Tuesday, 27 December 2011


SCHOOLS AND FACTORIES have much in common: they are places where "raw" materials are methodically processed into useful products - hopefully of some quality.

This was very much the case even in the early 1920's. In my school, the students were expected to be prim and proper, scrupulously clean at all times. We had to keep a straight back and a straight face - unless the teacher happened to be telling a joke, which wasn't often. It was, in fact, just like being in the army; it's hardly surprising that soldiers tend to go berserk in times of war!

In later years, there were moments when I considered myself fortunate to have been educated in such a mechanical, military fashion. Perhaps the discipline inflicted on me did equip me with an inner strength, which has served me well in the face of many hardships and setbacks I have experienced on the road of life. Yet I sometimes wonder: isn't it possible to cultivate the necessary grit and determination, to learn how to accept challenges without flinching, by less painful means?

My teachers were all efficient robots, save one - and she was looked upon as the weak link in an otherwise steely chain of command. It is conceivable that these "robots" might have had a soft spot in their hearts - even for us "Asiatics" - but they had to maintain the hallowed tradition of the army and keep us all in our places.

A rigid sense of decorum and dignity established and widened the gulf between the British teachers and their Asian students. We knew nothing of one another's background, culture and religion, and had absolutely no inkling of one another's personal opinions and expectations.

It was during the last stage of my school life that Madge showed up and radically changed the meaning of education for me. Madge was our literature teacher, and the whole class fell headlong in love with her almost on sight.

She could have passed off as a Brit except for her dark hair and eyes; but not being indisputably British, she didn't have that air of sternness, that stiff upper lip, that subtle sneer of condescension. Madge was Anglo-Indian, and exquisitely lovely blend of cultures and genes.

Miss McNeil, our crotchety missionary Principal, and Miss Bird, the seedy-looking Superintendent of St. Mary's Boarding School, did not approve of Madge one bit. They took particular objection to Madge's style of dressing and her lively mannerisms. Madge, you see, dressed comfortably for the tropics, in collarless, sleeveless, unfrilly dresses - just long enough to cover her knees. Moreover, Madge didn't wear a straw hat, nor did she ever don a white cocked hat when leaving the school building.

Madge had been accepted as a teacher on account of her excellent qualifications. As a part-Asian, her salary was probably about half that of a "full-blooded" B.A. imported from England.

She couldn't have been more than twenty-three: fresh as a lily she was, and she walked with such a bouncy step, she appeared to be bobbing, especially when she was in a hurry. She was just a little under five feet, and slightly rounded. Her tailor-cut outfits matched her petite form to a "T" - in enviable contrast to our own sack-like attire (designed by our thrifty mothers to last us several years, and therefore deliberately sewn three sizes too large). While we girls had to wear three-quarter length sleeves, Madge wore daring sleeveless dresses that revealed her fair and shapely arms. Her hair, so smooth and sleek, was tied in a neat knot at the nape of her neck; ours had to be plaited or cut very short. In comparison with our completely outdated appearance, Madge was a veritable fashion plate. And apart from being so approachably small, she had the most enormous heart ever.

Because of her, we all made excellent progress in English and Literature. We learned to appreciate poetry without being forced to commit every line to memory. My enthusiasm soared to such giddy heights that I even attempted to read Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

When I think back on my final year at school, I can picture Madge sitting so prettily behind her desk, which seemed too large for her. The chair had been specially modified for her and held an extra-thick cushion, without which we would all have towered over her. Our gaze often rested on her lips and not on our books as she read to us our favourite poems: The Miller of the Dee, Young Lochinvar, Casablanca, Longfellow's Psalm of Life.

We acted out Shakespeare's plays with great delight - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night. We shed tears over Dicken's David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and laughed uproariously or wept over his Pickwick Papers. We were so very human during our Literature lessons. It was indeed wonderfully therapeutic for our souls to feel such a range of emotions. However, we had to restrain ourselves whenever we heard the "squeaky approach" of our Principal. Thank goodness she had those shoes - otherwise hers would have been a "sneaky approach"!

Madge typified the Ideal Woman for us. When we heard she was going on leave, we immediately suspected that she was planning to get married and we rejoiced on her behalf, for in our hearts we all harboured hopes of someday being allowed to choose our own spouses. Some of my classmates were already betrothed to young men they had never met. Alas, they were compelled to be obedient and filial daughters, as tradition dictated.

Those few months with Madge were the happiest period of my school life. But the Chinese have a saying: "Let us not be too happy lest the gods begin to envy us!" And sure enough, we were soon deprived of our ecstasy. Madge came in one morning, her cheeks pale, eyes hollow and dull. The sun seemed to have disappeared behind the clouds. We stood up in silent discomfort as she entered the classroom, all of us instinctively aware of her distress, and so we spared her the customary chorus of cheery greetings. With a grateful nod, she bade us be seated.

The lesson began in an unexpected way. One of the girls was asked to read a particular scene from Twelfth Night. Our minds were definitely not on Shakespeare. How could we savour the Bard when it was so evident that some terrible tragedy had befallen our favourite teacher? But what the nature of the disaster was, we could only speculate. Madge didn't utter a sound until the girl had reached that excruciatingly poignant line:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pin'd in thought;
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.

Then, struggling to control her emotions, Madge thanked the girl and asked her to sit down. saying she had had a bad night and was suffering from a splitting headache, Madge told us all to carry on reading quietly. But we knew it was her heart that ached and not her head.

