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My Personal History

My mother's untimely death in childbirth: Mochtar Riady's story (5)

My bereaved father played the role of both parents -- and taught me to work hard

Personal relationships are extremely important for huaqiao, as ethnic Chinese living abroad are called. They place particular importance on blood relations and ties with people from the same parts of China as themselves. Nurturing such relationships and helping one another enabled overseas Chinese to survive despite being outsiders in foreign lands.

My father had three younger brothers, all of whom emigrated to Batu in Malang, a region on the island of Java. But the eldest of these three returned to the family home in Xinghua (present-day Putian) in Fujian Province to take care of my grandmother. One of the remaining two younger brothers continued to live in Batu, while my father and the other younger brother moved to the city of Malang.

My father remitted money to his mother back home in Xinghua almost every month. Even after my grandmother died, my father continued remitting money for his younger brother who had returned to the family home. My father's actions were a reflection of our strong family ties.

We also had close ties with other people who had come from our home village. Many Chinese from Xinghua lived in Malang, where my father had opened a textile shop. For those who could not read and write, my father read out letters they had received from China and wrote their replies for them. He never accepted money for such acts of kindness.

A portrait of my mother, who died when I was 9 years old (Photo provided by company)

My father loathed chasing easy money. Once when I bought a lottery ticket, he snatched it from my hand and tore it up in front of me. He then slapped my hand and gave me a good talking-to. "Wealth comes from sweat and toil, not from gambling," he said. "Gambling is the road to ruin."

When I was around 11 years old and had learned to write basic Chinese characters, I started helping my father write letters for those who could not. I gradually built up the knowledge I needed for this task, such as personal information about the relatives of the people who asked for our help. I was happy that I could be of use for people from the same village, whom I regarded as my family.

My father sold traditional Indonesian fabrics called batik to local customers, and as I learned Indonesian, I also helped him with his textile business.

My father also never allowed me to accept gifts. "If you accept gifts from others, you become indebted to them and it's easier for them to give you orders. Giving makes you happier than receiving."

When I was given some sweets from a relative, my father insisted that I return them.

My mother died in childbirth when I was 9 years old. At that time in Java, it was customary for women to give birth at home with the help of a midwife.

My father and I were waiting outside the room for the baby to be born when we suddenly heard my mother give an anguished cry. My father was too worried to sit still.

A girl was finally born, but my mother breathed her last immediately afterward. It was a sudden and unexpected death.

My father put up a picture of my mother in the middle of the room and set up a household Buddhist altar to pray for the repose of her soul. For 49 days after her death, he got up before 5 every morning and chanted a sutra for her.

My father struggled for a long time to overcome the grief of his loss. Sometimes he would stare at my mother's picture and weep bitterly. Adding to his grief, the baby, my youngest sister, died several months later. My father and I were now the only members of our family who remained in Malang.

My father was 41 years old when my mother died, but he did not remarry because he thought doing so would make me unhappy. After my mother's death, he played the role of both parents, acting not only as a stern father but also as a kind mother. He mended my torn clothes and even bathed me.

All of my three younger sisters died while they were still infants. As a young boy I saw the deaths of so many close family members. These experiences instilled a fear of death into my heart.

 

Mochtar Riady is the founder of Lippo Group.

Click here to read Mochtar Riady's full "My personal history" series.

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