Mum About Mum II

They told me not to write Ma’s story. Keep mum about mum. Respect her privacy. Respect theirs! I wrote Mum About Mum I, but I did not tell them. On Sunday, they saw me jot down notes whilst having “dim sum” with Ma at her favourite Chinese restaurant in Norwood. From this, they will know Ma wants her story told. They have not said a cautionary word since. They need not worry, I shall not divulge their names; but, Ma’s name is important for me to record down. Her name is Xu Mei Lan aka Chee Moay Lan徐梅蘭, Mei is plum flower and Lan is grace and elegance. I have long realised the importance of choosing the right names; it is often that we become what our names mean. Ma is indeed a graceful and elegant woman, as beautiful as the plum flower. In February 1936, Ma’s father, Ngagung, died from typhoid. She was thirteen years old. In those days, when the head of the family dies, the family has to fend for itself or find another head. Ma’s mother, my Ngabo, was subjected to the unfathomably cruel and oppressive fashion for bound feet. She was also denied opportunity to gain an education due to poverty and her gender and failed to be independent. The fashion for bound feet in China persisted for a long time, in fact, over a thousand years, mainly due to the mistaken belief that it would give girls a chance to have a “better” life. The fashion waned only after the roaring twenties. Wealthy men were titillated by tiny little feet; sexual objects that their concubines must have. A small foot in China was as popular as a tiny waist in Victorian England. Women with bound feet walked, swayed in fact rather “alluringly”. It was believed that the resulting “sexy” gait would give the woman an unusually tight inner thigh and pelvic muscles – all that to mean that they hoped for tighter vaginal muscles. That trend spread to the villages, men of all persuasions followed the cruel practice and bound their own daughters’ feet also, in the hope they could be married off easily. Foot-binding was a symbol of status and wealth, the poor would not deprive themselves of that. Ngabo had her feet bound but unfortunately, she was not married off to a rich man. Hers was not the calibre of the sought-after “Golden Lotus” – three inch small, and not quite within the 4 inch “Silver Lotus”. The inferior ones were five inch or longer, the “Iron Lotus”. The two years of excruciating agony in having her toes and arches broken and then crunched flat against the soles were in vain. She did not catch a scholar, not even a shop keeper. Her husband, my Ngagung brought her to Malaya, and soon found work as the laundryman for an Englishman, a coconut plantation owner in Bagan Datoh. When Ngagung suddenly died, his family’s world came crashing down. The eldest child was Ma who by then barely had two and a half years of schooling. She had hoped to be a teacher. At the time, anyone with five years of education could become a teacher; she was halfway to reaching her ambition. But, all hopes of that died with Ngagung. The second eldest was a son, my Jiu-Jiu. He was eleven at the time. An ambitious boy, he fought tooth and nail, and screamed that he wanted to continue with his schooling. He had hardly any lessons before he was forcibly carried away by their eldest uncle, my 2nd Ngagung to Five Miles. Five Miles was a village that was five miles from Teluk Anson. Jiu-Jiu, like Ma, also lost his hope to receive a school education. Instead, he was forced to be an apprentice in the laundry business. An apprenticeship meant long days, hard labour and pittance for wages. For the next four years of her life, Ma kept herself useful in the family. Daughters were viewed as expenses to the family, of little or no value. The sooner they were got rid of, the better for the family. Her main task was to look after her siblings – wash their clothes, cook for them, feed them, keep them out of mischief, and put them to bed. Apart from that, she was also responsible for the well-being of the ducks and chooks; collect the eggs and ensure they were well-fed and all accounted for at the end of each day. The end of the day was seven pm, and to save on energy, that meant lights out and bedtime. On rare occasions, Ma had to use the toilet, which was located outside the house, after bedtime was announced. A visit to the toilet on such occasions meant baring her bum to a swarm of mosquitoes. The price paid for such poor discipline was an itchy backside, courtesy of the mozzies. Ngabo, as would any widow with four children at home to rear, eventually invited her dead husband’s head worker to her bedroom. The strong younger man would become the new head of her family. Ma hated the man for taking her dad’s place; fortunately for her, she never had to learn first-hand this fact of life that was not uncommon in those days. Even birds know this law of the jungle. Magpies will often mate for life. However, if a male is killed while there are hatchlings in their nest, the female will take a new partner. Ma’s future husband, my Pa, would be her sole and reliable provider. She is fortunate not to have her own magpie stories to tell.

