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.