If you asked me how I remembered my mother, I would tell you that she was a depressed woman who sat by me when I was arranging the furniture in my house.
“This is the living room,” “You must put the bed here, this is the bedroom,” “No, the fridge goes there in the kitchen,” the woman beside me was telling me how and where to place the pieces of miniature objects in the doll house.
The next day, I went to play with the house again. I imagined myself inside, walking around, and I heard me telling myself not to bump into the furniture.
The doll house stood by the staircase leading to an empty space downstairs where you could move into two other units. This was a large house. From the outside you thought that it was one large bungalow, but it was actually three houses. There were three families here. Of course, the houses were related. Upstairs was the father, and downstairs were the two families of their married children.
A doll house from my father
Married children sometimes lived quietly far from each other and they met with each other only during the festive seasons once a year on the Chinese New Year and shared a common meal together. They exchanged red packets and they wished each other well, for as long as until the next year if they should meet again.
Here we came across each other every day. My grandmother cooked very well, and the children came up and ate at one large round dining table during mealtimes.
When downstairs quarrelled with upstairs, hell broke loose. But that was not to be happening until three years later, so I would put this part of the story on hold.
Today I went to play with the doll house again. But the woman wasn’t around there today. It was large, and the sections were collapsible. I felt a little bored and I started to rearrange the furniture. I took the fridge out and put it in the sitting room and I brought the sofa outside and I also took the bed out. Then I put the sofa in the bedroom and I placed the bed in the kitchen. The kitchen had drawings of a cooker oven and a sink on its walls. I was quite happy to be in charge of my own house.
“Come and eat,” Ma Jie shouted from the real kitchen. No, it was not called a real kitchen; it was merely an adult kitchen. My kitchen was real too, except that I couldn’t cook inside. Por Por was already sitting at the round table. I went up to the table to sit with her, wondering where the depressed woman was.
“The fish is good for your brains,” Por Por used her chopsticks and put a large chunk on my plate. I was hoping that she would add more sauce to the meat. I liked the fermented beancurd; she had it in a bottle. She dished a little and put it on the fish before she gave me some. I did not know how much it would cost her to procure the bottle but to me it was the most delicious dish on the table.
I marvelled at the way she handled the chopsticks, but I just ate the food, without the fermented beancurd for the time being. When she was not watching I would quickly put my spoon into the dish and yank out a portion. Just the fermented sauce, the fish was not important.
“Eat your food quickly,” Ma Jie talking.
“Fifth Uncle has gone to school,”
“Third has left for the office,”
“What happened to Ah Fourth?” Por Por queried. “I don’t know,” Ma Jie replied.
“You always forget to tell me about him, he’s the one I want to know where.”
“He doesn’t tell me,” Ma Jie said.
“Never mind I’ll try and find out tonight if I see him.”
I took a long time to swallow the food, there was always too much on the plate, which made eating a chore. It was compulsory that I must finish the food on the plate. I hated meal times, I wanted to go back and play inside my own house. Alas, where was that woman?
After lunch I went back to the staircase landing again, where the dollhouse stood. No one came to disturb it. The woman was gone, she never came back again.
Three years later I saw her again.
Thank God for me today Por Por wasn’t at the table eating with me. I took my spoon and dished out a large portion of the fermented bean curd and placed it on my plate, and then I ate it together with the fried beef. Ma Jie did not cook fish today. It didn’t matter to me, so long as I had the fermented stuff. I was actually eating the rice with just the sauce. Who cared about food? Did we need to eat food to grow up?
Doing my colour pencils
Ma Jie set up the ironing board haphazardly. Today she was ironing the clothes with the board facing the round table so that she could see that I was eating my food. This house was not so neatly arranged, unlike my dollhouse. The furniture was not placed against the walls. But actually, furniture was not supposed to be placed against the walls, but at age three I knew not better.
The bell rang, and Ma Jie dropped her clothes and went to open the gate. I could hear her large footsteps down the stairs. It was noisy. So was the sound of the gate opening and closing. Now I could hear Por Por coming up the stairs with her.
“Luckily you came back on time, it was going to rain soon,” Ma Jie said.
“I managed to get a ride from Egg Uncle.” Por Por replied.
I quickly took this opportunity to send some of the beef back to the main plate, thus reducing the duty of finishing the whole chunk of meat for this meal. This was placed on my plate at the beginning of the meal before Por Por came back.
“The sky is going to cry,” Ma Jie said childishly.
I thought she did not know that I understood what she was talking about with Por Por at the staircase before they came into the dining room. They underestimated me.
Por Por came into the dining room and took out a thin envelope. She opened it, took out a thin piece of paper with her crumbled hands. The letter fell out of the envelope easily as it was not sealed. Next to her I heard Ma Jie giving her usual commentary,
“This is your Mami’s handwriting, her handwriting is like this, small and scrawny.”
At this juncture Por Por flashed the letter at me for just one second, and then she took it back as she knew that I couldn’t read the contents.
I wanted to see the letter again, but I dared not ask. Who was my mother? What did a mother mean? I thought that my mother was Por Por. But there seemed to be a difference between a Mami and a Por Por. If Por Por were my mother I would have to call her Mami and not Por Por, and I am told to call her Por Por. Anyway, this was too profound and not important now. What was important now was that someone registered that I had finished my meal so that I could go and sit by the dollhouse again.
I sat for another ten minutes, during the whole time pretending to be eating when there was no more food on my plate. It had all been transferred out during the process when the two were reading my mother’s letter.
I did not know that my mother was away in another place until that afternoon.
No, my mother was not in heaven. My mother was not dead. And I knew her to be residing in England at this moment. In my imagination England was somewhere far away where none of us could reach.
“You can visit your Mami in England,” was not once said to me, but rather, “wait for your Mami to come back.”
I never knew why my mother had to go to England; the reason was that she had to study. But why did she need to study? Was it proper to study when you were a mother? None of those other mothers did. I did not know what other mothers did every day.
I went to school to study too, but for now I had to manage life alone. Yes, I felt alone all the time. I never had a supporting voice, or that someone to tell me that it was alright to do this or that, or that something should not be done.
Por Por left me alone most of the time. She was just my timekeeper, not my caregiver. I had no one who was responsible for me. Very often I heard Ma Jie saying, “Don’t know if her mother likes it or not?” And then Ma Jie would give the look like she was worried about having to make decision.
“The sky is going to cry,” I heard Ma Jie saying this quite often, whenever it was about to rain. Although sometimes the sky did not cry after all, like today. But I saw that she had already collected the clothes from the pole and folded them into the basket waiting for another run when the weather turned hot again. I felt a little sorry at her effort.
“Can I put the clothes out for you again later?” I asked Ma Jie “These are the jobs belonging to adults, children won’t know how to do it.” She told me grudgingly, as though annoyed that she had to talk to me.
I found the two of them in the kitchen most of the time. Ma Jie moving in between the kitchen and the dining room, sometimes into the room at the corner the other room that was meant solely for my Fifth Uncle.
Fifth Uncle seemed to be living by himself at the servant’s quarters, but he did not live alone. A young lady who was rather pretty looking came into the room to see him regularly. She did not rest herself in the other parts of the house such as the living room or the round dining table. Whenever she was here, you could only find her in Fifth Uncle’s room. And you could find her only when Fifth Uncle was around.
She seemed to be one of Fifth Uncle’s items.
I was always happy when she was here, for whenever she was here, Fifth Uncle locked himself in the room and did not come out for hours. This freed me from anxiety, as I was afraid of Fifth Uncle.
One time he came out of his room and shouted at me, “Stop making so much noise.” I did not remember what it was that I was doing that made him so angry, but I knew that what I did he could hear it in his room, which I did not realize before.
I never knew the name of Fifth Uncle’s girlfriend except that she never attempted to talk to me and it seemed that I was invisible in her eyes. She was not rude to me it was just that she did not see me. That I didn’t know why. Probably I was not important to her at all. Maybe I was too small and inconsequential. And so, I looked forward to the day when she talked to me, that would be the day I gained weight in the family.
I allowed her to drift in and out of my world.
Whenever Fifth Uncle used the toilet to pee, Ma Jie would shout at the top of her voice as though to prevent me from using my imagination, “Fifth Uncle is turning on the water tap.” I couldn’t understand why she had to give this commentary every now and then, probably to let others knew that she was around the house. And perhaps she was talking to herself.
Why was Ma Jie talking to herself all the time?
Por Por was watching television again. She sat cross-legged, and she peeled the skin on her feet. I noticed that about Por Por. I couldn’t remember when she did not do that whenever she was cross-legged. I watched with amazement as she collected the lot of skin left on the floor when she got up to walk away from the spot where she sat. I too started the habit of peeling my skin; I peeled my nails every now and then. And I didn’t think that anyone of the adults noticed me doing that.
It was to be a point of criticism from my Dad after he came back from London with my mother.
My Dad went to London with my mother. No, it was the other way around. My mother went to London with my father. She joined him in London. He was the one that needed to go, and she followed him afterwards.
I really didn’t know why the both of them had to go.
Nobody was able to explain this to me at that time, either they couldn’t be bothered, or that it was impossible to explain things to me. I realized that too and I decided not to pursue that topic any further as it always ended up with “Wait for your Mami to come back,” It was quite frustrating though, to go around the bush like that.
Just at this time, Ma Jie walked into the sitting room, “Shall I open the table now?” Por Por replied, “Give him another half an hour,” and then Ma Jie walked away. Ma Jie never watched television with Por Por, she only walked in every now and then and she caught the gist of the film on the television to make out the story for herself. On this too she made documentary. Maybe this was the way she talked to Por Por.
I was very sure that Fifth Uncle was coming home tonight without his girlfriend.
True enough, half an hour later; he came back with a book and some files. As usual he went straight to his room without talking to anyone. He shut his door loudly and immediately Ma Jie prepared for dinner. First, she took the plates out of the kitchen and I counted that it was exactly four sets. By that I meant four bowls, four pairs of chopsticks, and four small cups for tea. Thereafter she went back into the kitchen and brought the large plates with food on it. I could see that today she had beef, fish, vegetables and one bowl of soup. But what I was most concerned about was the fermented beancurd. Yes, it was there today. And this made me happy.
Tonight, there were more than four persons at the dining table. The old man was at the round table too. I watched the way Ma Jie arranged the crockery in front of us. Kung Kung first, then Por Por, Fifth Uncle, his girlfriend, then myself. I was the last, which meant that I was the least important so that if she ran out of a soupspoon it would mean that I wouldn’t get it. But thank God, all the utensils were in place. I was always given an extra set of fork and spoon. The other people at the table the four of them used a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. I had this at my side too, in case I wanted to practice the chopsticks, but so far no one taught me yet.
Since that afternoon I had been waiting for my mother’s letter to come. I looked forward to what the piece of paper had to tell us. Sometimes it said, “Don’t give her too much salt,” and I wondered in amazement how a mother would be concerned about salt from overseas. She should be concerned about my clothes, I had very few clothes and I was always wearing this white top and the flowered skirt.
A casual outfit
True enough. That was my mother all right. A dress came. It was a sleeved dress, with a white top and a pink skirt sewn together as one piece, and then a piece of little flower was stuck on it. It made me happy for the entire day and the day after that. Then on the third day I decided that I must keep it aside as a piece of treasured garment, I took it away from the adults when they were not noticing it, and I kept it inside the bottom of my wardrobe in the drawer.
This mother of mine was still at large but the memory of her grew fonder. I was very fond of her I knew her to be my property. It was always: YOUR mother. However, I had no memory of her. She did not exist in my world. She was nowhere to be found at my Grandad’s house, at school the kindergarten, or even in one of the flats that Por Por’s tenants lived in.
I lived from day to day.
I knew I was just a kid. Compared to the rest of the people who lived in this house; they were much taller and sometimes I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I tried to fathom but it wasn’t easy. They did not make any attempt to conceal their conversation from me, they knew that I was just a kid and there were many concepts that I did not understand.
