was the first word he learned to spell in Dutch. I remember how he would jokingly enunciate each letter of the word, while recounting his experience at the local pet store. He needed an ‘A-Q-U-A-R-I-U-M.’ It was the first thing he went out looking for when he and my mother opened their restaurant in Nijmegen. He had bought eight small koi carp and now they needed a home. He told me once that koi carp are good luck fish, because they require a lot of care and effort to grow big and strong. ‘When you take care of them well, they could live up to two-hundred years old and grow to be 1.5 meters in length!’ he said, as if it were magic. The idea is that if you are the keeper of large koi carp with a vibrant healthy colour, prosperity would return in your favour. A karmic reward for one's hard work and dedication.
My parents’ restaurant Choong Kee, named after my father, opened in 1991. They had emigrated from Malaysia, a country that was economically unstable and precarious in the aftermath of its independence from the Commonwealth. They had heard of acquaintances starting a Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands and, in search of a better life, decided to take the leap for themselves. They started out small. With only three tables set around the modest fish tank housing the young koi carp. Three years into the business, their food caught on, and quickly both the restaurant and the aquarium became too small for our rapid growth. Together, we moved to a restaurant five to six times bigger than the one we had before. Now, it had an upgraded, large rectangular aquarium as its centrepiece. The new building and location proved to be popular in Nijmegen, with all our thirteen tables booked full almost every weekend. The work, that was performed by my parents and my two siblings, was hard and all-consuming, but the underlying feeling of pride in the success of the business pushed everyone forwards.
I was too young to work at this time, I was four years old. Instead, I hung around the restaurant, idling between the kitchen and the front of house. I entertained myself by drawing on most days, sometimes eight hours at a time. There was little privacy for me, as I didn't have a room to myself. On some days, I hid in the enclosed storage space beneath the aquarium to lie down for a bit and escape the view of the diners. I lined the inside space with patio cushions from our summer terrace and lied down in them while facing the translucent blue bottom of the tank. I was comforted by the silhouettes of the carp zigzagging back and forth above me.
Every month my dad would clean the aquarium. He looked calm and happy while engaged in the ritual. In his socks, he stood on one of the black restaurant chairs to reach one arm over the rim, while steadying himself with the other. The sound of water running from the hose into the half filled tank was meditative. As he ran a soft sponge over the inside walls, the faint scent of algae emanating from the water would gradually dissipate until it disappeared completely.
Sometimes he would invite me to join him. With his strong right arm, still wet from the water, he would hoist me up onto a barstool he set beside him. Rolling up my right sleeve, with my flat chest against the cold glass, I stood on my toes to reach my arm in next to his. With my fingertips dipping just under the surface of the water, the fish would glide up to meet me. They arched their backs as they passed, allowing me to gently caress their cool, slippery bodies. It surprised me every time how soft fish scales in water feel to touch. Each of us had our favourite koi carp. Mine was the solid and bright orange one and his was a big golden one. It was the oldest and friendliest of the bunch and he seemed always eager for us to pet him.
I liked seeing him with the fish. It felt tranquil, where his work in the kitchen felt more dramatic. There, with a sharp thud, he would off the heads of Tilapia fish with one fell swoop of his big cleaver. Or cut live lobsters in two, lengthwise with a scissor, while holding its writhing body steady in mid air. There he invited me to join too, to rub salt on the still throbbing flesh of the opened crustacean. When he cooked, his rapid movements produced a trail of smoke, steam and oil splatter against a backdrop of a clanging wok and a fire that hissed and roared. Artfully he would synchronise the dishes to go with each table order in sequence.
He was a talented chef who took pride in his work. He didn’t compromise the food by catering to the local palate that favoured thick sweet sauces. He stuck to the authentic flavours and styles, with a bit of his self added flair. His most popular dish was the Yangzhou style fried rice. The secret ingredient that set this dish apart was his addition of Malaysian curry, which he had family send him from home. I remember hearing a take-out customer saying that they drove all the way from Arnhem, the neighbouring town, just to get this rice. Business was good and his confidence grew. He was generally a boastful and exuberant man, who’s strong traditional values regarding work-ethic and discipline I looked up to. His confidence, however, had a flip side.
He believed he made his own luck and that his cleverness set him apart from others. He believed that he could do things other people could not. Things such as drinking alcohol without it affecting his cognitive abilities, or playing at casinos, convinced he could outsmart the house. As the business grew, the long hours started to wear on him. He worked six days a week, sixteen hours a day for as long as I could remember. The occasional beer while cooking turned into a six pack every evening. Recreational visits to the casino during off days became a regular nightly activity that he somehow managed between the opening and closing times of the restaurant. I didn't see him much in those years, as he came home increasingly late and left increasingly early. Some nights he didn't seem to come home at all. When I did see him, he looked chipper and elated as ever– sometimes bragging about a big win from the night before.
As time passed, however, the regularity with which he cleaned the aquarium decreased and the accumulation of algae on the glass grew more visible. He became more reclusive and wrapped up in his mysterious nightly activities. One afternoon when I came home from school, the aquarium was empty. Looking at the big glass container, I asked where the fish went. Without looking up from his magazine, he flatly stated that there was a power outage the night before, which made the oxygen pump switch off, killing all the fish. Years later my mother told me that on that faithful morning they arrived at the restaurant together to find the fish dead. And while he was making arrangements to empty the tank, she saw that the pump had already been unplugged. She speculated that there was no power outage, but that he simply didn't have the will to take care of the carp anymore and so he unplugged them himself. To this day I have this image in my head of the carp floating belly up in the big rectangular tank, even though I wasn’t present at the scene.
Not long after this, the restaurant unravelled. We found out that he had accrued crushing debts due to his untenable addictions. So much so that he had to leave the country to escape from collectors, legal and illegal. Left with all of that debt, the only way out was to give up all our savings and to sell the restaurant. And even that didn’t get us out of trouble. It took many years of hard work and frugal living for all of us to become financially stable– if we can even call ourselves that today. Needless to say we all harboured anger and resentment from this turn of events, and there was no doubt as to who was to blame for it. We expunged him from our lives, and picked up the pieces best we could.
Looking back at that time, I now see a man trying his luck to become more than he was destined to be back at home. The promise of a better life, was one that he tried to fulfil at all cost. But the strain of relentless labour, the cultural isolation, the language barrier, the lack of community and the inability to reach out were currents running counter too strong, even for him.
Recently I learned about a popular Chinese legend called The Dragon Gate, which refers to a mystical barrier at the top of a wildly cascading waterfall. In this tale, if a carp managed to swim upstream through the falls, jumping over the crest of the mountain, it would transform into a golden dragon and fly away. The moral of the story is that only the bravest and most persevering carp succeed in making the leap to transcend their metaphysical fate.
In the legend, not much was written about the carp that didn’t make the leap.
Part of ‘Arriving Not Yet’, MAMA exhibition by Zhou Jinxiao, Dec’ 2023