As soon as class was over, we urged one of the Eurasian girls, whom everyone called The Official Reporter (as she was well-connected to "reliable sources"), to investigate the exact cause of Madge's grief.

Early the next day, our Official Reporter turned in a story that generated a tidal wave of shock and anger throughout the entire class. Our hearts were moved to profound outrage at the injustice done to our beloved Madge.

This was what we learned: Madge had a beau of French and Dutch descent whose family had strongly objected to his wanting to marry an Anglo-Indian girl. Such a case of unmitigated bigotry! The young man's family was known to be wealthy, but that didn't make them a better class of half-breed than Madge! Or was it simply because half of Madge was asian? The young man had suggested elopement - but Madge felt that such an unseemly recourse went against the grain of her character. Was it wrong to be in love? Why must they run away and hide their faces from society? In any event, Madge must surely have felt deeply stricken by such overt rejection.

We debated this topic amongst ourselves for over a week. What would constitute a morally impeccable solution? The more impulsive or romantic ones argued that true love should triumph over all else, and that Madge would be perfectly justified if she threw convention and social mores to the winds. The more sober or timid ones maintained that love was far too noble a thing to be sullied with scandal, and that the truly high-minded lover must sacrifice love for the sake of love.

In the end, we jointly penned a letter a message of sympathy to Madge, in which we promised to pray hard for her future happiness. We added that it might be a blessing in disguise for her not to have anything to do with such a snobbish family, and reminded her that time would heal all wounds.

We never knew how she felt about our letter, which she graciously accepted, thanking us for our heartfelt concern. But Madge was never the same again. She had lost her effervescence, her buoyancy and bright confidence. We could only hope that she would meet someone worthy of her and live happily ever after. She certainly deserved it.

Our Official Reporter had overheard that Madge intended to resign at the end of the term and emigrate. We couldn't help but regret that she wasn't going to be around to congratulate us for the wonderful results we were going to obtain in English and Literature. Still, we were glad to think that we would soon be graduating from school. The experience of losing such a good teacher and friend was too traumatic to bear for long.

Without Madge, I might never have acquired a taste for literature, for drama and poetry. She evoked sympathy and understanding for our fellow-beings by her sheer generosity and vitality of spirit. These are what I consider the best things in life - the rightful heritage of all humankind.

Sunday, 25 December 2011


Dai Moong Yang, 18, and her bridegroom Lee Kong Beng, 23

SHE SAT QUIET as a mouse in her bridal chamber while the guests were feasting in the garden. The wedding party was being held in the groom's family house: in the early 1930's, hotels hadn't got into the business of catering for such affairs.

How she wished she could tuck in with the rest of the crowd. She had started the day early after a very scanty breakfast, and hadn't had another bite since. At the ceremony, the wedding cake had looked extremely tempting - but she hadn't had the nerve to help herself to a piece. To do that was unthinkable, and her lack of restraint would have been the talk of the town. Already, she was considered brash for walking into the hall with her head held high instead of looking demurely at the floor. She was a Christian bride going through a traditional Chinese ceremony; she had to know her place.

She was so hungry she could almost see the tables spilling over with exotic delicacies - oh, for just a morsel to tickle the palate! (She later found out that the banquet cost $6 per table of ten heads, not including children. A real bargain!) The food must be excellent, judging from the noisy gaiety of the guests. Or was it the drinks and the multicoloured lights? The Bridegroom and his family were busy mingling with the guests. Each member of the family had invited their own friends.

"You don't marry an individual, you marry an entire family!" That's what I always tell the sweet young things who come to me for romantic advice or to pour out their marital woes.

Halfway through the dinner, the Bride's presence was required.  Accompanied by the bridesmaid, the Bride did her rounds, smiling and inviting everyone to eat and drink their fill, all the while acutely aware that her own belly was growling. The Groom drank to the guests' health from table to table - in contrast to the Western custom, where the guests are expected to toast the Bride and Groom. (Nowadays, most Asians have settled on a compromise: they toast one another!)

After dinner, the Bride was requested to entertain the guests with a little performance on the pianoforte. She played a semi-classical piece she had learned by heart, and the audience, though unused to such musical fare, seemed appreciative enough. The bridesmaid went up and sang a popular love song. So sweet was her voice, she received a marriage proposal that very night! The ardent bachelor conveyed his proposal through the Bride's mother-in-law, but the bridesmaid was not interested. (The word "incompatible" hadn't entered the vocabulary of romance. After all, a wife was expected to be obedient, so there was no real need to get to know one's future wife; as long as she had a pretty face, that was good enough.)

Finally, the garden was quiet once more, and the newlyweds could retire to their private chamber. When they were alone, the Bride woefully confessed that she was starved, which surprised the Husband greatly. Wasn't it up to the Bride's family to look after her right until the moment she was married off? When his brother had gotten married, the  bride's family had supplied her with homecooked food for a whole month. But then, this Bride wasn't a Cantonese and, even if she were, would her "wicked stepmother" bother with such a tradition?

A slave girl was sent off to the kitchen to fry a couple of eggs and warm up the rice, and thus the Bride had a midnight snack for the first time in her spouse's home. It was heavenly. Anything tastes fine when one is hungry enough.

Two weeks went by and the husband's relatives were still in the house. The Bride wondered when they were going to leave. She had to serve tea at both main meals before she could sit down and eat. This went on for a month, and then her mother-in-law instructed her to stop doing it for the other in-laws, but she was to continue serving the mother-in-law indefinitely.

