designed by aust linq
|The Yellow Banana|
|The Yellow Banana|
It was 1974 and a Boeing 747 was landing at the Subang International Airport in Kuala Lumpur. It was the first time in my adult life I had ever worn a tie. It was also the first time we ever saw such an enormous plane.
The sound of its screeching engines shook the clear glass wall separating the restaurant and the public viewing area and my uncle, in his excitement to view the plane, momentarily forgot the glass wall and ran straight into it. Hearing a loud thud we turned to see him picking himself up from the floor, dazed and with his hand over his face still trying to find his way around the clear glass wall. He wasn’t going to let this little frontal attack stop his chance to see the plane.
I was about to leave on my first trip overseas to attend a university in Australia. I was the only person to have this honour in my immediate and extended family, and my whole clan had come to send me off. It was the proudest moment for my parents, five brothers, three sisters as well as my aunties and uncles. Entering a university was to guarantee a better life for me and for them – and a step up the social ladder for all my relatives. Everyone had come to the airport to share this occasion although in retrospect I sometimes wonder if it was the planes landing and taking off that was the real attraction. As the largest airplane to hub out of Kuala Lumpur, or KL to the locals, the Boeing 747 generated enormous interest among Malaysians and they made special trips to the airport just to see this monstrous plane.
My relatives came from a small town called Kuantan in the eastern part of the Malaysian Peninsula and getting to the airport in KL was almost as big an adventure for them as my flight would be for me.
So here I was, ready for my epic journey and dressed in the most western style known to me.
Hearing how cold Australia could get, my parents bought me an oversized jacket made of imitation leather from the only local ‘western’ shop in town. All expensive clothes were bought oversized so we could grow into them.
My oversized jacket was stylishly complemented with very fashionable bell bottom trousers and a skin-tight shirt with an over-sized collar: ‘flying collars’ emulating stars like Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. The tight purplish, polyester silk-like shirt and a light blue pair of just as tight bell-bottoms was worn by Tom Jones in his performances to undies-wielding female audiences. We all believed that everyone who flew in planes must wear western clothes - and a tie. My tie colour clashed with the rest of my attire.
Regardless of how I must have looked, I felt grown up and very western. A tie was not normal attire for me, especially in tropical Malaysia where it would take no more than a minute before perspiration forced its removal. In an air conditioned airport perspiration was not a problem and, in Malaysia, flying in a plane to a western country was not only a legitimate reason to wear western clothes but also a requirement. My eldest brother once took a 35-minute Fokker Friendship flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan. For the flight he specially made a western style suit which must have cost him more than the air ticket. He thought the minimum attire to board a plane would be a suit. As for me, I was actually going to fly in a jet airplane to Australia, so a tie and jacket had to be mandatory.
Of course celebrities, like me, had to pose for last minute pictures with everyone. They all wanted to have their pictures taken with me so they could fill their photo albums showing proof of their big trip to Subang International Airport. Digital cameras were still twenty years away, and cameras in the 1970s were the single reflex lens, box cameras and black and white films. Colour film was very expensive as it was not available commercially. I smiled so much my jaws hurt.
We arrived at the airport a good six hours before departure so I wouldn’t miss out on getting a seat on the plane. First-come first-served mentality was still prevalent and having a confirmed air ticket did not mean anything to us as we never thought it guaranteed a seat. Another reason for going early was to enjoy a night’s outing to see the enormous Boeing 747s, to enjoy the western style food served at the airport and, of course, to enjoy the air conditioning. We therefore had plenty of time to get excited, take pictures and generally do things like having one’s face rearranged by crashing into glass walls.
Amid all the excitement, there were several other clans who also came to farewell their prodigy children. They all had similar large contingents to honour and farewell their star and they were all just as loud and excited as we were. It was as if the decibels generated were directly proportionate to the importance of their stars. But I felt especially important because we were the loudest and most excited. Excluding my relatives, my immediate family had nine members, eight of whom were married and were at the airport with their children - and these young children count when it came to making noise.
I met my classmate Mun among this cacophony of noise and excitement. He was a member of our team, the back-row-boys in class at high school. The back-row-boys were the smart kids who preferred to portray a non-caring, cool and silently rebellious image. We specialised in disrupting the class with smart comments and generally giving our teachers a hard time. We knew we were the smart kids, and so did the teachers. Perhaps that was why we got away with our disorderly behaviour. We found pleasure in challenging the teacher with well-thought and well-researched counter opinions on matters such as why we thought the Mayan civilisation did not disappear. We claimed that the Mayans had managed to reach such a height in their personal spiritual growth that vibrated at a different frequency to other humans, and this was why they were not visible. Our teacher walked out.
Mun and I had shared many hours eyeing girls, climbing mangosteen trees, playing badminton and studying together. On lecture-free afternoons we sometimes ended up bowling at the local bowling arcade, a favourite activity for cool kids. We showed off our twists, stances and varying ball-delivering tactics, dressed in bell bottoms and drinking Coke from the can. Canned drinks were new and drinking from a can while tossing our head backwards was considered cool behaviour, like James Dean in his 1955 movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’.
