I was born in Seremban, in the state of Negri Sembilan, Malaya, on 19th November, 1950. At the age of two I was adopted by Fatimah Abdullah (nee See Ho Neo). The reason (as it was later explained to me) was because my Chinese birth year of the Tiger apparently was not compatible with my Chinese parents’. Well, at least they weren’t totally heartless or they could have just smothered me at birth! My adoptive mother’s reason for adopting me was because she desperately wanted a daughter. Prior to adopting me, she had “lost” six baby girls she adopted – either through death in early infancy or re-taken by their natural mothers – so she went and consulted a “bomoh” (witch doctor/fortune teller) who told her that someone had placed a curse of grief on her! The only way for the curse to be broken was for her to bathe in water (from seven wells) that had been “sweetened” by soaking seven different fragrant flowers in it. So with hope in her heart, on an auspicious full moonlit night she followed the given advice. Then along I came – her seventh attempt at having a daughter… I cannot remember her ever hugging me or telling me she loved me and it used to sadden me at times, until later in life when she explained to me that the “bomoh” had also stipulated one “important” factor – so as not to attract the attention of the evil spirit of the curse, she must not openly display signs of affection towards the daughter she was to adopt, (i.e. me). I wished she had told me this when I was a child. Despite the lack of open affection, I knew that she truly loved me, especially when I was sick – be it childhood ailments or dysmenorrhea in my puberty. Rain or shine she would queue up for herbal medicine at the free Chinese clinic.
My earliest childhood recollection was a time in 1953 when I scalded my bottom… It all started when I succumbed to a bout of ‘flu and my mother decided that the advice of a “sing seh” (Chinese herbal doctor) should be sought. I dutifully drank the horrible herbal brew that was recommended and as part of the treatment, I had to squat over a basin of boiling water with some strange-looking “weeds” floating about. A large towel was then placed over my hunched-up body so that I would get the full benefit of the herbal steam. Mother told me to squat lower and lower and being such an obedient child (you really couldn’t be anything else when you live with my regimental mother, as her word was LAW!) I obeyed, even when my bottom was actually sitting in the hot water… I sobbed with pain until my dear mother realized what had happened. Of course this entailed another visit to the good old “sing seh” who this time resorted to a Western cure — liberal smearing of vaseline over the affected area!
My adoptive father died when I was about 3 years old and after his death, my mother, my elder brother (Hussin), and I moved to a rented “rumah attap” (attap hut) in Kampong Ubi (a village in Geylang Serai). The hut was on stilts, with a thatched roof made out of coconut fronds and we all slept on a “tikar” (woven padi straw mat) each, rolled out on a raised wooden platform. My mother, being an ambitious woman, was determined that I would receive a good English education and took it upon herself to teach me the alphabet and numbers (to 100) when I was barely four years old. Lacking in formal education herself did not deter her in the least so she taught me all she knew. There were times when I was denied food or drink until I could recite and write the alphabet and numbers not only the normal way but backwards, too. My paternal grandfather was visiting one time and chided her for rapping me on the knuckles with a “rotan” (bamboo cane) when I got my “b” and “d” mixed up – she responded by chasing him out of the house! After that there was nobody to admire my swollen knuckles except poor old me. I used to be left-handed but my mother frowned on my “abnormal” behavior and I soon learnt that the only way my left set of knuckles would look normal (not red and swollen) would be for me to adjust to being right-handed. By the time I was six I could read, write and spell quite a few three-letter words and could count backwards from 100 all thanks to good old Mother. She was very proud of me and would sometimes get me to “show-off” in front of visitors…
When I was four, we moved to another village near Telok Blangah I remember an embarrassing incident very well… I came upon a “jambu ayer” (rose apple) tree and feasted on the abundant delicious fruit until I could eat no more. I staggered home, refused dinner that night and went to sleep. I dreamt that I had to use the toilet, so I raced out to do a “poo” and felt great relief at having done so. I was rudely shaken out of my slumber by an agitated mother and reluctantly taken to the community tap some distance away by my brother to get cleaned up — yes, I had pooped in my sleep, a bad case of diarrhoea at that! Surprisingly enough, Mother did not give me a caning for this episode. I’m pretty sure my brother would have cheerfully given me one though.
My mother used to work as a house-maid with RAF families in the British Air Force base in Changi, to earn a living as a single mum to support my brother and me. She worked as a live-in maid and would come home on Saturday afternoons and return to work late Sunday nights. Sometimes she got permission to take me along and I used to enjoy the change. I would help her whenever I could and the lady of the house would fry some hot chips for me (for being a good little girl). I was rapt when “stuff” were thrown out by the “mem” (lady of the house) – perfectly good stuff like wooden jigsaw puzzles, magazines and so on. One particular incident stayed in my memory bank – I found a pair of kid’s sunglasses and promptly started wearing them. The scratches on the lenses were invisible to my eyes and in my mind, I was Lady Muck and oh sooo cool! Unfortunately, within a day or so after acquiring them, I accidentally dropped them, resulting in one rather cracked lens. That didn’t stop me from continuing to wear them until my mother, in exasperation, grabbed them from my face and threw them away.