By now the Bride understood: all the in-laws were permanent residents, part of the extended family. The various maids or slaves belonged to the in-laws, except for two who were directly answerable to the Matriarch. These two had been bought specially for her by her late husband, the self-made tycoon. The cook and the laundry women, however, were shared by the whole household. There were forty people in that household and at least ten domestics. The entire operation was funded by earnings from the late Patriarch's rubber estates, crockery shop, provision stores, and so on. Still, it was a wonder that his resources could stretch that far.

In a household this huge, it was difficult for an expectant mother to be given preferential treatment at meals, as the Bride soon discovered. The other women seemed to have no problems. The sister-in-law spent all her time with her rich mother and had access to all sorts of delicacies. The other two women were always out playing mahjong somewhere in town, within easy reach of whatever food they fancied. But the Bride hadn't established her own connections and had nowhere to go apart from the school where she taught, and the food sold in the tuck shop left much to be desired. In the end, her new husband solved the problem by routinely smuggling all kinds of goodies into their bedroom, where she could indulge her cravings in perfect privacy.

Being married was turning out to be quite an experience. Did all brides have to go through such quaint initiations? It began on the second day of her marriage: she was expected to pour out a basin of water for her mother-in-law to wash her face in, making sure that all her paraphernalia were in their usual places - her big mug of mouth-rinsing water, toothbrush, tooth powder, silver tongue-scraper, face towel. This had earlier been the responsibility of the first daughter-in-law who, assuming that the new daughter-in-law knew the custom, had happily left the assignment to her.

Later, after breakfast, the Matriarch asked to be shown "the white handkerchief" (the traditional proof of one's virginity). The Bride had been unable to comply, for she had taken a bath first thing in the morning, and had no stains to display; she hadn't realised that in some quarters such a custom still prevailed. The Matriarch was tolerant of this oversight, knowing the Bride had lost her mother before she could be taught these things. The less said about it the better - so the Bride refrained from pointing out to her mother-in-law that her late mother, a devout Christian with progressive ideas, would never have dreamed of being party to such a crude and humiliating test.

As it turned out, the early-morning toilette ritual for the Matriarch happened only once. As a school teacher, the Bride had to leave the house quite early, and so was exempted by her mother-in-law from carrying out the expected duty, which fell to one of the maids.

Come to think of it, we Asians never used to go on honeymoons. After the wedding, the Bride and Groom had only the weekend to spend together before each went back to work, she to her teaching and he to his office.

Grateful to her mother-in-law for letting her off lightly on all the old customs, the Bride decided to donate the handsome sum of $5 per month to the Matriarch - "cake money," they called it. Considering that her monthly salary was only $25, there wasn't too much left after deducting food and transport expenses. Still, it was much better than staying at home all day. Apart from the resident army of domestics who took care of day-to-day chores, the fact remained that the Bride didn't even know how to boil water. Her late mother had wanted her to become a school teacher or a music teacher, so as a child she had never been allowed in the kitchen! That was the new middle-class lifestyle practised in Hong Kong, where her late mother grew up.

Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, was a nyonya, and believed that girls should primarily be taught to be good cooks; education was of secondary importance.

But most important of all was respect for the mother-in-law! In fact, the first time the newlyweds went out to see a movie, the Bride was expected to ask the Matriarch's permission just to go out with her own husband. If the old lady remained silent, it meant NO! Fortunately, the Matriarch was in a good mood and replied, "By all means!" But, before leaving the house, the Old Lady had to inspect her daughter-in-law's apparel, to make sure she brought no disgrace to the family. On several other occasions, the Bride had to go through at least two changes before receiving the Matriarch's seal of approval. Nothing too old or too loud or too solemn. The Bride understood that the entire ritual served mainly to establish the parameters of matriarchal power. The husband, of course, refused to see it as such: for him, his mother could never be wrong!

It took some time to adjust to the new situation, but at last the Bride could feel she had settled down comfortably to a happy married life, having been put through a crash course in what the Chinese call "the Art of Living."

Friday, 11 November 2011


"... we lugged our belongings along three miles of rough estate road..."

IT WAS, to say the least, a truly agonizing period, fleeing from one temporary abode to another. We had thought life would be peaceful and safe in our hut in the Karak Estate among newly-planted rubber trees, bananas and sweet potatoes. No possibility of starvation, at any rate. A few more dreadful months, perhaps. The British would soon recapture Malaya from the "Japs."

Alas, it wasn't to be!

The estate workers were at the end of their tether: gangsters were taking advantage of the chaotic conditions and robbing all and sundry. Former government servants such as my husband could consider themselves very well off, with the three-month bonus they had received just before the invasion. But, on the other hand, that made the likes of us fair game for the armed gangs. The gory heads on display in the marketplace were no deterrent to these desperate criminals.

Around three o'clock on a cold, eerie morning, with the help of three young men (nephews of the estate manager), we lugged our belongings along three miles of rough estate road to a concealed lorry parked near the trunk road. Estate workers had dug up the already rough estate road to deter the Japanese army trucks from entering. Little good this did, for the Japs later marched right in and ordered all the able-bodied men to serve as porters, hauling out the entire hoard of foodstuffs there (tinned food and rice from the kongsi) on foot!

