Lost and Found

By Lew See Fah[1]

The sun was rapidly disappearing behind Fort Canning Hill. On the crest of that little eminence the flagstaff (still gaily decorated with bunting, for it was the Queen’s birthday) stood clearly outlined against the western sky. I, who am inditing this narrative, was standing at the big gate of my oil factory on the Kallang River, in no mood to enjoy the lovely colours that the sun’s rays were throwing on the light fleecy clouds in the sky. I had just left off cursing the native engineer who ten days before had taken the place of my Chinese engine-driver then lying in prison under order of banishment.

For nearly four years this unfortunate man had served me faithfully and I had found his services invaluable. By the merest chance, I happened to be away from the factory at the time that an officer of the Chinese Protectorate appeared with a summons citing Seet Pek Quee before the Protector of Chinese without a moments’ delay. Had I been present, I would have refused to let the poor fellow go, and would have disputed the authority of the Protector over natural-born British subjects, and I believe I would have carried the day. But then, had that been the case, the lives of the members of one family at least would have been devoid of that strange and exciting incident which will never fade from their memory, and I should have been a few dollars richer in my pockets.

As I stood at the factory gate, several rickshas crawled past me, taking home sulky mercantile clerks who had been cheated out of their holiday and whose faces but too plainly indicated the discomfort they were feeling from the jolting of the rickshas over the uneven country road. Suddenly one of these rickshas stopped in front of my gate, and out jumped Seet Pek Quee. I was not more startled by his unexpected appearance than by his conduct which immediately followed. He fell on his knees before me and taking hold of my hands, wept like a child. The half-clad ricksha puller looked on with wondering eyes, while, with his evil-smelling rag usually tied round his neck, he wiped the sweat off his face and body. The detention of Pek Quee was a matter of ten days or so, yet what a change could overtake one within that short period. The tall, well-built engine-driver had in those ten days become transformed into the sallow-faced, haggard-looking individual.

I felt somewhat embarrassed, and bidding Pek Quee rise, I led the way into a plank-built shed which I use as an office. “Well, Quee,” I remarked, “I am very glad to see you again at liberty for your own sake as also for the sake of your wife and family.”

“Free!” was his reply, “yes, but I can hardly yet realise that I am a free man. My detention took place under such strange circumstances that I wonder myself at my not having gone completely off my head. When I was served with the summons to see the ‘Tai-jin’[2] I went with the lightness of heart of a man who knew he had a clear conscience and did not trouble to enquire why I was wanted. Half an hour afterwards, I bitterly regretted my hasty compliance with the summons, for I found myself absolutely undefended in the enemy’s strongholds.”

“What was the nature of the charge against you?” I asked out of curiosity.

“One that stunned me for the moment. I was a wild and boisterous character in my younger days, and you have known me long enough to say that this is no fresh news to you, sir; but when you generously took me into your service, and I awoke to the fact that my children were growing into manhood and womanhood, I gave up my old companions and lived in a very quiet way. About a month ago, one of these former companions, a samseng,[3] who lives on the proceeds of prostitution of the unfortunate Cantonese women in Faber Street, came to see me at my house. I had lost sight of him for some time, but for all that I was not pleased to see him again. He told me of a project he had formed with others of his class to get the monopoly of the right of extortion from some private prostitutes who had recently taken up their quarters in a certain lane and wanted me to help in organising the party. Why he came to me for that purpose I cannot say. I absolutely declined to have anything to do with him and showed him the door. That action of mine infuriated him and when he went away he said, “I will teach you a lesson for this night’s refusal.”

“I thought nothing more of that man’s visit, and when I was called before the ‘Tai-jin’ I had quite forgotten that incident. You can judge of my astonishment when I found that very man in the Protector’s office as an informer against me, and three other samsengs ready to swear to the heinous charge that I was a member of an unlawful society. I denied the truth of the allegation and gave my version of the affair, but of course my statement could not then be corroborated.

“I applied to be released on bail and mentioned your name, but was told I had to take up my quarters in the Civil Prison to bide my trial. My first night in prison was a sleepless one, for I felt sure my family would be full of anxiety about me not knowing what had become of me.

“I applied the following day to be taken before a Magistrate and duly charged. My idea was that in that way my family would get to hear some news of me. I was informed that as I was believed to be an alien, I would be dealt with by the Executive Council and not by the ordinary criminal tribunals.”

“That is curious,” was my prompt reply. “Why, only the other day there were some boatmen arrested and prosecuted by the Protector of Chinese in the Police Courts for being members of an unlawful society, although there was no question as to their Chinese nationality.”

