My father, Sao Hseng Ong (1926-2012), was the second son of Sao Shwe Thaike, the Sao Hpa Long of Yawnghwe, and the first President of Burma and Sao Nang Yee, a princess of Lawksawk and the first Mahadevi of Yawnghwe.
He was to me a strict but loving father, proud, loyal, sensitive, compassionate with a strong independent spirit. He had a quirky sense of humour, but could be intense about what he believed in.
His mother’s (Maer- Maer’s) early death affected him deeply, and I don’t think he ever got over his boyhood heartbreak.
He recorded his memoir on tape at the age of 73, a year after my mother’s death. The memoir was intended for his children, myself ( Mone), my brother Sai Pyee, and sister, Ying Awn. Please note that he addressed his wife, our mother Sao Hom Noan as “Mummy”, to whom he was completely devoted to.
He did not, originally wish to have it published, but, due to the encouragement of my uncle Sao Harn, I feel that it may be of some historical value, especially for our Shan people.
I sincerely hope that you find it interesting.
Feraya Ullathorne (Sao Sarm Pao aka Mone)
Sao Hseng Ong as a boy, at Yawnghwe Haw
A Memoir in Lighter Vein
Sao Hseng Ong
I was born in a place called Heho as testified by the passport particulars. Heho became well-known when an airport was built there, the only one to serve Taunggyi, Yawnghwe, and other towns in Southern Shan State. It was also a place where I opened an agricultural station, but I can’t say if it still remains. I remember well how I had to sleep some nights there because of insurgents, bad hats and such, who extorted money from peaceful folk. I had just a double-barrelled shotgun to defend the station. Luckily, I never had to use it as the gun itself proved to be a deterrent as news travelled fast that we were armed.
Sao Nang Yee (Maer-Maer)and Sao Shwe Thaike
You would probably like to know more about my mother, your grandmother, Sao Nang Yee, the first Mahadevi of Yawnghwe. I was fortunate to have known her early in my life which you will think is an odd statement, for how can a son not know his own mother, but, sad to say that that was true in a way. She had tuberculosis, and to spare her children from infection, we had to constantly keep away from her, and so, I had my own nurse maid so to speak, and her name was Ah Khin, who was in fact my substitute mother.
From what I remember, my mother, whom we called Maer-Maer was a very courageous and intelligent lady, who could drive a car which was no mean feat in those days, and shoot a gun like a man. Although I have no firsthand knowledge of her marksmanship in target shooting, I can, however, testify to her skill in driving, as Ah Khin and I once accompanied her in her Austin 10 to Taunggyi, a journey with steep hills and many bends, sometimes quite hazardous when meeting lorries on the way. On that trip, I saw a leopard climbing a gorge to get away, which explained why we always carried a gun when we travelled for self-protection and not for wanton killing. It is now rare to see a leopard by the road side and all tree cover has become less and less, heading for extinction, together with leopards and tigers that inhabited there. I’ve been told that there are practically no trees to speak of on that road to Taunggyi now. It does not bear thinking what ecological disaster is waiting ahead. We came back safely home that day, my boyish excitement high and retold my adventure to those who could hear.
When my parents went on tour around the state to villages they rode on horseback and I joined them at the final destination in one of the cars which would be vintage now if they had survived the gruelling roads.
Leaving aside this invaluable information, let me continue about my mother, whom you will understand why I didn’t know more about her and her early demise when I was about seven, further cut short of closer acquaintance with her. I will leave aside details of my painful encounter with her death as this is better told directly to you.
Much of her personality and bearing can be gathered from old photographs which must be lying somewhere in personal archives and albums. In many ways she reminded me of your own mother in her independent spirit and adventurous outlook on life. They both had genuine interest in others with whom they can empathise. This particular characteristic was strongly displayed in your mother who was well loved by those who knew her.
Your grandmother, Maer-Maer, as I called her, occupied the east wing of the Haw. I can’t think of Yawnghwe Haw without thinking of her, and how she sat serenely on her soft rug, so distant from me and so untouchable. She was called Maer-Maer and not Sao Maer, which she should have been called, because your great grandmother, who was at that time still alive, was called Sao Maer. So your grandmother, true to her modest nature, accepted a less honorific name.
Now, I’ll relate about your grandfather, on my side, your Sao Bu Hpa Yawnghwe before you ever came to know him. I was told that he was in the army, the Burma Rifles I believe, though I can’t swear to that. It was when Burma was a British colony. Pictures of him showed his military bearing, but I preferred the one of him, when at Shan Chief’s School, with a few others, with cigars dangling from moustached mouths, looking like a bunch of elite smart alecs, an image that can’t be further from that of freshmen at school, which they were. What a time they must have had, and I shudder to think who might have been their classroom teacher! He was, at the time, still in the army when he was called to be interviewed as a prospective candidate for “Sao Hpa – ship”, which had become vacant. Vernon Donnison, a British commissioner recommended him, and he was accepted. Vernon is no longer with us, but no doubt his son, David could confirm or add to this. Incidentally, David is writing a biography of his father, which should be interesting to read.
