Category Archives: Seremban

Midnight Shadows at Istana Billah (Billah Castle)

Early last year I, along with my long-time collaborator Robb Demarest, was invited by Malaysia’s NTV7 to guest star in 5 episodes of their paranormal reality TV show, Seekers. Here is the trailer for the show as aired on NTV7 –

As is the case with any TV production, for a variety of reasons a lot of our experiences and the evidence we gathered never made it into the final cut, and I hope to cover them in future posts.

In the meantime, here is an article I wrote about one of the places we investigated for the show, called Istana Billah. This was originally published in my Digital Magazine, Truly Malaysian but I’m sharing it here due to the inordinate amount of interest in my previous writings about ghosts & the paranormal 🙂

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Istana Billah
Istana Billah

Midnight Shadows at Istana Billah
I’ve done more than my fair share of travelling, and many times while in a non-English speaking country I’m expected to speak the local language – French, Japanese, whatever the case may be. In Malaysia, if there’s any doubt about your background, they speak to you in English. Watch any movie in Malaysia and you’ll find not just subtitles, but subtitles in several languages. Maybe our multi-cultural makeup, coupled with our colonial past, have made us very adaptable and linguistically tolerant?

When the opportunity came up for Robb Demarest and I to guest host on Seekers, a local TV show that’s aired in Malay, there was some concern on Robb’s part about the language barrier.

“Don’t be silly”, I told him. “Everybody understands English, they’ll just subtitle your lines in the show, they do that all the time.”

And so it was that the entire production crew communicated with Robb in English. But they also talked to me in English. I put it down to their gracious hospitality – I haven’t lived in Malaysia for nearly 30 years after all, so it’d be fair to assume I’d lost most, if not all, of my Malay language ability.

Anyhow, our second case rolled around and we were investigating Istana Billah, an old castle in Perak that used to be the residence of Raja (King) Billah. The castle stands empty but is maintained by two lady caretakers who live onsite.  It has a tiny wooden mosque built within the area and the Chinese locals claimed to hear sounds coming from it at night. There are also reported sightings of an old lady in the mansion.

We were introduced to the history of the castle during the day, and suffice it to say I was pretty creeped out by some of the rooms in the building – one upstairs in particular had holes in the floor. Why?  Because that’s where they prepared bodies for burial; the holes were where water from cleaning the bodies would drain out.  Then there was another room that was locked up, but we were told it was where funeral ceremonies were conducted.  So many death-related activities under the one roof made for a very uncomfortable night ahead for someone like me with a morbid fear of dead bodies.

Now I’m a cook, not a paranormal investigator, so I had no experience at all going into my Seekers stint. But I’ve watched plenty of ghost hunting shows in my time and I didn’t want to fall into the stereotypical screaming crybaby role usually delegated to the female in the team. I had my Hakka pride to maintain, after all.

The castle, whilst not very big, was very dark on the inside, and extremely eerie at night. We started out investigating in groups, but in the middle of the night, the producer decided he wanted me, Jackie M, to stay alone in the castle whilst all the other investigators went back to base. GREAT.

I kept telling myself to keep my cool; the whole place was wired with CCTV cameras after all and everyone would be monitoring me from base camp. “Nothing’s going to happen”, I kept thinking.

Production crew on set at Istana Billah
Production crew on set at Istana Billah

So I sat in the pitch black hall with an infra-red camera to try and capture evidence of ghostly activity. I talked to whatever might be out there to see if it would make contact with me.  Maybe touch my hair or hand to show they were present in the room?  All things that I quietly hoped wouldn’t happen – certainly not when I was alone in a big empty building at night.

There’s a school of thought that paranormal activity happens to those who invite it into their lives. I dwelt on that as, against my better judgement, I continued to implore whatever entities were out there to make contact.

And then I saw it – a shadow near the main doorway about 30 feet away.  I froze for a second, thinking the light from the night sky outside must have played a trick on me.  Stay calm, I told myself.

It disappeared, but quickly appeared again, and this time I yelled out: “Hello?”

As though in response, a SECOND apparition showed up next to the first.

Again, “Hello?” Still silence. The two dark ghostly shadows stood at the doorway facing me, watching me.

