Men Behaving Badly

 

Wong Siew Fah
‘I’m an alligator. I’m a mama papa comin’ for you. I’m a space invader …’ My great-grandfather, Wong Siew Fah. He liked the ladies.

Growing up, I was always told that my maternal great-grandfather, Wong Siew Fah, was a ladies’ man. He had two daughters with my great-grandmother, Lucy Tsen, one of whom was my grandmother Alice Wong. He also had four sons by, as far as I know, two different women, maybe more. Two of these sons were raised by my great-grandmother. One of them was not formally acknowledged. The fourth remains a mystery — I asked one of my sisters about him as well as the unacknowledged son and her response was, ‘I hope you don’t write about all that. Don’t offend the living.’

I remember stories about my great-grandparents’ silent war as a result of his philandering. My great-grandmother stopped speaking to him after a time and would pass messages through other people in the household, even if he was right there in the same room as she was: ‘Tell your father/grandfather ….’ Apparently, she eventually told him to leave and stay elsewhere. Still, she raised his sons by another woman and, so I’ve been told, favoured them over her own daughters. (Like most Chinese women of her generation (and not just her generation), she was obviously taught to value boys more than girls.)

That unacknowledged great-uncle of mine was the result of my great-grandfather’s affair with a woman who came to live with the family after her husband had been killed by the Japanese. She had two young daughters and it’s said that my great-grandmother took pity on her and gave her work as a housemaid. One of the two young daughters became my mother’s close friend and so I saw a lot of the family while I was growing up, and I knew the woman who had been seduced by my great-grandfather.

I don’t rate Wong Siew Fah’s looks but it seems like he knew how to turn on the charm. Then again, a poor, lonely widow with two young daughters to raise might not have felt in the position to reject the sexual advances of the relatively wealthy husband of her employer. I guess we will never know what actually transpired.

Wong Siew Fah was by no means the only badly behaved man in my family. I have various philandering uncles, most of whom were married to saintly women who forgave and forgot, and all but took their men back once the thrill of their affairs had worn off; their subsequent relationships broken down; or ill health had forced a realisation and admission of error. I won’t go into too much detail so as not to ‘offend the living’.

 

 

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Hungry Ghosts

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My parents on their wedding day, 1st April 1953
I am ethnically Chinese, for the most part (there’s supposedly Malay and Murut on my mother’s side of the family), and I imagine that, going far enough back, all my Chinese ancestors were Daiost or Buddhist, or a combination of the two.

My father’s parents were definitely Daoist, but my mother’s maternal great-grandparents were Christians — I’m not sure what religion the family was before that.

When my father, Lee Cheng Hong, married my mother, he became a Roman Catholic and was baptised Francis Philip. My mother, Esther Hong, was also baptised in the Roman Catholic church, but I never saw her attend mass and I believe she was raised Methodist by her mother and grandmother. Continue reading

Uncle Yau

Back in the late sixties, early seventies, in Segamat, we would leave our house and not lock the front door.

One evening, we went out to town and when we got back, the furniture in our living room was re-arranged. I remember my parents laughing about it and immediately guessing that this was the work of my mother’s cousin Ang Boon Yau, my Uncle Yau who lived just a few streets away.

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Uncle Yau was skinny and handsome (I thought so) and always making silly jokes, which was probably why he and my father got on well. He and his older brother, my Uncle Hui, emigrated to Canada in the 70s. They are still there, in their 80s and late 70s now, and in quite good health.

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My mother [middle] flanked by Uncle Hui [left] and Uncle Yau the Re-arranger of Furniture [right]. The kids are [from left] my uncle Sam, my sisters Christina, Beatrice and Anne, and my cousin Justin.

The Cynical Woman

I don’t know what her name was, but my mother called her the Cynical Woman. When I asked my mother what ‘cynical’ meant, she couldn’t tell me, but when she discussed this woman with her siblings or friends, they would refer to her that way.

The Cynical Woman came to my maternal grandmother’s funeral and sat wailing by the coffin, saying how it was a shame that it was the good who died young. My mother later remarked that this was a not-so-subtle dig at this woman’s children who weren’t very nice to her.

