By Kelwin Baxter
A Chinese funeral is a sight to be seen only once by those who have any regard for comfort or propriety. It is tedious to follow a noisy procession; and it is shocking to one’s ideas of mourning to witness in the front of the hearse a masquerade of ruffians with shows of sorts, attended by coolies, many sick and mostly clad in rags making hideous noises and displaying banners, flags, and scrolls in all the colours of the rainbow. However, the friends of the dead are not attracted by the show. They attend to honour the dead; to do reverence to the remains of a mortal companion gone to the unknown realm.
On the 16th of October, 1865, there was a great Chinese funeral starting from Telok Ayer district, slowly making its progress through Cross Street, thence through one of the principal thoroughfares to the family burial ground five miles from town on the hills which form the boundary of the present Waterworks. It was the funeral of the late Wing Ah Chong, the millionaire contractor. The women folks were hidden under their hoods of hempen cloth. From them arose loud and piteous lamentations. At length the place of burial was reached. The coffin was laid into the hole dug out. Sacrifices were placed. The priests said the prayers for the dead. The sons knelt in a row and behind them were the women in sackcloth weeping piteously. Surrounding the grave and the mourners was a cordon of friends, among whom was a fine looking young man of some eighteen or nineteen years of age. This was Chan Yau Siew, the son of a wealthy merchant. He carried a fancy Malacca cane with a golden head. On his fingers sparkled diamonds, many of them larger than the black of his eyes. He was accompanied by a couple of runners, Ah Thong a bankrupt, Ma Lek an opium smoker and another fellow who must have been his old Hailam “boy.”
When the ceremony at the grave was over, there was a little pause. The women retired for light refreshments to a temporary hut made for the occasion, and here apparently cut off from public gaze, the female mourners doffed their hoods and ate a little to satisfy the pangs of hunger. Through chinks and crevices the curious could see the inmates, and through a rather large rent in the matting, Chan and his myrmidons were peeping at the women folks whose faces bear evidence to the griefs which had preyed on them.
In the group of women, the sharp eyes of Chan Yau Siew saw the figure of a young woman whose plump cheeks were wet with tears. She was a handsome girl of seventeen and tall for her age. Her dark eyes sparkled brightly and her ebony hair with just a trace of curliness hung down almost to her knees. Hers was the type of a female form in perfect health. Her bosom was capacious, heaving steadily save when a jerky sob aggravated the movement of the chest. To look at her was to appreciate that she was a beauty not quite common among the Chinese. She caught sight of the young men gazing at her, and like the fawn, startled by the footsteps of the huntsman, she darted away and hid her beautiful face within her hood of mourning.
Many weeks came and went since that dreary day at the Thomson Road burial ground. Mr. Chan was quite unhappy all the time. He had fallen desperately in love with the young daughter of the late contractor. What troubled him so much was the fear that she might have been betrothed. Then it was not proper to propose marriage so soon after her father’s death. So Chan strolled one day rather disconsolately into his club at Mati Street. Now the club was rather euphemistically styled “The Heavenly Reasoning Club.” It was the rendezvous of the fops of the town. There was to be heard all the scandal and the gossip of the place, and there also were introductions to be had to a certain class of gentry, whose generic name it is improper for us to introduce into this story. Chan Yau Siew walked silently to the bar, and asked for a glass of neat brandy. In those days, the Chinese neither used ice nor soda water; and brandy was the favourite drink. He lay on an easy chair restless—getting up several times to look around.
Near the billiard table was a crowd watching two old members at a game. They took no notice of Chan and the latter sipped away his brandy thoughtfully. Then he suddenly jumped up, and shouting across to the group at the billiard table he called out, “I say, Teng Mai Pong, will you come over here for one second?” “Right,” was the brief reply, and the two friends were face to face.
Chan’s face was alternately red and pale. He was confessing his love for Wing’s daughter to the young Teng Mai Pong who was a friend of Wing and his family. Chan had suddenly remembered this, and resolved to take advantage of Teng’s services straight away. Although a formal marriage proposal might not be proper, Chan could see no possible objection to a friendly approach through a mutual friend. Teng was a couple of years younger than his friend, and as he was simply asked to do something quite harmless and yet not unimportant to both he promised to put his services at the disposal of his friend.
