Friday, 23 March 2012


Dai Moong Yang @ Grace Lee (left) with her middle sister Moon Loy in Johore Bahru, 1982.

A message to my children, grandchildren, relatives, friends and readers:

IT GIVES ME GREAT PLEASURE to share with you stories of bygone days. They are written to portray the struggle and joy of being human, as well as to entertain you.

In Those Days is a collection of stories about my Foochow, Hakka and Tungkoon Cantonese ancestors. It chronicles some of the adventures of three clans - the Dai, the Siew, and the Lee, who migrated to Malaya between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Land was granted free on condition they cleared it to plant rubber, or mined it for tin. The Dai Clan were teachers, preachers, small businessmen or Chinese physicians. They had been landlords in their village in China, unused to manual labour. As the clan proliferated, the ancestral land could only support those who farmed; the non-farmers were compelled to migrate to "the land of milk and honey."

Grandfather Dai sailed to Sarawak with his flock of Christians. Mama came as a teacher of Chinese classics; my father-in-law was a businessman, a pioneering entrepreneur. Grandfather Dai retired to Sitiawan, a kind of Foochow colony, and it was there that I first heard Grandma's numerous stories.

Maternal Grandma, a Tungkoon Cantonese, would regale us with stories of her clan and that of the Siew clan. She had married a Hakka, which was unusual.

My book is to be enjoyed like a big bowl of rojak (Malaysian salad). "I Remember St. Mary's" reflects my sudden change of culture, from a Chinese background to a typical English one, at the age of eleven.

In "The Bride," I had another drastic change of life; I moved from a Christian home into a Buddhist one at the age of eighteen. My husband's household consisted of forty members: a married son and two married daughters and their families. There were four unmarried siblings and ten maids to serve the family and extended families.

"Punchuri" represents the numerous Jaffnese neighbours I had, for my husband was a Court Interpreter and we moved a dozen times, to Pahang towns and to Kuala Selangor.

"Vignettes from Childhood" are happy, carefree ones, while "Refugees" relates the most dreadful plight we and all Malayans experienced during the Japanese Occupation.

"The Old Stone Bench" is a fictional story I wrote to show that age is no barrier to youthful pursuits such as falling in love, whatever younger folks may think.


Words cannot adequately express my thanks to my daughter, Dr. Dixie Tan, for her encouragement to publish my stories; to Kit Leee (now Antares), my nephew, and my granddaughter, Dr. Grace Tan, for editing and typing my stories - a painstaking, arduous and time-consuming task; and, last but not least, to my grand-niece, Belle Love Lee, for enhancing my stories with her lively sketches.

Dai Moong Yang
February 1994


ON AN ANCIENT HILLOCK in Fukien Province stood an old mansion which overlooked a peaceful village with rice fields, vegetable plots and fruit orchards stretching as far as the eye could see. The village was clearly a prosperous one, populated by quiet and industrious folks. Every inch of arable land was farmed, and babbling brooks flowed in every direction, bringing health and abundance.

In the mansion lived Lu-Shee the scholar, youngest scion of a family of landlords. He was an idealist. That is to say, he had never given a thought to the day-to-day affairs of the estate – and his elder brothers were only too happy to let him spend his allowance on books and regular English tuition (zealously offered by Christian missionaries from the city).

Lu-Shee considered it a real privilege to be bilingual. His ambition was to be a lecturer in an institution of higher learning, or to be posted overseas as a diplomat. To this end he would spend almost all his waking hours in his private library  - and some of his sleeping hours too. English was extremely exhausting to master, and more often than not he would nod off at his desk.

He was rudely awakened one morning, after a whole week of intense study, by the shrill cacophony of quarrelling female voices. Bleary-eyed and greatly annoyed, he unbolted his window to investigate the commotion and to give the servants a proper ticking off. As he expected, the cook and the housekeeper and nearly all the maids were gathered in the front yard, gesticulating with noisy indignation. And lo! holding her own against them with arms akimbo was the most attractive vegetable seller he had ever seen. Despite her rough and ragged peasant garb, this  village girl surpassed in beauty all the females in his household. She was what the Chinese would term “a dark peony.”

Lu-Shee kept his peace and watched the little drama below his window. The girl’s wild beauty transfixed him – but what fascinated him even more was her arithmetical skill. She was reeling off a long list of prices and totalling them up with effortless speed. Unable to keep pace with her mental calculations, the cook and housekeeper were convinced that they were being overcharged – hence the raised voices.

Hearing someone cough at the window, the peasant girl looked up. She saw a fair-complexioned, good-looking and very refined young gentleman staring at her intently. For an instant she returned the stare, askance, her neatly plaited hair glossy in the morning light. The cook was quick to add to her accusations yet one more crime: “Now see what you’ve done, you’ve ruined the young master’s sleep with your screeching voice!”

LU-SHEE HAD NEVER EXPERIENCED personal contact with any young  females apart from the servants. One simply did not converse with domestics, one issued orders. Now Lu-Shee found himself wondering what it was like to enjoy the company of females. In particular, he yearned for a closer encounter with the vegetable seller. He could impress her with his advanced technique on the abacus. But how was he going to arrange that? Obviously it would require patience and some careful calculation.

Finally, he conceived a plan to waylay her in a secluded spot. He began to take morning strolls, first in the vicinity of the mansion, then gradually farther afield. After all, there was nothing like a little fresh air to revive a scholar’s tired brain cells. Before long, Lu-Shee’s regular morning strolls were taking him down many wooded paths and through the vegetable farms. And thus it chanced that, one particularly misty morning, a farmer’s daughter on her way to work found her path obstructed by the young master from the big house on the hill.

“Er… good morning,” the young master said. “I wish to ask you a question.”

The girl rested her laden baskets on the ground, but held on to the flat wooden pole used for balancing her wares upon her shoulders. Like a yoke on a pair of oxen, the flat pole with a wicker basket at each end was the Chinese farmer’s traditional method of transporting heavy loads on foot. Now it could serve as a weapon. A farm girl could not afford to be too demure or gentle – but this man was a landlord, and it was prudent to be polite to landlords.

“What is it that the master needs to know?” Her gaze was direct and bold. A little wary, but by no means unfriendly.

“I need to know your name,” Lu-Shee said, careful not to sound overly earnest.

The vegetable seller relaxed her grip on the flat wooden pole. A farmer’s fortunes depend greatly on the clemency of the weather: droughts and floods bring equal ruin and loss, even death. Late payment of rent, or the landlord’s displeasure, could lead to beggary. But the gentleman’s eyes are kind, she thought, and smiled.

“They call me Ah Ling.”

“Ah,” Lu-Shee nodded gravely. “Good name, Ah Ling. Good figure. I mean, you’re good with figures. Well, then, hope to see you again… good day!”

This “casual” meeting was to be the first of numerous discreet encounters, each less “casual” than the one before it; and so what began as a pleasant and exciting diversion in their dull routines quickly developed into a passionate romance of classic proportions.

AH LING AND LU-SHEE were acutely aware of the dire consequences. If their affair were discovered, Lu-Shee would be disowned by his family; penniless and disgraced, his future would be bleak indeed. Ah Ling might survive the terrible flogging from her father (her parents could not afford to disown her) but she would surely have to leave the village – and perhaps her entire family with her. They would be homeless paupers, ostracized by everyone in the village. It would have been in order if she were Lu-Shee’s concubine, but never his wife.

They could elope to the land of milk and honey.

It was a desperate option. But theirs was a desperate love. Ah Ling had heard employment agents speak of how immigrants had prospered through hard labour in the southern countries. Boatloads were leaving daily for Nanyang, below the South China Sea.

Lu-Shee looked at his soft, elegant hands and feet and felt serious misgivings.

But Ah Ling’s robust optimism and courage more than made up for his doubts. She made it her business to find out everything she could about conditions in Nanyang: documents, procedures, fares, schedules, agents’ commissions, employment contracts.

One day, Lu-Shee turned to his beloved peasant girl as they were leaving their favourite trysting grove: “Do you know the old saying, ‘When the horse dies, the rider must walk’?”

Ah Ling shook her head. “Don’t tease me with riddles!

“I’m not teasing you. This is no joke. My horse is dead. I must find another one.” Lu-Shee picked up a twig and sketched three Chinese characters on the ground. One of them evoked the image of a running steed. Ah Ling furrowed her brow as she strained to decipher his writing:

“Mah… lai… yah?”

“That’s where I think we’ll find it,” said Lu-Shee softly as he brushed a leaf off Ah Ling’s threadbare blouse. “A life without you is no life at all.”

IN THE WEE HOURS of the morning, Lu-Shee met Ah Ling outside the village and, with nothing more than they could comfortably carry on their backs, they made their way to the nearest port.

