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

 

In the Beginning…

 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.

 

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash