Mum About Mum VI

Why would they not be happy for me to write about mum? By they, I mean some of my siblings. Aren’t they proud of her? Ma’s grace, her tenacity to survive a war, her frugal ways to make ends meet and build a comfortable nest for us. Were there any insidious secrets that can’t be told? Perhaps, sexual misconduct and scandals so embarrassing they must be buried forever? Any unforgivable crimes that are not allowed to resurface? No, no and no. Then, why the frequent barrage of reminders of what not to write and criticisms about what I write? For a long while now, I have stopped sharing my stories with my siblings. Save the angst, avoid the anxiety. There was neither applause nor encouragement for me to continue. Only the opposite. As if what I have written about mum is repulsive, revolting or repugnant. Or, in one sister’s opinion, mum’s stories should simply remain private. Don’t let me mislead you, there is no ill-feeling between me and them. They just guard their privacy zealously whereas I view that we have nothing to hide and ought to be proud to tell our parents’ stories. Ma wants me to write. That is all that matters. I can tell. She can skip her afternoon naps when she reminisces about her past to me. She becomes talkative, alert and responsive. She becomes fully awake. They can tell. They will choose to leave us when Ma gets into the groove. They don’t want to know. Off they go, to Bunnings. To Burnside Village. Wherever. I don’t want to know, as long as they leave me alone. Don’t censor me, don’t tell me what I can write or can’t. And, don’t censure me after. Ma wants her stories told, and that is good enough for me.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Pa and Ma took the opportunity to visit their elders in Teluk Anson. That was their happy hunting ground, where they met. Where they fell in love and married each other after being given the necessary nods from their elders. They had not returned since they left the town in early 1941. Five years had passed. The elders had all grown older and wearier. Wars do that to people, I suppose. Lives wrecked, livelihoods wrecked or worse, diseases and a painful death for the unlucky ones. The clan was lucky, almost all had been spared. It was a joyous occasion. When the Japanese left, it felt like a suffocating, dark and heavy cloud that was suppressing all traces of normality had lifted and a fresh sea breeze had suddenly blown in and dispersed the acrid air from the town. The wholesome spontaneity that everyone expressed with their smiles and laughter was unrestrained and genuine. The exuberance, the joy, unforgettable. Pa and Ma spent two weeks there. They even popped in to check on their Indian tailor friend, the one who made Ma’s wedding dress. He happened to be overstocked with bundles of fabric and clothes made for customers who had failed to collect their orders. The war made him desperate for cash. Pa, the ever-ready entrepreneur saw the opportunity to make a buck and helped his friend offload the unwanted stock. His mentor, my grand-uncle Ngagung also had lots of garments dry-cleaned for customers who had not returned to collect their very fine clothes. Perhaps his wealthy European customers, many of whom were plantation owners, had fled the country when news broke of the Japanese invasion. Pa got them at a bargain also. When Pa returned to Penang, he did not waste a day to set up a store at “Mor-lah” flea market adjacent to Chowrasta wet-market on Penang Road. It did not dawn on me until recently that “Mor-lah” was very likely derived from the Malay word “murah” or cheap. Pa did a roaring business with the used clothes and fabrics he got from Teluk Anson. Ma said he had his pocket picked when they went to celebrate their bonanza at the grand opening night of a new cinema called The Majestic straight after work. Most of their profit was lost that night, some $300. Pa soon quit his “Mor-lah” store. No, it was not because he was demoralised by the loss of his takings but he did it to avoid the taunts the fellow retailers dished out at him. Apparently, he was clumsy with the metal rule and lacked the finesse that his competitors had with their slick movements when measuring the length of the materials. No matter, the early success and resulting feelings of euphoria sparked Pa’s enthusiasm for identifying good business opportunities. In August 1946, they moved out of their bomb-damaged house in Bishop Street to the shop-house at 3-J Penang Road. Ma had just fallen pregnant but that was no justification for her to avoid the long hours for some two weeks in that 2-storey house cleaning it from top to bottom. The shop-house must have been strategically acquired, for within a month, Pa had negotiated a buy-out of the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel contract from his uncle, Li Fook, for $500. This was a contract to provide all the laundry services for the hotel which was situated only about 200 meters from the shop-house. During the war, Pa and Ma had hidden from the Japanese in uncle Li Fook’s Anson Road property; the elder clansman did not mind that his business was passed down to Pa. In April 1947, my brother, Ko, was born. He had a maid with a distinct harelip to look after him during the “Mua-Guek” (Zuo Yue) or full month. Traditionally, women had to spend the first 30 days as postpartum confinement. I suppose despite the myths, it should be taken advantage of as their maternity leave, a chance to simply lie in bed, rest and learn how to breast-feed. During those early years, there was no herbal chicken soup or pig’s trotters in ginger and black vinegar for Ma. No extra nutrition to help her recuperate. I should ask Ma how she coped without washing her hair or taking a cold shower or going out for an evening stroll during the 30-day lockdown, and did Pa “leave her alone” for all that time during her confinement? Big Sis was cared for by our mum’s younger sister, our Balapai Ahyi, so named after she settled in Bayan Lepas many years later. Balapai Ahyi moved into the Bishop Street house to stay with Ma in December 1943. She was only 13, but it was decided Ma would take better care of her than their mother who as a widow was struggling to fend for herself and her youngest daughter at home. The maid with the distinct harelip left after Ma’s “Mua-Guek” and was not seen again. Ma heard she went to work at the Thai-Burma railway, an idea that sounds preposterous unless she had absolutely no idea of its horrific history.

