Growing up, I was always told that my maternal great-grandfather, Wong Siew Fah, was a ladies’ man. He had two daughters with my great-grandmother, Lucy Tsen, one of whom was my grandmother Alice Wong. He also had four sons by, as far as I know, two different women, maybe more. Two of these sons were raised by my great-grandmother. One of them was not formally acknowledged. The fourth remains a mystery — I asked one of my sisters about him as well as the unacknowledged son and her response was, ‘I hope you don’t write about all that. Don’t offend the living.’
I remember stories about my great-grandparents’ silent war as a result of his philandering. My great-grandmother stopped speaking to him after a time and would pass messages through other people in the household, even if he was right there in the same room as she was: ‘Tell your father/grandfather ….’ Apparently, she eventually told him to leave and stay elsewhere. Still, she raised his sons by another woman and, so I’ve been told, favoured them over her own daughters. (Like most Chinese women of her generation (and not just her generation), she was obviously taught to value boys more than girls.)
That unacknowledged great-uncle of mine was the result of my great-grandfather’s affair with a woman who came to live with the family after her husband had been killed by the Japanese. She had two young daughters and it’s said that my great-grandmother took pity on her and gave her work as a housemaid. One of the two young daughters became my mother’s close friend and so I saw a lot of the family while I was growing up, and I knew the woman who had been seduced by my great-grandfather.
I don’t rate Wong Siew Fah’s looks but it seems like he knew how to turn on the charm. Then again, a poor, lonely widow with two young daughters to raise might not have felt in the position to reject the sexual advances of the relatively wealthy husband of her employer. I guess we will never know what actually transpired.
Wong Siew Fah was by no means the only badly behaved man in my family. I have various philandering uncles, most of whom were married to saintly women who forgave and forgot, and all but took their men back once the thrill of their affairs had worn off; their subsequent relationships broken down; or ill health had forced a realisation and admission of error. I won’t go into too much detail so as not to ‘offend the living’.