Let me digress here, as the mention of David’s name reminded me of Professor Singers that I met him and his mother Ruth Donnison who was the niece of the Prof whose biology classes I had attended. What a fortunate coincidence, as the Prof happened to mention to Ruth that he had a Shan boy in his class, and so all was then revealed of our long connection. That was the start of my acquaintance with Ruth and Vernon, who later invited us to their old farm house for a holiday in Didcot. That was how the jigsaw puzzle began to fit together over a span of many, many years. How a class in biology could have reached back into the start of our personal history is a miracle. Ruth and Vernon have passed away but David and his sister Annis still keep in touch with me, are thankfully very much alive and I would like to meet David again.
Sao Hseng Hpa(Sao Sai), Sao Nang Yee, Sao Hseng Ong, Sao Shwe Thaike and Sao Sanda.
Sao Shwe Thaike, first President of Burma
To get back to my father, your grandpa, Sao Bu Hpa. I think my elder brother, Sao Sai, was born in Yawnghwe before your grandpa became Sao Hpa. I was born two years later, when Sao Bu Hpa was still a Myosar, a township officer at Heho. That explained why Heho featured prominently in my story earlier on. He grew potatoes also; various suspicions were that I was born in a potato patch. I cannot of course vouch for this tantalising idea as I hadn’t come into this world yet. Then he became Sao Hpa of Yawnghwe, about which I had already told you about.
Now, what kind of a man was my father? My recollection of my early years was that he was always gentle towards me, a complete contrast to his behaviour toward those he bullied when angry. His tirades always scared me but they were never directed at me. Now I begin to wonder if his compassion for me was because of my mother’s early death which may have been the reason for his gentleness and understanding toward me? He praised me whenever I accomplished anything be it the completion of our Meccano set or a drawing of either his pet mountain project or my portraiture of anyone who came to see him. You can say again that art ran in our blood. What of the mountain project? Well, his idea was to move Yawnghwe, the State capital to the mountains to the east, away from the scourge of malaria for which Yawnghwe was well known. I was often sick with some ailment, and, you might say that I was like Kisa Gotami of the Parable of the Mustard Seed who was called Kisa for her frailty. Although I was frail, and can relate to her, I was never ill treated by anyone, let alone by my family, unlike how she was treated by her husband’s family. My father used to ply me with meat of all sorts at meals to make me a robust boy, which I never became, until later years. Yes, it would have been wonderful for us to have been free from malaria which his mountain project promised to do, but this project never took off, like his intention to make me a big boy.
Occasionally, we had a Natgadaw, a spirit guardian, as you may call her, who, in her red and gold attire, came to appease these spirits, I presume, and drive all illnesses out, I think, but she frightened me to death more than any bad spirits lurking in the corridors. She would prance and wave her arm about chanting strange incantations and scattering holy water everywhere. I took care not to be sprayed like any sensible spirit would do but was she a character, a real fright! She maintained and took care of the shrine in the north-east corner of our large compound which was enclosed by an embankment on the north.
As this embankment reminds me that there was a lake of wildlife sanctuary on the other side of it , it was also the regular route for tigers to frequent, announcing their presence with a spine chilling roar. This route was also taken by servants to visit their toilet appropriately placed there. Strange to relate, they were never afraid of the tigers, but only the phantom figures which they believed guard the embankment. This was an extreme example of mind over matter, apparition over reality.
Every October, at the Light Festival, lanterns appear on every window, door, eaves and table. My father used to take me when he made the rounds of the town, assessing which house had the best display. I liked the illuminations, especially those over water, dancing with sparkling waves and creating a fairyland. Those were moments I enjoyed with my father and how far away it was!
There were active moments when he took me to the lake, the Inlay. On route, we chased the ducks, the motorboat swerving and spluttering, throwing me from side-to-side to keep up with the scattering flock. Often, he potted some, which became our dinner that night, pellets and all. The lake reminded me of many dramas for intrepid travellers; and once when we were in the houseboat, which also accommodated sleeping quarters, we had to take shelter among the reeds, as the tattered storm raged, throwing up waves the size and height of the houseboat. No wonder stories abound of many incidents, misfortunes, mishaps and tragedies. The lake was not a pleasant place to be in, if the time was wrong, or we knew nothing of its nature or its spirit. It is also where folktales are retold and superstitions are firmly respected. It is a pity that the lake is silting up and may become too shallow to navigate one’s craft for sailing. Again, I’m so grateful to have grown up with it and saw it in its glorious days. One day I hope to take you there, and pray that it might be possible.
The story of the lake cannot end without telling you of the time when a seaplane was planning to land there. We heard the roar of the engine as it flew over the lake, but suddenly, all was quiet. Even I sensed that something was wrong, it seemed that the plane flew into an air pocket, and dropped like lead into the water. The flyers were quickly rescued and brought to the Haw. We provided comfort and clothes to wear, but it was highly amusing, as these tall strangers, (white, but I knew not of what nationality they were) presented the sight, because my father’s Shan trousers reached only to their knees and his jackets were no better, exposing their elbows, making them look like scarecrows! They were given food and drink, and after a bath and brandy, they were as right as rain again!
