Chapter 13 – Circle of Friends



Not long into 1972, an American family moved in next door to us. I allowed for
a couple of days to pass before going over to introduce myself and to welcome
them to Singapore. I am so glad I did, as that neighbourly gesture blossomed
into a warm and beautiful friendship that lasts to this very day. J.C. and Nell
Naquin newly arrived from Louisiana with their three children proved to be very
warm and down-to-earth folks. Their three children, Don, MaryAnn and Blaine,
were obviously very well brought up and most respectful so it was a pleasure to
have them around. Before long, I became their “Aunt” Mona and we did
practically everything together, like a big happy extended family. Nell shunned
the expatriate lifestyle in favour of letting her kids experience the culture
and flavour of the “real” Singapore. She would eagerly go to the local market
with me while her children were at the American School, and the whole family
was never hesitant when it came to sampling our local fare. J.C. was a boat
captain and when his shore leave coincided with Rick’s time off, we would
literally live it up, checking out the nightspots, befriending the boys of a
local band and generally have great fun together. Not long into our friendship,
I excused myself to Nell one afternoon, saying, “I have to go home now and cook
my tea.” A few days later, Nell quietly asked me how I make tea. Slightly
puzzled, I replied, “Same as everybody else I guess, you know, boiling water,
tea leaves or tea-bags.. why do you ask?” … then it pinged! Yes, I had
adopted some Aussie English and by the time Nell left Singapore to go home to
the US a year or so later, she was mystifying her friends with talk of “tea,”
“chooks” and “spuds”!

Rick and I were invited to Prudence’s and Eric’s home in Telok Kurau and there
we met the rest of the family, Joanne, Jennie and Eric Jr. We got along like a
house on fire and their place became my second home, esp when our husbands were
away in Indonesia. All three young Muellers addressed me as “Tante” 
Mona (Dutch for ‘Aunt’) as Prudence is of Dutch-Indonesian origin and I enjoyed
many a happy time with them, taking the kids to “Thieves Market”, not to buy
stolen goods but durians! That was ‘the’ place to go for the best durians when
they were in season. I remember being greatly amused seeing the faces of my
fellow-countrymen when they saw me with my young “Ang Moh” (Westerners)
charges eagerly picking out the best “liew lian” to purchase. Then
there were the afternoons when we would patiently wait for the “Rojak” man (a
street hawker who pedaled his cart loaded with various fruit and specialized in
making a delicious Indonesian/Malay/Chinese hawker fare called “Rojak”
(prepared while you wait ‘salad’ of fresh pineapple, Chinese turnip, scalded “tau
geh”
(bean shoots), scalded “kangkong” (water convolvulus),
etc, in a spicy sauce of “hey koh” (prawn paste), tamarind juice,
chilli paste, sugar and lashings of crushed peanuts. Mmmmm… it makes me drool
just describing it! We would patiently queue up with our orders – me for a
generous serve of rojak and the young Muellers for their share of the yummy
mixed fruit juice the hawker also sold. When Prudence’s mum and younger sister
arrived from Holland for a visit, we went sightseeing together and generally we
had a blast!

I had always wanted to learn how to play an acoustic guitar so when I no longer
had to pinch pennies, I lashed out and bought myself one. As it turned out,
Tenny could play the guitar very well and although we both couldn’t read
musical notes, I managed to learn how to strum the guitar, not very well of
course, but enough to get by, with Tenny’s help. We would often end up at
Prudence’s home and have sing-along sessions. Oh what fun we had as we sang our
hearts out to Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ and various English and Indonesian
songs. I still have the same guitar to this very day and until several years
ago, I used to drag it out of its case and have solo singing sessions when
noone was around. It sure brought back many happy memories of my young and
carefree days. I no longer have much time to indulge in nostalgia since
becoming addicted to the computer but I would never ever sell my old guitar!

