There were many scenes of boats and boatmen in Shuihuzuan, The Water margin. In the book, there were characters such as Zhang Heng and his brother Zhang Shun who patrolled the Xunyang River, preying on travellers duped into thinking they were just ordinary fishermen making a living. Our story’s hero in this chapter is Soon, and I must emphasise that although the scenery depicted in his story rekindles the images I formed when reading the Chinese classic, our hero’s grandfather who owned a junk boat certainly was not a crook who scammed travellers along his river routes. Zhang Heng and his brother had their act down pat whenever they sighted would-be victims who looked ripe for plucking. Their trick worked without fail. The younger brother would pretend to escape a mugging by diving into the river to save his belongings. A great swimmer, Zhang Shun would not resurface until he reached the banks of the river. The travellers, thinking he had drowned, would quickly surrender their valuables to the waiting Zhang Heng who did not hesitate to knife those who still resisted.
Song Jiang, whilst being escorted by two policemen to Jiangzhou to face a lengthy jail sentence, was similarly threatened by those two pirates. When Zhang Heng saw Song Jiang and the two men approaching, he sang this song:
Alone I live on the river’s bank
Not a friend but money do I adore
Last night the moon helped me find
I saw some gold and captured it.Old Huzhou song
Zhang Heng then gave Song Jiang two choices. “Eat deck knife noodles or dumplings in soup.” Since Song Jiang did not understand what he meant, Zhang the boatman explained. He said he would mince his body and throw them into the river if he wanted deck knife noodles. He also said if he wanted dumplings instead, then strip off his clothes and leave them for him. Song Jiang did not lash out and vent his spleen with vulgar invectives but instead begged for their lives.
“Did your grandpa experience any threats from pirates?” I asked Soon.
This was how he began his story.
In Malaysia, the Chinese community called their borrowings ‘tontin’. Borrowers must bid for their loan. A desperate borrower would offer a higher monthly repayment to the lender. It was a time when borrowers and lenders set their own interest rates. For example, the borrower would offer to make twenty monthly payments of $100, for a loan of $1,700. The tontin organiser would also earn a fee for ‘collecting back the loan’ when the final repayment was made. That was a common way for the average coolie to send money back home to their families in China. Most remittances to China were through Eu Yan Sang. Eu Yan Sang was a Chinese herbal wholesale merchant. The shop was at the corner of Chulia and Pitt Street. For the blessed ones, their bigger sums were remitted through the Bank of China at Beach Street. The bank closed after the communists won the civil war in China. Another method of sending money home was through a relative or friend who was going back to China. Filial piety was best measured by the amount of money people sent home. It was also true that the more they sent, the more successful they portrayed themselves to be in the new world.
Soon’s mum was born in Penang. Her adoptive parents were poor. But her birth parents were rich. A bit unusual, since it was the norm for the rich to have as many kids as possible and for the poor to give away their children due to their inability to make ends meet. Her biological father owned a junk boat. Most parents in that generation didn’t value daughters. Sold, given away for free or just marry them off. But, it could have been worse. Daughters can be simply ‘made to disappear’. It is still true today in China which explains the skewed ratio between males and females. Out of the population of 1.4 billion in China, there are 34 million more males – the equivalent of the total population of Malaysia. There is a song with the lyrics “Nobody wants me, I am nobody’s child.” It could have been easily written by Soon’s mum.
I’m nobody’s child
I’m nobody’s child
Just like the flowers
I’m growing wild
No mummy’s kisses
And no daddy’s smile
Nobody wants me
I’m nobody’s childKaren Young
Soon’s mum didn’t say how old she was when she was sold off. The common guess was she was maybe around eight or nine. Later on, Soon’s maternal grandma (the birth grandmother) regretted her decision to sell her child and asked Soon’s uncle to help his sister whenever he could.
“My grandma had small little feet,” Soon said.
“Was she your maternal or paternal grandma?” I asked. It is often confusing when someone who was adopted talks about their family. The Chinese do make it less complicated even if it is less politically correct. “Wai por” 外婆 is the maternal grandma, “Wai” means outside, the literal meaning is that the female side isn’t part of the family. “Ju mu” 祖母 is the paternal grandma, the word “Ju” means ancestral.
“Was that your mum’s birth mother or adoptive mother?” I pressed Soon.
