Authors: Kevin Kwan
Asian parents visiting their adult children who live in other cities
on staying with them, no matter if the child lives in a studio apartment or the house is already bursting at the seams with too many hormonal teenagers, and even if the parents could afford to buy out a whole floor of the Ritz-Carlton. And of course, even if you're forty-six years old, suffering from sleep apnea and chronic sciatica, you're still expected to give up your master bedroom to your parents and sleep on the inflatable mattress in the living room. Because that's just how it is.
ST. ANDREW'S CATHEDRAL, SINGAPORE
Inside the lead Mercedes escorting the funeral cortege from Tyersall Park to the cathedral, Harry Leong was staring out the window, trying to ignore the incessant chatter that came from his wife, Felicity, arguing over last-minute details with her sister Victoria.
to let the president of Singapore speak first. That follows official protocol,” Victoria said.
“But then the Sultan of Borneo will be terribly insulted. Royalty should always come before elected officials,” Felicity argued back.
“Rubbish, this is
country, and o
president has precedence. You only care about the sultan because of all the Leong plantations in Borneo.”
“I care about him not urinating all over the pulpit at St. Andrew's. His Majesty is an elderly diabetic with a weak bladder. He should get to have the first word. Besides, he knew Mummy even before the president was born.”
“Reverend Bo Lor Yong is going to have the first word. He's going to read the blessing.”
You invited Bo Lor Yong too? How many pastors are going to be at this funeral?” Felicity asked incredulously.
“Only three. Reverend Bo will deliver the blessing, Bishop See will give the sermon, and Pastor Tony Chi will say the closing prayer.”
“What a pity. Is it too late to ask Tony to deliver the sermon? He's so much better than that See Bei Sien,” Felicity scoffed.
Harry Leong groaned. “Can you speak softer? You two are giving me a migraine. If I knew you were going to argue all the way, I would have ridden in Astrid's car.”
“You know your security won't let you ride with her. She doesn't have bulletproof windows,” Felicity said.
In the Jaguar XJL (which was not bulletproof) following behind them, Eleanor Young sat scrutinizing her son's face intently. “I think next week I should make an appointment for you to see my dermatologist. Those puffy lines under your eyesâ¦I'm not happy with them. Dr. Teo can do wonders with his laser.”
“Mum, it's fine. I just didn't get much sleep last night,” Nick said.
“He was up all night writing his tribute to Ah Ma,” Rachel explained.
“Why did it take all night?” Eleanor asked.
“It was the hardest thing I've ever had to write, Mum. You try condensing Ah Ma's entire life into a thousand words.”
Rachel squeezed Nick's hand encouragingly. She knew how much he had struggled over his speech, working on it until the wee hours and getting out of bed several times after that to make a change or add another anecdote.
Eleanor kept prodding. “Why should there be a word limit?”
“Auntie Victoria insisted that I only have five minutes for my speech. And that's about a thousand words.”
“Five minutes? What nonsense! You were her closest grandson, and the only
. You should be allowed to speak as long as you wish!”
“Apparently there are going to be a lot of speeches, so I'm just toeing the party line,” Nick said. “It's fine, Mum. I'm very happy with my speech now.”
“Oh my. Who is that woman in the car beside us?” Rachel suddenly asked. Everyone turned to look into the Rolls that was trying to overtake them, where there was a woman wearing a black hat with a dramatic black veil draped over her face.
“Looks like Marlene Dietrich,” Philip chuckled as he drove.
, Philip! Pay attention to the road!” Eleanor yelled. “Actually, it
look like Marlene Dietrich. I wonder which sultan's wife that could be?”
Peering over, Nick laughed. “That's no sultana. That's Fiona Tung behind that getup.”
In the backseat of the Rolls-Royce Phantomâthe only Rolls in the stately procession of carsâFiona fidgeted with her hat uncomfortably. “I don't know why you made me wear this ridiculous veil. I can't see out of it, and I can hardly breathe.”
Eddie snorted. “I don't know what you're talking about. Kalliste can breathe just fine in hers, can't you?”
Eddie's tween daughter was wearing a hat and veil identical to her mother's, and she stared straight ahead, not answering her father.
