Friday, 5 August 2016

The Lighthouse Keeper

The Deng Ta (Lighthouse) Keeper 
by David Bell

Ong Ching Ying

How about this for something unique on our family tree? We have a man who was a deng ta; a lighthouse keeper. His name is Ong Ching Ying, the husband of Ang Hui Ying, eldest daughter of Ang Chiu Shui and Que Him, these being the grandparents of Winnie Ming Ling Bell. Ong Ching Ying is therefore Winnie's uncle by marriage to her Aunt. 

The following is a translated article from the Geelong city newspaper, Saigai Yahtbou. Saigai means 'the world' and yahtbou translates as 'daily paper'. In English we would probably call it the Daily World. The article is dated Friday, June 28, 2002.

ONG CHING YING, over a period of forty seven years, was the keeper in a total of twenty seven lighthouses throughout Taiwan. He has recently retired but he has kept himself in touch with his forty seven year career through his website entitled, King of Lighthouses. It keeps him busy in retirement by writing, recording and researching about his old job. He has also taken up the hobby of building lifelike models of the lighthouses he has served in. He also enjoys creating other ornamental replicas which he gives as gifts to friends and relatives. Each of his children have one of their father's hand-crafted lighthouses to represent his guiding light watching over them.

Ong Ching Ying still enjoys everything about lighthouses and his home resembles a gallery with models of both old and modern Taiwan lighthouses displayed on tables and shelves. Framed pictures adorn the walls. His children have encouraged him to do this as a means to always remember his long and loyal service to his family and country. 

Ong Ying Ching and wife Hui Ying in their home, 
2002. Note the lighthouse models and pictures behind
This year, Ong Ching Ying was invited to participate in the annual Keelung (基隆) Provincial Exhibition on his long career in the lighthouse business. His display and presentation was so interesting it even caught the attention of Taiwan's President. 

Ong Ying Ching said that the main reason he was able to succeed as a lighthouse keeper was because of his wife, Ang Hui Ying, who took such excellent care of the family's domestic duties. Her sacrifice and dedication made his demanding job so much easier and allowed him to concentrate on his responsibilities until all the children had grown up.

He first became involved with lighthouses as a young man when he responded to a recruitment program from the Department of Customs in Xiamen. As a new recruit his training involved jobs at lighthouses on the islands of Saiyeung and Daidaam. Since then he went on to be a Lighthouse Keeper in different stations all over Taiwan, an occupation that gave him the opportunity to experience living in most parts of the country. Once, because of his experience and knowledge, he was sent on a maintenance tour-of-inspection to all the established lighthouses in Taiwan, giving him the opportunity to visit lighthouses and islands he had never seen before. He took many photographs and probably now has a picture of every lighthouse that existed in Taiwan. These pictures were used to craft his many models.

Ong Ching Ying has served in more lighthouses than any other Keeper in his profession.

This next article is a translation of a more lengthy and detailed essay on Ong Ching Ying's years as a lighthouse keeper entitled, The Man who Has Kept the Most Lighthouses. In some places additional relevant information has been inserted.


There were thirty four lighthouses under China's jurisdiction along the Xiamen-Taiwan coastlines, thirty of which were operated by lighthouse keepers. Because the function of lighthouses is to assist ships navigate safely along the coasts, they were built along the coastlines on hilltops, promontories or small islands. There were many lighthouses around Xiamen and Taiwan due to the rocky nature of the coasts and dangerous underwater reefs, all of which were hazardous to shipping and the cause of many wrecks over time. Lighthouses, therefore, were invariably isolated with difficult access and being a keeper was a demanding task requiring a special type of person who could cope with living in isolation for anything up to a year or more with a twenty-four hour seven days a week work schedule. Normal men were unlikely to take it on as a career.

The Light of Hope

Lighthouses in those times were not automated as today; each one required a human operator. The light was to be punctually illuminated at dusk every day and extinguished after sunrise. If the operator deemed it necessary, he could light it up on days that were particularly gloomy, the light flashing its bright, angular beam across the sea giving any ship in the area hope and security.

Ong Ching Ying was born in the province of Fujian in 1928 at Xiamen. He grew up on Gulangyu - Drum Wave Island, so named because of the drumming sound of the waves along its shore - just outside the city. As a young boy he was fascinated by the sudden appearance every dusk of three lights from different points far out at sea which continued to shine like bright stars into the night. This fascination excited his curiosity and he determined to learn more about lighthouses. In school he found a book about an old keeper and his granddaughter and their life together in an isolated lighthouse. The story told of their daily routine of inspecting the lighthouse using a lamp to access the darker spots, how they operated the big light, and many more things about life in a lighthouse. The story triggered a strong desire in Ong Ching Ying to learn all he could about lighthouses and one day, should the opportunity arise, make it his profession.

One of the things that stuck in his mind was the noble purpose of lighthouses; to guide ships safety through all the perils of storms, rough seas, killer reefs, and nights that could be as black as pitch. The lighthouse keeper saved ships, but more importantly, saved lives. He saw it as an honorable service to society and his fellow beings. 

In 1946 the main Xiamen newspaper carried an advertisement for trainee lighthouse keepers. The Xiamen Customs Department were in need of sixteen new lighthouse staff and were taking applications. Ong saw this as his big opportunity and notified his parents of his desire. His parents were shocked and voiced their opposition. But he was determined and disregarded their opposition. Ong and over three hundred others applied and he was delighted that he was one of the sixteen to be selected, no doubt due in part to his extensive interest and knowledge of lighthouses accumulated over the years.

The Thin Line Between Life and Death

Soon after his successful application the Customs Department began his training and later posted him to five different lighthouses on islands around Xiamen to learn the ropes. These islands were named Dung-gwan, Siyang, Chingyu, Dongxing and Lanpeng. After a year he was granted a four week holiday. Then, in August, 1949, he received his first full-time posting to the remote island of Lanpeng. 

The sea around Lanpeng Island was renowned for its abundance of squid and from spring to autumn it was crowded with squid boats. During the quid season there was plenty of human contact and opportunities to supplement the two months supply of food left at the lighthouse when he and fellow worker, Lee Ah-fong, were dropped off, but around October the heavy winter winds from the north-east blew in ending the squid fishing. Overnight all the boats simply disappeared leaving the two men alone and isolated. 

To make matters worse, in 1949 China was embroiled in the civil war between the communists and nationalists and amidst all the turmoil Ong and Lee were either forgotten or couldn't be reached. They found themselves stranded for over four months without food, their situation becoming so dire they were reduced to eating wild grass for greens and subsisting off crabs and shellfish scoured from the rocks whenever the weather allowed it.
Ong and his companion became so thin they could place their hands around their waists until their fingers met. These conditions inevitably caused collateral health problems and Ong became seriously ill. Fortunately, a ship from Taiwan finally came to their rescue and dropped off a six month supply of food and goods. However, it was obvious Ong needed some medical care and he requested to go with the ship back to Taiwan for treatment. His request fell on deaf ears and was flatly denied by the Chinese officer. Thankfully, the ship's engineer was more compassionate and took his case to the British Captain who agreed to take Ong back with them.

Ong said that even though they were starving and often ill, he and Lee kept the lighthouse operational at all times and punctually did their rounds and maintenance work on the building and its surrounds. It is likely that keeping focused and busy greatly helped them through that life-threatening period. Other men might have deteriorated a lot sooner under such physical and psychological strains. Ong's consuming sense of purpose regarding the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper would have been an invaluable driving force in maintaining focus and bearing up to the hardships.

Pirates were common around the coasts in those days, preying mostly on shipping but occasionally turning their attentions to the lighthouses. The booty they pirated from the ships was far more profitable than anything a lighthouse could offer as the keepers were a poor lot with no cash or valuables. The only commodity of any value to them was fuel - coal or oil. While there was often violence on the ships they attacked, Ong knew of no harm ever coming to lighthouse keepers, probably because they never resisted.

They were hard times on Lanpeng Island right from the start. He had, as yet, received no wages or special clothing and equipment for life in such isolation. The food he and Lee Ah-fong were given was basic and enough to last only two months. They were more-or-less just dumped there and when the food ran out and there was no sign of any supply ship they soon became destitute. It was a great relief when the ship from Taiwan arrived to restock their food supply but by then Ong's health had been compromised by four months of starvation. Thankfully, he was taken back on the supply ship to Taiwan for medical attention, but he was penniless and in rags. In desperation he asked the Taiwan Customs officials if he could borrow some emergency money to see him through his recovery in Keelung (基隆). The Customs Department looked at his request then informed him that he was actually an employee of the Xiamen Customs Department and as such not the responsibility of Taiwan. Furthermore, according to the Xiamen Department, he had left his post without official authorization and would be getting no money from them. It was clear to him that he was now cast off and unwanted. It was a severe blow and left him feeling rejected and bitter.

Seeing his career slipping away, he was suddenly thrown a lifeline. A Taiwan Customs official informed him of an opening as a technician in a lighthouse in Keelung. He could take that job and ask the Keelung Lighthouse authorities for his emergency loan. However, he needed to accept the job post-haste and if his recovery was not quick enough the deal would be void. Even though it was a big demotion Ong had no choice but accept and begin work recovered or not. 

