Yin Chee

This is our ‘san goong yan’ (new maid) – I whispered to the neighbourhood kids – as we sneaked our heads over the doorway to our flat.  We wanted to stealthily check out the lady who was washing our clothes in the bathroom but she spotted us immediately.

Yin ‘Chee’ (‘sister’ Yin) was only about 17 when she started working for us; she still remembers the scene and thought the sight of a bunch of heads popping up to take a peek at her to be  really cute.

I was about 5 years old and we’d already been through a number of low-skilled nannies/housekeepers since my mom used to help with the family business.

I remember the horror stories about the one who used to sit precariously on our 11th floor balcony ledge, an eye-blink away from certain death, and even worse, place one of us kids up there with her.

Or the one who burnt the rice and to cover her tracks, stored it under one of the beds until she got found out when it started to stink up the house.

Yin Chee, somehow, was different.  She came to work for us when my mom was hospitalised with cancer.  She was intelligent, hardworking and seemed to care for us.   I was concerned that her cooking might not be as good as mom’s, but she turned out to be a great cook.

Somehow, she took an immediate liking to me; at that age, I was extremely docile, quiet and as she saw it, prone to being bullied by the two sisters either side of me.

Yin Chee came from an impoverished family; she grew up in a remote area due to her parents’ work on rubber plantations, and their RM$4 per day wage meant they couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend school.

She used to catch the bus to her nearest school anyway, and would sit outside the classroom trying to absorb what the teacher was teaching.  The teacher finally took pity on her and let her join the class without letting the principal know.

Then the bus stopped showing up and she had to walk an hour and a half to school each morning, so she gave up after awhile, having attended only 2 years of schooling.

When, at 19, she decided to marry my dad, 28 years her senior, there was some opposition to it from my older siblings.

I remember being coached by Min Foong to ask them not to marry each other, and getting my speech mangled in the process and having to run back to my sister to double-check what I was supposed to say, which only served to make the situation comical.

At the wedding, we were instructed to no longer call her ‘Yin Chee’, but ‘Ah Yee’ – which means ‘young aunt’ –we were to view her as a younger sister to my mom, here to fulfill her role in her absence, but never to replace her completely.

Which is a shame, because I think it did affect the way she has been treated over the years.

She was married to my dad for some 40 years until his passing two years ago, so whatever doubts there may have been about her motivations, her loyalty to our family has stood the test of time.

I don’t know if she still feels the need to prove herself all the time, or if it’s just her no-frills personality, but she prefers to avoid the limelight and usually stays in the background cooking away at family get-togethers.

She is always the last to sit down to eat, often after everyone else has already had their share, which makes me uncomfortable as it is reminiscent of her days as our maid.

It also means we never celebrate her birthday or Mother’s Day etc., unlike with my Dad, for whom we always had a big celebration accompanied by ang pows.

Frankly, I think she deserves better;  in a family of Type A personalities, left rudderless by the untimely passing of my mom, Yin Chee turned out to be the right person, at the right place, at the right time, for us all.

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The Phonecall

I was about 2 weeks away from sitting for my HSC trials.  I guess my stepmom had heard the rumour through regular contact with one of the Tai Chi housewives back home.  Anyway, she broke the news to me.  Apparently, this lady claimed to have seen him at some event.  And he was with a girl.  And they were holding hands.  And as soon as he realised he’d been spotted, he had quickly pulled his hand away.

I didn’t want to believe it.  I figured it was just gossip by the same bunch of bored housewives I’d never cared for.  I mean, he had been so into me, it was unfathomable.  I had taken advantage of his feelings for me.   Treated him like a doormat.  Broken up with him over seemingly silly stuff.  Like the time I found out he’d watched Michael Jackson’s latest music video (Thriller) behind my back when he’d said he’d wait to watch it with me (I hadn’t asked him to wait – he’d willingly offered to do so).  And the time he told me he was heading home and to bed after visiting me, and I found out he’d gone to a party instead.  I made sure there was hell to pay each time before I took him back.   He knew how to beg and cry and I thought I had the upper hand each time.  Everyone did.