I SAID: CAN YOU BREATHE?
“She's got headphones on, Dad. She can't see or hear a thing. She's like Helen Keller right now,” Augustine said.
“At least Helen Keller could speak!” Eddie said in annoyance.
“Um, actually, she couldn't, Pa. She was mute,” Constantine responded from the front passenger seat. Eddie reached over and tugged his daughter's veil aside. “Get those headphones off! Don't you dare wear them into the church!”
“What difference does it make? No one will be able to see me under this thing. Can't I just listen to Shawn Mendes while I'm in the church? I promise you his songs will make me cry buckets like you want me to.”
“No Shawn Mendez! And no Mario Lopez, Rosie Perez, or Lola Montez either! Kids, you are all going to sit in the church with ramrod-straight posture, singing all the hymns and crying pitifully. Cry as if I've cut off your allowance!”
“That's really going to work, Dad.
Boo hoo hoo, what am I going to do without my twenty dollars this week?
” Constantine said sarcastically.
“Okay, you've just lost your allowance for the rest of the year! And if I don't see you crying until your eyes bleed, especially while I'm singing my songâ”
What is the point of trying to force the kids to cry when they don't wish to cry?” Fiona snapped.
“How many times do I have to tell youâ¦we need to be the chief mourners at this funeral. We need to show everyone how much we care, because all eyes will be on us! Everyone knows that we are going to be benefiting the most!”
“And how would they know that?”
“Fiona, have you been in dreamland all week? Ah Ma died before she could make any changes to her will! We're going to be the ones getting the lion's share! In a few days, we're going to become bona fide members of the three-comma club!
So we have to really go all out to display our grief!”
Fiona shook her head in disgust. At this moment, her husband truly made her feel like crying.
“Lorena, Lorena, over here! I
this seat for you!” Daisy shouted, waving from her strategically chosen aisle seat.
Lorena made a beeline for Daisy and saw the packet of tissues she had placed next to her on the wooden pew. “Thanks for saving me this seat! I thought I was going to have to sit with my in-laws. Is Q.T. still parking?”
, you know my husband doesn't do funerals. Just the sight of a coffin will give him diarrhea.” Just then, there was a loud buzzing from Daisy's handbag. “Wait ah, I'm going to take out my iPad. Nadine wanted me to FaceTime her from the funeral. She's beside herself that she didn't get invited.”
“What? Ronnie and her didn't get invitations?”
“No, Old Man Shaw got the invitation, and of course he brought the new wife. They are two rows in front of us.”
Lorena craned her neck to look at Nadine's father-in-law, the eighty-five-year-old stroke survivor Sir Ronald Shaw and his brand-new twenty-nine-year-old wife from Shenzhen. “I must say she's very pretty, but I'm still surprised that Sir Ronald isn't, you know,
chee cheong fun
, these days with Viagra, even
chee cheong fun
you char kway
Daisy giggled as she activated the FaceTime function. Nadine's dramatically made-up face popped up on screen. “
, Daisy, I've been waiting and waiting! Who's arrived? Who do you see?”
“Well, your father-in-law is here with your newâ¦erâ¦mother-in-law.”
“Oh, who gives a damn about them! How does Eleanor look? And what's Astrid wearing?” Nadine asked.
“Eleanor of course looks greatâI think she's wearing that black Akris suit with notched lapels she bought when we all went to the Harrods sale a couple of years ago. Astrid hasn't arrived yet, or at least I don't see her anywhere.
Oh my goodness!
Who's this? The Bride of Frankenstein just walked in!”
“What? Who? Hold up your iPad, let me see!” Nadine said excitedly.
Daisy covertly pointed her iPad toward the central aisle. “
, it's Eddie Cheng's wife, the long-suffering Tung girl. She's dressed up like Queen Victoria in full mourning garb with a big black hat covered by a floor-length black veil. And oh look, their daughter is dressed just like her! And the sons are wearing black brocade Nehru jackets. Good grief, they look like they are in some suicide cult!”
