Stories of a reluctant schoolgoer
My grandmother Yew Choy enlisted the help of a professional letter writer to keep in touch with the sisters she left behind in China. This blogpost re-creates a visit to the se seon lou, as recalled by my mother.
George Town, Penang – 1952
“What are you both looking at? Walk faster!”
Yew Choy called to her young daughters Ah Thiew and Ah Moy who were trailing behind her. They had stopped by the side of the busy road to watch a food hawker toss egg noodles in soy sauce and sesame oil to make their favourite tok-tok meen. After one last sniff, the girls hurried to join their mother under the umbrella she held aloft as shelter from the bright morning sun.
A few minutes later, they ducked into a five-foot way, a covered sidewalk that connected a row of shophouses. They walked in the cool shade until they came to a wooden table and several stools. These were set against the wall of a shophouse, on which hung several red scrolls with black Chinese characters. An elderly Chinese man sat on one of the stools, reading. When he saw Yew Choy and her daughters approaching, he put down his newspaper to look at them through his dark-rimmed glasses.
“What can I do for you today?” the se seon lou asked. He pulled a sheaf of blank paper on the table towards him.
Yew Choy lowered herself onto one of the stools and faced the man, waiting patiently as he set up his writing equipment. Her young daughters watched as the letter writer poured a few drops of water into a worn ink stone. He took a soot-black ink stick, dipping it in the water before making circular movements to create a pool of dark liquid. This he did several times until he was happy with the ink’s consistency, before picking up a slim writing brush. He looked at Yew Choy expectantly.
“Could you please write a letter to my sisters in China, since the New Year is coming round,” she began.
“Please ask them how they are. Another year has come, please tell them I’m sending them some money for the New Year.”
“Tell them we are fine,” Yew Choy continued, staring into the distance over the man’s shoulder. He nodded, oblivious to the two pairs of young eyes watching him as he flicked his ink-dipped brush, creating elegant strokes that filled sheets of white paper with black characters.
“Ah Kou Toi and Ah Swee are doing well in school,” Yew Choy went on, referring to her two older sons. “And so is Ah Thiew, although the teacher says she needs to work harder. Ah Moy has just started in kindergarten this year.” Nine-year-old Ah Thiew listened in fascination, her head resting on her hands. It was as if her mother was having a neighbourly chat with the man as she narrated the family’s news to be included in the letter.
As her mother’s voice droned on, Ah Thiew began to fidget. She looked around for her sister and found six-year-old Ah Moy standing behind Yew Choy, watching the traffic on the road. Cyclists in straw hats streamed past men on trishaws pedalling laboriously as they carried their passengers to their destinations. A few cars drove by, and Ah Thiew wrinkled her nose as she caught a whiff of the exhaust fumes mingled with the dry smell of dust. She turned away to study the red scrolls on the wall. They were Spring couplets; wishes for the new year designed to be placed on both sides of one’s front door with a horizontal verse above the door frame.
Tilting her head from side to side, Ah Thiew tried to read the Chinese characters on the scrolls. She called Ah Moy over, but the girls couldn’t make sense of them. They looked like drawings instead of the writing Ah Thiew and Ah Moy learnt at school, the English-language convent they attended in George Town. Neither had been taught how to read and write Chinese as their parents were semi-literate, like many Chinese immigrants in Malaya. Yew Choy knew just enough to follow the news in the local paper while Thong Foo could use the abacus to keep track of his stock at his goldsmith workshop. Both relied on scribes like this se seon loufor any formal writing.
There were many such professional letter writers in George Town, mainly older Chinese men who could be found along the five-foot ways of shophouses. Their services were valued by migrants eager to maintain a connection with their homeland, from the coolies who worked on construction sites to the amah and ma jie domestic workers. The se seon lou didn’t just write letters but also read the ones received by their customers, and composed couplets for the Chinese New Year as well as marriage invitations and certificates. Yew Choy visited this particular letter writer at least once a year when she wanted to correspond with her sisters.
Once the letter was ready, the se seon lou placed it in an envelope and wrote out the address he had been given, before handing it over to Yew Choy in exchange for his fee. Thanking him, she tucked the letter into her purse. She then called to her daughters as she pushed open her umbrella, its waxed paper canopy unfurling noisily.
As the three of them began their walk home, Ah Thiew tugged at her mother’s sleeve.
“Can we stop for some tok-tok meen?”
“Story is the umbilical cord that connects us to the past, present, and future. Family. Story is a relationship between the teller and the listener, a responsibility. . . . Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.” Terry Tempest Williams
When I was growing up, my mother would often tell my brothers and me stories of her family. Stories of my grandparents – Kong-Kong and Por-Por – and their emigration from Southern China to colonial Malaya. Stories of my mother’s own childhood, growing up in Penang with her three siblings.
Everyone loves a good story. Even more so when it’s about the people we know well. The family stories I grew up with give me an insight to the people I thought I knew. They capture a moment in time and place. They form a part of my history, my heritage.