We got our baggage and ourselves on the lorry and by dawn were approaching Kuala Lumpur. My brother-in-law had offered us shelter in his house, which was already packed to capacity. Safety in numbers, that was the general idea. A room had been prepared for our family of four. Unmarried members of the clan slept where they could in the sitting and dining rooms. My sarongs and gold jewellery were sold to feed the Lee family - about a dozen of us in all.

The Japs were conducting sporadic search-and-arrest operations. No one could feel safe in that atmosphere of uncertainty. One morning, my husband had a craving for something different in our daily menu, and insisted on going marketing. I pleaded with him - another few days of lime rice and ikan bilis (preserved anchovies) wouldn't kill anyone! But there was no stopping this die-hard gourmet.

He was gone for hours. Word reached us that the Japs were hauling up young men in house-to-house inspections along Bukit Bintang Road. Finally, my husband returned with some fresh provisions, and a hair-raising account. As he was leaving the market with one of our neighbours, the Japs had stopped them and ordered them to squat by the roadside. Just then, a cyclist appeared and, seeing the Japs, began peddling furiously away. While the Japs were in hot pursuit, my husband had the presence of mind to whisper to our neighbour, "Now or never!" They hastened down an alley and disappeared. That day itself, several hundred men were taken away and never seen again.

We decided that it was time to move again. It would not do to have too many men in one house. But, before we could arrange our departure, the Japs came knocking on our door. It was too early to get drunk and rape a few women - so the females in the Lee household were spared. The menfolk were scrutinised and found to be a respectable, well-fed lot - obviously no communists, secret agents, or gangsters in their midst - so they, too, were spared.

By now, it looked as if the Japs were here to stay. The soldiers must have been under orders to avoid antagonising the locals too much. After all, it is one thing to invade another country - but quite another to try and govern it smoothly.

My father, who had been posted to the Kuala Selangor District Court, decided to resign and move to Sepang, a Foochow stronghold. There, amongst his fellow countrymen, he would be much safer - or so he thought. But no sooner had he arrived in Sepang than he found himself robbed of all his money and clothes!

I was tired of being a refugee. I suggested that my husband apply, in person, for my father's former position as court interpreter. At least, in Kuala Selangor, we would have a house of our own and our children could lead a more normal life. They were now aged six and seven-and-a-half: they needed a proper home routine, some tuition to prepare them for school; and they needed milk and eggs.

Life in Kuala Selangor was idyllic by comparison to what we had left behind in Kuala Lumpur. We had a she-goat to provide milk - just one cup daily and a bit extra for my "face cream." Chickens provided eggs and fresh meat, and we had our own vegetable plot. Despite the constant water shortage, we had little cause for complaint, though we had to make our own oil (from coconuts) for lighting as well as cooking.

"Punchuri" was my immediate neighbour and closest friend. (She was quite a character; you can read about her in the next chapter!) In return for my helping her in various ways, she taught me a little Tamil and explained Hindu culture to me. Even in war-time, I was getting extra education!

In fact, we were all getting a lot of education, in the most unexpected fields. Kuala Selangor was rich in seafood, especially cockles, which the Japanese loved; they would soon can them and ship them back to Japan. My brother-in-law Kong Soon and his friends came to Kuala Selangor to gather shellfish for a living.

It wasn't at all difficult. They rented a small boat, paddled out along the muddy banks of the river, and simply scooped up the shellfish with two shallow buckets, mud and all. They sat at one end of the boat and kept scooping up their catch until the boat was full. Then they would sell the entire boatload to a middleman and call it a day.

We were rather fond of our peaceful lifestyle in scenic old Kuala Selangor, but, towards the end of the war, we were advised to move again. Word had arrived via the "underground network" that a British submarine was sailing into position for an offensive against the Japanese. Our little house was at the foot of the hill on which a Japanese fortress stood, overlooking the sea. It was directly in the line of fire, and certainly not likely to survive the heavy shelling.

And so, after nearly three years in Kuala Selangor, we were refugees once more - this time to a tiny village a few miles away named Parit Besar, literally, "Big Drain"! We had to dig a well for water and build a makeshift bath and toilet behind our new shanty home.

The other residents, mostly "Anchoon" Hookiens, were amused by our genteel touches. Why couldn't we do like them and use the nearby rubber estate as our toilet? And why didn't we bathe at the well like everybody else?

Nevertheless, they soon became very friendly when they discovered how versatile I was: I could teach their children the rudiments of English, sew for them when they managed to obtain some cloth, diagnose their ailments and dispense free medicine (which wasn't too complicated, since malaria was rampant in the village!) I even played midwife when their daughters had babies.

The villagers were generous with sweet potatoes and vegetables and sometimes even rice - so I never really had to slog in the fields under the hot sun.

We remained in "Big Drain" till the British returned. As we loaded our possessions onto the lorry, the entire village came to send us off. We had a live goat, bought with the last of our Japanese Occupation Government currency (a crisp one-thousand banana-dollar note donated by Uncle Ho on his last visit to Kuala Selangor!) I sat up front beside the lorry driver, and as we were about to begin our journey to Kuala Lumpur, a lady whom I knew only as Ah-Mmm ("aunty" in Hokkien) threw a red packet onto my lap. I thanked her and she waved us off, smiling and dabbing her eyes.

When I opened the red packet, I was overwhelmed. Ah-Mmm had put in $20 (British Malayan currency) - a whole month's salary for some people. It could well have been her life savings!

