01 August 2012

A large Chinese family in Malaysia - my ramblings

The article Through Thick and Thin in the Star on 18 July 2012 struck a chord with me.

It was about large families where the next generation has 30 to 40 cousins to grow up, clown about and share with. I admired the 2 families featured in the article, and wished that my own was more like that.

A poignant question that I have often asked myself was well put in that article: how is it that these two families are able to foster such a close relationship amongst all the cousins, when some families don’t even know who their cousins are anymore?

And yes, the answer, as I  have come to conclude for myself as well, is the presence of a single person who held the family together.  In the Chong and Lim families featured in the Star, it was the female matriarch, their grandmother, who insisted the family come back often for family gatherings and to stay close to one another.

I too, come from a large family. My dad's family comprises 14 children! Let's see, I have ...35 cousins! It is truly reflective of the older generation's propensity towards large families. But sadly it is one of those unlike the Chongs and the Lims.
But whilst growing up, I don't remember any regular family gatherings where everyone would return to a central meeting place. I don't remember conversations with my grandmother. I don't remember sleepovers or play-times with my many cousins. I don't remember having phone calls to chat about girly stuff with my girl cousins. I would have liked that very much.

And it is not that there was no elderly figure in the family to hold the family together. My grandfather passed away rather early - I never met him. But my grandmother lived till the ripe old age of 80++ and she lived with the eldest son i.e. my uncle #1.

Now in my adulthood, married and with children of my own, and with the benefit of hindsight, I believe my grandmother was a weak figure.

She had no say, and did not say much. Living with her eldest son and his family, she depended on them for their companionship and physical care, though not her financial well being, as I understand my grandfather left a very sizable fortune behind. My grandmother probably left everything to my uncle to run, to manage, to dictate and to decide.

Like a monarchy with an absent or inept monarch, the second-in-power rules with personal interest in mind, I guess. I am the grand-daughter, daughter to one of the younger sons in the family and if I were to guess, I am probably cousin no. 27.

Most traditional Chinese families would have the annual Chinese New Year reunion dinner on a grand scale, calling home all the children and grandchildren. But my grandmother never kept that tradition, and my uncle #1 also chose not to do it. A great tragedy, if you ask me.

I think, as the first-born son, uncle #1 should have taken the initiative to maintain close ties with all of his siblings and nephews/ nieces...I observed that uncle #1 selected the siblings and  nephews/ nieces he wished his family to socialise with. On what basis one might ask? And one could also harbour a very good guess...........like those weepy melodramatic Hong Kong/ Chinese dramas, there exists insidious agenda, support groups, matters to hide, wealth to conceal, shared objectives and perhaps shared characteristics among those in the inner circle within the larger sphere of the family. It's true! Don't laugh...

I am writing this as I have long pondered the issue. And I would like my children to be cognisant of the value of family and the challenges of keeping a family together. I hope my children will grow up close to one another, and close to their 2 cousins! Only 2 cousins.........what a divergence from just one generation ago. A clear indication of the changing trends of modern life.

Certain incidences of my childhood with my paternal clan remain in my mind:

  • Aunty #3 had asked me once, rather sternly and wickedly was my child-like impression, as to which ranking exactly was she in the family, as I had only greeted her with Hello, Koo Ma (Koo Ma means elder sister of one's father). This particular aunt lives in a different town, and I would be lucky to see her once a year. To ask a child that question is rather unfair. I would defend that my mother does take pains to explain to me each and every uncle and aunt on my father's side, but putting a face to a numbered relative takes some practice. I forever associate that aunt with her question.
  • An older girl cousin had once made a very hilarious remark to my younger boy cousin whom she considered a nuisance (he was picking up the phone in her house every few minutes and putting it to his ear!)  that "each time you pick up that phone, the phone company charges 10 sen!" That stopped his antics.
  • Aunty #7 is quite a character. Sometimes I wonder if she does it deliberately or such is her nature that she can't help it. With her, everything that she does, or that she owns, or that her children do are superb, marvelous, out of this world, beyond comparison! As I grew up and could differentiate fact from fiction, to hear her speak that way actually makes my hair stand on end, but everyone within ear shot listens dutifully, their expressions never betraying their feelings. Perhaps it is just I?
  • I think my gentlest and most cordial aunt is Aunty #4. Some in the family say I bear some resemblance to her facial features. I remember her manner of speaking was calm and slow, she was always well groomed without being OTT, she was not boastful although she had a lot to boast about. I like her sons, who are all a great deal older to me. They are all jokers, easy going and intelligent. As I was growing up, each time they saw me they would remark how tall I was getting in their witty funny ways (I am among the tallest females in my family) 
I admire Aunty #4's eldest son (of five) who now as the head of his family since both Aunty #4 and her husband have passed, does a very good job of keeping in touch with his brothers and their families.(My uncle #1 should learn a thing or two from my cousin)

The single largest, almost complete, gathering of the entire family happened during my grandmother's funeral. I was 9. I remember feeling awed, at the size of my family, when so-and-so was pointed out to me. Childish sentiments.

But today, as the family unravels, and grows ever larger in their individual and separate directions, it makes no difference whether I have 35 cousins or none. Like a large conglomerate, the family has been badly run by its CEO.  

(I like the pictures I found on http://primaltrek.com/gourd.html. They are ancient Chinese gourd charms with inscriptions that mean happiness and longevity, both complete)


  1. I felt sad reading your article and felt your sadness too. Forget the past, it's what you do and how you bring up your children that will teach them to keep the family tight. I was lucky to have a close knit family on my maternal side, due to my Mum making the effort to gather her siblings together. Unfortunately, it's the opposite for my paternal side. Most of them live in the same city and will be lucky to see each other once a year.

  2. Thanks Charmaine for your insights. You're rite, with our own families now, we have to try to keep the family close no matter how far distances are.

    Hey! Look at us, with technology, we are connected after years apart since our school days! Have a great day and week ahead, dear!