From Beijing to Kuala Lumpur: Search for missing woman continues for dad and son

Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 pray after a meeting in a pray room at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 4, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian
Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 pray after a meeting in a pray room at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 4, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. -- PHOTO: AFP 

When I was chatting over dinner with Mr Jiang Hui, the designated spokesman of a new batch of some 30 Chinese family members who flew to Kuala Lumpur last Sunday, an elderly man sat across from him, tight-lipped, while the others at the table shared the latest updates they received from their Beijing counterparts with zest.

The 75-year-old man was Mr Jiang's father, who prefers to be known only as Jiang Lao Ye, a generic title of respect for elderly men in Chinese society.

His wife Jiang Cuiyun, 71, had gone on a group tour to Malaysia and was one of the 153 ill-fated Chinese nationals who disappeared with the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. (In the passenger manifest released by MAS, Jiang Cuiyun is listed as 62 years old, but Jiang Lao Ye said that's a mistake.)

Later, when I walked Jiang Lao Ye to his room in Hotel Bangi-Putrajaya, he broke his silence and said that he hoped people could pardon the sometimes "over-the-top" rhetoric from Chinese family members.

"I don't talk, I let the young ones do the talking. I'm not as sharp as before," he said.

"But I try to instill in them the need to look at the bigger picture. They may not listen to me, but I'll try."

The bigger picture that he was referring to is Sino-Malaysian ties, which turned volatile after many Chinese family members - overcame with sorrow and distrust - directed their anger squarely at the Malaysian authorities. Beijing leaders and prominent Chinese celebrities had also criticised the Malaysian government publicly for its apparent incompetence in handling the unprecedented air travel crisis.

"This is the 40th anniversary of our diplomatic ties. It should be a year of celebration," said Mr Jiang, a Chinese Communist Party member who served in the People's Liberation Army and then the China Earthquake Administration before retiring.

A series of high-level visits and exchanges are scheduled this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Sino-Malaysian ties. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to visit Beijing in May while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is to return the visit in the second half of the year.

"Because of my work as a civil servant, I know how difficult it is to build diplomatic friendships," Mr Jiang said. "You start with nothing. Then over the years, you take turns helping each other out when the needs arise. Only then your trust in each other deepens.

"It hurts to see our friendship ruin like this," he said in Mandarin, with a heavy accent.

Chinese family members in Kuala Lumpur have sent terse messages, albeit in a measured tone, since their arrival at the Malaysian capital. They unfurled Chinese national flags and banners reading "Hand us the murderers" when they met the press for the first time on Sunday, and stepped up their rhetoric after a Buddhist prayer service the following day.

"We do not forgive sinners who hurt our families, cover the truths, and cause delay to the search and rescue operation," said the younger Jiang, who represented the group, before dozens of press cameras.

Letting out a long sigh, the elder Jiang said the message could sometimes be "over the top", but he reassured that most of them have simmered down because of the relentless care by Malaysian volunteers after their arrival.

For example, just before the Jiangs were about to dig in with their forks and spoons at dinner, a volunteer promptly swung by to offer them chopsticks. The move was clearly appreciated by the father and son.

When asked about a protest last week where hundreds of Chinese relatives tried to storm the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, the elder Jiang shook his head in disapproval. But he appealed to people to pardon the grieving family members at this stage.

"We are suffering here," Mr Jiang pointed to his chest, "Some of us let it out, some of us hold it back. But I hope everyone could pardon us. No outsiders can fully understand our pain."

Sharing a room with his 41-year-old son, who works in the telecommunication industry, Jiang Lao Ye said he would not mind staying behind in Kuala Lumpur alone. In fact, he hoped his son could return to Beijing for work soon.

"I'm old, I can afford to die waiting for miracles. But they are young. They have to work. They have to care for their own families. They have to move on," Mr Jiang added, referring to his two sons.

Then what would he like to tell his wife of more than 40 years, who had vanished without bidding a proper farewell?

"Come home safely. Your sons miss you. Your granddaughters miss you. I miss you all the more."

cpohkwan@sph.com.sg