Some years later, when I revisited Kuala Selangor to enjoy a reunion with old friends, Ah-Mmm came with her granddaughter (whom I had delivered) to see me. The poor child had a squint. She must have been left alone all day in her rattan cradle with nothing to look at but the colourful wooden toy attached to a spring!

For some reason, this brings to mind an incident which occurred when we were part of the Parit Besar community. A woman had offered her six-year-old granddaughter as a child bride for my eight-year-old son. The woman added that, if my son didn't fancy her when he grew up, I could keep her as an extra daughter or maid to look after me in my old age. It was a great surprise for me to find such a custom being practised so far away from China, and in that day and age. Yet the practice was not as uncivilized as one might think. A village female didn't have much chance of personal fulfilment: she would be raised as a workhorse, a breeding machine for the family she married into (where, of course, the menfolk would eat first and the womenfolk were welcome to the leftovers). Indeed, it was because the woman loved her granddaughter that she had made me the offer.

My son, like most boys his age, hadn't acquired an interest in the opposite sex, and was visibly upset when he heard about the offer. (We turned it down, of course.) What a narrow escape! But thereafter the child-bride was put to effective use as a threat by our cook Ah Wong. Whenever he was less than obliging in helping her with her errands, she would say:

"Maybe your mother will change her mind and accept a child-bride for you - at least I'd have someone to help me once in a while!"

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


MY CEYLONESE NEIGHBOUR in Kuala Selangor was a lady from Jaffna with an extremely long name and a very small stature. We lived in one half of a wooden semi-detached house, and she and her family lived in the other.

She was fastidiously clean - inwardly as well as outwardly -so much so that all the other Jaffnese around avoided her like the plague. "She's trying to be a Brahmin!" they would sneer. Then they would shake their heads and ask me: "How do you manage to tolerate her nonsense?"

True, she could be quite a nuisance at times, but I found her fascinating. Whenever she was happy, she would experience religious ecstasies; when provoked by her husband or her sons, she would let fly with a fluent stream of Tamil curses. She walked very slowly and and always had plenty of time to chat - sometimes leaning on her balcony, and other times popping round for a long visit. But she was definitely a source of mental stimulation for me; indeed, Punchuri was an entire "library" for my inquisitive mind.

In 1944, the only book in my possession was a midwifery manual which helped me to deliver three babies under less than ideal conditions. I can still recall Ah Mmm's slippery eight-pound granddaughter. Rice being hard to come by, the mother had eaten too much tapioca during her pregnancy, which is why the baby turned out so heavy. There were no towels, so I used the father's new singlets. No proper thread, so I used pineapple fibres, which kept breaking. No rubber mat, only old newspapers strewn on the hard floor for the first-time mother to give birth on. Ah Mmm didn't want to soil the precious mattress.

IT WAS ANOTHER pleasant evening in our government-issue wooden bungalow in Kuala Selangor during the third year of the Japanese Occupation. My two children were waiting for their dad to come home for dinner. They had been quietly observing as I chatted with our neighbour. Suddenly, my daughter asked: "Mum, how come her teeth pun choot lay?" ("Pun choot lay" is Cantonese for "to protrude"!)

I ignored her question, but from that moment on my children kept referring to her as "Punchuri" - which, I suppose, did sound a little like her Ceylonese name. After a while, she picked this up, and she asked me, "Why your children calling me 'Punchuri'?"

I managed to change the subject, but the nickname stuck. Children don't know how to be discreet... but they were right; Punchuri's teeth did protrude in a remarkable way.

PUNCHURI'S HUSBAND was a chief clerk in a government office. She herself wasn't expected to do any work, owing to her "condition."

She had been a lively, healthy teenager until her widowed mother married her off to a man twice her age. At that time, she was fifteen. Her health gave way after the birth of her two sons, and the treatment she received at the hands of her in-laws only caused her more mental anguish. Eventually, she suffered a nervous breakdown, and was now regarded by the family as "psychologically unsound."

Punchuri's mother had had a son and two daughters. She had laid careful plans for her son and the fairer daughter. Punchuri, being dark and not as pretty as her sister, had been foisted off on an older man who was willing to accept a much smaller dowry. Punchuri's mother had promised to send the dowry after her son's graduation. However, no dowry came - not even after Punchuri's sister had snared herself a doctor. Now, every time Punchri's sisters-in-law came to the house, they would demand to know when they could expect the dowry. The only blessing was that Punchuri didn't have to cope with a mother-in-law as well; she had died before her son's marriage.

The nasty sisters-in-law were in the habit of arriving at Punchuri's home without any luggage. This way, they had an excuse to borrow all her good saris. (Perhaps they had once been guests at a Japanese hotel! I was holidaying in Hokkaido some thirty years later when something reminded me of Punchuri's sisters-in-law; a whole busload of Japanese women checked in at my hotel empty-handed apart from their handbags. Not long afterwards, I encountered them in the village, and they were all clad in identical kimonos and clogs taken from their hotel rooms. Another group of women, also in identical kimonos, but of a different colour, suddenly appeared. At first, I thought that there must be a political convention in the vicinity. It took me a while to realise that it was all part of the hospitality Japanese hotels offered their guests, both male and female, who were thus free to travel unburdened with suitcases. They didn't even need to bring underwear - who would know under those robe-like kimonos?)

Shortly after her marriage, Punchuri found that she couldn't eat meat without feeling nausea. So she turned vegetarian, which presented some problems: she felt she couldn't prepare vegetarian food for herself in the same kitchen where carnivorous meals were being cooked. Finally, a solution was worked out: the panjaran (temp;le keeper) would cook her meals, while their own cook supplied her husband and sons with meat dishes.

