|Dixie & Sonny, circa 1941|
She was pretty chubby as a child and always insisted that she was born in Shanghai. The truth was, her father was in Shanghai as a participant in the China Olympics the day Dixie was born: November 6th, 1935. She must have heard him speak of the excitement and wonder that was Shanghai, the precocious thing, and felt that Kuala Lumpur wasn’t exotic enough a place to be born in.
Anyway, her father (like every typical Asian father) had expected his first-born to be a boy and returned from China with heaps of beautiful suits for a baby boy! Fortunately Dixie managed to charm him the moment he held her in his arms – and before long he was getting out of bed to administer her night feeds while I slept like a log.
Dixie was scarcely ten days old, and her father was still on the slow boat home from China, when she developed a sore throat and couldn’t drink her milk. My mother-in-law promptly took charge of the situation. She saw white specks in her granddaughter’s little mouth and immediately ordered her adopted daughter to fetch the jar of preserved vegetables. I watched as Dixie’s mouth was cleaned out with bits of salted vegetable. What else could I do? I was an obedient, frightened, nineteen-year-old mother, an alien in my husband’s household, where his mother’s word was law. She was fond of telling me that she had eaten more salt than I had eaten rice. And she was right – at least on this occasion – for Dixie got better with impressive speed.
Nonetheless, I was overjoyed when my husband received a posting in Temerloh the following year. It was a Godforsaken town, but it gave me the chance to be mistress-of-the-house, and there was ample space in our quarters for a toddler to enjoy free range. But these were hard times, and permanent postings were hard to secure. We soon found ourselves back in Kuala Lumpur under matriarchal rule.
Around this time, Dixie had an abscess in he right arm which, I thought, required simple surgery. But my mother-in-law forbade me to take Dixie to a hospital. Instead, she applied a poultice of ginseng slices on the abscess until it ripened and burst. When the wound still hadn’t healed after a few days, I began plotting ways to take Dixie to a Western doctor without the matriarch’s knowledge.
Fate intervened, and my husband was posted to Kuala Lipis on short notice to replace another court interpreter who was on leave. And so I was finally able to take my own daughter to see a doctor! As it turned out, the “doctor” who attended to Dixie’s unhealed wound was only a hospital assistant – but he certainly didn’t object to being addressed as “Doctor.” The daily dressing of the wound was so simple that I could have done it myself, but one couldn’t risk offending the almighty hospital assistant (particularly if one happened to be a woman), so one had to act dumb and play along with his game. Bear in mind that there were no private clinics to be found – even if one could afford such a luxury!
The Kuala Lipis District Hospital was situated on a hill – and our government-issue bungalow was atop another. Buses and taxis were an idea that hadn’t yet reached this particular neck of the woods. And the area was too hilly for trishaws or bicycles. So I walked – or, rather, trudged – the distance between our house and the hospital every day with a well-fed one-and-a-half-year-old around my waist. I thought of all the frontier women I had seen with one child on their hips or backs, another child clutching their hands, and an unborn one bouncing around in their bellies (I myself was in the family way again!) – and though the reality was certainly no picnic, the image was picturesque enough to make it all seem very worthwhile.
Dixie’s wound was stubborn, and I lost count of the times I had to negotiate those hills. But by God’s grace it finally healed, though it left an ugly scar on Dixie’s arm. The little hardships I had to endure were more than made up for by the many happy moments we had in that rambling old house with its long, wide verandah. Dixie loved to explore every nook and corner of that beautiful and comfortable bungalow.
Her little brother Choong Keet arrived on the 8th of July, 1937. My husband bought us a push-cart, as Dixie was getting too heavy to carry for long, so I used it to wheel her around on little visits, especially to our good friends, the nurses who lived nearby.
One evening, they invited us to tea at their quarters – a rare treat indeed, for it would be Dixie’s first “grown-up” party! She was all dolled up in her favourite outfit, and I left her to attend to my own dressing up – but when I was ready to go, I noticed to my horror that she had plastered her entire head with Vaseline from he dad’s dressing table! We had to cancel the tea but – since only doctors and high-ranking civil servants were supplied with telephones – I had to travel up hill and down dale to the nurses’ quarters to explain why we had to miss the tea party.