Now, with this new rumour, I didn’t know what to think.  Despite what I thought about those gossipy housewives, this somehow sounded strangely plausible.  He’d been caught out before with the other lies.  I could see him doing it.  So I rang him.  Long-distance calls were expensive back in those days, but I had to do it.

At first denial, then he eventually admitted to it.  Yes, it was some girl whose dad had recently died.  He’d been her shoulder to cry on.  And that’s how it had started.  There’s more, of course, but I won’t divulge the rest.  Bottom line – he wasn’t going to ditch her.  So I told him it was over.  He said ok.  I hung up.  I couldn’t believe my ears.  This wasn’t right – I’d expected crying and begging on his part but he’d seemed, well, relieved.  I decided he’d been let off the hook too easily.

So I rang him back.  Really gave it to him.  He cried.  Lots more talking later, he asked to keep our relationship going.  But he still didn’t want to leave her.  Even at that point, where my self-esteem was at the lowest it’d ever been, I knew that was bullshit.  I wanted nothing to do with this arrangement.  So, after nearly two years of putting my life on hold for him, it was all over.  I’d basically sabotaged my start in a new country out of a misguided belief that this knight in shining armour would come and rescue me from this hell.  What a fool I was.

To this day, I don’t know who the other girl was.  She might have been innocent in all this – maybe he’d lied to her as well – but it didn’t make me any less mad at her.  Heck, I lost a parent too, and I never used that as leverage.  I wanted to believe that he chose her because she needed him more; that she got his sympathy vote because of her bereavement; that it pandered to his protective male instinct.  Or something.

Evidently time was a great healer of wounds.  About two years later when I went back to Seremban with my younger sister, I had no problems calling him up to say hello.  He dropped in at the Allson Klana Resort where we were staying, and chatted for about 5 minutes.  I asked him about the girlfriend, and was surprised he didn’t at first know who I was talking about.  When reminded, he brushed it off saying, oh, that’s been over a long time ago now.  And no, he wasn’t seeing anyone at the moment.

Anyway, he mentioned he had just started a pest control business.  Good for him, I thought.  He’ll do alright, he’s a smooth talker – a natural salesman.  And the Hokkiens have a good nose for business, after all.  Then he left.  That was over twenty years ago and I have not seen or spoken to him since.

Apart from a soft spot for schmaltzy 80s love songs,  I really haven’t thought about that chapter in my life since those early years in Australia.

For years, I did regret not maintaining contact with my friends from Convent – I’d pretty much put all my eggs in the one basket relationship-wise and chosen not to keep in touch with them, to my detriment.  Then, 25 years after I’d left Convent Seremban, I thought I’d try to see if I could pull anything up on Google.  I hit paydirt and found a blog by an old classmate, talking about their recent 25th-year reunion dinner.   I got in touch with Mala via Facebook, and the rest is history.

Mala came to Sydney for a holiday a few weeks back, with her three teenage daughters.  We met up and I had a fantastic time taking them around town – the Opera House, Watson’s Bay, Bondi Beach, Manly Beach; they even visited my restaurant one evening.  And, of course, we had lots to talk about – catching up on those lost years of memories.   She told me about the Convent reunion the year before, and how great it was to catch up with everyone after all this time.

She said she’d been surprised how many of the girls had ended up marrying their childhood sweethearts.  She thought it was awfully sweet.  She didn’t have a boyfriend in high school; she’d been too preoccupied with school work and activities and friends.  ‘How about you?’ she asked.

‘Well, actually, yes, I did have a boyfriend’.

I told her his name.

She thought about it for a second, then a flash of recognition.

‘Is he in pest control?’

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Mala (on left) pictured with Shamshinor during our high school years.

Puppy Love

I don’t even remember how we met, though I do remember this tall guy hanging around a lot at the Odeon, waiting to talk to me when I had a moment to spare.  I used to work there after school and in the evenings, serving at the canteen my dad owned.

