Both Second and Third Sisters stayed gratis in their mother’s home with their entire families. In reciprocation they paid their mother a token tribute of “cake money.” Eventually, of course, this practice resulted in the complete exhaustion of the family wealth due to extravagance and poor management.
But, as long as the money lasted, womenfolk from such backgrounds had practically nothing to do. They were provided with slaves to look after their children. Some had personal maids to comb their hair. Others had maids assigned to serve their husbands, which invariably led to connubial complications. However, as nyonyas were well known for their aggressiveness and ferocity, such occurrences were rarer than in, for instance, Cantonese families. Anyway, their husbands would hesitate to try anything “funny” while living in their mother-in-law’s house – and after years of being dominated by women (first by their own mothers and later by their mother-in-law) they would naturally have become very docile and dependent. (It’s hard to imagine any mother-in-law today who would want to maintain their sons-in-law, plus their families. Today’s mother-in-law would surely prefer to spend her fortune vacationing abroad!)
Third Sister’s mahjong habit began unremarkably enough. She would come home each evening before dinner time and no eyebrows were raised. As time went by, she grew bolder and bolder, and soon she was absent from home till midnight. Her timid husband put up with her waywardness until he could no longer bear it. He decided it was time he had a heart attack. In those days a heart attack was very different from what it means today: if someone clutched his heart in agony and cried out that he couldn’t breathe, it usually indicated that he was in deep emotional distress and could not articulate his suffering.
Which is precisely what Third Sister’s long-suffering husband did. I knew it was all for show and that he was in no danger of expiring. He didn’t dare admonish his wife directly. To him she was a valuable prize, worthy of undying love and worship. He had, in fact, been offered another girl from a richer family as his wife, but had chosen to marry Third Sister – even though some people considered it a real humiliation to be subject to matriarchal rule (the Cantonese called it “being taken in by the bride”). In any case, Third Brother-in-Law undoubtedly loved his wife dearly – and she knew it. I suppose she was pushing the limits.
The house we lived in was a rambling sort of bungalow, single-storey, with a huge compound where sports and games were played, ideal as a setting for a soap opera. When we heard Third Brother-in-Law groaning and complaining in between coughing fits that he couldn’t breathe, the elders of the household (his mother-in-law, brother-in-law and elder sister-in-law) rushed to the rescue with hot water and pungent oil for the “wind.” I woke my husband up and said I was going down to help, too, but he stopped me, saying that juniors should not interfere. Apparently it was a Cantonese custom. His father had been a typical Cantonese and his mother a typical nyonya. I realised that I still had much to learn about the two very different strands of tradition observed in this household.
It was obvious that Third Brother-in-Law’s violent coughing and his “heart attack” had been timed to wake the household up just before the return of his prodigal wife. The elders administered the oriental treatment for chest pains and breathlessness: a vigorous massage with medicated oil and a pot of hot tea. After the anxiety and fuss had subsided a little, the atmosphere became brooding and angry. No words were spoken, but everyone knew that Third Brother-in-Law’s “attack” was caused by a serious transgression in the family. Now, added to the anger was a sense of collective guilt. In ancient China, whenever a wrongful act had been committed, not only the culprit but his immediate family, his extended family, all his relatives including those bearing his surname, would be executed; sometimes a whole village could be erased by this tradition of collective accountability! Considering that one was required to pay ancestral debts unto the third or fourth generation, it’s a miracle that China has always had such a large population.
Third Sister was let in fearful and trembling. The living room lights were on. Three sisters with formidable faces were seated in council in their rosewood chairs: the silence was as cold as the marble inlayson the backs of the elders’ chairs. For months, Third Sister had been sneaking in after her mahjong sessions – and her loving and obedient husband had been quietly unbolting the door for her. But tonight… he was indisposed.
The eldest brother, representing the late paterfamilias, was the “Chief Judge.” The Mater, seated on his left, was the ”Prosecutor.” Elder Sister was the “Witness.”
I couldn’t contain myself. I just had to open my bedroom door, a discreet slit, to watch the drama. For someone like me, who had been brought up in a Christian (that is, more westernized) household, it was like a scene out of a Chinese opera! My husband kept saying it was wrong to eavesdrop on Third Sister’s moment of humiliation. Well, I was quite sure he wouldn’t “report” on me – and even if someone caught me, apart from the embarrassment, it would be interesting to find out what manner of “punishment” would be devised for my crime!
Despite the heaviness of her belly (she was nearing full term in her pregnancy), Third Sister knelt before the Family Tribunal. The charge was read. She confessed and promised to “sin” no more. A ruler was produced (there being no sword in the house). The “Judge” tapped her on the shoulder three times. Her husband, recovering in bed, called out for leniency. Third Sister was told, in the severest of tones, that she would henceforth be kicked out of the house if she came home after 11 p.m. Thus ended the punishment.
Not long after this incident the baby arrived – and Third Sister’s mahjong evenings resumed. Her devoted husband was soon conspiratorially unbolting the front door for her whenever she came home late.
As the saying goes: “Who can say anything if the husband remains silent?”