In January 1948, Pa returned to China to visit his mum. That would be the first of only three visits after he left his homeland in his teens. He had ‘not made it” when he returned to his village. Surely, he would have felt he had fallen well short of his ambition. Who amongst us did not harbour the dream to be a “self-made” person by the time we returned home after a long stint away? Pa had spent all his savings procuring the E&O contract – he was almost penniless at the time and it was by taking up a loan from a Hong Kong man who went by the name Ng-san that he could bring home a bottle of Ghee Hiang sesame oil and some clothes for his mum. I do not know why the Cantonese and the Japanese use the same honorific word “san” for Mr. The business from E&O had been disappointing – the Canadian sailors had left Penang, and the spate of rainy days made it very difficult to hang the linen out to dry. To be more brutal, the business had turned out to be a dud investment. Pa was away for almost 3 months, a one-way journey by cargo ship to China took 20 days. Ko was almost a year-old when Pa returned home to Penang. By then, Big Sis was already a fast eater – just like Pa – but it could be because all she had was rice and Chay-thong”, Ningbonese for watery sauce from a vegetable dish. I checked, it meant no meat and no vegetables. Ko was a slow eater and wanted only mother’s milk. Obviously, he was born clever. Powdered milk was unaffordable and condensed milk with bread was not to his liking. Big Sis was sent to Bukit Tinggi to be cared for by a distant relative, Poddy Ahyi. Anyone from Zhejiang in those days was embraced as a distant relative. Big Sis remembers using a small umbrella as her security teddy bear. She can’t explain how she found an umbrella to be cuddly as a teddy bear but it must have been comforting for a 3-year-old in the home of a distant relative. Pa was the 4th son in his family of five sons and three daughters. He left his Shaoxing home when he was just 9-years-old to start his apprenticeship in a dhobi shop in Shanghai. He knew his family was too poor to afford all of them at home. So, he volunteered to leave. Their days were not always so desperate and miserable. Pa told Big Sis when he was a little boy, he watched from a distance his grand-father’s funeral. The vantage point from a hillside offered him a bird’s-eye view of a long funeral procession that snaked along the fields from the village to the local cemetery many miles away. The quite elaborate occasion would have been fitting for a feudal lord. That little snippet of a story raised more questions than it answered. Who was Pa’s yeh-yeh or Ahya, in our Shaoxing dialect? Why did it strike Pa that his grandpa was inexplicably so much wealthier than them as their circumstances at home clearly showed? Why was he not part of the procession? Why did he observe the funeral from a great distance? Did he not have the right to mourn publicly? Was he deliberately hidden from view? Was it really his yeh-yeh’s funeral or someone was just telling fibs to a young boy? Facts mis-remembered or truths from a little boy’s innocent but naive perspective? This next bit is undoubtedly true. Pa’s eldest sister committed suicide rather than accept the man who was match-made for her by their father, my Ahya. “Why?! Was the bridegroom so grotesque?” I asked. We never did find out why. The man, deprived of Pa’s eldest sister, married the 2nd sister instead in order for Ahya to honour his deal and avoid slighting the man. The couple could not produce a child and so they adopted one of Pa’s 2nd brother’s son. Haizhong, 海忠 whom I met in Shaoxing in October 2007 is their grandson. So legally, he does not bear my clan’s surname although he is still my first cousin once removed. The West does not differentiate between a progeny from an uncle or an aunt, but the Chinese can always tell. Due to his adoption, I am his “Jiu-Jiu”舅舅 from the maternal side rather than his ‘Ah-Song”, 叔叔 from the paternal branch of the family tree.

