Gone Girls

alice amy
My grandmother Alice [right] and her sister, Amy.
These are Alice Wong Nyuk Ken and Amy Wong Nyuk Lian, my maternal grandmother and her sister.

I didn’t know my grandmother well. She died when I was eight and I never had a conversation with her because she didn’t speak English. Or so I believed. Recently, my aunts revealed that Mamachee (which was what my sisters and I called our grandmother) wasn’t pleased that I didn’t speak any Hakka (her language) and her way of showing this displeasure was to not speak any English in my presence.

I feel cheated, to be honest. I mean, it wasn’t my fault that my parents never taught me to speak Hakka, or any other Chinese language. Why did Mamachee choose to punish me for my ignorance? Perhaps it was a passive aggressive message meant for my parents. In any case, it didn’t have any effect as I remained ignorant of any Chinese.

Mamachee died when I was about eight. My memories of her include her cooking these wonderful feasts during Christmas and Chinese New Year reunion dinners (always held at our house because my mother was the eldest of her siblings); of her carrying a large handkerchief filled with brightly coloured boiled sweets and tied at the corners so that it looked like this little sack bulging with treats; of her massaging her temples with medicated oil when she had a headache. She was short and very plump, with a round face and head of curls.

My grandfather died before I was born and by the time I was conscious of Mamachee, she was living with a man whose name I realise I don’t know. All I remember of him was his one or two gold teeth and the large signet ring he wore. They ran a provision store in a village, in Bahau, Negri Sembilan, and my mother told me that Mamachee would give the village children free sweets and allow the poorer families to buy groceries on credit. These debts were never paid and the store was permanently in the red.

When Mamachee and Amy were in primary school, they were sent off to a boarding school in Singapore. My aunts say that my great-aunt Amy quarrelled bitterly with one of her classmates and persuaded my grandmother to write a letter to the girl — I don’t know what the letter said, but whatever it was, it resulted in Mamachee and my great-aunt Amy being disciplined and getting expelled. A telegram was then dispatched to their parents, telling them of the expulsion and that they should expect their daughters to arrive at Segamat Railway Station at a certain date and time.

There was much weeping and wailing as the train drew into the station, but my great-grandparents were shocked when Alice and Amy alighted from one of the coaches.

It seems that, owing to a misprint in the telegram, my great-grandparents had been informed that their daughters had expired and, thus, they had expected to meet a train bearing their coffins.

 

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’.

 

 

Hungry Ghosts

wedding
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.

yau1

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.