I asked Ma Jie once, “How do babies come about?” Ma Jie gave me a funny look, she turned her eyes away and replied, “Ask your mother,”
“Wait until my Mami comes back right?” I retorted, as I was getting angry at this standard reply that they gave me. It had become a cliché to them. But she was not embarrassed at all.
My birthday was on the thirty-first day of December at the end of the year so that it was rather nice. And that if anyone asked me when my birthday was, I could always say, “On New Year’s Eve.” It was also a very auspicious day to be born as I always got a half-day off from work, an advantage I learnt to be a fact when I was working as an adult.
So that when I was young I came to think that I was Eve the character who lived in the Garden of Eden in the Bible. Of course, now I knew for sure that I wasn’t Eve. Eve lived and died more than two thousand years ago.
Eve was a very pretty woman and she must have been gorgeous as she was the first woman God created in this world. She must have been very sexy too. I was not sexy, but I was very vain. My relatives who belonged to my mother’s side knew this fact very well. Second Aunty told everyone including Ma Jie in front of me, “She is sure to like the set of multi-coloured panties, I buy for her as she is very vain.” They did not think that I could understand what “vain” meant but I knew.
I waited. I was more eager than ever for my birthday to come around. December thirty-first came. I opened my presents with expectation and great anticipation.
I did have some Christmas presents
So far, I only mentioned my mother’s side of the family. On my Dad’s side it was less imprinted and opaquer. I spent much less time with my Dad’s side of the family. I only saw them once a week and it was my Aunty P and Uncle W who brought me to their house. I remembered that if Uncle W always came in his car with Aunty P and Cousin Kenko.
Kenko was my cousin and he was my only playmate. At this time all my other cousins were not born yet.
Today Uncle W came to pick me up from St. Matthew’s. I was already prepared having changed into a nice frock. I didn’t have weekend clothes or clothes that I would wear when I saw my Dad’s side of the family. Neither did I choose my clothes. I couldn’t remember who chose my clothes though. It wasn’t Ma Jie, so it must have been Por Por. These were the two women with whom I spent most of my time. I think by now you would have guessed that Por Por my grandmother was in charge of my life.
“Vroom ~~~”. The car arrived at Kung Kung’s house and the driver toots his horn. I was all set to go. I jumped into the back seat and Aunty P said a few words to Por Por and I was off.
“Sure. I would bring her back before dinner, before 7:00 p.m.”
I was not interested in Por Por anymore. I started to talk to Uncle W.
The radio in the car was switched on.
“Is Seow Fong Fong singing this song?” I asked Uncle W.
“Teresa Teng, you know her?”
“No, I don’t. I only know Seow Fong Fong, can she sing this tune too?”
Uncle W gave me a smile and he turned the volume up. I was wondering why he did not reply. Now I knew that Seow Fong Fong did not sing, she was an actress, and actresses were not singers. They were two different categories of artistes.
This was to be a weekly affair, which I welcomed most.
Pretending to ride a bicycle
I arrived at 21 Jalan Pari Kikis. It was another landed property, but it was terrace. Before you arrived, you had to go through a number of similar houses making a few turns. There was a dog living in this house. His name was Rover. And I was terrified of him. I waited until someone in that house tied Rover by his neck to the fence before I got out of the car. So long as I didn’t go to the backyard outside the kitchen I won’t have to confront Rover again.
I was unsure whether the car manufacturers had invented the car by the name Rover at that time. None of my relatives drove a Rover. I didn’t know how I came to know this but for now I could tell you with certainty that Second Uncle drove a Volvo.
On my fifth birthday I did not see my Dad, neither did I see my mother. In any case I did not know who they were. I was the birthday girl and for my birthday Kung Kung bought me a slide. They had a large garden with sufficient grounds for them to put a slide there. I still had pictures of myself coming down from the slide.
A slide for my birthday party
“Don’t fall down,” I could hear Third Uncle shouting.
“You see, you see, she is wearing my colourful panties.” Second Aunty said.
Yes, I had started wearing the colourful panties that Second Aunty gave me. I am the first-born child belonging to the grandchildren generation so that I got all the attention and all the nice and lovely things in life. But Por Por hardly brought me out for shopping; the furthest she had brought me out daily was to the block of flats behind the bungalow. It housed a group of people who gave money to Kung Kung regularly. They were rightfully called tenants. Yes, my grandparents were landlords and later on in the story you would know that the relationship of my grandparents and my parents had changed from being relatives to become that of landlord and tenant.
“Give me a pen,” Kung Kung the driver said to Por Por.
“No, I don’t have one,”
“Why couldn’t you get it from her?” He asked, his tone showed that he was a little annoyed.
“Get it from her school bag, you are so silly.” Por Por took my bag and searched for a pencil, there was none.
“What? Why didn’t she even have a pencil to go to school?” I could understand the remark, but I kept quiet preferring the adults to think that I didn’t so that I knew what they were talking about all the time, in case they said bad things about me.
Por Por turned to me and asked, “Where are your pencils?” she sat on my left in the car.
“They have a large tray and we help ourselves it in the classroom during class.” I said.
With that both of them kept quiet and then Kung Kung continued with the journey. Kung Kung was the driver. No one else was in the front seat; Ma Jie did not come along. Ma Jie was at home all the time. She combed a long plait and wore a pair of black trousers and a Cheong Sam blue top. I was neither happy nor unhappy that she was living with me. Her presence made no difference to me. I didn’t think about her at all.
Por Por rarely brought me out. She was often watching television with me. Today I saw a woman in black being led to the prison, she had long red fingernails and as she walked into the prison she used her fingers to scratch the walls of the cell. Her fingerprints left a trail of red ink-mark on the wall. She wore long hair, but it was not the hair that scared me.
“Why do you let her see this kind of thing?” Ma Jie asked.
“How would I know the scene beforehand?” Por Por replied.
Then Ma Jie said, “now turn off the television,” for which Por Por retorted, “It’s too late. She already saw it.”
And then the two of them will banter for the rest of the day.
Of course, Por Por collected the skin that she dropped on the floor after she has peeled them.
I was not very vocal. I let the image frighten me without showing it. They looked at me for a while and then they ignored me, continuing with their tasks. I was about five years old then I didn’t know if a five-year old could describe what she thought very well. I was the only child in that large house and I didn’t see children until the next morning. No, I didn’t look forward going to school either.
Tomorrow I must go to the concert. It was imperative because I was the lead actress. I was the bride in the “yanky-doodle came to town .... ” song. Michael the lead man had returned from a battle of war and his wife sang with a group of people to welcome him home. That time there was not yet the “tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree .... ” In any case Michael went to war and not to prison.
I had a very nice white dress with small little red flowers sewn on it at random. It had taffeta as an under layer and is considered to be very expensive in those days. Third Uncle took a picture of me in the dress at the back garden. I still had the picture, but I had no recollection of the colour of the shoe I was wearing.
A white dress with little red flowers
I sat on the table where the teachers had left some of the other costume and some makeup. I remembered someone complained that I was still sitting there after the teacher had put on my makeup for me.
For rewarding my efforts in putting up the play Aunty P bought me a very nice watch. It had a black strip and gold face, you couldn’t find it anywhere in the market now as its status had become that of an antique watch.
During the play, I was too slow in hooking up the button to put Michael’s cloak together. The form teacher, who was also the musical director, came up to us and pushed my hand away to complete the job. Apparently, Michael in the same class was her son. I felt very bad, but it was only now that I understood why she had to do that, because the music was going on and she couldn’t afford the scene to be frozen there. I had no one to lodge my complaint with, as Por Por was always too distant for me. I didn’t know that she wasn’t my mother, yet I also knew her not to be my mother.
In fact, what I remembered was that she and Ma Jie, this time Ma Jie came along, dropped me off at the school and went back with Kong Kong and Por Por in the car earlier on before the musical.
Today I swallowed a fish bone. The doctor was called to attend to my throat. I was coughing throughout. I couldn’t eat, neither could I drink. A man with a large black suitcase came. He opened my mouth and then he sprayed some bitter powder into my throat. Immediately my tonsils were soothed, and I could swallow again. This man seemed to be a sensei.
A sensei was a Chinese physician who practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine. Here in Singapore we call it TCM. Whenever I was ill, Por Por would bring me to a TCM sensei and chitchat. Then he would give her some packet of herbs to bring home for Ma Jie to boil them in soup to let me drink. Usually they worked. I was not a sickly child.
On the contrary my mother was. In later years she told me that some doctors told Ma Jie that she would not live beyond the age of three. The doctor was proved wrong. A nun at the French Convent she went to school also told my mother to cut her plait, which she promptly did.
The nun told her, “You have nice long hair, but the weight of it is pulling you down. Your hair is absorbing all of the nutrients that should go to your body.”
My mother was very proud of the two long plaits, which she had when young. She told me that she had lovely hair.
So, at a very young age my mother had decided on what kind of hairstyle she wanted for herself. She kept short hair, and I had not seen her with any other kind of style. She told her hairdresser how to cut her hair. I did that too and I was specific with my instructions; but that was when I became an adult. Now Por Por was still my hairdresser. I had a China doll hairstyle. Por Por cut my hair. She props me up on the round able and she sips it off little by little. Ma Jie would collect the remnants on the floor.
“Why do you have so much hair?” She said.
“Por Por cut two inches this time.”
I remembered the TCM man came to the house also on one other occasion. I was ill with an itch. My backside was itching every now and then and I was told to take off my panties and lie with my face down on the pillow. They found out that I had worms in my stomach. Again the TCM gave Por Por some ingredients to make soup.
My mother told me that she also had this experience of lying flat on the bed. She said that when she was very young, a fortune-teller came to the house to make a diagnosis. He took a look at my mother’s backside and promptly advised Kong Kong that the next child that would come along in the family would be a girl.
True enough Second Aunty arrived one year later. So that created unhappiness for Por Por, as when my mother was born there was already loss of face for her as since the baby was a female. In those days there was no ultra-sound so that the outcome of a pregnancy was always a mystery. That made life more exciting. Imagine that if you knew what was going to happen tomorrow for sure you wouldn’t want to continue with today. Maybe you would, but I won’t.
I loved the soup that the TCM man told Por Por to boil for me. It was bittersweet and simply delicious so that I was not upset with anybody whenever I was ill. There was also another advantage, which was that at that time I need not go to school. I didn’t hate the school. With school there was Michael. I was infatuated with Michael. He was big and strong. The teachers liked him in particular and later on I found out that his mother was the headmistress of St. Matthew’s Kindergarten. A rather dignified woman she was.
It was just that not going to school I could stay at home and roamed around the estate without someone watching over me all the time. In school during those hours I had to sit by the desk without food or drink until the bell rang. I saw that as going to prison but the proper way to call that place was a school and more accurately a kindergarten.
I had a lot of freedom.
Por Por had four other children apart from my mother, so that my mother had a younger sister Second Aunty, followed by Third Uncle, Fourth Uncle and Fifth Uncle. In the story you would have found my relatives-in-law coming into the picture one at a time.
The Fifth Aunty married Fifth Uncle after all. Then there was Third Aunty. Third Aunty was Third Uncle’s wife. Third Aunty was very pretty. My Dad used to comment that she had an hour-glass figure. I didn’t know why he must use the word “hour-glass” to describe her shapely figure. An hour-glass is a funnel where sand drips from the uppercase to the lowercase. It took time for the exercise to be accomplished. My Dad always has a colourful way of describing things.
In later years I had come to adopt this habit too. My grandmother he called her “Mooncake”. My mother told me that it was an unusual nickname, but I knew that it derived from her Chinese name. No, Por Por did not have a nickname. People in that generation did not have Christian names. However, my Por Por was a Christian though.
Yes, Por Por was a fervent Christian. All of them were. At night I waited for Por Por, who in turn waited for Ma Jie to tell her if she was needed by Kung Kung. I remembered that Por Por always made me say a prayer before she put me to sleep. I couldn’t remember having my own bed. I slept with Por Por on a double bed all the while.
In Por Por's dying years she told me that she prayed and asked God for a man who “did not smoke, did not drink and did not gamble” and He answered her prayer by matching making her with Kung Kung who was already in Singapore. Por Por came straight from China.
