Thailand – Full Moon Parties, Scuba Diving and More

IMG_20141008_173651 While traveling around the world is an absolute dream, one of the tougher things about the journey is that we are constantly on the move. Every 2-3 days having to unpack and repack our suitcases and getting on the road takes its toll. While we had originally planned to use the month of October for a more comprehensive tour of South-East Asia (e.g., Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), we ended up deciding to stick to one place, Thailand, and take it more slowly. Christian had been to Thailand a couple of times before and described it as a laid back beach paradise. I was sold! But before paradise could begin, we had to take a long journey, flying from Bhutan to Bangkok, followed by the overnight train down South to Chumphon and then finally several hours on the ferry, before we arrived at our destination: Koh Tao.

Koh Tao is a small little island off the east coast of Thailand. The reason we chose Koh Tao is to get our PADI Scuba Diving certificate. Turns out the island graduates the greatest number of scuba divers in the world. I liked the place the minute we set foot on it. Barely more than a stretch of beach, the island is laid back enough to feel you’re in a remote place but with enough beach bars and restaurants to explore for a week. Our little hut right on the beach made us feel like in paradise. Amenities were limited (no AC, simple room with cold water shower) but the direct beach access and sunset views were worth the trade-off.

Before starting our scuba diving course, however, we set out for one more adventure. The legendary “Full Moon Party” was happening the next night on the neighboring island Koh Pha Ngan. It’s a gigantic, all-night beach party with several DJs. The event attracts several thousand people every month. We were curious to check it out even though somewhat skeptical based on what we had heard. Lots of young travelers that can go a bit overboard. But, we were already in Thailand. Plus, since our wedding was on the night of a full moon, it was technically our “3-month moon wedding anniversary”. So why not give it a try. The journey there was enjoyable in itself. A nice boat trip and long stroll along the beach in Koh Pha Ngan, followed by sunset beers at a cute beach bar.

We were ready for the party! First, we got ourselves a “bucket”. Literally, a flask of alcohol mixed with a soft drink in a bucket. Admittedly, not my favorite cocktail. Second, some hula hooping on the beach. Really fun with the music, especially in this unique setting. Christian and I got to know people from around the world and danced until the morning hours. Despite our original intentions to make it through the whole night without sleeping, we couldn’t resist to get a cheap room for a 4-hour nap before taking the morning ferry back to Koh Tao. I guess we are getting old 🙂 Overall it was beautiful to dance on the beach under the full moon, however, it’s more of a college-party scene and the music was a bit too mainstream for my taste. I had secretly hoped for a sliver of Tomorrowland DJ tunes. But, all in all, a worthwhile experience.

Back on Koh Tao, we were ready to go diving! The course took 4 days. Christian and I found ourselves “back in school”: a mix of (entertaining, 80s style) videos, some theory and then the actual dives. Anita, a teacher-turned-dive instructor from the UK, was our dive teacher. Very experienced, great instructor but also really fun to spend time with. Besides getting the actual certificate, I realized how special it felt to become more integrated into Koh Tao’s dive community. Our daily schedule gave us plenty of opportunity to socialize and hear people’s life stories: early morning 5:15am wake-up calls to hit the best dive sites before others, a Tuk Tuk to the pier, boat trip to the first dive site, back to town, out on the water again for more dives in the afternoon, back to the dive shop at around 5pm, followed by evening beers with the New Way Diving crew. The dive masters/instructors all had their own, interesting stories to tell. From different countries, ages, and backgrounds they came to Koh Tao for various reasons: to escape from the stressful corporate world in “the West” in search for a more balanced life, to finally pursue a long-had passion after retiring or to just have fun for a year or two before starting a career. I was contemplating if I could see myself as a dive teacher. Having a boat as an office, spending all day long in flip-flops in the sun and teaching people a fun sport does sound tempting. Yet, I don’t think it’s my life’s calling. Although I must say that both Christian and I got a true appreciation for the sport itself and the technical capabilities needed. On our last dive, having mastered the basics, we were able to immerse ourselves more into the actual experience. The weightless floating. The serenity of the underwater world. The incredibly diverse nature with all its unique shapes and creatures. Like a wonderland. I can see why people can’t stop exploring this magical place. Christian and I are hooked! A new sport we both enjoy.

After our lovely stay on Koh Tao, we opted for a change of scenery (mainly to evade the starting monsoon season on the east coast). Off we were, first to Khao Lak and then to Phuket on the west coast where the monsoon was just trailing off. We settled into a daily routine of meditation practice (more on that in a later post), lots of reading (also mainly on meditation), language learning (Christian is continuing his German practice; I started to learn Spanish), wedding blog writing and video editing, and some exercise. All of that with nice beach breaks, new activities (elephant riding & bathing!) and lots of tasty Thai food in between 🙂

It’s been really pleasant to “settle down” in Thailand for three weeks after having been on the move for three months. A great way to explore Thailand’s culture while carving out time for our personal projects. More details to come on the latter soon! Stay tuned, C&C


Trekking in the Bhutanese Himalayas


Exhilarating, strenuous, cold, remote, stunning, and very rewarding. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when summarizing our recent 7-day trek to the Jhomolhari base camp in the Bhutanese Himalayas.

I was very much looking forward to this adventure and being back in the remote wilderness. I must admit, however, that I tend to romanticize those type of trekking trips, somehow forgetting the unavoidable painful moments. But Christian and I love the challenge. And with that challenge comes appreciation and a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what we feel looking back on our Himalaya adventure.

The incredible thing about an organized trekking tour (you have to book through a travel agency to get a tourist visa to Bhutan) is that you really “just” have to carry yourself up (and down) the mountains. Everything else is taken care of. Tenzin, our tour guide, brought us up to speed with Bhutan’s history and every imaginable story about Buddhism; our horse guide took care of our seven pack horses; and three other guys managed the camp. Yep, that’s right: 5 men and 7 horses supporting just the 2 of us! Sounds like luxury camping. But wasn’t. The whole experience was still an adventure. It was physically challenging (we hiked an average of 15km a day with an average altitude difference of 1500-2000m), it was hard to breathe (our highest pass was 4890m), and it was cold (freezing temperatures at night which made sleeping through pretty much impossible). But it was so worth it. Here is a glimpse of our daily “life in the mountains”:

Day 1: Talking about challenges, we didn’t even make it to our starting point on Day 1. Heavy rain in the days before our hike had caused some landslides, blocking the road. Our driver, determined to navigate through the narrow opening on the street, tried to make it through. That turned out to be a bad idea. The car slid to the left and hit a huge rock. Luckily, the damage wasn’t too bad.

There was no way, however, to drive any further so we packed up our stuff and decided to walk instead, adding 3 extra kilometers to the 22 kilometers planned for that day. And the fun was only about to begin. The rain had turned the rocky trail into an enourmous mud slide. What we expected to be a long but leisurely hike through the sub-tropical forests ended up being an 8-hour balancing and rock-jumping exercise.

Exhausted but proud of our progress, we reached the camp side where hot tea and a glimpse of the stunning Jhomolhari summit, Bhutan’s second tallest peak, awaited us.

Day 2: We woke up to sunny skies and a crystal clear view onto Jhomolhari. Just beautiful.

Energized we set out to conquer the next 17km of the trek, hugging the valley floor and a fast flowing river.

Close to the 4000m altitude mark we came through a small village. Really just an accumulation of a handful of houses. It’s hard to imagine to live in such a harsh climate. The place is snowcovered from November to March and people mainly live off yaks and sheep. Despite being remote, the people were quite inviting. A group of villagers that were catching up (outside in the cold) happily posed for pictures. And some school boys took the opportunity to practice a few English phrases with us.