At the docks, a “passage agent” was happy to relieve them of a substantial amount of cash. Hundreds were already queuing up to board a large steamer. There were schoolteachers, petition writers, petty traders and labourers; they would occupy the lower decks. A gangway leading to the upper decks was reserved for rich merchants, colonial administrators and their ladies.

Ah Ling and Lu-Shee gazed in awe around them. This was another world. Neither had ever seen the sea. As the ship pulled away from the wharf, not much was spoken. But everyone on the lower decks shared the same thought: will we live to see these shores again?

The third class passengers slept on straw mats – males on one side; females on the other. Throughout the voyage they were homesick and seasick, but hope for a new start in life sustained them. Ah Ling and Lu-Shee were befriended by another couple who spoke their dialect. They had heard that in Malaya land was being given to settlers willing to clear the jungle and plant rubber trees. Before the ship docked in Singapore, Ah Ling and Lu-Shee had been persuaded to join the other couple, who were heading for a rubber settlement in Sepang, several days’ journey up the peninsula.

During the first few months, there were many evenings when Lu-Shee the scholar wept while his common-law wife Ah Ling salved his blisters with lard and dressed his wounds with clean rags. What a price to pay for love, he thought. But he felt sorry for Ah Ling too. She had never had to work so hard back in China. Now she was almost as dark as a native, and her skin was no longer smooth to the touch.

Lu-Shee the rubber tapper could read and write English. He could even speak it, though haltingly. Not many in Sepang could claim to be well-educated and bilingual. And so, when the itinerant magistrate needed an interpreter-cum-clerk to assist him whenever the tiny courthouse in Sepang was in session, Lu-Shee was the obvious choice. He received a monthly salary, of course, but he was required to attend court only when the magistrate was present. This arrangement suited Lu-Shee very well, for he could continue working on his own land as before.

As their circumstances improved, Ah Ling bore Lu-Shee several children. But each brought her little joy, for they were all females. Ah Ling took it all in her stride, working at the plantation even when she was heavy, and returning to work three days after each delivery. Daughters or not, Lu-Shee saw to it that his children all attended the local primary school, where they could learn English. When they grew up, they could seek respectable employment as nurses and schoolteachers.

Late in life, God answered Ah Ling’s prayers and gave her three sons. Lu-Shee decided it was time to move to the city, where the better schools were located. These were good years for the rubber trade. Ah Ling and Lu-Shee enjoyed their new prosperity without much display. They continued to be frugal, and had little to do with society. Ah Ling and Lu-Shee had their children, and they had each other, and that was enough.

In my younger days, I was introduced to Lu-Shee and Ah Ling, who were then in their sixties. I remember watching the old couple sit quietly on the porch, not saying much, just gazing into each other’s eyes. One day, I asked Lu-Shee if he and Ah Ling had ever revisited the village of their birth. He shook his head without sadness:

“My children were born in Sepang. My wife and I now live in Kuala Lumpur. This is the only homeland we know.”

Saturday, 17 March 2012


Stories about incorruptible and upstanding public officials have been passed down orally from generation to generation as a means of preserving ethical values deemed to be essential, for instance, noble-mindedness and a sense of justice, which are as rare today as they were in the days of our ancestors. The following story was handed on to me as a child and (as I have yet to come across a published version of it) for the benefit of my children’s children and their children, here is my own retelling of Magistrate Wu’s moral dilemma…

MAGISTRATE WU was a happy man, for the woman he had married was a matchless beauty – even if she was a widow.

His kinsfolk, of course, had strenuously objected to his choice of spouse. It was shameful, degrading and totally unbecoming of man of his professional stature to marry a widow. Why, he had the pick of any virgin he fancied in the village. He ought to know that only a man too poor to attract a reputable virgin would settle for a widow. They warned him that widows were generally believed to bring bad luck, unless they happened to be wealthy heiresses – but it was common knowledge that this widow’s late husband had been an incompetent fool and left her nothing.

Nonetheless, Magistrate Wu was so utterly captivated by the widow’s charms that he went ahead and married her. Was he not, after all, known to be a man of independent judgement?

Years went by (as they are wont to do) and all was well with the Magistrate and the beautiful Madam Wu. By now she had won the acceptance, even the admiration, of the entire Wu clan; and the others in the village had long since stopped referring to Madam Wu as “the widow.”

As nothing much ever happened that was out of the ordinary in this remote village, Magistrate Wu was inwardly quite excited to learn one morning that his next case was going to be a murder trial. The accused was led in: a fine-looking young woman whose husband had died suddenly. Poison was suspected. The victim’s brothers testified that only their sister-in-law had been present when her husband expired – and that he had seemed in excellent health when they had last seen him a few days ago. They were convinced that she had deliberately opted for widowhood, She was a wicked and ill-tempered woman from a distant village – an orphan with no kith or kin to attest to her character.
Magistrate Wu ordered the accused be kept in custody while the case was under investigation. This was to ensure her safety, for her accusers seemed a violent and vengeful lot. Then, accompanied by two physicians, the Magistrate proceeded to the home of the deceased to examine the corpse. There was not a moment to lose, as the burial was already due. The funeral rites had been going on for three days and nights – and that was all the family could afford.

The physicians were baffled: careful examination of the body had disclosed no sign of struggle, no wound or even a scratch. No evidence of poisoning either. Victims of poisoning were usually found to have discoloured fingernails, and the face of the corpse would often be contorted with agony and the complexion would be blotchy.

Magistrate Wu spent many days interrogating the young widow, her accusers, and everyone else who had known the victim and his family. He learnt that the deceased had generally been regarded as a spineless fool who ran errands for his brothers. He was, in fact, at their beck and call from dawn to dusk, and received no share of their earnings apart from his meals. His young wife had also been turned into an unpaid slave by her brothers-in-law, and deeply resented her position. Her husband had apparently been too stupid to realise that he was being cruelly exploited, but the wife was clearly of high intelligence, so much so that the other womenfolk displayed signs of envious hostility towards her.

However, this background knowledge shed no light on how the man had died. Was it case of murder or death through unknown circumstances? Night after night Magistrate Wu paced his bedroom floor, ceaselessly stroking his goatee, brow furrowed in thought. He could see how the young wife might have suffered humiliation to the point of committing murder. Widowhood was at least a form of liberation, for in those days a wife simply did not divorce her husband; such an act was unthinkable! More unthinkable than murder? But if she had done the deed, what means had she used? And such a comely young widow, with a spirit and intelligence to match! But he could easily acquit her, since no cause of death had been discovered, and therefore no crime could be established. Yet a man had died suddenly and mysteriously – and it was his duty to see that justice was satisfied.

Dark rings of sleeplessness began to form under Magistrate Wu’s eyes. Madam Wu could not bear to see her husband in such a state. She had been a sympathetic listener, thus far offering no opinions of her own. But now she blurted out: “You ought to have examined the skull of the dead man!”

Magistrate Wu looked at his wife in utter astonishment. Then he put on his hat and rushed from the bedchamber, summoned his staff and his sedan chair, and ordered that the young widow’s brothers-in-law be awoken and the murder victim be exhumed at once.

In ancient China, the nails used by carpenters had no heads and, when hammered into soft wood, disappeared almost entirely from view. Such a nail was found embedded in the skull of the deceased, hidden by his thick, dark hair.

For an instant, Magistrate Wu was elated by this macabre discovery. At last, the cause of death was known and the murder weapon found! Then his mind clouded with a dreadful suspicion. How could his lovely wife, Madam Wu, possibly have known about the nail? Good heavens! She had been a widow too and her husband had also been a fool. What if? Was his own life in jeopardy? How could he even begin to think such a thought? His dearly beloved, dutiful, affectionate wife?

Nevertheless, the truth had to be ascertained. Justice must prevail, whatever the cost. With utmost discretion, Magistrate Wu arranged for the exhumation of his wife’s deceased husband. Only the Magistrate and his most trusted investigators were present when the bones were disinterred.

With a quickening heartbeat, Magistrate Wu watched as the skull was subjected to close scrutiny. No! There was a tiny aperture at its apex… and he could hear a dull rattle… and lo! They found the nail.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


THE DAI FAMILY: Grandfather Dai is surrounded by his three sons and their families.
The author is the little girl on the left, holding her father's hand.
Her sister Loy is in her mother's arms at far right.

GRANDFATHER DAI was a native of Gutian in the province of Fukien. There were six brothers in the Dai family, and none of them was known to do a day’s hard work. It is not recorded how many daughters great-grandfather had, but I have heard accounts of one who spent three days beautifying herself to attend a relative’s wedding.

It was fashionable in those days for rich landlords to encourage their brighter sons to sit for the Imperial Examination, which required much diligent study. Those who were successful would increase the family’s honour and prestige, not to mention its prosperity. There was  nothing to stop young men from poor families from attempting the Imperial Examination, of course, and there were instances when the sons of peasants had overcome all odds and passed with distinction, bringing a dramatic change of fortune to their families. Ideally, this should have made Imperial China a splendid model of democracy – but the poor, as to be expected, were so thoroughly oppressed that upward mobility was rare indeed. While the peasants toiled and died under wretched circumstances, the dull and indolent sons of the landed gentry indulged in opium smoking, gambling, wine, women and song.