Well, I figured this was an old Malay castle; it would probably make more sense for me to communicate in the local language to whatever ghosts were haunting this place.  So, for the first time on this trip, I spoke Malay. “Siapa tu?” (Who’s that?), I tentatively asked the shadowy figure.

Upstairs room in Istana Billah used for the preparation of dead bodies for burial.  The floorboards had holes in them, for blood to drip downstairs during the process.
Upstairs room in Istana Billah used for the preparation of dead bodies for burial. The floorboards had holes in them, for blood to drip downstairs during the process.

It worked. The ghostly response came back, “Ada tengok anjing?”

Alright, my Malay may be rusty after 30 years, but I think the ghosts just asked me if I’d seen any dogs.

“Anjing? Takde, saya tak nampak” (Er, dogs? No, I haven’t seen any).

And so it turned out the ghostly figures were not in fact ghosts, but the two elderly lady caretakers trying to tackle an ongoing stray dog problem.

The upshot of the encounter was that the production crew discovered that Jackie M actually speaks Malay, so thereafter there was no stopping them bantering with me in Bahasa. Not to mention the producer insisting in subsequent episodes that I did my EVP sessions in Malay.

Did I encounter any real paranormal activity in that or any of the other cases?  You’ll have to tune in to NTV7’s Seekers Season 9 to find out.

My co-presenters in Seekers Season 9 - from left - Syai, myself, Robb Demarest, Jufri Rayyan
My co-presenters in Seekers Season 9 – from left – Syai, myself, Robb Demarest, Jufri Rayyan

Gratitude – Ester Wimborne

When I was about 15, we had a very special guest from Australia come stay with us in Temiang, Seremban.

She was considerate to a fault, and wrote us a detailed, thank you letter on the day she left to return home. It was lengthy, and it mentioned every person who had helped make her stay comfortable , even in the most negligible ways.

I read and translated it for my parents, and was annoyed by the end of it. Why? Because it didn’t mention ME. Unbeknownst to her, my stepmom had made me give up my third blanket for her before she arrived – we had been short on blankets, and I had three.

Three layers of blankets in non-air conditioned, tropical Malaysia is ridiculous overkill – it wasn’t like I was at risk of catching pneumonia by being deprived of one of them for a week or two. Fully aware that there was no way she could’ve known about it, the unintentional slight was nonetheless a big deal to my self-absorbed, chip-on-the-shoulder, teenaged self.

Why am I bringing this up? Because for the longest time, I’d been meaning to write a post mentioning all the acts of kindness I’ve encountered over the last 2 years in relation to baby Noah. I wanted to name names but was a little paranoid about unintentionally missing out on some people in the process, the way our Seremban guest had done. Clearly most people aren’t the self-absorbed, immature teenager that I once was, and would probably give me a pass, but my attempt at diligence (assisted by a healthy dose of procrastination) meant I kept putting it off. I wish I hadn’t.

I’m splitting this post into two parts because I want to give special mention to Ester Wimborne. Ester, a fellow market stallholder and Country Valley Dairy distributor, was one of the first people to reach out to me via Twitter even before Noah was born. I had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes during my pregnancy and was required to test my blood sugar levels after every meal.

I found that the chocolate mousse carried by Country Valley Dairy was one product that tested within the “safe” blood sugar range post-consumption, so I ate it with abandon during my pregnancy. I ordered them week-in week-out from Ester’s Sunday stall and asked her to pass them onto my Marrickville staff since I was (and continue to be) rarely there in person. She often gave me extra free samples of other products and always heavily discounted everything.

Our communications continued when Noah arrived – Ester was one of many people who compassionately messaged me online when I first revealed Noah’s condition. She was one of those who continued to show an interest even after he left hospital – regularly checking in via Twitter to see how we were doing, despite fighting her own since-diagnosed life-threatening illness.

We always meant to catch up one day but because we both ran market stalls at different locations, we never got around to it. Amidst my conflicted feelings about social media and my cynicism about some of its participants, Ester stood out as someone who was both genuine and generous in spirit – to me, she represented the best of cyberspace.

I’ve always thanked Ester on Twitter in response to her follow-ups on Noah; I’ve never thanked her in person.  In fact, in the hustle and bustle of running my own market stall it occurred to me a few weeks ago that the friendly woman I had served minutes earlier at Orange Grove Farmers’ Market might have been Ester – based on what I’d seen of her in pictures. And then I promptly thought no more of it, figuring I’d catch up with her another time at another market, when we both had more time to chat.

