Cat. 1, Personal 2 – BL-9 – Black sail in the night

Cat. 1, Personal 2 – BL-9 – Black sail in the night

Ch. 9 –  Black sail in the night


In the seven decades of my life as a human being on this planet, I have found myself under a dark cloud numerous times, but never have I encountered one without a silver lining of its own.

Well, there might be one exception, where the cloud was so thick and pitch black it turned my days into nights for one full year with no silver lining in sight; that would be for a later chapter. In deep despair I asked whether there could be clouds without any lining at all. After much agonizing, my final answer was “No”. It was that this particular cloud was so vast that its lining lay beyond my perceptual horizon. I believe that given time, the cloud will shrink, and its silver lining will be visible, albeit perhaps too late. Until then, my fall-back position is that it was meant to be.

Back to the case in point here – the dark cloud of the Japanese invasion – what silver lining could there be?

My paternal grandfather was the wealthy owner of a local bank with extensive real estate holdings, who funded a number of clandestine resistance-related projects. If discovered by the Japanese invaders, it would mean the firing squad or the sword, most likely preceded by torture, not just for him, but for the entire family, myself included. Fortunately, he was quite ingenious in some ways and his activities were never discovered. Unfortunately he was a heavy drinker, not of wine or beer, but Chinese triple-distilled liquor that could kill Indiana Jones’ Lost-Ark girlfriend. And it did kill him in the end. In February 1944, he put on a big banquet to celebrate the birth of the first male child of the family – me – and drank himself to death two weeks into my life. Family legend has it that he gave me my Chinese name Seeu-Sung – the Chinese title of this book – in his death bed. He was quite a wit. It was supposed to have multiple meanings, including “Born at Seeu Guan”, “Beautiful Youth” and “Beautiful Life” – the title of this book. Thank you, grandpa, a little hard to live up to, but I love it!

Unlike my maternal grandfather who begot just one child (my mother) before his untimely KIA, my paternal grandparents spawned a brood of eight, numbers 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 being girls and 2, 6 and 8 being boys. Of these my #5-aunt was thought to have been abducted as a comfort woman when she was in her teens, my #6-uncle met a tragic end years later, and my #8-uncle was killed while a child by the Japanese during the early stages of the invasion. My #7-aunt is the only one who is still alive as I speak, and living in China. My father, number 2, was the first male of his generation. So, what do all these mean for me? Well, since I’m the first male of the first male in my paternal line, and the first son of the only child in my maternal line, I stood to inherit the considerable wealth of both sides of the family. Lucky me.

Luckier even, for me as a baby, was that I couldn’t care less. I was too engrossed in my sensory overload. During the first 18 months of my life, due to repeated aerial bombings of population centers, and the iron heels of Japanese boots on the ground, we took refuge in a cabin in the mountains. By “we”, I mean my two grandmothers, my parents, my two uncles, my four aunts, my girl cousin, and a number of employees of the family and family businesses. Among us, my father was the only one who carried a firearm for defense – against highwaymen and bandits. If it was Japanese troops, he would be well advised to throw the pistol into the bush. Any non-Japanese caught packing heat would be executed on the spot, and a non-Japanese killing Japanese would have his entire family terminated.

Guang Dong was a lush, beautiful and mountainous province straddling the Tropic of Cancer. I’ll go as far as to say that it is one of the top three most beautiful provinces of China. But its mountainous beauty meant tough going on foot, though not for me. Being just a baby, I rode in the lap of my paternal grandmother. Why “paternal”? Because my maternal grandmother, like everyone else, had to walk. My paternal grandmother was the last woman in my family line to have bound feet, a nasty custom being retired along with slavery, but too late for her. She could barely shuffle along on the flat, but no way could she handle rough terrain. She was the imperious dragon lady of the family, and was carried around in a litter – an armchair with two long poles horizontally attached, one to each side, the ends of which resting on the shoulders of four litter-bearers. Good thing she was thin as a reed.

So, while my mother was developing blisters on her feet, I was having a grand old time touring the best of what the wilderness had to offer. My mother told me that my first words were not “toy” or “car” or “choo choo train”, but “flower” and “bird” and “tree” (a bit too young for “birds and bees” ;), and “tiger”, since we had a non-confrontational encounter with one, a South China tiger, which nonetheless left a deep impression on me as my future life would bear out. This “wilderness submersion” I find a true blessing, and instrumental in forming and firming my present stand in defence of Mother Earth.