Talking about strangers, do you remember about the wildlife sanctuary lake I mentioned? How can you forget my tales of an embankment, tigers and phantom figures? Well, one day, from the direction of the lake, we heard gunshots, which were utterly forbidden there. Soon, two strangers were brought before my father, for they had committed something horrible. My father asked them to be seated and treated them as honoured guests, even giving them tea and some other drinks, explaining the purpose of the sanctuary and advised them to come again to the “open season” on the Inlay Lake when they could pot away to their hearts’ content. He then sent them away in a peaceful frame of mind. I felt sure that this magnanimous gesture on my father’s part would prevent these strangers from committing this same crime again.
At Yawnghwe Haw we always had a driver, chauffeur, you may call him, since I’m still reluctant to end this memoir, please listen to me about our driver. He was a lovely rogue, a drunken to boot. Was he really a driver you ask? Yes, very much so. When he’s not driving the car, he seemed to have frittered away his life in an alcoholic cocoon, never to emerge until duty called him. He would sing as he drove an especially assuring song when climbing steep hills which brought the car to a snail’s pace. When there was nothing to do but wait to get over the hump and regain speed, he sang old songs, I remember, of kings and queens of glorious past. Who could have had a better companion to while away the time on tedious journeys? I loved his character, his name was Ko Hpoo; that was at the time my mother lived, what happened to him I don’t know, perhaps he too, passed away but blessedly in an alcoholic haze.
Apart from the material benefits he tried to bring to the State, such as opening schools and hospitals, he wholeheartedly supported the Order of the Sangha, its stability and its propagation. Every year a Sar Byan Pwe was held in Yawnghwe where the young monks recited the sutras in front of the Sayadaw, literally translated as “honourable teacher” who assessed the competence of the competing monks who were then appropriately awarded and recognised for their sustained efforts. This took place in a large hall no doubt built physically for this use. My father attended these recitations to the end, several days after. I, as a boy, was completely captivated, especially as I watched novices, not much older than me undergoing this ordeal. Although I understood nothing of the chanting, it was, in some way, a reassuring sound throughout the assembly, that, now, I think denoted awe! This, I learnt only now when I’m old; it is of course, better later than never. My father was the teacher, the organiser, a great fan of this event, which I think is failing, pitiably, as my father has gone. Our Burmese friends who attended these sessions saw how my father directed the novices to their right places, pushing and pulling them as needed, and remarked this could never happen in Burma, which they meant was Lower Burma. I can’t say what they meant, so I can construe only that they do think differently down there. I can no longer compare the state of sanghas over there as now I’m out of the country. This event, I was told, is in fact, a replica of the assembly of disciples in Buddha’s time, when Buddhism was at its peak in India.
Now, let’s go back to Inlay Lake for just a while. You may remember the legend when the Paung Daw Oo images miraculously returned safely with sea plants on some. I was about to strike out the words sea, but said to myself, “Just a moment, Hseng Ong, think back to the origin of the Inthars, who were supposed to have come from Tavoy, on the isthmus between Burma and Malaysia. “So what?”, I might interject, but think on. The Inthars must have brought the images with them and these must have known the sea, it’s roar and sea spray. It’s really no stretch of the imagination to relate this to Rumi’s poem, “Children love their sea shell toys, and with them, they learn about the ocean, because a little piece of ocean inside the child, and inside the toy, knows the whole ocean”. Therefore, calling the water reed “sea plant” or sea weed was quite a plausible description! You shake your head. Well, alright, then, it is a beautiful thought, never the less! The Inthars are a race apart, they speak a language unlike the Shan or the Burmese, but have incorporated a few words from them, in a way which turned out to be amusing. Their speech is direct to the point, some would say, too direct, for example, what they call the mosquito net, which cannot be translated politely on paper. They also have firm beliefs and superstitions which those who infringe would pay for with the consequences. You can imagine that the lake was a reminder that travellers should be wary. Learn about their custom and follow them to the letter and all would be well. Inthars are also an industrious lot; they weave cloths which are world renown but a pity they are labelled “Made in Thailand”. They grow vegetation, our vegetables on the floating islands and supply them to markets in Taunggyi and all around as they do with fish caught daily by the fishermen. It is a wonder to watch how they catch them, cast their nets standing nonchalantly on their flimsy boats, and return home with their catch rowing with their legs, as only they can do. Poised on one leg, perfectly balanced, wrapping the other over the long oar to propel the boat with ease. Inthars, as centuries ago settled in the lake which is now their ocean, ocean it can be, when we buffeted the boat in stormy seas. The Inthars are a tough lot and are survivors. I love them, and I’m willing to bet that they will thrive, and will be there centuries more, long after the army regime is gone.
