Chapter 5 – Daughter Of A Gambler

My mother was a compulsive gambler and would bet on anything that moved if she
had the funds. However, our circumstances being the way they were, she
satisfied her addiction by trying her luck in the illegal lottery syndicate
called “chap jee kee” (Hokkien Chinese dialect meaning “twelve
numbers”) on a daily basis. The system involved picking a pair of numbers
between 1 and 12 and bets were placed by special codes in Chinese numerals on a
slip of paper and the results would come in about 10.30 the next morning by
word of mouth in the market place.

Wherever we moved to, she would somehow manage to find the local branch and
would get involved within 24 hours! When we moved to Jalan Rumah Tinggi, I
became her “number courier”. Each evening after school, I had to venture down
the hill-side to the local area “bookie” after she had made her selection for
the night. Mother considered herself a bit of a whiz at fortune-telling by
“reading” a deck of cards. She would spend hours with her cards before making
her choice of numbers. Should she decide that the numbers I had just carried
were unlucky, I had to make my way back down the hill by the light of a little
torch to make the appropriate changes. Sometimes this could involve up to six
trips in one night! Luckily, all bets had to be in by 11.30p.m….

Besides “chap jee kee”, she was also keen in trying her luck at the
weekly “4-D” lottery, another illegal syndicate that took a minimum of 50 cents
bets on the last four digits of the weekly-drawn legal lottery called “Big
Sweep” – all these on top of her favourite “che kee” , of course. With
my brother working full-time and having taken over the responsibility of being
our sole supporter, Mother became even more addicted to her gambling. She
thought nothing of leaving me on my own each day, naturally with very strict
instructions not to leave the house. At a drop of a hat, she would gaily set
off with her mates whenever they needed a “kaki” (player to make up
the foursome required in “che kee”). With Brother working five and a
half days a week, it was left up to me to do the marketing in the morning, cook
the family meal, do the laundry by hand and hung them out to dry on a long
“galah” (bamboo pole) and complete other household chores before heading off
for school. Certain clothes needed to be stiffly starched after washing and
during the weekend, each piece was ironed on a folded old blanket, using a
burning charcoal-filled iron, after a sprinkling of water to remove the
creases. Oh how I miss ironing the old-fashioned way… NOT! It is no wonder
that I detest housework to this day!

It was easy to tell whether she had a “good” day at gambling or suffered a
loss. Brother and I would wait with bated breaths each time she came home – if
she had a good win, she would be in high spirits and would perform a little
jig in front of the mirror or start playing her accordian. We would take that
as a good sign and know that all would be well for the night anyway, as we grinned
at each other. Woe betide us however, if on the other hand, she stormed into
the flat, looking as dark as thunder and swearing vehemently that she wouldn’t
EVER gamble anymore. In practically the same breath, she would demand her
enamal mug of “kopi susu” (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and
retire into the bedroom with her deck of cards. At such a time, we prudently
complied as quickly as possible and kept a very low profile afterwards, so as
not to aggravate the situation any further. Recounting this brings to mind an
incident that occurred one such evening – it was dinner time and we were having
noodle soup – I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I did or didn’t do –
probably for not saying “Bismillah…” (Muslim ‘Grace’) before
eating??? Whatever the reason was, I ended
up wearing a bowlful of noodles on my head! Again, no word was spoken – she
just got up and went back to the bedroom. Silently, Brother and I cleaned up
the mess…

I tried my best to always wear a happy face when asked to “courier” her “chap
jee kee”
numbers, regardless of how I was feeling, as I knew the
consequences of my facial expressions. Should so much as a glimmer of
exasperation or tiredness show on my face upon my return from one errand too
many, she would take my “muka sway” (“muka” = Malay for “face”; “sway”
= Hokkien for “unlucky”) as a sign that the numbers I had just handed in were
“losers”! So shortly afterwards (after re-consulting her deck of cards), I
would be sent out yet again with a different set of numbers. I would spend the
rest of the night praying that the next morning’s winning pair of numbers would
NOT be among Mother’s choice of numbers that were withdrawn because of my “muka

Indirectly, her gambling jaunts
benefited me because as the saying goes, “When the cat’s away the mouse will
play…” Oh how very true! On weekends that Mother was away, Brother would let
me get out of the house for the occasional taste of freedom. He would slip a
couple of dollars into my hands and I’d gleefully head off to meet up with a
couple of classmates who were more into having a good time (unlike my “study
buddies”). If I was lucky enough to “escape” on a Sunday afternoon, we would
head off to a “T-Dance” in a hall on the first floor at the back of the Capitol
Theatre. That was where I met my second boyfriend. In my eyes, he was the
coolest dude on the dance floor and obviously the admiration was mutual as the
next thing I knew, he asked me for a dance. As we “A-Go-Go”ed to “Wooly Bully”
and various other hits, we exchanged vital information like our first names,
etc… Michael was of Cantonese background and after that first meeting, all
that I could think of was Michael and the Tancho pomade in his hair! That
teenage romance didn’t last as it never progressed beyond a bit of a-huggin’
and a-kissin’ as Mother had instilled very high moral values in me, esp the
importance of preserving my virtue. Besides, how could I have gone “steady”
with anyone, having such a restricted amount of social freedom?

