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.

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