Ester was killed in an accident on the way to her Sunday Marrickville stall two days ago. The scenario resonates as a food producer and fellow market stallholder. I understand the early starts on weekends, the long hours and the “jumping in at a moment’s notice” nature of running your own business – heck, she wasn’t even supposed to have been working that day.

I wish I’d thanked her more fully, beyond my glib Twitter replies; I wish I had taken time to finally meet up with her in person.  Ester was an absolutely beautiful, larger-than-life, generous, kind-hearted spirit and my life is richer for having known her, even if it was only in cyberspace. I thank you for the love you showed, Ester, and I look forward to telling Noah about you one day.

 

Chinese Ghost Stories

When my mom and her adoptive family first arrived in Malaysia in the 1930s, the only place they could afford to rent was an apartment above a Chinese funeral parlour. It was cheap because the owners had problems leasing it out; living among the dead is taboo within most cultures; even more so among the highly superstitious Chinese.

In line with Chinese belief that the spirits of the deceased remain on earth for some eight days after death, I’m told mom would often see ghostly figures in their apartment. These were supposedly the spirits of those whose funerals were taking place downstairs.

There was the apparition of an old man sitting in their living room on one occasion, and another time, a young girl who wouldn’t stop crying. My mom asked why she was upset and she replied that it was because she had to leave this realm and she didn’t know where she was going.

My eldest sister remembers looking on in fear as mom consulted spirits by laying out some kind of cloth with writing on it, and seeing the divining saucer move by itself and land on the answers as she asked questions. I’ve never seen it myself, but it sounds like some kind of Chinese Ouija Board.

Then there was the day the principal at Choong Fee’s school had to summon my parents to school to tell them their young son was in his office, so terrified he had refused to go home. The reason?

He’d had a premonition that he was going to die young. After that incident, it was well-known that Choong Fee lived his life with a death fixation, seeking out fortune tellers and trying to get in contact with the other side, like my mom before him.

I don’t know about my siblings since I’ve generally lived my life quite apart from any of them, but I too have a death fixation. I guess it started with my mom’s passing. To have to spend 3 nights at the foot of her coffin in the funeral parlor and to be instructed to tell my mom to ‘cross the bridge’ if I saw her ghost would make an indelible mark on any six-year-old, I guess.

I remember my older sister recounting a vivid dream she had not so long after my mom’s death, about mom sitting at the foot of her bed and telling her she was very cold where she was. Not to mention my own morbid dreams about mom that continue to pop up every now and then.

When I was a teenager newly arrived in this country, a friend, whose dad was a renowned fortune teller, gave her a chart with my life path drawn out – completely unsolicited.

Despite my dread and trepidation, my curiosity got the better of me and I let her explain its meaning. It highlighted 3 years in which my life would be threatened; if I made it through each of those years, my life would continue unharmed until the next date on the chart.

Two of the three years have come and gone, and his forecasts have been seemingly accurate both times (I was the victim of a violent robbery one of those years, and I was in an accident the other – I think). The third year is yet to come.

Because of this kind of history, I’ve never been of the ‘all psychics are fake’ or ‘there’s no such thing as ghosts’ schools of thought, but rather that there is something out there, even if their origins and nature are unexplained.

The strident church teaching I was raised with, that frowned on any dabbling with spirit communication, meant that my fascination with the after-life was limited to watching scary movies and, when the genre took hold, paranormal reality TV shows.

At my first Australian school camp, I even tried to get exemption from a compulsory yoga class on account of my religious beliefs.

For the best part of my life, I saw people who consulted fortune tellers as weak-minded individuals who were susceptible to fraud, and held them with equal measures, I guess, of derision and pity.

That was, until late last year.

(to be continued)

Runaway

Having run away from home, I headed to M’s house – I’d been there a few times prior, but it was quite a long way from the centre of town, which worked for me, since no one would ever think to find me there.  Turning up at her doorstep with my worldly belongings, I pretty much invited myself to live with her, and she welcomed me with no questions asked.   In comparison to my world, she lived a rarefied existence.  The house was palatial, and seemed almost too quiet due to its size and the fact that it was just her, her parents, her brother who was rarely home, and her grandmother.

