Narrating Family History


We don’t know why he was picked, other than the journalist contacted him after he won a photo contest in the local Chinese papers. She was interested to interview him for a special article the paper was publishing on National Day. Mike asked me if I was interested to participate. I thought it would be a phone or email interview, but he later clarified that the journalist would be visiting with a photographer. I declined, thinking he should go ahead alone, but he decided against it as well, and so I ended up being his supporting partner, even though I have nothing to wear, my mandarin is atrocious and the house is a mess from the absence of my cleaners due to Hari Raya Holidays.

He must have thought about it: the memory of growing up in Singapore and dreams for the country, for there was no lack of subject as the journalist probed and cajoled. For the first time, he spoke more than me.

In a glass cabinet in Toh Joo Chiang’s house, there display an array of mini bottles and tins, some coated in a layer of dust. Although the cosmetics under the Mandarin Duck brand manufactured by his grandfather are no longer available, these perfumes and hair wax are triggers to the memory of his childhood.’ And so wrote the journalist in the first paragraph of this article.

Mandarin duck

It was a pity that when Mike narrated the history to the journalists, his two sons at home then were upstairs hidden in the bedrooms, for they had missed out a narrative that described their family’s colourful heritage. Mike’s grandfather, Toh Seow Kwang was an entrepreneur. He ran a factory manufacturing these products at the back of their house, located in Beach Road, where Plaza Hotel now stands. It was a lucrative business, one which brought in good profit at the time when imported brands were rare and expensive.

Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel, said author Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was these sweet smells that greeted Mike when he came home from school. Ironically, Mike also remembers another smell of his childhood. In an era when there was no sanitation, the collection of human waste was done by a truck and the stench was something he still remembers. The journalist was amused by the fact that these two extremity made up the scents of Mike’s childhood.

I am sure there are more stories Mike can share about his family history if he wants to. Once in a blue moon, an object I label as junk will open the tap for his memory to trickle out, like this table in the photo that he is so lovingly restoring. He had a fuzzy idea of the origin of the table, with the impression that it was handmade by his paternal grandfather. When he asked his parents about it, it took them some time to figure out which antique table Mike was referring to.


This old table, antique or otherwise, was a discarded junk picked up by Mike’s maternal grandfather in the sixties, who had probably wanted to use it as a prayer table. He decided he didn’t want it and Mike’s mother brought it home. Because the top and the collapsing stand can be separated, it was useful as a spare table. We ordered a new top made of teak wood and Mike hope to pass this piece of junk to one of his son.

Unfortunately I don’t have much family history to share with my sons. Coming from a broken home leaves me with only my maternal family history, of which I am still trying to record. (Note to self: must get done soon!) My mother doesn’t believe in keeping junks like my mother-in-law, and has no qualms throwing out her daughter’s running cups. Until today, although I told my sons I have won running competitions in Nanyang and NUS (only two precious cups), I don’t think they believe me.

But I do have an antique table story of my own to share.


This beautiful Peranakan table once belonged to my mother’s colleague form Mobil who had migrated to the US. When he migrated, he left some furniture at my mother’s house for storage. We had a large balcony for that purpose then. Unfortunately this table was too heavy and we left it in the backyard. When I moved to my own house after getting married, I needed a table and we decided that I might as well use this. The legs were weathered and my carpenter painted it white to match my white kitchen then. When I moved to my present place in 1999, I found a furniture restorer who restored the legs to its original shade and polished the marble top. I didn’t know it, but when I visited my mother’s colleague in Florida in 2002, I found out that they had wanted to ship the table back but when they discovered that I was using it, they decided to give it to me. My mother did not inform me this and I had the impression that the friend’s wife, owner of the table, regretted not shipping it to the US.

Writing about this table reminds me of my Grandma’s antique clock and her own cabinet of English porcelain figurines at Cuppage which I was forbidden to touch as a preschooler. Someone probably thought them junks and threw them out. I guess one’s junk is another’s treasure.

About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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