My mother told me, some years later, that the Cynical Woman’s husband was a sex maniac. Apparently, he was so insatiable that the Cynical Woman often resorted to locking herself in her bedroom. However, even this did not always stop him. Once, she told my mother, her husband broke down the door with an axe! I suppose it would be difficult not to be cynical when you have such a husband.

Haunted House

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I must have been about five in this pic. The house sat on concrete blocks and has a cool, dark space beneath. I used to bury ‘treasure’ in the red earth under the house. (The rabbit wasn’t haunted but my cat Snowball didn’t like it much.)

When I was three we moved, from 15 Jalan Kolam Air, the house I was born in, to 281 Jalan Pawang.

This was in Segamat and both No. 15 and No. 281 were subsidised housing for civil servants. I believe the whole of Jalan Pawang comprised these quarters reserved for government servants of all sorts, be it school teachers and principals, engineers in the PWD (JKR) or hospital staff. Our father was a teacher and taught at the Government High School which was a short walk from 281.

This house on Jalan Pawang had a reputation for being haunted, and, for the longest time, I thought that pawang meant black magic. In fact, it means shaman. Anyway, even when I was older, despite misunderstanding the name of the street, I don’t recall any of us giving much thought to it. I imagine that once upon a time, a popular shaman lived in that area and that was how the street got its name. I don’t think we the name made us uncomfortable. In fact, we seemed rather indifferent, which is a shame because I would now like to know who that shaman was.

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Here’s a picture of my cousins and me taken on in 1977 (Christmastime) at the front door of the house.

 

Before we moved in, we heard that the bachelor teachers who had lived there before us, would go to bed in their rooms and wake up to find themselves in the kitchen.

Also, the wife of the tenant before the bachelors was said to have kept a ‘jin’. Whether it was a pelesit, a polong or a toyol, we will never know, but we were ignorant and called it a ‘jin’. It was said she fed it blood and it would do her bidding. What exactly it was that she bade it do, was unclear.

When we moved in, we had our Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin, bless the house. He sprinkled holy water everywhere, even in the outhouse, meant for the servants in the old, pre-independence days when the civil service was staffed by whites who could afford servants.

I was three at the time so I have only a hazy memory of our early years in 281, but apparently we were haunted. There were turning doorknobs, lights flickering and turning on and off, bells ringing, footsteps and shadows in bedrooms. It must have not have been very alarming though, as we did not pack our bags and demand to move.

There was one evening, I was in the room my sisters shared with my second sister, Beatrice. I would have been three or four and I’m told I was seated on one of the beds facing the window that looked out into the back garden. Beatrice was facing me and apparently we were chatting when my face went pale and took on a look of such terror that she screamed and ran out of the room, leaving me there, alone. I have no recollection of this incident so I can’t say what I saw or if I did see anything. Perhaps I was taking the piss. I really can’t remember.

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My sister Christina riding her bike in the garden of 281.

Another time, my parents woke in the middle of the night and heard what they thought were my sisters playing music in their room. They heard bells, and thought it was the tambourines we had being shaken. When they went to investigate, they found my sisters fast asleep and the tambourines stacked up on top of the wardrobe.

My aunt Evelyne has a theory that the bells were the sort that are fastened on anklets. She remembers visiting us and having an afternoon nap on a floor mat in my sisters’ room. She says she was half asleep and heard bells, ringing in a rhythmic manner, just as you would hear them if they were worn around the ankles of a dancer. She says the ringing got closer and closer until it sounded like they were right there beside her. Then it stopped.

When I was about eight I told my family that I’d seen a shadowy figure in my sisters’ bedroom. I said he looked like a man and he was pacing the floor, looking worried. I can’t remember if I actually saw him or if I made it up.

But all of us did see the door knob on my parents’ bedroom door turn back and forth although there was no one in the room. I believe it was Christmas eve or Christmas evening and we were all in the sitting room where the door to bedroom was, so we all saw the door knob turn. Or did we? I may be misremembering and my sisters may have another story altogether!

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281 Jalan Pawang in 2010. It looks like a different house. There is now a fence around the house and here are no flowers or fruit trees in the garden.