Before he left the official told him in no uncertain terms words to this effect, "You and I don't know each other. We have had no dealings whatsoever. As far as I'm concerned I am an officer of the government and you are an underling. You are not to bother me again!" Ong was left with mixed feelings; grateful for the official's help but deflated by his unfriendly brushoff. I leave it to the reader to determine the official's motivations. Nevertheless, Ong decided to make the most of this lifeline and saw it as the opportunity to gain further experience and at the same time get to visit lighthouses and places in Taiwan and slowly work his way back up.

Promotion to Assistant Lighthouse Keeper

Even though the title of lighthouse technician sounded important, the job consisted mostly of cleaning, maintenance and odd jobs. Nonetheless, Ong faithfully carried out his duties and in the process learned valuable new things and as part of his job occasionally worked at other lighthouses around the area. As a result, instead of diminishing his enthusiasm for his chosen vocation it actually increased, despite his recent experiences. He came to the conclusion that in this world no matter how hard you work no-one will give you a free lunch, but Heaven will always reward your efforts. He also remembered the proverb: 'If you wish to better your worldly wealth and status, observe those above you. But for daily life and survival look to those beneath you'

In time Ong's skills and efforts were finally recognized and his superiors arranged for him to do bigger and better duties by running lighthouses when other keepers went on leave. This was valuable experience and exposure and in 1954 he was promoted to Assistant Executive at So-O lighthouse. The title was grander than the actual job but he was glad to be back to doing what he loved. As it turned out, the assistant executive had sole charge of two lighthouses along the Keelung  coast, the number-one executive sitting in an office somewhere in town. It was a two hour walk between the lighthouses. Each house had two lights, one specifically for fishing boats and the other bigger, brighter beam for larger ocean-going ships. Both lamps required the care of a skilled operator. Ong would have had to illuminate the lights on the home lighthouse then walk for two hours to do the same at the second one, arriving just before dusk. Then he would either walk another two hours home or stay the night there and return in the morning after turning the lights off. This routine would be repeated every day of the week. Along with this he was required to keep the lighthouses in a good state of repair and their surrounds neat and tidy. True to his character, Ong carried out his duties to the letter and kept the lights burning every night without fail.

One day a keeper and his family from another lighthouse dropped in for a visit. Ong and Hui Ying were delighted to see them and invited them to dinner and stay for the night. They had obviously walked a long way and it would have been unthinkable to let them walk all the way back in the dark. Hui Ying prepared the best dinner she could with what they had and provided comfortable lodging for the night. It was a pleasant and happy visit and everyone parted in good spirits the next morning. However, not long after, Ong received notification that he was to be transferred to another more remote lighthouse and was ordered to start packing. As it turned out, his replacement was the very visitor whom they treated with such hospitality a few weeks before. Suddenly, it was obvious his visit had a hidden agenda; he was scoping the place with the intent to move in. While not known for certain, one might suppose he and someone higher up had contrived to move Ong on so he could take Ong's position. This was a bitter pill for Ong to swallow; he felt used and unfairly treated, especially when Hui Ying had given birth to their first child a week earlier. He learned that for some people friendship, kindness and hospitality account for nothing where self interest is concerned. He knew it was futile to protest, in those days the word of the boss was unquestionable. They packed up and moved on.

From what we have learned thus far, it should be apparent that the Customs Department in those times was not a very good employer and it seems that lowly lighthouse keepers were treated rather shabbily. Another incident that occurred in 1957 further illustrates this supposition. At the time, Ong was working at the Pengjia lighthouse when his second daughter, Lan Li, was born. His wife and first child lived off site so she was born some way from where he was stationed, the Customs office being his only contact when he wanted to inquire after their welfare. One day he received a message from Customs that his wife had given birth to a girl and both mother and child were well. He should have been reassured by the news but for some reason he felt uneasy and suspicious. Perhaps it was something in the message that didn't sound right, or was it that mysterious intuition that loved ones often experience in times of need? The feeling was so strong and persistent he couldn't shake it. Fortunately, a supply ship unexpectedly turned up so he went aboard, explained his situation and insisted he return with the ship to see his new baby. The Captain objected but eventually gave in. 

When Ong arrived on shore the Customs Office was not pleased with his unauthorized leave, but he didn't care. At this time his family mattered more than their objections. The Customs official demanded he report immediately to another nearby lighthouse called Fugueijia, which he did before hurrying home to check up on his family. Upon arriving his suspicions were confirmed. His wife was struggling to recover from the birth and both his daughters were seriously ill. It appears his employers were more concerned about keeping him at his post than the welfare of his family and in the message either downplayed their situation or outright lied about it. 

Right: Fugueijia lighthouse.

He immediately took his little daughters in his arms and began the long walk to seek medical help. He walked along the beach and right through an army barracks to a village called Laomei-chuan where he caught the last bus of the day to a bigger town, Dansheui. At Dansheui he caught the train to the Suanglein  station and from there to the hospital. Both girls eventually made a good recovery.

The Keeper of the Most Lighthouses 

There was no such thing as employee contracts and working conditions were completely determined by the employers. Therefore, when a lighthouse keeper was told to move to a new location it was simply a case of pull up roots and go or lose your job. Consequently, the terms you worked at any particular lighthouse were never certain; some were short and some long. Ong's shortest stretch was a mere five days at Sansaujia (4-8 October 1950) and his longest being eight years at Mudao (1 September 1964 to 11 May 1972). it was also common to receive very short notice to transfer and Ong was called upon to do so more often than most. However, this resulted in him becoming the keeper of more lighthouses than any other. 

His eight year term at Mudao is his most memorable. Mudao is a small island in the Penghu group resembling nothing more than a large rock. Penghu - also known as the Pescadores - is an archipelago of ninety islands and inlets in the Taiwan Strait and about eighty kilometers west of the southern end of Taiwan. Mudao Island sits in the middle of the ocean and has no vegetation of any kind; no trees, no grass. The lighthouse there was built in 1899 and due to the harsh nature of its location is made of cast iron. It stands 39.9 meters high and is the tallest lighthouse in South-east Asia. The island itself is low-lying and thoroughly exposed to the ocean and Ong remembers the typhoon seasons when huge waves hammered the island creating a salty rain that could last for days. He also recalls the winter storms whipping up the sea to create salt-laden haze that settled on everything. As a result, one's hair and clothes were constantly crusted in salt. In those times the keepers could only hunker down and do what was possible to keep the lighthouses operational. On an island like Mudao it was extremely dangerous to be out and about in a raging storm.

Left: Mudao lighthouse, Penghu group.

A lighthouse keeper's life in those days was a hard one. Winnie Bell, Hui-ying's niece, remembers overhearing a conversation that attests to this. She heard her grandmother recounting a visit to her daughter and family at Mudao. She was somewhat shocked at their condition. She said Hui-ying was thin and dark, indicating a life exposed to the elements, poverty and hard work.

Mudao was an important lighthouse. Prior to its construction more than fifty ships had been wrecked on the reefs and rocks. It was a black-spot along the Taiwan coast. But even with a lighthouse the dangers were still very real. On one occasion Ong witnessed just how real they were. From his post at Mudao he watched in horror as a ship was taken by rough seas onto a reef. He quickly raised the big flag to signal for help. A helicopter was rushed to the scene but the weather was so foul it had to turn back. He watched the ship take on water and start going down. As the stern sunk beneath the waves the crew on deck rushed to the bow. Unfortunately, as the bow rose higher into the air, men began to slide off the decks into the roiling sea. Others managed to scramble to the bow only to find they had no room to gain a firm foothold. They, too, began to drop like insects overboard. With no-one to rescue them Ong could only watch in helpless horror as they sank into a watery grave. His horror was mixed with profound sadness and he wept at the awful loss of life that afternoon. Later, when he was able to reflect, he was struck by how unpredictable life could be and how suddenly death claimed his victims. A lot of men died at sea that day; the lighthouse keepers worst nightmare. 

Things Begin to Look Up: Recognition and Promotion

It was fifteen years from his demotion in 1949 to technician before his service, skill and knowledge was finally recognized and he was promoted to full staff status. This happened during his stay at the Ludao (Green Island) lighthouse as the Assistant Executive when he was sent to the Chilaibei  lighthouse to supervise its major renovation. His work there so impressed the head office he was recommended to be elevated to the position of Customs officer, his knowledge of lighthouses had proven to be of immense value. Further positive reports on other projects soon led to more promotions.

Ong Ching Ying, during his long career, served in many lighthouses throughout Taiwan. The following are photographs of several of them. 



Ludao...Green Island

Many Lights

Most people think a lighthouse consists of one light set at the top of a tower. However, this is not always the case. A very small light-tower that guards a single rock or small area may have just one lamp, but the bigger, more strategically placed towers can have multiple lights. It all depends on the geography and shipping routes. The tower Ong manned at Sau-O, for instance, had 4 lights that beamed out at different places and times during the night. Also, one lighthouse often managed several nearby towers, such as the main tower in Keelung and its twelve smaller lights around the harbor. The keepers had to be alert one hundred percent of the time because even one inoperative lamp could spell disaster.

Fog was the enemy of both ship's captain and lighthouse keeper. Sometimes it became so thick as to be a complete whiteout and light from a lighthouse, no matter how powerful, was useless in thick fog. In Ong's time the use of a fog cannon became the tool to replace the light neutralized by fog and Ong learned to become a skilled operator. 