I was in primary one now. One day after lunch in the canteen I heard a commotion, and then later Ma Jie picked me up from school and I left the school altogether. It was later on that I found out that someone had died in the school. A student was found to have fell down from the railings of the school canteen, and he died on the spot. It seemed that my mother knew about it and wrote home to tell Por Por to take me out of the school, so before I realized it I was already in Nanyang Girls’ High School.
This first school that I attended was actually the Nan Hua School near River Valley Road, but I was there for only three days. So that in my entire resume I couldn’t put it as a school I attended since I did not graduate from the school during my PSLE. A PSLE was an examination that gave you the score to graduate at twelve.
Even though my mother was mentioned all the time my Dad was in charge. He did not write to Por Por but he was always at the background making decisions. Several people were in charge of my life, but I didn’t know who, was really behind it.
He was a history teacher. He was the disciplinary master in a boy’s school. That was before he went to U.K.
There was also Fourth Aunty with Fourth Uncle. I couldn’t say for sure if this set of uncles and aunties appeared before or after my parents came back. But I could say with certainty that Second Aunty got married to Second Uncle in my parents’ absence. I was the flower girl and I had a picture to prove that.
Uncle Hansen also had a girlfriend called Aunty J. These two persons belonged to the other side, the green side. In later years I saw my mother’s side as the blue side and my Dad’s side as the green side. This was because when Kung Kung passed away I happened to be wearing a light blue top and a white skirt; and when my grandfather at Jalan Pari Kikis passed away I wore a dress with an oak green skirt. I liked to use colour to describe things.
But this way of distinguishing my family did not come about until I was an adult. I knew that my mind was sometimes pre-occupied with people dying. Perhaps it was because the depressed woman never appeared again, so that for a long time in my little mind, I thought that she was dead.
I was never brought to a funeral; neither did I need to attend a wake. I was hardly brought out for any function and even weddings came in few and far between. I could recall only once when I was sitting at a chair in a crowded restaurant when one of the relatives came up to poke at me, but I did not say a word, “Why is she so strange?” I heard her say.
“Her mother is overseas,” and then both persons walked away, as though the fact that my mother was overseas contributed to my behaviour. The restaurant was crowded, and guests were walking in and out. It was a Chinese restaurant situated in some parts of Chinatown. Don’t ask me for the name of the restaurant, I couldn’t remember.
There was the Great World City. It was an amusement park and there was also a movie theatre. I often went there to sit on the roller coaster. It was very scary, and I didn’t like it at all. I was encouraged to try at all the sets. I was always told to do things by the adults without being able to object to the activity. So long as someone said so I had to comply. Por Por was silent most of the time, preferring to allow her other children to be in charge. In any case, they were near the marrying age so that they were quite sensible already. I didn’t like the thrill of the roller coaster, preferring to ride on the horse or sat inside the bowl.
Like Por Por, I prayed too. Whenever I was inside the compound I would pray that no one took me on the roller coaster. It got more fervent when Third Uncle was around. He was the more adventurous sort, especially when Third Aunty was there. Fifth Uncle looked at me with a squint eye, so he did not travel on a roller coaster.
Further down the road we had the Chinese opera. But the troop stationed themselves there only during the seven-month of the Lunar New Year. The venue was actually called the Air View Towers. They did not charge you for their performances and so I found myself there very often. I walked there.
The group put up their tent on the open ground. I walked in and out of the place by myself, sometimes sitting in the front row, as I was too short to get a good view from the back seats. Whenever other adults moved in to patronize the show, I would have to change seats as I was being blocked. I didn’t consider the opera actresses ugly even though they had heavy make-up on. Every adult put on make-up except for Por Por and Ma Jie.
One of the plays enlightened me. It told of a woman having to kneel before a woman a General who fainted at once thus revealing the relationship of mother and son, a well- kept secret. In Chinese culture it seemed that if a mother knelt before her biological son he would feel giddy.
I was a sickly child and apart from asthma, I felt giddy very easily.
Today the sun was strong, and Ma Jie brought the rattan tray with dried lemon outside to sun. She carried the tray downstairs and put it on the ground just before the drive-in to the car porch. The car porch only allowed for two cars. I loved the dried fruit just like the way I craved for the fermented bean curd. Sometimes I would pick up one piece of the lemon and ate it even before it was completely dried up in the sun.
“How come this lemon is here? I thought that it was on the other side?” One lemon was no different from the other. It was strange that Ma Jie would realize that I have tasted some of the lemon before she had dried them and kept them in a bottle. Whenever I stole one lemon I would rearrange the rest so that Ma Jie did not see the gap on the tray.
“Thou shall not steal.” God says in the sixth commandment. I learned the Bible in St. Matthews’s kindergarten. But then the lemon belonged to Por Por. Moreover, she put it outside. If she didn’t want me to eat it she should not have displayed it. I thought this was an invitation to treat. Neither of them scolded me on this. I saw the two of them talking about the missing lemons and I kept quiet sitting on the floor peeling my own fingernails. I was a little nervous.
I always scored high marks in St. Mathews. Michael came in first and I was second. My mother knew and was very happy about it.
Another regular outfit
I was wanting to show the audience my prize
I was older now and still nobody told me how babies were born. Maybe I should have waited until my mother came back then asked her.
“Your Mami is coming back tomorrow, you can go to the airport and pick her up,” “Hooray!” I was pleased beyond description. My fringe had been long covering part of my face and I was very irritated by it. I promptly went to the dressing table in Por Por’s room and snipped part of my fringe so as to make it look more evenly straight.
I had not decided on what to wear for this piece of news was sprung on me suddenly. Ma Jie was promptly told to bathe me. In those days there were no heater and no shower. We simply turned on the tap to collect a full pail of water, and then we used a scoop to scoop it and pour it over our bodies, one scoop at a time. The water was cold it and it gave me a running nose.
Bathing was a very troublesome affair and I really hated it. And I also didn’t like Ma Jie scrubbing my body. She gave me a sponge to make lather and then she took over the sponge and proceeded to scrub my body. I loved making lather on the sponge. Usually it was Ma Jie who bathed me. I particularly disliked it when Por Por talked to Ma Jie when I was inside, and Ma Jie leaving the bathroom door ajar. I couldn’t order Ma Jie to close the door for I was a kid and I had no right to command the adults.
I was a very shy kid.
And so, I didn’t have many friends. The only friend I made was the child of a distant cousin and I have completely forgotten about her name and her relationship to me was as a relation.
With my Dad’s side of the family I had another dimension - the sea. I loved going to the sea. At the seaside, Uncle W put a mat on the beach and Cousin Kenko and I occupied most of the space. We brought along a pail, a spanner and some moulds. I was happy about the whole situation now. Going to the beach was a once a week affair for myself. I was always given a large can of “Kong Guan” biscuit to present to my Dad’s father my other Grandfather Ye Ye. My Ma Ma was more opague I only remembered her to be having a large mouth, she hardly spoke. No, I won't be able to recognise their voices if they appeared in front of me now.
I was the first grandchild
I finally saw her. She carried a red jacket on her arm and she smiled, and she came up to me and hugged me. I gave her a friendly smile in return. But I didn’t know who a mother was. It was correct that I was a very shy kid. I hid my feelings of uneasiness and I followed the adults to the car waiting at the airport. I couldn’t remember if anyone said,
“This is your Mami,” but I was certain that a third party introduced us to each other.
She handed the jacket to me and told me to hold it for her. I was very honoured to be given such a task. I took over and held the jacket gingerly. It was the first time I met my mother. I was quite happy for now I had a property of my own.
My mother brought me out after school
My Dad didn’t appear on the scene. I still could not remember as to whether Dad came back first, or was I told that he would come back at a later date. This was like a play and the characters walked in and out of the stage.
I was the lead actress.
We were still in 1967. I couldn’t recall the precise date when my mother returned. I checked into Number 3 with her. Number 3B was the upstairs and 3A was on the right-hand side downstairs. Number 3 we were left-hand side downstairs. Third Uncle lived there with his family.
By the way, that red jacket was cool and warm. Later on, I found out that the outer layer was made of silk and the inner was stuffed with feathers. She gave me a big hug, and then told me that I was allowed to carry it for her. That was the first hug I received in my entire life. At night she gave me the jacket to use as a blanket.
It was nice to have a mother.
On the first night after my mother came back, I could not fall asleep. I twisted and turned, and I started to ask myself why my Dad did not appear at the same time. Usually a father and a mother came as a pair. Like Ma Jie always said, “Your Papa Mama,”.
I missed Ma Jie. She was not here to give her regular commentary. I missed Por Por more.
Finally, my mother knocked on the door. This was supposed to be my new bedroom. She came in, and she saw that the room had my dress hung on it. This was the one that she sent from U.K. For administration purposes, I brought it out for her attention.
“Oh, I see,”
“Did you like it?” I kept quiet; I never had a chance to wear it. I had outgrown it.
There was also a blue star, which was also a gift from my mother too! The star was actually a musical box, so that when you twist the little hook at the bottom, music flowed out. It was “Silent Night”. I liked this Christmas song in particular, so I that I twisted the hook every night and listened to it until I was fully satisfied. But I couldn’t sing.
I didn’t talk in the first place. I was a kid, so I could never join in the adult conversation. In any case, I never knew much about what they were talking about. Throughout my childhood days I was only concerned if the adults said anything bad about me. If they were happy about me, they would call me aside to take a few shots of me to send to my mother. As I was common property, no one would teach me what to do. But no one ever came to my rescue if I did wrong, either.
I was the most insignificant subject in the family. But I was also the most liked little girl.
“Don’t worry about Sumin,”
“She is so cute I think she looks more like her mother than her father.”
These were the comments that I heard regularly. I just ignored them for I was getting fed up with the reference to my parents without anyone paying proper attention to me.
I had not grown up yet. We were still in the same year. But my Dad appeared now. He was a fatter version of Uncle Hansen. I spotted him queuing up at the airport at the arrival hall. He was holding a folded garment on his left arm which was dark grey and he also held a document in his hand.
“Is this Uncle Hansen?” I asked.
I thought that there was another version of Uncle Hansen. Since I didn’t know what parents were, I won’t know what uncles and aunties were too. Uncle Hansen didn’t come with us.
“No, this is your father,” the facilitator said.
I watched my Dad as he moved in the queue until after he came out of the arrival hall. I was afraid of this man. He was a stranger to me. I was very happy that I could see my Dad although all the while I had not painted a picture of our reunion. Neither did I do that with my mother.
He checked into Number 3 straight away.
Over the next few days, I found that my parents had quite a good rapport with each other. She would answer to the name, “Sow” and he ordered her around. I was just a bystander who watched in silence. I missed Por Por badly. I missed the fermented bean curd. It was mealtime again. Some food was brought to me and I had to eat downstairs. I felt alone. They ate and talked without reference to me, sometimes I wondered if they knew that I was around. I didn’t know what they were talking about most of the time. I sat there long enough, this time there was no Ma Jie there to give commentary. I did not know when I could leave the table. I still had some food left on my plate. Finally, I plucked up the courage to get up from my seat.
“Where are you going? You haven’t finished your food.” The man asked.
I did not know how to answer him. He spoke English, but I always spoke Cantonese with Ma Jie and Por Por. After a while I found out that they summarized Ma Jie, Por Por, Kung Kung, and all the other relatives the second Aunty, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Uncle as “Upstairs”.
I was very upset with this tagging, but I didn’t know how to tell these two persons. I forgot that they were my parents. Could you tell your own parents how you felt? What were the things a child said to his father and mother? I tried to recall the conversations that went on in school regarding the other children with their parents, but I couldn’t find any.
I thought that Aunty J did not go with Uncle Hansen to pick my Dad up from the airport. Uncle Hansen drove a black car. He liked it, and that was to be a point of contention between my Dad and he. My father liked white cars. He said that those who drove white cars were less likely to meet with an accident.
“At night the colour stands out, so even if the lights on the roads are dim, other cars can also see you if your car is white.”