Despite whatever accomplishments I’d made at school, there was no escaping the fact that my background was very working class.  I’d had to work every day since the age of 8; like my brothers and sisters before me, I squeezed in my homework in-between movie sessions and did it standing up at the serving counter.  During public holidays, whilst all my friends went out celebrating and visiting friends, we had to work even harder, since they were always the busiest periods at the cinema.

This guy, on the other hand, couldn’t have come from a more different background.  His days were filled with leisure activities at Sungei Ujong, the local country club (where the likes of me never even dreamed of stepping foot into), piano lessons, squash, parties and whatever else the well-heeled did for amusement.

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me, but he put me at ease by making out that he was just playing matchmaker to someone else he knew, who supposedly liked me (obviously a ruse).  So we spoke, and he started calling me at home, and we talked and talked, and before I knew it, we were officially boyfriend-girlfriend.

My parents never had a problem with him; my stepmom in particular, adored him. He was always courteous, respectful, polished, soft-spoken, and wore custom-tailored clothes based on the latest London fashion – very metrosexual, in fact – way before it became a trend and a fashion statement.

His parents, conversely, never accepted me.  Unlike at my place, where he was practically part of the family (he even went on day trips with us), I could only go to his house when his parents weren’t around.  I remember his mom came home by surprise once when I was there.  She totally ignored me.  I felt lower than dirt.

His dad even visited me at my house once, and asked me to break it off with him.  I remember the visit well.

He’d sat down with me and made a tumbling gesture with his hands.  His son, he said, was head over heels in love with me.  It was affecting him to the point where he couldn’t function properly.  His schoolwork was suffering.  At home, he was spaced out all day thinking of me.  This was just puppy love, his dad contended.  We could be friends, but not boyfriend-girlfriend.

His dad wasn’t rude; he didn’t have any airs about him.  He just seemed like any regular, concerned parent. Yet, if I’d broken up with him several times in the past, it surely wasn’t going to happen now.

I had been the most compliant kid in my household and was famous for being bullied by my younger sister. Then when I turned 15 a rebellious, angry, defiant persona suddenly took over.

I don’t think I ever grew out of it completely. To this day I often tell people the best way to get me to do something is to tell me why I can’t do it.

I figured my boyfriend’s parents thought I wasn’t good enough for their son because of my blue-collar background.  I refused to acknowledge that from what I had seen of him, his dad was a difficult person to dislike.

My friends called him my loyal ‘puppy dog’, sometimes to my face.  Mona, my best friend at the time, thought that he was extremely needy and clingy.  Even her mom joked about being able to tell straightaway who wore the pants in the relationship.

He used to visit me at our house and leave very late at night, walking through a long, unlit and scary stretch of road  on the way home over a mile away.  There was no denying he was infatuated with me.

He would record popular love songs onto cassette tapes and give them to me to listen to, with notes scribbled on the cover ‘dedicating’ them to me.

We shared a love for 80s New Wave music, and that’s about all we had in common.  He used to be a popular fixture at parties, was a competitive dancer and always had a group of rich hangers-on who I’m pretty sure didn’t think any more highly of me than my friends did of him.

All my social activities, on the other hand, had always revolved around school participation – debating, drama, choir, basketball, etc. – ie. nothing that required paid lessons to get skilled up on.

Yet, we stuck together despite our differences.  We were devastated when we found out I’d have to leave for Australia for good – my parents had applied to emigrate under the Australian government’s Family Reunion scheme – and it seemed like the application was approved a lot faster than I had anticipated.

I remember him bringing up the idea that I should stay behind and live with his family for awhile until he could get a job and support the two of us, but I never seriously considered it for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being his parents’ disapproval of our relationship.

Then it was decided he’d join me here in Sydney when he finished his studies in just over two years.  We just tried to spend as much time together as was humanly possible before I left, and probably did so in pseudo-denial of the impending separation.

