The Petaling Street Beauty Parade
PETALING STREET in the early 1920’s. I’m out on an evening stroll with my maternal grandmother. To my surprise, on both sides of the road, I can see a dazzling parade of attractive women, perched prettily on high wooden stools. I find them thoroughly fascinating; they seem to a curious seven-year-old the very epitome of something secret and forbidden. I can barely resist staring at each one of them as we pass…
“Come on, come on, hurry up!” my grandmother’s gruff voice would reach me from a little distance ahead. “What’s there to see? Come on, quickly, it’s late already!”
And as I caught up with her, she’d mutter in a low voice, “Bad women!” I always hoped she would elaborate, but she never did.
I was fourteen when “Second Aunt,” the former sing-song girl, finally enlightened my naivete about these women. She commented that one’s fortune depended not so much on looks as on intelligence (referring to women like herself). But the slow-witted, like “Ah Lan,” usually amounted to nothing. Life for them held only drudgery.
Every day, just before dusk, Ah Lan and her colleagues would gobble down a frugal meal before attending to their make-up. They daubed their faces with chalk-white rice powder and added colour to their cheeks and lips with red-paper dye (rouge and lipstick may have been in vogue in Europe but they certainly weren’t in evidence on Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, in the 1920’s!) Ah Lan had plucked her entire brow and face clean of hair so that the make-up would stick better.
Next, she would change her bodice – an undergarment with elbow-length sleeves and gold or silver buttons. Two large pockets on the front of the bodice provided support for her breasts. Brassieres were nowhere in sight in those days, which seems quite remarkable, in view of the veritable mountains of padded bras on sale along Petaling Street today!
Women like Ah Lan usually wore long, black silk trousers and wooden clogs. When it was time to start work, they brought out their wooden stools and took their places on the five-foot-way, posing for invisible photographers. Most of Ah Lan’s colleagues (she called them her “sisters”) were by no means familiar with the concept of elegance. They were streetwalkers – or, rather, streetsitters – of the lowest grade and, at fifty cents a “go,” their clients could hardly expect elegance.
Of course, Ah Lan had been worth much more in her prime – but that was many years ago. She was never much good at saving, though. Besides, a sizeable cut of her takings had gone to the upkeep of her “mummies,” and she, like her working sisters, had two of these – one natural and the other strictly professional. Apart from her natural “mummy,” Ah Lan also had to support a whole string of natural brothers and sisters.
Now she was left with only a few gold teeth, a handful of bracelets and chains, and a small collection of good silver buttons; just about enough, nevertheless, to make her feel more fortunate than some of her really down-and-out customers. With these, Ah Lan could, if she was in the mood, extend a measure of charity by way of a few friendly words, or a few extra minutes, or even a genuine display of warmth.
No doubt there wasn’t much of a future for Ah Lan and her sisters, apart from the prospect of ending their days in the local poorhouse. But this would only happen if Ah Lan was unlucky enough to have to sell all her gold ornaments to pay for exotic herbal cures. True, the government had started licencing the streetsitters, making it compulsory for them to report regularly at the general hospital for hygienic inspections. With any luck, Ah Lan might be able to retire gracefully in a few years, perhaps even become a “mummy” herself.
Luck, however, wasn’t something that featured prominently in Ah Lan’s horoscope. Not “good” luck, at any rate.
Years later, when I found out what the Petaling Street Beauty Parade was all about, I used to wonder why my maternal grandmother had called those poor streetsitters “bad women.” Unfortunate, yes… but “bad”?
It is we who are cruel, not life.
The Sing-Song Girl
IN OLD CHINA, the Courtesan was generally regarded as a highly accomplished person. Among the many skills required of her was the ability to sing and play on a zither-like instrument called the pei-pai. Her clientele usually consisted of nobles and rich landlords, sometimes even royalty.
Kuala Lumpur in the Roaring ‘Twenties boasted no Courtesans (at least, not in the proper tradition of Courtesanship as practiced in China), but we had the pei-pai chai or sing-song girl. She was often to be found in the more established Chinese restaurants, providing entertainment while the customers dined.
The pei-pai chai, unlike the cultured Courtesan, was usually a girl of little education, taught to sing and play by an older man (more often than not a guardian or uncle), who accompanied her on a lute or violin. As to be expected, he would also function as the pei-pai chai’s manager or agent, especially after hours.
“Second Aunt” was once a pei-pai chai. She wasn’t really our aunt as such, but she lived next door to us and liked us addressing her as Second Aunt. Her husband was a government servant, and she must have been quite a celebrity among sing-song girls to have caught his eye and captured his heart. After all, in those days, a government servant was considered an excellent match; he could easily have married someone from a respectable background.
Of course, Second Aunt could quite as easily have become a tycoon’s concubine. But she was smart enough to realize that being a rich man’s concubine often meant a slavelike existence by day at the merciless hands of the principal wife, despite all the endearments heaped on her by a doting husband in the privacy of the bedroom. As a concubine, she would have had very few rights outside of the nuptial chamber; even her own children would have been required to address her as “aunt” as long as she lived.
Every time Second Aunt came over to chat with our mother, we noticed that she would be displaying a new ornament around her neck or on her wrist or on her well-manicured fingers, We enjoyed the way she flaunted her assets; the coquettish movements of her eyes and hands, her elegant clothes, the vivacity of her expressions. The mannerisms of a sing-song girl, in the case of Second Aunt, were a lifelong trademark.
When Second Aunt’s marriage proved barren, she adopted three children who called her “mother.” She also gave generously to charities, for the Chinese believe that such acts of kindness will ensure that one ends one’s days surrounded by grandchildren. Perhaps Second Aunt was simply grateful to the gods for her good fortune in being someone’s principal wife rather than a mere concubine.
The Japanese Doll
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE DAYS when Maternal Grandma would take my sister and me on her rounds, collecting interest from her various debtors. She would drag the two of us with her from one end of the town to the other, because we had been entrusted to her care, and she didn’t dare leave us locked up in the house in case we played with matches and burned the house down. Like all young children, we found it hard to resist striking matches and watching them ignite. And, like many old ladies in her day, Grandma found it hard to resist playing the neighbourhood usurer – something my mother would never have approved of.
But I loved walking along Petaling Street with Grandma, There was always something unusual to catch my attention. Grandma usually had my younger sister’s hand firmly clasped in hers, and a large parcel in the other, and she made a point of walking very briskly down this particular street, to minimize our contact with the sordid side of life. This ploy worked with my younger sister, who remained innocent of the adults-only goings-on in this part of Kuala Lumpur.
At eight, I was intensely curious, and a practiced dawdler. Somehow I always managed to lag behind Grandma and catch a fleeting glimpse of a world beyond my ken.
On this occasion, I spotted an assorted assembly of men bunched together against an open ground-floor window of a shophouse. They seemed to be engrossed in a show. I had to see what the excitement was all about, so I squeezed in amongst the men and peeked in the window.
I saw a life-sized Japanese doll (that’s what I thought she was) combing her long hair and tying it up in a coiffure. She was seated daintily on a tatami mat on a raised plank floor. Her bedding was rolled up nearby and the mirror in front of her was surrounded by little bowls containing the paraphernalia of her toilette. Her kimono featured a low neckline and her eyes and lips were exquisitely made up. Her feet were demurely clad in cloth socks, and she performed her patient task of hairstyling without the slightest sign of perturbation. It was as if her audience did not exist, Could she be a very life-like doll? I was totally fascinated by the tableau in front of me and could have gazed for hours along with the men… but I felt a hard, knobbly hand on my arm, which pulled me roughly away from the window.
All the way home I was lectured on how wicked I was; this was the umpteenth time she had caught me looking at bad women, and I would surely burn in hell with all of them, unless I mended my ways.
Finally, Grandma made me promise not to breathe a word of this entire outing to Mama, and I agreed, knowing I had a useful trump card in hand. Grandma knew Mama would be livid if she ever found out about her unlicenced money-lending habit – and that she had risked corrupting her grandchildren by taking them on a walking tour of Petaling Street!
Too bad my sister let the cat out of the bag one day, which resulted in our being sent to a boarding school, to keep our young minds unsullied. At least we would be safe from Grandma’s unwholesome influence.
We could have wound up behind the high walls of a convent, were it not for the fact that Mama, being a loyal Methodist, chose for us a stolid Anglican institution, St. Mary’s Boarding School for Girls. There were no high walls around St. Mary’s – but we would soon learn that there were much subtler ways to confine young minds than mere walls of brick or stone.