always some tie that binds in Singapore
Chua Mui Hoong
Kinship and friendship weave
silken ties that bind people to each other
with the resilience of spider silk.
How many times have
we met someone for the first time and, while
conversing, discovered we had mutual friends,
or some closer tie. "Singapore is so
small," we murmur.
This is the story of
Mary, a chatty mother of three, who has many
friends and more relatives.
Invited to the 86th
birthday of friend Ah Ling's father, she
brought her husband John along and discovered
the first tie that bound the families.
It turned out that
the patriach had been John's shi fu, when he
was an apprentice tailor in Chinatown.
The second tie was
revelaed a little later during the noisy
celebration which was held at home of Ah
Ling's brother and his wife Rebecca.
listening to Mary, Rebecca was reminded of
her husband's childhood friend Hong Cheng,
now a close family friend.
"Do you a know
Hong Cheng?" she asked Mary.
"I have a
sister called that. She was given away to one
family many years ago and I to another."
Indeed, Mary had not
seen her sister for decades, had no idea
where she lived, or how she was.
The two women
exchanged notes: The ages fitted, as did the
family histories. They looked alike; the
timbre of their voices was similar. Rebecca
was convinced the two were sisters and
related some of Hong Cheng's story.
How she had been
adopted by the Chans, husband Ah Wai's
godparents, and how the two children had
grown up as siblings. Hong Cheng was now
married with two children.
Rebecca asked Mary
for her address and telephone number in case
Mary's sister wanted to contact her.
Barely had Mary
written her surname, Cheok, when Rebecca
remarked: "That's quite a rare name. I
know someone called Clarissa Cheok, who went
to university with my husband."
"Clarissa is my daughter."
Rebecca shook her
head in disbelief. "What a small world
She called her
huband over. "She is Clarissa's mother!
And Hong Cheng's sister!"
That made Ah Wai
almost a brother to Mary. And, as the son of
John's master, Ah Wai was also the shi xiong
or disciple brother of John, not to mention
the former classmate of his daughter
In one evening, a
long-lost sister had been found, an
apprentice paid his respects to his former
teacher, and the mother of a former classmate
had been introduced. And all in one casual
encounter, in one household.
The Cheoks have not
yet plumbed the full depths of their
relationship. There may still be
unacknowledged siblings or cousins, or
In a migrant
society, such complex relations are not
uncommon. Women who had too many children
gave some away; adoption and god-parenting
were common. Neighbours became family.
Patriarchs had several "wives" and
each brought a whole different family
Go back two or three
generations in the typical Singaporean
household and such stories abound.
I used to think mine
was just a nuclear family: two parents and
two siblings. We had no relatives, only old
friends, to visit during Lunar New Year.
It was not till I
was entering my teens that I unearthed a
horde of cousins, aunts and uncles.
I know now that I
have a whole family network in China and
Malaysia, and will not be surprised to
discover more relations I know nothing about
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