After one more hour we reached the base camp (4080m) with spectacular views onto the 7314m high Jhomolhari. It got cold pretty quickly so we bridged the time until dinner, snuggling up and reading in our sleeping bags. Besides the actual hike, dinner was the main highlight of the day. We couldn’t wait for our daily dose of hot soup – the best imaginable thing when it’s cold outside. Well, actually, there was something that topped the soup. When we all huddled in the kitchen tent that night, our crew produced a whiskey bottle. Not being a big whiskey fan my enthusiasm was limited. But, hey, try that stuff with some hot water. It’s magic! The perfect way to warm up before jumping back into your sleeping bag.

Day 3: Our acclimatization day. In order to avoid altitude sickness, the itinerary plans in an acclimatization day at the base camp. While we had woken up to clear views, that soon changed.


We set out on a 4-hour hike up to the actual base of Jhomolhari and got caught in a hail storm before it started to snow a bit. Crazy how you can get all types of weather within a couple of hours.

Back at the camp in the afternoon, the sun reemerged. Time for some hooping with the crew! This turned out to be super fun. Our horse guide had the funniest technique and everyone cracked up laughing. Once dusk was upon us, the typical routine kicked-in: reading, dinner, mystical stories in the kitchen tent over our shot of “hot-water whiskey”, some more reading, bedtime 🙂

Day 4: This was a tough day with an ascent of 800m followed by a descent of 1000m. But also very rewarding. We passed yak herders through a stunning scenery with crisp blue alpine lakes and rivers. The weather gods kept challenging us with a hail storm during the last 200m of our ascent. But we made it up to the highest point on our route (4890m), cold and sweaty at the same time!

The amazing outlook was shortlived, however, as we needed to make a 1km vertical descent back down to our camp. Again, the scenery made up for the workout. Our path led us through rocky cliffs, wildfower meadows, various nomadic settlements and provided incredible views onto gigantic waterfalls.

Our camp was tucked away in a beautiful small opening in the wood right next to the river. Optimistic about the sun that broke through the clouds, I took a little “shower” in the river. But, somewhat predictably, the weather turned rainy and cold within minutes so my enthusiasm was shortlived. I jumped back in my usual 5-layer outfit immediately. The attempt to start a cozy bonfire was rained out. But we had gotten a few minutes of warmth.

Back to our usual treat: a bit of hot whiskey and hot water bottles. Yes, our crew prepared hot water bottles for the night for us! This was another nice surprise. Reminded me of my childhood when I was sick and my mum would tuck me into my bed with a hot water bottle. Without our little “heaters” I would have probably woken up even more times during night.

Day 5: Both Christian and I thought we had the hardest day of the trek behind us. Happily we jumped “out of bed”, stretched our stiff bodies and eagerly awaited our hot coffee and breakfast.


Our cook kept surprising us with new items. That day he produced pancakes. Strengthened, we continued the journey. But it was not as easy as expected. The previous four days of intense hiking in altitude must have taken a toll on us. Both Christian and I moved in slow motion, our bodies feeling incredibly tired. Like snails we dragged ourselves up the first 200m past hillsides lush with rhododendrons before gradually climbing above the tree line again. And then we hit the last killer ascent, a steep 550m climb up to our last pass (4520m) on the trek. Mentally, this was the toughest stretch for Christian and me. But I also knew it would be our last big one. And again, stunning views from the top. Only one more hour downhill to our camp for the day!

Arriving at the camp, Tenzin, our guide, surprised us with a Druk 11000. Druk is one of Bhutan’s national beers. The Druk 11000 is an extra strong version with 8%. We were happy 🙂


Day 6: Our last day of hiking. One more last, steep ascent before venturing into a 1.6km vertical, rocky downhill path. The weather gods on our side, we had sunshine for the whole day. After arriving at the camp site around lunch time, we ventured out to meet locals in the nearby village.

While enjoying a beer at a local grocery shop (really just a room with some basic goods), we got a peak at “doma”. Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese culture. It’s made out of betel nut, betel leave and lime (synthetic calcium carbonate). You chew the mixture which makes your mouth go slightly numb and stains your teeth red. It’s spat out after chewing, so you can see doma stains on the ground all over the place in Bhutan. These days the government is trying to reduce the use of it given its addictiveness and negative health implications. But it’s so ingrained in Bhutanese culture that people, especially older ones, won’t give up the habit.

