29 February 2012

George on George

by George Cheng

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

Quoted above, the late, great, and inimitable Mark Twain referred often in his lifetime to his signature white suit as his "Don't-Care-A-Damn"s.

"Shall I on this occasion be required to dress for dinner, or will my "Don't-Care-A-Damn"s suffice?"

Mark Twain delighted in probing his oft lined and waiting coterie of admirers who, on each respective occasion of having invited him to a dinner party, invariably navigated away any prospect of a faux pas by agreeing and welcoming the famous creased linen Twain ensemble into a number of formal black-tie dinner settings. And so he always got his way. Like an insouciant dove amid a murder of crows.

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Perched in the middle section of a picture lined wall in my library is a faded sepia tinted photograph of a bespectacled Chinese gentleman whom I have never met; dressed in the popular Western style of the 1920s.

Sitting serenely behind the cool, mute pane of the glass of the picture frame, with a seemingly unknowable ghost of a half smile on his face, my grandfather George (for whom I am named) gazed into the middle distance almost 90 years ago from within a musty portrait studio somewhere in the hilly province of Lushan in South-Western China.

One aspect of the photograph which was more arresting to me than the enigmatic facial expression, was his ensemble of a high-button stanced, six-by-four double-breasted chalk-stripe suit over a sharply starched white collar and skinny tie.

To my eye; the look of the jacket material (for that is all that is available to the eye given the photograph is a half-portrait) was dark and appeared heavy; and the stripes that underscored the dark substrate did so at wide intervals. Robust and determined, the chalk stripes made for a look consonant with the belle époque of the Jazz Age.

The overall line and cut of the garment further draws the eye into sharper focus.

My grandfather was a slender man. His suit jacket was cut snugly about the chest, with high arm-holes flanking wide lapels peaking under down arching shoulders. The ropes on each shoulder top were set prominently, giving each arm a top ridge and a fearsomely sharp silhouette. And on his left jacket lapel, next to a neatly folded white pocket square, a shiny jewelled brooch gleamed rakishly with the necessary sharp accent to finish off the sangfroid, foxy, caddish look of the day.

Not infrequently, thus you see; I would stand and study this photograph for hours at a time; my head lost and swirling to the accompaniment of an imagined siren song of a beautifully damned chanteuse swaying in a smoky bar off the French Concession in old Shanghai.

Then there were the stories. Boy, were there some stories about our dear George the Senior.

According to my father, my grandfather tore around Lushan High Street and the surrounding Village on a big motorcycle, commonly in a sport coat or full suit, dirt-roading in polished brogues with a camera slung around his neck (Note to Earth Googlers: I made these names up; so do not be alarmed).

No helmet in those days, of course. One had to pay attention not to thwart the beneficial effects of hair pomade; which (by the mirrored shine reflected in the photograph in my library) seemed to me to have been deployed by my grandfather with great investment towards the maintenance of a splendid centre parting.

The legend proceeds. George's suits, his motorcycle and the camera were, together, reported to have formed his visual signature as much as his adroit skills on the pipe organ at the local American mission church were to be remembered as his aural one.

George, it was told, could certainly pack the giggling girlies into the front pews on a Sunday morning. The attending pastors considered a balance of arguments and encouraged the young man at the time. Perhaps they were prayerful that the musical (and it must be said, sartorial) advantage; so long as it continued to place Chinese souls on Yankee seats (and Middle Kingdom coinage onto Heavenly Kingdom offer trays), must surely come from a source that was genuinely fervent; and not Faustian.

In 1929, George fled Lushan; leaving behind the punk chaos of territorial Warlordism that was carving up China at the time. By then, George had married; and my father, being the eldest son, had not long before arrived into a world transitioning between the death of a Dynasty and the breached birth of a Republic.

The young family Cheng arrived in Singapore later that year and George set about a new life being a father and breadwinner.

Singapore in the 1930s and early 1940s was a rough new country. But it seemed this did not send George reeling into straw hats and short trousers. A series of later photographs revealed a slightly older looking man surrounded by children (there were in all, seven born, with only one lost to early illness); but the signature look was still alive and well. The heavier woollen double-breasted suits had given way to lighter coloured, and lighter clothed blazers worn with wide-legged side-fastened flannel trousers. The magic brooch was gone. But the pocket squares were still a feature of any two-piece ensemble.

During the early days of the Japanese occupation in Singapore, George and my father, then 15 years old; were arrested and detained by the dread kempeitai (military police corps of the Japanese Imperial Army) for questioning at what is now the Singapore Art Museum on Bras Basah Road. They were ardently "questioned" for days; at the end of which, my father was allowed to go home.

But only he alone walked out of the kempeitai complex that day. On that day, and as some had suspected, for some days prior to that, George had ceased to be seen within that damned building on the Bras Basah Road.

Some weeks after the event, neighbours confirmed that George had been moved to a facility on Changi Road and was forced under gunpoint to an undeservedly early and tragic end. With the news, there was speculation as to why he had been arrested in the first place. Apparently, George, who as mentioned had been resolute against climatic pressures n eschewing straw hats and short trousers, was hurrying by with my father in tow, dressed in usual character. On the black day in question he was singled out by a watchful fanatic who perhaps immediately suspected an escape of an intellectual activist was underway. The rest of what followed is irrelevant for these pages; but the results were an irreversible turn of events that dramatically altered the history and fortunes of the Cheng family in Singapore.

By all accounts from my father, my grandfather was a gentle man; and a gentleman.

He read voraciously, spoke softly but passionately, and delighted in the pursuit as well as the teaching to his children of all things beautiful in Godliness, art and in music.

As to his manners, it was the case that George observed an old proverb and kept his learning hidden upon his person as one would a pocket watch – by which metaphor, it was never used frequently to count the hours, but only retrieved to tell the time when asked.

As to his dress, my grandfather embodied the spirit of Lord Chesterfield’s famous quote:

"Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just. If your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage, and be as ill received, as your person, though ever so well-proportioned, would if dressed in rags, dirt, and tatters."

How ironic for poor George Cheng; and by what means shall we learn how the vicissitudes of wartime life serve to contort gracious prudence into the ingredients of desperate tragedy.

If my grandfather had indeed elected, as would have everybody else at the time, to adopt "....(a) style (that was) homely, coarse, and vulgar, ....(as) would if dressed in rags, dirt, and tatters....", how his story (and the stories of all of us) would have been different.