For this reason, he insisted that my mother and myself wore white clothes whenever we went out at night. I hated white; it reminded me of a nurse in a hospital.
I might as well tell you now the other rule that related to cars. It came down like a commandment: Thou shall not sit in a car with the suffix “x”. A suffix is the alphabet that came with the car after all the numerals. Uncle Hansen drove a black “Ford”, but his car number didn’t come with an “x”.
My mother seemed to be able to get along well with Aunty J. I Past Story by thought that Aunty J was very beautiful. She kept long hair and the tip of her hair curled out like it was permed. Later on she told me that her hair was very inconvenient.
“I have to go to the hairdresser to wash my hair and get them to blow dry for me.”
“Why?” I ventured further.
“It is very dry and if you don’t blow them in place they are like wire.”
My mother too had natural curls, whereas mine was very straight and if I didn’t perm my hair it did not fall nicely. So that was one difference between my mother and myself. We were not very much alike. In fact, we were two different characters altogether.
I liked Aunty J not because she was much younger but because she was glamorous looking. I thought that Uncle Hansen liked her because of this too. He often slept with her sleeping on a mat on the floor by the side, with his bedroom door open. Uncle Hansen slept on his own single bed. Aunty J was my favorite aunty amongst Second Aunty, Third Aunty, Fourth Aunty and Fifty Aunty.
The one I liked least was Third Aunty.
Often, I saw her mother coming into the house and she sat on the dinning chair with one leg folded up on the other. It looked quite un-lady like. She did not speak to me. I had no objection to her except that she spoke very loudly. This Aunty kept short curly hair. Actually, she belonged to the grandma generation and I shouldn’t be calling her aunty. I was not too sure if she was still alive today.
I once thought that she was a mama-san. She smoked and that was how I arrived at that conclusion.
I was sure that my mother asked herself whether she needed to go to U.K.
I spent my children education in two schools: St. Nicholas’s Girls’ School and Nanyang Girls’ High School. Nobody knew the real reason why I had to leave St. Nicholas. I was being terrified.
I did attend St Nicholas for a while
My classroom happened to be situated next to a spiral staircase leading upwards. A girl with a pair of deformed legs supported by a wooden frame walked passed the classroom at around the same time almost every day. She arrived just outside our classroom and then she took the spiral staircase up. When she walked her shoes made a loud sound. I could still remember her walking there every day. I was very afraid of her and her artificial legs.
I didn’t know why the handicapped girl scared me very badly so much so that I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. I was afraid of bumping into her. Sometimes at recess I would see her walking around the opposite side of the courtyard in the school. I tried to flee from her but there was one time that I confronted her even as I was trying to run away. I walked in the other direction and there she came too. I was very scared. She wasn’t diseased or anything, but her legs frightened me. I had no one to express my fear to.
My mother had come back by then, but I didn’t talk to her.
I was also being told to sell cards. The school would give each one of us twenty cards to sell and then after having collected the money to place them in an envelope and to record the donor’s name and the contribution. I had known no one. I had disowned all of my cousins. I was not even introduced to as Cousin Sumin to the ones born after 1967.
One day the opportunity came. I was to have been caught stealing sweets in the school. Both an Indonesian girl and I were brought to the principal’s office to face disciplinary action. I remembered sitting in the school office with the girl on my left.
“She told me to do it,” I said vehemently placing the culpability onto the girl.
“Is this a gang effort?” the disciplinary teacher continued with her question.
“Yes, she was the one,”
Again, I continued with her culpability.
I wanted to get out of St. Nicholas Girls School but didn’t know how. I must have prayed. So, when the opportunity presented itself I grabbed it. I must leave the St Nicholas’ at all cost. The girl with the wooden legs was getting me crazy. And during the questioning I heard,
“If you are guilty of extortion you would have to leave school.” I immediately replied that I did, so that I could leave the school and go somewhere else.
“Are you the one who took money?” the principal asked.
“Yes,” again I said.
“Did she take money from you?” the principal pursued.
“Are you the one who took money?” again I said yes.
“She took money from you or you took money from her?” the disciplinary teacher and the principal asked, pointing to the older girl.
“She told me to take money from other people.” I made out a prima facie case.
“Okay, let me talk to your mother.” Late in the evening my mother was waiting outside the room.
“Why did you do that?” the Indonesian girl looked at me.
“You don’t have to do that.” She looked me in the eye.
I looked back at her, I couldn’t explain. In my mind I had worked it all out already. Just say anything for you to get out of the school, you will never get the chance again.
My mother was around during the confrontation throughout. She was angry with the school principal for she told her to take me out of the school. I was already in Primary Three. It would have been a pity if I were to leave during mid-term.
“How could they do that?” My Dad was furious.
“This is the trouble with these missionary schools.”
“Whose idea was it to send her there?” Of course, it must have been my Por Por.
But in reality, no one knew. I couldn’t understand the adult language, so I couldn’t report to my father. I only remembered Ma Jie and Por Por discussing the incident in Nan Hua.
And so, they started a round of quarrel. My Dad was angry with my mother again. It seemed that she was not aware of the fact that I was being sent to a missionary school. St. Nicholas’ was the sister school of the Katong Convent. My mother was the alumnus of the Katong Convent. The St Nicholas’ was in town, but the Katong Convent was in Katong. Apart from the address the difference between the two schools was that you spoke English in the Katong Convent but in the St Nicholas’ Girls School, Mandarin.
I came out of St. Nicholas”. Now I was in Nanyang Girls’ High School. Today was the first day of school. I put on my school uniform and was Past Story by unhappy that it’s didn’t look nice. It came in two pieces and the top did not fit properly.
It had got three holes, the words “Nan Yang” in Chinese was sewn onto it with red threads. The bottom half was a pleated white skirt and the pleats do not fall neatly. I didn’t like this uniform. But it was not important for the time. So long as I need not see the girl with the wooden legs again I was prepared for anything. Of course, I might find another girl with wooden legs in Nanyang. I was just afraid of anything that looked abnormal.
Communication from me to my parents was usually from me to my mother, my mother to my Dad, and vice versa. I never said things to my Dad directly. My Dad was the head of the unit. He was stern and he wore thick-rimmed glasses. Kung Kung wore glasses too, and so did Second Uncle, Third Uncle, Fourth Uncle and Fifth Uncle.
If Upstairs was number 3B my Kung Kung’s house, then number 3 at my Dad’s house should be Downstairs. My recollection of downstairs began when all the furniture was in place. As you entered, you were in a room, and then from the right you go into a long corridor where you were protected from thieves by a set of grills. The grills were white in color. Once you reached the middle of the corridor, a large entrance led you to the heart of the house into a larger room with three doors. One door led to the dining room, one to the back room and one to my room. From my room you couldn’t go out except through the large room.
My mother talking in the common room
A large table sat in this large room. That was my mother’s worktable. My mother was a career woman, she worked most of the time. I was very proud of her, as she was a working woman, compared to my other classmates who were housewives. My mother was someone to brag about. I knew that my Dad was a lawyer straight away, as Ma Jie had told me before that he went overseas to study law.
My Dad did not talk to me. My mother was the one that conveyed most of his messages.
“Ask her to bathe,”
“Ask her to eat,”
“Ask her to come here,” I didn’t know why my Dad could not say these things directly to me.
Why couldn’t he just said, “Ming, go and bathe,”?
He seemed to dislike me. I was very scared of him and very unhappy about having to be stuck with these two persons now. Upstairs was much more relaxed, and I had a lot more freedom. For one, there was silence sometimes whereas number 3 the two were always engaged in conversation. So, I had to be concentrating on what was happening. In Upstairs often Por Por watched television and during that time no one talked except for Ma Jie’s commentary. If Ma Jie was busy on the kitchen cooking dinner, no one actually noticed what I was doing.
No, all the time I was not doing what I was not supposed to be doing. No one told me what I should be doing in the first place. What did a kid at four or five do all the time? I was the eldest in the grandchildren so that I had no one to look to for comparison. That was sad.
“Ask her to come out,” the stern looking man shouted, and my mother looked for me and she told me.
“Your father wants to talk to you,” I was a little bit frightened. Why couldn’t he talk to me directly? Why did he have to go through a third party?
I went with my mother to see him.
I was terrified of my Dad because he shouted. He got angry very often and when he was angry it was like being in a war zone. My mother never shouted back at him. Everything that my Dad said went. If my Dad wanted the apples to be cut into three pieces she would cut it into three. If my Dad wanted lights in the room she would turn on the switch. He sat in the television room and shouted,
“Sow! Pass me the remote control,”
And she ran out from the kitchen at the back of the house and rushed out to the television room and got the remote control next to the television and passed it to him. The item was just by his side, but he had to engage her services. My father had polio when he was very young. But that should not prevent him from getting up from his chair to pick up the remote control. His legs are symmetrical.
I was very upset at the way that my mother was being treated. I told myself when I grew older to ask my mother to leave. But I never told anyone about this. Unless I had a very close friend I could not tell anyone. Things like this never happened Upstairs.
I was not allowed to watch television. Television was prohibited from me because I couldn’t help watching the Cantonese drama, which Por Por and I enjoyed so much. In those days there wasn’t any television series. Every screening came in a story and the story ended there.
I got to know Seow Fong Fong, Chan Bao Zhu, Jie Yin and the rest. And I admired them. I lived with them. They were as real as my parents were to me. At least at age four I knew what they looked like. I only knew my mother through her handwriting. I was not able to piece together her picture like the way the Police do it when they wanted to arrest a criminal on the run. But even if you drew a picture of my mother I would not be able to tell it was she for sure.
It was stressful. My parents started to engage a part-time servant. The part-time servant was allowed to watch television, but I was not. I felt discriminated against and alienated. Television was my source of entertainment as well as my current affairs. To me the script on television was real life.
I often asked, “does my Mami look like Chan Bao Zhu?”
“I think you look more like Chan Bao Zhu,” Ma Jie replied.
If Chan Bao Zhu got married on screen, I would be the Chan Bao Zhu who was married.
No, Upstairs was never unkind to me. They were simply indifferent to me.
Since these two persons came back I hardly went upstairs again. Times I could visit Por Por was when I was joining them for meals. It was usually lunch. My mother was working and thus she was not free to cook lunch for me.
In fact, my mother was not free to cook dinner for me either. She was a career mother. I was not complaining about this, as it did not matter to me. Besides, I had no one to complain to. So long as I got my food it did not matter who cooked for me. But one day, Ma Jie gave me a Bento.
A bento was a lunch box. It was a Japanese word. You would find that Japanese seeped out in the story as I also spoke and wrote some Japanese. This was a third language I acquired after 1983. Basically, my life fell into four sections: between 1963 and 1967, between 1967 and 1983, and after 1994. 1994 is the year in which my daughter is born. But I didn’t want to talk about her now.
I loved my mother. But not more than my Dad. She was gentle, and she took charge of me. When she spoke to me there was a certain warmth about her which I didn’t get from anyone of the people upstairs before. “So, this is what a mother is like,” I told myself.
I started attending Nanyang Girls’ High School. It was called a girls’ high school, but I was only in the primary school. I liked the school and was very grateful to my mother for taking me out of the previous school. This was only what a mother would do for you: taking children out of their predicament.
At home still in my school uniform
I really didn’t like the uniform. I wanted to wear the pinafore that St. Nicholas’ designed. But I couldn’t go back to the school now. It was sad, but I remembered the girl with the pair of wooden legs. However, I didn’t see the other children anymore. I missed my classmates. They were students who did well and were the teacher’s favorite. At St. Nicholas’ the teachers showed favoritism to three girls and I was left out of the picture most of the time. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was because it was only my grandmother who registered me in school. This time things in Nanyang were different. The teachers were nice to me.
I was quite happy to be transferred from St. Nicholas’ to Nanyang. Many people asked me why, but I just kept quiet. I didn’t know how to give them the reason. It was difficult to give a reason when there was a story behind it. I had no patience to elaborate. Besides how could I explain the admission of new evidence that I was extorting sweets from other younger school children at the principal’s office on the spur of the moment?