My husband’s next posting was in Bentong, Pahang. Dixie was by now four-and-a-half, and she had mastered the alphabet. She also knew her Chinese primer (Book One) by heart and could recite the whole thing in Cantonese. She was bored with all her books (she had never cared for dolls and other toddler toys) and longed to join all the kids she saw going to school on the public bus. I was apprehensive about her wanting to commute to school at such a tender age – but realised she was ready for more learning experiences than could be found at home.
Government servants were held in high esteem in those days, and the bus drivers all knew what position Dixie’s dad held in the Secretariat. At any rate, they were extremely friendly and helpful, and that eased my mind about letting Dixie set off by herself to school each day. There she was, a stickler for punctuality with her little suitcase holding her drink, her biscuits, and one cent as pocket money. Dixie had asked for the suitcase and the pocket money; she knew exactly what it took to be an adult!
One day, Dixie missed her regular bus and was left behind in school. She had run off to ease herself just before the bus arrived. Her schoolmates, whose ages ranged from eight to twelve, for some reason were all afraid to speak up, coming as they did from families where children were not encouraged to display any initiative – at least, that was how the school principal explained it to me later. What did Dixie do? Rather than knock on the principal’s door (she lived just above the school), Dixie decided to cross the road to the bus station, where she managed to board another bus – after assuring the bus driver that she would pay the five-cent fare upon reaching home.
We were in the middle of lunch when Dixie charged in, breathlessly asking for five cents to pay the bus driver. Then she came back in and burst into tears. I should have just picked her up, put her on my lap and comforted her. Instead, I told her there was no reason to cry, since her small ordeal was over. I was an ignorant mother, only twenty-four, and I knew absolutely nothing about child psychology.
DIXIE WAS FIVE and Choong Keet three-and-a-half when the Japs landed on the east coast of Malaya in rubber dinghies – smack in the middle of the monsson season. For us, World War II had arrived. No one had ever dreamed the invasion would happen so swiftly. The British had been totally complacent – after all, no boats could survive the rough seas at that time of the year! Well, the Japs did very well in their rubber boats, and then they jumped on collapsible bicycles and pedalled down the length of the peninsula!
My husband and I were volunteers in the St. John’s Ambulance. We witnessed the fear and confusion all around us and saw many families scattered by sheer panic. As a safeguard against such an event, I had two large silver pendants inscribed with the children’s names, their parents’ names and address, and other particulars. Dixie and Choong Keet were instructed to wear these pendants around their necks at all times, and I also equipped them with two miniature knapsacks containing milk powder, biscuits, a change of clothes, and some money.
On top of all the anxiety of the times, both children and I came down with chicken pox. We survived by boiling and drinking large quantities of chee chou yong (a species of crystallised red herb). All semblance of routine existence had broken down. Rumours were rife, and well-meaning friends offered their advice, most of which only served to bewilder us even more. At last, we decided to accept the offer of refuge extended by the manager of a rubber estate in Karak. Mr. Ho Chee Cheong had recently constructed additional labourers’ quarters, and was kind enough to accommodate our entire family, along with those of other government servants.
Bananas and sweet potatoes grew in abundance on the estate, and my husband had managed to procure some government warehouse rice, mixed with lime as a preservative. Life in the Karak estate seemed peaceful enough on the surface – but we were constantly on our toes.
The Japanese advance guard had an uncanny instinct when it came to ferreting out stores of food and other valuables. Watches and jewellery were highly prized: some of the Japs wore “confiscated” watches all the way up their arms! Each time a Jap patrol entered the estate, all the womenfolk ran and hid in the wild undergrowth. My domestic, Ah Wong, carried Choong Keet on her back and disappeared behind the bushes, while Dixie and I buried ourselves under the tall weeds. Sometimes we had to remain in hiding the better part of a day. The Jap patrols enjoyed lazing about the estate, demanding to be served hot meals and drinking whatever they could lay their hands on.