In 1886 the Osaka Arsenal factory began manufacturing fog cannons and some time later they were placed in  several lighthouses throughout Taiwan. When the keeper heard the whistle or horn of a ship approaching in a fog, he would quickly pack the cannon with powder and set off a shot. The ship would hear it and reply with another whistle or toot. This would be repeated until there was no further signals from the ship which indicated it had passed safely. It was not a perfect solution to the fog problem as the sounds from the cannon could sometimes be affected by atmospheric conditions, but it was certainly far better than the old shipboard method of tossing a line with a lead weight over the bow to ascertain the depth of the water under the ship; a slow and unreliable way to navigate in fog around potentially dangerous coastlines. Being a proficient fog-gunner was another of Ong's skills that earned him the title, King of Lighthouses.

Maintenance was also a big part of the lighthouse keeper's job description and it was constant and hard. Lighthouses were exposed to some of natures toughest challenges; pounding seas, salt, wind and sun, sometimes all in one day. The walls had to be kept washed and painted regularly and the glass and reflectors polished and shined daily. Not only that but the living quarters and surrounds were to be well kept and tidy. On top of all this, many keepers had multiple towers and lights to maintain. Life in a lighthouse was far from the romantic image portrayed in popular novels and childrens' school readers. It was a harsh, dangerous existence with poor working conditions. One of the more dangerous maintenance tasks was to climb onto the roof of the tower to clean the lightning rod that poked up into the sky. The rod had to be cleaned of salt and grime regularly to keep it in good order. At times the wind in some locations could blow fiercely for days and it was no fun being perched on a slippery lighthouse roof clinging to a lightning rod with nothing but sure death on the rocks far below. Some lighthouses were even set on the edge of clifftops. 

Manning a light tower was a job that carried immense responsibilities for meager financial reward, particularly in the old times. One would suppose that for a person like Ong the only things that kept him going through it all were his dedication to the Lighthouse purpose; to save human lives. Also, it was the career he chose and he was committed; besides, it was not easy to switch jobs in those earlier days. China was at war with itself, poverty was rife, and even when the civil war ended and Taiwan became a nation of its own, the trouble and conflict with the communist mainland did not cease overnight but carried on as a form of cold war. It wasn't until around the sixties things actually started looking better for Ong and his colleagues. He also had his family to consider; it was the only way at that time to put food on the table.

Keeping a lighthouse often took a toll on the health of the keeper and his family. In fact, health was one of the keepers greatest concerns. Even though Ong believed that in the absence of medical facilities fresh air and sunshine were among the lighthouse worker's richest health resources, both of which were in good supply, he was aware that they were not always enough. Small injuries like cuts, scratches and bruises could, with basic care, heal quickly and were of minor concern, and it was things like influenza, malnutrition, broken bones and childbirth that held the potential for life-threatening infections and even death. Possibly because of this the subordinate lighthouse workers were not permitted to live around the lighthouses (although the government's reluctance to spend money on housing for them and its utter lack of concern for their health and safety shouldn't be dismissed) so their families had to live in the nearest place they could find. The workers were given four weeks annual leave to visit their families. Only the Lighthouse Executive (head keeper) had the privilege of living with his family in the basic living quarters near the lighthouse. In the 1950's these restrictions were relaxed and on isolated lighthouses provisions were made for all workers families to reside on-site.

In 1996 a typhoon struck the island of Mudao where Ong was the Executive. The supply ship from Penghu, their main lifeline, was unable to make its routine delivery run. Unfortunately, the pregnant wife of one of the workers went into the early stages of labor and it became imperative she get to a hospital. The supply ship was her only hope. There were many fishing boats about but they too were sheltering from the storm and besides, they were a very superstitious lot and pregnant women on board were considered fatally bad luck. All requests for help from them were flatly rejected. The worker and his family were on their own.

At the time, Ong Lung Ya (Ong's oldest daughter) was studying to be a nurse and Ong had, out of necessity, picked up some medical tips from her, among them the basics of childbirth. It therefore became incumbent on him to do what he could for his colleague's
wife. With the help of others he delivered her baby alive even though it was a month premature. But there was no professional medical help of any kind on the island let alone any life-saving equipment. The infant became severely jaundiced and died a week later.

On another occasion he delivered a set of twins but both died ten days later of infections. It should be noted that Ong helped deliver the babies alive and it was not ineptitude on his part that they died, but rather, the poor living conditions and total lack of professional medical after-care in those isolated locations. He applied all the procedures he knew on delivery and hygiene and it was the harsh, primitive conditions that caused their deaths. He sadly lamented that it seemed every life born there relied on fate and the good grace of heaven for survival. 

A Lonely Existence

Because the purpose of lighthouses was to guide ships they were, by necessity, built in isolated and ofttimes dangerous marine locations, many on lonely islands. The island lighthouses were particularly cut off and accessible only by boat. Spring and summer brought fishing boats to exploit the rich waters of Penghu, but when they left in late autumn the only human contact the island lighthouse staff had was with the occasional supply ship that stopped by. After weeks or months of no contact with the outside world it was always a moment of great pleasure to talk with other human beings and catch up on any news from across the water; even an excuse for a feast. In some places the lighthouse workers raised a few sheep; hardy animals built to thrive where other beasts would struggle. When a load of fresh supplies landed on the island what better time to kill a sheep and celebrate with a grand dinner!  

Food was always a major concern and Ong knew this well, having already experienced the frightening consequences of an empty larder. He learned to always first live off the most perishable items and save the tinned and dry-goods for later. More than once he found himself eating near rotten food rather than waste it. He and other workers also grew their own vegetables where possible (some locations were not suitable due to the terrain and saltiness of soil and air) and even raised animals. Fish, shellfish, seaweed and any other edibles the environment could provide also went into the wok. The advent of refrigeration was a great leap forward but the old principle of eat the perishables first still remained because even in a fridge things wouldn't last until the next ship arrived. 

Lighthouse pay was low so the workers were a frugal breed and the poor pay meant a life of sacrifice. For example, they invariably left their families and worked through their terms by themselves, saving every penny to send home and living solely off the land and lighthouse supplies. Ong remembered one man who always took his trousers off whenever he went into the sea to collect seaweed or catch shrimp and shellfish. His philosophy being that when clothing was ripped or torn it cost money to repair or replace, but if the same thing happens to the skin nature repairs and replaces for free. Another very enterprising and self-sufficient gentleman with a big family at home brought only a few basic items with him each time he came back from leave. These were a few bottles of different sauces, a supply of oil and some sugar to flavor the lighthouse food and the food gathered from the sea. He then set about growing, gathering and collecting all his other nutritional requirements. Everything left over he would preserve by salting or drying and take it home for his family on the next furlough. Some even became gifts to friends as lighthouse specialties. When this man died many years later Ong couldn't help but reflect on how fruitful his sacrifices and hard work had become. His children had all grown up well and one son went on to own a famous restaurant chain. Ong imagined him smiling with pleasure from his grave.

The popular view of life in a lighthouse is often an unrealistically romantic one; a life of ocean vistas surrounded by wildlife and carefree days under a balmy sun with a storm or two thrown in to keep life interesting. In reality it was grueling work in a lonely, isolated place cut off for most of the year from family and other human contact. Their were sunny days but when the storms came thundering in, a lighthouse could be a dangerous place if you got caught out. Repetition, boredom and monotony were also a part of the keeper's life. Ong said that more often than not it was about doing the same thing every day, looking at the same thing every day, and talking to the same person every day. 

The working hours were always long. It was not an eight-hour day. During the day there were a million things to do to ensure the lighthouse was in perfect working order at all times: repairs, cleaning, checking and inspecting, maintenance, and looking after any subsidiary lights. From dusk onward someone had to keep watch all night so that the light was always burning; the earlier lamps being oil fired. By regulation every lighthouse had an annual clean-up where it was painted, thoroughly cleaned and inspected by the authorities. All this work was done by the lighthouse staff; there was no such thing as hiring outside contractors. 

Larger lighthouses, like the one on Pengjia, could have up to five men working there and while these men were all colleagues living and working in close proximity, life was by no means communal. No individual was employed or assigned or to be the cook, laundryman, cleaner and so on. Each knew his lighthouse duties and lived quite independently of the other. Of course, friendships were forged and sharing occurred, but each person had his own space and provided for himself in all things possible. Rather than live as some kind of communal family they were more like good neighbors. At least that's how Ong described this aspect of lighthouse living.  

Whist the lighthouse life could be hard and rigorous, there were the occasional quiet times. When the sun was shining and the workload light, the workers could engage in some rest and recreation. Of course their were no shopping centers, restaurants, bars, movie theaters or parks to visit, so their entertainments consisted of more natural activities such as fishing, fossicking along the shore for shells and rocks, and perhaps a little swimming on a hot summer day.

Lighthouses have a distinct shape which sets them apart from all other buildings. This is not by chance but by necessity; their function, the weather they are subjected to, and the geography around them having dictated their design. Most are, therefore, tall and cylindrical in shape, solidly made of brick, concrete or cast iron. Some are square or six-sided structures but all were built to withstand the extremes of wind and water; stout, strong and functional. These days in Taiwan many have become redundant as light towers but live on as popular tourist attractions. 

Even after a hundred years most lighthouses in Taiwan are still as solid as the day they were built; standing monuments to the skills of their builders, their fort-like strength and people like Ong Ching Ying who worked in them. 