Two little girls, just back from school, were curiously peaking through the shop window. Happy that I had brought the hoop, we attempted to teach them how to do it. Very timid at first, the girls barely dared to touch it. But with a little encouragement they went for it, and had a lot of fun.

Back at the camp there was one more game we wanted to try. A typical Buthanese stone-throwing game. Sounds pretty simple (i.e., just get the stone as close to the target as possible). Turns out it’s not. Both Christian and I were pretty bad at it. Our trekking crew, unsurprisingly, “rocked” the game.

With a little bit of nostalgia, we enjoyed our last trekking meal that evening. Our cook surprised us again – this time with empanadas and a pizza! What a treat on our last night camping. Satisfied, we stumbled into our tent and, admittedly, were both looking forward to a proper shower and sleeping in a real bed again the next day 🙂



Snapshots of Bhutan


One of the most fascinating things about Bhutan’s history is how mystical it is. From gods flying on the back of tigers to reincarnation of leaders across generations, it is hard to distinguish between historical fact and religious belief. The underlying reason is that Buddhism is so fundamentally ingrained into the Bhutanese way of life. 75% of the population are Buddhist.

The origin of Buddhism in Bhutan began with the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche. In the early 8th century he travelled from nearby Tibet and brought Buddhism to the region now known as Bhutan. Everywhere we went in Bhutan you couldn’t help but miss representations of Guru Rinpoche from paintings to statues to costumed dancers. Our tour guide, Tenzin, also had a seemingly endless number of stories to tell us about Guru Rinpoche. So as you can imagine, Guru Rinpoche is a really important figure in Bhutan.

To come to the origin of the Bhutanese national identity, you need to fast forward to the 17th century to the story of the “unifier of Bhutan”. Prior to then Bhutan was really only a number of separate states, often considered as a southern part of Tibet. This all changed when a man named Ngawang Namgyal established himself as a religious leader and unified the region of Bhutan separate from Tibet (hence, Bhutanese refer to him as the “unifier of Bhutan”). More than just a religious leader, he was also a military and administrative leader. One of his most important accomplishments was the construction of the system of “dzongs” as fortresses to allow Bhutan to successfully defend itself from Tibet and other rivals in the region. However, when the “unifier of Bhutan” died in the early 18th century, Bhutan underwent a period of instability as regional leaders vied for power and Bhutan again separated into smaller states. Around this period, Bhutan began to have contact with British explorers linked to the East India Company who were in search of goods of value in the regions of Bhutan and Tibet. At times, interactions were hostile including the “Duar Wars” over control of the region of Assam in the 19th century. However, one Bhutanese leader, by the name of Urgyen Wangchuck, found a way to use positive relations with the British to his and Bhutan’s advantage. His support of Britain’s invasion and subsequent treaty with Tibet gave him the backing of the British and credibility with his own countryman to emerge as the most powerful man in Bhutan. In 1907, he was elected unanimously by Bhutan’s chiefs and religious leaders as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan. And so began a new monarchy (among the youngest in existence today) with Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king.

Since then, there have been 5 kings of Bhutan, all coming from Urgyen Wangchuck’s lineage. The second king, Jigme Wangchuck reigned from 1926 to 1952. During his time he oversaw the establishment of a strong alliance with India as they gained independence from Britain. It was during this time that many of the treaties between Britain and Bhutan were transferred over to India and Bhutan.

The third king, named Jigme Dorji Wangchuck is known as the moderniser of Bhutan. Educated in India and England, he saw that a policy of isolation would not be feasible, particularly after seeing China taking control over Tibet. He oversaw the opening up of Bhutan to international relations (including recognition as a country in the UN) along with a series of modernisation projects to build out infrastructure in Bhutan.