Our supply of lime rice was soon exhausted. We had been sharing it with the estate labourers. Now, we could sense a ripple of discontent amongst them; we heard reports that the labourers were whispering conspiratorially about all the cash the government servants had on their persons (it was true that my my husband had received a three-month bonus just before the British administration collapsed in disarray). We no longer felt safe on the estate, what with all this covert talk about the virtues of “sharing wealth.”
So we arranged, through the good offices of Mr. Ho the estate manager, to move ourselves and all our belongings in the middle of the night, over several miles of uneven track, in pitch darkness, to a hired lorry, which was waiting to pick us up by the main road and take us to Kuala Lumpur. As we drove through Bentong in the eerie predawn light, we could see human heads stuck on spikes all over the marketplace. These had belonged to people executed by the Japanese for robbery and looting.
We chose to go to Kuala Lumpur, thinking that in times of chaos and terror it was best to be in a big town, where we could lose ourselves in anonymity. Into a single-storey, three-room house we crammed ourselves with all my husband’s brothers. And all of us had enormous appetites. I had to sell my gold jewellery to keep the extended family fed. We had such heaps of foodstuffs that we seriously considered going into business, retailing much-sought-after provisions. Alas, the merchandise was quickly consumed before any of it could be sold!
God has always helped us out of a tight spot – although in my youth I never quite perceived it that way, not being particularly religious. But I realise now that God blesses and takes care of each of us in His own way. Just as things were becoming difficult in Kuala Lumpur, my husband was able to take over my father’s post in Kuala Selangor. My father had decided to move to Sepang, where there was a high concentration of his countrymen, the Foochows.
The Japanese Occupation Government was now in the process of consolidating its rule over Malaya – and that meant retaining as many civil servants in their original posts as possible to ensure continuity of services.
Our sojourn in Kuala Selangor was a badly-needed relief from the stresses and strains of the preceding months. We had it so good in Kuala Selangor, in fact, that soon our relatives began sending their children to stay with us. At least they were assured of some wholesome food until better times prevailed.
There was talk that a large amusement park was about to open in Kuala Lumpur; they would need entertainers, waiters and waitresses by the score. Since Dixie had learned a few Japanese songs, some of her aunts suggested that she try her luck as a professional songbird in Kuala Lumpur. I dismissed such an outrageous suggestion immediately. My daughter was hardly ten! I also voiced my objection to the whole idea of my young nieces being sent out to work as waitresses; it was the best way to ensure their meeting the wrong sort of men. The amusing irony of it all - when you consider that my own father would later be part of the regular clientele a the very same amusement park.
AROUND THE MIDDLE of 1945, we received word on the grapevine that British submarines were about to shell the Japanese military headquarters on a hilltop overlooking Kuala Selangor. Our humble wooden bungalow was right at the foot of that hill! The attack could happen at any moment, so there was no time to waste. By now, we had had lots of practice packing up quietly and quickly. This time, we relocated to a remote village which everyone called “the Big Drain” – a literal translation of “Parit Besar.”
There we learned that fresh toddy (coconut wine) contained lots of Vitamin B.* So we didn’t object to Dixie’s habit of wandering off into the coconut groves, where she would drink her fill of the sweet, intoxicating grog, before returning home with a huge jug for us. Whatever we couldn’t finish was kept till it fermented, and then used in lieu of vinegar. Dixie was fond of helping us scrape coconuts: we had a pedal-powered contraption that worked very efficiently, though it was none too safe for the butter-fingered. From the coconut scrapings we could obtain fresh coconut milk, as well as oil for cooking and lighting. The residue was fed to the chickens.
[*Or so we thought at the time; I have since learned that this is not true.]
In Parit Besar, I learned to draw water from a well and transport it in two tins balanced on a kandar stick – the way construction workers do it! Ah Wong, our faithful domestic, turned out to be an excellent gardener: she worked all day long in the field, planting all kinds of vegetables for our own consumption. I took over her indoor duties – while continuing to give tuition to my children and, later, to a few other children from the village. In exchange for sweet potatoes and the odd kati of rice, I did some tailoring for the locals, and even performed some simple doctoring on the side.