Grandfather Dai, whatever his faults, was determined to achieve something worthwhile with his life. He had no desire to share his brothers’ idle and parasitic existence. So he became a candidate for the Imperial Examination and threw himself wholeheartedly into the gruelling preparations.

Perhaps he was overzealous and strained his nerves, for he never made it to the big test. The report I’ve heard is that he suffered a debilitating shock while travelling through a forest on his way to the examination  hall. Apparently he was startled by a werewolf – a fairly common hazard in ancient China, judging by the numerous hair-raising tales handed down to us. The details are vague, since no one knows for certain exactly what happened to Grandfather Dai that fateful day. It is also possible that he was ambushed by bandits and narrowly escaped death with arrows whizzing past his ears.

In any case, he was never quite the same thereafter. At the slightest sudden noise, he would tremble and break out in a cold sweat. All it took was a door slamming shut or a creak on the stairway. So intense was his anxiety that the mere act of sitting on a chair would take him ages, for he would repeatedly check to see if the legs were secure, or if he was correctly aligned with the seat.

The most routine transactions became extraordinary feats of will for him, and life would have been sheer hell were it not for the constant care and comfort he received from his devoted young wife, whose loyalty deserves to be recorded. Like most marriages in those days, theirs had been arranged by professional matchmakers when she was still in her early teens. Now, in the hour of his helplessness, Grandmother Dai came into her own as the young and dutiful wife. She tried every apothecary prescription on her husband, but to no avail. She invoked ancestral gods from far and near, but in vain. Her husband remained a human wreck.

Then one day she met a long-lost kinsman from overseas, home on a visit and a recent convert to Christianity. He suggested that her husband attend a prayer meeting at a nearby town: “We have a foreign pastor who has an excellent reputation as a faith healer.”

Grandmother Dai had nothing to lose. She finally persuaded Grandfather Dai to go to church with her – and after several visits, many prayers and much laying on of hands, the required miracle happened. Grandfather Dai recovered his self-confidence and became a Christian.

More specifically, he became a Methodist. It was an era of vigorous outreach for the Methodist Church, which was very active in the most remote and paganistic parts of the Far East.

In China, however, the evangelistic thrust did not penetrate very far – possibly because the Chinese are obstinate about their own traditions and jealously guard their age-old superstitions. Besides, most Chinese were convinced that all foreigners and their beliefs were inferior.

And so, many young Chinese Christians with the crusading spirit eventually found themselves seeking greener pagan pastures amongst the “savages” across the seas. This accounts for the many Foochows in Sitiawan, Sepang and Yong Peng, and also in Kuching and Sibu, over in Sarawak. Most of them had sailed forth as missionaries of the Foochow Methodist Church.

Grandfather Dai, being a well-educated and enthusiastic convert, had no difficulty getting ordained as a pastor. With a small band of Foochow faithfuls, he arrived in Kuching and established its first Methodist Church. Around the same period, another group led by Rev. Horley headed for Sitiawan, Perak. They wasted no time building a church and a school in Kampong Koh.

GRANDFATHER DAI had only three sons, but he had had countless daughters.  Countless… because many of them had been drowned at birth in huge jars of urine kept as manure for the fields. (I assume, of course, that this was before he became a Christian.)

In those days the Patriarch’s word was law. The Patriarch was the Progenitor – and the Progenitor held the lives of his progeny in his hands. Taking a daughter’s life was not regarded as murder. It was simply a means of ensuring fewer mouths to feed. After all, it was one’s sons who carried forward the family name; only sons could establish a dynasty and assure one of immortality. Furthermore, sons were valuable members of the family mafia in times of territorial strife.

Although daughters were generally considered a liability to their parents, they soon became assets to their husbands’ families, who saw to it that they earned their keep.

Anyway, Grandfather Dai moved to Sitiawan with his three sons.

THE ELDEST SON became a sinseh (traditional Chinese physician) and would have done very well, were it not for the extremely large brood he sired – and his wife’s obsessive fondness for durians. She was a Nyonya, a female Peranakan* prone to indolence and gluttony, especially during the durian season, when she would pawn her best sarongs to buy vast quantities of the rich and creamy “king of fruits.”

[*Peranakans are people of Chinese descent who have adopted some aspects of Malay culture through long settlement in Malaya.]

Eventually, the family went broke  and relocated to China, where they lived off the Dai family land. I’m told that my Nyonya aunt, suffering acute durian withdrawal, soon abandoned her family and hastened back to Malaya – where she found a successful durian farmer to settle down with (I hope)!

Grandfather’s second son followed in his footsteps and became a Methodist minister. Like his father, he produced far more daughters than sons – but mercifully none of the girls was drowned (I suppose “progress” can be measured by such small mercies).

Through sheer hard work and frugality, Second Uncle managed to bequeath rubber estates to his children. Unfortunately, the legacy was rapidly squandered and did not survive into the next generation.

Grandmother Dai used to say that losing one’s inheritance was the penalty for misdeeds committed by one’s forbears.

Dai Chui Lian several months before
his death in 1969 (Antares)
MY FATHER, Dai Chui Lian, Grandfather Dai’s youngest son, was in his late teens when he was shipped off to Singapore to acquire a proper English education.

Having grown up in sleepy Sibu, Sarawak, my father wasted no time seeking out whatever sin he could find in Singapore. However, he did finish school, and went to Kuala Lumpur. Being bilingual, he easily qualified for the post of Court Interpreter – a highly prized job in the Colonial civil service.

He settled into a lifestyle that he followed for many years to come. By day he was a highly esteemed Court Interpreter. By night he was a ronggeng-loving** Romeo, serenading his assorted Juliets with his fine baritone voice and his fancy accordion technique.

[**ronggeng, a popular Malay folk dance in its day]

He was also adept at Chinese calligraphy, turning out lyrical poems in the classical vein. On Sundays he would appear in church as the angelic chorister.

It was on one such Sunday that my mother first saw him: huge bible under one arm and an open hymnal in the other hand. He was immaculate in his formal suit of pure white khaki, cut somewhat like a Nehru jacket, with gold-plated buttons down the front. Underneath he wore a singlet with sleeves, for shirts were still a rarity. Dad’s posture and manners were as impeccable as his grooming. Always soft-spoken and charming, his complexion (nourished with Hazeline Snow throughout his life) was smooth as velvet. He was the perfect dandy, the consummate Malayan Baba-about-town.*** It was a role he enjoyed playing.

[***Baba – male Peranakan]

What won Mama’s heart, finally, was his fluency with classical Chinese poetry and his superb penmanship. He was a true romantic, and a man of profuse letters. In addition to all his obvious assets, young Dai Chui Lian also promised to see to the welfare of Mama’s poor, helpless mother and her precious, spoilt kid brother.

When the wedding date was fixed, Dad had to borrow two hundred dollars from Grandfather Dai, who seemed to have grown more Scrooge-like as his fortunes improved. The loan was granted on condition that it be repaid within a year, with interest. Maybe this was the Foochow way, I really don’t know. To Dad’s credit, he bore all this without a grudge. In fact, when his parents returned to Gutian in China to spend the twilight years of their lives, my dad not only volunteered to accompany them all the way, he also footed the whole bill.

As it turned out, this was a calamitous episode. While in China, Dad’s playboy nature got the better of him and he frittered away all his funds on White Russian women – refugees from the October Revolution. To raise his passage home, Mama quietly appealed to her brother-in-law for a small loan, which he refused. Instead he demanded that she sell him her share in a rubber estate for a pittance. Having no choice, she agreed, but thereafter a deep rift divided the family and I never met my cousins till after Mama’s death, when we had all grown up.

I WAS THE ELDEST of Dai Chui Lian’s three daughters from his first marriage. When it was time for me to marry, Grandfather Dai set the dowry at one thousand dollars – and demanded a share of it. Dowry, what dowry? My fiancĂ© was at that time a trainee Court Interpreter – strange how these patterns recur! – with a monthly take-home pay of eighty-five dollars. But in retrospect I can only take it as a compliment that the old Scrooge reckoned I was worth a thousand dollars. You see, dowries were established on a sliding scale to the estimated value of a prospective bride. An impoverished would-be groom who could only afford a hundred-dollar dowry, for example, was likely to land himself an illiterate, loud-voiced, pock-marked rubber tapper’s daughter; whereas a slightly more prepossessing specimen might fetch four or five hundred dollars. Only a bride with undisputed beauty – plus brains and education and family background, and bilingual to boot – could demand a thousand dollars in the market!