Ong Ching Ying retired July 1993 after forty seven years service. He worked in more lighthouses than any other in the profession in Taiwan. During his forty seven years as a keeper he experienced every aspect of lighthouse keeping; good to atrocious weather conditions, hardship and danger, starvation, health challenges, isolation and loneliness, long, hard hours of work, and long periods of separation from his family. Yet, despite all the demands of lighthouse keeping, he regrets nothing. He performed all his duties with dedication and loyalty even when he was overworked and underpaid. He suffered his fair share of disappointments when things did not go well for him, but he persevered and in the end came through a winner. He trained and mentored more lighthouse apprentices than anyone else in the business and when he finally retired aged sixty five they dubbed him, King of Lighthouses. 

As he said in his retirement speech, the work of the lighthouse keeper is unseen and seldom acknowledged by those he serves, but it is a job with the responsibility of uncountable tonnes of shipping and thousands of human lives relying on him to faithfully and skilfully carry out his duty. It was this aspect of lighthouse keeping that gave Ong such pleasure in his profession. History can never measure how many ships and human lives were saved from a watery grave because of his forty seven years of keeping the lights beaming across the night sea.

On February 27 1998, Ong Ching Ying took his precious Lighthouse Operator Identity Card issued by the Xiamen Customs Department way back in 1937, along with photographs and documents of his years as a keeper, and presented them to the Taiwan Maritime Museum. 

Perhaps the last word should be something that shows his great love for lighthouses. He said, in reply to being called the Lighthouse King, "I'm just a lonely old lighthouse keeper who wishes that every keeper will look to their lighthouses as their child; love it, protect it, and give all the ships a safe passage home."


Monday, 13 June 2016

Ang Chay Ham

Third Uncle
by David Bell

Ang Chay Ham; 1936 ~ 2016

A much loved and respected member of the Ang family passed away on Monday at 4:39am, 25 April 2016, after a long illness. His name was Ang Chay Ham, also known to most of us as Samsuk, translated into English as Third Uncle (sam meaning third and suk being uncle). The Chinese have an interesting and effective method of identifying the positions of relatives. The title 'Suk' (pronounced sook) denotes an uncle on your father's side. Prefix it with the appropriate number and you have the order of birth. However, the eldest brother has the special title of Ah-baak meaning 'the eldest'. The simple charts below illustrate how it works.

Child ....... 1. My father, Ang Chay Pek (Dad to his children but Ah-baak to others).
                  2. My father's younger brother, or Yihsuk (second uncle)
                  3. My father's next brother down, or Samsuk (third uncle).
                  4  And so on depending on how many brothers are in the family.

The same system applies to the sisters on the father's side but with the title of Gu instead of Suk.

Child ....... 1. Daigu, the eldest sister in my father's family (dai is big, gu means aunt).

                 2. Yihgu, the next sister down (second aunt).

                 3. Samgu, the third sister down (third aunt).

                 4. And so on depending on how many sisters are in the family.

The same applies for family members on one's mother's side but with different titles: Kau for the brothers and Yi for the sisters with Kau-fu as the oldest brother and Dai-yi the elder sister. It should be noted that some personal variations pop up from time to time, like the many pet names we use for our grandparents and parents in western culture.

Variations aside, this method, once you are familiar with it, is excellent for immediate recognition of who you are referring to when discussing an uncle or aunt because you know exactly which side of the family he or she comes from and his or her position in the family. 

Ang Chay Ham, therefore, is the third and youngest brother in a family of three boys and three girls. To my wife, Winnie Ming Ling Hung (or 'Ang' in the Fujian dialect because after the family moved from Fujian to Hong Kong in 1951, some used the Cantonese 'Hung' while others retained 'Ang') he is Samsuk, or Third Uncle.

Growing Up in China

He was born in Fujian Province, China, 19th December (by the Chinese lunar calendar) 1936 and grew up in the city of Xiamen. There is nothing to suggest that his early childhood was anything but normal for the times, in fact, the signs are that he lived more comfortably than most in China in those days. His father's business in the Philippines was prospering and provided enough wealth for the family to own a house, some property and a stash of gold, the favoured currency of the more affluent Chinese.

The picture shows from left  to right: Ang Chay Ham (about 12 years old), Ang Hui Lan, Ang Hui Ying, Go Lea  Hua, Him Que, Ang Chiu Shui. Seated: Ang Hui Kim and Ang Ming Ling.

Xiamen was once commonly known as Amoy, the European version of its historical Chinese name E-mui, meaning Mansion Gate, or more grandiosely, The Gate of the Grand Mansion. 

It is actually a large island looking across the Taiwan Strait on the south-eastern coast of China's Fujian Province. There are many other smaller islands surrounding it, Gulangyu being the largest and more populated of them. It is also the island the family lived on for many years. Gulangyu translates as, Drum Wave Island because of the drumming sound of the waves rolling onto its shores. Today, it is one of China's showpiece cities and a popular tourist venue with spectacular parks, hotels and a host of tourist attractions. in 2006 it was designated China's second best place to live and in 2011, its most romantic leisure city. It also boasts a feature that makes Gulangyu unique in China; combustion engines and their polluting smoke and exhaust fumes are banned. Consequently, electric cars and bicycles are the norm there.

The climate is monsoonal and considered sub-tropical with average annual temperatures hovering around 27 degrees Celsius. Winters are short and dry with average temperatures of around 13 degrees Celsius. The days are generally sunny and humid all year round and the place is subject to typhoons in late summer.

Xiamen has always been a prosperous port city which made it attractive to both traders and plunderers alike. It has seen its fair share of boom and bust throughout its history. It was especially prone to attacks from Japanese pirates resulting in the necessity of building a significant fort there in 1387.

It was also the scene of many periods of political unrest throughout its early years, the most significant being when the Manchurian Qing dynasty overthrew the incumbent Ming. Xiamen was one of the places most contended for.

It was also a city heavily involved in the opium wars where the Chinese confiscated the British stockpiles of opium and closed the port to further opium shipments. This infuriated the British and the infamous opium wars broke out. The British prevailed (winning the Battle of Amoy) and forced the Chinese to sign the notorious 1842 Treaty of Nanking. Xiamen was quickly taken over by the British and reopened to resume the lucrative drug trade.

The British control of Xiamen opened the city to a new invasion of British settlers and Christian missionaries. As a result Xiamen came under heavy European influence. The British settlers built European-styled mansions for themselves and introduced such English institutions as organized sports and European music, especially the piano. To this day the piano is a traditional part of the city. There are so many pianos in peoples' homes that it is referred to as China's piano town. It even boasts China's largest piano museum. 

European architecture is also evident to this day with the old colonial mansions and public buildings still standing, especially on Gulangyu, the settlers' preferred place of residence. Two such houses were purchased by the Ang family; one on Xiamen and the other on Gulangyu. Ang Chay Ham spent his childhood in the Gulangyu house.

The picture to the right shows the family house in Xiamen. The picture shows Ang Hui Ying (Dai-gu) and her husband, Ong Ching Ying, standing outside on one of their frequent visits to the homeland, a short trip across the Taiwan Strait. Ong was a dang tahp, a lighthouse keeper, in Taiwan.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries it was common for men to travel offshore to work, leaving their families for years at a time. I suppose the people of Xiamen, because of their history of European contact along with their business acumen as traders and merchants, had no fears of going abroad in search of better opportunities to improve the living standards of their families; China in those times being plagued by grinding poverty. Chay Ham's father went to the Philippines when he was a boy to work in an uncle's fabric shop.

Others, however, went all over South East Asia and beyond to countries such as Viet Nam, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, to mention a few. Smaller groups even ended up in the Pacific Islands and other isolated places like New Guinea. With them they spread Hokkein (their language) and Fujian traditions to nearly every place in Asia and the Pacific. It is not surprising just how many overseas Chinese today trace their ancestry back to Xiamen. 

The 1940's were bad years for Xiamen with the outbreak of World War Two and the resulting Japanese invasion and occupation. Ang Chay Ham was a young boy during those trying days and can still remember the horrors of the occupation. 

The Japanese considered Chinese inferior Asians and treated them with disdain. The result was cruelty and atrocities. He said he still remembers hearing the continuous cries of people being tortured in the Japanese held police station not far from their house. Everyone lived in great fear of the Japanese and if you did not bow whenever a Japanese soldier or official passed by, you would at least be severely beaten or at worst shot on the spot. Women lived in fear of being raped and young men were routinely taken away to prison or executed on the grounds they might join the Chinese army. Chay Ham was too young to be a threat so he was ignored.

Left: Ang Chay Ham as he appeared early 1948 at about 12 years old. He would have been about four when the occupation began and seven when it ended.

Chay Ham remembered the great relief and happiness that swept through Xiamen when the Japanese were defeated and fled. No doubt all the Angs were likewise hugely relieved to have escaped ~ relatively unscathed ~ the four fearful years (1941 - 1945) under brutal Japanese rule. The Japanese actually invaded China in 1938 and occupied much of it. However, Amoy was still under British control and because, unlike Germany, Japan was not yet in conflict with the Western Allies, they kept their distance. That all ended with the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour which resulted in an all out declaration of war giving them the excuse to forcibly add the city to their list of Chinese conquests.

The relief, however, was to be short-lived. No sooner had the Japanese gone the Communists and Nationalists ~ who had put aside  their differences to fight the common foe ~ resumed the war they were waging before the second world war. This civil war for the control of China was to have even more devastating consequences for the family. 

