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

Looking for Kipas

A portrait of my maternal grandfather drawn from my childhood memories. This is a companion piece to Remembering Por-Por

 

My grandfather ate grass.

When I think of Kong-Kong, I see him crouched in our garden, patiently tugging at the slim strands of green growing out of a corner of the lawn, the blinding sun reflecting off his white t-shirt. That evening, a plate of green-flecked omelette appeared at the dinner table. As my brothers and I prepared to attack it, Mum stopped us. That’s not for you, she said, it’s for Kong-Kong.

Growing up we saw my grandfather often, especially after Por-Por passed away. We would visit him in Penang during the school holidays, bringing chaos and chatter to 58 King Street, the Straits Settlement shophouse where he lived upstairs and ran his business downstairs, turning pieces of gold into jewellery.

He also came down to Kuala Lumpur to see us. We would return from school to find the house filled with the smoky deep spice of his cigar and the sweet-salty scent of the tau sar pneah he’d brought us from Penang’s famous Gee Hiang bakery. But before we could look for the sticky molasses and roasted green bean pastries, Mum would send us to the spare room with an order: Go and say hello to Kong-Kong first. We would crane our necks to look at him as he towered over us, and we would stare at the prickly grey stubbles on his chin, the pair of black-rimmed glasses sitting on his nose. A small smile would appear on his craggy face as he acknowledged our greeting with a nod and a grunt. Duty done, we’d run to the kitchen for our treats.

Whenever Kong-Kong came to stay, we would hear the musical lilt of Taishanese, the Southern Chinese dialect that Mum used only with her parents and siblings. My brothers and I understood very little of the language, and could only say at dinner time: Kong-Kong hiak fan – Grandfather, eat rice – as a sign of respect before we could start on our own meal.

If Mum wasn’t around, we communicated with our grandfather using a mishmash of Malay, English and Cantonese, the Chinese vernacular more commonly spoken in Kuala Lumpur. This usually worked, except for the time when Kong-Kong asked us – my brothers and our cousins Lin and Lee – to bring him a kipas.

“No,” he said, shaking his head at us as we stood, sweaty and breathless from carrying the heavy electric desk fan down the stairs for him.

Kipas,” he told us, making a flapping gesture with his right hand. We looked at him blankly. He walked out of the room muttering to himself in Taishanese – no doubt about the questionable intelligence of his familiar yet so foreign grandchildren – and returned a few minutes later with a hand fan made out of straw.

Kipas,” he gently waved it in front of our laughing faces, cooling us in the tropical heat.

Mostly, Kong-Kong sat silently with his right leg crossed over his left thigh, leaning back against his chair and fanning himself as he watched us play. Like most Chinese men of his generation, my grandfather was not very demonstrative; no hugs or kisses from Kong-Kong. He often looked stern, but we were never intimidated by his gruffness. In the rare moments that we made Kong-Kong laugh, his impassive face would be transformed by a wide smile that revealed gaps where teeth once resided. His bright eyes would crinkle, his large hands gentle as he lifted up my baby brother. He’d buy me ice-cream to make up for being left behind when the rest of you went out, my brother recalls.

My grandfather didn’t actually eat grass. Later that night, Mum told us what was in that omelette; a medicinal herb Kong-Kong used to take in China, which he’d found growing in the corner of our garden. I’m still glad I didn’t try it.

 

Photo by Amirhossein Abdollahi on Unsplash