Prudence
was the first person to introduce me to the Hong Kong version of Mahjong. I
know it sounds kind of strange for a Chinese to be taught how to play Mahjong
by a Westerner but Mother didn’t play Mahjong so I remained ignorant until I
met Prudence. Through her, I became friends with several other expatiate wives
– Christina, Evelyn, Martha, Margaret and Yasmin among others. After I became
familiar with the rules of the game, we would meet up once a week for a
friendly afternoon of Mahjong either at the American Club in Scotts Road or at
one of our homes. No money ever exchanged hands, we would each drop S$2 into
the kitty and the hostess (usually Prudence because she had two game tables)
would buy two prizes – one for the over-all winner and a novelty gift as a
booby prize for the over-all loser at the end of the afternoon. Oh what fun we
had, it was never a serious game with us, it was more like a weekly hen party
of eight. The first thing I did after learning about the game was to go out and
purchase my very own set, complete with the playing racks. I then introduced
the game to Sue and Max and naturally to Nell and her kids. Nell in turn raced
out to buy her own set of Mahjong tiles! When our husbands were in town at the
same time, Eric would fire up his bbq and friends would gather around to party.
If only we could turn back the clock once in a while….

When Rick was away at work and Sue and Max came over for a game of 3-player
Mahjong with me, Mother would seat herself some distance away and watch… no,
not because she wanted to learn how to play the game but because she decided to
assign herself as my watchdog. I don’t think she fully trusted Western men –
she seemed to think they were all tarred with the same brush – all casanovas,
every single one of them! She considered me to be too attractive to be left
unguarded – you know, no husband around and Max might try to suss out the
possibility of getting into my knickers, starting out by playing tootsies with
me under the mahjong table! Never mind the fact that his beautiful young wife
was sitting right there with us… She had a vivid imagination, that Mother of
mine and combined with a highly suspicious nature, she used to drive me nuts
with her wild notions. Come to think of it, I don’t think she trusted me
either!

I never had the luxury of having a housemaid until one fine afternoon when I
answered a knock on my front door. There stood a dejected young Malay woman in
her mid-twenties, with a small suitcase in her hand. Her name was Fatimah and
she had been hired from a “kampong” (village) in Malaysia to work
illegally in Singapore for an Indian family from Bombay, who was no longer
willing to give her the fare to return across the Johore Causeway to Malaysia
every fortnight to have her entry visa into Singapore renewed. Although I had
no need for the services of a maid, I felt so sorry for her and agreed to let
her stay with me doing light duties around the house for the princely sum of
S$30 a month. It was a temporary arrangement to allow her to save up enough to
return to her village and make a new start in life. I provided food, clothing
and whatever else she needed and gave her an extra S$15 every fortnight for her
visa renewal trips.

She proved to be worth her weight in gold – honest and hard-working. We
suspected that she fancied the Curry vendor at a coffee shop nearby as she was
forever offering to buy curries for me. She would then “doll” herself up before
merrily heading for the shop. Her telephone
manners however, left a lot to be desired – I came home from being out
somewhere one day and she excitedly told me that she had taken a message from a
phone call for me. This was what transpired (Dialogue in Malay, translated into
English for easier understanding):

Me : Who called?

Fatimah : I dunno, one of your friends, I think… it was Mrs.
er… I can’t remember her name…

Me : Well, what was the message anyway?

Fatimah : Er… I dunno, something about calling her back.

Me (somewhat exasperated): How can I call her back if I don’t
know who it was???

Fatimah (dejected): Sorry…(brightens up visibly) Oh! Oh! I
remember! I have written her phone number down!

Me (relieved): Oh good! What’s the number?

Fatimah : Er… here it is! (handing me a piece of paper with
unrecognized ‘squiggles’ on it)

Me (totally mystified, handing the paper back to her): Here –
you read out the numbers to me.

Fatimah (looking worried): Er… um… I think it’s 4?, um..
(peering closely at her squiggle) or, no, no, maybe it’s 9? uh… (almost in
tears) I dunno… so sorry, ok?

Poor Fatimah, it turned out that she was illiterate. She was just like a child
in some ways and loved answering the telephone as she was never allowed to do
so at the previous place where she had worked. I tried teaching her some phone
etiquette and thought I was getting somewhere one day when the phone rang….
She raced over to answer the phone, chirped out a cheery, “Hullo?” to the
caller and as I had taught her, merrily said, “Hold on please!” and proudly
told me that it was for me. When I got to the phone, I found that after she
told the caller to ‘hold on’, she immediately replaced the receiver back in the
cradle! She eventually got things right but not before I’d pulled several
clumps of hair off my scalp! About six months or so later, she had saved up
enough for a new start and we tearfully said our goodbyes as she headed back to
her village. She was more of a friend than a housemaid and I wondered about her
welfare, long after she left us.

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