The Communists eventually won that bloody struggle and set about confiscating all private ownership of land and property. The Angs soon realized it was only a matter of time before they and their holdings in Xiamen would be targeted. Ang Chiu Shui, Chay Ham's father and family Patriarch, quickly set about laying plans for the family to escape the dark clouds of danger gathering over them, for it was known that the zealous communist cadres were going about beating and abusing land owners, landlords and anyone else they deemed anti-state.

He was in Hong Kong when alarming news reached him; news that set the family's exodus from China in motion earlier than planned. His son, Ang Chay Ham was the catalyst that set things off. The following is what happened in Chay Ham's own words:

"When the communists took over many people were very happy, especially the poor. The communists promised them land and a better life. The young people were the easiest to brainwash. The communists told them that they could be part of a new start for China, that together they would build a new and better world. Everyone believed it. I was one of them. I was a high school student at the time and the communist officials came to recruit young men into what they called their military academy. They made fiery speeches about the good things we could all accomplish if we were united for the common good. I signed up. When we got home my sister rushed in and told my mother what I had done. My mother quickly got word to my father in Hong Kong and he got very angry and worried. He said, 'Don’t let him join the communists and don't let him go to that academy. Before you know it he'll be sent to goodness-knows-where and like so many others already we'll never see him again. The communists will brainwash him and our other children and turn them against even their own family. You are to all pack up immediately and come to Hong Kong. I'll organize it and pay for it from here. You must be ready to leave as soon as I get word to you. Leave everything behind and carry only what you need for a week on the road. Bring as much of our gold as you can safely carry and hide the rest; it may be possible to go back and get it later'. He was very stern about it and he was the head of the family so we had no choice but to obey him. Also, we were getting reports about rich people in other provinces being beaten up and publicly shamed by the communists then having all their money and property taken away. We kind of knew it was only a matter of time before it was our turn which made it easier to obey Grandfather's orders. We made preparations straight away."

Ang Chiu Shui ~ whom I shall from here on refer to as Ah-yeh, the favoured family title ~ was the recognised family patriarch and his word being pretty much family law meant that the exodus began post-haste. Chay Ham was fourteen years old at the time.

The Exodus to Hong Kong

The flight from Fujian began on a September afternoon, 1951. It was, ostensibly, a holiday trip to Hong Kong; the new communist government had not yet totally closed its borders and people with a certificate stating they were visiting relatives were still free to travel. Soon, when the communists shut their doors to the outside world and kept their own people locked up in China, such 'holiday tours' would be forbidden. Therefore, it was a case of now-or never.

In retrospect the family was very fortunate that Ah-yeh had such foresight. It was also fortuitous that they responded to his charge to leave China without hesitation. Had it not been so, their family history would have gone down a completely different road and where that would have taken them is anyone's guess. One thing, however, is sure; life in Hong Kong offered the kind of liberty and opportunity that would soon be closed off in Fujian.

The exodus started with a 10 minute sampan ride from the island of Xiamen (formerly Amoy) to the mainland. There were no jetties or ferry terminals in those days, the boatman simply chose the shortest route between the island and mainland and went for it, the boat powered by a small single-cylinder outboard motor. They spent one night at Xiamen waiting for others to arrive who were booked on the same journey. In the morning they boarded a rickety old 'tour bus' with hard wooden seats and a top speed of about twenty-five miles per hour. As Third Uncle said, a bicycle was faster. The whole trip was prepaid with the bus fare and basic accommodation and food stops along the way all included, like a package tour.

The family included Que Him (the Matriarch), her two daughters Ang Hui Lan and Ang Hui Kim, her youngest son Ang Chay Ham, her grandchildren Ang Ming Ling, Ang Yan San, and Ang Ming Lung. Two daughters-in-law, Tan Shuk Hui and our own Go Lea Hua were also in the party. There were about twenty others on board all with the same goal; escape to Hong Kong.

The old bus bumped and ground its way over rough roads which at times were nothing more than dusty tracks. The route took them along the coast to a small village called Yuen Shiao where they gratefully disembarked to refresh themselves. Being evening they dined on rice, fresh vegetables, roast duck and other foods prepared by some local villagers glad to make a few dollars, the meal taken in a small, basic, but adequate dining hall. They spent the night at Yuen Shiao and continued their journey early the following morning.

It was a long, tortuous drive to a small village called Yun Zhio, then Zhao An and then on to a bigger town called Shan Tou where they dined and rested for the night before continuing to Hui Zhou, another small village.

They reached Hui Zhou late afternoon on the fourth day since leaving Xiamen. Hui Zhou was a small, impoverished fishing village on a sluggish river that ambled lazily into the sea. The river was set between them and the village. An unsafe looking ferry was waiting to transport them across to the village. The ferry was nothing more than an old motorized barge with a flat bottom. The passengers were all ordered off the bus and the ferryman laid down two well-worn planks from the stern of the ferry onto the greasy river bank. The driver then proceeded to drive the bus onto the planks and onto the ferry, the planks just wide enough to take the wheels. Once safely on board the bus was taken across the river, which was not too wide, and offloaded. The ferry then returned for the passengers.

Chay Ham's most vivid memory of Hui Zhou was the children; they all swam about in the river unashamedly naked. Additionally, they were much darker in complexion than he was accustomed to seeing; their skins toasted from running about naked all day in the hot sun. He was fourteen at the time and the sight of naked boys and girls running about so publicly startled him. He thought that the place must be very primitive and poor.

Poor and primitive as it appeared; Hui Zhou had one thing that impressed him, a beautiful lake. Although his stay in Hui Zhou was but an evening and part of the next day, he took every opportunity to visit the lake and take in the fresh air coming off its clean, cool waters. At Hui Zhou the driver happily informed them that they were nearing the end of their journey, much to everyone's delight.They spent the fifth night at Zhangmutau, a seaside village. From Zhangmutau it was but a short drive to Shenzhen, the village right on the border.

About mid-morning on the sixth day the long awaited moment arrived; the bus was ready to leave for Hong Kong. The passengers, with more than a little apprehension mixed with a good dose of heady excitement, clambered aboard and took their places on the crude wooden seats. Within half an hour they were at the border.

The bus clattered to a stop at the gates and a big, ferocious looking man with dark skin and a thick black beard stomped out of the guardhouse and marched up to the bus, ordered the door opened and clumped up the steps to stand in the aisle like a giant. He was dressed in a uniform and carried himself with an air of stern authority. Others like him spilled out of the guardhouse and stood around the bus appraising the occupants. The passengers had never seen such alien looking people and were petrified.

"Where are you all from?" the man on the bus shouted menacingly in heavily accented Cantonese. They were all so afraid of him they were speechless.  He repeated his question, more gruffly this time. "Where are you all from and where are you going?"

More silence.

His already huge black eyes grew even bigger as he began to grow impatient at the lack of response, and still everyone sat in silence staring wide-eyed with fear at the huge Indian border guard filling up the bus in front of them. As Third Uncle explained, 'All of us small Chinese had never seen such people before and they were so big and ferocious looking. We were very scared and couldn't say anything.' 

It was just before the guard opened his mouth for the third time a woman cried out in perfect Cantonese, "We are all from Canton and we are going to Hong Kong for a holiday and to visit relatives." She was a middle-aged Cantonese woman who had married a man from Fujian and like the rest was leaving to escape living under communism.

The Indian guard looked hard at her for a moment then said, "OK, you can go!" and clambered off the bus and ordered the barriers lifted and waved them through. After a period of stunned silence, and when they realized they were safely on the other side of the border and away free, they let out a collective cheer and hailed the Cantonese woman as the hero of the day.

It was a joyous moment when the old bus from the Mainland - battered, dented and covered in dirt from its long trip across two provinces - rattled onto the streets of Kowloon. While the bus was a curious sight chugging and smoking among the more modern vehicles, it was not uncommon and brought only stares of curiosity from people on the streets. These holiday tours had become a frequent sight in the city and everyone knew that the holiday-makers on board were planning a very long vacation indeed.

Hong Kong was a technological world away from their former home; the streets seemed crammed with traffic, new buildings were sprouting up everywhere and the whole city seemed alive and vibrant. The energy of the place was not the energy of revolution or political change, but the energy of people engaged in what the Chinese do better than anyone in the world; trade and business.

The great differences between this place and the war-torn and poverty stricken mainland still reeling from the aftermath of two decades of war and caught up in the turmoil of political change, was not lost on the young Ang Chay Ham and he felt his communist leanings quickly leaking away as he stared, wide-eyed, at the sights around him. The life and energy about the place was breath-taking. But, despite all these wonders it was the double-decked buses that astounded his young mind the most; he had never seen anything like it. 'Why don't they tip over?' was all he could say.

The old bus, overheated and coughing smoke, finally reached the end of the road; an old depot of sorts where it had offloaded 'holiday makers' several times before. The owner-driver, a Fujian native now resident in Hong Kong, was doing a roaring trade. But he sensed from the changes taking place in China that his tour business was doomed. He was, therefore, making-hay-while-the-sun-shined. After dropping off his passengers he would rest for a day, do two or three days shopping and load the carefully selected items onto his bus which he would sell back in Xiamen for a good profit, meet with his contacts about another 'tour' and  then drive all the way back to repeat the journey. If he was lucky he might pick up a few passengers heading back to Guangdong or Fujian. These he considered 'lucky money' as the flow of people to the east was not as brisk.