I went over to say hello to Mun but did the right thing by addressing his elders first, a sign of respect by young kids, before talking to him. Regardless of whether I drank out of a can, I still needed to respect the elders. James Dean's movies failed to influence us in this area.
“Do you have any place to stay in Melbourne?” Mun asked with a worried look in his eyes.
His question hit me like a tonne of bricks and sent panic right through my veins. We thought we had covered every angle in our preparations for Australia – clothing, food, bank drafts; in fact everything except the most fundamental need, accommodation in Melbourne. I was to fly off to a new country without knowing where to stay.
“No, I have not thought about it!” I replied getting worried.
“What do we do?” Mun panicked.
When my clan realised this not-insignificant oversight, communal panic set in. In the mid-1970s there was no internet, no fax and no mobile phones. The only means of communication was by letter or by an operator-connected international call which cost a small fortune. None of these options were available at the airport, only hours before we were about to leave. What could we do? We didn’t know a soul and had no idea of where to find accommodation at this eleventh hour.
Our fear spread to other students as Mun and I approached every Australian bound student we could identify. Finding fellow students was easy as they all had ties and tight bell bottom pants with oversized imitation leather jackets. Despite the air conditioning, perspiration poured out of us from rushing around and from fear of joining the homeless in Melbourne. Our ties and fake leather jackets fluttered as we rushed from contingent to contingent, asking if they were going to Melbourne and, if so, what had they done about accommodation.
We then came across a fellow student, George, who as luck may have it had been to Melbourne before and had arranged accommodation. His friend had an apartment in Hawthorn and he wouldn’t mind putting up a couple of would-be fugitives for a few days until they found suitable accommodation. He instructed us to meet him at the arrival hall in Melbourne airport just outside the exit doors. Having never been to Melbourne ‘outside the exit doors’ did not mean much, but it was better than ‘straight to being homeless’. Without wanting to sound too unworldly and naïve, both Mun and I agreed to meet “outside the exit doors”.The good news went back to the two clans, containing the fear contagion. With the issue resolved, we continued our photo sessions with sweat and all.
Suddenly someone noticed the check-in counter opening and immediate panic set in as every contingent surged to be first in line. Every contingent meant not just the students but their whole entourage - all pushing to secure first in line. The rush was worse than an iPad opening sale. It was a mass of bodies rushing to hand their documents in at the check-in counter.
Our self-appointed queue jumper, my fourth brother, with his quick wit and speed, managed to secure a place near the front. Fighting the other self-appointed queue jumpers, he beckoned me to him with my luggage on tow.
With no international flying experience, we had little knowledge about baggage allowance. As far as we were concerned we had paid an enormous amount of money for the ticket which meant we could bring whatever we deemed necessary for our survival in Australia. Bed sheets, blankets, pillows, favourite stereo sets, and prepared food were all necessities. We had packets of freshly cooked curries, sweet and sour noodles, dried cuttlefish and salted fish. Every mum in the check-in counter wanted their sons and daughters to eat well in a western country with their prepared food and, as a result, every person checking in had bulging baggage. No one wanted to pay the exorbitant charges for overweight baggage. So the packed food and other items had to be re-packed to keep within the weight allowance. Every clan went through a ritual of unpacking and re-packing, which generally meant shifting the contents of one bag to another in the hope that this would reduce the weight.
The check-in counter resembled a tsunami rescue centre. The airport soon looked like a Sunday market with relatives asserting the importance of their food or bedroom item for the journey. Invariably arguments began and, as usual, loudness was synonymous to being more important. Soon the airport became a full blown open-market operation where items were traded according to their perceived importance.
No-one had any knowledge of custom restrictions or lifestyle in Australia and trying to settle the relative importance of an item without a reference point depended on other factors such as how loud each relative shouted, or how much time they took to prepare the food, or how much they paid for the item. The speed and efficiency with which the items were exchanged would make the most seasoned traders at the New York Stock Exchange look amateurish.
Perhaps getting to the airport early had a legitimate reason after all. We instinctively knew it would take a long time to check-in.
After a few hours the check-in saga played itself out and returned to normality. Relieved that I now had a boarding pass, I relaxed. Still wearing my tie and with my shirt stuck to me from the perspiration, I survived the pressure cooker of an open-market bartering system. I was ready for a cool drink.
My mum handed me a can of Coke.
This may not sound too significant to many but if you knew my mum you would think she had changed. Brought up in a well-to-do family, she was given the opportunity to have a little education, unlike most of her peers who had no education as it was considered a waste of resources for females to be educated. Consequently she was open to new ideas and new thoughts such as drinking Coke. Offering Coke to your son was considered a modern thing to do. Usually she would offer water, boiled and brought from home; she would never buy a drink from the shops - and definitely not a can of Coke. The western influence must have got to her at last and she had bought this can earlier in anticipation of my need. Nonetheless, the lukewarm Coke was welcome and I drank it with the customary cool tossing of the head as James Dean would have done.