After this talk, they were interrupted by shouting and brawling near the billiard table. The players had fallen out about an insignificant point in the scoring. Words were followed by blows. The whole club was in a state of uproar. All the servants had rushed upstairs. The din of voices was deafening. Chan and Teng managed to settle the affair, and peace was concluded on condition that both sides “stood drinks” all round.
The pair who had quarrelled left the club in disgust, while Cham, Teng and a few others sat down to a game of cards. As they played, Teng lost all and borrowed heavily from his friend. At length daybreak stopped these reckless youngsters, and when they went into reckonings Teng found he was indebted to Chan to the tune of five hundred dollars. As they strolled homewards, Teng was profusely in his admiration of Chan’s liberality and gave a glowing account of the prospects of his mission.
“Good morning!” said Chan. I hope to hear to-night that you have visited my darling’s house and that you have carried my message to Madame Wing.” “Alright, good morning!” The two friends parted, and each walked thoughtfully homewards—the one thinking of his sweetheart and the other regretting he had spent a wasteful night.
Old Wing’s house is situated on a little knob of a hill overlooking the sea. The old gentleman was a virtuoso of the Chinese type. He had collected rare prints, odd looking plants and all kinds of curios. His house was built after a special design drawn by himself from the best European and Chinese plans. It was a cruous looking structure. Externally it had much the appearance of an Indian bungalow with fantastic designs in the balustrade of verandah. Gorgeously painted windows and Chinese figures assured the merest tyro that it was the house of a Chinese gentleman. The garden was neatly arranged. The paths were very nicely laid out, bordered by grasses and shrubs of variegated colours. The surface was either covered with snowy white sand, or ruddy pebbles or with the steel grey dust of granite. These colours were very cleverly blended and gave to the extensive green award all the gracefulness and beauty which a parterre could well present.
On the afternoon following the morning on which Chan and his friend Teng walked home together from the club, there was observed at Wing’s house the monthly sacrifice to the dead. This ceremony takes place on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month. The spirit of the deceased is supposed to attend the feast, and during the first year after death, the descendants of the dead religiously sacrifice to the spirit of the departed. Teng was welcome and took part in the ceremony. He “kowtowed” to the deceased friend of his own father and was detained to dinner with the family. It was the fifteenth of the month, and Teng thought of the moonlight and walk in the beautiful garden. In the family circle, there was no chance for a private conversation as Chinese etiquette made it improper to talk on matters relating to the sexes in a mixed company of ladies and gentlemen.
As evening drew nigh, Teng had an opportunity of a tête-a tête with old Madame, and unbosomed to her the message of his friend. The old lady was proud and glad at the news. She confessed that she was also looking round for some suitable young man, and this chance had come as a heaven-sent gift. She would accept it at once. She feared there was to be trouble in the family as her sons were spendthrifts and were heavily in debt.
She involuntarily sobbed as she confided to Teng the secrets of the family. She assured him they were on the brink of insolvency and that unless some unforeseen good fortune were to turn up, their beautiful house and all its treasures would assuredly be handed over to the city auctioneer. Teng tried to assuage the grief of the old lady and referred repeatedly to Chan’s liberality. Would not such a rich son-in-law be a great help? How could he refuse to put the family on a sound footing? They agreed that the marriage might save the family from disgrace.
“You are right, Mr. Teng. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I shall tell my daughter Yuk Ching how good you have been,” blurted Mrs. Wing as she dried the tears in her eyes.
“No, madame,” replied the youngster. “I deserve no thanks. I have acted the middleman with pleasure.”
The fifth day of the fifth moon is always a gala day among the Chinese. The women especially make a great holiday of it. Especially is this the case when the feast happens on a Sunday, for then the women are chaperoned by their male relatives, and usually resort to the watering places which abound in our island. On the fifth day of the fifth moon in the year subsequent to old Wing’s death, the feast of dragon boats fell on the Sunday.