Ang Chiu Shui, or Ah-yeh to his grandchildren, was waiting at the depot. Word had already got to him of their safe arrival and he was visibly relieved to see them all in good spirits. Old Ah-ma, keyed up with excitement and bossier than ever before, barked orders to everyone around her, even the other passengers who, seeing her bound feet and in respect to her age, submitted to her commands. As a result her whole family got off the bus first. Others were also at the depot to meet their families and the din of reunions was deafening. The Ang family, nine in total, accounted for most of it as they shouted and laughed with glee.

The family lived for three months in a guesthouse above a shop owned by Ah-yeh's brother. In December, 1951, Ah-yeh leased a large apartment on Kings Road in Northpoint on Hong Kong Island for $HK300.00 per month. That apartment became the family home from 1951 into the 1990's when it succumbed to progress and was demolished. The Northpoint Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station now stands in its place.

Below are pictures of today's Kings Road, the location of the family home for over forty years, now an MTR station. These pictures were taken in 2013.

The new apartment had four good sized bedrooms, a kitchen, running water and toilet facilities; all pretty basic but adequate to the family's needs. The space was the main factor because it had to immediately house ten people and perhaps more later on. When they moved in they had no furniture and only a few personal belongings so the first task was to purchase some cheap beds and drawers and other essentials like a table and chairs. Bit-by-bit it all came together and the family settled in. Only then had they the time to start thinking about what they had left behind in Xiamen.

The two apartment blocks they owned on Xiamen and Gulangyu were substantial and profitable buildings and they hoped that despite the communist threats that the law would prevail and the ownership would remain in their hands. Before he left Xiamen Ah-yeh had paid some relatives to oversee the buildings in their absence and entrusted some of the family valuables, including small gold bars, to those he had confidence in. And the family, before their exodus, hurriedly concealed more gold bars and valuables under the floorboards and behind the walls. At a more opportune time Ah-yeh would make arrangements to return and reclaim them.

There was to be no opportune time, the communists were true to their policy of total state ownership of all property and wealth. He lost the houses and all the valuables and gold secreted in the walls and under the floors. The gold and valuables he left with relatives also mysteriously vanished. 

It was true, everything in China was lost. At least the business in the Philippines was still there and most importantly his family was together and free. Surely, that was what really counted and worth more than all the gold he had lost. Nevertheless, the Chinese love of gold and valuable things is strong and the loss of so much was a bitter pill to swallow. A bad taste has lingered in the family mouth that has never completely gone away, even long after Ah-yeh and the other old folk had passed on.

They did manage to bring some of their gold from Xiamen; the old dowager stuffed her bags with smaller items and tied a thick, pure gold cord around the waist under the shirt of the young Chay Ham, thinking that if they were stopped along the way by robbers or communist officials, they would be less likely to search a young boy, focusing more on the adults. The cord was worth a small fortune and Chay Ham was instructed to guard it with his life. Other valuables were scattered about in the bags and on the persons of the other family members. 

As it turned out there were no robbers or communist officials. The journey was long and uneventful.

My Great Friend and Brother

At this point in the narrative I will change direction a little and talk of Third Uncle (Samsuk) on a more personal note. In other words, enough history and more about the person.  

I am married to his niece, Winnie Ming Ling Hung and while I have known of Samsuk for many years, I have  only had an association with him for the past three years from 2013 to his passing in May 2016. Short as that may be, it nevertheless seems to have been long enough to form a friendship and respect that is intimate and enduring. Somehow, and for some reason that I can't adequately explain, we just 'clicked'. The actual time we had in each other's company was rather minimal but somehow we became as brothers. 

He has gone now but I think of him often. I will miss his good nature and the talks we had on my recent visits to Hong  Kong. It was through these talks I gained so much knowledge of his life in China and Hong Kong. I know I didn't get it all but I'm grateful for what I have and take much pleasure in recording it. I hope it will be of value to my whanau (extended family on all branches) now in in the future.

There are many  things I remember about my good friend, the main ones being his great intelligence, his immense generosity, his keen business mind, and the quiet love he had for his family.

I first became aware of how smart he was in 2013 on a family visit to Hong Kong. In the beginning I spoke in rusty Cantonese and, sensing my struggle, he simply replied in English. I was mildly surprised thinking he knew a smattering of my language. However, mild surprise turned to amazement when it became apparent how fluent he actually was. He perfectly understood everything I said and could reply with a more than adequate English vocabulary.  I immediately dropped Cantonese and thereafter we freely conversed in English. Later, I sat with him and interviewed him on his life story, all in English. He replied to every question effortlessly and I came away with enough information to write the portion of his life history as he gave it.

He told me he began learning English as a young man from an Australian missionary who became his great friend. The missionary taught him English lessons and in return Samsuk was an enthusiastic and model student. He said, "The missionary wanted me be to believe in the church and I said I did, but actually I didn't, I only wanted to learn English. I really liked that missionary, though. He was my good friend." 

While he learned a lot of English, he never did become a committed Christian. This is not to say he didn't have good values and principles. On the contrary, he was, I believe, a man of great honesty and integrity, the only exception being his lie about joining the missionary's church. He said he didn't want to offend his friend and end the relationship and the English lessons. He and the missionary continued their friendship until he finished his service and returned to Australia after which they frequently corresponded.

I am left with the opinion that if life had dealt him a different hand, one where he could have gained a more formal education, he would have excelled. This I base on not only that he taught himself to speak very satisfactory English, but on everything else I have observed and learned about him in the few short years I have known him. He had a sharp brain, of this I am quite convinced.

While I was never around to see it first hand, I have seen second hand his business acumen. He obviously had a good eye for business and knew how to broker a deal. He must have been fair and honest because he made a good living doing deals for people for a lot of  years. It should be noted that making a living in Hong Kong is not for the fainthearted. It's a pretty cut-throat environment and one needs to have their wits about them. Connections and timing are also important in doing business in Hong Kong and Samsuk managed to master them both. He made some good money by brokering deals for clients buying and selling property. This would have required a sound knowledge of the property and market environments. He must have done well because by the end of his life he had accumulated enough wealth to leave his family comfortably situated to survive the rigors of Hong Kong living. There were other smaller business ventures throughout his life but the property one was the most profitable. Not a bad effort for someone with no formal education. 

As mentioned earlier, my first real connection with Samsuk happened in 2013 when Winnie and I took a two week vacation in Hong Kong. Since our retirement we have made an informal commitment to visit with Winnie's sister and relatives as often as possible; hopefully, at least once a year. We have, in these our twilight years, come to realize that God and family are the most important things in life; the only true absolutes. Lots of people have been dying around us in the past few years and it has become clear that when it's time to be called home nothing else matters but family and loved ones. All those things we toil and struggle our whole lives to obtain, be they wealth, social status, worldly honours, properties and so on, account for little as we approach the end of our days and suddenly understand that we can take none of this stuff with us. We come to understand what we knew all along, that it is faith, family and our own characters that endure forever. This is why Winnie and I have determined to spend this season of our lives doing as much as we can building love and unity in our family. We don't want to 'miss-the-bus' and leave here with regrets. Visiting Hong Kong is an integral part of this understanding and the reason for our determination to connect with Winnie's Third Uncle and his family. In doing so I have won a great prize; I have gained an eternal friend and brother and added another branch of loved ones to my family tree. We had some good times in the few short occasions we were together, the most memorable being the 'king crab saga'. 

On one of our visits he strongly insisted he take me to the fishing town of Sai Kong to eat his all-time favourite; Alaskan king crab. I was quite agreeable to this but when we all arrived at Sai Kong and found out how extraordinarily expensive these crabs were, we (meaning Winnie and I) balked at the idea; we just felt too guilty about the cost. Winnie and her sister managed to convince me to inform him that I would be more than happy with a smaller crab and he reluctantly agreed. The meal we had - minus the king crab - was magnificent, but he was far from happy. He must have stewed on it for a long time because when we returned the following year he was adamant that this time nothing would prevent him treating me to a king crab at Sai Kong. He said, "This time we won't listen to those two girls!" That king crab I'm holding, I must admit, was by far the best crab meat I've ever eaten. More importantly, I was happy to see how content and pleased he appeared. 

Samsuk always took great pleasure in dining out with guests. He had several favourite eating establishments and I was the happy recipient of his extraordinary generosity on several occasions. 

I truly love visiting what little remains of Winnie's family in Hong Kong - most having moved abroad or passed on - but it invariably puts kilograms on my waistline. Eating out seems to be Hong Kong's national sport because just about every second shop on any street is a food outlet of some kind and
restaurants are always crowded with diners no matter what time of day. Samsuk opened his wallet for some memorable dinners in the few short years I knew him.

My great friend and brother died in the early hours on Monday, 25 April 2016, in St. Paul's Hospital, Hong Kong. He had been battling cancer for many years, teetering on the brink of death more than once before miraculously pulling out and making some remarkable recoveries, his doctors referring to him as the miracle man. He was a tremendous fighter, but it couldn't last forever.

Winnie and I had hoped to be there before he passed but with these things it's very difficult to time it right. So it was with us; he died before we could get there - it's a long way from New Zealand to Hong Kong. As it happened it was as well we didn't get there earlier because dying is not a straight forward affair in Hong Kong. It can take up to a month before the family can hold their funeral services. So many die each day, you have to wait until a slot at the crematorium is available. Cremation is preferred over burial simply because a plot at a cemetery could cost more than we would pay for a basic three bedroom home in New Zealand. 