“When we were small, we kept looking at her pestiferous feet – the putrid smell was overpowering most of the time,” Soon replied without answering my questions. Later, he told me he was referring to his mother’s biological mother. The woman not only gave birth to his mum but also gave her her genes.
Soon’s mum spoke of an incident where a midwife with a long history of opium addiction delivered a child. The baby couldn’t let out her vagitus and looked blue in her face after birth. The midwife quickly puffed some opium onto the newborn’s face. The child miraculously cried out and started to breathe normally. The newborn was an addict even in the mother’s womb. Opium addiction was rife in those days. That was how the Brits forced China to her knees when they could not pay for the tea and porcelain they were addicted to. So, they introduced opium to the Chinese and later won both Opium Wars to fix the trade imbalance. Not only were all debts forgiven or paid with the spoils of war, the British Empire carved out big territories in China for their own benefit, as did other Western powers and Japan. Addicts were so common in Penang there was even a Taoist deity who some believed was the God of Opium. He was in charge of Hell, quite appropriately. In a Taoist temple that a young Soon often visited, he would not fail to pray to a deity who was always on the floor with a fan on his right hand and a tongue sticking out of his mouth in a cheeky manner. Chinese mothers often queued up to pray to the deity to grant them their wishes or to thank him for answering their prayers. If their wish came true, they had to buy some opium and place it on the deity’s mouth. The temple caretaker would place the opium on an ice cream stick. After the thanksgiving chants, the caretaker would immediately scoop back the opium for resale, lest the drug addicts partook in the opium. The prominent opium deity was located at the corner of Jelutong and Bridge Street. The temple was also a favourite haunt for those who prayed for empat ekor numbers (4-digit numbers) to come up in the next round of lotteries.
Soon’s grandfather’s jacket had many pockets. Before I asked him which grandpa, he told me he was the rich grandpa – the one who owned the junk boat that plied the Straits of Malacca freighting precious cargo alongside the peninsula. The pockets were obviously to keep his money safe in different locations. The Chinese were obsessed with money. It was common for the first generation Chinese to habitually sleep at the Paya Terubong Heavenly Temple just to dream of a 4-digit number. Some people called the temple twelve hundred steps. In olden days, Captain Francis Light’s bronze statue stood opposite Convent Light Street and inside the Penang High Court compound. Soon wondered whether the dead Englishman who, according to Western narratives, founded Penang would have turned in his grave if he knew joss sticks and candles were forever placed at his statue’s feet for good luck. The young Soon did not see the irony of those Chinese gamblers praying to a dead Englishman for some winning numbers. Colonial masters did what they knew best – extract the wealth from their colony and repatriate it back to their imperial homeland. Many years later, someone in the local government decided to move the statue inside the museum. That decision saved the municipality from paying a cleaner to clean the feet of Francis Light’s statue.
Soon’s dad told him he planted a longan tree before he left his hometown in China and emigrated to Penang. “I believe most immigrants did that,” Soon said. “Our relatives told us it was a big tree in their compound by the time his dad made his return journey to visit his folks,” he said. His dad also told him the story of a friend who nailed a python’s head onto a plank. The friend made a small slit on the snake’s abdomen to harvest its gallbladder. He left the gallbladder on the garden bench and went inside the house to get a bowl. When he returned, the snake was gone. This happened during the Japanese occupation of Penang. Some twenty years later, Soon’s dad and his friend went snake gallbladder hunting again and to their surprise, the snake they caught that day was missing its bladder!
Soon’s grandma knew a lot about traditional Chinese medicine. Snake gall bladders and pangolin scales were exceptionally good to cleanse blood. A dried penis from a black dog was best to ward off evil – especially in the high seas. Soon’s grandpa carried one with him whenever he went out on his junk boat.
“How long was that black dog’s penis?” I asked, my eyes enlarged with wonderment. It was amazing that there was a more important purpose for a penis. Warding off evil with a dog’s appendage was a revelation for me. I always thought it was a man’s appendage that got him into all sorts of trouble normally.