One of the last songs he ‘dedicated’ to me was Air Supply’s ‘I Can Wait Forever’ – cheesy, I know.  He saw me off at the airport – and he cried and cried as we finally had to let each other go.

I hadn’t even set foot in this country and I’d already decided I hated it.  For the next two years, I refused to wear any red clothing.  Red symbolizes joy and good fortune in Chinese culture.  In my melodramatic teenage mindset, until I was reunited with him, I was going to be in mourning, much like I was when my mom died.

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The Hard Sell

‘Hello, sir/ma’am – come try Malaysian food – we have noodles, curry, satay, roti’ – called out my newest staff member to the passing crowds.  We were trading at a market and he was obviously trying hard to show initiative and had been at it all day.  I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and told him to stop.  I don’t grovel for business; it’s just not my style.

They don’t call me The Curry Nazi for no reason.

My dad told me when he first started out, his family was so incredibly poor that he had to borrow money to buy a pack of cigarettes, break it open, then sell each stick individually on the streets.

His younger sister would be right beside him, and once he made a sale, she would beg the buyer to also consider buying a box of matches.  Some customers would buy them out of pity.

Packs of matches were like 5 cents when I used to work at the Odeon 30-plus years ago;  I imagine they were even cheaper in his day.  It breaks my heart to think of how desperate they must have been.

My legendary lack of patience dealing with customers stems in large part from the stories of my parents’ tough beginnings, and also from observing my dad in particular kowtow to people who held his financial destiny in his hands.

One prime example was my dad’s deference to the Odeon cinema’s general manager. Despite constantly humiliating my dad by scolding him in public over God-knows-what petty little thing and threatening to raise his rent (which he did on a regular basis), my dad always apologized.  The GM was given free run of our canteen so it became his personal candy bar.

This general manager converted to Christianity after we left for Australia, and even came to visit us once, a much humbler and gentler person in his old age.  Back in the day, though, I hated his guts, and that of everyone else who abused their position of power and made life tough for my parents.

To this day I tend to instinctively be very borderline disrespectful of people in positions of authority and in turn I get along great with kitchen staff anywhere around the world where I’m invited to guest-chef.

 

Our Canteen at the Odeon Cinema

Confrontation

‘It’s not worth it, she’s only Asian!’ yelled the guy in the passing car.  He’d been calling out to Steffen, my Danish boyfriend, as we were crossing the road in the city.  I was upset, but more than that, I was mad that they had driven off so I couldn’t confront them.  It was the late 80s – I’d completed high school and had taken a gap year to wait tables at the newly-refurbished Queen Victoria Building.

Since arriving in Australia, my resentment at being forced to move here had slowly given way to sympathy for my dad.  He had been a Tai Chi master-instructor for decades in Malaysia (he was referred to as Tang Si-fu), and a respected businessman.  Despite his age and not knowing any English, he chose to move here because he saw a better future, not for himself, but for his kids.  It had been a humbling experience for him.

He took up a mortgage and paid it off working as a sewing machinist at minimum pay in a factory .  This at a time in his life when he really should have been enjoying the fruits of all the years of tough 18-hr work days back home.   To get to work, he had to catch a bus and a train, a 1 ½ -2 hour commute each way.  One day, on the bus, he looked out and noticed a school kid trying to get his attention from the street.  The kid pointed at my dad, then spat in his direction.  I had had the exact same experience with a bunch of kids outside the school library, but I was more upset and disgusted about my dad having had to go through it.

I’m sure he must have encountered lots of other forms of discrimination and racist behaviour I’m not aware of.  But being old and not speaking English, there was no way he could fight back.   I, however, was neither;  I decided to take it on myself to stand up to any perceived racism.  If nothing else, I figured it would make the offender think twice next time they wanted to pull the same stunt on someone less able to speak up.

I didn’t always get the chance to confront the perpetrator; for instance, in that drive-by incident with Steffen.   Or on another occasion when, walking down busy Pitt St in the city, this young, attractive and well-dressed blonde leaned into my ear as she walked past and whispered, ‘you’re ugly’, then disappeared among the crowds before I could fully digest what had just happened.

