Frank and Billy are what people call “Kissing Cousins”. They are cousins of their most dear Cousin Millie Yung – Frank from Millie’s father side and Billy from Millie’s mother side.
Friendship is a well deliberated subject and there are many aspects of it for one to explore. As an octogenarian, perhaps it is appropriate that I should reflect on some personal experiences that may be worthy of reminiscence.
I would start my story not too early in life. I arrived in Singapore in 1960 in my late twenties for career prospects but with very little family and social connections. Several factors favour a new arrival like me, the friendliness of the average Singaporean, the absence of social barriers and generally openness to talent. Under these circumstances I made many friends within a reasonably short period, and as could be expected most of whom were in my age group.
There was one notable exception. A gentleman who was a lawyer and retired politician. He was some 25 years my senior. We became well acquainted as I served on the committee of the golf club for which he was the president. We have the same love for golf and common interest in running the club well.
CC had a wide circle of friends but I noticed he had two or three younger friends in roughly similar situation as myself. We were regularly in his social activities including many golfing tours overseas, in which his good connections made the difference. In the next 20 or years before he passed we became close friends. I often sought his advice for his experience. I would in turn helped him whenever some of his physical frailties required. In those days I did not give it much thought but on reflection CC clearly cultivated younger friends, although he did not lack friends of his own age.
Now for myself, over the last dozen years or so I have lost a large number of friends through natural cause. I’m however glad to say I have profited from CC’s example and made a fair number young friends from recreational activities (golf and bridge) and ministries in church.
Occasionally there is even an element of luck! A couple of years ago I attended a financial services talk, and was approached by someone I barely recognised. He rather kindly reminded me I interviewed him for a job way back in the 70s. In fact subsequently he recorded this episode in his University of Singapore class of 66 Reminisces, as that interview turned out to be a launching pad for his career. I thanked him for sending me a copy and mentioned that 4 of his classmates named in the article are also friends of mine. Two weeks later all these long lost friends met for lunch, amongst whom were a professor and 2 members of parliament. Our conversation recalled Singapore as a struggling new nation in the early days and how each of us dealt with tougher times. And these lunches are now a regular feature.
With younger friends I don’t need to pretend to be their age, I just have to be young at heart and “speak” the same language. I know they enjoy stories about bygone days particularly about names they recognise.
Another pool of my friends is a resource everyone has, one’s old school chums. I went to boarding school in Hong Kong for 5 years as a teen. Now after ignoring each other for some 50 years, I had a hand in organising the first class of 52 reunions in 2001, which was a big success. Old boys residing in US, Canada, UK, Thailand and Singapore met in a Thai resort and followed up with dinner at the same dining hall of our school in Hong Kong.
These reunions have since become an annual ritual, usually include a tour and a cruise. One was held partly in Singapore which has turned out to be not barren as a tourist destination, culturally speaking. Generally there is nothing extraordinary about old boys reunions. In our case most of the participants were boarders and had spent five years in same dormitories and naturally knew each other very well. As teenagers we would exploit and tease each other’s quirks and weaknesses mercilessly. As octogenarians the same teasing would be performed with a morsel of elegance and less unkindness, but nevertheless resulted in great hilarity. Hence even our accompanying spouses have become familiar with this brand of repetitious humour. The highlight of these reunions is the amount of laughter generated by 80 year olds behaving like and making belief they are teenagers. But who can argue against laughter and being happy about remembering teenage days.
Like most youngsters I had a best friend in boarding school. LY was one year older but somewhat more mature. We started off with much common interests and he kind of treated me like a younger brother. On reflection spending time with him strengthened my outlook on certain values and his encouragements built my self esteem. We took different paths in our tertiary education and later careers, and did not meet again until the recent reunions.
At the first opportunity I thought an expression from me would be appropriate. I arranged a quiet meal with just the two of us. I told him not only what his friendship meant for me but also the beneficial outcome in my mature years gained from our association and friendship. My sentimental outpouring somewhat surprised LY but I gather gave him considerable satisfaction. To me it was a celebration of great friendship and the topping off of the old boys reunions.
It would not be unusual to become friends with colleagues or business associates in the normal course. The first 25 years of my career was with two expat corporations. As may be expected there were a large pool of expat staff the majority would return to their home countries on retirement. In addition there were a few of overseas business associates who visited Singapore and whom I would call upon in their home countries. Friendship developed with a good number of these expats, including our wives. Some were kind enough to keep an eye on our children studying overseas and become friends for the whole family, so to speak,
Well in subsequent years my wife and I have been asked to visit these friends in their homes in UK, Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Most if not all times we would be invited to stay with our expat friends. We make it a rule however not to stay more than 3 days. In the process inevitably we get to know each other better and become closer friends. Over the years, I can recall more than 20 of such overseas visits. Many of them returned the courtesy when vacationing in Singapore and stayed with us at our home.
Lastly I have an unusual “friendship pool”. For this I need to return to the mid-19th century! My grandfather YW started life in a mission school in Hong Kong. It so happened the principal, one Rev. Samuel Brown decided to return to New England for health reasons. One day he asked if any of the 13 year old boys in school would like to accompany him back. Well YW created history by putting up his hand. He first attended Monson Academy, Mass. then went on to become in 1854 the first Chinese graduate in Yale, in fact in any US university.
His burning ambition after that was to modernise feudal China. In the process he dreamt of having as many of his young countrymen enjoy the same education he did.. Upon returning to China, he worked his way to become a trusted staff of an influential viceroy. His initial assignment was to establish China’s first modern factory, an arsenal cum machine tool plant. With that under his belt he dared to ask for the project of his heart, modern education for young Chinese students in America. Well 17 years after his graduation from Yale, the Manchu Court allowed YW to take 120 young boys from 11 to 16 years old to New England high schools. YW arranged for all the boys to be accommodated with American families for their all round immersion. This was the beginning of the Chinese Education Mission, CEM.
Many of the 120 became high achievers in Chinese history, amongst whom was the first president of Tsinghua University, a prime minister, the pioneer of railways in China, a foreign minister and 2 admirals. Two of the young students stayed back in US and married American ladies. Now the interesting part of how I come into the picture comes via the descendants of some of the 120 students. To commemorate their grandfathers an informal association was formed. In 1998. One such descendent, who happens to be a distant cousin and also dear friend, organised a first gathering with an informal meeting at Yale. Four descendant families showed up. Since then there have been 4 more such meetings held at Yale and in Zhuhai, YW’s birth place. I have attended all but one of these, missing out on account of 9/11. The last such gathering was attended by 38 families of descendants.
In the course CEM descendents from all walks and many parts of the world ,and many of whom are professors, meet to talk about their families, starting from their grand dads. But the affinity and warmth generated was almost electric. Between the descendants and myself additionally is something of a mixture of friendship and gratitude. I have visited many of them at their homes in Beijing, Austin Texas, and of course New Haven and Zhuhai. On numerous occasions, after the ice breaking, they would say to me’….if it were not for your grandfather, we wouldn’t be where we are today…..” I know these expressions to be heartfelt. My response have always been “….if it were not for Rev. Brown, none of us would be here today…..”.Then would come the warm hugs. Where can one have such readymade friendship and how blessed I am to have relationships like these.
A game changer for cultivating friendship in the last 30 years has been technology. The internet ,4G , skype and Zoom enabled us to dig into and keep in touch with our reserve of friends, many times find lost friends, and most important of all, talk to and see each other on our home screens. Distances have been overcome. What is more, the thought that we have a generous resource we can reliably call upon to reconnect almost any time we desire, I believe make us more wealthy than we could hope for. We are the blessed people.