Yung Jie, My Sister

Before I reached my teens, Yung Jie was very much part of my life. I knew that couldn’t be her name, we were taught to address adults by their titles, ahyi, aunty, ahjiu, uncle, older sister, Jie, older brother, ker or ko. We called her Yung Jie, but I knew she wasn’t my sister. She dressed differently, but predictably, always in white blouse and black pants. She had the most gorgeous shiny long black hair, brushed fastidiously a thousand times a day, nourished with the freshest virgin coconut oil. Any Hollywood star would have been jealous of her hair. During the day, she would be seen with the most perfect hair bun. I wish I learned how to tie such a bun from her.

I didn’t understand what a wonderful strong modern woman she was until it was my turn to leave home. From Kwangtung now Guangzhou, she was our Cantonese amah. She was way ahead of any pioneer in the 20th century feminist movement. She didn’t resort to burning her bra to make a statement. She simply packed up and left home. Home was pre-communist China, a country very much steeped in Confucian tradition. Women were mostly uneducated chattels, to be the filial daughter, the virtuous wife, the unwavering dutiful mother. She joined other similar minded, strong minded young women in their prime, and left for South East Asia in 1936.They broke the mould of the Confucian woman, left home not because of an arranged marriage, eschewed the idea of being another chattel, forged an independent life, picked her own employer, negotiated her own pay, joined a club, a sisterhood.

I adored her. She made my mum’s life bearable. My mum was no different from most other women, child bearing was a frequent occurrence before the time of The Pill. Yung Jie’s days were long, she was our nanny, our maid, our cook, our companion. Always visible, never audible and usually with a smile. A beautiful woman, her beauty exuded from within and complemented her beautiful chiseled face that was accentuated with the most shining bright eyes.

I hung around Yung Jie a lot, she was often at her chores, at the back of the shop house. Ours was one of 12 link-houses, every backyard was identical, approx 25 ft wide x 6 ft deep, including a shallow drain that lined against a stone wall boundary. We had a chook pen right against the boundary wall, cleaning it was a simple task of hosing the chook poo into the drain. I spent much of my spare time there. To talk to my pet hen. Every lot had an outhouse. The size of a small hut, it was a modern day bucket latrine of the time. Before the days of flush toilets, this was already considered progress. The bucket, made of rubber, was situated 2 ft below the hole on the ground of each toilet. A metal flap hides the bucket, perhaps also as an odour suppressor but more as a curtain to prevent a peeping tom from enjoying the view of one’s bum from below. In olden days, faeces were excreted into holes in the ground or into containers and then covered in soil. The containers were usually collected at night, hence the term night soil. The whole neighbourhood and beyond would know when the municipal night soil workers were at work. Every full bucket was taken up to a double decker truck, each side had two decks and each deck held ten buckets, ie a total of forty buckets full of excrement. The odour from the truck would spread far and wide.

One New Year’s Eve, Yung Jie was tasked with killing my pet for the feast. Despite my loud protestations and tears, she somehow saw the lighter side of the episode. She giggled, and cackled as she held the wings of my favourite hen, bent its neck to the heavens and plucked off some feathers from its neck. One small cut was all it took for the blood to gush out onto a soup bowl. My hen struggled and kicked a little but as soon it was dead, it was submerged into a big pot of hot water to make defeathering easier. I should not have stayed to watch her gut my pet. As she pulled the little soft yellow eggs from my dead pet, I yelled at her. “You’re a cruel woman! You’re heartless! You’re insensitive!”

I have blocked out what else I accused her of. She broke down and cried. She, the strong modern woman of her time, could not contain her sadness and bear the injustice of her cruel fate perhaps. She wailed. My mum told me tonight that Yung Jie cried for many weeks from the criticisms I dished out at her.

I didn’t talk to Yung Jie for a week. I stopped eating meat for three years. But I haven’t forgiven myself for hurting my childhood companion, Yung Jie. I was a naive urghhling, the insensitive one. Whenever she pops up in my mind, I’d apologise to her, I’ve not stopped saying sorry to her.

Yung Jie, let me publicly apologise to you. I am sorry I hurt you all those years ago.

Night soil truck