I cannot help but tell you about Paung Daw Oo, the Pagoda of true and devoted believers, far and wide. Every year about October, the festival begins with the tour of the images along the shore of Inlay Lake, on an impressive barge, decorated with the motif of Karaweik, a legendary bird featured in pageantry. The majestic barge is then pulled by the famous leg rowers on tandem racing boats each of which carried thirty or more of these powerful men whose muscled legs strained in unison as they impelled the oars. After the rounds of villages, the images safely returned to their resident village. It wasn’t so on one occasion in the mist of time as legend would have it, when a great storm sank the barge which with the images went to the bottom. Though they searched for days, no images were found, but miraculously they were seen to have returned, some images with sea plants on them. With passing years this legend has spread, and devotees prize highly the yellow cloth from the images that can confirm protection and promote prosperity and good health.
Therefore, please make sure the piece you have of the Sangha is with you always. I carried mine also in the car since when Mummy travelled in it.
While we are talking about Inlay let’s also talk a little about Yawnghwe, a town at the edge of the lake where I grew up in. It was also home for Sao Nai Noom whom you no doubt remember before she was married to Sao Bu Hpa Lawksawk. I just want to tell you of their marriage for which I claim no part in arrangement. I know only that Mummy realized when she married me that Sao Bu Hpa would be lonely as she looked after him and even saw to his office work when Saophas still administered their states. So she searched for a prospective bride and found one in Yawnghwe, a next door neighbour so to speak, soon Sao Bu Hpa and Sao Nai Noom were happily married, and the twin boys were born. Whenever Sao Bu Hpa came to Rangoon, he bought toys to take back to the twins, who were named Sai Pawk and Sai Awn. They wrote to us when Mummy was ill, and now, I need to reply to them soon. Now you know why your uncles are so much younger than you.
I need to recapitulate a little to put matters right, and fill in where I have left a gap. When my father was doting on me, as I seemed to have implied, what happened to my brother, Uncle Sao Sai and sister, Ah Sanda? Well, uncle was in Kalaw with Mrs. Green, who later married again and became Mrs. French. Sorry, I don’t know her first name, understandably, as because we called her Mrs. Green who was well known in Southern Shan State and perhaps also in Northern Shan State. She baked sumptuous cakes which were in great demand for weddings and special occasions, such as entertaining British visitors of note. I particularly liked her cream chocolate cake, which to me, was like God’s nectar, which I’ve never tasted but can well imagine from the tempting aromas of her newly baked cakes, buns and bread. She once baked for me a lemon sponge which I thought was rather infra dig, not quite measuring up to God’s nectar. She kept ducks, hens, and had an orchard full of grapefruit and oranges. She ran a boarding school to give English lessons and other subjects to children of Sao Hpa and those who could afford to send children there. My brother, your uncle learned to speak English which I envied, but could only mimic with my brand of English in jest to hide my envy. Your aunt, Ah Sanda also went to Kalaw to Kingswood School, and was given an English name, Janet. I never went to an English school in Burma so I never had an English name although some had tried to allege that I was called Harry for no reason that I can fathom. Mrs. Green did call me George, but then that never stuck, though it would have been nice to have had an association with a British monarch, though only in a name. It is not easy to talk about my brother now that he has passed away, only six months before Mummy did.
While I’m talking about people who had helped us in our life, let me harp back to the time I went to New York in transit to UK. Well, in New York, I again met Dora Than Aye, a very nice lady and friend of the family. She was the Belle of Burma where many still remembered her fondly for her songs. She was slightly before my time so I didn’t know her songs. I had travelled from Trinidad with another student going to University in USA , and whom Dora said was good-looking which he was, as many of mixed races were. He had Chinese and East Indian in his blood, a handsome combination. Anyhow, Dora took me and my friend to Radio City where chorus girls danced, but I can’t remember anything else. She also gave us a delicious meal in a posh Chinese restaurant, and if that was not enough, she fixed me up with a new camera, brand name Bolsey which I’m sure has vintage value now. The camera was invaluable as many photos were taken, and the albums testify to the precious moments of our lives. I would dearly like to get in touch with her, but have lost all connections who could have led me to her; they have either gone or have somehow faded away.
Let me leap over a span of thirty-six years and describe what I’m looking at now in 1999. It’s a thoroughly brown photograph taken forty-eight years ago in Lawksawk and preserved by Mummy’s uncle, your Sao Bu Kiou Murng, ever meticulous, mindful of values, and very considerate. Mummy sat in a cane chair next to me, a group with most names you would remember, Mummy’s face a picture of youth and vitality, half amused and quizzical but sure that she could cope with anything the future may bring. In contrast, I was firmly seated or you must say stolidly seated, confident and probably outwardly conceited. My eyes could not leave Mummy’s face, her expression and her bearing. Tears flood and flow unceasingly from my eyes, as it is now. With great effort I try to turn my grief into a joy of remembrance of how we were, young and hopeful, full of love for each other. As I look back over nearly half a century, I realize how very lucky I was to have found a rare jewel to share for life. What would she have said now if she could see this photo? To me, it is an affirmation of the love which will endure beyond the grave.