Being left on my own a lot sure gave me plenty of time to fill during school
holidays, so I would sometimes raid Mother’s “tabong” (piggy-bank made
of coconut shell) and with the use of a bobby-pin, I would get a 20c coin
(never more) and head off to the shop to buy “sweets”. That money would get me
10 fruit chews which I would ration to two a day. I would mostly spend my time
listening to a little transistor radio or an old portable reel-to-reel tape
recorder that Brother had purchased from one of his collegues for S$15. I
started my own song book, writing down the lyrics of popular songs as I heard
them, learnt the lyrics off by heart and pretended I was a pop star on stage,
belting out my current hit! When the batteries became weak, I would lay them
out in the sun to “recharge” them.

Mother also specialized in nagging – the intensity varied, depending again on
the result of the day’s gambling. On a bad evening, she could go on for hours
on end. Some nights I would fall asleep during one of her lectures, upon which
she would get a bucket of cold water and tip it all over me. That definitely
woke me up quick smart. As punishment, she would liberally scatter FAB washing
detergent all over the loungeroom floor and get me to scrub it (on my hands and
knees with a bristle brush). Oh what fun that was… Sometimes, when she was in
water conservation mode, she would pinch my eyelids instead and ask me to
repeat the last few sentences she had spoken, to prove that I had been
listening. Then there were those warm humid nights when she couldn’t go to
sleep (most likely because she had suffered another gambling loss) and needed
me to “kipas” (fan) her, using a heart-shaped fan made of woven palm
fronds with a short handle. I would dutifully comply (no choice, actually) and
hope that she would quickly fall asleep. Oh goody! She had begun snoring, so I
would ease off on the fanning motion, finally ceasing altogether. Bad move! “Oi, gua belum tidor!” (Oi, I’m not asleep!) [‘gua’ is Hokkien Chinese
dialect for ‘I’] she would yell, just as my
head touched my pillow! The same went for the times she got me to give her a
massage… those nights seemed endless.

At one stage she got it into her head to take knitting lessons so she could
knit baby layettes to earn extra money for her gambling. She “found” a teacher,
invested in knitting needles, wool, patterns and weekly knitting lessons. She
lost interest after dropping a few stitches and in her effort to “pick” the
dropped stitches, she made them “run” even further down the garment! Hey,
that’s not a problem when you have an English-educated daughter though – her
logic was: the pattern was in English and therefore it is only common sense for
her to hand the whole mess to me! Somehow I managed to fix the garment (BIG
MISTAKE!) and after that I was expected to help her do the knitting in my spare
time while back she went to full-time gambling! To this day, I do not like

When it came to buying groceries, Mother was tight – her logic was: why waste
good money on expensive food that you would be pooping out anyway? Much, much
better to put that money aside and increase her chances at winning big bucks, I
guess… A dozen eggs would last way over a month and when they were eventually
consumed, Mother would in a disbelieving tone, exclaim, “I only bought them
last week! ‘Alamak’! (Mother of God) You think I “kangkang” (spread
legs wide) for them!?” After several similar obscene comments, Brother and I
would avoid eating eggs. That should get us out of trouble, right? WRONG! By
doing that, her reaction changed to, “What!? You mean to tell me that I paid
good money for them and you two would just let them rot!? Ungrateful, that’s
what you are, BOTH of you!”

She was raised a Buddist but converted to Islam to marry my adoptive father –
her siblings remained Buddists with a couple embracing Christianity. When
Chinese New Year came along, her sister would invite her over and tempt her
with pork dishes. After a couple of glasses of Guinness Stout, she would
succumb to the temptation. She would arrive home full as a state school and
bring out her accordian – well past midnight she would serenade herself and us
(and our poor neighbours, too) playing well-known melodies of her youth – her
favourite being “Rasa Sayang” (popular Malay song, meaning “Feeling
Love”), reciting a “pantun” (four-lined poems) in between the chorus.
Brother and I would watch with amusement when she woke up the morning after and
realized the follies of the day before. Out would come the “tikar sembayang”
(prayer mat) and she would be repenting for the best part of the day, even
promising to give up gambling all over again! Like that would happen…

By my final school year at least three teachers had guessed that I could not
afford to buy lunch at the tuck shop. They could also tell that my pride would
not permit me to seek charity so they would take turns to get me to queue up
and buy their lunches for them, always ensuring that there was enough change
leftover for my lunch as “payment” for my time… What saddened me, and in a
way, angered me most about Mother’s gambling addiction was the fact that the
money that she (and in turn, my brother) worked so hard to earn was
uncontrollably and thoughtlessly gambled away while endless excuses would roll
off her tongue as to why we sometimes could not afford even the bare
necessities of life! She would sometimes resort to pawning her jewellery to get
the money to gamble. What I find humiliating was the fact that she would “cry
poor” to my rich aunt (Helena’s mother) and I had to wear my cousins’
hand-me-down clothes and shoes. I hated being poor due to Mother’s gambling
addiction and made a secret vow that I would somehow succeed in life and not
want for anything. In the meantime I had to swallow my pride and show
continuous gratitude for the charity given by “dear auntie”. As soon as I was
old enough to understand, I made a vow to myself that I would never a gambler


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *