ON AN ANCIENT HILLOCK in Fukien Province stood an old mansion which overlooked a peaceful village with rice fields, vegetable plots and fruit orchards stretching as far as the eye could see. The village was clearly a prosperous one, populated by quiet and industrious folks. Every inch of arable land was farmed, and babbling brooks flowed in every direction, bringing health and abundance.
In the mansion lived Lu-Shee the scholar, youngest scion of a family of landlords. He was an idealist. That is to say, he had never given a thought to the day-to-day affairs of the estate – and his elder brothers were only too happy to let him spend his allowance on books and regular English tuition (zealously offered by Christian missionaries from the city).
Lu-Shee considered it a real privilege to be bilingual. His ambition was to be a lecturer in an institution of higher learning, or to be posted overseas as a diplomat. To this end he would spend almost all his waking hours in his private library - and some of his sleeping hours too. English was extremely exhausting to master, and more often than not he would nod off at his desk.
He was rudely awakened one morning, after a whole week of intense study, by the shrill cacophony of quarrelling female voices. Bleary-eyed and greatly annoyed, he unbolted his window to investigate the commotion and to give the servants a proper ticking off. As he expected, the cook and the housekeeper and nearly all the maids were gathered in the front yard, gesticulating with noisy indignation. And lo! holding her own against them with arms akimbo was the most attractive vegetable seller he had ever seen. Despite her rough and ragged peasant garb, this village girl surpassed in beauty all the females in his household. She was what the Chinese would term “a dark peony.”
Lu-Shee kept his peace and watched the little drama below his window. The girl’s wild beauty transfixed him – but what fascinated him even more was her arithmetical skill. She was reeling off a long list of prices and totalling them up with effortless speed. Unable to keep pace with her mental calculations, the cook and housekeeper were convinced that they were being overcharged – hence the raised voices.
Hearing someone cough at the window, the peasant girl looked up. She saw a fair-complexioned, good-looking and very refined young gentleman staring at her intently. For an instant she returned the stare, askance, her neatly plaited hair glossy in the morning light. The cook was quick to add to her accusations yet one more crime: “Now see what you’ve done, you’ve ruined the young master’s sleep with your screeching voice!”
LU-SHEE HAD NEVER EXPERIENCED personal contact with any young females apart from the servants. One simply did not converse with domestics, one issued orders. Now Lu-Shee found himself wondering what it was like to enjoy the company of females. In particular, he yearned for a closer encounter with the vegetable seller. He could impress her with his advanced technique on the abacus. But how was he going to arrange that? Obviously it would require patience and some careful calculation.
Finally, he conceived a plan to waylay her in a secluded spot. He began to take morning strolls, first in the vicinity of the mansion, then gradually farther afield. After all, there was nothing like a little fresh air to revive a scholar’s tired brain cells. Before long, Lu-Shee’s regular morning strolls were taking him down many wooded paths and through the vegetable farms. And thus it chanced that, one particularly misty morning, a farmer’s daughter on her way to work found her path obstructed by the young master from the big house on the hill.
“Er… good morning,” the young master said. “I wish to ask you a question.”
The girl rested her laden baskets on the ground, but held on to the flat wooden pole used for balancing her wares upon her shoulders. Like a yoke on a pair of oxen, the flat pole with a wicker basket at each end was the Chinese farmer’s traditional method of transporting heavy loads on foot. Now it could serve as a weapon. A farm girl could not afford to be too demure or gentle – but this man was a landlord, and it was prudent to be polite to landlords.
“What is it that the master needs to know?” Her gaze was direct and bold. A little wary, but by no means unfriendly.
“I need to know your name,” Lu-Shee said, careful not to sound overly earnest.
The vegetable seller relaxed her grip on the flat wooden pole. A farmer’s fortunes depend greatly on the clemency of the weather: droughts and floods bring equal ruin and loss, even death. Late payment of rent, or the landlord’s displeasure, could lead to beggary. But the gentleman’s eyes are kind, she thought, and smiled.
“They call me Ah Ling.”
“Ah,” Lu-Shee nodded gravely. “Good name, Ah Ling. Good figure. I mean, you’re good with figures. Well, then, hope to see you again… good day!”
This “casual” meeting was to be the first of numerous discreet encounters, each less “casual” than the one before it; and so what began as a pleasant and exciting diversion in their dull routines quickly developed into a passionate romance of classic proportions.
