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The Tiger Boy with his rosary
A true story about a little boy with an extraordinary faith in the motherly love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose influence has been serving the Lord
Tak was born into a Catholic family in 1914 (the Year of the Tiger) in a small village in southern China. Tragically, both his parents died before his fifth birthday and his uncle took him into his family.
But superstition dies hard in poor villages and the little Tiger Boy was regarded as bringing bad karma to his family. Rumours spread that he had eaten his parents and his uncle would be next.
Despite being Catholic, the uncle ran scared and decided to give Tak away.
A young widow in the village was looking to remarry, but her parents-in-law and the elders of her husband’s family would not allow it.
Instead, they forced the little boy upon her to look after as her son. This antagonised the young widow, but the cultural pressure left her feeling powerless, so she took out her resentment and bitterness on her new son, Tak.
Tak was badly abused at her hands, both verbally and physically. He was thrashed and treated in a way that today would be punishable by law.
A few times Tak managed to escape to his uncle’s home, but each time he would be escorted back to his new mother.
Then, when his adoptive family migrated to Bangkok, the Tiger Boy was taken from his village, the place where he grew up and his extended family lived, into a new and strange environment.
Life in Bangkok was no better. He was miserable and lonely. But his new home was near the harbour and he found an escape wandering the piers where the big ships docked.
Without a watch to keep track of time, he would get carried away and return home late for dinner. His mother and uncles disciplined him by tying his arms and hanging him by a rope from a timber ceiling beam.
They beat him and left him dangling for hours, half alive with his feet off the ground. His agonised wailing fell on deaf ears. The louder he cried the more aggravated his mother and uncles became.
Tak would also be deprived of his dinner, because going hungry was part of the punishment. But after midnight, when the family was asleep, he would sneak into the kitchen in the hope of finding something to eat, but to no avail.
He’d cry himself to sleep on his empty stomach. Years later, Tak recalled that his tears were not so much from the pain of the beatings or the hunger, but his despair over the heartlessness of his mother and uncles.
As the years went by, he continued to suffer the same physical, mental and emotional abuse for what he was accused of doing or failing to do. No one at home or in the neighbourhood paid any attention to the cries of this frightened and unloved child. He felt that there was no way out.
Throughout his life, whenever Tak recalled the abuse he suffered as a child, he would sob quietly. Even in old age, rivers of tears would trickle down his wrinkled face.
Because of his traumatic upbringing he never laid a hand on his children in anger and forbad his wife to beat them as well.
Ironically, his adoptive family was Catholic. They attended Mass every Sunday and took him with them. It was there he learned there was a mother in heaven who loved him dearly. Her name was Mary.
Without anyone to talk to in his family, he told Mary all his feelings and dreams. He knew in his young mind that she was the only hope he had.
Sometime in the 1920s, a cargo ship set sail from a Bangkok pier bound for Hong Kong. A day or two out to sea, a sailor found a little boy hiding behind some wooden boxes.
The boy was filthy and looked frightened. He took him to the captain and, when asked, Tak said that he was hungry and pleaded with the captain not to send him home.
The captain searched Tak and found all he had was a pair of rosary beads strung around his neck.
Tak re-counted the story of his tragic life and the captain, who coincidently was Catholic, was deeply touched to see he had brought nothing but his rosary.
By this time the ship was well out of Bangkok and the captain did not want to turn back for a lost boy.
So when they arrived in Hong Kong, he contacted the police and asked them to take the boy with the rosary to the Salesians, who ran a school for orphans, street children and disadvantaged youth.
When they welcomed Tak into his new home, he was so thin and small, they had no idea how old he was. He did not know his age, date or year of birth.
The Salesians thought he was around eight-years-old, but many years later, Tak found out that he was actually about 12 when he arrived in Hong Kong.
For the first time in his life, he experienced security and love. He was educated at St. Louis School and retained fond memories of Brother Dominic Francesia (1906 to 1991), who was a father figure to him.
In addition to reading and writing, Brother Francesia taught Tak and his schoolmates about the scriptures and shoe repair.
When Tak started his own family, he named his first son Bosco, in memory of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
He was forever grateful to the brothers who gave him his first experience of love, care and community life.
Occasionally he would take little Bosco to visit Brother Francesia at Tang King Po School in Kowloon and he also told him stories about his time at St. Louis.
He was a good father and a good example to his children, taking them to Mass every Sunday and leading evening prayer before a beautiful statue of our Blessed Virgin Mary.
A Maryknoll missionary
Thirty years after leaving Bangkok, Tak had become a husband and a father with several small children.
In or around 1953, an American Maryknoll missionary, Father Howard Trube (1913 to 1995), founded the Nativity of Our Lady parish near his home.
Tak and his family became one of the first parishioners and from that evolved a wonderful 30-year friendship between the two of them.
Father Trube sometimes took Tak and his small children around the New Territories in his Ford station wagon. The children loved the smell of Father Trube’s cigar!
For dinner, Tak’s wife would prepare the missionary’s favourite food—tofu, steamed fish and fried egg pockets stuffed with minced pork. His sons studied at the Bishop Ford Memorial School.
Around the mid-1950s when thousands of refugees flooded into Hong Kong from mainland China, the number of parishioners grew rapidly. Tak helped Father Trube with his pastoral work, including his relief efforts among the refugees and the innovative Noodle Project.
Tak also remained a lifelong member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
When his second son was born, Father Trube baptised him Howard, after himself, as a testimony of the close friendship between the American missionary and the orphan boy from Bangkok, who always remained grateful for the opportunity to serve the Lord through the Church.
In 1980, Tak became gravely ill and on his death bed, Father Trube anointed him with the sacrament of the sick and said a quiet goodbye to his long-time friend.
In commemoration of his life, his love for our Blessed Virgin Mary and their friendship of 30 years, Father Trube commissioned a beautiful cast iron sculpture of Mary and presented it to Tak’s widow.
By God’s grace, Tak’s second son, Howard, responded to God’s call and joined the Society of Jesus five years later. Today he is known as Father Howard.
God remembers his faithful ones
Tak was an ordinary man who lived an ordinary life. Yet his faith in God was extraordinary. In his childhood, he drew strength from the Blessed Virgin Mary through the rosary. He gratefully accepted the gift of faith during the pain of his childhood.
Mary did not forsake her son Tak, but showed unfailing love for him. God worked wonders in him—from the ship’s captain to the Salesians, to gifting him with a large happy family of eight children and introducing him to Father Trube.
God’s grace to Tak now sees his family continue serving the Lord more than a century after his lowly birth in that small, poor village in China, with one priest and, in a recycling of history, one working with a Maryknoll priest in his parish in Hong Kong.
Tak’s rosary changed the fate of his life and I hope that by reading my father’s story you may be inspired to gratitude for the blessings that you have received.
• Julie Louie