Balapai Ahyi married in August 1948. She was 18. She was pleased with the Shanghainese bloke Pa match-made her to. Ma said her sister left with a lingering broad smile. Two months earlier, Ma lost a 6-month-old baby. It wouldn’t be her only miscarriage. According to Ma, the boy didn’t make it because she was weak and malnourished. Ma had spent long days and nights making a cheongsam or Qipao and two sets of blouses and shorts for her sister’s wedding gift. The two sisters were as fragile as porcelain. Ma reckoned she got her ill-health from those long hours at the Singer sewing machine. My memory of Balapai Ahyi was of a sickly but beautiful and elegant lady with jade-like complexion who often behaved as if any strong gust of wind would blow her away. The newly-weds moved to Ipoh and bore a beautiful daughter in 1950. Not long after that, they settled in Bayan Lepas, when her eldest brother, my Do-Ahjiu, gave them his struggling laundry shop there to take over. Do-Ahjiu was a very active businessman, quick to seize opportunities to open shops. He would have been a fantastic creator of franchise businesses had he taken that next step to replicate the same business in different locations rather than start different businesses.

To ease their pain from the miscarriage, Pa upgraded their car in late 1948. It was a Hillman Minx, a tortoise-shaped car made in England as most good things were back then. But, the pain quickly returned. In January 1949, Ma had another stillborn – a 6-month-old girl this time. That year, on the 5th August, my parents lost a newborn, a son. He managed to give Pa a sweet endearing smile before he passed away a few minutes later. Four months later, Ma had a miscarriage, a 3-month-old boy. 1949 would turn out to be the worst year of their lives – three babies lost before they could even embrace them in their arms or hear them give the happiest sound any mother would love – the first cry of a newborn. In October 1951, My Second Sis, Neechee, would be born. Ma attributes her successful birth to the Javanese medicines her neighbours from Medan gave her. They lived three doors away, on 3-G Penang Road. I only remember the name of their shop, Kam Sisters. In December that year, Pa went to Singapore either for a short holiday or to scope the port city for opportunities, leaving Ma to look after the business as well as their three kids. Neechee was their lucky baby. Business boomed for the next two years despite much turmoil during the Malayan Emergency which intensified after the assassination of the High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney in October. Penang, also known as the Pearl of the Orient, was a favourite holiday destination for the British and New Zealand troops (the Aussies arrived later) – the fighting against the Communist guerrillas took place in the jungles of Malaya but the R&R place of choice was Penang. Pa was a flamboyant man, so Ma jealously said. A tall handsome man, he was habitually well-groomed and well-spoken. He commanded attention when he spoke, aided by a confident and firm voice and of course, why wouldn’t he be confident? His cars turned heads. Who did not find him irresistible? He loved cars and loved Peking opera. His favourite role was playing Zhuge Liang, a war hero during the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. I was brought up by Ma to believe that my family eked out a hand-to-mouth existence when we were little. But, now I realise Pa the car-lover acquired quite a few cars during those years. He started with a tortoise-shaped second-hand car before trading it for the Hillman, and later changed it to an Austin, then a Morris, and a Fiat after that. When we were in our early teens, he bought an Opel, followed by a Ford Capri in the 70s and a Corolla after I left for Australia in 1977. Ma never got her driving licence. Pa was her driving instructor in 1952-53. The three lessons over a 9-month period she had were too much for her weak heart. During those days, there was just the one set of traffic lights, at the Chulia Street and Penang Road junction opposite Odeon cinema. (It is likely Ma meant the Capitol cinema, Big Sis said) With hardly any cars on the road, it should have been a great time to own the road. Ma said she could not find the spare time to have lessons but I suspect she was reluctant to sit behind the steering wheel. She failed to reach Gurney Drive after starting her lesson at the Penang Road and Northam Road junction. The grand mansions which flanked Northam Road sat on acreage blocks that abutted a private stretch of Penang’s famed pristine golden sands. It was those magnificent manors which bore the heavy influence of British architecture that caught Pa’s attention and his mind was momentarily transported to a world of dreams which beckoned the likes of Yeap Chor Ee, Yeoh Wee Gark and Loh Boon Siew. Those were men of great stature, legends amongst Penang’s self-made tycoons. “Bilik! Bilik! Blaaake!!” Pa yelled when he suddenly saw his precious Hillman heading towards a ditch. Ma could not find where the brake pedal was. “It was a near-miss by a matter of inches” Ma said, but it was enough to bring Pa back from his dream and for Ma to forever quit learning to drive.