Soon’s grandma was the fourth girl in her family. Even though her family was quite well off, the general consensus in her day was that two daughters were enough. Four was definitely one too many. So, she was sold. Soon’s maternal grandparents came to Malaya in 1900. In that era, junk boats plied around Southern Thailand and Malaya. Most of the sailors were opium addicts. Not surprisingly, since opium was legal under British occupation. The former headquarters of The Star News opposite the Goddess of Mercy temple on Pitt Street was a thriving opium outlet. It was preferred that rich sons of Chinese towkays turned to opium addiction rather than gambled away the family wealth or mixed with bad company. Opium soothed the sick and prolonged their lives. Early immigrants had no medicine and opium was what they turned to for everything to do with pain and suffering. Were the British the worst people on earth? Possibly, in their eyes but after their lives had been wrecked. Soon had one relative whose two generations before him were hooked on opium. Luckily, his grandparents were free of opium as they were poor. Opium was somewhat of an equaliser to society in their era. Rich people became poor and poor people remained poor.
“Have you heard the old Chinese saying that wealth never crosses three generations?” Soon asked me.
“Maybe it is because of the three generations of addicts,” he said without waiting for my answer. He said the wealth of a junk boat owner mostly lasted two to three generations. The cargo boats were operational until the late 60s. It was a dying business for Soon’s grandpa by the time he was born. He said most Hokkien people in Penang originated from around Xiamen areas. Soon reckoned Penang food has a similar taste to Xiamen food. Penang’s goh kha khi – 5-foot way made of granite commonly found in front of shophouses in town – were later introduced to Xiamen when successful merchants returned home from Nanyang in early 20th century.
Soon’s mum and brother were the only two kids their adoptive parents had. She was already old enough to know who her biological parents were when she was sold. She knew where they lived and so was able to visit the natural parents and siblings quite often. Even today, Soon still has contact with those cousins. Soon’s mum did not harbour any recriminations towards her biological family. “We still have contact with grandma’s real family siblings. My uncle, her real 2nd brother, married at 14 years old,” Soon said. “My uncle passed away a long time ago,” he added. It was common for the Chinese to describe their biological family as real. Is the adoptive side less real, I wondered silently.
“As we moved from house to house many times, we lost all our family photos,” Soon lamented when I asked him to show me what his parents looked like. Soon could not find a single photo of his parents when they were young. His mum was born in Penang and his dad arrived in Penang by steamship. “He didn’t mention the number of passengers – it could have been at least fifty or more,” Soon said. His parents lived in the same neighbourhood, and often met on the streets. They fell in love and therefore did not require a matchmaker to arrange their marriage.
In the old days, people married within their own dialect. It was rare to marry outside perhaps because people seldom venture out of their villages. Soon’s dad was considered tall in his generation. At five foot six, he was at least a head above most others. He combed his hair all towards the back, no parting line just like Mao Zedong’s but without the receding hairline. He was a handsome man with sharp facial features. His mum was at least five foot four, a rather good height for a woman in those days. “Was she slim?” I asked. “Nobody was plump in those days,” Soon said curtly.
Soon’s dad had one elder sister and a younger brother. “On mum’s side – not the adopted ones – she had two brothers and three sisters,” Soon said, emphasising he was talking about the biological side. “My dad borrowed money to start a small hotel business and paid ‘tea money’ for their house after the 2nd world war,” he said. ‘Tea money’ was rent paid by sub-lessees to the chief tenant of the house.
Soon’s dad went back to his hometown after having been 52 years away. It was his final visit. His main task was to repair his parents’ tomb, out of filial piety and perhaps also to wish for prosperity and success.
I am sure he prayed for health too. I said in my mind.
“We all believe the grandparents will bless all the grandchildren with success and wealth,” Soon said. So, it made sense to let the dearly departed know that they are not forgotten. Soon went to his father’s village three years ago, just before the pandemic.
“Nobody wanted to show me which house my father lived in,” he said. “I guess they were afraid their Malaysian family may be tempted to lodge a claim,” he said.
A reasonable assumption, I thought.
“My cousins there are quite well-to-do,” Soon said. In China, it is customary to have leftovers on the dining table. Every dish must have some uneaten portion. No clean plates!
“Clean means not enough to eat,” Soon said, revealing his logical mind.
In the next chapter, I would like you to share your story about your wife,” I said to Soon, hoping there will be more stories to be revealed.
“My wife’s original family came from Samba, Indonesian Borneo. Somebody brought a baby and placed her at the Methodist Church doorstep in Kuching,” Soon started. The baby was his wife’s grandma. I later learned that Soon’s wife is a third generation Methodist Christian, which is to be expected considering the nuns took care of her. All Soon knows about his wife is that she was a Hakka who lost all her roots. But, soon, there will be more to be revealed about Soon.