Madame Wing had accepted the invitation of her friend Mrs. Tee Beng Hop to spend a couple of days at her country seat on the shore of the Old Straits not far from the village of Kranji. The daughter Yuk Ching and the two sons accompanied their mother and the four drove to the country in a carriage sent by Mrs. Tee.
The country road in the old days was not so smooth as it is now; but still it was a very cool drive as along the greater part of their journey the way was through the very thick of virgin jungle. The pony was rather queer-looking for a half breed crossed between a sandalwood mare and a Javanese mountain pony. It was a vicious brute which seemed to take delight in kicking furiously every now and then. Besides it would suddenly stop and lie down as a donkey would do. Under these circumstances, Mrs. Wing and her family were rather unhappily stranded on the road side about the tenth mile from town, as the beast had burst the traces of the harness and broken one of the shafts on one of those fits of lying down.
The other carriages had gone on. The Wings were positively the last on the road; but scarcely a quarter of an hour had passed when young Tee Beng Hop came tearing down with his carriage and pair. He had seen the way the pony was behaving when he passed, and having reached the rendezvous, he turned back to pick up the Wings. He drove the pair himself, and the belated friends were very glad to drive again after having trudged along just half a mile. Their delay was due to the old lady who had to stop every now and then to regain her breath.
At length all arrived safely, and there was much fun all round that day. The boys and girls enjoyed themselves right well. Evening drawing nigh, a hasty dinner was silently got through as a boating expedition had been planned for the night, and the party hastened to embark in boats lighted with Japanese lanterns. In no time everything was ready. The gongs and tambourines went off all agog, and the plaintive melody of Malay songs rumbled in the air while faint echoes reached from the jungle and the hills.
The silver crescent was making the western sky a patch of light just visible in the general gloom. The fantastic shapes of the clouds and the weird shadows on the water combined to make the picture one not easy to describe. In one of boats were Madame Tee, her son Tee Beng Hop, Miss Wing and her mother besides the Malay rowers. Madame Wing was very nervous, and refused to run the risk of catching cold, so she wrapped herself up in a great coat and sought the shelter of a corner of the boat. Her two sons did not want to chaperone their sister, as they wished to be in the company of other young ladies.
Young Tee was a good singer. He had a strong, clear, manly voice and he was also a bit of a scholar. His songs were therefore much appreciated by the maiden, whose sympathy was awakened by the extemporised ditties. The singer in one boat composed one stanza and was answered by some one in another boat. It so happened that Tee sang on “Love,” and the rejoinder came from a Malay professional singer in a neighbouring boat. The contest was equally maintained, and all strained their ears to catch every syllable of the song which fell from Tee Beng Hop’s lips.
The songs were lively, extremely delicate in taste and language, and highly emotional. They touched the heart of the damsel. She too had her love. She had known Tee in her father’s old days, and had taken a fancy to him, but in obedience to Chinese custom, she never betrayed her liking for him. But now in the open boat she was face to face with the man she loved, and he was making feeling allusions to that immortal fire in the human breast, said to be sacred to Eros. Tears rolled down her eyes. Tee saw this and involuntarily clutched at her right arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. She withdrew herself further away. The song suddenly ceased. A big lump was choking the singer and an overwhelming passion was possessing the soul of the young man. The two old ladies who had been quietly talking at once turned to the young pair, and Mrs. Wing pushed her head closer to see her daughter’s face.
“My darling—what! Tears! Why?” ejaculated the old dame. “No, mamma,” replied the maiden, “nothing is the matter. I am thinking of the old days.”
“Dear sweet girl,” joined in Mrs Tee. “I wish you can become one of our family. I know Beng Hop would be most happy to serve you. Then it would be a return to the old days, would it not?”
Beng Hop extended his right hand to the girl and she boldly held out her own, and the pair shook hands and shot at each other glances brimful with the fire of a new-found love.