“Love me Nanyang Primary”. This was the new slogan nowadays for the school, but I didn’t love them. In fact, I didn’t love any of the old schools I went to. I have learnt to drop the past by now. After the effort of losing the impression of the depressed lady and seeing her back again, I became stronger. I learnt how to cut off my emotions relating to the St. Nicholas’, provided that others didn’t mention the school to me. I did not know that I have to confront my exprimary school classmates again in 1977 when I joined the Junior College at seventeen.
It was easy to drop your past and move on.
At Nanyang I was the golden girl. My mother was working in the Ministry of Education as a Deputy Director. It wasn’t a high position but that showed that she had some connection. The teachers were nice to me. One time I was slow in handing out my homework as when it came to my turn I was not ready, the teacher pretended not to see. I needed to be pardoned for some misdemeanor. I needed someone to love me. I had been deprived of it. I never received a mother’s love for three long years. In fact, I never had a mother as far as I could remember. I was born without a mother and was given one only at the age of six.
I knew that I shouldn’t complain about this anymore, I was already fourteen having ascended into the secondary school now.
My best friend was Wei Ching. She was the daughter of a very wealthy Chinese family. Her mother followed her to school every day in a large Jaguar. I recalled the maroon color of the Jaguar and the fact that they were one of the few families who have a driver. Her elder sister was also in the same school, but I much preferred to talk to Wei Ching. Wei Ching has a special sense of humour, which her elder sister didn’t have. I got along well with the family. Aunty Mrs Sun always invited me to sit in her car and followed them back to their house at Whitley Road.
That day the taxi drove past Whitley Road and I saw that it was unoccupied now. The grounds were forlorn and there was no car parked at the garage.
Both Wei Ching and I were at the Girl Guides and we played truant. So, the fact was that I graduated from the Nanyang primary school. My results for the national examination the primary school leaving examination known as the PSLE were very good. The questions posed at the examination were unusual and I thought that it was meant for someone with a high IQ. I scored high marks and my Dad was satisfied.
Me as one of the Girl Guides
I knew by now that my parents liked me to do well in my studies. So, whenever there were any quarrels I would hide in my room on the pretext that I needed to study. In fact, it was the opposite. Whatever I read could not be absorbed as I was worried that it could turn nasty. Once or twice my Dad would walk into my room to confront me. Invariably I realized that it had something to do with Upstairs. One day my Dad came up to me and told me that Upstairs wanted to throw us the three of us out of St. Thomas Walk. I couldn’t believe my ears! All along I knew them yo be relatives, by now a more distant relative. Soon after the relationship deteriorated to that of landlord and tenant.
I was very perturbed. In the day I went to school but in the afternoon, I sat in my bedroom also the study room wondering if I should go upstairs for my meals or to say hello. Should I turn my Dad’s enemy into my own enemy? If you asked me, I was not fond of them, I was just used to them. We spoke one common language, Cantonese.
Every day from then on, I wanted a bottom line whenever my parents spoke to each other. They were not particularly civil to each other. My mother always had something to say after my Dad. And my Dad always had something to say after my mother. I could not tell you who always ended the conversation, as there was no consistency to that.
I was just a kid who was hiding in my parents’ house. At that time, I started reading books like “The Diary of Ann Frank” and I imagined myself to be living in an attic. I had an expensive study table with a shelf underneath. And I used that as a shelter whenever I climbed in pulling my rotating chair close.
My father was the rich provider. He bought this table for me together with the rest of the items. Things started coming. Always good expensive things. When I was living upstairs, presents only come during Christmas and my birthday. What upset me was when one of the relative said, “Now Sumin, this is for you - your Christmas and birthday present together. Since it is so close to each other.” I felt short changed. But of course it was nice of them to buy me presents.
I was having my piano lessons again today.
My piano teacher was just down the road. She lived at the opposite block the Air View Towers. Teacher sometimes gave me a ride to school since we were heading to the same school. I still remembered her name as Nan Hong. Nan Hong was the youngest in her family, and I went to her house to learn how to play the piano.
I dreaded the piano
I met her several years later and found her to be working at the Mitsu Bank. She was just as thin, but I couldn’t remember what she told me that day. I repeated it to my mother when I came home, and she promptly dismissed it. My mother had the habit of using me to interpret things but never bothered to explain them to me.
My teacher came from everyone else but she. And also, by watching her I learnt. I learnt by not following her example.
I hated piano. I liked music though. But I saw music as background noise. If you could sit down and listened to Mozart or Chopin without doing anything else, then you liked music. I liked music most when it was used as a background noise. Most of the time I had to do something else when music was being played.
Before I took my last examination at Grade Five, I was being taught by a Eurasian lady who was much more mature and a little bit fat. She also lived nearby at a block of flats at the old house.
I had more than one piano teachers. Every round at the beginning of each academic year, my piano teachers taught me the three pieces that I needed for the external examiner to grade. So since I had Grade Five, I could play at least fifteen pieces of excerpts, and only limited to fifteen.
I was saying this because I wanted to tell you that piano lessons were my source of nightmares. At least more than once, I dreamt of myself having to go for my piano lessons without having prepared for it. I hated those dreams, I loathed those lessons. I had not touched a piano since I took my last exams in 1976. That was the same year I sat for my “O” Levels.
In order to stop all piano lessons, I threatened my mother, “If you make me sit for the piano exams again, I am going to chop off my fingers.” So, she relayed the message to my Dad, who gave permission to stop. Of course, I wouldn’t chop my fingers.
I was not an idiot.
Behind the bungalow where the flats were situated, there was a slope that led you down to nowhere. At the end of the slope was a fence. That turned out to be a rubbish collection centre for all my old books and unwanted old clothes. No, just unwanted clothes. Some of them were brand new. Whenever I felt uncomfortable with any item that I owned, I quickly dragged them to the centre and dumped everything, about three feet down the slope and rushed back to Number 3 and shut the door so that no one saw me going there.
No one came to query me on that so that I knew that my dumping ground was safe.
“You shouldn’t do that,” someone might have said to me.
“No, I don’t want my properties to be discovered by my father,”
I said loudly to the little voice that told me that this was a waste and should not be done.
I had no obscene articles to throw; they were just some old books and some clothes that I didn’t want my parents to know that had once belonged to me. I didn’t know how many days they would lie there until someone picked them up. But I could be rest assured that once it was there my secret was safe with me.
My Dad was always shouting, “Tell her to change out of this at once,” to which my mother would just comply.
Sometimes she and I had to change clothes more than once before it would be approved by my Dad.
My Dad was not mad. He simply did not want to see us in certain clothes. He did have an idea of how I should dress: no black, not too low-cut and in plain colours. He also had a very good eye for shapes and designs so that he could tell you if that suits your body contour or not. And he hated long hair.
Come to think of it, I didn’t think that he was unreasonable at all. But most people found him so. I didn’t know why.
According to my mother, my Dad came back to Singapore first in September 1967 and my mother came back subsequently in October 1967. But in all of my life until now I still recall that my Dad came back from London after my mother. Memory was playing tricks with me again. Let me walk you down the memory lane again.
Bebhind the flats was the dumping ground
In Nanyang secondary two I had a very close friend called Lin Xun Mei. She was a victim of polio. I felt very sorry for her, as I was also a victim of “irreconcilable differences” and belonged to the misfortunate. We got along well. I followed her to the bookshops at Bras Basah Road the Popular Book Store and I bought books with her and for her. In those days if you gave money away to your friends no one could charge you for bribery. I gave a lot of things away. I also paid for some of the meals I had with her. Basically, I was not a calculative person. I felt that friends were more important than relatives.
I started buying posters like “Friends are flowers in the Garden of Life”. In between I also gave an expensive stationary holder to another rich Indonesian girl by the name of Lim Kin Xian who came from the same class. She accepted it grace and used it faithfully. I didn’t think that I was trying to carry favor. It was just that being rich she had an air about her and that I liked beautiful things, including people.
As I said, my Dad was very successful in his career. Filial piety was being taught in Nanyang and my Dad proudly told his client friends that he sent his daughter to a Chinese school because of this reason. He also taught me to broadcast the fact that Chinese was my first language.
But that I found difficulty in learning Malay. I lived in Singapore a country surrounded by Muslim neighbours, yet whenever I wanted to activate my third language Japanese came out instead of Malay. My Japanese was strong even though I did not pass any paper. I taught myself Japanese. I polished it up when I was working with the Embassy of Japan.
I didn’t know why my Dad disliked Lin Xun Mei so much. Lin Xun Mei had one leg shorter than the other. If I found the girl on wooden legs objectionable, then why did I make Lin Xun Mei my best friend? Only Sherlock Holms could answer that question. Perhaps Agatha Christie. Yes. They were my favourite books. I read Sherlock Holms from Chinese and Agatha Christie from English. I thought they didn’t have Agatha Christie in Chinese. These authors I knew that I did not have to wrap them up. My Dad was clever. One day he came up to me and told me that he knew what I was doing. It was strange, as though I were his enemy and I preventing him from spying on me.
But after Lin Xun Mei I was not afraid of handicapped persons anymore. In fact, I found out that my left leg was slightly longer than my right and maybe that was why I always preferred to use the taxi as a regular mode of transport.
Lin Xun Mei told me that my Dad did not treat me like a daughter at all. I got angry at her. But I continued to befriend her.
Having secured both my parents under one roof, now I didn’t care how babies came about anymore. These matters were left to God. In St. Matthews Kindergarten they taught me the Bible and that God was the overall in charge. Por Por taught me that prayers were important. She propped me up on the double bed and prayed with me every night until it was time for her to attend to Kung Kung. She slept on a single bed pushed against the wall and I slept on her double bed. Kung Kung was nowhere to be found.
Por Por was always very tense during night time after Kung Kung has come back from his Tiger Balm office, often depending on Ma Jie to interpret his mood. I remembered that Por Por always prayed for my parents. But only God could remember how she referred to them in our prayers. It was cruel to ask others to recall events where memory has failed them.
I could not tell you whether it was nicer with or without parents. The two of them were simply characters that were strangers that came into my life. The Chinese community where I learnt Mandarin from said that “Life is a stage and a play is like real life.” I fully agreed with that. I had confused my parents with characters in the Chinese Wayang. It took a while to realize that what I saw in the birth certificate was the truth.
After I went to live in Number 3, I also found out that Upstairs Por Por and Ma Jie referred to my parents’ house as Downstairs. And mind you, the Chinese has a way of putting people down. Instead of calling my parents as the two persons, Ma Jie changed the unit reference to the animal species and they were referred to leong zer ye. I didn’t think I heard Por Por objecting. It could also sometimes be used as a term of endearment.
It was difficult to interpret the adults’ frame of mind.
They said that all school toilets were haunted. The school toilet in Nanyang was invariably dirty with no soap at the basin. I had my skirt soiled with blood during the months of my period as I often carried insufficient sanitary pads. This I had my mother to blame for. She was concentrating on her career all the time. I did not know what she thought I would become after I finished school. I wanted to be like Chen Chen and Lin Qing Xia although I knew that to be an ambition impossible to achieve. I was just an ugly duckling.
The dream to be an actress was conveyed to my mother and she promptly engaged an ex-student of hers to talk me out of it. Yes, you guessed correctly, my mother was a teacher before she joined the Ministry of Education. In fact, both my parents were school teachers.
“Your father has a legendary temper.” Everyone who knew my Dad said this of him. He was fierce. And I was terrified of him. Whenever he was near the vicinity, all creatures big and small trembled.
My Dad was also a cameraman. He liked taking pictures, he liked to explore on IT matters. Well, so did I, which was unusual for a girl.
“Tonight, you record this program on TV,” he would assign tasks to me underlining one program from the television page in the Straits Times.
This was one way in which he tested whether I was paying attention. I told you that I lived from day to day. Sometimes I forgot.
“Did you record ‘The Bionic Man’ for me tonight?”
“No,” All hell broke loose.
The word “forgot” was not in my Dad’s vocabulary. Neither was “no idea.” I learnt to dislike some words. I too disliked people who told me that they forgot or that they had no idea. But I stopped short of asking, “since when do you have any idea?”
I have nothing to tell you about my paternal grandmother except that she had a very large mouth. Her teeth protruded a little outside and she was old. We were not indifferent to each other we were just relatives.
Why was I fonder of my father’s side of the family?
I saw them less often and they were closer to me in character. They spoke English and no other languages. I could speak both English and Cantonese. But I could not speak Malay.
As I could not understand English very well, whenever my parents referred to someone as "she" I would think that they were talking bad about me, that drove me into a spot. I either continued to stand there until I determined who the she" was, or I moved away to my study to hide. Once I was in my bedroom studying they won't come in.
But I was not my father's wife or my mother's husband. There was no way in which I could divorce them. But why were these two persons talking about me all the time?
At this time in 1974 when Lin Xun Mei came into the picture I could speak Chinese very well. I read books written by a Taiwanese author Qiong Yeow and I lived in her world. You have guessed correctly that she wrote the books I have thrown away at my favourite dumping ground. They were romantic books with romantic covers. I used my discretion as to which books to throw and which to keep. I read her books more than once.
Slowly I learnt to wrap the books with gift-wrapping papers. I started to patronize stationary shops and in particular one at corner at Robinsons’ the ‘Kalms’ Shop. This wrapping chore was done so that I need not throw the books away. Otherwise I would have to buy a new copy if I wanted to read it again. Lin Xun Mei started to ask me why I bought the same books. As you know, she went to the Popular Bookshop with me. It was also an answer difficult to give because of the story behind it. How was I going to explain that my parents could not understand Chinese and that they judged my reading material by its’ cover?
I too learnt to judge friends and family by its cover. If someone dressed in black and as I did not like the colour I would refrain from speaking to him or her. I had acquired my Dad’s theory and logic. But what was his logic?
In deciding whether to throw the books or to keep them I looked at the cover without considering its content. I knew that my parents could not read Chinese, so it was no use showing them the inside and explaining that they were harmless. Qiong Yeow was no obscene material she was just a romantic writer just like Mills and Boons. Her story consisted mainly of unrequited love with Taiwan as the backdrop. At that time, I could not tell the difference between China and Taiwan yet.
I distinguished them only in 2001 when I was given a green passport and a maroon passport to process at the Embassy of Japan. My colleague marvelled at my ignorance. I jumped at the chance to criticize my parents. They were always hogging the Straits Times. How would I get a chance to know any current affairs?
Nonetheless life carried on. I couldn’t tell you with precise accuracy when I stopped going upstairs. But I could tell you when my Dad decided that it must come to a stop. One day after some quarrel between the two of them, my Dad chauffeured me out of the front door at Number 3 and told me that if I continued to go upstairs then didn’t come into the front door anymore. I stood outside the painted white door, tears running down my face.
My mother came up to hug me and shouted at my Dad, “How can you do this to her?” But in the end after some discussion my Dad let me in and closed the door behind me and locked the gate at the same time. I was not angry with my Dad about that for subsequently I found out that Upstairs wanted me and my parents out of Number 3.
The trouble was that I hardly understood what my parents were saying to each other all the time, and that was why I only got one side of the story so that I often thought that my parents were on the same side against me.
I was merely guessing all the time.
Tonight, after dinner I took my parents’ side. Why was it after dinner? No reason. Just that during dinner the two of them talked to each other and I often came to some conclusion on their discussion without knowing the contents. Any maid hired during the time was my confidante. She played with me and listened to the complaints I had with other school children and I told her who was my favourite actress. The leading man had progressed now from Jie Yin to David Chiang.
This Saturday afternoon my mother brought me to see David Chiang. God, he lost his arm. Tse Yin was Por Por’s boyfriend whereas David Chiang was mine. With your mother around you could claim some things. A boyfriend not in the least.
That was the first movie I ever saw. I had no comparison to make. I had a few cousins by then, but they didn’t talk to me as my parents had already quarreled with my mother’s side of the siblings. I had few classmates whom I could talk to as I had many facts, which was too difficult to explain in plain simple Chinese unless I translated the entire event from English into Chinese to make out a case.
Why did you like to talk to me?
That was why I liked watching movies. The title of David Chiang’s movie was “Revenge”. It showed of how, despite the fact that his arm had been chopped off by his enemy, David Chiang could use the only other useful arm to take revenge. I saw how courageous David was and because of my Chinese upbringing, was able to tell my mother that David was not using his Chinese name at all. I couldn’t recall now if his right or left arm was missing.
My Dad was very pleased that I enjoyed the show.
I continued with my Chinese education and my Dad had more and more Chinese client.
Although Fourth Aunty was the daughter of a very rich man, I knew him not. I was never in the Chinese community. Certain tycoons were ignorant to me. I was all along trying to find out ways and means to outwit my clever Dad. So, I might have been rude to Fourth Aunty. As far as I was concerned, I judged my Aunties on how pretty they were. Fourth Aunty was also pretty. My measure on my Uncles was how good-looking they were.
I grew up watching people moving in and out of a movie box. Money was never the criterion for deciding on whether I should befriend you.
You might think that I was rich, but I wasn’t. Until then I was given only two ten-dollar bills for going to school. It was insufficient for buying the extra Chin Chow and the packet of 无花果 from the school canteen. So, I started stealing. I started with the coins I could see lying on top of the shelf in the large hall outside my bedroom.
On the fourth attempt my Dad spotted me. He shouted at my mother and confronted her. My mother of course knew nothing about it. She defended me. They quarrelled again. But this time I pardoned them, as I knew that I was the catalyst. I waited for war to end. Finally, my Dad told me, “Be careful it is okay if it were us, you do that to other people they will report you to the Police.” That stopped me from stealing.
To prevent me from committing the crime again, my Dad started giving me money, large amounts in cash to facilitate spending. And they were always in red, ten-dollar bills. He was a good teacher and a good father too. Whenever he brought me and my mother out for dinner at night, he would ask a few questions to test me, and if my answer were satisfactory, he would quietly hand me down some red notes. Finally, I became so rich that at the university level even before I could graduate from Law 4, I was able to buy clothes that cost two hundred dollars per piece.
Nobody knew how I got that much money. They tried to find out if my Dad was corrupt. He wasn’t. It was just that I did not know how to save money. Spending became my habit. I became very uncomfortable in a working environment. I prospered in retail environment.
Since we started quarrelling with Upstairs, living at St. Thomas Walk was not always pleasant. Our house was located on the side which faced the main road and you had to walk round our house before you could go to the block of flats at the back. So, whenever Por Por wanted to speak to any of her tenants she had to come around. Most of these times I was studying in the large common room. I could always hear what Por Por said to Ma Jie from the garden to upstairs where Ma Jie sun dry her clothes.
By this time at age twelve I was sufficiently instigated to treat my earlier relatives as enemies. Whatever I heard Por Por said I would report to my mother, who would in turn report to my Dad. I was sure that my mother’s side of the family was surprised at the speed with which I was bought over. It was not too difficult since Upstairs had become the landlord.
They never did look into my schoolwork. Por Por was educated she could read and write Chinese but apart from the colour pencil incident she never looked into my school bag again. In the meantime, my mother had taken over my schoolwork completely. Apart from teaching me she also taught in the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. I was a student in Nanyang Girls’ High School. I was neither happy nor unhappy. But I found that it was so good to have parents. It was like a present from God.
Most people took their parents for granted.
At the time whenever we quarrelled or when there was a major event coming up which neither one of us could afford to be unhappy, my Dad would check my mother and me into a local hotel for a few night’s stay. It was strange as we were Singaporeans living in Singapore. But you couldn’t stop us from doing it, there was nothing illegal about it. It created the impression to Upstairs that we were out of town.
I particularly liked the Shangri-La Hotel. It had a large ground and it was a five-star hotel. My father was the legal adviser to the owners of the hotel. He was doing very well in his legal career. I was not doing so well in Law School. During this period my Dad came home after work and brought my mother and I out for dinner. He never taught me any law, my colleagues in law school did.
I had a lot of designer clothes to get by. And by which time my vocabulary was sufficiently good enough to understand fifty percent of my parents’ conversation. I could tell when the subject matter was harmless to me and that my parents were not talking about me all the time. They were better caregivers than the Upstairs.
Now that these two persons had assumed the role of parents they began telling me what to do. They began to set rules for me. I listened but I resented it very much. There were no rules when I was living upstairs. I could do what I wanted. The first rule was that I should not talk to Upstairs. The second was that I was not supposed to have any boyfriends.
I had also wanted to do accountancy in the university. I applied and I was accepted. Accountancy would have been less taxing for my Chinese educated brains. Law you need the language.
That evening my mother came into my bedroom and sat with me. After the conversation I wrote to the Registrar of the University of Singapore and I changed my choice of accountancy to law.
In my second year they amalgamated the University of Singapore with the Nanyang University to become the National University of Singapore. During those times you could still draw a distinction between the English speaking and the Chinese speaking in Singapore. Many of my Chinese educated friends were unhappy about this.
In law school most of the time I spent trying to fit into the English speaking society where the ACS and the SCGS student dominated. I distracted myself by turning my priority into how I could look for the day. The English educated had a flair for dressing and did not look "Ah Lian" like myself.
Most of the time during lectures I would think of when I would be released from class so that I could go to the Arts canteen stall to eat Char Kway Teow. The stall holder who fried the dish already knew that I wanted it with lots of chillies.
I suffered tremendously. I could not fit into the conversation and was slow in catching the topic of conversation. I was unable to form any permanent relationships. Zaird was the only long lasting one which I carried over from junior college into law school and the link was broken just before I sat for my finals in Law 4.
Zaird had applied and was accepted into a university in New Zealand. In those days going overseas was tantamount to a goodbye as there was no handphone nor Skype.
I operated in three worlds then, none of which approved of the other if it was aware of its existence; one in law school, one with Zaird, and the other with my parents at home. At that time I had already severed all of my ties with my ex-Chinese classmates.
All the time all I could think of was how to secure the law degree which was getting slightly easier after each year. The fact was that I did not know what the people in law school was talking about all the time. At any one time I could only grasp about 40 percent of the conversation.
Today at 11 o'clock I think I was early. I arrived at the law library and I was happy that I found my usual cubicle vacant. If I were a little later someone else might have taken this corner. Temperature there was low and is cold. I decided to go to the reference section and borrow some books then come back.
I borrowed the books and I went straight to the room where two photocopying machines stood. Faithfully I copied from page 1124 to 1145. Once done I considered as having read its contents and I returned the book. The photocopied pages I told myself I would read it later. I never did as I couldn't understand it, or rather, fast enough.
Perhaps it was the designer clothes, bags and shoes that I was wearing that made my classmates thought that I was flaunting. But the truth of the matter was, that I needed my external appearance to spruce myself up. In reality I felt lousy about my poor English. Often I asked stupid questions to get into the topic of conversation. And once I asked, my classmates knew that I wasn't following them.
But I had my own tailor a pair of sisters who operated a shop by the name of "Grace" at the bottom of Mt Elizabeth just behind Lucky Plaza. There I designed my own clothes. I spent part of my brain cells on fashion in order to relax. Of course my hobby cost me a fortune.
During the regular once a year gathering of my Nanyang secondary classmates I attended I always sat in and listened. I could not participate as I had left them and gone into the English side. Stuck in between I could not move to the English side, neither could I walk backwards into the past.
In the seventies the English speaking were regarded as the upper strata of the society. And if you didn't speak Chinese you have something to be proud of. Of course many people speak Chinese nowadays. At that time my mid was speaking in Chinese, operating in a Chinese world in the English society. All the while I was trying to integrate my Chinese brains into the English environment, which could not be accomplished unless I think in English as well. The trouble was that I didn't know when I think in English and when I think in Chinese. How could you ever tell?
At this time, I already knew Zaird. Zaird was an English educated boy, he spoke English with a Singaporean slang. I liked it very much. We would sit in the forum of the Hwa Chong Junior College and did our homework together. I had a calculator a very expensive one that my mother bought for me and I used it to study Mathematics. All the worldly possessions I had was bought for by my mother which was paid for by my Dad.