Engagement ceremony. Sao Khun Murng.
Sao Hseng Ong, Sao Hom Noan and Sao Hseng Hpa (Sao Sai). U Nu was in the back ground.
With U Nu, Sao Hearn Kham and Sao Shwe Thaike.
With Sao Ventip, Sao Hkun Murng,
Sao Noan Oo and UK Ambassador to Burma, Sir Reginald James Bowker.
Sao Hom Noan, Sao Hseng Ong, Sao Hearn Kham and Sao Shwe Thaike.
Sao Hom Noan, Sao Hseng Ong, and friend Reggie.
Sao Khun Murng making a speech. l to r:- Sao Hom Noan, Sao Khun Murng, Sao Noan Oo, UK Ambassador to Burma, Sir Reginald James Bowker and Lady Elsa Bowker.
Sao Hom Noan. princess of Lawksawk.
Sao Hseng Ong, prince of Yawnghwe.
Wedding in Lawksawk of Sao Hseng Ong and Sao Hom Noan
The wedding ceremony.
Sao Hseng Ong at his wedding.
The wedding ceremony.
After the wedding ceremony.
While I’m reminiscing for us, let me tell you of the trip we made to Murng Yai while Mummy was carrying our first baby, Mone. The jeep ride was rough and bumpy over roads made worse by rain. It was no surprise that Mummy felt uncomfortable in her womb, but an experienced midwife put that right. The baby had to be positioned back where it should normally be.
It was pleasant being with Sao Bi Hpa and Sao Bi Murng at their family home, Haw Murng Yai in an idyllic Tai village setting which I yearn for now. Both of them have long passed away but memory holds the key to the past; happiness, sombre or sad or joyfulness. After our brief visit and when Mummy had fully recovered, we returned home driving more carefully than when we came.
We returned to Kalaw the way we came, crossing the two rivers by ferries and negotiating many, many bends and steep mountain passes, narrow roads some just stones and gravel . How happy we were, and didn’t give a thought of these difficulties. It was a journey of a lifetime for us, and I can only be grateful that Mummy and I had travelled together in full youthful spirit and deep love. As Shantideva had said, “When would such a chance come again” referring to reincarnation. We must make the most of our precious life to make it better in the next life to come.
There were many more trips we made but none compared to when we went to Kengtung, where Mummy’s maternal family lived in Kengtung Haw with grandmother, aunts and uncles, who each had a distinct character. The serious Aunty Daphne, the jovial Uncle Sing Sai, and the uncle I mentioned before, Uncle Kiou Mung. Your great grandmother was one of the many wives of the old Sao Hpa of Kengtung. Each of the wives lived in a separate hall, and Mummy and I visited most of them. Most of the old folks have passed away and the few who survive were scattered to the winds some ending their life abroad. The town had a charm of whimsical greatness like the baseless fabric of this vision which Shakespeare described in The Tempest “and all which inherit shall dissolve”. The army has even hastened this to leave not a rag behind by pulling down the old Haw of the Sao Hpa. I’m so fortunate to have visited the aunts and uncles, including those through kinship to the old Sao Hpa who had begotten Sao Kongtai who in turn had begotten Sao Sai Long, Shorty, whom you have met, except Ying Awn. Sao Nai Sukanta lives in Chiangmai, and I plan to see her and Sao Bu Internoan as soon as I can. Time is running out either way you look at it, and I’m determined to see her.
Our frequent visit to Lawksawk to see Sao Bu Hpa Lawksawk, your grandfather were particularly enjoyable especially to Kaungbo where his orange groves were. I’ve never tasted oranges like those grown there, sweet with just a touch of sharpness, and the skin was loose, easy to peel. As a boy I remember in our State we pushed coins inside the fruits which were thrown to anyone ready to catch, people who came to the festival to pray at the pagoda, or to gamble which is not to us, sinful. I collected the candle wax spilt over at the altar, and reconstituted that to candles to be lit again, recycling in current term. This was a trait I carried into manhood to this day, when recycling is more needed, a throw-away society for all things have created more waste and more waste until there’s nowhere to throw them away. This mindset also cause people to be thrown away like things with the loss of their human dignity and worth. I now yearn to return to the communities which still exist, thank God, where modern consumer items have not reached them. At least to the point of creating waste problems. Such a place was where Mummy was born, but now since we left, over thirty years have passed, and the new army town could possibly have spoilt it forever.
Before I start to do things with new resolve, let me procrastinate a little more, to tell you about the fragrance of trees; yes, trees such as ingyin, which grew on the road to Lawksawk. In the hot season before the monsoon, they bathed the road with an aroma which I can only describe as life, freshness, hope, longing, and wonder. I just wish that you could also smell this aroma of all aromas, not powerful or oversweet but just a faint whiff, but all pervading, unlike everything else. I wrote about this in my unpublished novel because it overwhelmed me of the past and I wish I could smell it once more. Even if I could, it will not be the same; the circumstances have changed, and no more will it evoke the senses as before.
Nevertheless, I need to tell you more, about the world I lived in as a boy, where scented flowers and tree barks were the common things. They were especially valued on certain festivals the details of which I can’t recall, no doubt someone can fill you in on this. The occasions I can remember were where we went into groves where sandalwood and other scented trees could be found to gather some for offering at the pagoda, or to scent water to bathe images of worship. We gathered flowers from these groves and at the same time we sang and laughed as we went about our pleasant task. Those were fleeting memories which I wish I could materialise to share with you of the past. Wherever we travelled on the road to picnics or on tours we sang all the way. I was reminded of this when I recently visited Khin Than Nu and Sai in Canada where were Aunty Pat and Hseng Hseng. Sai took us in his van to Bear Lake and an old mining town. All the younger ones sang old songs, songs which I can still remember. Since when have I enjoyed such company, when did we lose these simple joys, when did we forget to appreciate each other’s company and share the important moments? We are always in a hurry, which is the shortest route to take and what is the shortest time to get there? What do we do with the time we save? What is more to the point, have we lived that moment that have just gone by? These moments have flown before we know it. I’m struck by this fact as I turn the pages of our photo albums, these pages have remained closed for many years, pity, for they recall many happy moments as we have lived, they also give promise for moments to come. That’s how I like to see the past, not in nostalgia but as a continuation. In that case, my so-called memoir is a misnomer and what I want to call it is a continuing memoir which is what most memoirs by these still living people should be called.
Sai Pyee, Ying, Haymar, Mee, Leun, Harn and Mone.
|Standing: Sao Hearn Kham, Ying, Hom.|
Sitting: Ying Awn, Mone, Leun, Harn and Sai Pyee.
Leun, Haymar, Mone, Harn and Mee.
Sao Shwe Thaike with l to r:- Ying Awn,Harn,Mone, Leun and Sai Pyee.
Sao Shwe Thaike picking fruit for his grandchildren.
Having prepared the ground, I must now dive into the last part. I’ll deal with the time just before my father was arrested, when the army took over. He said to me that he was now old and was leaving all matters of politics to the younger generations to sort out. He had no hardened view of the secession, a question the army alleged was the reason for the coup. They said that the Shan’s intention to demand secession was the reason that they, the army wanted to preserve the union. What utter rot, none of the Shan leaders in the parliament had broached the subject, and I only saw the Sao Hpas relaxing in card games and things non-political. That point, you would have to verify yourself, which would be difficult with most Shan leaders now dead and gone. But, I definitely know what my father said to me, which at that time, I couldn’t fathom why he told it to me, but I surmise he already had a faint premonition of what was in store for us all and the whole country. I had received an indirect warning from what I saw and heard direct from a reliable source no less than General Ne Win’s wife, who reflected the view of my father, which couldn’t be further from the truth. They looked upon him as active in politics which he was not, he never attended any political meetings as confirmed what he had related to me. He had mellowed beyond his years, I thought, and that astonished me. He was just past sixty, when most politicians were active and busy. He in contrast, had retired in every way. He was then devoting his time to the teachings of Buddha of which he had them printed in books, piled high to the ceiling, in the spacious hall of his house. These books may have contributed to his mindful peace, together with his daily meditation, but strangely, they also saved his life (about that later).
On the night of the impending coup, we heard unusually loud noises of heavy army vehicles passing our road, and thought nothing of it, and went back to sleep. Then, very early in the morning, my younger sister, Ying (Ah Ying to you) phoned me to break the news. It’s too painful for me to relate what she said, but I’ll try. The army had taken my father and killed my younger brother, Mee Mee, your Uncle Ow Mee. My poor brother was lying in a pool of his own blood, and quite certainly dead.
You couldn’t have met a nicer young man. Everyone liked him, and he made friends easily. After all these years, my tears fall and I can’t help crying. He appreciated people for what they did for him, giving gifts or help in any way. He had a copious sense of humour, and was always smiling and cheerful. I remember once while listening to a sermon by a monk who had a wry sense of humour, unmonkish. When he came to the part of his sermon recounting a fight between husband and wife, that was relished in an unmonklike way. Mee Mee rolled over from the position of reverential worship to the floor clutching his stomach until his laughter subsided. I’ll never enjoy such a sermon again, if enjoy is the word for it.
Back to the tragic outcome of the coup, the army had the affront to say that it was a “bloodless” coup. You can imagine my reaction, as with others who had their loved ones killed. One may never know how many they killed that night, for they were the sole source of news; all free press had been affectively suppressed. They could lie and prevaricate as they pleased. There were more to tell on what they said, what happened with completely untrue statements, but I do not want to relate them, as that would relegate me to their level. Mee Mee was already dead, and there was nothing I could do for him.
