doctors for my food allergy problem. I was also the smallest size in my family. I was also in the programme to receive free eggs and milk from the then Institute of Health. I too have my share of having to wear pants made by my mother. As my elder brother went to his teens, my mother had to sew underwear for him. She also made some for me although I was in my lower Primary school days. At that time, and as far as I know, no one in Primary school wears that. It was awkward during PE time with classmates looking at you when they see the top of the underwear wondering why I wore two trousers. Some even thought I was wearing my sisters' panties.

My clothes, shoes were mainly 'hand me downs' while my younger brother would have brand new ones. I had to wear the same school uniform sometimes for three times days before washing. To attend functions, and even to church invited by friends, I had to go in my school white canvas shoes sometimes with the tops pealing. To stretch my pocket money, I would walk part of the journey or play games so that I could win from them. Sometimes, I would watch my friends enjoying cold drinks from bottles or patronising the 'ice water stall'. To stave my thirst, I would buy a roll of pepermint sweets and with the balance was to buy a bun. There was no remainder to buy other foodstuff. As I read the book, I found myself musing, as I remember the gesture we would make as a child - putting our right hand under our left arm pit and flapping it and at the same time taunting the person receiving the punishment, "very good, very good or serve you right".

I was in a so called prestigious school. But being a pauper in that school sometimes make you feel like burying your head into the ground when you see the cars they travel in. Some rich schoolmates would buy snacks for me. My first taste of milkshake was when I was in Sec 2 at the Magnolia milkbar outside Capitol cinema when I was fourteen years old. The cost of it was more than a week's school pocket money. I could never have afforded it had it not been paid for by a classmate.

Like George, many times I wonder whether I was a legitimate son. Although my father was not the disciplinarian, he had ways to show favouritism to the others and vent his anger with me when he was short of money. Many a time, I had to hide my mother's purse to prevent him from taking whatever she had. Somehow, he would know that I was the one. It was only when I was in my late teens when he became to recognise and accepted me inquiring on my well being. This lasted only a year or so before he passed away suddenly while on the way to work. I was the one who had to sit through the night beside his coffin. My crown prince was spared because he had to run errends in the day; little emperor was too young although he was in his PSLE year. At first, I could not shed a tear for him. On the day of his funeral, I went to wash my face then lay down for a while. I was exhausted. Suddenly, I told myself, "Now is the time. If you don't cry for him now, you will regret it because you won't have a second chance to do so'. The tears came down like torrents. In the midst of them, I cried, "Why father? Why father?"

Perhaps the last year of his life was a turning point because subsequently, in my dreams of him, he was a loving father caring and could even tease me. I remember in one of my dreams, he said, "I heard you have a girl friend now. You must bring her home to introduce her to me".

I may not have recognised it then, but like George, there were soulprints were being inplanted and impressed on my life. Over the past few years, I discovered more and more. I may not be as successful as George both academically and entrepreneurship but I have learned to invest my life to my son (only child) and his family but to those who had been marginalised to help them by, as I told them, "winding you up and set you on your path again".Some of them are studying in NUS, SIM, PSB and one in a Theological Seminary.

Last week, I met some old Sunday School students I taught in the 1970s - some whom I had known for thirty to fourty years when they were teenagers. I remember how they would tease me, "When can we have a mother?" Today, they are all married with their families. I may not be perfect in many ways but I am thankful, they remember me.

Thank you George. You had had helped me relive my childhood days again - this time to count my soulprints. It was almost akin to reading my own story (without the 3Vs) . I do not dread the past as nobody (not even God) can change it but to know that there are others who were in worse and more dire straits somehow reconfirms that reinvesting my pre-twilight years of my life on them is worth the while. Last year, after reading Mao's Last Dancer, I recommended some JC students to read that too. They told me it had helped inspire them to greater heights. I will certainly do likewise with Break Through after their A levels are over and to those whom I am still mentoring while they are still pursuing their degrees and dreams.

Stella Chin (2009/07/13)

BEAUTIFULLY written article. I love it. Tough love IS tough. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of this very difficult but important aspect of love.

Keep up with your articles. I just got on this website today (thanks to Yanny Ong) and find it so inspiring.

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