Sometime in 1955, we moved in with Wak Ali, (a Javanese chauffeur cum gardener to a Doctor Chong) that my mother had befriended. We lived in the driver’s quarters in the compound in Joo Chiat Road near Marine Parade. Mother said it was a strictly platonic arrangement but I had my doubts. I caught them cuddling behind the door once… A year or so later, they married (to prevent gossip) but they never slept together. In the evenings when Mother was not working, we would walk to the esplanade at Marine Parade to enjoy the evening sea breeze and watch the fishing boats come in. My mother would send me over to the boats to “sticky beak” at the fishermen’s evening catch. A few of the fishermen would give me some of their catch in a bucket that I would conveniently be carrying, after which we would hurry home to clean and fry the fish. I was naturally taught to clean fish at a very early age! When the tide was out I would wander off to the beach with my faithful bucket and watch people picking “kepah” (clams). I didn’t know how to look for them but would help myself to a couple here and there from other people’s buckets when they were not looking!!! (Yes, I was a little thief!)
The Marine Parade of my childhood came alive on weekends – every Sunday there was “Joget Moden”(Modern Dancing) – a lucrative business venture by a Chinese “tow-kay” (boss-man) who converted his beachside bungalow into a dance hall, hired a live band and a bevy of attractive dance hostesses (mostly of Malay or Indian origin) to lure lonely men into parting with their money to dance with the ladies. By 2pm the joint would be rocking with couples doing the cha-cha-cha or “ronggeng” (popular Malay dance). A guy would buy dance coupons and approach the lady he wished to dance with and so it went. I numbered among the crowd of freeloading spectators and a great afternoon would be had by all. When we got tired of watching, my mother would take me along the esplanade and if she felt extra generous, she would part with 5 cents and I would get an “ice-ball” – a ball, about the size of a large grapefruit, made by shaping compacted shaved ice with a “filling” of a dollop of sweet red beans, drizzled with flavoured syrup of your choice (my favourite was sarsparilla) and a little condensed milk.
When mother felt like decorating her “sanggul” (kind of chignon – all her hair pulled back and knotted expertly into a “bun”), we would take an early morning walk along Marine Parade and pick fragrant newly-fallen “bunga tanjung” (Spanish Cherry / Bakul Tree – Mimusops elengi). When there were none to be picked, she would extravagantly fish 10 cents out of her purse and buy a handful of “bunga melor” (Arabian jasmine – Jasminum sambac) from Joo Chiat market instead. She taught me very early in life to string these flowers using needle and thread and when the job was done, the fragrant strand would then be wound carefully around her sanggul, keeping her hair smelling beautiful for days after. Whenever we went to visit her friend (Mak Busu) at Kampong Bedok, she would pluck a few “bunga kenanga”(Ylang Ylang / Perfume Tree – Cananga odorata) or some “bunga campaka” (Michelia champaca) that grew profusely in the area, to tuck into her sanggul. Naturally, I much prefer these bigger flowers as they didn’t need to be strung!
Money was always a bit tight in our household, so shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush were never included in her shopping list. Instead my hair would be washed using Fab (Laundry soap powder) and my teeth were kept clean by dipping a wet finger into some ground-up charcoal (painstakingly pounded using a granite mortar and pestle) and then vigorously rubbing the powdered charcoal coated finger back and forth across my teeth. Naturally the front teeth got the most attention. My fingernails were usually cut with a pair of scissors right down to the quick so they wouldn’t need to be cut too frequently. Painful or what? No wonder I dreaded nail cutting days!
For my fifth birthday, my mother having had a good win playing “che kee” (I think it’s a Chinese domino card ‘game’), decided that she would like to see me with curly hair, so off to the hairdresser we went. Most likely it was because she got fed-up with plaiting my hair every morning. I was of course very, very excited, having seen photos of movie stars in “Movie News” magazines that she sometimes brought home from her “mem”, I had visions of being Singapore’s answer to Shirley Temple so decided to be very, very obedient at the hair salon. I put up with having my hair wound up tightly around the perming rods, the revolting smell of the perming solution and didn’t so much as whimper when the heat from the hair dryer heated up the perming rod close to my ear. Only when the perming process was over did the hair-dresser realize the back of my left ear had been burnt! That was my first and last visit to the hairdresser for many, many years.