GRANDFATHER DAI outlived his sweet-natured, faithful and quiet wife by more than a decade. He even outlived my dear Mama, who died soon after undergoing a hysterectomy, because antibiotics were unknown then. Both Mama and Grandfather were experiencing medical crises at that time; and friends and relatives whispered among themselves that the old man ought to release his hold on life so that my mother could live. The Lord of the Underworld would be satisfied with just one soul.

But the old man wouldn’t let go. He lived to almost ninety, remarrying a woman nearly forty years his junior. After his death, my dad felt duty bound to support his widowed stepmother. He was a truly filial son.

My paternal grandparents left Sitiawan when I was seven. I remember them well, though. The funny moments remain the most vivid. Like the morning I saw Grandfather Dai striding up to our government-issue bungalow in great haste, a very determined look on his face. Sensing trouble, I ran in and warned Dad of Grandfather’s approach, whereupon Dad put one finger to his lips and gave me a conspiratorial wink, before vanishing into the toilet. Not wanting to be questioned, I hid in the other bathroom and kept very quiet. Grandfather stormed up the steps and could be heard all over the house, calling for Dad, but seeing nobody about except the servant, he stormed off in a huff.

Dad never bothered to tell me what the fuss was about. I suspect it had to do with late repayment of a loan or a default on his monthly contribution towards his parents’ upkeep. Or perhaps some cuckolded old coot had complained to Grandfather about his wayward third son. How times have changed! I can’t imagine such a situation today: a crusty old father terrorising his adult son, himself already a father.

Dad, on the other hand, was incredibly tolerant of my misbehaviour, even when I destroyed his accordions one after another by poking holes in the bellows (I was curious to find out what produced the sound). Or when I threw out all his stationery and used the large drawer he kept it in as a boat (to sail across our flooded backyard).

I CANNOT RESIST recounting the story of Grandfather Dai’s salted eggs. I know it’s not the kindest way to remember him, but it does reveal a great deal about the man.

Once, he bought a hundred salted eggs (on special offer, probably) and acquired such an addiction for the delicacy that he would consume a whole egg at every meal. After he had devoured ninety-eight salted eggs, he suddenly thought of his loyal, docile and frugal wife – and very generously offered her his last two!

Grandmother Dai was in the habit of visiting us once a month, and Mama would cook some nourishing chicken soup for her. It was during these solo visits that she would pour out her woes to Mama, who was a sympathetic listener and a very compassionate soul. Mama was disinclined to speak ill of anyone, and so she kept these reports to herself. Her own mother (my maternal grandmother who was then living with us) was just the opposite: she was the archetypal busybody who relished a juicy scandal or two. And it was through her that I learnt about Grandfather Dai and his amazing egocentricity.


Siew Sum Chee (the author's mother) at age 18, before she left Hong Kong for Malaya

A BIG CROWD was gathered outside the community hall of a Hakka village. People were jostling to see what was going on inside. Someone had intruded on the Council of Elders while they were in a session, deliberating the affairs of the village. Who was it? Who would dare? What was the trouble? Must be something serious.

Inside the community hall there was an astonished hush. The venerable members of the Council were granting an audience to a girl of twelve! Those who were lucky enough to have a view of the proceedings could only gape and gawk at the temerity of this rosy-cheeked child.

Her name was Siew Sum Chee. And she had marched in boldly on the Council Meeting to lodge a formal report against her seventh uncle. He had been making arrangements to have her sold as a child bride, thinking he could profit thereby from being her guardian. There was no one else she could turn to for help. Her widowed mother was meek and indebted to the uncle, and her only brother was ten years old.

True, she had many other uncles – nine in all – but none had ever bothered to send money or even keep in touch. One was a hotelier in Hong Kong, another had migrated to Malaya and was a tin miner in Seremban. The others she hardly knew.  Her own father had had little contact with them, and he had died when she was ten. Her mother had been trying to support her two children by taking on odd jobs. Sometimes she worked in the fields. She also hired herself out as a professional mourner, paid to swell the numbers at wakes and funerals; she could wail on command.

Bereavement, it seemed, was the recurring refrain in the family’s fortunes. Siew Sum Chee’s mother had been born in bereavement: her mother, married scarcely a year, had not survived her first child. She had died in agony on a wooden pallet, victim of a well-meaning but heavy-handed midwife, who had practically sat on her to force her contractions. As a result, Siew Sum Chee’s mother was raised on bananas, her father being too poor to employ a wet nurse.

Wet nurses in those days were a luxury only the rich could afford. Dainty concubines with bound feet who hardly walked or did physical work were often too frail to nurse their own babies; and, besides, breastfeeding was such a vulgar, uncomfortable routine, fit only for peasant women. Thus it was not uncommon that the children of the wealthy grew fat on peasant women’s milk. As for the children of the poor mothers who had to serve as wet nurses… well, they had to be content with rice gruel or sweet potato – or bananas (which, as we now know, are a good source of glucose and potassium). At any rate, Siew Sum Chee’s mother had thrived on her milkless diet. She was in fact strong and healthy all her four score years.

As a child, Siew Sum Chee’s mother had to earn her keep tending cows, and as soon as she came of age the family married her off to a tailor: a frail-looking widower who seemed a good catch; so what if he had two grown children. Soon, a daughter arrived, then a son, and within a decade the tailor had died, leaving his serious-minded and rosy-cheeked young daughter in her present predicament.

THE COUNCIL OF ELDERS listened gravely to Siew Sum Chee’s complaint, impressed by her eloquence and strength of spirit. One member in particular was deeply moved by her obvious intelligence, her courage and the luminous quality of her beauty.

“Now, here’s a child that deserves a better chance in life,” he thought. It so happened that he had returned to the village on one of his sporadic visits and had decided to sit in on the Council Meeting. He was a cultured, liberal-minded Christian of some means, and he now resided in the big city.

His name was Mr. Zane. (At least, I think it was, for I never heard it mentioned till long after Mama’s death, when he sent us all an invitation to visit him in Hong Kong. But we couldn’t go, and he moved to Hawaii, and we completely lost touch… but I’m getting ahead of the story.) There and then, Mr. Zane decided to adopt Siew Sum Chee as his foster daughter.

He would send her to a Methodist boarding school in Hong Kong. Her mother could visit her at school any time she wanted.

And visit she did, fairly regularly – squeezing out of her the pocket money that Mr. Zane sent without fail. But we must understand that Grandma Siew had experienced nothing but hardship her whole life. (Feeding on overripe bananas had turned her into a bit of a bloodsucker.) Meanwhile, the apple of her eye – her only son – had been recruited to work in his uncle’s hotel. It didn’t take long for him to corrupted by the sleazy company he kept in Hong Kong’s red light district. After all, he was in his impressionable teens.

MAMA PROVED to be a brilliant student. Among the numerous prizes she won was a beautifully lacquered box, which is now in my possession. When she had completed her secondary education, her benefactor and foster father broke the good news: he was going to send her and his only son Andrew to Shanghai for further studies.

Mama was overjoyed and excited, for it was a very rare privilege for a girl to receive such a fine education. Grandma Siew broke down and wept bitterly. She had waited so long for her daughter to finish school and get a good job, so that she could help with her younger brother’s education. All these years she had dreamed of the day when her children could support her in comfort; how many more years did she have left, to enjoy life just a little?

Mama thought about it for a long time and then she wrote a letter to Mr. Zane, explaining why she couldn’t accept his generous offer. She was profoundly grateful for his kindness, which she hoped someday to reciprocate.

The day never came, even though her foster father lived over fourscore and ten years, for Mama died in her thirties. Three months after her funeral, I opened a letter addressed to her. It was from Mr. Zane, with many photos of his family and a warm invitation for all of us to visit him. It was one of the saddest moments I can recall. Would Mama have gone to stay with her foster family in Hong Kong and taken us with her? Might she not have been alive now? If only Mr. Zane had written earlier… if only… if. Fate doesn’t allow any ifs to alter our lives, does it?

Mr. Zane understood Mama’s dilemma, bless his saintly soul. Not only did he readily release her from any obligation to him, he continued sending her beautiful clothes down the years. He must have spoken of her a great deal at home, for his son Andrew (whom we called Brother Fong) made attempts to trace our whereabouts after they had settled down in Hawaii. In 1965, Andrew’s widow instructed her grandson to look me up when his ship docked at Port Klang. Alas, I wasn’t home when he came knocking on the door. Our families seem destined not to meet – even unto the third generation!

GRANDMA SIEW had a long-range scheme. She would move to Malaya with her two children and look for their ninth uncle in Seremban. He was a prosperous tin miner and a bachelor. (It was known that he had a mistress and that she had adopted two children, but they had no legal claim to his fortune.) As their blood relative, he would be obliged to extend hospitality, which they would gratefully accept. In due course they would be included in his will.

