LitScope: Tanjong Rhu by Minfong Ho
For Malaysian Form 4 students
Table of Contents
Elements of the Short Story
Present – Mr Li’s office
Mr Li’s mother has just passed away. He has finished work and feels tired, but does not want to go home yet. He has a feeling that he has left something undone. He looks out of his office window with a pair of binoculars to count the ships in the harbour. He recalls the reason why he bought the binoculars. They were for Ah-Ma’s cataracts, for her to see better, because she didn’t want an operation.
Past – Mr Li’s home
Mr Li was excited to give Ah-Ma the binoculars. At first, she insists that she does not need them, but changes her mind when he tells her that she can see Tanjong Rhu with them. Mr Li offers to take her to his office where she can have a good view of Tanjong Rhu. She interprets this as being able to see far away into the past of the time they used to live in Tanjong Rhu. When Mr Li tells her she can’t do that, she claims to be able to see Tanjong Rhu the way it used to be behind her eyes. However, she still agrees to go to Mr Li’s office to see where he works.
The next morning, Ah-Ma wants to tell Mr Li’s father (deceased) about her impending visit to Mr Li’s office at the family altar. Ying and Ah-Ma argue over some joss sticks. Ying wants to do it for Ah-Ma so that she won’t make Mr Li late for work, while Ah-Ma wants to do it because Ying does not bother about the etiquette. Mr Li disapproves of Ying’s attitude towards Ah-Ma and says that Ah-Ma has more experience and has been through more hardships than Ying. As Ah-Ma talks to Mr Li’s father, Mr Li misses his childhood and his father.
Past – Mr Li’s office
Ah-Ma looks through the binoculars, but is disappointed and says that she sees nothing. Mr Li doesn’t understand this and gets frustrated. He can see Tanjong Rhu clearly through the binoculars. The second time she looks through the binoculars, she describes what she sees. She sees herself and Mr Li at Tanjong Rhu catching crabs in their youth. Mr Li, angered, asks her to return the binoculars to him. She does so, but feels sad and empty.
Present – Mr Li’s office
Mr Li regrets not asking Ah-Ma about his childhood memories. He longs to be a child again.
Past – Hospital
Mr Li visits Ah-Ma at the hospital. Ying has been taking care of her. Ying tells Mr Li that Second Aunt visited earlier with cloth for burial clothes. She wanted to leave it on the bed but Ying disagreed, which led to an argument.
Ying persuades Mr Li to talk to Ah-Ma, and holds her eyelids open while Mr Li talks. He asked her about his childhood but she gives no answer. Mr Li then tells Ying to let go of Ah-Ma’s eyelids, as that is disrespectful. However, Ying retaliates by saying that she gave Ah-Ma blood and has not given up hope for her to stay alive, while he and Second Aunt have assumed her dead and prepared burial clothes.
Ah-Ma tries to tell them about the secret place where she keeps the key to the altar, but Ying interrupts by assuring her that she will bring the keys the next day for her, even telling Mr Li to stop her from worrying. Those were Ah-Ma’s last words.
Present – Mr Li’s Office
The line between the sea and the sky reminds Mr Li of the altar. He goes home.
Present – Mr Li’s Home
Mr Li puts a photograph of Ah-Ma on the altar. He looks in her cupboard for some joss sticks. They are in a drawer which is locked. He does not know where the key is. He talks to Ah-Ma, and tells her that he saw Tanjong Rhu that day.
The story spans over 3 generations: Ah-Ma, Mr Li and Second Aunt, and Ying.
Ah-Ma and Mr Li
Memories & Loved ones
Ah-Ma lives in her memories of the past, especially in Mr Li’s childhood at Tanjong Rhu. She still sees that time as the present-day, and claims that she has not seen Mr Li’s father’s shipyard in a long while and hopes to see it again, when in fact it has been demolished 30 years ago. She sees the past clearly in her memory and often recalls it to remind Mr Li of his childhood and also because she is lonely.
However, Mr Li lives in the present and takes care of his image in attempt to change his past. He dyes his hair to make himself look younger and to make him seem as if he inherited his business instead of working hard for his success. When Ah-Ma recalls the past, he becomes frustrated and refuses to listen. This changes at the altar when Ah-Ma talks to his father. Mr Li misses his father and his childhood and wants to know more. He realises that he ought to embrace his past and cherish Ah-Ma’s presence but it is too late. He has forgotten most of his childhood, and the person who remembered – Ah-Ma, has passed away.
Ah-Ma and Ying
Ritual of prayers to the deceased
Ah-Ma places heavy importance on rituals and prayers, and insists that the proper etiquette must be followed. For example, how many bows to take, how to speak to the dead, what candles to light, what wine to offer. (pg 25-26) She does not allow Ying to handle the joss sticks or talk to her grandfather becuase of this.
However, Ying does not deem the etiquette important, and places importance on the pace of the prayers, telling Ah-Ma to hurry up so that Mr Li will not be late for work. She also wants to speak to her grandfather for a change, showing a willingness to connect to her ancestors despite not knowing the proper etiquette, which is not seen in the older characters.
Mr Li, Second Aunt and Ying
Definition of respect towards elders
Mr Li believes it is disrespectful for Ying to hurry Ah-Ma’s prayers, and even more disrespectful to not listen to her. He also deems it disrespectful to “toy” with Ah-Ma’s eyelids, all the more because she is dying.
Second Aunt comes to the hospital to visit Ah-Ma and brings cloth for the burial clothes. To the adults, Ah-Ma is dying and preparations for her funeral must be made as soon as possible.
Ying has not given up hope. She still takes care of Ah-Ma at the hospital every day and has donated blood to Ah-Ma. She does not believe that Ah-Ma will die and argues with Second Aunt for being inconsiderate to bring the burial clothes within Ah-Ma’s sight. She also talks back to Mr Li because of this. To her, being respectful is to care for Ah-Ma while she is still alive.
Mr T. W. Li
- Self conscious
- Looks as old as he wants to be by dying his hair black so that he could give the impression that his wealth was inherited and not hard-earned.
- Feels stupid when he talks to Ah-Ma with her eyelids held open and does not want Ying to hear him asking Ah-Ma about his childhood because that is his vulnerable side.
- Feels silly talking to Ah-Ma’s photograph in the altar room because it is irrational. Also due to the fact that he probably has not done that for a long time and feels out of touch.
- Filial son towards his mother
- Has her live with him, it is his duty as the eldest child.
- Cares about her health. When she does not want to go for an operation for her cataracts, he does not force her to go for the operation but buys her the binoculars to help her see things far away.
- He takes her to see his office to fulfill her wish of seeing Tanjong Rhu, and does so without delay by going the day after she expresses her wish.
- Visits her in hospital when she is ill.
- Makes sure everything was done in the right way at Ah-Ma’s funeral.
- Deems Ying disrespectful when she told her to hurry up with her prayers or let her take over, and even makes her stay to listen to Ah-Ma’s “conversation” with Mr Li’s father out of respect.
- However, when Ying is not around, he gets impatient and frustrated with Ah-Ma for recalling their past at Tanjong Rhu and even pushed her head roughly in frustration when she does not see Tanjong Rhu through the binoculars but instead recalls her memories.
- Deems Ying disrespectful when she lifts Ah-Ma’s eyelids while he is speaking to her but calls Ah-Ma a dying woman to her face while scolding Ying, which is even more disrespectful.
- Fears illness and death
- When he visits Ah-Ma in the hospital, he feels that the hospital room is like a prison to him, and leave the door open.
- He asks Ying to open the window because the room was airless and smelled of bodies.
- Despite being in the room for some time he does not speak to Ah-Ma until Ying prompts him to.
- Lives in her memories / does not let go of the past
- Sees her memory of the old Tanjong Rhu perfectly, and finds seeing that more important than being able to see things that far away through binoculars.
- Often talks to Mr Li about his childhood, even if he is not interested.
- Remembers details of Mr Li’s childhood with astonishing clarity, and remembers things that have been long demolished like Mr Li’s father’s shipyard which had been taken down 30 years ago.
- Insists that her vision is fine despite failing an eyesight test at the optometrist’s, and refuses to go for an operation for her cataracts.
- Insists that the rituals at the altar must be carried out in the proper order with the correct etiquette, and will not allow Ying to do it because she does not know the right way.
- Insists that she must inform Mr Li’s father about her visit to his office before leaving, and takes her time to do so, despite almost making him late for work.
- Loves her children
- Remembers things that she did with her son Ah-Wah (Mr Li), such as catching crabs at Tanjong Rhu.
- Is happy that she gets to see his office and takes it as an important event, so important that she must inform her deceased husband about it.
- Lies about being able to see Tanjong Rhu when Mr Li gets angry and frustrated at her because she thinks that if she claims to be able to see Tanjong Rhu Mr Li would not be angry anymore.
- Upholds traditional beliefs
- Seemingly trivial things such as how many times one should bow, what type of wine to offer to the portraits at the altar are seen as important procedures that cannot be done away with.
- Believes that the dead must given as much respect as the living, as she tells Ying that Mr Li’s father is waiting for her to speak to him when Mr Li is running late for work.
- This also shows that she follows the beliefs of traditional Chinese families. Chinese have beliefs that the deceased ancestors wield more power than the living elders.
- Not materialistic
- “Things you can buy, I do not need”
- Calls Ah-Ma slow out of impatience because she is making Mr Li late for work, and not because she really thinks that Ah-Ma is slow.
- Offers to do the prayers for Ah-Ma so that she does not hold up Mr Li despite not knowing the etiquette, and impulsively saying that it does not matter although she has done it before as a child and knows its importance.
- Quiets Ah-Ma down in the hospital when she wants to tell Mr Li about the keys to the joss sticks because she dismisses it as mindless worrying.
- Shouts at Mr Li when he calls her disrepectful.
- Reminds Mr Li that his breakfast is ready
- Tends to Ah-Ma in the hospital every day
- Gave blood to Ah-Ma and tries to remain optimistic about Ah-Ma’s health
- Tries to make Ah-Ma be more considerate of Mr Li as he is running late for work when she hasn’t begun to talk to Mr Li’s father. However, her impulsive nature causes her to put this in a slightly offensive way to Ah-Ma, and gets scolded instead.
- Takes care of Ah-Ma’s feelings and hides the cloth for the burial clothes in the cupboard so that she does not see it.
Minor Characters (In order of appearance in the story)
- Mr Li’s wife
- Holds tea sessions with her friends
- Amused by childish things
- Calls the binoculars a toy and thinks it is childish to buy one
- Does not help preserve Mr Li’s image
- Laughs at him in front of her friends
Mr Li’s father
- Ran a shipyard in Tanjong Rhu
- Respected by the family
- Brings cloth for Ah-Ma’s burial clothes to the hospital while visiting Ah-Ma
- Gets into an argument with Ying in front of Ah-Ma who was resting at the time
- Implied that she does not visit often at the hospital
- Does not take care of Ah-Ma