In August 1945, when Japan surrendered, I was 18 months old. We all know that Japan was driven to unconditional surrender by the US, which indeed deserves its lion’s share of credit, but China did its own not-insignificant yet by-and-large unsung and unknown part – to drain Japanese man-power, energy and resources, mostly by resistance within China, scorched earth policy and tactical counter-strikes. This in part involved moving the national capital after the Nanking Massacre inland to Chung King in the mountainous Szechuan province. The “scorched earth policy” is a standard and often winning military strategy in the face of overwhelming offence by the enemy. It is also a standard military strategy for the offenders to loot captured territories of its resources, be it food, water, fuel, for their own use and sustenance, which scorching-the-earth eliminates. It necessitates a long, expensive, depleting and vulnerable communication and supply line, which the defenders then could ambush or outright attack, in a setting and by a means of their own choosing, thus isolating the front line offenders for surrounding, eradication or starvation. The Russians used it to great effect in WW2 in the face of overwhelming German force by drawing the Germans deep into Russian territory, and did not make a total stand until they reached Stalingrad, by which time the winter had begun closing in. What happened to the Germans was history. Even in their retreat they could find no sustenance from the previously scorched earth. The Chinese had a similar success against the Japanese, which of course is much lesser known in the West than events involving the West, which is understandable and forgivable. Unforgivable is that while the Russians were called heroes, an honour they richly deserved, the Chinese were called “cowards”. But having seen enough of the demonization, the adding-insult-to-injury, I just shrug it off as yet another piece of unidirectional humiliation. The West itself has a saying: “Stay alive to fight another day”, which the Japanese find cowardly and spit upon. Are Westerners cowards? Not from a Chinese point of view.


Also, there was a definitive difference between Russia and China in WW2. When Japan first invaded China, China was embroiled in a civil war between Chang Kai-Sek’s Republic of China (ROC) government – the one that overthrew the Ching Dynasty in 1911 led by the revered Dr. Sun Yat-Sen – and the Communist guerrilla forces under Mao Tse-Dong, which in 1949 formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and forced the ROC to Taiwan.

But in the second half the Japanese invasion, the Chang and Mao forces formed a strategic alliance against the common enemy, which seems to be one of the permanent human conditions.

After the war, in 1945, my family returned to my paternal grandfather’s estate in Canton, and my father returned to his post of MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) of the province of Guang Dong of the Republic of China. The estate was taken over by the Japanese as an army bivouac during the war, and was found in a state of disrepair, at some expense to restore. It covered several acres, the central one-acre core of it being surrounded by green-tiled dragon-back walls. The core itself was subdivided into several parcels, each with a house and a garden – for an aunt or uncle, and my paternal grandmother, and of course my immediate family. My maternal grandmother and my mother’s cousins went back to their aquaculture farm sixty or seventy lees away.

*Circa 1948 in Canton – Back row: my 4th aunt, 3rd aunt, sister, father and 7th aunt. Front row: my cousin Naam, my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother, my brother and my mother.

Because I was first in line to the family fortune, I was treated like the crown prince by all. As I’ve mentioned before, I had my own nanny. Everyone

was duly respectful and deferential. The family employees called me Dai Seew, meaning “#1 young master”. Had I stayed in that position for too long, I might have become a brat, then an SOB. In retrospect a good thing that it all came to an end when I was five.

There are still remnants of memory remaining. I must have appeared a smart kid, because my parents tried to put me into kindergarten one year ahead of other smart kids. I wet my pants on the first day because I had no idea how to ask to be excused. I clearly recall that the school gardener put a pair of his grandson’s pants on me, dark green in color, two sizes too big. When my mother came to pick me up after school, she asked the teacher why my pants had changed color. Apparently, all had a good laugh, except me. I was totally mortified. But I learned how to ask to be excused in time for next round.

When the war ended, the Chinese civil war resumed. In 1949, Mao ‘s Communist forces routed Chang’s “Nationalist” forces (ironically, the right translation should be the “People’s” forces), and drove the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan. Up to 1949 Taiwan was a province of the ROC. After 1949, it became the Republic of China itself, although internationally called Taiwan, while Mao’s forces overran and took over mainland China, and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Being a previous official of the ROC, my father suddenly became an enemy-of-state for the PRC, a wanted man. If captured, the best case scenario would be that he would be severely purged, and sent out to Sinkiang for hard labour until he dropped. The worst case scenario would be the execution of the entire extended family – the termination of the family line to prevent future revenge.