The market street of Singapore was in the old days a most lively thoroughfare. As it led to a cul-de-sac which was the market, it was naturally congested from dawn till sunset. The market was an odd-looking building with a dome. It was a foul-smelling, dark and filthy conglomeration of stalls. Behind it was the shore, and there the professional money-lenders or chitties used to congregate every morning to prepare themselves with ablution for the day’s work. Rama Cheena Chilaka Chowna Kutulipam Chitty was an old scoundrel. A hard-hearted cruel Hindu he was—although he seemed to strangers a harmless, bland, simpering fellow with a falstaffian belly. Yet beneath the dusky skin of his breast there beat a heart which could hardly sympathise with sorrow, pain or suffering.
One September morning in 1867, two years after the death of Wing, this wretched usurer met three young confreres in the trade at the market. They adjourned to do their ablution in the public bath and chambers, but instead of as usual going quickly to their bath, the three stood aside from the crowd. They were discussing what steps to take to compel Mrs. Wing to settle the debts contracted by her sons. Ah Pong, the elder son, had mortgaged all his shares and interest in his father’s estate. An order of Court had been granted foreclosing it. The younger son, Swee Pong, had been living very fast, and had become indebted to the amount of $78,000. The estate of old Wing was estimated at $200,000 but nearly the bulk of it, over $150,000, was wisely left to the widow at her absolute disposal. Unfortunately, however, $145,000 were in shares in the “Kranji Gambier and Pepper Company” which was started the year old Wing died. The prospects were good, but at the time the shares had no market, and Mrs. Wing was strongly advised not to part with them.
That being the case, a loan had to be raised. Teng Mai Pong was sent for and was requested to arrange a mortgage of these shares to Mr. Chan Yau Siew. It so happened that the latter was only willing if the marriage was settled. To avoid further delay, the old lady agreed to the marriage in spite of Miss Wing’s strong protest. She wept bitter tears but to no purpose.
The race meeting was always an exciting time. The wealthy Babas have always shown a keen interest in horse-racing. In those old days, there were reckless sportsmen who spent fabulous sums at the race-course. Chan Yau Siew was a great gambler and never a meeting passed but he either won or lost several thousands. The autumn meeting of 1867 came off in the second week of October. The Maharajah of Johore had a splendid horse to run in the Derby race, and Chan was chafing to get an animal to beat the Maharajah’s. He procured Pegasus, a gelding from Typhoon by Mirabeau through the agency of Jack Hotter, the Australian jockey who had come to the Straits to compete with the Nestor of that profession so famous in our midst. Jack Hotter had originally been a trainer, but having had no luck he accepted employment under a Chinese towkay who kept a large stable. Chan Yau Siew was assured of the good points of Pegasus, and Jack was to ride.
The day was warm and bright. The course was more than usually crowded. Betting was going on very briskly. Chan had bought the Maharajah’s horse at the lottery at the extraordinary price of $999 when the “pool” only amounted to $1000. Was he mad? He boasted of this at the members’ stand. He gave 5 to 1 to every one who was against his horse. He said Jack was certain his beast would win. Before the start, Chan retired to a corner to total up his bettings and then his folly dawned upon him, for he had accepted almost $50,000 against Pegasus. Should that horse come in, he would get $10,000; but in the event of the Maharajah’s horse winning, he would have to lose nearly one-fifth of his entire fortune. To make up for any possible loss, he backed other horses so that his liabilities for that day on the worse reckoning would not be less than $80,000.
The race came off in great style. Pegasus ran a good horse. The Maharajah’s animal was unfortunately lame and was clearly unfit. Chan was busy with his glasses. Half way round, Pegasus was leading, followed by Satan while the Johore racer was positively last. Chan’s hope ran high. But Satan quickly caught up his opponent, and before the finish, Satan was coming along at an easy canter, having left Pegasus standing still a good ten lengths behind. Chan disappeared from the ring. He rushed to his carriage and drove away in great haste.
Chan found his house too dull and started off at once for the club. There he found a few companions and invited them to Johore for a toss. He was resolved to regain what he had lost at the races. They agreed. A couple of gharries were hired and after picking three more friends who had plenty of cash they started late as it was for Johore.
They reached the gambling farm about nine o’clock. It was on the point of closing. But the lights were soon burning brightly, and Chan was immediately in the thick of the staking. In less than two hours three thousand dollars had gone, but his friends had more money, while one ambitious lad who had accompanied Chan was bent on bursting the bank. Before midnight Chan had lost $9,400.