We delayed our departure and timed our arrival to three days before the funeral. 

The Memorial and Funeral Services

A Hong Kong funeral, I discovered, has a few differences from those I'm more familiar with, the first being the lengthy time lag between the person's passing and the cremation - you can only have the services when the cremation date is fixed. Additionally, the funeral parlour is quite different than in New Zealand. The one we used in Hong Kong was, ironically, the very same that Samsuk's grandfather, Ang Chiu Shui, had his funeral in February, 1967, this being the Hong Kong Funeral Home on Kings Road.

It has about six floors; the lobby with a couple of big rooms for extra large funerals, three floors housing multiple smaller funeral rooms,  one upper floor of offices and the whole top level stacked with empty coffins for sale. The other big difference is in the nature of the funerals themselves. With Hong Kong being such a cosmopolitan place, it's not unusual to see secular, Christian, Buddhist, or any other services being held in their respective rooms simultaneously; especially in the weekends when the whole building can be a great bustle of funerals all happening at once.

The forecast for the day was for rain but it was wrong; it turned out to be pleasant and sunny. The memorial service was scheduled for 7pm Saturday 14 May. The family expected about 30 people but as the time drew nearer the room began to fill up and more chairs had to be added. At the start the attendance was more like eighty. The following pictures will give a good overview of Samsuk's memorial.

The picture to the right is a hallway view of the third floor where Samsuk's memorial service was held. Notice how several rooms open out into the hallway. Each room holds up to 80 or so people or a few more in a pinch. A reception desk is set up outside the room where programs can be distributed, people welcomed, and 'lucky money' in red envelopes given to the guests. It is also usual for other funerals to be going on in the neighbouring rooms which can be a bit noisy - a Buddhist funeral includes a lot of loud chanting, drum beating, flute blowing and movement. Fortunately, each room has doors thick enough to block the extraneous sounds and allow privacy. 

To the left is the view from the entrance into the room. Behind the podium is a small sealed stateroom with a large window through which the bereaved can view their loved one. 

When we looked at the room the day before it seemed worryingly spare and cold but once the podium, screen, flowers and chairs were in place it was much more presentable.
The flower arrangements were spectacular and very fragrant with green and white the dominant colours. 

I was asked to give the eulogy so the picture to the left shows me rehearsing my speech. I determined to do it in Cantonese in respect to my old friend, his family and the funeral guests. It took a lot of preparation; I wrote it in English, Winnie and Lina helped to translate it into good Cantonese (my own Cantonese being rather rusty after over forty years of minimal use), and then I rewrote it into 'pingyin' or romanisation - Cantonese in English lettering for want of a simple description.

I was fortunate on two counts: firstly, two years earlier I sat with Samsuk and recorded some of his life story from his own mouth so I had the material and secondly, whilst I lacked the extensive vocabulary needed for such a speech, I nevertheless had a good knowledge of the language. This meant that once Winnie and Lina gave me the words, I soon learned them and fully understood everything I needed to say. However, I still had to rehearse that speech until I practically knew it back to front and inside out. Consequently, by all appearances I did the job satisfactorily and I like to think it pleased my old friend. It was just short of thirty minutes long.  

The eulogy was followed by a truly heartfelt and tearful reading by Cynthia, Samsuk's and Samsum's only child. She wrote a letter to her dad and read it to him over the podium. Earlier, she had written a private daughter's letter to him and sealed it in his coffin. The contents of that letter are known only to Cynthia and one might assume, her beloved father.

Cynthia's partner, Lawrence, took the responsibility of Master of Ceremonies and did an exceptional job by keeping the service flowing and smooth. 

It was a beautiful memorial service, the result of the efforts of several people and a fitting sendoff for someone who has been a big part of many peoples' lives.                                             

Right: The memorial service was held on Saturday, 14 May, 2016 and the funeral and cremation on Sunday 15 May. 

This picture shows people waiting for the coffin to be wheeled from the viewing room where it had been formally sealed. Once out, everyone stood and under the direction of an official from the funeral home, bowed three times in unison to farewell the deceased and three times to the family and then the pallbearers came forward and wheeled the coffin along the aisle and to the elevator where it was transported to the hearse outside the 
funeral home. From there we all bused to the big crematorium.

Left and below: The pall bearers wheel Ang Chay Ham from the funeral parlor.
From the funeral home everyone proceeded to the crematorium, a large building up in the hills among the trees. It took quite a while to reach it in the buses hired by the family to transport us there. Upon arrival we all filed into the building where the coffin was waiting on a table in front of a small curtained opening. When all those present had assembled the attendants led a short ceremony, and, as is 
customary, a family member was invited to press the button to start the conveyor belt to take Samsuk on the final part of his earthly journey. This was particularly hard on Samsum who later remarked how hard it was to see her husband reduced to an urn of ashes. After the crematorium we all went to a restaurant for the luncheon.
Left: Cynthia leading the procession from the funeral room on the third floor to the hearse outside the Hong Kong Funeral Home. 

The luncheon was held at a restaurant that was one of Ang Chay Ham's favorite dining places. The food ordered were also some of his favorite dishes. It was a fitting conclusion to the day and one I'm sure would have pleased him as there nothing he enjoyed more than a good celebratory feast.

Right: Ang Chay Ham's coffin makes its final journey.

His Ashes go to Kai Ming Ji


Other Material

1. The eulogy

2. Cynthia's reading
3. The life of Hung Joi Ham: video presentation
4. And This is Dying: video clip

The Eulogy: by David Bell

Welcome everyone to Ang ChayHam's memorial service. We are here today to remember and farewell Hung Joi Ham. He is the husband of Lei Sau Gam, father of Cynthia, and a brother to us all.

He is also many other things to those here today: jeifu, samsuk, samsukgunggung, Yijeung, Yijeunggunggung, kaufu, kaufugunggung, Gujeung, Saibaak, and friend. He is indeed our man of many titles.

My name is David Bell - Jung Dai Wai in Cantonese. I am from New Zealand not India (many people in Hong Kong think I look Indian). My wife is Winnie Ming Ling Hung, Ang Chay Ham's niece so I also call him Third Uncle.

I feel very grateful to his wife and daughter for giving me this opportunity to talk today about Third Uncle.

Now, I very much enjoy listening to stories - especially family history stories - and I have always believed that everyone has a great story to tell no matter how long or short their lives. Life is like a novel, every day a new word, every week a new page and every month a new chapter. Our lives are like novels being written and end only when we pass on. Today I want to share Third Uncle's story with you all. 

Two years ago when I was in Hong Kong I asked Third Uncle if I might talk with him about his life. He was very agreeable so I took the role of a reporter and interviewed him using my cell phone to record his words. Today I share these words with you all.

Third Uncle said he was the youngest in his family. Above him were two brothers and three sisters. He said he seldom saw his father - known to the family as Ah-yeh - because he was always in the Philippines working. He said that to this day he so admires his father's tenacity and determination to support his family. With nothing but his bare hands and years of long hours and hard work he brought financial security and prosperity to our family so that by the time he came along the family situation was very good. In fact, they owned a large house in Amoy city and another on Gulangyu Island, all due to Ah-yeh's 'hakfu loihlou ge singgwo' - long years of hard work.

When Third Uncle was a young lad, a new person joined the family. It was Ng Lai Wah (Go Lea Wah) my mother-in-law and Third Uncle's daisou (sister-in-law). He said his new sister-in-law really loved him and he remembers to this day three special occasions.

Firstly, when the Japanese occupied China he remembers clearly these troubled times. There was often nothing to eat because the Japanese took everything for their soldiers. Also, if you didn't immediately bow when any Japanese approached you would be beaten or shot. The Japanese were very cruel and night and day you could hear the pitiful cries of people they had captured being tortured in the police station they had commandeered not far from the house. He especially remembered the several times when his daisou threw him onto her back and ran with him to safety when she saw trouble brewing.

His second memory was when, as a boy, he suffered an outbreak of boils on his scalp. Medicines or drugs for such things was non-existent so his daisou took him to the beach each day and washed his head in the sea hoping the salt water would cure the boils. It worked and his head soon cleared up.

The third occasion was when he was about eight years old. One day he went out onto the river near their house in a small rowboat. While he was paddling about a big fish leaped from the water right into the boat. He was so surprised, he wasn't even fishing and one jumped into the boat. He was so excited he quickly rowed to shore and rushed home to show off his prize. Only daisou was at home, everyone else had gone out for the day. His sister-in-law immediately killed the fish and cooked it with a big bowl of noodles. She told him to hurry and eat it all because he was a clever boy to catch such a big fish. He said he now believes she quickly cooked it for him because if she waited until everyone else came back he wouldn't get much of his fish to eat.

After eight years of war the Japanese finally surrendered. Everyone was overjoyed, especially when the Japanese left China. They all thought there would be peace at last. But it wasn't long before an even greater struggle began; the communists and nationalists resumed the civil war they were fighting before the Japanese occupation. At that time Ah-yeh told the family to prepare to move to Hong Kong. But it was something Samsuk did that hastened those preparations and caused the family to leave sooner than planned. The following is how he told it.