ONE NIGHT, Punchuri had a dream. In her dream, she heard the clash of cymbals and the booming of a gong, which signified the arrival of a Royal Personage. Sure enough, Lord Krishna appeared before her bedroom window - and he didn't seem very pleased with her. She knew right away that it was on account of her failure to keep her promise, which was to dress the temple deities in new clothes.

The same night Punchuri had her dream, a large brass ornamental plate fell off the mantel shelf in our living room. It made a terrible clatter as it rolled across the room, before coming to a halt with a thunderous clang. Could the brass plate have entered Punchuri's dream as a sound effect? I decided not to mention this at all; the poor woman seemed so distraught that I found myself volunteering to help her fulfill her promise. Little did I know what I had let myself in for.

First, I had to clean and polish my sewing machine before starting work on the deities' new clothes. Then I had to bathe myself and change into clean clothes before cycling two-and-a-half miles to the temple and dressing up Punchuri's gods. Some of my Christian friends, I know, will raise their eyebrows at this concession to "paganism," but I had no qualms about performing this service for my neighbour because I was acting out of concern for her health.

WHENEVER Punchuri had a monthly period, I was roped into special service. I had to go over to her house each time I heard her knock on the plank wall, and deliver food and drink to her on a tray. She would be seated on the floor near the bathroom, in the middle of a circle drawn with chalk. Apparently, her religious beliefs dictated that menstruating women must have an early morning bath and wash their hair before they could enter any part of the house. Since Punchuri was usually too sickly to carry out this ritual, she was required to spend the day just sitting in one spot, like a leper. Punchuri certainly knew how to make life difficult for herself. She would sit only in the children's cane chairs whenever she visited us; she felt the grownups' chairs were "unclean" since we observed no elaborate rituals during our monthly periods.

One day, she invited her son's Tamil teacher over to read my children's palms. According to his reading, my daughter had God's gift of healing, but my son had the gift of the gab and would make a good lawyer or preacher. Thereafter, Punchuri always insisted that my daughter measure out her medicine for her. The palmist proved correct about my daughter; she did become a doctor. He was completely wrong about my son, however. His job is putting people to sleep (he became an anaesthetist)!

Punchuri told me many stories about Hindu gods and goddesses and how they relate to Man. From her accounts, it would seem fairly hazardous for a Hindu god to commit any injustice, for all it takes is the curse of a righteous woman to burn down the god's heavenly abode!

I kept in occasional touch with Punchuri after the war years. She must have valued my friendship greatly, for when my daughter departed for her medical studies in Singapore, Punchuri sent her husband to the airport bearing a sovereign gold coin as a gift. This was indeed a generous gesture, from a man who had always been very careful with his money.

I heard that Punchuri's elder son married a girl from a lower caste and moved to Sarawak, and that the younger, more obedient son remained a bachelor. Over the years, Punchuri seemed to have grown stronger, while her husband eventually developed a heart condition. The last time I tried to visit Punchuri, her home in Brickfields had been demolished to make way for redevelopment, and I lost touch with her.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


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.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


THIRD SISTER was an incorrigible mahjong player, partly because she was a pampered daughter and wife – very unusual in an Asian family. Her mother was a nyonya and, like all Peranakan women, she loved her daughters more than her sons (this was generally true, though particular sons enjoyed special favour with the Matriarch).

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?”

Monday, 8 August 2011


THE CHINESE observe All Souls’ Day as if they are going on a picnic. This is what I discovered when I married into the Lee clan.

The clan elders would see to it that the younger generations of Lees attended and performed all the rituals. Usually, the only way to dodge All Souls’ Day would be to fall ill – or to produce astrological evidence that indicated an unfavourable outcome if you had to step across strangers’ tombs to get to your ancestors’. You see, certain spirits take offence to certain people stepping over or even walking past their resting places.

On a typical All Souls’ Day, the Lee clan would assemble in the home of the eldest Lee. Then the entire motorcade would proceed to the cemetery, winding slowly along the narrow, badly maintained roads to reach their ancestral burial sites.

I remember the big baskets full of goodies – one for each soul. In each basket were quantities of rice, roast pork, boiled eggs, wine and fruit. Grandmother, in addition to her basket of offerings, had two large paper trunks filled with paper clothes – to be delivered to her spirit world by flame. Pocket money for the departed was part of the fiery consignment, the paper currency folded in the shape of gold ingots used in old China. All this unearthly paraphernalia had to be unloaded from the boots of our cars and transported manually to the gravesides.

First, the tombs had to be swept, and joss sticks and candles lit. One of the elders served as emcee for the ritual. He would announce each family member as he or she executed the three bows of fealty, before sticking a joss stick in the urn. After a decent interval, during which the spirit of the ancestor would have had ample time to savour the food, the living members of the clan would make themselves comfortable and consume the edibles. The same ritual would be repeated a each tomb. Afterwards, the Lee descendants would disperse, taking with them the empty baskets, and the picnic would be over.

Each burial site had been selected with the advice of a geomancer well-versed in the language of Wind and Water (feng shui). The future prosperity of the Lee clan depended on auspicious interment of the ancestral bones; and one of the significators of prosperity was the number of descendants. Our geomancer was undoubtedly a competent one, for the Lee family is considered large even among the Chinese.