Mama thought it was one way the family could stick together, and agreed to the move. Furthermore she had heard that the cost of living was much lower in Malaya; she could easily support the family on a school teacher’s salary.

Ninth Uncle happened to be a staunch Roman Catholic – a fact Mama learnt after she had arrived in Seremban with Grandma Siew and her brother. And, to Mama’s horror, Ninth Uncle revealed that he had made plans for her to enter a convent. In those days, sacrificing a child to the Church brought great honour to a family, and Ninth Uncle had long hungered for such an honour.

While she was at boarding school in Hong Kong, Mama had become a hardcore Methodist. But she bore no religious prejudices. She had never forgotten that it was her Buddhist neighbour who had hidden her from an anti-Christian pogrom during the Boxer Rebellion; she was only four then and her mother had been out earning a living.

So Mama went quietly to the convent and stayed there for several months – until she found an opportunity to slip out and escape to Kuala Lumpur, where she was offered a job teaching Chinese to the Chinese students at the Methodist Girls’ School. Miss Marsh, the principal, took an immediate liking to Mama, but could only pay her twenty dollars a month.

When word of Mama’s absconding from the convent reached Ninth Uncle’s ears, he promptly threw out Grandma Siew and her useless son. Now Mama had to provide for three mouths in a rented room on twenty dollars a month. Tough going for a seventeen-year-old!

Even today there are Chinese mothers who would not regard it as unjust to sacrifice their daughters’ happiness for their sons’ welfare. In some homes it is customary for the parents and the menfolk to sit down at table first; the women have the remnants. This is especially true in the villages, the reasoning being that the menfolk, as basic providers, had to work harder than women. Exceptions are granted in the case of expectant mothers, who are allowed a few extras. I remember my cook’s comment as she was dividing an apple between my own children: “Your son must have the bigger half since he will have to work harder when he grows up!” I know who works harder now.

IT WAS AT THIS DIFFICULT TIME that Siew Sum Chee became aware of the attentions of a very presentable bilingual young choir member, who never failed to attend church services with a big fat bible under his arm.

He told Mama he was a Baba, born in the Straits Settlements, and she believed him, of course. Being new to this country, she was unaware that most bona fide Babas and Nyonyas don’t even speak Chinese – what more quote the classics!

Now, why on earth would Mr. Dai, the bible-toting, poetry-loving Court Interpreter, lie to Miss Siew, the conscientious school teacher, about his cultural background? He had fallen in love with her, you see, and badly wanted to marry her. And when a girl agrees to marry a man, she is actually agreeing to marry his entire clan – to be at the beck and call of the mother-in-law, the elder sisters-in-law, even the grandmother-in-law. A good wife was supposed to obey not only her husband, but everybody else in the family who happened to be senior to her in years.

In my own teens, I was given a lot of advice about how to select a mate. Stay clear of Hakka men, they’re all wife-beaters. Hokkiens are tight-fisted, and Teochews are no better. Hainanese men all end up as cooks and butlers in European households. Foochows are slothful and will even pawn their wives when they’re broke. Cantonese men, however, pamper their wives, and if they can afford it they will hire domestics to relieve their wives of hard work (that’s why Cantonese women are such notorious mahjong addicts). There’s only one snag marrying a Cantonese; he’ll become polygamous as soon as he prospers. True, polygamy observes no dialect boundaries, but there is a difference: the others will make their concubines work like servants.

The best choice would be a Baba. They’re fun-loving and easy-going, and don’t believe in disciplining their wives too much. In fact, they often let their mothers-in-law run the household. Babas like to sing and dance and enjoy a leisurely lifestyle. Their Nyonyas play chip ji kee all day and chew betelnut and decorate themselves with gold and precious stones.

“We Babas have no qualms about living with in-laws,” Mr. Dai told Miss Siew. “If your dear mother and brother don’t mind, they are more than welcome to live with us when we are married.”

But it was the love letters from Papa that Mama liked best. She was swept off her feet by his poetic soul and his mastery of brush and ink. At her age, how was she to know that husbands are not in the habit of writing love letters to their own wives?

MARITAL BLISS would have been Mama’s to enjoy, were it not for her dear husband’s flirtatious nature. He would be out on the town, dandified and perfumed, while she was housebound and heavy with child.

It was a small blessing that my father’s parents had their own house, so Mama was spared undue interference from her parents-in-law. Grandmother Dai, however, was fond of visiting Mama and baring her soul to her. The poor woman looked so underfed, living with a miserly husband, that Mama always made sure she ate well on these visits. Over the years the two grew quite attached to each other, and I believe Mama loved her mother-in-law more than her own mother, whose scheming and money-grubbing had brought such heartache.

Mama spoke a little English and several Chinese dialects, and played the organ fairly well (though she stuck strictly to hymns). Papa’s musical instrument was the accordion, and he had to keep buying new ones because of my penchant for sticking my little fingers into all the delicate parts. He never punished his children. Once he built a wooden fence around his workdesk to stop me from rummaging through and destroying his things. I continued in my mischief till my parents put me in St. Mary’s boarding school at the age of eleven, so that I could learn some ladylike ways. It must have been quite an expense for them, for I don’t recall Mama buying nice clothes for herself from then onwards.

BEING A GOVERNMENT SERVANT, Papa was transferred all over the Federated Malay States, serving as interpreter in courts of all sizes, in both urban and rural settings. My parents were married in Kuala Lumpur, but I was born in Tampin, Negri Sembilan, in 1916. We then lived in Sitiawan until I was six, at which time we moved to Kuala Lumpur. After a time, Papa was transferred to Temerloh, in Pahang. The only way we children could get a solid education was for him to send us all to a boarding school.

The arduous car journey between Kuala Lumpur and Temerloh became a regular event, and it took a toll on Mama’s health – especially since she was pregnant again. In those days, the roads cutting across the Main Range were hazardous: oftentimes at dusk you could see tigers cavorting with their cubs in the middle of the road.

Wild buffalo and sleek black seladang would graze noisily around and under our house in Temerloh, which was raised high on concrete stilts. Hornbills over a foot tall would fly into our bedrooms when they thought no one was about. Larcenous monkeys would slip in through the kitchen window in search of fruits or anything edible. Centipedes and scorpions were often crushed underfoot by anyone brave enough to visit the toilet at night; you could hardly see them in the faint glow of your kerosene lamp! At the same time, you could hear all the night noises of the dark jungle, which started only a few feet behind our government quarters. And besides all this, it was mosquito country, to be sure.

To the typical Chinese civil servant, therefore, a posting in Pahang was tantamount to punishment. Everyone without exception would pray for a reprieve, which meant a return to “civilization.” Papa’s Indian friends, however, appeared to relish living in the boondocks. They reared cattle, kept vegetable plots, and ordered around a huge army of labourers. Out here, it was easy to find cheap labour, and even an ordinary government servant could afford two or three domestics, cowherds, gardeners, and perhaps a male cook. Best of all, there were no temptations; no eyecatching window displays in the shops, no pubs or nightclubs, sometimes not even a cinema. It was easy to save money, but no self-respecting Chinese cook or amah would look at it this way. “Very sorry,” they would say, turning down an offer of higher wages, “no one can live in such primitive surroundings!”

MAMA HAD TAUGHT HERSELF Mandarin, and was now giving us lessons in this nationalistic new lingua franca, which was being heavily promoted in China to unite the myriad dialect groups.  It was around this time that the cheongsam (“long dress”) came into fashion, though the Northerners insisted on calling it the cheepow. Ours were quite modest, with elbow-length sleeves and hems just below the knees. Well-behaved girls wore their cheongsams loose, but “loose” girls wiggled about in tight-fitting ones, with high slits to reveal the maximum amount of porcelain-smooth thighs. Before the cheongsam came along, I was wearing Chinese blouses trimmed with embroidered ribbon, mid-length skirts, and pointed shoes with silk or cotton stockings.

Mama used to carry either a tiger-skin or beaded handbag. She wore no jewelry apart from a pair of tiny pearl ear-studs (to conceal her ear-piercings, she said, because they were so ugly; we never had our ears pierced while she lived). While other girls flaunted gold trinkets, we wore only a thin gold chain and a watch. Mama regarded chains on wrists and ankles as symbols of slavery. Pierced ears, according to her, weren’t only unsightly; they were primitive and barbaric.

I WAS ALMOST FOURTEEN, in 1930, when Papa was transferred to the Education Department in Kuala Lumpur, to be an Inspector of Chinese Schools. For a while, we were a happy, reunited family living amidst lush greenery in the vicinity of Imbi Road, Kuala Lumpur. Then we began to notice that Mama’s eyes were puffy from extended bouts of weeping. We knew that Mama’s sorrow had something to do with Papa.