"When the communists were victorious everyone was very happy, especially the poor. The communists proclaimed, "Yatchai gungchaan, yahnyahn pingdahng!" which translates to, "Together as one, peace for all!" We all believed we would now enjoy a good life. The young were the easiest for the communists to brainwash and I was one of them.

One day some communists came to my school to recruit the young people into the communist academy. I immediately signed up. It was this incident that caused my family to bring forward our plans to leave for Hong Kong. By the time I got home from school my two older sisters had told my mother what I had done. She immediately got word to my father who was in Hong Kong at that time. He was very angry and worried and told my mother to prevent me from joining that academy because I would become like so many other youth who are brainwashed to go against their families and leave home never to be seen again. Because of these fears, Ah-yeh told mother to store up their possessions and leave immediately.

The first thing was to get a travel permit to leave China then we were to take only what was necessary for a week of travel. I remember that we hid much of our gold in the walls and floors of our house before we left. We took only small things like jewelry and everyone was responsible for a few valuables. I was given a valuable gold chain wrapped in a cloth belt to tie around my waist. My mother told me to guard it well because sometimes there were robbers on the road. This made me very scared all the way to Hong Kong. But we got there safely and when we finally arrived in Hong Kong Ah-yeh rented a big house in Northpoint where our whole family lived for many years."

Samsuk's nieces and nephews all say that he was an excellent uncle. Every weekend he took his nephews to White Sand Bay or Sai Kong to swim, boat and fish. On each of these outings he would buy some special bread for them to eat. Also, at the end of the day they would stop at a noodle stall and he would buy them a big bowl each. He said it was fun to see those hungry boys wolf down the bread and noodles after a long day at the beach.

He also loved to find ways to help his nieces and nephews earn a little pocket money. He would pay them a few cents to either putsin (fan) him on a hot day,  dahpgwat (thump his bones) or ngau buijek; scratch his back with a backscratcher. Another novel way was to take all the loose change he had accumulated over the week and gather the kids together then throw it all over his back for them to scramble for. A few pennies here now and again could buy a few nice treats in those days.

I would now like to tell you of some of Samsuk's life achievements.

When he was a young man he spent a few years working in New Guinea. He liked the life there, particularly trading with the locals. After New Guinea he returned to Hong Kong and embarked on a lifetime of interesting and varied business ventures.

I was impressed and astonished at how intelligent he was. When I interviewed him we did the whole thing in English. He fully understood everything I asked and replies fluently. This reminds me of something else. When he was in hospital the doctors often spoke to Lina in English when discussing his condition. The nurses would whisper to the doctors that he can understand everything they are saying. Looking across to his bed they would find him smiling back at them. They didn't think an old Chinese man like him would know English so well.

And another important thing; not only was he clever but (pointing to his picture on the screen behind) he was also extremely handsome. It's no wonder Samsum quickly snagged him before any other girls could get the chance! But just look at Samsum (pointing to the screen behind showing Samsum as a pretty young woman) and how incredibly beautiful she is. It was definitely love at first sight for both of them. They married in 1967, forty nine years ago. What a pity he couldn't have held on for just one more year to make it fifty, their golden wedding anniversary. But he tried really hard.

They had a very long and happy marriage but he did tell me that Samsum could be very Ngok (bossy, grumpy). i had to tell him not to feel so bad. He should see Ling (my wife) and Lina, her sister. They are really Ngok!

Actually, Samsum treasures him and has always worried and cared for him, and even though her own health was not good, she caught the bus every day to care for him at the hospital. Even those times when she was exhausted she still cooked different things for him to eat at the hospital to cheer him up.

The most precious and treasured moment in Samsuk's life was the birth of his daughter, Cynthia Sing Pa (Bright Star) Ang. This (pointing to the screen showing a picture of Cynthia as a chubby, funny looking child of about five) is his little treasure and I must tell you it's the face that only a father can love!  But love her he did. Samsum said that every time she went to him in the hospital his first words were always, "Ah-pik ne? Ah-pik ne?" or, "Where's Cynthia? Where's Cynthia?"

I first met Samsuk many years ago but it was only the past three years I got to see him more often and form a great friendship with him. In fact he is like an older brother to me. And I know he is also fond of me because he likes to be with me and invite me to eat. Actually, I'm like a puppy; give me food and I'm instantly your friend. Samsum said that when he couldn't get up he always said, "If only Jung Dai Wai was here he could easily lift me up." I truly regret that we live so far away because when I finally got here it was too late to 'lift him up'.

Two years ago when we visited Hong Kong he was determined I we all go to Sai Kong to eat his favourite dish, Alaskan king crab. I had never eaten this kind of crab because in New Zealand we cant get them, but I knew it was the best crab in the world. When we went to Sai Kong and found out how expensive it was we became concerned about spending so much of his money on a crab. Winnie and Lina tried to talk him out of it and then made me tell him I didn't like big crabs, I preferred small ones. Actually it was a big lie, I really wanted to eat it. In the end we never ate king crab and settled for a smaller, cheaper one to go with all the other food. Samsuk was not happy with the outcome and stewed on it for a whole year.

After I returned to New Zealand and phoned him he always mentioned the king crab and said next time we will definitely have one, adding, "And this time we won't listen to those two girls!"

We returned a year later and this time we ate our king crab. It was every bit as delicious as he said it would be. He had spent a lot of money but we could see he was extremely pleased. I was also pleased because a little while before he said to me, "This time we must go because it's likely to be our last opportunity."

I will forever remember Samsuk. I will never forget his love for his family and how he fought so hard to stay with them as long as he could. He 'gwai mun gwaan janjahtjo gamdo chi'...struggled at the very gates of death so many times and came back because he was so reluctant to leave Samsum and Cynthia.

We all know Samsuk was a kind, generous, hospitable and sharp individual. But in he was also very fortunate to be surrounded by good people who blessed his life. If I were to ask him who to thank I think he would say:

1. My business partners Isaac and Miss Choi (I acknowledge Miss Choi in the audience. Isaac was in Canada) for all their help and kindness.
2. My wife, Sau Gam, and my daughter, Cynthia. Thank you both for your unwavering love, support and care over the past few years.
3. My niece, Lina Li for always being at my bedside and devotedly caring for me. Samsum said, 'if not for Lina I don't know how we would have managed'.
4. My puiyeh (night nurse) Choi Guleung. I was very blessed to have you accompany me through my final hours. You helped me to peacefully and quietly leave this world.
5. Lastly, to my little angel Christine, our housemaid. You were my twenty-four-seven private nurse. I truly thank you. (At this point I conclude by speaking to Christine in English)

To Christine: All through Sir's illness you were constantly by his side. You went above and beyond your duty as his employee. You became his constant companion and nurse. Your devotion and kindness will be forever remembered. We all thank you. Maraming salamat. No wonder Sir called you his little angel.

One week before Samsuk went he asked Choi Guleung, "After I'm gone will I see my family again?" She replied, "Yes, you will."

I also believe that life and family are eternal and no matter if you believe or not, or worship in this church or that church, one day we will all be together again as a family.

In conclusion I wish to speak English and say a few personal words to Samsuk.

I miss you, Samsuk. I am both sad and happy. I am sad because you are gone and I won't see you for a long time. But I am happy because I know you still live in spirit and one day I will meet with you again and perhaps we can have two king crabs, one each.

Yes, we should be sad you at losing you but we can be sure it's not forever. You are now with generations of loved ones and you are happy and well. It is us who are grieving. But when our sadness passes, we will celebrate and be happy that we were blessed with your company for eighty years. You have gone away for a little while, but you will still live on in our hearts and minds until we meet again.

I ask Heavenly Father to bless and love you and keep you by His side. I ask Heavenly Father to comfort and bless Samsum, Cynthia and all your family. we will always remember how good you were to all of us, Ang Chay Ham.

Dojeh Gwokwai, Dojeh...Thank you everyone, thank you.

A Letter to my Dad: read by Cynthia

给爸爸的情書- 世上最爱我的人的情書

星珀這名子很特别, 這是爸爸精雕细琢想出来给我的美麗名字, 見証着爸爸您~ 為我開啟了既特别又充滿了愛的人生。

在爸爸心中,我的誕生比天上摘星更加不易,所以您待我如珠如寶,在你像掌上明珠般的细心呵護下,我得以健康快樂地成長。 不論遇到什麼困難,你都會化身超人,想盡辦法為我解决。不論遇到什麼難题,您就像是百科全書




在我面對人生第一個大考試 - 會考期間,你不但沒有給我壓力,還時常叫我放鬆心情,盡力就可以。但因為我給自己太大壓力,以至造成情绪問題,當時你不知怎樣開解我。
前兩年,我在收拾東西時發現社工回覆你的信,信中提到她很欣賞你對女兒的付出和愛。這才了解當時你有多麼擔心,所以後來找了香港家庭福利會的 社工幫忙但你一直沒有告訴我這事。



當我面對人生第一個打擊 - 失戀,你心裡清楚知道作為爸爸沒有什麼可以幫到我,你就想盡辨法,還打電話比我一位朋友,拜託她好好開解及照顧我,此事是之後朋友 Man 告訴我的。因為怕我睹物思人,你竟然傾心傾力,傾家盪產換了間新屋,為的是要我可以有個新環境,重新振作。






爸爸您放心,您給予我的愛永遠充滿我的內心與腦海, 我會繼續用您照顧我們的溫暖與溫柔無條件地去照顧媽媽愛䕶媽媽。