Monday, 4 July 2011


THE DAY'S WORK DONE, I drag my tired self to the balcony, my private haven for meditation and relaxation. As my eyes rest on the blue and misty hills in the far horizon, the words of Psalm 121 spring to mind:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

To my right a solitary coconut tree sways gracefully in the cool, gentle breeze. The setting sun looks like a luminous oversized yolk from a fresh and healthy egg. Night will soon be here; twilight quickly ends in the tropics.

The swallows hurrying home are flying in the direction of an abandoned mining pool whose calm and limpid waters conceal great treachery; already it has claimed at least half a dozen young lives. None but the foolish or the ignorant would venture to swim in that pool. Among the superstitious, it is said that the woeful spirits of the drowned are ever in search of new victims to take their place, for until they can produce a proxy, they will know no freedom, nor can they reincarnate.

I have tried many times to explain where the danger lies: the long waterweed that undulates with the undercurrents can entangle the legs of swimmers. The harder they struggle, the more entangled they get, and sometimes the uneven bed of the mining pool produces unexpected whirlpools...

My reverie is interrupted by the sharp bark of my dog, Ciro. I peer down into the garden and am just in time to see a green snake ringed with bright yellow slither into the bamboo clumps.

"Oh, those accursed bamboos, lair of snakes and iguanas!" I have so often uttered under my breath, but the old dame, our cook, simply refuses to have them cut down. "Where are we going to get poles for drying clothes; leaves for wrapping rice dumplings when the Fifth Moon comes around; or switch-brooms to springclean before Chinese New Year?" she will retort. And, as usual, she has her way. She has always had the final say as far as the back garden is concerned - and rightly so, since it was she who transformed the patch of unruly undergrowth into the fruiting and flowering miracle it now is.

Bananas, papayas, guava and sugarcane grow in such abundance that friends have facetiously suggested I export them. Start a factory, the price of sugar is going up! The Chinese view it as a crime to leave good land idle; hence every usable square foot of our garden is planted with fruits and beautiful flowers.

Ah, the flowers! They grow not only in the garden but also in the fields beyond, in a hundred glorious hues and patterns. God has indeed dressed the fields with greater finery than Solomon was ever able to adorn his mistresses. Chrysanthemums, roses, lilies, bougainvilleas, hydrangeas and cannas galore! At midday the scorching sun tried its best to subdue them, but now in the evening cool, their flowery spirits revived, they are lifting their fragrant faces towards heaven in praise and thanksgiving. And they will do the same tomorrow, and the day after that, and ever after...

The night fairies will soon be home! All Chinese girls are taught never to pick flowers after sunset.

I offer a silent prayer of pure joy and gratitude for the daily blessings the Lord showers upon us.

It is now more than three decades since I had to move from my home in Pesiaran Ampang, but the tranquil view from my balcony passes before my inner eye each time I find myself adrift in timeless reverie.


"HUNDRED AND THREE, hundred and four, hundred and five..."

Joey was determined to be the skipping rope champion in her school and was feeling elated at her progress. As she kept count under her breath, her attention momentarily fell on her grandpa sitting on the old stone bench in the garden.

"He's dreaming again, just like he always does when we're watching the ships on the horizon," she thought, careful not to lose her rhythm.

"Hundred and fifteen, hundred and sixteen, hundred and seventeen, hundred and eighteen..."

Joey loved looking at the distant ships with her grandpa whenever the two of them went on long strolls down the esplanade.

"Hundred and twenty-two, hundred and twenty-three, hundred and twenty-four, hundred and twenty-five! Now let's see Lucy try and beat that!" Satisfied with her achievement, Joey dropped the rope and ran over to the stone bench, planting her plump little buttocks down with a resounding plop and disturbing her grandpa from his reverie.

"Joey! How many times..." Grandpa spluttered and then, seeing the mock innocence on Joey's irresistible face, he smiled, though a little wearily.

"Why do you keep looking at that house, Grandpa?" Joey asked, in her sweetest voice.

This seemed to catch Grandpa off guard and, to give himself time to think of an appropriate answer, he cleared his throat with great seriousness. He put an arm around his inquisitive, eight-year-old, chubby and utterly adorable granddaughter. She was definitely the apple of his eye.

"See those beautiful roses? I was admiring them. I love roses," he said, pointing in the general direction of the rose bushes across the road.

Joey knew her grandpa was fibbing. He'd always been more interested in fruit trees than flowers. But something in his voice made her stop probing. Instead, she shrugged and ran off to try and break her own record on the rope. She remembered her mother's comment a few days ago that Grandpa was behaving oddly, giving up his comfortable rocking chair on the verandah for that cold, hard stone bench, and dreaming away for hours. He must be getting senile! Joey didn't know what "senile" meant, but she could guess that it had to do with extreme old age.

"Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-four..."

Grandpa's back was aching after so many hours on the stone bench. Suddenly his face lit up, like a child who has just been offered a bar of chocolate. He noticed that the roses were in bloom - red, yellow, pink and white - and the bushes had been recently pruned... because he could now see a slender figure in a white blouse and red floral sarong watering the plants, very lovingly, very gracefully.

Most elegant women had quah-chee faces - the shape of melon seeds - and if she was a nyonya (as she appeared to be by her manner of dressing), she must be using bedak sejuk*... good heavens, perhaps she was also a habitual betel-nut chewer - such a hideous indulgence, to discolour one's pearly teeth! Banish these unkind thoughts... ah, she's moving towards the gate!