He was invited to spend the night at the banker’s and it was there he made the acquaintance of a half-caste Malay damsel, the coquettish siren Lima, who had caused the ruin of more than half-a-dozen giddy youths whose wealth made them top heavy so that they were unhappy until they were relieved of it. So Lima at once ingratiated herself with Chan and received the attention she sought. The rest of the night was to Chan Yau Siew a momentary entré into an earthly paradise.
Johore became the favourite resort of Chan. He had bought a splendid turnout and a fine pair of Arab stallions for the charming Lima and had built for her a mansion which was replete with every comfort. His infatuation for this witch was the subject of gossip, and it was rumoured that the Maharajah himself cautioned the young man and gave him sound advice on the strength of a friendship with Chan’s late father. The young man promised to reform, but never had the courage to form a resolution. His intimacy deepened until at length he made Johore his home and would not go out of the town without taking Lima with him.
The three years of mourning for old Wing had passed, and the family visited the Buddhist temple for good luck. Not long after, an American lady belonging to the Good Samaritan Mission Society visited the house. She was very polite indeed and expressed the hope she had not intruded, while she had just done the most impudent thing possible to walk straight into Madame’s parlour uninvited and unknown to the people of the house. She offered to give lessons on sewing, cooking and English. Miss Wing was anxious to learn, so she was glad to accept the services of the missionary. Her mother was sulky but said nothing.
Miss Knut wisely retired and promised to return the next day. She came as promised and began lessons at once. After an hour of honest work, she began to tell the story of the good shepherd of Galilee. The youthful pupil was the very incarnation of credulity. She had believed Buddha performing all kinds of miracles. She had trusted in the pearly Lord of Heaven. She was now listening to the old, old story of the birth of God in human flesh. There was nothing she could not believe. She listened; and tears rolled down her eyes as she thought of the horrors of hell, of the sufferings of Jesus and of that awful crucifixion.
The missionary repeated her visits, and before three months had passed, her pupil had made a considerable progress and had practically embraced the religion of her teacher. Young Miss Wing resolved not to marry until she had learned something and had acquired sufficient knowledge to read and write fairly well. The old lady was very much troubled as she was rather anxious to have Chan as a son-in-law. However, she only shook her head every time her daughter tried to win her over to the new religion.
So it was that through a couple of years had passed, Miss Wing was still unmarried, and Chan Yau Siew was not particularly anxious to be “spliced,” wince he was fully occupied in Johore with Lima, the enchantress. But the time had come for Miss Knut to assert her authority over Miss Wing. She had acquired complete control over the mind of her pupil. The question of an open avowal of the Christian faith had been repeatedly pressed, and as often a suggested, it was put off to a future occasion. Miss Knut had discovered that at the bottom of all this delay was the old dame’s intention to carry out the marriage with Chan whose mother was a great opponent of all innovation, especially of the Christian heresy.
One day Miss Knut arrived in a rather excited state. She looked like one who had made a great discovery, and of course Miss Wing was eager to find out what had so agitated a lady usually so calm and unimaginative. “Ha, my dearest darling,” cried Miss Knut, “I have something very important to tell you; something which will make you cry your eyes out.”
“Me! You have something to tell me,” replied the anxious girl. “Oh, Miss Knut, what can that be?”
“Be prepared, my good girlie, for the worst. Put your trust in Him who will save you. I am sure it is His will. Say Amen!”
“Amen! Dear Miss Knut, but what is that which is so horrible to hear?”
“Nothing more than that your betrothed husband is already married to a Malay woman, and is living with her in Johore, whither I went to preach last Sunday.”
“You don’t mean it, Miss Knut,” the girl replied in agitation. “I am sure you are mistaken.”
“I have no doubt about it. There is no mistake. There, take my word for it, my dear.”
“Then I will not have him, and let Mamma tell him so at once. What shall it profit me to have his wealth if he is as heartless as that! No, Miss Knut. Will you have the goodness to tell Mamma that my mind is made up? Can you help me?”