While on his rounds inspecting Chinese schools, Papa had discovered that the headmistress of one of the girls’ schools was a relative – some species of cousin. (We later nicknamed her “Guy,” after Guy Fawkes, the man who nearly succeeded in blowing up the British Parliament.) She was either widowed or divorced, thirty-five years old, abrasive-tongued, repulsive-looking, and compulsively predatory. She pounced almost immediately.

Papa was easy prey. Those who knew his taste were incredulous and surprised. Mama wasn’t. These were lean years for everybody, and beautiful women weren’t going for free. Besides, he wasn’t enjoying his new job in the Education Department as the government snoop, going around the Chinese schools sniffing for Communist ideology.

Chinese school teachers in those days were all graduates from China, but they were paid no better than salesmen or clerks. They were subjected to all kinds of injustice: their degrees weren’t recognized and they were generally made to feel inferior to those teaching in English-medium schools. They were even paid less for private tuition than their English-educated counterparts. With all their fine degrees and years of experience, they could only afford to live in cubicles while trying to make ends meet. Meanwhile, their illiterate countrymen were raking in the chips and returning to China as millionaire heroes. Little wonder then that the Chinese schools were a breeding ground for Marxist philosophy. Mama herself was paid the princely sum of $1.50 per child per month for teaching them six days a week, privately – and their children kept borrowing our textbooks, much to our annoyance!

OVER THE YEARS, Mama had told us about the kind man who had rescued her from an arranged marriage when she was twelve. She said he still wrote to her, asking her to visit him in Hong Kong. She said he was like a father to her, and he was keen to meet our family. During those dark days – the days of Guy – I suggested to Mama that we accept her foster father’s invitation and move to Hong Kong. Loy and I could find work there; after all, we were about to sit for our Senior Cambridge Examination. We could start life anew in Hong Kong! It sounded rather exciting. To us, Hong Kong was as wonderful a prospect as England or America (I hadn’t even heard of Australia). Surely her generous foster father could help with our passage? We’d leave Papa behind to have his endless affairs. (I was only sixteen then, and knew nothing of loyalty or faithfulness. And I was never close to my father who, like most Asian fathers, hardly ever communicated seriously with his children.)

Mama had been pregnant six times. Two boys were stillborn and a girl miscarried, leaving her three precious daughters – Moong Yang, Moong Loy and Moong Wai.

Guy (I never addressed her by her real name, such was the hostility I felt towards her) had the gall to come to our house and taunt my mother, pointing out that it was traditional for a woman with no sons to vacate her wifely position in order that her husband could remarry and have male heirs.

Mama believed in tradition, even though she was a rebel at heart. In an attempt to produce a son, she conceived again, but in her fallopian tube. She developed an infection after undergoing a hysterectomy. Antibiotics were not in use in those days, and Mama never left the hospital alive. She died in December 1933, at the age of thirty-eight.

AFTER MAMA’S DEATH, we had to move house because Guy couldn’t stomach staying in the Imbi area with all our old neighbours around. Years later, I learned that Papa had married her under threat. He must have thought she was capable of extracting vengeance by poisoning us all. It was no joke. I believe she would have done it too, the wicked witch! Anyway, she got a good dose of her own bitter medicine when Papa married a girl of eighteen.

Mama had warned Guy of Papa’s infidelity. He could never be faithful to any woman, just as a leopard can’t change his spots. But Guy had been confident of her power to control him.

Well, Papa met his third wife at one of his regular mahjong sessions. She was a refugee from Kwangtung, staying at her stepsister’s house in Kuala Lumpur. A goodnatured and cheerful soul, she was six years younger than I, the eldest daughter from his first marriage, and she bore him four more daughters and two sons.

Papa died in 1969, aged seventy-four. My third mother died in 1992, aged seventy-one.  I don’t remember when Guy died. After all these decades, I still find it hard to think kindly of her.

But I’m sure my mother Siew Sum Chee has forgiven her, the angel that Mama was, and shall always be to me.  

Sunday, 5 February 2012


PAPA LEE ARRIVED in Kuala Lumpur with only a few coppers in his pocket. The rest of his hard-earned savings had gone towards his passage agent’s “retirement fund.”

His first meal in the bustling new Malaysian boom town was sponsored by the neighbourhood noodle vendor, who laughed and waved him off when Papa Lee tried to pay for his food with Chinese coppers.

“Nobody will accept that kind of money here! When did you arrive?”

It was then Papa Lee realized how little he had known of the world beyond his family’s farm in China. He thanked the noodle vendor and silently swore that he would repay him someday. (For the record, he did locate the hawker several years later and paid him for his first bowl of noodles – plus a few hundred dollars as a tip, “to sponsor a visit to your home village.”)

The clan association took care of Papa Lee until he could find a job, In every town and village there would be an association set up by each clan to safeguard the honour of their kinsfolk. Cantonese immigrants, for instance, could approach the Kwangtung Association for food and shelter. Once they had found work and begun to prosper, they would usually become benefactors of the association. Even today, after so many generations, an association can be approached for help in sending a student abroad for higher education – but only if the student is promising and is likely to bring credit to his clan.

Papa Lee started humbly as a shop assistant, board and lodging provided. In the evenings he sought recreation (and education) from the itinerant story-teller, who would pass his hat around for donations each time a joss stick burnt out. Apart from their usual function in spiritual rites, joss sticks also had a more temporal, practical use: since few people owned watches or clocks in those days, housewives often burnt joss sticks to time the steaming of their sponge cakes. Anyway, who needed clocks and watches? People rose when the rooster crowed and worked till dusk; and they ate their midday meal when the sun was directly overhead and it was too hot to work.

But coming back to the itinerant story-teller: not only did he provide his audiences with glorious tales of ancient China, but he would relate stories from his wanderings up and down the length of the peninsula, or pass on juicy tidbits from the other side of the town. He was, in effect, the immigrants’ oral newspaper. Through him, Papa learnt about the rich tin mines of Perak, the timber fortunes, newly-named one-street townships in urgent need of provision shops, the escalating price of rubber, and the popularity of opium dens.

Papa Lee was not completely illiterate. He was able to write down valuable information gleaned from the story-teller’s ramblings and other people’s gossip. And he could read the signs. He knew exactly what he would invest in – when he had the money.

Half a cent gained is better than half a cent lost. That was his business philosophy – and he soon developed a formidable precision in mental arithmetic. Thus, through industry, thrift and sound instincts, Papa Lee built up a thriving and diversified business. He dealt in provisions and textiles, crockery and fine porcelain from China. He owned two sawmills, several rubber estates, and operated a licenced opium parlour.

He also became a regular traveller. First class, of course. Now that he could easily afford it he owed it to himself. Moreover, he was getting obese, what with the superb cuisine of which he was so fond, and the peace of mind that came, in his case, with financial security. Whenever he returned to Kuala Lumpur he had a wife to attend to his physical needs, and a boundfooted concubine to pander to his whims and supervise his meals when he was residing in the northern state of Perak.

He had two children in China, a son and a daughter, from a first wife who had long passed away (before he could afford to send for her). His second marriage was to a Penang nyonya (a Straits-born Chinese), who eventually became my mother-in-law. Nyonyas were widely regarded as flirtatious and vain, domineering and aggressive, but wonderful cooks. Woe betide the two-timing man married to a nyonya, for they were known to fight tooth and nail for their marital prerogatives. Mother-in-law took great delight in recounting her various victories in her decades-long war against “the other woman,” who was no match for her, the poor thing, with her bound feet.

Papa Lee’s health succumbed to all the stresses and strains in his complex marital life. He also suffered from anxiety that none of his five sons seemed competent to take over his business empire. On top of that, he had a few undiagnosed ailments.

Four sons were still “schooling,” and the eldest was a schoolmaster who had neither the inclination nor the aptitude for managing a business. It was all his mother’s fault. She had insisted that he be educated in English so that he could take his place among the Anglophonic elite. Besides, she had argued, it was useful to have someone in the family qualified to understand and deal with “government matters.” She was, however, sufficiently far-sighted to foresee the importance of her children being bi-lingual. She installed a “live-in” Chinese lady teacher, well-versed in the Chinese classics; a healthy, muscular, masculine-looking spinster, who saw to it that no one played truant. In exchange, the Lee brothers coached her in javelin, discus and shot putting. She participated in many of the Selangor Chinese sports events sponsored by the Lee team.

These were the days when the only doctors around served in the government hospitals – and it was quite usual for a fairly large town to have only one general hospital. People living in villages had to travel miles to reach their nearest district hospital. But there were always alternatives. The Chinese took their medical problems to the sinseh (whose expertise sprang from the old tradition of the village apothecary). Malays had recourse to their witch-doctors or bomohs. And the Indians (at least the ones who could afford it) could consult a wide range of experts in astrology, homeopathy, ayurvedic healing, hypnotism and divine intercession. Only in the late ‘Forties did private clinics appear in Malaya. A bit too late to be much help to Papa Lee back in the ‘Twenties, whose condition deteriorated beyond all hope.