Grandpa's heart began to palpitate. He must find a way to meet her, to have a good look at her at close quarters, but how? As the days passed, his thoughts grew feverish and sometimes he completely lost interest in his meals. He noticed the anxiety written all over the faces of his loved ones. "Are you all right, Grandpa?" everyone kept asking, to his utmost irritation. But he managed to keep a poker face, at the same time feeling quite guilty at finding himself in this ridiculous situation - to be in love like a forlorn puppy at his age!

Everything comes to one who waits. Grandpa remembered this from the scriptures. One afternoon, from his position on the stone bench, he saw his dream woman open the heavy front gate for the fishmonger and the butcher. She did this with such dignity and elegance! Then she beckoned them in. Grandpa's heart sank. How would it look if he went over on the pretext on wanting to buy some provisions? No, it wouldn't do: etiquette demanded that he call the vendors over and look over their wares in his own front yard...

A whole week went by. Grandpa was rewarded by the sight of his dream woman opening and closing the gate for various members of her household. She must be married! But the man could also be her brother; there was some resemblance... Oh, look, there's her fluffy Pekinese rushing out on the road, chasing after the car that has driven off!

Grandpa found himself out of the front gate in a trice, running after the dog. The woman had started in pursuit, but she was no match for the septuagenarian. He picked up the dog as it paused to urinate against the kerb, cooing reassuringly to it. As he turned to hand over his temporary charge, his gaze fell full on the woman's face. She was smiling, no doubt impressed by the old man's swiftness. She was the spitting image of Betty, his beloved late wife. In fact, she might have been Betty's twin, notwithstanding the forty-year difference, but Betty had never had any sisters...

"Beautiful dog," he said, quickly regaining his composure.

"Thank you, thank you very much... are you all right?" the vision said, expressing concern at Grandpa's laboured breathing.

"Of course! Never felt better - bit of exercise, you know!"

Grandpa walked slowly back to the old stone bench, feeling elated. A miracle had taken place! She was real... he had spoken with her... they could... anyway, they could now wave to one another across the road for a start.

*traditional skin-cooling rice powder used by some local women

Sunday, 3 July 2011


"I'M BORED TO DEATH! Every morning, crawling to work through the traffic, I ask myself why I shouldn't take optional retirement," Joy said with a long, drawn-out sigh.

I glanced at Joy. There was certainly little joy on her face. But that's life in the city for you! The city - how it seduces the young from the kampongs, with its bright lights, its tinsel and glitter, its fool's gold!

There had to be a way to cheer Joy up, get her feeling positive.

"Joy, look at that young man in the red car; he's enjoying his music so much he's actually dancing in his seat!"

Joy cast a disapproving look at him, but I could feel her tension easing a little. All around us were routine scenes of joylessness and negativity. Mothers yelling at their kids, couples quarrelling heatedly in their cars, their flushed, irritated faces betraying the boredom and stress of their lives. Just another traffic jam.

Fortunately, I have learned the art of amusing myself even under the most trying conditions. Pedestrians on both sides of the road, or passing in front of my car, are a rich source of entertainment, literally a moving picture, produced and directed by Life.

Wow! Here's a highly fashionable Sweet Young Thing, short locks waving pertly in the breeze, wearing a blouse twice her size and a skirt so tight it could split right open at any moment, and she's wobbling along atop a pair of four-inch heels... whoops! Now right behind her is a very voluptuous damsel wearing an almost identical outfit, what a coincidence! Coming up next is a skinny young man in a huge hurry whose hairstyle is absolutely cat-and-mouse - the front sticks up like a cat's whiskers and the back is braided into a long, ratty tail! And look at his pants, and those oversized shoes - he must have escaped from a circus!

The trick is to filter out and totally ignore those who are conservatively dressed.

Waiting for people to show up after they've phoned to announce their intention to visit ("I'm coming over soon!") can easily lead to acute boredom and stress. What I do is to pick up last month's issue of Reader's Digest. Or sweep the dust off the top of my piano. Or mentally select my wardrobe for the forthcoming Church Annual Dinner or So-and-So's birthday banquet or the next YWCA Fundraising Dinner. You'd be surprised how much idle time stuff like that consumes. And when the visitor finally turns up, gushing apologies for taking an hour-and-a-half to arrive, you can be the perfect host and say you didn't mind one bit - and actually mean it!

There's really no excuse for anyone to say, "I'm bored to tears." Not even if you happen to be a housewife. If you're tired of trying out new recipes or working on your garden, there are always good books you haven't read, parts of your mind you haven't stimulated - and no end of letters to write. It's definitely better exercise than gossiping on the phone half the day!

All the different types of stressful boredom are compounded when you find yourself visiting a friend or relative in hospital, and you have to keep him or her company for hours, without actually being the usual definition of "company." Boredom added to anxiety and fatigue intensifies the stress. You can pray - though not for hours on end. And you can reminisce, mentally reviewing the happy moments you've shared with the loved one now knocking on death's door, so that the value of your friendship is experienced fully once again. This certainly helps to make you feel very glad to be there, despite the small discomforts and inconvenience. In fact, these quiet moments spent watching over a sick friend or relative can be infinitely rewarding - at least you can experience what it's like to be a guardian angel!

So never, never be bored. If you are, you can be sure that it's entirely of your own making. Boredom is often the sign of a negatively charged mind. Reverse the polarity, transmute the situation into something positive - and you'll find yourself a much more resourceful person than you ever thought.