My parents were pleasant company. They always joked and laughed with other people around. They have one very close friend, namely the Seows. Whenever the Seows were in town my parents would not fail to meet up with them. They were good people and the friendship were formed when they were in the university in London with my parents. I didn’t know what they did together. This information was not available.
All I was told was that my mother met Aunty Seow when she was going down the staircase as Aunty Seow was coming up the staircase. At that time Aunty Seow was pregnant with her daughter. The Seows subsequently came back to Singapore for holiday and gave a birthday party for the girl her daughter. She was four when I was eight.
Birthday girl was my parents' best friends' daughter
Dad liked her. Alexandra was a normal healthy Chinese British girl who spoke exactly like a Briton. Sometimes seeing the both of them together I always felt that my Dad would prefer her as his daughter. I was always jealous of Alexandra even though she was Uncle Seow’s daughter. My Dad has this cultural gap with me and he often treated me like some strange creature. That was natural of him. Whenever I thought and spoke in Chinese I shut my parents out of my world.
I love my parents. There was nothing wrong with my parents. All children love their parents and people in general love their parents. And they loved their siblings too. However, I have no siblings to love. In deciding whether to have another child I remembered that my father asked me for my consent. I recalled one afternoon at the St. Thomas Walk house by the bay window my Dad and my mother asked me what I thought of having another sister or brother. And I said, “No problem, so long as you leave me all of your money to me as inheritance.” This answer I learnt from Por Por - hold on to the money.
Later on, I realized that having a sibling was a good thing after all. A brother or sister can dance with you, she could be your alibi and he could be your confidant. This was what I missed most in life. However, if he failed to be your best friend he might turn out to be your best enemy. I was not angry with my parents for not producing a sibling for me. These presents came from heaven, you could only ask God for them. In subsequent years my Dad tried to find siblings for me but failed miserably. Everyone had his own family, and everyone loved their own parents. But my Dad later married another woman by the name of Maybelline, in the vain hope that she could become my surrogate sister. My mother of course agreed. Anything that was good for myself and my Dad she would agree. She was all self-sacrifice.
Little did we know that Maybelline had her own agenda. She wanted her own family with my father. Her plan was to out manoeuvre my mother and myself thus becoming the sole subject of my father’s affection. “This cannot do,” my father said to himself.
One day in the middle of a quarrel he saw her holding a fish in her hand and she killed the fish squeezing it tight in her palm.
“Such a wicked woman,” from then on, he refused to cohabit with her.
“What would make of my child if she has one?” I think that created a lot of tension between my Dad and herself.
Eventually they stopped talking to each other instead using the fridge door as a memo pad. They sent messages to each other by pasting post-me-pads under magnets on the fridge. This practice was related to Thatcher the office manager who worked for my Dad in his law film.
Throughout my Dad’s life there were not more than one woman who wanted to marry him, and I was sure there will still be some more. My Dad was fun with other people but not with my mother, for reasons best known to themselves, he hated my mother. I tried to dig into the past to determine why and I put it down to the fact that my mother was the one who suggested marriage.
She had a scholarship to go abroad but being reluctant to go too far she saw that getting married to my Dad was a better way out. Marriage had not occurred to my Dad then. To him he had other options, in particular a Queen’s scholar who specially flew herself back from London when she heard that he was getting married. At the material time he also had one other very attractive a Malay girlfriend.
My mother loved my Dad. Sometimes even more so towards me.
But of course, I couldn’t ask my Dad to produce Maybelline now. According to my mother, since my father moved into Gallop with my mother he has stopped seeing her.
Sometime in 1988 on my parents’ wedding anniversary they started sharing a house together. It was not strange to me. All of the years my father created the impression that they were living under one roof, so the fact that they were now physically living in the same house did not disturb me at all. Nobody was disturbed by this. We lived happily until 1994 when my daughter is born.
Throughout marriage I was unhappy. Daily I complained to my mother that I was married. In reality I was not prepared for marriage at all. Now that my daughter is born thus sealing my relationship with Zaird as man and wife my complaints became more bitter. No, Zaird and I were not married in church. I told you we had only twenty-four guests at the wedding dinner.
My mother drove a Mercedes Benz with the number plate S7049U. I could remember the car number so well as that car picked me up daily from school and to tuition.
In my mind women do not work after marriage. When I had made plans to marry Zaird I shredded all correspondences with my earlier boyfriends including a piece of score and birthday cards issued by my best friend’s brother. I wanted to burn the bridges. But I did not succeed as I never crossed the bridge over to the other side. I was always looking for someone else. And I missed my classmates at the Law Faculty.
It was not easy to get married. I had to buy wedding clothes and I had to prepare for the wedding dinner. The guest list was short with an attendance of only twenty-four people including the bride and groom. By that time, I had already severed all ties with Upstairs so much so that not even Por Por was informed of the wedding.
I only had one side of the relatives – the green side. I loved them more for after my Dad came back he continued with the habit of sending me to 21 Jalan Pari Kikis for retreat. The exercise began from Saturday afternoon to Sunday evening. I would be moved with tears whenever my Dad came with his white car to fetch me home. In that episode the car wasn’t the Mercedes Benz.
Jalan Pari Kikis was in the East Coast and whenever my Dad drove me home from Uncle W’s house I would fall asleep in his car at the back seat. I still called it Uncle W’s house even though shortly later he and Aunty P were divorced. In 1977 I stopped talking to Cousin Kenko my first cousin who decided to call himself by his Christian name.
That was adolescence. Children do act in a strange way. Maybe I was doing a transfer of affection for that was the time I started to know Andy Aw who composed a music score for me. That score was hidden inside my drawer locked up until I married.
I had only one other boyfriend in Hwa Chong Junior College after I left Nanyang Girls’ High School. In Nanyang there were no boys so joining Hwa Chong Junior College was a cultural shock, as I had no male siblings. Boys immediately impressed me. My mind was still operating in Mandarin.
Which meant that the moment you engaged me, you were talking to a PC with Chinese settings and Chinese commands. My mind thought in English from time to time, like you were typing English in a Chinese software. I was trying to substitute the new boys with my cousin.
I had two other cousins from my Dad’s side.
Por Por “Mooncake” always told me, “you must hold the money tight,” but I did not know what she was talking about. The message to me was that money was important, apart from good health and God. But the message did not register with me. I didn’t keep money; I liked to buy things for other people – “Friends are flowers in the garden of life.” Money could not buy love, neither could it buy you friendship, but a gift to your friend was one of the ways to say that you liked him.
I hardly had friends. I was told to study all the time, and indeed I studied all the time. “She is studying,” became a sacred activity so that the moment my father was home I rushed into my room and sat in front of my desk. Only God knew if I were absorbing the text on the school books laid in front of me.
Most of the time I was reading Qiong Yeow’s novels, by now I have had all of them wrapped up. My mother bought the other books in English when she went with me to MPH bookstore. She could buy English books for me whereas Chinese books only I could.
My father said that I brought myself up.
He was right. I sourced for my own reading material and I sourced for my own friends. I was perhaps the only student whose parents could not speak Chinese in the entire school of Nanyang. And I was very proud of the fact. But I was not a proud person. I liked particularly friends who came from lower-income families, as there were more people in that group and they are more unassuming. When you have to worry about whether your parents can afford to pay for your next meal you tended to ignore a remark made in gest and not meant to hurt. In any case I was in the same situation. My grandparents were going to evict us.
Finally, the law came into effect and Number 3, together with 3A and 3B and the entire block of flats were declared to be a pre-war house and so people living in that house could continue to enjoy paying a nominal rent without being evicted. At the time I was in secondary two. My parents wanted to transfer me to an English medium school.
By now you must have realized that I was a kid with a penchant for being alone. But I was not a sickly child. Apart from the fish bone incident I didn’t recall Por Por having to bring me to see a doctor. But when I came downstairs I started to fall ill easily. I suffered from a chronic condition called hay fever. Whenever I detected pollen in the air, my nose started to run. It ran also when there was a change in temperature. I am only free of a running nose when I was in cold dry climate with low humidity.
Always having this wretched running nose
Today Lin Xun Mei was buying Nasi Lemak for me again. She had to pass by a market when on her way to school and she bought ten packets of the delicacy for all of us at once. The teacher detected the smell of food whilst I ate the Muslim dish, and I threw the banana leaf wrapping under top of my table. The school had a desk where you opened the top like a flap and then you could place your belongings inside. The teacher noticed the smell and came to my desk. She got a shock when she saw the amount of tissue paper underneath. She almost fainted and she screamed, “What is all this tissue paper? Throw all of it at once.” The issue of the Nasi Lemak never came back again. Lin Xun Mei continued to buy it for us.
Lin Xun Mei was my best friend from primary school to 1976. In 1975 at secondary three we did a reshuffle. The brighter children in all of the classes in secondary two went on to two of the classes in secondary three. At secondary three I found a new friend Sin Hoon Yen. I met Sin Hoon Yen again in 1994 when she was pregnant with a son. She married and went to Taiwan.
If being ill was bad for me I did not find it so. Being ill meant that I did not have to go to school to confront my peers. But in 1976 towards the end of the year I was deselected from playing the lead role in the musical play, which my class had to put up for the school leaving examinations. I was at first selected to play the lead role as “Mary” in “The Green Green Grass of Home” but when it came to the practice I was ill on one occasion, so they took me out and put Chen Wui Min in. No, I did not dislike Chen Wui Min. I was very upset, and I lost my temper on my mother. She did not know why but she left me alone without pressing me for an answer.
Class performance in secondary three
If I could express myself I was not vocal with my family. After all I didn’t discover them until 1967 when I was six. If you asked me how old I was when I did my “O” Levels I could tell you that my mother did it with me. Nowadays in Singapore mothers sat for the “O” Levels examination together with their children. I also sat for the “O” Levels examination as though I were a pupil in the English medium of instruction. I have two “O” Levels certificates.
At the “A” Levels the two years in Junior College I had no more female friends. In the co-education environment I decided to make the boys from the other secondary school as friends. I never knew anyone with double Chinese words as surname before. I spent a lot of time with Andy Aw. I met him once a week at Watten Estate and we talked whilst walking the estate in circles until we were satisfied. We were an unusual couple as he was wearing grey and I was wearing beige. We were both in school uniform. At seventeen and eighteen if you wore grey uniform you were studying in the National Junior College. There was only one other third junior college with the blue uniform, which students in the Catholic Junior College were wearing.
I was living near Watten Estate now. But I have no recollection of the past. What I did with Andy Aw and what Andy Aw said to me did not come to my mind. I was good at dropping my past. All I remembered was that I went in the rain to meet with him at the Watten Estate, as I wanted to keep my promise. I was wearing a new pair of Hush Puppies my mother bought for me and it got soaking wet.
I liked coffee with condensed milk and whenever I was short of it I substituted fresh milk for it. But I also suffered from another condition called allergy. Too many dairy products gave me the allergy for hay fever. I avoided the milk the yoghurt all the ingredients for causing a running nose. I was a sickly child and my mother was slowly discovering it. If she was annoyed by it, she did not show it.
She brought me to one doctor down the road at the Killiney Road where the doctor wanted to give me an injection. I flatly refused. My mother coaxed me into it, so the doctor had to give me the injection himself. He was most displeased. The doctor was good looking.
I was now graduating from Nanyang Girl’s High School and I took with me several kinds of certificates, which proved that I obtained second and third places in the oratorical contests in the secondary school. I was good at making speeches in public. The prize was the certificate they issued. I did not get any sweets out of it.
Today I got a chance to meet with Mr Tan Weng See's three daughters in secondary school. Mr Tan's wife was glamourous. She had a younger son, and the eldest of whom was an adopted child. They are wealthy and I was often invited to go to their house after school to study with them. One of the things I learnt from her was that I should not add rice onto the bowl before it was empty. They knew quite a lot of Chinese habits, good habits which my mother did not teach me. Maybe she wanted me to learn from others.
I had no preference as to which of the three sisters I liked best. They were rich men's children, my parents were working class people.