When Ma turned 16, she overheard serious discussions about her future.

“She is not young anymore. Time to let her go.”

“Find her a husband soon, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to find her a man.”

“You cannot have her at home forever. Have you considered the farmer’s son?”

The farmer’s son was a recommendation by the rice wholesaler in town. “He is a good man, he just turned 21.” Given ten acres of arable land, the young man was ready to start his own family. His parents, from Fujian province, advertised his fine credentials to all the match-makers around the villages. Healthy, hard-working, responsible, young and strong, and most importantly, a land-owner. One morning, Ngabo asked Ma to stand at the front window. “Stay there, and do not move away until I say so.” It was almost mid-morning when Ma noticed a young “boy” cycling past their wooden hut. The road was some ten meters away from the boundary of their front garden. He made a U-turn and cycled back to where he came from. Not a word, not a smile, their eyes did not even meet. ” He’s very dark skinned.” Ma summarised.

The other candidate for her hand was Pa. He was born Wu Yuan Quan, the fourth son of 文榮, grandson of Liu Shan 六山. His teacher – a man who occasionally turned up to teach the village boys – changed his name to Wu Zeng Zhi, 吳增智,but on his mother’s tombstone, his birth name 元泉 was used. Wu Zeng Zhi is a more intellectual name. When one receives education, one becomes learned. Zeng means to expand, Zhi is wisdom, resourcefulness, or wit. A handsome man, Pa left his home in Shaoxing for Shanghai when he was nine years old. His first stint away from home was an abject failure, in terms of money; he wasn’t paid a cent because he returned home to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family before the two year “contract” was up. But, he continued with his apprenticeship in the dry-cleaning trade. Later, he was sent to KL (Kuala Lumpur) by his entrepreneurial boss. The boss had a chain of dry-cleaning shops in Shanghai, and wanted to start another in Malaya. He sent his best apprentices abroad. Pa worked for him for two years in KL before deciding to be his own boss. The three pillars of Malaya’s economy then was tin, rubber and coconut. Teluk Anson was situated right at the hub of these industries. It made sense that Pa chose to set up his own business near Teluk Anson, at Five Miles. As fate would have it, his shop was located just two doors from 2nd Ngagung’s (Ma’s uncle) laundry shop, the one where Jiu-Jiu was forcibly taken to. Ma’s uncle was actually the husband of Ngabo’s younger sister, 2nd Ngabo. Whenever Ngabo visited her sister, Ma and her siblings ( another brother and two sisters) would tag along. Such visits were infrequent; (maybe once or twice a year) they were like an outing or a short holiday. 2nd Ngagung would send Ma to spy on the opposition’s dry-cleaning shop. “How many customers did they have that morning? How many garments? Did you see him? Was he busy?” Ma never spotted the man who would become her husband. She would have fallen head over heels for him. There would have been no uncertainty and angst when asked who she would marry when she returned to visit 2nd Ngagung during the mooncake festival in 1940. “The farmer boy with the ten acres or the dry-cleaner who now lives upstairs?” The dry-cleaner had by then closed his shop, having lost out to his competitor. He cut his losses and became 2nd Ngagung’s dry-cleaning expert instead. Inside information many decades later revealed that it was a strategic alliance that he forged with 2nd Ngagung. He wanted to get close to him and win his approval to marry Ma. 2nd Ngagung’s business grew. With both laundry and dry-cleaning businesses, he monopolised the trade. Impressed with the young man, 2nd Ngagung decided this man would be best candidate for Ma. His wife, 2nd Ngabo, however disagreed.

“He is a noisy tenant. His heavy footsteps annoy me when he is upstairs.”

” An inconsiderate man!”

“He drags his slippers!” “Flip flop, flip flop.”

Three months later, they were married. Ma decided against the farmer.

“Why?” I asked her.

“He is Hokkien, dark-skinned, a farmer. I saw myself slaving away in the field, rain or shine. Hard life.”

“The other is tall and handsome. Fair-skinned. Ambitious. Skilled in a good trade.”

