It surprises me that Ma was not born in China. For years, my reply when asked where I came from, was standard. “My parents were both born in China. Pa, in Shanghai and Ma, in Ningbo. I was born in Penang.” When I became an adult and had children of my own, I discovered my dad was not born in Shanghai but in Shaoxing in the province of Zhejiang and mum was actually born in Malaya. A woman with secrets! If a person lived a life that is smooth-sailing and uneventful, without any hint of a major scandal, made no scientific discovery, had no artistic creation to show, with only daily house keeping duties and mundane tales of bargains in the wet market, then their life story would be boring and colourless. There would be no story to tell. Ma ticked all those boxes yet I am compelled to write about her. “NO! You should not write about mum’s life. You cannot share her stories with your friends! Respect her privacy! Respect ours!” That was the view of a sibling when I first broached the subject. A very strong view. Keep mum about mum.
Ma is 96. Why should her life story be buried? Why not show where she has left her footprints? There is absolutely nothing about her that I am embarrassed about. Even if there was, so what? Ok, point taken. She may want to remain anonymous, with zero inclination to have her life summarised in words that she has no opportunity to edit or censor. Ma, you can trust me. I will honour you, and what can be more honourable than to be truthful about what I write?
When Ma was four years old, her whole family travelled to China for a short holiday. I suppose Ngagung wanted to show off his young family to his mother. He married at 28, his wife, my grandma Ngabo, was 18. By then they had Ma, followed by two sons and another daughter. It took twenty eight days for the family of six to arrive in Shanghai in a cargo ship and from there, an overnight boat to Ningbo. Ngagung’s mother – the old lady – lived with her eldest daughter in what was a big house in those days. A widow for much of her adult life, she sold homemade tofu to make ends meet. Some of us were cynical to hear that a widow who sold tofu could afford to live in a big house, especially during such tumultuous times in China. Ma was four then, maybe it was “big” because she was little.” So, I asked her to elaborate. “Ma, how big was big?” It turns out the house was indeed big. It had four bedrooms, a separate dining room and a kitchen, complete with a square compound in the middle of the property, “where they grew some vegetables”. Ngagung’s father, a casualty of the Opium War, died when Ngagung was only eight years old. A minor government official in the late Qing dynasty, his addiction to opium caused his early demise.
Two hundred and seventy five years after the Portuguese settled in Malacca, the British colonised the Malay peninsula with their first settlement in Penang in 1876. The original idea was to have Penang as a refuelling base for the East India Company’s lucrative business with China. At the same time, the Perak War was being waged by the British against the locals after governor W Birch was killed during a revolt. The locals surrendered within a year. The European settlers who initially arrived to cash in on the spice trade soon diversified and invested in sugar and coffee plantations. It wasn’t until Ridley’s arrival in the early 20th century that the focus shifted to rubber. “Mad Ridley” was mad about rubber, he knew the automobile’s popularity would create a huge demand for rubber. Teluk Mak Intan in Perak was renamed Teluk Anson after the acting governor of the Straits Settlements, Archibald Anson. He had the foresight to expand the town knowing that the confluence of three rivers would make the place a hive of business activity. When Ma was born in 1923, the population of Teluk Anson was growing rapidly, from 3,300 in 1901 to about ten thousand. The three pillars of Perak then were tin, rubber and coconut. Most of the tin and rubber were sent to Penang via Teluk Anson. The coconut produced in Lower Perak was sent to Singapore via Teluk Anson to make coconut oil for export. Ma was born in Bagan Datoh. Her father, my Ngagung, was hired by an Englishman who owned a huge coconut plantation. The Englishman, a wealthy and generous fellow, provided Ngagung with an atap house, two ironing benches and all necessary materials to look after the laundry and dry cleaning needs of the plantation owner’s family and those of European families nearby. Ma only saw the Englishman a few times and never met the lady of the vast estate. She never met their children either. It was an oil and water relationship, they never mixed. I risk being accused of deplorable stereotyping but it is true that they employed a Hainanese cook, their security guards were Bengalis and coolies were all Tamil Indians. Ngagung succeeded in getting employment there for two others from his village. Their apprenticeships for three years would reward them $160 each. The British apprenticeship system started in the Middle Ages. I cannot see any financial reason to end this clever way of finding cheap labour.
In 1931, Ngagung’s mother became ill. Her eldest daughter had died leaving the 76 year-old to fend for herself. Food supplies were sparse, her surviving children had all left home for greener pastures. So, Ngagung brought Ngabo and their children back to Ningbo, in September that year. Ma was eight years old. Tasked with lighting the kitchen stove, unlike in Bagan Datoh, she found they didn’t use coconut husks in China. “Tsk tsk tsk. Useless girl.” Ma cannot forget the belting she received from her father. He was apparently embarrassed that his daughter did not impress the old lady. After a six month stay, Ngagung returned to Malaya by himself. He knew he would miss the birth of his youngest daughter, but he could not risk losing his job at the coconut plantation. Ma only had eight months’ schooling prior to leaving Bagan Datoh. Luckily for her, the old lady granted her wish to study and arranged for Ma to continue her education in Ningbo. Her schooling lasted just over two years. The old lady decided the school fee was unaffordable. One “yang” a year. One yang was equal to ten “gok che”, one “gok che” fetched 300 copper coins or “dongpan”. Ma tried cotton picking, in Yuyao, not far from Ningbo. A day’s hard labour paid her only 30 dongpan. She didn’t turn up for work in the cotton farm after that. She was better off making “Hell money”, paper money for the deceased; she was paid as badly but at least it wasn’t physically demanding, and she only had to work for two to three hours each night. Ngabo’s own mother lived just “one or two streets” away. In those days, a daughter who is married off is treated like discarded water from a wash basin. Although Ngabo often visited her own mother, her children were not allowed to accompany her. Maybe there wasn’t enough food to go round, children of “discarded water” were not welcomed? Ngabo’s own father, a boatman who plied the Yong River for income, died of poisoning together with a son and daughter. The Japanese were suspected of poisoning their water supply.
The old lady lasted five years. She was my great grandma, on my maternal side. I do not know her name, and I do not know what she looked like; there is no photo or painting of her. We don’t even know where she is buried. She was 81 when she died in 1935. The next joss stick I light up will be for her. After she passed away, Ngabo, Ma and her four siblings all returned to Malaya. They arrived in Five Miles (a village that was five miles from Teluk Anson) and stayed a few days at Ngabo’s sister’s home before continuing their journey back to Bagan Datoh. They finally arrived home in September that year, but life was to change forever soon after. In February the following year, Ngagung contracted Typhoid and passed away. In those days, when the sole provider of a family dies, usually hope dies too for those left behind. Ma’s hope to continue her schooling died that year. She was only thirteen years old.