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.

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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.

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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

Remembering Por-Por

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.

 

Photo by Calwaen Liew on Unsplash

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

 

Why Family Stories

 

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