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Opinion: What really matters?

I Often wonder whether any-one can beat my father’s record of letter writing. When I was studying in Edinburgh and London and desperately homesick for my family in Hong Kong, he wrote me every other day for three years. Writing came easily to him, but still, writing every other day for three years was remarkable. And I wrote back, even if it was 3 a.m. Before the first mail collection, I would run to drop off my letter. Then I waited for the end of the day, when I returned from lectures to find the letters that sustained, encouraged and comforted me. He usually addressed me as “My most beloved daughter, Shuet.” A self-made man, Kwok-Chi Tam was the first in his family to get a university education. He was very knowledgeable about Chinese history and Western literature, but he was exceptionally good at Chinese literature. He often put my brother Paul and me to shame by quoting pages of poetry that we had learned but for-gotten. A teacher for many years, he was popular with students, who said he could make a piece of chalk sound interesting. Like many families that fled China in the late 1940s, we lost all we had. We were poor. My father taught during the day and wrote movie scripts at night. I can imagine how tired he was, but he never complained. We lived in a school in Wanchai, where we were given a ten-by-six-foot room. My parents slept in that room. When the night classes were finished, Paul and I laid our mats on the class-room floor. Those were our beds. We children would hide under a table and pretend we were in a house. For hours Paul played with soda-bottle caps, pretending they were soldiers in battle. Occasionally, we got free movie tickets. On birthdays we would devour two or three spring chickens at the Americana restaurant. I never really felt deprived. We were expected to go to university. No one in the Tam family could be a secondary-school dropout. It was just a matter of finding the money when it was needed for education. Invariably it meant sacrifices from our parents. JUST WHEN LIFE seemed to be unfolding smoothly, when my parents’ hard work had paid off and they’d achieved a great success in a family business, and when my brother and I were succeeding with our education and careers, our father was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. That May, I should have had three birthdays: the Western one and two lunar birthdays (my lunar birth-day fell in a leap month). But we did not celebrate any of my birthdays in 1981. A year later he died. I cannot fully appreciate what the funeral service means in Western society. A celebration of the life of the deceased? A closure? In Hong Kong, the funeral represents a person’s success in every endeavor, but especially on the human-relationship level. For my father’s funeral, flowers sent by mourners over-flowed into the streets. People of all ages and from all sec-tors of Hong Kong society came to pay their respects. A YEAR LATER, my daughter, Laura, was born. Four years after her birth came my son, Paul. I tell them about the loving and attentive grand-father they never had the privilege and pleasure of knowing, and pass on to them the lessons I learned from him—the value of devotion to family, hard work and academic excellence. Perhaps one day, they will even learn to read the many letters written in Chinese that I have kept—sent to me by my beloved father.


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