The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, took over in 1972 at age 17. He continued along the path of modernisation set by his father. As he formulated his development goals, he emphasised the need for Bhutan to strive for development that is for the good of Bhutan and its people, not just development for development’s sake. In stating this, he coined the term “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) as a counterpoint to GDP. Hence today, Bhutan is famous for assessing the merits of development on whether it promotes cultural and environmental good, not just economic good. Towards the end of the fourth king’s reign, he recognised that for Bhutan to truly be modernised, it needed to follow a path to democracy. The king is quoted as saying “monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth, not by merit.” This process started in 1998 leading to the country’s first democratic elections in 2008. At this time, Bhutan officially transformed from absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

The fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk took over in 2006. Since his coronation he has continued along the path set by the kings before him to develop Bhutan along the tenets of maximising Gross National Happiness.

Truly Bhutanese
Bhutan has a number of unique quirks. To name just a few:

  • Tourist visa requirements – A great example of Bhutan striving to maximise GNH, is their approach to sustainable high value tourism. To enter Bhutan as a tourist, you have to organise everything through a regulated tour company, and you must pay a set fee of $250 per person per day (the fee covers all expenses including accommodation, food, transportation, and sightseeing). This is prohibitively expensive for the typical “backpacker” style tourist looking for bars and craziness, and instead you get more of the older/retiree style tourist looking to learn about Bhutanese culture. Christine and I felt like we were definitely among the youngest tourists in Bhutan, which makes sense given that we’re only semi-retired :).
  • The Takin  IMG_6528This odd looking creature is said to have been formed when the “Divine Madman” (another mystical Bhutanese historical figure) threw together the bones of a goat and a cow that he ate and formed the Takin. These animals are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The way they move seems so awkward; kind of like a poorly animated beast in a 1980’s horror film. And their two toed hooves made them look pre-historic-like.
  • Cheese and chilly (ema datse) – Although Christine and I were served new and interesting dishes for each meal every day we trekked, the rest of our guides ate just one meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day: cheese and chilli (ema datse). The guides were initially hesitant to let us try it because they thought it would be too spicy. In the end, the spiciness wasn’t the problem for us. It was that the cheese was so rich that we struggled to eat more than a few spoons full.
  • Target games –

    We learned before we arrived that the national sport was archery. Once on the ground, we realised that archery is only one of many similar target games they play. The Bhutanese love darts and another game where you throw rocks at a target. Christine and I tried it on our trekking tour but were pretty miserable at it.

  • Protective Phalluses –

    Surprisingly, you see phalluses everywhere! Not your Washington Monument style impression of a phallus. The real deal! Generally you’ll see them painted or “hung” at the entrance to houses in order to provide protection. The history behind it, similar to the Takin, is said to date back to the antics of the Divine Madman, who would happily show his penis as a symbol of strength.

  • Chewing “doma pani” although the tradition is slowly being phased out due to health concerns (similar to tobacco smoking in western societies), the tradition of chewing areca nut wrapped inside of betelnut leaves with lime is still very popular with the older Bhutanese. What makes this practice so interesting is that the mixture makes your entire mouth turn red, and all over the place you see these red patches where people have spat out their doma pani out.IMG_6344
  • National Dress: Gho & Kira – Christine and I both thought that the national dress in Bhutan looked really good: women looked beautiful and elegant in the colourful ankle length Kira dresses; men looked dapper and intellectual in the their Ghos.

What we did

  • Paro: The main airport into Bhutan is in the city of Paro. Paro is not the capital nor the country’s biggest city (both of those honours belong to Thimphu) but it is nonetheless rich in history as one of the most prominent cities in west Bhutan. The scenery is beautiful, nested in the Himalaya range. The town is very quaint. The highlight of our time in Paro was the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery (Taktshang Goemba).

    This place is simply stunning, built up high in the side of a mountain. The story behind it relates to Guru Rinpoche, the father of Buddhism in Bhutan, who is said to have flown there on the back of a Tigress and meditated there a while.

  • Trekking in the Himalayas:

    One of the main reasons Christine and I wanted to come to Bhutan was to do a trek in the Himalayas. Christine will write more about this in a separate blog post, but suffice to say, it was a highlight. It was visually spectacular and we felt very rewarded for the effort to hike up those peaks where the air was thin and the wind was cold.

