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.