One of the first times I did try the confrontational approach, it nearly backfired.  I was walking home from the bus stop after school when this kid, probably about 10 or 12, rode past on a pushbike and called out something nasty about Asians – I forget what exactly.  I yelled, ‘what did you say?’ as I ran after him.  I didn’t really expect to catch up to him but he rode into a dead end and was stuck.  I walked right up and dared him to say it again to my face.

Then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed this brutish, redneck-looking man storm up with shovel in hand.  He had been working in his front yard and whilst aware he’d been looking on while I chased the kid down, I hadn’t thought much of it until now.  Suddenly, I realised they could be related.  ‘What’s going on?’, he roared.  Shoot, I thought; I can take on a kid, but a grown white man?  I maintained my composure.

‘Is this your son?’

‘Yeah’

‘He was yelling racist stuff at me’

‘Really?’

He turned to the kid, still on his pushbike.  He raised his arm, then whacked him with his shovel.  The kid squealed like a pig.  I was horrified to say the least.  I said, ‘Look, just forget about it’ – that didn’t stop him.  He grabbed the boy and threw him to the ground and kept hitting him.  I continued on home, shell-shocked at what I just witnessed.

Photo taken by Steffen
Photo taken by Steffen

Fairvale Lows

‘Miss, how come she wears normal clothes?’ asked this girl in my Year 10 class. Since I’d arrived with only one term to go and the Years 11/12 school uniform was a different design, I’d been given special permission to attend school in regular clothes.

But she wasn’t asking the teacher why I wasn’t in uniform; she was wondering how it was that Malaysia was sufficiently advanced to have had access to modern clothing. She was probably expecting me to show up dressed like Pocahontas or something, complete with feathered headband and war paint. ‘OK, why don’t we ask her?’ said the teacher.

‘So Jackie, where you came from, was it a village, a town?’

‘It’s technically a municipality’, I replied. Seremban had been upgraded from ‘town’ to ‘municipality’ status during my school years, so I was well-versed with the difference between them – it’d been taught in class back at the Convent.

‘OK. So it had buildings, and such?’ ‘Yes, we had buildings.’

‘Like actual, concrete buildings?’ ‘Yup’ (hard to believe, isn’t it? I wanted to add)

‘There you go, everyone. Where Jackie came from, they did have buildings.’

I really didn’t settle in well. I made several failed attempts at connecting, then pretty much gave up and ended up spending lunchtimes gorging down my food before heading to the library to wait out the bell. And being in school with a bunch of kids a couple of years younger than me didn’t help.

I thought they were ill-disciplined, immature, ignorant, boorish, racist, and hostile. I couldn’t believe how short the girls’ uniforms were, and the fact that they got away with wearing heavy makeup to school. Having served as a prefect at the Convent, where the rules stipulated in exact detail how high your skirt hem and your socks could be, all I could do was pick out everything that was wrong with these kids.

There were classes that were out of control and teachers who had given up trying to control them. Immigration was a hot topic and some of the students were vocal in their opposition to it. The small contingent of Indochinese guys were no match in these debates, largely because of their poor English skills. They mostly kept quiet whilst the Aussies talked about banning Asian immigration because they don’t speak the language, they stick out, and they congregate in places like Cabramatta and threaten to turn them into slums and high crime areas.

One time one of them did try to take them on, but no one could understand his broken English (myself included) and after making him repeat himself numerous times, the leader of the pack, Peter, finally told him to write his reply on the blackboard, which sent the rest of the Aussies into hysterics. Pretty humiliating stuff.

I’d been president of the Debating Society back at the Convent but really wasn’t well-versed in the finer points of immigration, nor did I care to argue with them. I didn’t consider myself part of the same demographic as the Indochinese refugees, and was offended that the Aussies lumped me in the same boat with them. No, your country didn’t save me from certain death or illiteracy and war and pain and suffering by letting me in, so no, I wasn’t eternally grateful to be here. In fact, couldn’t wait to get out, you morons, I thought. I resented being away from my boyfriend and figured I’d just wait out these two years until we finished schooling and could be together again. Or so I thought.

