My mother has a theory that the "sight", for want of a better word, most likely stems from the "exotic" Thai side of Grandma's family. However, that ability may also have come from Grandpa's side of the equation.
I never had the privilege of knowing my paternal grandfather. When I was six, I asked Dad about Grandpa or "Ah Kong" (pronounced "a-gung" in Hokkien). In a rare moment of nostalgia, Dad shared this memory with me.
So here is Grandpa's experience.
It was probably during the 1940s when Grandma packed her bags and took her three girls and youngest son (my Fifth Uncle was still a baby then), and left for Singapore. Grandpa, with the four older boys, remained in Georgetown, on Penang Island, West Malaysia. Penang is a northern state of the Malaysian peninsula, just below the state of Ipoh, which in turn sits on the Malaysian-Thai border. My father's family are Peranakan (nonya), Straits-born Chinese, a unique heritage that is a blend of Chinese and Malay, plus a bit of Thai thrown into the mix from Grandma's mother.
Dad was the second oldest of the boys; I can't remember how old he was at the time - perhaps between eight to ten years? But from a very young age, he and his brothers were quite independent and could already be trusted to fend for themselves. They knew the basic rules their father had drilled into them: keep the house clean, do your homework, don't fight among yourselves, look after each other and stay indoors after dark.
Grandpa taught at the local village school where he kept long hours, planning lessons, marking papers or providing extra tutoring for students who needed it. On many occasions, he would be returning home just when the sun had started to sink below the horizon.
Home was a one-bedroom place that used to be a garage or workshop. It was a square building, with walls cobbled together out of thin planks of wood and a flimsy roof made from corrugated iron. It was sparsely furnished and times were hard. They often had to make do with whatever they could scrounge from friends and neighbours. But Dad never complained about his childhood. On the rare occasions he spoke of his father, his face would light up with remembered pleasure.
As Grandpa made his way home late one afternoon, he had to pass the large monsoon drain that ran beside the row of makeshift dwellings where he and his neighbours called home. The drain was dangerous during monsoon season, rapidly filling up with rushing water whenever it rained. He always reminded his boys to take care whenever they played outside at the front of the house.
He had almost made it home and was within sight of the front door when he caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye. Turning sharply around, he saw a little boy about three or four years running around barefoot on the dusty dirt path. The boy's hair was cropped very short and all he had on was an embroidered red vest.
In the fading light, Grandpa thought one of his younger boys had snuck outside to find mischief. He was very annoyed that one of his strictest rules was being blatantly disobeyed.
"Why aren't you inside?" he demanded sternly of the boy in Hokkien. "What do you think you are you doing, running around wearing only just that? Where are your shoes and why aren't you wearing pants?"
At the sound of his voice, the little boy scampered off, flashing his little bare behind most cheekily and then vanishing right before his eyes. Grandpa stormed home, too furious at the time to notice anything out of the ordinary.
The minute he came through the front door, he opened his mouth to reprimand Dad and my First Uncle, who as the two oldest were responsible for the safety of their younger brothers. Midway through his lecture, he stopped short -
Four pairs of very wide, startled eyes gazed back at him. He did a quick head count: chi̍t-nn̄g-sann-sì; one-two-three-four. All four of his boys were present and accounted for. No one had wandered outside to play when it was getting dark.
On second thoughts, that red vest the little boy had on looked very much like the traditional Chinese "dudou", an old-fashioned undergarment worn mainly by girls. Shaped like a diamond, the apron-like vest covered the torso from neck to waist and was fastened at the back. It wasn't something any of his sons owned, let alone would have even worn.
There were also no other young boys of similar age in the neighbourhood who could account for the mistaken identity. Their nearest neighbour had two young girls who didn't wear their hair quite that short. When he asked around the next day, no one could recall ever seeing such a boy in the neighbourhood.
After from his initial outburst, Grandpa refused to speak further about his encounter with Dad or his brothers. It is a real mystery in our family to this day. I still wonder who that boy was and why he chose to appear only my grandfather.
About thirty years later, Dad brought Mum, my older sister and I to his old neighbourhood in Georgetown. The dirt track where Grandpa met the boy in the red vest had become a concrete footpath with cracks in places. Amazingly, the house they had lived in was still there, little more than a dingy shed. It was so rundown it was practically falling apart at the seams. It was hardly the best place to bring up four lively boys, but somehow Grandpa had managed.
Dad was only fifteen when his father passed and he in turn has been gone for over thirteen years now. I've often wished that my young self at the time had thought to ask my father for more details about his boyhood in Penang, before and after the Japanese Occupation.
Grandpa's remains are still in Georgetown. Maybe someday I might gather my sisters, cousins and their children to pay our respects to Ah Kong.