Ma’s assessment of the two choices, I have to say, was superb. It did not mean she was happy to be married off though. Far from it, of course. But, at 17, she knew her time was up. She could not continue to be an expense to her family. She stood at that same window where weeks earlier, she was displayed like a shop window mannequin for viewing by the young farmer. She cried her heart out, bitterly disappointed that she could not have the education and the career that she had aspired to. She had to yield to the plan for her future which others had determined for her. Girls like her were mere chattels, to be disposed of as soon as practicable. Three months after the mooncake festival, Ma left her home at Bagan Datoh in a hired car. The next phase of her life was about to begin. Pa and Ma were married on 24 December 1940. On the same day, the warring nations, England and Germany began an unofficial two day truce to celebrate Christmas. It was a Tuesday, maybe the restaurant in Teluk Anson charged less on Tuesdays. The wedding party consisted of two tables, i.e. twenty people altogether, including bride and groom. No one from Ma’s side was invited, not even Jiu-Jiu, the brother who worked for 2nd Ngagung; he had to mind the shop. In those days, once a daughter is married off, she was “discarded water from a hand basin”. Even her own mother did not attend the wedding. In her white wedding gown, Ma was a classic beauty, before that term was made famous by the Hollywood sirens from the Golden Age. The tailor was from Shanghai, a friend of Pa’s who charged him mate’s rates for the silk dress. He ran out of fabric before the wedding dress was finished; Ma remembers clearly it barely touched the ground, there was no train for her bridesmaid to hold. Her beautiful lacy headwear lacked a veil for the same reason. To help mask the missing veil and train, the Indian florist made her an extra big bouquet. It was so big she struggled with the weight; a hand-tied bouquet would have been classier. Her wedding dress later became stock for hire in 2nd Ngagung’s shop.

Pa and Ma on their wedding day

The newly-weds rented a room on the floor above the shop. Rental was $5 a month. They lived there for seven months. Pa’s work station, an ironing bench was upstairs, in the next room. The other workers worked downstairs, the laundry arm of the business was more laborious and less skilled. Ma was confined in the room to “keep out” of harm’s way. I suspect Pa did not want his beautiful wife to be ogled by his colleagues. One morning, Ma went to the temple to pray for good luck. Pa was not aware where she had gone. By the time she came home a few hours later, he was in tears. He refused to tell her why he cried that day, but I suspect he thought she had run away. Their marriage was match-made, but that was the early tell-tale sign that he had fallen in love with his wife. Those early months of their marriage were sweet. He worked in the adjacent room whilst she kept herself busy during the day. She only needed to cook for herself, Pa’s remuneration included breakfast, lunch and dinner. 2nd Ngagung said she need not have to cook; it was alright for her to eat the leftovers after the crew had finished their meal. Pa declined his kind offer; his bride would learn to be independent. Ma’s chores were light, apart from cooking for herself, she kept busy with washing, mending, and making a new set of pyjamas and boxer shorts for Pa. The shop’s customers were predominantly Europeans. It was normal to find old English newspapers and magazines left in the shop. Afternoons spent browsing through them was how she learned some basic English grammar. Five o’clock was knock off time for the workers. She was happiest then, with an evening walk with Pa to look forward to or a movie to enjoy!

From left: Jiu-Jiu, Ma, 2nd Ngabo, Ngabo, Ngagung and 2nd Ngagung

During those days, news were weeks’ old by the time they reach Five Miles. The radio and tv had not been introduced yet, it was also before the advent of reddifusion. Her English vocabulary was limited, comprehension of news from English newspapers therefore was also limited. There was one person who made an indelible impression on everyone in the village. “A truly great man. I hope the Singaporeans do not forget him.” Ma reminisced and her mind drifted away. His name was Tan Kah Kee aka Chen Jiageng. Even the rickshaw pullers contributed to his financial effort to support China in their war against the Japanese, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Before that, he raised funds for the Xinhai Revolution and the Kuomintang’s Northern Expedition. The philanthropist gave away most of his wealth to these campaigns and helped set up Jimei University in Xiamen and many schools in south-east Asia and Hong Kong. He was also from Fujian as was her first suitor, the rice farmer. Ma need not worry about the philanthropist being forgotten; he has an asteroid named after him.

Mum About Mum I

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.

8 year-old Ma in Ningbo

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.