I went to the house of the Chief of Justice of the Union of Burma to enquire about what he knew. I did not find him there as he had also been arrested by the army, and I saw his wife unceasingly crying. I knew that, then I had to get to my father’s house to see what I could do. Mee Mee had already been taken to the mortuary by the police, and the children, my brothers and sisters were shocked. I immediately arranged for them to stay with us which would give them more time and comfort to their young and bewildered minds.
As I looked at my father’s house in the aftermath of the killing by the army, my nightmare of five years ago had materialised, alas, in stark horror reality. I dreamt when we were in Kalaw that the army had sent soldiers to the big house we were staying in. Mummy and I, and you, cowered under the staircase and heard the climbing of steps to the first floor, where in this dream I saw a badminton court in the middle of the room. I woke up with sweat, startled and frightened and retold my nightmare to Mummy, but was ready to dismiss it and forget all about it but it still remained in my mind. When I came to Rangoon for a visit to my father and my stepmother, who, with their children were staying in a rented house, took me to see this large house they had bought, we looked downstairs and up the first floor, where to my shock I saw the badminton court. I dared not tell my father of my nightmare because they were so happy with their purchase. What proof had I that this was a premonition of dream? But the facts point to that. I was very uneasy to say the least. Now, my nightmare of five years ago had come to fruition, and I wondered if I was wrong to have remained silent when I went to see my father. The soldiers had, that night surrounded the house and fired volleys to it. Mee Mee, my brother, who was always alert must have thought some intruders had come into the compound, and for his own protection, took an antique lance to investigate. He was fired upon immediately and probably knew nothing of what happened. I hoped that he did not know. By then, my father had opened the door wide but as he apparently saw nothing, came in again. This was told to me by my sister Ying who was with my other brother, Tzang, who was the only one old enough to absorb this terrible shock. The books of sutras my father had printed were riddled with bullets, and they probably saved his life. When the soldiers took him away immediately, I don’t think he was aware of what happened to Mee Mee; thankful, you might say.
In the period of his arrest of about eight months, we were allowed to see him only once. It was hell for me to see him alone. He was extremely bewildered, and asked why the army was doing this to him and the others. His concern was for the children, as their mother, Sao Nai Murng was away getting medical treatment in England. I assured him that I was taking care of them and would do so until their mother’s return. He also asked me to inquire from the army if she could safely return home. I said I would try, knowing full well that the army who have committed these devastating crimes with impunity with complete callous disregard for human rights, would not in any way give a truthful answer. What if they negate on any promise of safety for her, it was better that she remained in England rather than be incarcerated like him on her return to Burma. I never had another chance to see him alive.
In the meantime, there were many horrible acts committed by the army. Just to mention one, the army’s first massive killing when students on the University campus were surrounded and killed in hundreds. Your Uncle Tzang could give you a firsthand account of this as he was there, much against my advice, as he was nearly killed. I will therefore spare you from hearing this.
When my father passed away, the head of MIS, a colonel in the army called for me, and said my father was calmly seated in his chair, and appeared to have been meditating when he died. I wanted to believe. His body was brought home and laid in the room where he had his books on Sutras. Many paid their respects and said farewell. It was the only time any outsiders came to the house, as they were scared to even phone or visit us. You can’t blame them, I suppose as arrests could be made for any reason, and association with our family could bring some harm to them from the army. Sao Nai Murng was able to return then, and took charge of the family much to my relief, as I had to look after you, and therefore, our future.
My father’s body was flown back to Shan State and laid in state in the inner hall in Yawnghwe Haw. The inner hall was where we usually fed the monks and listened to the sermons. Many people from his State and afar came for the last time to see him, who was so accessible and listened to their needs day or night. People from various tribes came, and Taungthu women in their traditional black attire came to mourn and cry, wailing as only they could do. The hall was packed daily, and he was again available and accessible to his people, though in an ironical and sad way. He laid in state until it was time for the cremation in the same ground that my mother also was. Details of the cremation, I’ll spare you, as I can always tell you when you want to know. His ashes lie in a lovely tomb next to my mother’s, and I wish I could visit them once more. The tombs lie next to our main pagoda, a picture of peace and intimation of eternity. When my elder brother only two years ago, his ashes were scattered over the waters of Inlay Lake which I loved and told you about.
Let’s go back to when we first came to London for our holiday. In London we stayed with Nellie and Brian who had just become parents to a bonny baby girl, Toni. Sai Laike, the youngest of Mummy’s brothers was also living there. As you’ll remember, he had to contend with raids to his room by the three of you children. He placed wires and cables at the door to frighten you away but in vain. Therefore, the flat at Highbury had no vacancy and was full to the brim. It provided us with a haven for the many weeks we stayed in London.
We were generously looked after in South Wales by Mrs. Bassett and regret never to have heard from her again. She was quite elderly when we met on the ship on the journey from Burma to England. In Bradford, we stayed with Auntie Annie and Uncle Frank Neale , who were, earlier on, guardians for my brother and I when we first came to England to be educated.