“However that may be” was Pek Quee’s reply, “I was not given that indulgence. For three days I had no news of the outside world, and I could do nothing but brood over my exceptional misfortune. There was I, for all practical purposes a prisoner, and contrary to the spirit of British justice deprived of my liberty before trial and conviction. Born in Singapore, I had travelled a little as ship’s fireman, and had learned to appreciate the advantages of living under the British flag. I feel sure that if volunteers were called out for the defence of Singapore against invasion or rebellion, I would be amongst the first to enlist. And yet, there I was in prison with the terrible prospect of being bundled out of my native land to China, a strange country to me. My family being poor, I could not expect assistance from them. Possessing no knowledge of any of the Chinese dialects and friendless and poor I might have to starve to death.”

“No, Pek Quee” I rejoined, “you have under-estimated yourself. You are a Straits Chinese, and the Straits Chinese is, I hope, a creature with some backbone and stamina in him, and I believe wherever his lot may be cast, he will have a severe struggle before he will finally yield himself up to death by starvation. But still in a case like yours, it must be galling to the unfortunate man to realise that he as to earn his living in a country whither he as been banished for an offence of which he was perfectly innocent. But let me hear the rest of your story.”

“Well,” said Pek Quee, “one morning I was taken again before the Tai-jin. I was asked if I knew the place of my birth. I replied that my mother could swear that I was born in Singapore.

“A couple of suits lay on the table and I was told to take them away, for they had been left there by my wife. Where was she? Could I be allowed to see her and the rest of my family?

“That pleasure was denied me, and with a heavy heart I took up the clothes left by loving hands and returned to prison. I wished to keep up my spirits, not knowing what inquisitorial examinations I might yet have to face, but my appetite was completely gone and during my detention I scarcely tasted any food.”

Pek Quee lay back on the arm-chair I had put out for him and remained silent for a few moments. Of strong and robust constitution, he had become in little more than a week, through anxiety, sleeplessness and abstinence from food, almost a shadow of his former self. My workmen were then getting ready for their early dinner, and I insisted on his joining them before resuming his narrative.

Later on that evening, after he had been welcomed by his aged mother and his weeping wife and children, Pek Quee continued his unique story. “Two days after the new clothes came to my hands, I learnt from the European warder that I was to appear again before the Tai-jin. The warder was a good disciplinarian and possessed a stentorian voice, nevertheless I found that he was kindly disposed to me. He told me that morning that my fate would be decided that day, and that if I could not produce satisfactory evidence of my British nationality, I would have to be the fellow-passenger of four other men then detained in prison under order of banishment of China. I knew my mother and her relatives could prove my British nationality but how was I to have access to them. Would they be informed in time that they would be required for this one purpose?

“It was therefore with a heavy heart that I left the Civil Prison that morning for the Protectorate. The Tai-jin and his Chinese interpreter were waiting for me, and immediately we were driven to the Government buildings. I was in a state of perfect terror. What was in store for me I knew not, nor was any one willing to enlighten me. Arrived at the Government offices, I was taken into a room where sat in conclave five European officials. The questions were put to me by a kind-looking elderly gentleman with iron-grey moustache and beard and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. I was asked about my connection with a secret society and about my nationality. I gave a full explanation as a reply to the first question and stated that I believed I was a british subject, but that my mother and some aged relatives I named could prove my nationality, if I could have secured their attendance. I was told to stand by while other witnesses were being examined. Great was my surprise and joy when my mother’s name was called out. She, poor soul, was in tears, but when questioned as to the place of my birth she spoke firmly and straightforwardly of her marriage in Malacca, of my father’s ill-luck in business, necessitating his migration to Singapore when she was enceinte[4] and of my birth in Singapore. She gave the name of the street and the number of the house and the Chinese date of my birth. She had my aged uncle to support her statement she said. The witness was called and gave similar evidence, and I was overjoyed. Who indeed had during my detention played the part of my good angel, bringing forward to secure my release the very witnesses I would have procured myself. All my surmises gave way to certainty when your name was called out. How can I thank you sufficiently for the noble way in which you spoke up for me and referred to my good and honest character during my four year’s service with you!

“I was taken back by the Tai-jin to my old quarters, but I felt sure it would not be for long. I could not touch any food, so great was my joy. But when night came, and no order reached the warder for my release, my spirits fell and I became despondent. Had I been building on false hopes? I wept bitter tears, as I remembered that though I had been permitted to see my mother’s face, and hear her voice, I had not been allowed to speak to her. I resolved to die by starving myself. That kind of death in my native land I felt to be a thousand times better than life in exile. This very afternoon however an order came for my release. The European warder told me he was pleased he had that message for me. I did not linger one instant longer in that prison, but thanking the warder, I rushed out and took the first ricksha I could find. Some people who met me running along stepped quickly aside, no doubt thinking that I was a lunatic or an escaped convict. And now I am free and all through your kind assistance. I have learnt from my wife since that you obtained legal advice and that you paid all expenses. May God bless you, sir, and your family and the generations after them!”

 Notes

[1] i.e. “Lucifer.” The opinions expressed by this writer suggest that he may be Song himself, writing pseudonymously.

[2] The Protector of the Chinese.

[3] Fighting man, often trained in martial arts, maintained by a Chinese society.

[4] Pregnant.

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