A life of toil and sweat
Mr Lee Weng Kee, 73, may walk a little hunched and aided by a walking stick, but his “trademark” voice thunders – so his family claims – all the way to the void deck 13 floors below their flat.
He shares his life story with Dads for Life robustly, in a candid smattering of Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin and English.
His bronzed body and wrinkly face is a weathered one, having worked for almost 40 years in a local shipyard, painting vessel structures and cleaning equipment on board. The work was tough, risky and sometimes dangerous as he often had to climb to high places and access narrow, dirty spaces in ships.
After he retired from the shipyard at 60, he continued to work as a cleaner at eating outlets, mopping and wiping tables for extra income.
A gift of precious childhood memories
Weng Kee may look fierce, but he is a doting father of two. His daughter, Chris, 33, recalls precious childhood memories of time spent with Dad on his rare days off, swimming at the beach with her brother, or on bus adventures that took them from terminal to terminal.
As Weng Kee’s wife is partially blind, it was his elderly mother (who has since passed on at the age of 95) who became the main caregiver to his kids all these years.
Chris recalls waking up early each morning to catch a glimpse of Dad and kiss him goodbye before he left home for a long day at work. Weng Kee often thought of his young children whilst toiling at the shipyard, but he says a-matter-of-factly, “If I don’t work, who is going to feed them?”
Mirroring Dad’s diligence
As sole breadwinner, Weng Kee steadfastly and faithfully provided for the five mouths in his family. He is proud to have succeeded in bringing up his children, and giving them the education he himself never had.
Chris pays him a deserving tribute, “Though Papa is uneducated, he is a great father in my eyes. Some values cannot be taught. They are caught by the actions reflected in our daily lives. I mirrored my Papa’s diligence. He is a very hardworking man. Although what he earned from his manual work from dawn to dusk was barely enough, he is already doing his best. That itself is remarkable.”
Chris recalls that when she was 18, she confessed to her Dad that she had, without his knowledge, taken all $30,000 of his hard-earned “coffin money”* – which was all he had left and set aside for old age – and loaned it to help a close friend in urgent need of money. Chris recollects, “I thought my Papa would kill me. But he didn’t scold me; in fact he forgave me. I cried even more.” The loan was eventually repaid after some time.
No fixed expectations of children
Weng Kee neither pressured his kids nor did he have fixed expectations of them. He just hoped that they would study hard and not return home with “red-inked” report cards.
Chris – a former travel agent-turned-police officer-turned-veterinarian nurse-turned childcare teacher – is grateful for the “career freedom” her father gave her to pursue the work she is passionate about. Today, Chris and her husband, both dog lovers, are partners in their own pet transport business.
Solid, Stoic Dad – the provider of the family
Weng Kee, the youngest of seven children, was brought up single-handedly by his mother, who undertook chores like cleaning, washing and cooking for other households to support her family.
He was barely a year old when he lost his father during World War II. Japanese soldiers shot him during one of his trips outside his home whilst searching for food for his family.
Today, Weng Kee continues to look after the household. He goes to the market, cleans the house, cooks and regularly meets and chats with old friends in neighbourhood coffee shops.
Despite not being as mobile or physically strong as before, he takes a bus to Chinatown every Sunday afternoon to attend church services in Cantonese. He gives this a miss only if his legs ache too much.
He is most happy whenever Chris returns home – a 3-room HDB flat in a quiet neighbourhood in Telok Blangah – to visit with her husband. She will read and patiently explain the contents of the weekly mail to him as well as help organize his medication into pill boxes.
Chris has great respect for her father, “My Papa worked very hard to raise us, including my Ah Ma. He toiled hard to make ends meet. Papa was focused on doing what he thought he had to, that is, to provide for the family. He gave us what he could.”
Life may not have dealt Weng Kee an easy pack of cards, but he has played them to the best of his abilities, and his children appreciate and love him dearly for it.
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength,
while loving someone deeply gives you courage
Editor’s Note: Coffin money (literally) means having sufficient money for one’s funeral rites and coffin. It represents what little money one has left or saved so that at least he has money for a decent burial. To the traditional Chinese, it is particularly important to die with “face”.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.