Hell awaited us when we returned from our vacation. In 1962, the government was overthrown, and the army ruled the country. All political leaders including the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice were arrested. To make room in jail hardened criminals were set free, for the army feared political prisoners more than murderers, big time crooks and criminals. The world was turned upside-down, important vital values were destroyed, right became wrong, and wrong right. Political freedom taken away, and human rights completely violated. Many in all walks of life arrested, if not killed, banks taken over, run by army sergeants or captains, replacing or superseding qualified managers, commercial enterprises stores to corporations nationalised, and all trade distributions were monopolised and controlled by soldiers mighty in power; completely inexperienced of commence, trade and matters non-military – the list goes on. Economy destroyed, food became scarce, in a land where rice thrived, exports dwindled and perishable produce rot away in godowns along distribution points.
I received the sack, the first to go, in ICI which was dismembered and staff dispersed to other ventures, doomed as many others. Capital and entrepreneurship disappear when business ownership foreign and local were ruthlessly exterminated.
To make a living, we baked and sold food with the brand name Shorties to any outlet we could find and again the same old story. The shortening and flour for Shorties, like all foodstuff and raw materials dwindled to extinction. Faced with no prospect in the city, we moved to Maymyo, an old hill station, hoping to start up again. We hit upon poultry keeping and determined to make it pay. We had a technical assistance from Mr. Dickman to whom we were indebted for a successful launch in egg production. Our Rhode Islands laid eggs of brown, the Leghorns laid more but white and small. The building of poultry hut and protections of hands I undertook, and food for them was in Mummy’s competent hands. With the help from Ma Saing, when she’s not cooking, and U Lay Kham Leng, who was a character, and our object of our laughter because of his dopiness through a haze of long addiction to opium.
The schools having been nationalised, no longer were called St. Albert’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Michaels, etc., but numbered in accordance with army rules. Mone settled quickly in her school which was formally run by nuns who were gradually deported. True to her vitality and spirit, she danced a ballet number at a school concert, made good friends and was growing up. Sai Pyee, with his reservations got by well enough but found home more to his liking. Wrongfully treated by a doctor with cerebral malaria on his brain literally and in his mind, since he had suffered with it, so we were told, gave Ying Awn a very severe side effect that we had to rush her to hospital fearing we would lose her. With great luck, we found a competent physician, Dr. Chopra, who still worked in the military hospital. He later emigrated to USA. His treatment brought Ying back to health and also because of her young age, she was able to quickly recover.
Maymyo was a pleasant place named after a British Administrator called May. The climate was much cooler than in Rangoon. We all thrived on the whole, so much so that I no longer suffered from amoebic infection if it was that, and could undertake all physical requirements. Mummy, in fact had had less illnesses and appeared not to suffer from flu and cold. We had Blackie, a Labrador mix, Yev-Yev, Mone’s cat – no prize for guessing which famous dancer he was named after. You named your own cats, and also the hens, which we had hatched ourselves whose eggs would be taken, but in no way would any of them become our dinner.
Sai Pyee, Ying Awn, Mone and Blackie
Meanwhile, I made frequent trips to Rangoon to enquire about our passports for our emigration. Although a firm offer came from the government of Sarawak to work in their agricultural service, no passport was given, and we planned and approached other countries in case we were later let out.
April the first is an April Fool’s Day, as any fool would know. On the 1st of April, 1966 an officer from Military Intelligence Service came to our door announcing that our passports have been issued. It was at first hard to believe and, even at the risk of being fooled I rushed down to claim our passports.
We packed all our effects we had to leave behind and mailed them to my brother, Sao Sai and Pat, who also sent a reliable man to help us. We also saw that the passports were valid for three months and one month had passed before they told us. We rushed to renew the British work permit which had remained in suspense for months waiting for the hope of permitted departure. We received the British’s quick response and all was set for our actual departure.
Before leaving Maymyo Blackie had died with dropsy a short time ago; we buried him and said our final farewell to one who had given us joy, worry and fun. Our cats were given away, and the new owners of our house inherited the hens. We were reassured well enough to leave them although with deep regret but, the rush of events and the need to leave with haste left us no room to ponder their ultimate fate. I still remember Blackie in my prayers, no less so than all we have loved who have departed.
I have left the last few words to mention gratefully, the friends who had helped us in our time of need, these friends are the important links to the past, especially when we came to England, after getting our passports to emigrate. John and Jean Loveridge, who comforted and welcomed us with generous hearts on our arrival, after our uncertain flight. I have already mentioned Annie and Frank Neale who were guardians of my brother and I, who loved us. There were many more friends about whom I need to tell you at a suitable time and place when we meet again.
I would like to end with words of Kisa Gotami’s after she realized the truth from Buddha’s gentle guidance which he gave without preaching to her first. After she came to terms with the loss of her son, she said, ” No village law, no law of market town, no law of a single house as this, of all the worlds, and all the worlds of gods, this only is the law that all things are impermanent”.
Sao Shwe Thaike and Sao Nang Yee’s Tombs in Yawnghwe.
Text and photographs © 2019 Yawnghwe Family and Feraya Ullathorne