More than once I found myself playing midwife to the neighbours. Dixie, too, had proven herself adept at amateur midwifery some years back, when our she-goat was in labour. I couldn’t fit into the tiny goat-shelter, so I got Dixie to do the needful. Armed with a piece of rag, she crawled into the the shelter and delivered the kid. She even cleaned it and took out the placenta without the slightest qualm or queasiness. I knew then that she would make a good doctor!
During the war years, we had the opportunity to sample an exotic variety of meats – monkey, iguana, musang (civet cat), even dog! Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to participate in these adventurous feasts, so I usually had an early dinner of poached eggs and went out visiting, to avoid witnessing the slaughter of these poor creatures (Ah Wong was quite expert at it). To the Chinese, these rare meats are considered not only delicious, but also medicinal.
DIXIE AND SONNY (for that was what everyone was calling Choong Keet) managed to acquire a basic grasp of English and a little arithmetic. We had no textbooks. It was too dangerous to keep books in English about the house, for if the Japanese ever came to know about it the punishment would be severe. Of course, Dixie and Sonny also had to learn some Japanese, if only to avoid getting slapped whenever they ran into some Japanese soldiers!
As soon as the British returned and English schools were reopened, I sent Dixie to St. Mary’s, my alma mater. She was admitted into Standard III – but within a term was promoted to Standard IV. In 1946, my husband was posted to Raub, in Pahang. Dixie was enrolled in a co-educational government school – the only English-medium school in town. Within a year she was given a double promotion to Standard VI. She did so well that another double promotion was offered to her – but I felt it was unfair for her to miss out on her childhood by moving so rapidly through school. So I turned down the offer. I didn’t want to see Dixie turn into an adult before her time!
She was now at an age when boys would take notice of her and occasionally harass her. When she complained about this, we decided to put her in the Senior Methodist Girls’ School in Kuala Lumpur, where she could live with her youngest aunt until the school hostel was ready. This suited her fine, for this was Dixie’s favourite aunt.
I accompanied my youngest sister Moong Wai and her young children to Hong Kong, where my brother-in-law Hai Kee was studying to be a doctor. When the family had settled in comfortably, I returned to Malaya, only to learn that, in my absence, my husband had been transferred to the Supreme Court in Kuala Lumpur. What a wonderful surprise! He told me that he had been recommended to the Supreme Court by one of the judges who had been impressed by his work in the Raub district court. So here we were, back together in the capital, and doing better than could be hoped!
Dixie completed her A-levels when she was only sixteen – too young to be admitted to the University of Malaya in Singapore. In the interim, I arranged for her to teach Junior One classes at the Confucian Secondary School, a private Chinese medium institution. It proved to be a tough job for Dixie. Most of the boys were the sons of hawkers and shopkeepers – in other words, none too genteel or particularly motivated to learn. Seeing a fresh-faced teacher just a few years senior to them in age, the boys decided to become a major disciplinary problem for Dixie. I didn’t realise what the situation was, though I was teaching in the same school – but I had the Senior Twos and Threes, and had already gotten used to the “tough” behaviour of Chinese school “baddies.”
Dixie kept quiet about it – until one day she simply walked out of the classroom and went home. The class monitor appeared at the house with an official delegation to lodge a formal apology – but Dixie absolutely refused to see them. They later wrote her an eloquent letter, begging to know why the honourable school teacher had made the whole class “scrape the dust” (the most terrible humiliation imaginable) by refusing to accept their sincere apology. Dixie didn’t see this as their asking for a second chance; she submitted her resignation and, with the money she had earned, paid for her own passage on a holiday with me. We sailed on a Dutch liner for Hong Kong – a very restful six-day voyage, discounting bouts of seasickness.
The following year, Dixie gained admission into the second year of the University’s medical programme. She managed to complete the six-year medical course in four years and eight months! She also met her future husband, a senior medical student.