The passing of Uncle Wah

Mr. Szeto Wah, known affectionately by the Hong Kong people as Uncle Wah, passed away on January 2nd. He was an important figure in the developement of democracy in Hong Kong over the years, and he is already sorely missed.

I met him once, before I really knew who he was. It was at the Chinese New Year Carnival, when the various political parties had their stalls up and tried to gain the favors of the Hong Kong people.  As usual, Mr. Szeto Wah was at the Democratic Party’s stall, writing New Year couplets for people. Our family was in line, and my mother asked for “龙马精神” (the strength and health of the dragon and horse) for our grandmother, who is growing old and frail. Mr. Szeto was cheerful and friendly, and gladly complied. He wished her well.

That red piece of New Year paper hung in our grandmother’s living room for over a year. We still have it now. His calligraphy was neat and strong. In the Chinese stories I’ve read, one could always guess the nature of a man by his calligraphy. Perhaps there is quite a bit of truth to that. 

Szeto Wah was a giant on the Hong Kong political landscape.  He commanded the respect of all parties, pro-democracy or pro-beijing, and the Hong Kong people affectionately call him Uncle Wah.  He was the spiritual leader of the Democratic Party. The party was a strong, calm voice in Hong Kong politics. They are perhaps not as loud and noisy as other, seemingly younger parties.  But they are no less passionate for democracy, and they had quite a bit more common sense. Such was the influence of Uncle Wah. He didn’t rave and rant. But he was heard clearly even in the strongest storms.

There is another party which I am rather fond of, though I quite disagree with their way of doing things. Long Hair and Wong Yuk-man are of the League of Social Democrats, and young though they are not, they are as noisy and teenagers. Hong Kong people well remember their acts in the LegCo chamber, from throwing bananas to shouting … rather impolite words.  There is still heated debate about whether those particular words qualify as swearwords. I personally think not, unpleasant though they may be. I came to learn that they are both masters of Chinese history, which instantly increased my respect for them. I suppose I consider them as over-active kids. I do not approve of their actions, but I’ll admit, they’ve brought many a wry smile to those who watch LegCo meetings.

But there is one thing I could not come close to forgiving. Szeto Wah was diagnosed with cancer in late 2009, and of course, all political figures showed concern. But during the democratic split during the contraversy over the Reform Package,  Long Hair, in his anger at the Democratic Party’s choices, asked rudely if Uncle Wah was not functioning properly because of the cancer that has gone to his brain.

Outrage ensued. For all their political differences, everyone was suddenly on the same line: defending Mr. Szeto and condemning Long Hair. Long Hair could get away with calling anyone any kind of names. He was that kind of character. But he could not get away with showing such disrespect towards Mr. Szeto. Szeto Wah was more than just another political figure in the pro-democracy camp. He was the political figure.

When I started paying more attention to Hong Kong politics, I was overjoyed to learn that Mr. Szeto wrote a column for the Mingpao (our family’s favorite Chinese newspaper) every three days. Then I was most disappointed to learn that he never wrote about politics. But slowly, I came to appreciate his short, simple column. He liked to write short, sweet stories. They were almost childish in their simplicity, but is that not the way of the very best fables? He also shared some of his favorite Chinese poems. They were almost like a short lesson in Chinese literature. He was so willing to teach. Those were the days I liked best, because I love anything of Chinese literature or history. Some days, he would even share a verse or two from the Bible. (I think that Mr. Szeto became a Christian not long ago.) I’ve come to love his column, and I made a point of reading it every time he wrote. Like I’ve said, in those times he seems more like a teacher than a politician. But then, I suppose he always was a teacher at heart. He always was a teacher, not the politician, which is why he commanded the love and respect of so many younger men and women (old though they may seem to me).

I remember reading something written by a young reporter not long after Mr. Szeto was diagnosed with cancer. She said that he expected reporters to have done their homework before interviewing him, which was only a decent request, that of a stern, though loving teacher. She also said that whenever the young reporters couldn’t understand some obscure Chinese reference or saying made by any of the politicians, they had merely to call up Mr. Szeto, and he would be more than happy to help them out by drawing on his vast wealth of knowledge.

He came to the June Fourth gathering last year. He always came, and he said that, as long as he is able, he always will come. How could we have known that it was the last time?

(Economist‘s obituary: http://www.economist.com/blogs/asiaview/2011/01/szeto_wah)

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