AH LING AND LU-SHEE were acutely aware of the dire consequences. If their affair were discovered, Lu-Shee would be disowned by his family; penniless and disgraced, his future would be bleak indeed. Ah Ling might survive the terrible flogging from her father (her parents could not afford to disown her) but she would surely have to leave the village – and perhaps her entire family with her. They would be homeless paupers, ostracized by everyone in the village. It would have been in order if she were Lu-Shee’s concubine, but never his wife.
They could elope to the land of milk and honey.
It was a desperate option. But theirs was a desperate love. Ah Ling had heard employment agents speak of how immigrants had prospered through hard labour in the southern countries. Boatloads were leaving daily for Nanyang, below the South China Sea.
Lu-Shee looked at his soft, elegant hands and feet and felt serious misgivings.
But Ah Ling’s robust optimism and courage more than made up for his doubts. She made it her business to find out everything she could about conditions in Nanyang: documents, procedures, fares, schedules, agents’ commissions, employment contracts.
One day, Lu-Shee turned to his beloved peasant girl as they were leaving their favourite trysting grove: “Do you know the old saying, ‘When the horse dies, the rider must walk’?”
Ah Ling shook her head. “Don’t tease me with riddles!
“I’m not teasing you. This is no joke. My horse is dead. I must find another one.” Lu-Shee picked up a twig and sketched three Chinese characters on the ground. One of them evoked the image of a running steed. Ah Ling furrowed her brow as she strained to decipher his writing:
“Mah… lai… yah?”
“That’s where I think we’ll find it,” said Lu-Shee softly as he brushed a leaf off Ah Ling’s threadbare blouse. “A life without you is no life at all.”
IN THE WEE HOURS of the morning, Lu-Shee met Ah Ling outside the village and, with nothing more than they could comfortably carry on their backs, they made their way to the nearest port.
At the docks, a “passage agent” was happy to relieve them of a substantial amount of cash. Hundreds were already queuing up to board a large steamer. There were schoolteachers, petition writers, petty traders and labourers; they would occupy the lower decks. A gangway leading to the upper decks was reserved for rich merchants, colonial administrators and their ladies.
Ah Ling and Lu-Shee gazed in awe around them. This was another world. Neither had ever seen the sea. As the ship pulled away from the wharf, not much was spoken. But everyone on the lower decks shared the same thought: will we live to see these shores again?
The third class passengers slept on straw mats – males on one side; females on the other. Throughout the voyage they were homesick and seasick, but hope for a new start in life sustained them. Ah Ling and Lu-Shee were befriended by another couple who spoke their dialect. They had heard that in Malaya land was being given to settlers willing to clear the jungle and plant rubber trees. Before the ship docked in Singapore, Ah Ling and Lu-Shee had been persuaded to join the other couple, who were heading for a rubber settlement in Sepang, several days’ journey up the peninsula.
During the first few months, there were many evenings when Lu-Shee the scholar wept while his common-law wife Ah Ling salved his blisters with lard and dressed his wounds with clean rags. What a price to pay for love, he thought. But he felt sorry for Ah Ling too. She had never had to work so hard back in China. Now she was almost as dark as a native, and her skin was no longer smooth to the touch.
Lu-Shee the rubber tapper could read and write English. He could even speak it, though haltingly. Not many in Sepang could claim to be well-educated and bilingual. And so, when the itinerant magistrate needed an interpreter-cum-clerk to assist him whenever the tiny courthouse in Sepang was in session, Lu-Shee was the obvious choice. He received a monthly salary, of course, but he was required to attend court only when the magistrate was present. This arrangement suited Lu-Shee very well, for he could continue working on his own land as before.
As their circumstances improved, Ah Ling bore Lu-Shee several children. But each brought her little joy, for they were all females. Ah Ling took it all in her stride, working at the plantation even when she was heavy, and returning to work three days after each delivery. Daughters or not, Lu-Shee saw to it that his children all attended the local primary school, where they could learn English. When they grew up, they could seek respectable employment as nurses and schoolteachers.
Late in life, God answered Ah Ling’s prayers and gave her three sons. Lu-Shee decided it was time to move to the city, where the better schools were located. These were good years for the rubber trade. Ah Ling and Lu-Shee enjoyed their new prosperity without much display. They continued to be frugal, and had little to do with society. Ah Ling and Lu-Shee had their children, and they had each other, and that was enough.
In my younger days, I was introduced to Lu-Shee and Ah Ling, who were then in their sixties. I remember watching the old couple sit quietly on the porch, not saying much, just gazing into each other’s eyes. One day, I asked Lu-Shee if he and Ah Ling had ever revisited the village of their birth. He shook his head without sadness:
“My children were born in Sepang. My wife and I now live in Kuala Lumpur. This is the only homeland we know.”