According to Chinese custom, it is favourable to die in one’s own home. Furthermore, a fortunate passing would include the performance of last rites and funerary rituals by one’s entire family. But, much as Papa Lee desired the presence of his boundfooted concubine, it was absolutely unthinkable to admit her to his principal wife’s home. The fact remained that when Papa Lee took on his concubine, no wifely permission had been sought or granted, nor had tea been served.

So when Papa Lee’s funeral cortege left the house, his concubine was seen only at the tail end of the long procession, struggling bravely along on her tiny deformed feet.

No one has been able to tell me what became of her, the poor thing.

Friday, 3 February 2012


WAGGING a tobacco-stained finger at me, the driver admonished me to sit still and told me he’d be back in a jiffy. “Diam diam duduk ya, sikit jam saya balek!” he said, and went off with his basket of kueh (Malay cakes) towards the police barracks to sell them to policemen’s wives.

Here I was, five years old, left in charge of this great big four-wheeled horse carriage!

The Sitiawan Courthouse in 1920 was a solitary brick structure flanked by government-issue wooden bungalows on concrete stilts. My horse carriage was parked on the dirt road bordering a very large padang (lawn) in front of the Courthouse and government quarters. To a five-year-old, the padang seemed like a vast lake of friendly, inviting grass on which one could safely gambol.

Those who could afford it sent their children to school in a private rickshaw drawn by a bonded puller. Others depended on the horse carriage, and there were two types – smaller ones with only two wheels, and huge ones with four.

“Sikit jam,” my driver had promised. Well, since he was taking longer than “a jiffy,” I began to get restless. Soon I had eased myself through the tiny window and onto his seat. What a very different perspective on the world! I picked up his whip and took hold of the reins and did what I had seen the driver do countless times: I gave the horse a whack. It began to trot. I delivered another whack and, ha! it started to gallop, faster and faster.

Someone saw what was happening and shouted. I didn’t know what he was yelling about, but in a few moments I saw my dad running out of our house in his sarong, a look of horror on his half-shaven face. Soon the driver also appeared, and several policemen, also in their sarongs, and they all came running after the carriage.

It was fun having such a comical-looking group shouting and hollering and trying to chase after me. Of course they couldn’t catch me – but now I wonder why no one had the common sense to cut across the padang and intercept the “runaway” carriage, instead of trying to capture it from behind!

Having completed my circuit of the field, I hauled on the reins and yelled, “Whoa,” exactly how the driver did it. The carriage halted directly in front of our house. I beamed at the sweaty and breathless adults who had caught up with the carriage. I saw no reason to feel guilty or anticipate punishment (my parents had never beaten me or even raised their voices against me, so I really believed children were privileged beings). And the grown-ups were too relieved to be angry with me – except the driver, who nagged me all the way to school.

The next year, my sister and I had to go to our school in Kampong Koh by two-wheeled carriage. It was terribly uncomfortable, since there were three of us (including a neighbour’s child) all squeezed into the single narrow seat. The other two resented my taking up half the seat (I was a plump and jolly six-year-old) and, besides, a two-wheeler always tilted backwards, so the three of us were flung together and could barely move. I suppose the two-wheeler would have been a good ride for an adult with his or her feet firmly planted on the carriage floor.

It was a different driver, I think, but they all had other business to attend to on the side. One morning, as usual, we were left in our two-wheeler while the driver disappeared for what seemed like ages. We three small passengers began to squirm about and wriggle in an attempt to get ourselves upright; a quarrel broke out and the struggle got more intense. This startled the pony, who seemed particularly jumpy that morning; she reared up in her harness, legs flailing, and the carriage began rocking back and forth quite violently.

By now we were in a panic, but held on for dear life. The pony whinnied and snorted and kept jumping up on her hind legs until one of our neighbours noticed what was happening and shouted for the driver. He came running as fast as he could and started talking to the pony in a soothing voice, then he caught hold of her bridle and began to stroke her, all the while uttering words of endearment. This calmed her immediately – and off we went on our merry way to school, as if nothing had happened.

But as soon as my dad could afford it, he bought a rickshaw and found a puller who bonded himself to our service for several years.

Many decades later, I was told that there was a four-wheeled horse carriage on display in the National Museum. I simply had to go and see it, but oddly enough it wasn’t what I’d expected. In fact, I was shocked to see how small it actually was. The one on permanent display in my memory is absolutely enormous!


The Petaling Street Beauty Parade

PETALING STREET in the early 1920’s. I’m out on an evening stroll with my maternal grandmother. To my surprise, on both sides of the road, I can see a dazzling parade of attractive women, perched prettily on high wooden stools. I find them thoroughly fascinating; they seem to a curious seven-year-old the very epitome of something secret and forbidden. I can barely resist staring at each one of them as we pass…

“Come on, come on, hurry up!” my grandmother’s gruff voice would reach me from a little distance ahead. “What’s there to see? Come on, quickly, it’s late already!”

And as I caught up with her, she’d mutter in a low voice, “Bad women!” I always hoped she would elaborate, but she never did.

I was fourteen when “Second Aunt,” the former sing-song girl, finally enlightened my naivete about these women. She commented that one’s fortune depended not so much on looks as on intelligence (referring to women like herself). But the slow-witted, like “Ah Lan,” usually amounted to nothing. Life for them held only drudgery.

Every day, just before dusk, Ah Lan and her colleagues would gobble down a frugal meal before attending to their make-up. They daubed their faces with chalk-white rice powder and added colour to their cheeks and lips with red-paper dye (rouge and lipstick may have been in vogue in Europe but they certainly weren’t in evidence on Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, in the 1920’s!) Ah Lan had plucked her entire brow and face clean of hair so that the make-up would stick better.

Next, she would change her bodice – an undergarment with elbow-length sleeves and gold or silver buttons. Two large pockets on the front of the bodice provided support for her breasts. Brassieres were nowhere in sight in those days, which seems quite remarkable, in view of the veritable mountains of padded bras on sale along Petaling Street today!

Women like Ah Lan usually wore long, black silk trousers and wooden clogs. When it was time to start work, they brought out their wooden stools and took their places on the five-foot-way, posing for invisible photographers. Most of Ah Lan’s colleagues (she called them her “sisters”) were by no means familiar with the concept of elegance. They were streetwalkers – or, rather, streetsitters – of the lowest grade and, at fifty cents a “go,” their clients could hardly expect elegance.

Of course, Ah Lan had been worth much more in her prime – but that was many years ago. She was never much good at saving, though. Besides, a sizeable cut of her takings had gone to the upkeep of her “mummies,” and she, like her working sisters, had two of these – one natural and the other strictly professional. Apart from her natural “mummy,” Ah Lan also had to support a whole string of natural brothers and sisters.

Now she was left with only a few gold teeth, a handful of bracelets and chains, and a small collection of good silver buttons; just about enough, nevertheless, to make her feel more fortunate than some of her really down-and-out customers. With these, Ah Lan could, if she was in the mood, extend a measure of charity by way of a few friendly words, or a few extra minutes, or even a genuine display of warmth.

No doubt there wasn’t much of a future for Ah Lan and her sisters, apart from the prospect of ending their days in the local poorhouse. But this would only happen if Ah Lan was unlucky enough to have to sell all her gold ornaments to pay for exotic herbal cures. True, the government had started licencing the streetsitters, making it compulsory for them to report regularly at the general hospital for hygienic inspections. With any luck, Ah Lan might be able to retire gracefully in a few years, perhaps even become a “mummy” herself.
Luck, however, wasn’t something that featured prominently in Ah Lan’s horoscope. Not “good” luck, at any rate.

Years later, when I found out what the Petaling Street Beauty Parade was all about, I used to wonder why my maternal grandmother had called those poor streetsitters “bad women.” Unfortunate, yes… but “bad”?

It is we who are cruel, not life.

The Sing-Song Girl

IN OLD CHINA, the Courtesan was generally regarded as a highly accomplished person. Among the many skills required of her was the ability to sing and play on a zither-like instrument called the pei-pai. Her clientele usually consisted of nobles and rich landlords, sometimes even royalty.

Kuala Lumpur in the Roaring ‘Twenties boasted no Courtesans (at least, not in the proper tradition of Courtesanship as practiced in China), but we had the pei-pai chai or sing-song girl. She was often to be found in the more established Chinese restaurants, providing entertainment while the customers dined.

The pei-pai chai, unlike the cultured Courtesan, was usually a girl of little education, taught to sing and play by an older man (more often than not a guardian or uncle), who accompanied her on a lute or violin. As to be expected, he would also function as the pei-pai chai’s manager or agent, especially after hours.

“Second Aunt” was once a pei-pai chai. She wasn’t really our aunt as such, but she lived next door to us and liked us addressing her as Second Aunt. Her husband was a government servant, and she must have been quite a celebrity among sing-song girls to have caught his eye and captured his heart. After all, in those days, a government servant was considered an excellent match; he could easily have married someone from a respectable background.