It was around this time that I became interested in beauty culture – having recently acquired a perm, I decided I also wanted lovely long eyelashes, just like the movie stars in the magazines. I rummaged through Mother’s drawers one fine day and “found” her razor and the scissors she used for trimming my fingernails. I figured that hair always grow back longer than before (judging by my brother’s frequent haircuts), sooo.. I cut off all my eyelashes with the scissors and “shaped” my eyebrows with the razor! As you can probably imagine, it was a fairly difficult process to match both eyebrows with a razor so by the end of it, I had rather pathetic excuses for eyebrows! As I studied my new look in the mirror, plan B was already taking shape in my mind. Back I went to Mother’s drawers to look for an eyebrow pencil and while there, I also “found” an “ang pow” (little red envelopes used for putting money in to give away to visitors during the Chinese New Year). Back in those days, the red dye used in colouring the ang pows “runs” quite easily, sooo… I wet my lips and clamped them on the ang pow. I then proceeded to fix my eyebrows so Mother would not even know what I had been up to. Very carefully, I drew in a set of what I considered to be very natural-looking eyebrows. There! Good as new… NOT!!! I then remembered to remove the ang pow which by that time had stained my lips very nicely indeed, except it was just a tad over my natural lip line! While I was at it, I decided to rouge my cheeks with the same piece of saliva-dampened ang pow. I guess it would be easiest to compare my new look to that of a circus clown. When she found out, Mother did not punish me – I guess she figured my new look was punishment enough in itself.
As proof of how young minds can be so easily influenced by adult examples, I will give you a brief account about my very first smoking experience. For as long as I can remember, Mother smoked cigarettes, both the regular ones (Golden Flame was her favourite brand), as well as “rokok daun” (cigarette made by wrapping tobacco in corn husk or dried palm leaf). Not daring to steal any of her cigarettes or tobacco, I decided to make my own version of a cigarette – I got a piece of newspaper, carefully and neatly tore up a piece about the same width of a cigarette all the way down a full page. I then rolled it up very tightly and ended up with a ‘cigarette’ that looked more like a short cigar. Next I struck a match and lit my ‘cigarette’ – WHOOOOSH!!!!! – burnt the hair in my nostrils and my eyebrows, which I might add had regrown bushier than ever. Luckily, I did not have a fringe or I would probably have been seriously burnt. Lucky too was the fact that we had no flammable floor covering. So if you are ever tempted, DO NOT carry out this experiment!
You could say that in her efforts to make ends meet, my mother indirectly taught me to steal. She would wake me up whenever she heard a coconut fall during the night so I could go out to pick it before Dr. Chong’s servants got to it. About 5 o’clock each morning she would get me to sneak into the barn to get a couple of eggs or so, which she would then trade for a couple of “roti prata” (Indian flat bread) from the “kedai kopi” (coffee shop) later the same morning. Of course this thieving was done without the aid of a torch, so many a time I ended up with chicken shit on my hands. Ughh! If she needed “belimbing” (sour mini starfruit used in cooking) she would get me to climb up the tree to get her some. One time the dogs tracked me down and I ended up trapped in the tree until Dr. Chong himself came out. He reprimanded me for stealing, upon which my mother came out and gave me a hiding right there and then. In the end Dr. Chong was practically on his knees begging her to stop. Later she apologized to me and explained that she had to put on a “show” in front of him. I thought to myself that the “show” need not be THAT real!
When mother was at work, my brother took care of me, right down to washing my bottom…Mother gave him $7 a week for food which he managed very wisely until one time when the “Wayang” (open air Chinese opera) came to town. Various temptations abounded — plenty of food stalls and gambling stalls but of course nothing was for free and I needed cash. I saw all that money (all of $5) on top of the kitchen cupboard and decided that my brother could not possibly miss $1… I had a blast! — I bought an exercise book, a pencil, an eraser and 10 cents’ worth of fresh “mata kuching” (longans). I also indulged in a bowl of delicious “Liang Chee Kung” (Chinese sweet dessert soup with lotus seeds, grass jelly, etc.), bought other foodstuff and with 5c remaining, I had a go at the Crown & Anchor dice game. After several goes at the gambling table, I came home quite proud that I still had my 5 cents.! My poor brother spent many hours looking for his missing dollar before questioning me. I owned up and was forgiven especially when he saw my “educational purchases”. He then tried to teach me to draw in his spare time. To this day he remains the best brother anyone could wish for.
The best part of living at Dr. Chong’s was the fact that he owned a rambutan plantation somewhere in the Changi area. When the rambutans (red hairy tropical fruit) were in season, he would get Wak Ali to help his men gather the fruit and we would eagerly await their return as we got to keep the loose fruit (those that had fallen off the stems). Another good thing I remembered were the movie nights. Dr. Chong’s house backed onto the Joo Chiat Police Station married quarters compound and once a week night (weather-permitting) a movie would be screened in an open air court. We would get our chairs and sit along the back fence and share the entertainment while we fed and amused the local mosquitoes by slapping ourselves at random intervals.
We also became more alert while living there and very quickly developed an almost instinctive habit of looking skywards before breaking into a run to get to the main gate from our quarters. The reason for this rather strange ritual was because of Dr. Chong’s “not-a-full-quid” sister who spent her days locked up in her room upstairs and got her kicks by tipping her urine out of her potty and through her barred window using us as targets. All these made our stay there quite memorable…