It is said that young children in particular greatly benefit from family storytelling. Kids who know a lot about their family’s history are said to have higher self-esteem, a stronger sense of control over their lives. Apparently, knowing that they are part of something bigger than themselves gives them a strong ‘intergenerational self’ and helps them handle challenges better. They are said to have more robust identities, better coping skills and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
For me, growing up with such stories has led to a quest to learn more about my family history, to help me understand where I come from, to help shape my sense of who I am.
Crucially, it has also motivated me to record and preserve this oral heritage for future generations, which feels particularly important for an immigrant family such as mine. Many of us – not just myself but also siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins – have moved to different parts of the world, away from Malaysia, our birthplace, and from China, my grandparents’ country of birth.
Hence this blogsite, which I’ve set up as a repository of our family stories. But I use this term broadly, as not everything posted on this site will necessarily be narrative-driven. They could also be snapshots of memories, reminiscences of people and places, reflections of love and loss.
They are all stories personal to me and my family, yet hopefully universal enough to be appreciated by many. In sharing them, I hope to inspire others to seek out and preserve their own family stories.
Sharing family stories can benefit both the storyteller and the recipient; the parent and the child. I’ve spent hours talking with my mother, mining her memories for our family history. It’s not just been an opportunity for me to know her better; it’s also given my mother a voice, a chance to reminisce and talk about her life. Those conversations are truly treasured moments.
In my family, we call our maternal grandmothers Por-Por. I’ve used this familial title in naming this blogsite, to honour my mother whom my son calls Por-Por, and to remember my own Por-Por, who used to tell my mother many of the stories on this site.
Photo credit: Joey You on Unsplash
A portrait of my maternal grandmother drawn from memories, photographs and her diamond ring
They wink at me as they catch the light, like stars flickering in the night sky. Five small diamonds encased in a gold ring, shining brilliantly against the row of matte green jade on another ring I’ve pushed right down to the base of my little finger.
I rub my thumb over the rings; my maternal grandfather, who was a goldsmith, had made them.
“Kong-Kong used some lower-quality gemstones his clients didn’t want,” my mother tells me as she squints at the rings. I can feel their heft on my finger; at least he didn’t skimp on the gold.
“I remember this one!”
I point to the jade ring, which used to adorn my mother’s fourth finger along with her platinum wedding band. In my memory, I see Mum reaching into the hedge between our house and our neighbours to retrieve this very ring, and a much younger version of myself standing by, looking worried. Was this from seeing the angry red scratches on Mum’s hand when it re-emerged from the thorny bushes? Or from fear that I would be scolded for playing with it and losing it?
But I had never seen the diamond ring before. It had belonged to Por-Por, my maternal grandmother. Now it sits snugly on my little finger, barely moving when I try twisting it. I marvel at how petite she must have been.
I have very vague memories of Por-Por, who passed away from nasopharyngeal cancer when she was 55. She and Kong-Kong lived in Penang, but regularly made the overnight journey on the sleeper train to visit us in Kuala Lumpur. I was always happy to see her, Mum tells me, recalling how I would run to my grandmother the moment she arrived at our door. I hear a firm yet gentle voice calling me to eat my rice; was that Por-Por?
My grandmother died barely a month after my fourth birthday and my younger brother’s first. My youngest brother was born three years later and never had a chance to meet her. I remember being at Por-Por’s funeral, sitting behind my father, rubbing my face against the soft jersey cotton of his T-shirt as I tried to hide from the deafening din of drums and clanging cymbals, and the sword-waving Taoist priest jumping around a ferocious fire. He was just doing his job, trying to ward off evil spirits, but my toddler brain probably thought he was coming for me next.
My grandmother felt very present in our lives while we were growing up. She appeared in the many stories Mum told us of her childhood in colonial Penang; Por-Por taking my mother and her three siblings to school in a trishaw on rainy days; disciplining them with the cane whenever they misbehaved; buying their favourite tok-tok meen from the food hawker cycling past their home, announcing his presence by making his trademark tok-tok sound with a bamboo stick against a bowl.
Por-Por stares at me from a handful of monochrome photographs, her eyes soft, her slender neck half-concealed by the high collar of her samfu top. Her hair is neatly pulled back from her face, square-shaped like mine. She looks solemn in her photos, except for the ones where she’s holding me or Kiang, my cousin. Even then, she has just a glimmer of a smile, as if uncertain of what she should do in front of the camera. In her later images she looks wizened, her petite frame reduced further by illness. Yet her arms were strong enough to carry the chubby toddler that was me. Perhaps the ring was resized so it wouldn’t slide off her shrunken finger?
These photos are my only tangible reminders of Por-Por, and now this ring.
“You can have them if you want; take them back with you to England.”
Mum wraps both rings in tissue, stuffing them into a small brocade pouch before pushing it to me across the dining table.