As I took the last few gulps, I noticed a trickle of tear in my mum’s eyes. Watching me intensely with the realisation that her youngest child had finally grown up and was leaving the nest, she wiped the evidence from her eyes with her pure white handkerchief. I had never seen my mum or dad cry, let alone in public and in front of relatives. As I finished the can she took it away and hugged me. This was significant because she not only showed her emotions but she actually did the ‘western’ thing and hugged her son. Neither heat nor perspiration bothered me as she hugged me. Taken by surprise I didn’t know an appropriate response. I wanted to give her a full-blown hug, but was conscious of everyone around us. In my heart I wanted to hug her, but not having any practice, I self-consciously placed my hand on her shoulder as a gesture of consolation. For me that was as good as a full-blown hug, especially as showing emotion in public was not considered normal practice. In essence she said, “I love you. Please look after yourself”. The can of Coke would have said it all, but her hugging said even more. My dad did the man-thing and patted me on the shoulder, saying: "Pei sum gei dit dok shu ha!" Study hard! What he then said I will never forget:
“Gei ji sam go wa”. Remember three things.
“Mm hou chou guai po!” Do not marry a ‘devil’ woman (a western woman).
“Mm hou sek dok fan!” Do not get involved in drugs!
“Lou foo doi le mm hou ge”. Tigers are not good partners for you.
His words of wisdom were based on his limited perception of western women, gained from western movies and the odd back-packer he had seen. The back-packers always looked dirty with their unkempt hair and shabby clothes. For him the gorgeous and heavily made-up women from the James Bond movies had loose morals. Putting two and two together I could understand my dad’s parting advice. He had also read about the Flower Power movement, which featured prominently in the Chinese media. The American counterculture movement during the late sixties and early seventies had a negative impact on dad. The drug culture, associated with the pacifist movement, brought fear to all Chinese parents, especially those who were about to send their children to a western country.
But the Tiger partner bit left me a little baffled. When queried, he explained that he had looked up my future and, based on his reading of the Chinese Zodiac animals, the most incompatible animal as a partner for me would be a Tiger.
“I won’t” I replied, without thinking too much about it. A good son is an obedient son.
I think he knew that I would study well and that I would be able to look after myself, but for some reason he was worried that I may succumb to loose morals, dirty unkempt hair, the influence of drugs, and be eaten by a Tiger. I dismissed these thoughts and considered them superstitious words of the older generation.
I was heading into the unknown with an opportunity to improve myself, an opportunity to study overseas, an opportunity to bring honour to my family, and an opportunity to improve our economic status. This was an epic journey for me and, indeed, for the entire clan, not dissimilar to the journey taken by my grandfather in the late 19th century.
My grandfather Yong Chun Huang was born in Guangzhou in 1878 and on his fifteenth birthday he left his village of Pan Yu to travel overseas. As with me, going overseas was the only avenue to improve his economic status, to bring honour to his village, and to better his and the family’s life.
China in the late 1800s was a period that many Chinese would rather forget. The weak and declining Qing dynasty provided a fertile ground for the rise of western imperialism. Devastating floods, the rise of people power against the declining Manchu rule and widespread social decay from corruption and opium addiction exacted an enormous toll on its people. Topping it all, the Taiping Rebellion from the south and the Nian rebellion from the north ignited the passion of the peasants and wreaked havoc throughout the country. The result was poverty, starvation, opium addiction and death. Thirty million people died in China during this period, more than the total casualties of the two World Wars.
My grandfather decided that it was time to leave his village for Malaya, a British colony widely known to bring enormous wealth to many Chinese migrants. Malaya was one of the world’s largest producers of tin and he decided to try his luck in the tin mines.
But without sufficient silver dollars to make the entire trip in one journey, he went to Vietnam and spent a year with an uncle working in his trading business. Saving enough to embark on stage two of his journey to Malaya he landed in KL at the age of seventeen to start his first job in the Malayan tin mines.
After several years he had saved enough to return to Pan Yu to marry his beloved fiancée, a petite Chinese village girl who became my grandmother. She made the treacherous voyage to Malaya on a boat and produced one child, my dad. With increasing bad health, my grandmother returned to Pan Yu alone to seek medical help. That was the last time she saw my grandfather. She died without returning to Malaya, just before the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. My dad became the only child in his generation and, as far as perpetuating the clan was concerned, one child was not considered too auspicious. Consequently my grandfather instructed my dad to produce as many children as possible.
My dad and mum worked overtime to comply with the instructions of my grandfather and now have a family of six boys and three girls.
As I headed toward the big Boeing 747, I turned to wave goodbye to my family. I saw dad waving frantically at me, and mum burying her face into her hands trying to hide her overflowing emotions. I will never be able to know what my grandfather felt when he left Pan Yu, but I can imagine that his feelings would be like I was feeling now - a combination of quiet excitement and fear. We both secretly knew our epic journeys would change our lives way beyond the imagination of any sixteen year old.