Early years in Sydney
Early years in Sydney

Choong Fee

It would seem in hindsight that he never stood a chance, even from the moment he was named as a baby.  All the girls in our family have the middle name ‘Min’ and all the boys, ‘Choong’.  His name was Choong Fee.

Shortly thereafter, my mom saw a fortune teller.  He told her it was a bad choice for a name.   The Chinese are superstitious about homophonic words, ie. words that sound the same but with different meanings.  Which is why you’d never see a Chinese number plate with the number ‘4’, which sounds like the word ‘to die’.  And if you see a flashy car with lots of eights in the number plate, you can be sure it’s Chinese-owned, as ‘8’ rhymes with the word for ‘prosperity’.

See, in Hakka, ‘Fee’ sounds like the word ‘to fly’.  The fortune teller warned my mom that it meant this new son would ‘fly away’ some day, in other words, depart from this world.  So, it was decided that we would never call him by his real name.  He was always called ‘Poh’, which means ‘to cradle/hug/embrace’ – to supposedly protect his spirit from flying off.

He grew up to be a very handsome young man, a huge Bruce Lee fan and a hardcore practitioner of the martial arts taught by my dad.  And he had an artistic streak, which I think he got from my dad.   Most of our old black and white photos were taken and developed by him.  He used to buy me toys, and he got me the only Barbie I ever had, before anyone in my realm of existence knew what a Barbie was (myself included) – it was my favourite toy by far and I played with her all through my childhood.

When my mom died, he seemed to take it especially bad.  I remember he would go out after working at the canteen at the Odeon (our core family business) and seemingly stay out all night.  I think my dad assumed he was just hanging out with friends, and didn’t appreciate that it was affecting his performance at work.

He wasn’t happy when my dad remarried, and the wedding photos reflected that.  That cheeky smile he used to have was gone.  I didn’t find out until very recently, that Yin ‘chee’, our servant girl whom my dad married, was actually a friend of Choong Fee and he was the one who had in fact asked her to come work for us when my mom got sick.  I can appreciate now, how that must have affected him.

I remember the evening he died, a week before his 21st birthday; we were at the Odeon.  I’m told he’d forgotten some keys for my dad, who had a legendary temper, and he was anxious to ride his bike home to grab them before he got into trouble.

He came to an intersection just near the Odeon.  There was a female learner driver on the other side.  He had right of way but she drove forward and crashed into him.

I remember my eldest brother Choong Khee was first to report the news to us.  We were told he was unconscious but there were no obvious injuries, so it seemed like maybe he would be okay.  Then Choong Khee came back with a look of anguish to say – ‘he’s gone’.  Apparently he’d suffered severe internal injuries.  To this day, every time I come across incompetent Asian female drivers (lots of them in Sydney), I exhibit symptoms of road rage.

I learned lots of previously unknown facts about my brother after his death.  There was one time his good friend and martial arts partner came to visit us with his arm in a cast.  We were told he’d hurt himself at work or something.  No one thought anything of it.  After Choong Fee’s passing, we found out he’d actually been hurt by my brother, who was overwhelmingly powerful, during a sparring session.  He didn’t want him to get into trouble, so it was kept a secret.

Another thing I found out was that all those late nights were because Choong Fee had been visiting my mom’s grave.  This next bit sounds like something straight out of A Chinese Ghost Story but I’m told that’s what happened.  Choong Fee went to see a fortune teller or medium one time, in fear for his life.  Supposedly, he had seen a ghost at the cemetery while at my mom’s grave at night.  The fortune teller told him it was a female ghost, and she’d fallen in love with him.  His life was in jeopardy because she wanted him to join her in the afterlife.  To protect him, he was given a talisman and was told he had to wear it everywhere he went.

The night he died, he had left the talisman at home.