  • Thimphu Tsechu Festival:

    After our trek we spent 3 days in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Although it’s the country’s most populated city, it still felt small and charming. The main attraction while we were there was the annual Tsechu festival, a Buddhist religious celebration of song and dance. Beyond the performances, it was also really fun to see the locals decked out in their best attire.


Wong family roots


Wong family portrait. Back row (L to R): My grandmother and grandfather. Front row (L to R): Aunty Dorene, Uncle James, Aunty Lilian and my father

After spending 3 weeks traveling in China, it struck me that despite my Chinese heritage (i.e. the “Wong” in Sutherland-Wong), I don’t know much about who my Chinese ancestors were or why they left China. Today, all of my known extended family live outside of China in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. While recently reconnecting with my Wong relatives in Singapore and Malaysia, I did a bit of investigation into my family history to find out more on this topic. What I learned was that a combination of major historical events along with adherence to a particular set of values have ultimately defined the path of the Wong family over the last 100 years.

From China to Malaysia

In Christine’s post on the history of China, she wrote about a particularly dark period in China’s history during the first half of the 20th century as China underwent a revolution from imperialism to a republic. It was a turbulent period as the Kuomintang and Communist Party (CCP) vied for leadership of China, until Mao and the CCP emerged victorious in 1949 (and even then, China would endure many difficult years ahead). During these years there was a mass exodus of Chinese away from China. Among them were the parents of my grandmother and grandfather (father’s side) who moved from China to Malaysia in search of a better life. It’s fascinating to think it was this period of turmoil in China that triggered a series of events that would one day lead to me being born in Australia.

My Grandmother and her parents (the Lee’s)

My grandmother is my sole living grandparent, at 91 years of age. Despite her body now being quite frail, her mind is sharp and her appetite surprisingly large for a woman who weighs less than 40kg and eats with false teeth. I try to visit my grandmother in Malaysia every few years. While she has grown frailer with each time I’ve seen her, it feels little else changes between visits. The smell of her place is always the same; a mix of incense from the Buddhist shrine at the front of her house along with the smell of cooked rice from her kitchen. And each time the smell immediately brings me back to memories of previous visits. The same photos on the walls; a couple of old family portraits along with the university graduation pictures of all of her children and grandchildren. The only updates happen when new graduation photos are added. The choice of photos offer an insight how highly my grandmother values education and family. Our relationship is good but admittedly not that deep. Language is a big barrier between us really getting to know each other; I regrettably don’t speak any Cantonese and her English is limited. However, I know she appreciates my visits and having family around.

Coming to the story of my grandmother’s family, her maiden family name is Lee (which is why my middle name is Lee). When her father, great grandfather Lee, arrived in Malaysia, he started out as a so-called “coolie” (effectively a servant labourer for the British colonists). One of the big industries in Malaysia at the time was tin. Malaysia is rich in tin resources, a valuable commodity to package tea that was being traded through Malaysia’s ports. From what my grandmother tells me, her father made a very positive impression on an English tin merchant. In her words “when the Englishman would leave his valuables out, my father would come and clean the room but not take any of the valuables. That was a sign for the Englishman that he could trust my father.” This trust seems to have led the English merchant to put great grandfather Lee in charge of a number of tin mines, ultimately making him a very rich and powerful man.


Family heirloom – piece of tin from my great grandfather’s mine passed down from my great grandfather to my grandmother to my uncle.

As my grandmother tells me this story, it is clear that she also intends to instil in me the importance of honesty and hard work – and her belief that they inevitably lead to good things. As for great grandfather Lee, what does a rich and powerful man do in Malaysia in the early 1900’s? Well, from what I understand, one way a man expressed his power and wealth in those days was by the size of his family. In the case of great grandfather Lee, he ended up with 4 wives and around 18 children. My grandmother was the daughter of his 3rd wife (who interestingly was the sister of the 2nd wife who had passed away during child birth). Today, she is the oldest surviving member of her family.