I went overseas for a holiday for a second time in 1977. My mother got a sabbatical to go for a seminar from the Ministry of Education. My Dad was happy about it and paid for my trip. And so, mother and I went away happily.
We were very excited about it. I was in my first year in junior college the Hwa Chong Junior College, now renamed as Hwa Chong Institution. HJC was a Chinese set up to compete with the National Junior College. I was the fourth batch.
I also started exploring on makeup during this time. Vanity made me looked for clothes and make-up regularly. I had plenty trial products. Unused lipsticks and eye-shadows filled my drawers and I also used the foundation to blot my face before I applied the powder. I also used blusher to highlight. Basically, I was using every product the make-up artist could invent on my face. I never thought that I was pretty enough. I told you, my idol was Seow Fong Fong. No, I never used my mother as a model. I never thought of her as being pretty. She was just my mother.
English was my second language and Economics could only be taught in English. I had a tutor Mr Lai to come to the house to teach me. So, I passed and got an “A” for the subject. My English as a second language always scored high marks as I spoke English as a first language at home. But I was very handicapped in the science subjects – Physics, Chemistry and I never took Biology. I had made up my mind then that medicine was not my cup of tea.
So, my mother spoke to the college vice principal and she excused me from the science subjects, even though I was in the science stream CS7. All in all, I managed very well. They had General Paper the GP, a general knowledge subject. I did not read the newspapers so naturally I didn’t do so well then. I spent more time in the school forum a courtyard within four pillars of the school.
I had not known Zaird then, before I left for the U.S., but I had a boyfriend at the time, who was studying in the NJC. After I came back from the States, I decided to have a final break off with him in December 1977 at a bus-stop just outside my house in River Valley Road.
At Hwa Chong Junior College I was the only girl from the Chinese stream who mixed with a boy from the English stream. I was always doing the cross-cultural business. Zaird was the guy from the English Arts stream whom I fell in love with and eventually married.
I blamed my mother for everything that went wrong in my life. Perhaps I should stop blaming my mother now. I had never seriously thought about what I should study in the university, as I had never thought about what career I wanted to pursue. I was a kid who thrived on freedom. I lived in the Chinese story books that I bought, and I identified with the characters I saw on television. I knew that this might shock you, nonetheless I feel that I have to tell you – I watched “Pride and Prejudice” about twenty times, and I asked my mother why King Edward VIII would want to abandon his throne to marry Wallis Simpson another twenty times. Yes, it was every girl’s dream to marry a Darcy. But there was also Jane and Charles Bingley, who wasn’t doing too badly. I did not realize that in the end I played Lydia – the sister who ran off with George Wickham. Never in my contemplation I would think that I would marry to go to New Zealand. It was a country that never crossed my mind. Australia maybe. Was I happy in New Zealand? I was neither happy nor unhappy. The weather was good, the people were friendly and the only stress that came was perhaps the lack of density.
At twenty-four I wanted to get married. I was afraid that if I did not, I would be left on the shelf and ended up being an old maid. Of course now I realised that being unmarried was nothing to be fearful about. But at twenty-three I knew not better. I was allowed to keep my own birth certificate and so I was sure that my mother married at twenty-four. My Dad was much older.
And so twenty-four became my target date of completion. I became obsessed with the idea of marriage. I put the question to my mother. There was no boyfriend available yet. None was suitable as there was none, since my Dad laid down a rule that under no circumstances must I engage in courtship during the university days. But immediately after convocation my Dad pulled me aside and told me that the next project would be to find a husband and to get married. I was furious. In law school where boyfriends were easily assessable he prohibited me. Also I had a boyfriend Zaird and we had had to conceal our relationship to both our inconvenience.
I quickly put Zaird’s name down as a candidate for the project. So I have come to 1983.
And then 1984 came.
When Zaird came back from overseas holiday, he decided to marry me even though he had found someone in New Zealand. The girl was rather pretty and I guessed he was persuaded into marrying me by his father, since we have been together for seven years then. The thing was that he didn't tell me that he was applying for overseas study until he was ready to go. Who advised him to leave?
I loved Zaird. He was not too tall, thin and wore no glasses and he was impressed with my proficiency in English. I spoke English whenever I was with him. I did not like the boys from the Chinese stream now because the minute I opened my mouth I had to speak Chinese. By then I had learnt to reject Mandarin as a spoken language. Zaird was a good listener and I had a lot to say about my parents and the way they managed things. They were an unusual couple and if I were not studying I was in their company. Their English were far too advanced for me and their topic of conversation was always the current news, which were completely remote to me. The Straits Times was always being turned from page to page so that I felt no inclination in going near it.
Zaird was my best friend. He had to go for national service and subsequently began his career as a pilot. Zaird and I went to the movies often. You named it, we saw all of the “Now Showing”. In the theatres we smooched but nothing came out of it. We never had sex and I still did not know what sex was.
Years later our daughter is born. I love her most. After my daughter is born I abandoned all of my relatives including in-laws. I rejected each and every single person that came in the way of my daughter and I. Scientists calls it the post-natal depression, but my mother and I shortened it to “PND”. I was not depressed about my daughter being born at all. I was just depressed that I married Zaird. I felt completely tied down. During the time I breast-fed my daughter I had forgotten entirely that I needed her father to produce her. I was angry at the maids as well, as they were intruding into the air space that was shared so sacredly with my child. I never wanted another child. One was enough I was not a greedy mother.
My daughter is the cutest thing on earth. I love her so much and every day I went out to the shopping mall to look for things to carry on my life with her. I was no longer involved in Zaird’s affairs and in any case, I was never occupied with it. When we were childless he would bring friends home to show them how a good wife I was. Things of military interest such as books from the office were left on the coffee table without my even noticing. I was a housewife throughout my marriage with Zaird save for the one year when I worked at the Straits Times Press.
One day whilst arranging my mother’s drawer I discovered that my parents were divorced when all the while I thought that Maybelline was my father’s mistress and cohabitating with my father. Her legal status as a lawful wife shocked me and hurt me very much. I saw with my own eyes for the first time that my father was to give my mother a thousand dollars every month as child maintenance.
In 1988 the fifth of December, my parents were reconciled once again as they moved into a very nice house the Gallop Park. “Gallop” was to be their pride and joy. When I was young, the moment I said 因为我是你的女儿 cheered my Dad up tremendously. I was grateful to my Dad for the education he gave me. In particularly the fact that I could read and write Chinese. In my spare time I took out the 唐诗三百首 and I memorized it. They were long and laborious but that took my mind off elsewhere. It was a self-healing process.
We were often put down, we often came across people who were rude to us. At the end of the day you must have something to come back to. My Dad had taught me always to carry a book with me around. He must have read a thousand books as he has a study full of biography and even fiction. His collection was so large that he had to engage one of his office clerks to come to Gallop to do an inventory. Banny appeared in 1997 when she came to his house to do a catalogue.
The dream to be an actress was conveyed to my mother and she promptly engaged an ex-student of hers to talk me out of it. Yes, you guessed correctly, my mother was a teacher before she joined the Ministry of Education. In fact, both my parents were school teachers. They started their romance when their schools were playing the playwright William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet".
Law School was another picture.
Some words in the English dictionary I did not understand, and some crucial words prevented me from understanding the entire reading material.
Such was the word “unequivocal”. In law one I could not understand what it meant. As a result, it prevented me from understanding the law of contract altogether, at the time. Also “nonexaminable”, what did it mean? “non-examinable” or “non-exempted”? I was thoroughly confused when I was in Law School. My mind was thinking in Chinese, but I spoke English. By Law 2 I had offended several of my colleagues. I used one or two relationships to help me study better but that I had also offended them in the end. Every year when term began I had to change a set of friends.
My lecturers in law school was kind to me. They knew that I was handicapped, since I spoke and thought in Chinese. It was true that I formed friendships easily but that I also dropped friends easily. I simply could not remember the last encounter. Most of my brain cells had gone into processing the answer to the question:
Do you love your parents?
And if so, which of your parent do you love more?
Maybe they should have come back together from London. My mother said that my Dad came back first in September 1967, and that she came back in October 1967, but I remembered her to be coming back first.
But Dad was always very kind to me. He would buy tickets for my mother and myself to go to Hong Kong for short holidays during the time that I was in law school. That put me in touch with the language I was used to when I was three to six as I spoke and understood Cantonese at the time. I felt most at home whenever I set foot on the island. The minute I arrived at Kai Teck Airport I felt rejuvenated.
It was just pure chance. I didn’t think that my parents set out to destroy me or that they did not know how to bring me up. It was just that they were living their lives and mine happened to be side-by-side with them.
I never had siblings or cousins and as a result I have difficulty with parallel relationships. Why not? I only met them after my character had been formed and started going to schools. I was never taught to address my parents’ friends as “Uncles” and “Aunties”. The real uncles and aunties were enemies to be finished off.
I remembered my father telling me in his car on the way to Kirin Court for dinner “to take revenge for me when you grow up”. Now that my parents were old, I must try to be nicer to them. But the next issue arose:
Which of my parent shall die first? I asked the question as though I have a say in the matter. Fact was that I wanted to be nicer and to spend more of my time with the one who went first.
I saw my parents as A and B, not parents. I loved these two A and B. They were quiet funny people. In my more lucid moments I tried to make them understand me. I saw that any stranger could do a better job of understanding me than my parents. If you went to StarHub, the sales officer would know that you were buying a handphone thus the relationship of buyer and seller was established. If you picked up the phone and dialled one hundred the relationship was that of a caller and a hotline officer. Once you stepped into an eating-place you were a customer. And at a cinema you were a patron. I was still constantly trying to determine the relationship between parent and child.
After my daughter is born it became even more confusing. As I never left her out of sight I never could understand how my mother could leave me.
Por Por gave me a crucifix at the time, after she heard that I was baptised at the Barker Road Methodist Church in 1996. After Kung Kung passed away in 1982 the Leongs more or less made up with my family. The adults had better things to do in life and their children moved on for further studies and by that time my grandfather's will was revealed for all to see. He gave his sons double than what he gave his daughters. In any case, little was left to me. I haven't spoken to Upstairs for years. I did not even invite any one of them to my wedding ceremony. My mother did ask me and I said no, as it would disturb the state of equilibrium.
The process of severing my ties and moving on was my life style. I couldn't say that I liked it, but I didn't complain about the hardship. This was my life. I knew that people carry forward their relationships and any belongings that they have with them. Whereas I process, cut, and move on to a new dimension. But right now I was so alone, there were no longer any relationships to cut.
One day I went to the wardrobe that Zaird shared with me. I found that some of his clothes were disappearing. I took no notice of it. Zaird had started to stay elsewhere before and at RELC may mother and I had gone there to persuade him to come home, and after some persuasion he did. He was very upset that I was constantly losing my temper. Since the day I came home from the hospital I even lost my temper on the maid. We got along like a house on fire since joined. But after my own daughter came, I cared for her and no one else. Of course it was most unreasonable and a little extreme.
Finally Zaird emptied his wardrobe. He found a new girl and she became his emotional support. I in turn became more upset and my PND took on a new turn. Instead of being an enthusiastic mother I became a scorned woman. I love my child, there was nothing wrong with spending time with her. She looked so fragile and I was afraid that some other person holding her might accidentally drop her on the floor.
The period when I was pregnant with my daughter was the happiest time in my entire life. I was classified to be infertile and having a child was the greatest gift from God. During pregnancy I had slowly began shutting Zaird out of my life. We were married for eight years, and we lived with no one else apart from our neighbours in the estate together with our dogs.
Many people gave their children what they could not and did not get from their parents. My parents left me to go abroad, my parents took me away from my grandmother. Not that they were wrong in doing that. Parents were always better caregivers than relatives. Upstairs was only my time keeper for until my parents returned. So, I made sure that I gave my daughter her grandparents, and I never left her out of my sight for five months. The moment my daughter cried I fed her. She became a very sound girl.
Hope you enjoyed the childhood story you've just read, my short stories can be found on http://www.lee-sumin.com, together with the other ones http://www.1eesumin.com and http://www.safe-with-me.com. Happy reading!