Off to School

My mother Ah Thiew has fond memories of her school days, even if there were times when she wasn’t so keen to go

George Town, Penang – 1948

It’s 5.30am. Like clockwork, loud Tamil music begins to play as the Indian restaurant on King Street opens for the day’s business. This wakes everyone at No. 58 except for Ah Thiew and her mother.

Half an hour later Sei-cheh, the family’s amah, enters the room and gently shakes Ah Thiew.

“Wake up, you have to go to school.”

The five-year-old stirs, mumbling: “Noo…don’t want.” She rolls onto her stomach and refuses to open her eyes.  Sei-cheh shakes her shoulder again.

“You have to wake up now or you’ll be late for school.”

After some coaxing, a reluctant Ah Thiew sits up and rubs her eyes. Sei-cheh leaves the room and returns with a washcloth and an enamel basin of warm water to clean the little girl before getting her dressed. Still upset at being woken up, Ah Thiew kicks at the basin.

“I don’t want to go to school!” she wails. The heavy basin overturns with a loud clang and dark patches begin to form on the wooden floorboards.

“Stop crying, you naughty girl, or you’ll wake your mother!” Sei-cheh tries to hush Ah Thiew but it is too late.

“Who’s making all that noise? Is that you, Ah Thiew?”

The little girl stops yelling at the sound of her mother’s voice. She starts to snivel, as she knows her mother does not tolerate wilful behaviour.

An hour later, a red-eyed Ah Thiew is standing in front of No. 58, clutching her schoolbag. As her neighbour Ah Poh Chai emerges from the bicycle shop next door with her two granddaughters, the little girl joins them. They are headed towards the Convent Light Street school, where Ah Thiew has just started attending kindergarten.

It takes less than ten minutes for them to get to Light Street, but the journey feels twice as long for Ah Thiew as she tries to keep up with the longer strides of the older girls. They walk on Pitt Street alongside cyclists in sun hats and trishaw riders pedalling vigorously, their passengers seated comfortably in their sheltered cabs. The occasional lorry lumbers past, prompting Ah Poh Chai to shout for the girls to be careful.

As they arrive at the entrance of Convent Light Street, Ah Thiew can see a huge black car. Its back doors open and two girls in school uniform clamber out, followed by two middle-aged women dressed in loose white blouses and baggy black trousers, their hair pulled back into buns.  These black-and-white amahs or majie are the girls’ personal nannies. They will stay at the school to take care of their young charges during lunch and break times.

For Convent Light Street is no ordinary school but a highly-regarded missionary school for girls, founded by French Catholic nuns of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus order. When it was set up in April 1852 in a small attap-roofed building on Church Street, the school took in mainly orphans and students from local families. By the time Ah Thiew starts kindergarten, Convent Light Street has moved to a seafront estate and expanded with a diverse student intake that includes the offspring of Penang’s self-made millionaires as well as the royal families of Thailand and Malaya.

The school accepts students regardless of religious background, race or social class, but all of them attend Catholic Mass at the school’s chapel. Ah Thiew likes listening to the hymns, and the incense used at the altar reminds her of temple joss sticks. But she finds it difficult to sit still for long, as she is used to much shorter visits to the temple near her home where her Taoist parents pray to the Goddess Kuan Yin.

fullsizeoutput_e4c
Convent Light Street, 2016

Ah Thiew would much rather be reciting nursery rhymes with the cheerful and rotund Teacher Annie, who helps her with her English.  The little girl struggles with the unfamiliar language as her family mainly speaks Taishanese, the dialect of the Southern Chinese county from where her parents Thong Foo and Yew Choy had emigrated. Not having gone to school themselves, they are adamant that Ah Thiew and her three siblings receive the best education possible. Even if this means sending them to missionary schools teaching in a language they don’t understand. 

Over time, Ah Thiew and her siblings would learn to master the language, even reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers by heart. Thanks to their parents’ foresight, their proficiency in English enables Ah Thiew and her younger sister Ah Moy to train as nurses. Upon leaving the all-boys St Xavier’s Institution next door to the Convent, their eldest brother Ah Kau Toi would join the police force in Penang while their second eldest brother Ah Swee would go on to study engineering in Australia.

IMG_8475
St Xavier’s Institution, 2018

But for now, five-year-old Ah Thiew just wants to play with her friends, feeling the sun-warmed sand pit under her bare feet as she listens to the waves breaking on the beach beyond the school grounds.

 

Photo credits

Main photo:  John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Photos of schools: Yin F Lim

58 King Street

 

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