When Guang Dong Province was being overrun by the Communists, it was very sudden. In September, the Blue-Sky-White-Sun-Red-Earth flag of the ROC was flying on the provincial capitol. In October, it had been replaced by the Five-Star flag. And of course the social atmosphere underwent a drastic “climate change”. There were arrests everywhere; street-level purging, kangaroo courts and swift executions were the order of the day. In September, my father was on Hoy Nam (Hai Nan) Island inspecting the site of a proposed naval base. In October, he was in hiding in a Taoist Monastery. Within a week, it became obvious that the new authorities would be checking all religious institutions for fugitives. It had also become obvious that there was no way that my father could find a boat that could take him anywhere, for any price. But the Taoist priest volunteered to use his boat to take my father anywhere within range.

Apparently, my father had three viable alternatives – Vietnam, Macau (under Portugal) and Hong Kong (under Britain). Of the three, Vietnam was the nearest and Hong Kong was the farthest. After some deliberation, my father chose an even farther destination, a fourth alternative that was likely suicidal.

“I want to go back to Canton (Guang Zhou) to pick up my family, then to Hong Kong,” he said to the priest. “I know the risk, to me and to you. Firing squad for both. I appreciate the offer, but I won’t hold you to it.”

Without hesitation, the priest asked, “When?”

“Are you sure?”

“As sure as my belief in the existence of the Tao.”

There was no weather forecast available at the monastery, but it was a dark and stormy night, with the rain coming down in sheets.

“When would it be convenient to you?” asked my father.

“Any time. Now if you want.”

My father tried the phone again, and again, the line was dead. Whatever daylight filtering through the heavy overcast was fading. He made a spot decision. “Now.”

And so, up the Pearl River under the cover of darkness and foul weather they went, unintercepted and unobserved. They moored the boat off a deserted pier next to an old fish market. From there, it would be a 30 minute walk to the family compound. During the sailing they had discussed how to bring my family aboard. They had to assume that the place was watched.

Again, the priest volunteered himself. He had long silver hair tied up in a top knot in typical Taoist fashion. He undid the knot, and his hair cascaded down to his lower back. He produced a sharp blade and some soap and handed them to my father. “Please shave my head,” he said.

My father was flabbergasted. “Just do it,” said the priest.

There was a branch of Buddhism where the monks, heads shaven like other monks, would eat only what food donated directly to them as they went door to door spreading the wisdom of the Buddha. They only carried one thing with them. a rice bowl. Theirs was the humility of the beggar. And so, the Taoist priest, head shaven, went door to door the next morning in the neighborhood of our family compound, disguised as a Fu Hung Jung (bitter walking monk) spreading the words of the Buddha instead of Lao Tsu for a change, and eventually did knock on my family’s gate. A family employee informed my grandmother of it, and my grandmother asked the employee to bring some food to the monk. My mother said, “I’ll do it. I want to see what he has to say.”

When she got to the gate, the “monk” asked her to have everyone assembled at the fish market by dusk “without being obvious about it, and surreptitiously board the boat with the black sail at Pier 9, one or two at a time, spread out over a couple of hours, casual as can be please. If asked, you’re there to buy some fish. The last one to board should not be later than sunset. Bring nothing you cannot easily carry yourself, and nothing less precious than what you would risk your life to protect,” he said, thanked her for the food, and moved on to the next house.

And so, the black-sailed junk cast off at dusk with my parents, my paternal grandmother, my two younger siblings, my numbers #1, #3 and #4 aunts and my three cousins on board. My maternal grandmother, my #6 uncle and #7 aunt elected to stay behind. The storm had calmed somewhat, but still made a good cover for the boat. Some time in the middle of the night, we hit landfall near a fishing village on an out-lying island called Cherng Zhou not far west of Hong Kong, an integral part of the British Crown Colony. We stayed on board until day break, then disembarked on to a wide sandy beach.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the now bald Taoist priest engaged my father in a deep conversation which would have an enormous impact on the direction of my life.

Of course I slept right through it.


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