Ko, Neechee and Big Sis, and the Hillman Minx

In all her previous seven pregnancies, Ma never went to visit a doctor once. In those days, people did not think they could afford a doctor’s opinion. During the 1950s and 60s, old wives tales were still relevant and therefore prevalent in Asian cultures. Mothers or grandmothers ruled the roost – we did not have doctors to look at our wounds, aches, fevers, or broken limbs or dentists to extract our rotten teeth, let alone ask them for the correct diagnosis. We never went to bed with wet hair as we were repeatedly told that it would make us sick. We only secretly cracked our knuckles and ribs to avoid our ears being pulled for not obeying their wise advice. Apparently, old wives believed knuckle cracking will give us arthritis. Every of Ma’s aunties seemed to have the God-given skill to predict the baby’s sex whenever Ma fell pregnant. In late 1953, Ma fell pregnant again. “You will have a boy this time!” Ma again trusted Mother Nature to grow a healthy baby in her tummy, no visits to midwives or doctors were warranted. The war may have ended eight years earlier and business may have delivered profits healthy enough for Pa to buy his favourite car, albeit second-hand, yet the accepted practice at home was that the informal (and therefore free) consultations with the herbalist on Campbell Street was enough to ensure a proper pregnancy. Third Sis or Sehchee was born in July 1954 when the British Empire was weakening and the colonial masters were starting to leave Malaya. Abdul Rahman had become president of UMNO in 1951 and a year after Sehchee was born, the alliance swept to power in the only general election before Malaya’s independence in 1957. The departure of the British meant that the laundry and dry-cleaning business had truly passed its heyday. Sehchee was a sickly child who suffered from frequent bouts of diarrhoea. Frequently rebuked for being a cry-baby, it ought to have been easy to understand why her discomfort made her cry. It was only in the 1970s that Ma fully understood why. Sehchee was fed powdered milk during her early childhood. The Swiss-based Nestlé was embroiled in a controversy in 1973 – their infant milk formula Lactogen was named “The Baby Killer” in a German magazine. Women all over the world were misled by their advertising that promoted the magical powdered formula offered more health benefits for infants than mother’s milk. A switch that was expensive not only in money terms but especially costly in increased malnutrition and infections, retarded development and often death.

Ma holding Sehchee with Big Sis, Ko, and Neechee (partly hidden) at Penang’s Botanical Gardens. Pa’s Austin parked behind.