My favourite fathers
In praise of lawyer Atticus Finch, teacher Arthur Chipping and this writer’s late father
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - 16:44
He was a cheerful and kind-hearted person by nature, artistically and musically inclined (he had beautiful handwriting, was a superb photographer and loved to sing and play the harmonica and electronic organ), and his favourite pursuits were swimming (in his youth), listening to vinyl records, taking the whole family to the cinema on weekends, and reading newspapers, magazines and books. And he loved driving new cars, having owned about 10 cars, mainly European models, starting off with a Fiat (Italian), followed by, among others, Renault (French), Simca (French), Opel (German) and Citroen (French).
As a businessman who also once ran a hardware store, a photo studio in partnership with a younger brother, and a coffee shop called Snow White, his financial fortunes fluctuated, but through thick and thin, he ably provided for me and my younger siblings and, of course, our housewife mother, Singaporeborn Kang Ngak Chay.
He never raised a hand or his voice in anger (we were seldom naughty, anyway), and most importantly, he allowed me, my younger brother Chris and my younger sisters Karen and Catherine, to fail, whether in school examinations or in our first stumbling steps into the working world.
Looking back, it was clear that he was optimistic and confident that all his offsprings will turn out well as adults and responsible citizens, and we have. Indeed, he would be pleased to know that since his passing, his sons and daughters have lived up to filial piety traditions in looking after our widowed mother (whom my father was married to for 43 years).
He was a doting grandfather to Serenity (born in 1992, daughter of Catherine and her husband Ravi), Ethan (born in 1994, son of Catherine and Ravi) and Kuang (also born in 1994, son of Karen and her husband Heng) and he would have been pleased to know that Catherine and Ravi had a third child, son Jethro, born in 1999.
So, dearest father, you have been missed, and thank you for all you have done for us. With Father’s Day taking place this Sunday, this writer also has good things to say about two fathers in the world of fiction, specifically, American lawyer Atticus Finch and British school teacher Arthur Chipping.
Atticus Finch, the epitome of anti-racist heroism in literature, appeared in the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Alabama-born Harper Lee (she turned 86 on April 28) in what was her only book. Set in the American South during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the story revolved on middle-aged widower Finch who’s ostracised by much of his community in a rural town in Alabama for agreeing to defend a black handyman, Tom Robinson who’s charged with raping a young white woman. The novel is narrated retrospectively by Finch’s daughter Scout who was six-yearsold at the time of Robinson’s court trial in 1936, but who was much more aware about racial prejudice and injustice than her older brother Jem. In her account, Scout’s admiration for her courageous father shines through.
To Kill a Mockingbird was a searing indictment of deeply-entrenched racism against blacks in the Deep South. Finch, despite providing significant evidence of Robinson’s innocence, failed to convince the allwhite jury who found Robinson guilty. Distraught, Robinson tries to escape from prison and is shot dead.
Merely two years after the novel’s publication, it was adapted as a 1962 black & white movie with Gregory Peck well-cast as Finch, for which Peck deservingly won the Oscar for Best Actor.
Portraying Finch’s children were Phillip Alford as Jem and Mary Badham garnered an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress for her fetching portrayal of the tomboyish Scout. The movie certainly enhanced the stature of the novel such that To Kill a Mockingbird has long since been widely acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century.
Finch the lawyer has become a role model for integrity in the legal profession, and Finch the father is looked upon as a paragon of virtue of fatherhood.
Moving on to Arthur Chipping, he’s the title character of the 1934 novel Goodbye, Mr Chips by England-born James Hilton (1900-1954) who, a year before that, authored Lost Horizon (1933) about several survivors of a hijacked plane which crashlanded in the mountains of Tibet and stumble upon a hidden utopian society called Shangri-La. Chipping is a dedicated schoolteacher at a fictional boys’ public boarding school called Brookfield in England, serving there from 1870, on the eve of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, until 1918 when World War I ended.
He’s shy and introverted, but in his middle-age finds love while on holiday, with a younger extroverted woman named Katharine who nicknames him Chips, something his students also picks up on. They get married but are childless, but Mr Chips is a much-beloved father of sorts to the tens of thousands of students he mentored during his almost half-century as a teacher. Those who have read the novel would remember getting teary-eyed when Chipping reads aloud a long roster of the school’s alumni who had died at the battlefields during World War I.
Goodbye, Mr Chips has been adapted for the big and small screens four times: 1939 black & white movie (Robert Donat won the Oscar for Best Actor in the role), 1969 musicalised colour movie (Peter O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor but did not win), 1984 TV miniseries (starring Roy Marsden) and 2002 telemovie (starring Martin Clunes).
This writer favours the 1969 version which resets Chipping’s career from 1900 to 1945. Besides the heart-tugging ‘reading of the fallen alumni’ scene, another tear-jerking moment came when Chips, in the twilight of his career, was finally promoted to Brookfield headmaster but before he could convey the happy news to Katherine (singer Petula Clark sparkles in the role), she’s killed during a German bombing blitz in London.