“Oh yes, dear, join our church and then the law can protect you against your mother. Then you can only marry according to the Marriage Ordinance and no heathen can touch you.”
“Very good. When will you admit me into your church?” queried Miss Wing.
“But have you made up your mind, dear?” “Yes,” was the quiet reply.
“Then next Sunday at the morning service.”
In due time the girl was baptised. She greatly offended her mother, but comforted herself with Bible texts. She had been told that disobedience to parents was a very great wrong. Now, however, she excused herself with the words of Jesus that whoever would not leave father, mother, or child to follow Him was not Worthy of Him. In a fit of desperation, she wrote a letter in romanised Malay to her friend Tee Beng Hop requesting his protection in case Chan Yau Siew should retaliate by selling her father’s shares and reducing the family to destitution. The letter was full of imaginative touches of references to their past and of pathetic appeals. It was in short a natural love letter, the thoughts flowing into words without effort or trouble.
Tee Beng Hop was almost stupefied when he received the letter. He had never expected it of course. He had given up all hopes of getting the hand of fair Wing Yuk Ching, but this letter now revived them. He saw his chance, and started forthwith to consult the Reverend V.R.Y. Smart, a Yankee missionary who had given up bookmaking in the bad sense to preach the gospel to the heathen.
To that reverend gentleman, it was a good deal a question of £.s.d. He had found it a precarious means of living to cheat and lie as a bookmaker at the Indian and Australian clubs; and as a business stroke, he repented him of his ways and took to a new line by attending prayer meetings. He attracted a good deal of attention, and was appointed by the Melbourne Mission Society to evangelise the aborigines in the interior. Finding this task uncongenial, he gradually found his way to China and was exchanged to Singapore not many months prior to this visit paid by Mr. Tee.
Needless to say, the young man was welcome, and Mr. Smart was ready to advise on all things in heaven or on earth. The upshot of the conference was that Tee Beng Hop was asked to proceed at once to Miss Wing to propose marriage. If she accepted his offer, the reverend gentleman could marry them at the earliest possible moment.
Before three weeks had passed, Beng Hop had joined Mr. Smart’s church, and was duly married to Miss Wing, now called Ada, the Christian name given to her by Miss Knut.
Chan Yau Siew heard all this and returned to Singapore. He at once demanded payment of his loan and notified to the family that he would demand interest at ten per cent.
Unfortunately for Chan, he discovered his own business to be in a precarious state. He had neglected it, and now to his horror he discovered enormous defalcations. Still he was a rich man and held a great number of shares in the “Occidental Bank.” Curiously enough he had a notice to attend a meeting of the Board of Directors on which he sat. What was his horror when he discovered that the bank in question had lost nearly all its money in China and was actually bankrupt.
Tee paid all Wing’s debts, and acquired the handsome house. His brothers-on-law changed their ways and went to America to study engineering. Altogether Madame Wing was pleased with what had happened.
As for Chan Yau Siew, he became more and more entangled in difficulties. The failure of the Bank involved him in bankruptcy, and it was patent he had not kept his books properly. Moreover, he had been carrying on an illicit trade in opium and the money passed through his books. He determined to make a final struggle by a swindle unprecedented in its magnitude and daring. Fortunately he failed, and $50,000 worth of opium was discovered in his back yard. The case was tried and Chan Yau Siew was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and to a fine of $20,000 or three years.
In the meantime, Lima had sold her house and eloped with one of Chan’s friends. When Mrs. Tee heard of Chan’s troubles, she sent words of comfort to his mother and sent Tee to the prison to see Chan. The cup of his bitterness was full. He could not overcome his emotion when he thought of that good and faithful woman. He fell back in a swoon in the criminal yard. When he recovered, he thanked Tee for his kindness and said these words of farewell—“Tee, good-bye! I am ruined! I am lost! Take my best wishes to you and your wife. She has had her revenge on me. God has punished me! But she has done good to me when she might have done evil. How can I requite that? Oh beast that I am! Good-bye. Forget me. Tell your wife to forget me! Woe to me!”
 A pun. “Mati” means death in Malay.