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 lou for 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?”