Of course, Second Aunt could quite as easily have become a tycoon’s concubine. But she was smart enough to realize that being a rich man’s concubine often meant a slavelike existence by day at the merciless hands of the principal wife, despite all the endearments heaped on her by a doting husband in the privacy of the bedroom. As a concubine, she would have had very few rights outside of the nuptial chamber; even her own children would have been required to address her as “aunt” as long as she lived.

Every time Second Aunt came over to chat with our mother, we noticed that she would be displaying a new ornament around her neck or on her wrist or on her well-manicured fingers, We enjoyed the way she flaunted her assets; the coquettish movements of her eyes and hands, her elegant clothes, the vivacity of her expressions. The mannerisms of a sing-song girl, in the case of Second Aunt, were a lifelong trademark.

When Second Aunt’s marriage proved barren, she adopted three children who called her “mother.” She also gave generously to charities, for the Chinese believe that such acts of kindness will ensure that one ends one’s days surrounded by grandchildren. Perhaps Second Aunt was simply grateful to the gods for her good fortune in being someone’s principal wife rather than a mere concubine.

The Japanese Doll

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE DAYS when Maternal Grandma would take my sister and me on her rounds, collecting interest from her various debtors. She would drag the two of us with her from one end of the town to the other, because we had been entrusted to her care, and she didn’t dare leave us locked up in the house in case we played with matches and burned the house down. Like all young children, we found it hard to resist striking matches and watching them ignite. And, like many old ladies in her day, Grandma found it hard to resist playing the neighbourhood usurer – something my mother would never have approved of.

But I loved walking along Petaling Street with Grandma, There was always something unusual to catch my attention. Grandma usually had my younger sister’s hand firmly clasped in hers, and a large parcel in the other, and she made a point of walking very briskly down this particular street, to minimize our contact with the sordid side of life. This ploy worked with my younger sister, who remained innocent of the adults-only goings-on in this part of Kuala Lumpur.

At eight, I was intensely curious, and a practiced dawdler. Somehow I always managed to lag behind Grandma and catch a fleeting glimpse of a world beyond my ken.

On this occasion, I spotted an assorted assembly of men bunched together against an open ground-floor window of a shophouse. They seemed to be engrossed in a show. I had to see what the excitement was all about, so I squeezed in amongst the men and peeked in the window.

I saw a life-sized Japanese doll (that’s what I thought she was) combing her long hair and tying it up in a coiffure. She was seated daintily on a tatami mat on a raised plank floor. Her bedding was rolled up nearby and the mirror in front of her was surrounded by little bowls containing the paraphernalia of her toilette. Her kimono featured a low neckline and her eyes and lips were exquisitely made up. Her feet were demurely clad in cloth socks, and she performed her patient task of hairstyling without the slightest sign of perturbation. It was as if her audience did not exist, Could she be a very life-like doll? I was totally fascinated by the tableau in front of me and could have gazed for hours along with the men… but I felt a hard, knobbly hand on my arm, which pulled me roughly away from the window.

All the way home I was lectured on how wicked I was; this was the umpteenth time she had caught me looking at bad women, and I would surely burn in hell with all of them, unless I mended my ways.
Finally, Grandma made me promise not to breathe a word of this entire outing to Mama, and I agreed, knowing I had a useful trump card in hand. Grandma knew Mama would be livid if she ever found out about her unlicenced money-lending habit – and that she had risked corrupting her grandchildren by taking them on a walking tour of Petaling Street!

Too bad my sister let the cat out of the bag one day, which resulted in our being sent to a boarding school, to keep our young minds unsullied. At least we would be safe from Grandma’s unwholesome influence.
We could have wound up behind the high walls of a convent, were it not for the fact that Mama, being a loyal Methodist, chose for us a stolid Anglican institution, St. Mary’s Boarding School for Girls. There were no high walls around St. Mary’s – but we would soon learn that there were much subtler ways to confine young minds than mere walls of brick or stone.

Monday, 30 January 2012


"DO YOU KNOW of any robust high-spirited girl of eleven who has never been tempted to run down a flight of steps, at least once?" I asked a friend one day, out of the blue.

She looked at me with surprise before replying: "Certainly not!"

More than six decades have passed since I left St. Mary's Boarding School for Girls, but I still feel a twinge of indignation at the injustice of the punishment meted out to me by the Superintendent of the boarding school (i.e., the hostel) whom we nicknamed Birdy.

Her surname was Bird, and she had a sharp beak of a nose, set off by green, piercing eyes. She firmly believed that adults could do no wrong, and fervently enforced the dictum, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."

My father was stationed in Temerloh, in the backwoods of Pahang, and there were scarcely any schools around, not to mention good ones. My mother had envisaged my sister and I growing up well-educated and refined. If she put us in a high-class boarding school run along the same lines as those in England, we had a better chance of turning into respectable young ladies. And so she scrimped and saved to achieve her ambition for us.

St. Mary's was indeed "high-class" in terms of fees. Each month, it took more than a Chinese school headmaster's salary to keep us both there. And the rules, to say the least, were unbelievably strict.

Boarders were only allowed three changes of every thing in their wardrobe, e.g., three cotton dresses for school, three silk ones for church, three pairs of underclothes, three pairs of socks, and so on. The idea was to have one set in the wash, one set in the wardrobe, and one on the body.

Senior girls were addressed as Miss, and they had no problems, but we Juniors had to be on our toes the whole time. To add to our discomfort, we had to run errands for the dignified seniors and end up dishevelled and sweaty. Between the Seniors and the Juniors there was no love lost. How does it feel to be constantly discriminated against? Especially at bath time, when an impatient knock on the door meant we had to come out at once and let them use the bathroom first.

This unwholesome rank-pulling seems prevalent everywhere - not only in the army, but also in schools and offices. No doubt a similar sort of pecking order occurs in the animal kingdom, but surely we can  invent a better way of achieving social harmony?

I recall flashing my eyes in defiance when Birdy punished me for using the rickety sewing machine on a Sabbath. No one had informed me that on the Sabbath only hand-sewing was permitted. Furthermore, Juniors were forbidden to operate a sewing machine. The penalty was six strokes on the cushy part of one's anatomy with a hairbrush, or Birdy's slippers.

As an "Asiatic" child in a white expatriate environment, I was subjected to treatment which aroused in me a sense of inequality and injustice. It was easy to suspect that the white race was prejudiced against everybody else, even if they didn't actually despise us. At any rate, this early exposure to the insidious humiliation of racial discrimination made me shun anything Anglican - schools, churches, clubs. When it was time for me to find employment, I chose to teach in a Chinese school. This loathing lasted many decades.

On weekdays, we played croquet and tennis, and on Saturdays we went on long walks in the evening. Here again, if I lagged behind the group, the penalty would be to do forty sums. Ironically, I fared very badly in my math exams. And I barely passed my Religious Knowledge, on account of the numerous penalties I had to endure for failing to memorize the scriptures correctly. I suppose in those days no one had heard of "positive feedback"!

There was no way of describing the oppression my sister and I felt at St. Mary's, and no way of even informing our parents that we were miserable, for all letters home were censored by Birdy. And we couldn't go home till the end of the term.

My mother probably suspected that all wasn't well with her daughters, but she was a great believer in perseverance. One day, Birdy carried her disciplinary notions a little too far. My sister Loy, who was only nine, arrived late for dinner and was sent to bed without it. Later, a jug of milk was delivered to her. No questions were asked as to why she was late (she had to let all the almighty Seniors use the bathroom ahead of her). The next morning, Loy was too sick to have breakfast or attend school. She was a frail child and, like most "Asiatic" children, she disliked milk. The Asian way would have been punishment after dinner - at least the child would be well fortified!

This incident led to our being released from St. Mary's. Our stay there had caused my mother more hardship than her daughters. She had had to commute between Temerloh and Kuala Lumpur (on one of the most hazardous roads in the country), and she had had to rent a house in Kuala Lumpur because of us. This had put a terrible strain on her physically, emotionally, mentally and financially; with her having to budget for two separate households, including maids, while constantly worrying about our well-being.

If Birdy had possessed the most rudimental insight into child psychology, or if only she had been inspired by the feeblest promptings of the heart, my memories of St. Mary's boarding school would have been as happy as those of the mornings I spent in the classroom with the day students. I greatly enjoyed learning literature and history. I also loved the chances I had to perform on stage. The role of a buccaneer inspired strength and courage. I was also a terrible prankster. In class, the standard mischief among us junior girls was to hide the senior girls' high-heeled shoes when they changed into rubber ones for games.

On reflection, then, I should allow my happy school hours to offset the unhappy times in the school hostel. To quote Jean Juares: "We should take from the past its fire, and not its ashes."