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."