When my mother Ah Thiew talks about Penang, she constantly refers to 58 King Street, her childhood home. This is the story of why her family moved there, and my re-creation of the shophouse as seen through my grandmother’s eyes.
George Town, Penang, 1940s
Ah Thiew was nearly three years old before her family moved down the road on King Street to Number 58. By then, the Second World War had ended, and George Town liberated from its Japanese occupiers and returned to its British colonial government.
Yew Choy couldn’t wait to leave their present home, where she had given birth to Ah Thiew. She had been reluctant to live there ever since their section of King Street had been hit by a bomb during the Japanese occupation. Thankfully, it had missed their home but many others living on their street had been killed, and it had left behind a huge crater where several shophouses used to stand.
A shudder would run through Yew Choy every time she walked past the site on her way to the wet market, and she would keep her face averted as she tried not to think of the many bodies that had been unceremoniously dumped into the gaping hole before it was filled up. Deprived of a proper send-off, these restless souls continued to roam the area, Yew Choy believed. She was convinced she heard them every time the house creaked; she saw them whenever she caught a glimpse of a shadow from the corner of her eye.
Number 58 was located close to a busy intersection between King Street and China Street, among a row of Straits Settlement shophouses linked in front by a covered kaki-lima or five-foot way that offered shelter from the tropical heat and rain. A structure unique to colonial Southeast Asian towns, the shophouse was built to be used as a home as well as business premises. It was perfect for them; Ah Thiew’s father Thoong Foo would have his goldsmith’s workshop on the ground floor while the family lived upstairs. Also, Number 58 was just two doors away from the clan association building where Thoong Foo spent a lot of time as a committee member.
Yew Choy stood on the ornately-tiled kaki lima in front of her new home, craning her neck to look up at two gold Chinese characters, shiny on a dark wooden plaque that’s hung above the double timber doors. ‘Foo Heng’ it read; the name of her husband’s workshop. Walking through shophouse’s entrance, she carefully stepped over the mun cham – a raised wooden threshold – that was bolted to the floor to ensure that the family’s good fortune wouldn’t flow out of their home. She stood for a while in the coolness of the dark workshop, enjoying a reprieve from the blazing heat outside. As her eyes adjusted to the room’s dimness she could make out the rows of tables where Thoong Foo and his staff would work, tooling pieces of gold jewellery under bright lamps.
The shophouse was long and narrow, and as Yew Choy walked further on she came to the air well, an open-air courtyard placed in the centre of the building to provide light and ventilation. She looked around her, already envisioning the tables she would set up in the bright and airy space for the workshop’s staff to have their lunch. A short flight of stairs on her left would take her upstairs to the rooms that would be her family’s living quarters, and if she walked further towards the back of the shophouse, she would find the spacious kitchen with its firewood stove.
Yew Choy glanced up at the wooden shutters that overlook the courtyard, squinting against the sunshine as she imagined laundry hanging out of the windows, the sound of her children’s feet on the wooden floorboards above.
This would do just fine for the family, she thought, especially now that it had grown to include Ah Moy, a younger sister for Ah Thiew and her two brothers.
Photo caption: Tiled five-foot way linking a row of restored shophouses in George Town. Photo by Yin F Lim
My mother Ah Thiew was born in George Town, Penang during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. This is a creative reconstruction of the night of her birth, based on the stories she was told by her own mother Yew Choy.
Church Street was eerily silent, a stark contrast to the hustle bustle of barely a few hours ago. Under the dim glow of the street lamp, Thoong Foo glanced worriedly at his neighbour walking next to him as they made their way back to King Street. Catching his frown, she tried to quicken her pace but she knew she had to match the quietness of their surroundings. It wouldn’t do to get caught breaking the night curfew; just last week a man from a few streets away had been shot in the back by patrolling soldiers, no questions asked.
Recalling the incident, Thoong Foo felt a chill run through him despite the stiflingly warm night. If they were stopped, would the Japanese soldiers give him enough time to explain why he was out so late at night? Would he be able to tell them that his pregnant wife had gone into labour just after dinner and that he needed to fetch the zap maa – midwife – from the next street?
Thoong Foo had brought his neighbour along with him, in hopes that the soldiers wouldn’t shoot a couple without notice. Safety in numbers, he tried to reassure himself as he looked at the zap maa shuffling on his right. She was struggling to keep up with them, hampered by the large basket on her arm.
The three of them soon arrived back at King Street. Thoong Foo nodded a quick thanks to his neighbour as he ushered the midwife through his front door. Stepping into his home, he let out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, feeling his shoulders relax. They had arrived just in time, as they found Yew Choy standing hunched over a chair, gripping its back and breathing hard, her face pale from advanced labour. The zap maa helped Yew Choy onto her bed before she began unpacking her basket, laying out everything she needed to deliver the baby.
In the late hours of that April evening in 1943, Yew Choy gave birth to their first daughter Ah Thiew. She would be their third child, joining her older brothers Ah Kau Toi and Ah Swee in the family.