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.
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.
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.
Photos of schools: Yin F Lim