My first and only experience of ang pow was when I was 5 years old! And I didn’t even know  it was an experience or a “teachable moment” as Obama would put it! Many dreams and nightmares later I realise its significance and the lessons to be learnt!

I was 5 and my doctor father had successfully operated on a Chinese towkay’s wife at the Seremban General Hospital, and apparently saved her life. Her husband was so grateful he expressed it in the way he knew best, in the way his culture taught him – by giving an ang pow or two, now I learn.

Having thrusted an expensive watch into the doctor’s hand at the hospital only to have it immediately returned ungratefully and ungraciously so the towkay would have  thought,  the only other way of showing his gratitude was to drive up the opposite hill to offer a gift to the family. It was the practice in the Chinese community of that era to reward those who had done you a great favour with an ang pow! And what single act deserves a reward more than saving the life of your loved one!

I remember! I remember! The doctor’s quarters on a hill in Rasah where I spent wondrous hours as the much loved youngest child! And a cute one at that!

I remember! I remember! The endless hours running around the sprawling lawn in front of the old, colonial style bungalow – as most government quarters would have been in those days! Playing hide and seek, the egg n spoon, two-legged and sack race!  Of course main masak-masak, guli, gasing, layang-layang! 


Life was the perfect joy of simple hand-made toys and games with my playmates while my older siblings slogged at their homework, my mother toiled in the backyard, and my father treated the unending stream of patients at a government hospital! Beloved infidel that I was then and now…

The Chinese towkay’s wife was one such patient and to a government doctor, no different from the other poor, undernourished, diseased men, women and children from the outlying rural areas. Perhaps nothing can be more equal or equitable than disease and death! But as human nature, customs and traditions would have it even disease and death is  unequalising!  Sadly and ironically, society damns us all!

And so the Chinese towkay made his way up the childhood  hill to present the ang pow to the doctor’s wife, unaware that she had been warned not to accept any such gestures! So what was the desperate Chinese towkay to do? He could not afford to lose face and have his offer of gratitude rejected! He could not understand why this Malay doctor and his wife did not want to accept his Chinese goodwill!    

And so what could he do but  thrust the wad of notes into the vest of the doctor’s 5 year old daughter blissfully unaware of what was going on? Then off he drove down the childhood hill while little Bon gleefully skipped to the backyard to give her mother the red packet! She had never seen the likes of one before! And it was so beautifully red!

Che Jah who was chopping firewood fetched from a fallen tree in the rubber estate behind the house was horrified when she opened the packet and saw the red dollars! What would her husband say? He was bound to think she was irresponsible for accepting it! He would blame her for not being firm enough in refusing the monetary offer! Horror of horrors! Her husband would be so angry with her for not being in control on the domestic front while he was hard at work! He would vent his annoyance at her!

I really can’t remember whether there was a marital showdown but I do recall my mother telling my siblings and Nek Yah that the problem had been settled! The ang pow was duly returned and the situation explained to the Chinese towkay!  He took it well and remained firm friends with the Malay doctor for life!

Meanwhile 5 year old Bon returned to her childhood activities unaware of the lessons to be learnt!


4 Responses to “”

  1. August 1, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Bon Nini

    My impression is this: Rather sadly, it is quite common for police officers to accept premium grade prawns presented all the way from East Malaysia by grateful towkays, or have their houses tackily renovated and stuffed with silly luxuries for free by other beneficiaries nowadays.

    Can I assume that this delightful anecdote is a sure harbinger of a new memoir?

  2. 2 ninitalk
    August 1, 2009 at 11:25 am

    HE HE GUiKP! How did you ever guess? Some of these blog jottings will definitely go into that one amazing piece of writing that will propel me to stardom – as no doubt yours will!

    Yes – sadly and horrifyingly the line between ang pow, coffee money, commission and bribe has been blurred by social expedience! The grey area is huge and has to be clearly defined by the Prime Minister and his team if ONE MALAYSIA is to succeed at all!

    Individuals, the public and private sector – in fact the whole of the Malaysian citizenry has to be reeducated on modern ethics and morality. Let’s face it – our Eastern cultures have different value systems which are not clearly defined or explained in our faiths and religions. Cross culturally it has the potential of spelling DOOM!

    The question is – is religious ethics different from social ethics? We have to take this argument to a higher level!


  3. 3 Retrogina
    August 3, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Nice anecdote Aunty Halimah…which the pictures and all. Reminds me of a similar situation during one Hari Raya which involves the Green Packet.

    We had an open house at the Carruthers (i miss that house!). One of Bapak’s laywer friends came with his wife and presented to us siblings a green packet. I remembered being abit confused because he was Indian and was wondering why would he give us duit raya? Plus, we had never met them before. Bapak wasn’t aware of this until when all the guests dah balik. He was so upset and angry. The duit raya was quite substantial. We as kids, were thrilled to receive it, because it would mean our total duit raya would be sky rocketed to a record. Bagai durian runtuh bak katakan. But our glee were shortlived. Bapak took the green packets and returned to his lawyer friend the next day. Then, i asked why? why?. I think i only realised the significance of this years later. So glad Bapak did the right thing. Lesson learnt!

  4. 4 ninitalk
    August 5, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Yes Gina – when they can’t get at the man they try his wife and children! And some family members may succumb to these gentle persuasions and fall prey to the sharks of society! I know of one businessman who invested in the wives of top government officers, wooing them with curry puffs and cakes sent straight to their kitchens before he got to their husbands. I’m not sure whether it was to say “Thank You” or “Please”!

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