My Grandfather and his parents (the Wong’s)
My grandfather’s side is the originator of the Wong family name. I only have a vague recollection of my grandfather from when I was around 3 years old. He unfortunately passed away not long after that. I remember him being a big man (but I guess everyone looks big when you’re 3). Looking back at old photos, he does strike me as a big and imposing man. Most of my knowledge about my grandfather comes from the stories that my dad has told me. One of my favourite ones is that my grandfather would bring home 2 whole fishes to be cooked for dinner. One fish was for him. The other was for the rest of the family to share. So as you can see, my grandfather was quite the patriarch.

As for my grandfather’s parents, they also migrated from China to Malaysia in the early 1900’s. My great grandfather had 5 sons and a daughter. After his first wife passed away he married a second time. From what I hear, the daughter from the first marriage was shunned by his second wife and so not a lot is known as to what happened to her. My great grandfather was said to be a shrewd business man and merchant. He invested in real estate, rubber estates and tin mines. Similar to my grandmother’s family, my grandfather’s parents highly valued hard work to the point where they didn’t make much time to spend with their children or grandchildren. They ultimately believed that the rewards earned from hard work (i.e providing a large inheritance) would make up for the lack of participation in day-to-day life. When my great grandfather passed away in his eighties, my grandfather took over from him and ran the family business.

My Grandparents and their family

My grandparents came together as an arranged marriage. Although I didn’t delve into details with grandmother on how the marriage worked, it seemed to have worked well enough for it to survive until my grandfather’s death. They raised a family of two sons and two daughters in the small town of Kampar, Malaysia. They had a modest life. Not necessarily poor but also not rich. Given this, it says a lot that my grandparents invested in sending my father, the eldest child, to Australia when he was 17 for his final years of high school and then university. No doubt that would have been an expensive thing to do for a modest Malaysian family. They clearly valued education and believed in investing in their children. Despite intentions for my dad to return, he never did and settled in Australia. My dad tells me that Australia offered him a quality of life and freedom he couldn’t get back in Malaysia. I think this is both a reflection of the differences in lifestyles between Australia and Malaysia, and a reflection of my father’s desire to define his own path without the constraints of a strong patriarchal figure. Similarly, his brother, James, was given the opportunity to study medicine in Australia and afterwards settled in Singapore with his family. While my uncle was studying, his older sister, Aunty Dorene, helped support him by sending him money from what she earned as a nurse. This again illustrates how highly valued supporting family is in my family. I’m also reminded of this each time I visit my Uncle James in Singapore. My uncle and his wife, Aunty Theresa, are always incredibly generous to me and find a way to celebrate my visit. One of the highlights of our recent stay in Singapore was attending a big family dinner with the relatives of my uncle, the relatives of his wife and some close family friends.


Extended family dinner in Singapore

As for my two aunties, Aunty Dorene and Aunty Lilian, they both have remained in Malaysia. Admittedly, it sounds like the opportunities that were given to the brothers (my father and uncle) were not necessarily also made available to the daughters. I think this was a matter of practicality that my grandparents couldn’t afford 4 overseas educations but also probably due to old cultural sexism between the importance of male vs. female education. Today my aunties, along with my grandmother, live in the town of Ipoh, not far from the smaller town of Kampar where they grew up. Aunty Dorene lives with my grandmother and cares for her. Aunty Lilian lives with her husband, Uncle Steven, and their son, Joe. Each works as cook. Funnily enough, my cousin works at an Australian restaurant in Ipoh (?!). My aunty and uncle run a hawker food stand making delicious dumplings and noodles (wonton mee).

So there you have it, the story of the “Wong” side of my family: troubles in China led to a migration to Malaysia in search of opportunity; the value of honesty and hard work led to opportunity being realised; and the value of investing in education and supporting family led my father to Australia where he would one day meet my mum and I would one day be born. No doubt, when we get back to Australia in November I’ll be quizzing my mum to find out more on the “Sutherland” story. Stay tuned.