Rachel went along with Nick's parents to the beautifully polished wooden pews reserved for the family, marveling at the beautiful neo-Gothic features of Singapore's oldest cathedral as she walked up the central aisle. Nick meanwhile headed to the chapel behind the altar to confer with his aunt Victoria, who was in the midst of coordinating all the speakers. He shook the president's hand and waited patiently for his marching orders. Victoria finally noticed him. “Oh Nicky, good, you're here. Listen, I hope you don't mind, but we've had to cut your speech from the program. We simply don't have the time, with everyone needing to speak.”
Nick stared at her in dismay. “You're not serious?”
“I'm afraid I am. Please understand, we're already running overtime. We have three pastors speaking, the Sultan of Borneo, and the president. And then the Thai ambassador has a special message to deliver, and we also have to fit in Eddie's songâ”
Eddie's going to sing?
” Nick was incredulous.
“Oh yes. He's been rehearsing a special hymn all week with a very special guest musician who's just flown in.”
“So let me understand this: We have six people giving speeches, but
from the family will actually get a chance to speak about Ah Ma?”
“Well, there's also been a last-minute addition. Henry Leong Jr. has decided to give a speech.”
“Henry Junior? But he barely knows Ah Ma. He's spent most of his life in Malaysia being doted on by his Leong grandparents!”
Victoria smiled embarrassedly at the president, who was watching the whole exchange with piqued interest. “Nicky, may I remind you that your cousin Henry is the eldest grandson. He has every right to give a speech. And besides,” Victoria lowered her voice, “
he's running for a seat in parliament this year. Felicity said we
to let him speak. And of course the president wants him to!
Nick stared at his aunt for a moment. Without another word, he turned around and headed back to his pew.
Michael TeoâAstrid's estranged husbandâcame striding up the central aisle of St. Andrew's Cathedral, dressed in a brand-new Rubinacci suit with shiny black John Lobb wing tips. He looked around for where Leong family members might be seated, and just as he caught sight of Astrid fussing over Cassian's Windsor knot in the second pew from the front, two men in dark suits suddenly appeared, blocking his path.
“I'm sorry, Mr. Teo.
Family only on this side
,” the man with the earpiece said.
Michael opened his mouth, about to say something, but as he knew that all eyes were on him, he nodded, smiled politely, and took the nearest empty seat in another pew.
Sitting in the pew opposite from Michael were members of the T'sien family. “Did you just see that? That was
,” Oliver whispered to his aunt Nancy.
“Hnh! Serves him right. I don't know how he even got an invitation,” Nancy huffed, as she thought to herself,
That man was wasted on Astrid. The things I could do with that bodyâ¦
Nancy turned to face Oliver's mother. “Bernadette, how nice you look in thatâ¦frock.”
Ghastly. I can smell the mothballs.
“Thank you. You look so fashionable, as always,” Bernadette replied, eyeing Nancy's Gaultier couture dress.
Wasting my brother-in-law's money. No matter how expensive that dress is, you still look like mutton dressed as lamb.
“It's always nice to see the T'sien jade come out for an airing.” Nancy eyed the brooch Bernadette had on.
This should have been mine. What a travesty to see it pinned on that horrific schmatta she calls a dress.
The heirloom jewel had been passed down from T'sien Tsai Tay's mother to Bernadetteâher favorite granddaughter-in-lawâand was said to have belonged to the Empress Dowager Ci'an. Nancy leaned over and said to her mother-in-law, “Do you see Bernadette's broochâ¦doesn't the carved jade butterfly look more translucent and vibrant than ever?”
Rosemary smiled. “It's imperial jade. It always looks better the more it's worn.”
I'm so glad we gave it to Bernadette. This is the gift that keeps on givingâjust seeing how jealous Nancy still is after all these years.
Bernadette smiled nervously at the two women and tried desperately to deflect attention from herself. “
, Nancy, this is nothing. I don't have much compared to you. Look at your pearls! My goodness, I've never seen so many worn at the same time.”
She looks like a madwoman who just robbed Mikimoto.
Nancy fingered the enormous Sri Lankan sapphire-and-diamond clasp on her eight-strand pearl necklace. “Oh these? I've had them for ages. I think Dickie bought these for me when we were invited to Prince Abdullah of Jordan's wedding to the beautiful Rania. Of course, this was long before he knew he was going to be king.”