She had her own bedroom with its own big wardrobe and even an ensuite with a modern toilet – unheard of back in those days – considering back in the Templer Flats days I’d grown up in a family of 10 sharing the one toilet, this was luxury beyond belief.

I’m not sure what her parents thought when I didn’t leave to go home that night, or the night after that, or the night after that – they were just too polite to say anything, and never at any stage did they make me feel like I’d outstayed my welcome.  I guess at that age and at that stage in my life nothing was ever thought through that carefully, but I spent the next couple of weeks living in blissful oblivion with M, gossiping like the teenage girls we were.  It was the holidays, so I wasn’t being missed at school or anything like that.

M’s grandmother did the cooking in the household, and she made the most incredible food.  I’d always been partial to Malay food, and I felt like I’d died and gone to food heaven living with M.  Somehow, even the simplest dishes tasted just divine.

I went to the bank where my stepmom had banked the money I had squirreled away all those years ago, and withdrew it all – something in the vicinity of RM1000.  Then we went to KL on a shopping spree.  I’d always thought M had the most beautiful clothes that were super-sophisticated and graceful – my wardrobe on the other hand, consisted of the typical teenage fashion of its day ie. knickerbockers, pedal pushers and shorts etc.

So we went to Sungei Wang Plaza – the biggest mall in KL at the time, and checked out local designer clothing, and I came away with several fairly expensive outfits.  We also checked out the cosmetic counters at this department store – I was ignored by most of the salesgirls who treated me with some degree of disdain, until I came to the Mary Quant counter, managed by a middle-aged woman.  She was extremely attentive and kind, and I ended up spending some RM250 on makeup through her, partly as an up-yours to the other salesgirls.  I think I made this woman’s day – she couldn’t stop smiling at the end of it, whilst the other girls looked on in envy.

After some two weeks, M’s mom finally sat me down.  She reminded me that I was welcome to stay with them as long as I liked, but was concerned about my family missing me.  And one thing she told me, that has remained with me to this day, was that she could see something special in me – that I had great potential.  It blew my mind – my whole life, as a middle child in a large family, where I sometimes wondered if I was adopted due to the lack of affection from my father – I had never had anyone tell me anything to that effect.

Then one day, my family finally tracked me down.  One of my eldest brother’s friends, Bernard, had been recruited to help find me.  He had contacted the school for a list of my classmates and progressively tried to get information from them.  The only people who knew were Fatin, Norsham and M.  Norsham was the one who finally broke (she was very apologetic to me about it later) – Bernard told her that they had exhausted all options and if she didn’t tell, they were going to report me missing to the police.  It would mean that I would get arrested if the cops recognized me in the streets, so Norsham told them.

My parents rang me at M’s house and tried to convince me to come home.  I really didn’t want to.  I had my long-distance Penang boyfriend I was hoping to visit at some point in my future.  They promised me I could go visit him if I came home.  I realised it really wasn’t feasible for me to keep squatting at M’s indefinitely, so I finally relented.  I remember the night my parents came to fetch me at M’s house.  They came in their car bearing a gift for M’s parents – a big shopping bag of oranges (very Chinese) which promptly broke as they got out of the car, so the oranges scattered all over the ground and we all comically ran around picking them up.

The handover complete, I finally went home.  I was told my brother who broke the door down got in big trouble with my dad for causing me to run away.  My dad was nicer to me than I could ever remember, which touched me deeply, though I had the dreadful feeling it wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.

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Don Quixote

Of all the kids, I was closest to my stepmom growing up, and when I was about 13, she started to loosen the reins by granting me more freedom to take part in extra-curricular activities.  Maybe she thought I deserved to have a bit of life outside of The Odeon – she even told me I didn’t have to work the afternoon shift at the canteen if I had after-school activities on.

So I took advantage of that by signing up for a bunch of school clubs – including the Literary, Debating and Drama Society, basketball and most significantly, the school choir.

She also let me hang out with friends on Saturday mornings as long as I made it to work at the canteen before the first movie session started.

With my new-found freedom, even though we’d since moved to a house in Temiang, I spent a couple of hours every Saturday morning at the Templer Flats with friends from school who happened to live there and in that general vicinity.

We were at the age when we were just discovering boys, and I started documenting our teenage crushes in a personal diary.  They were basically swoons over crossing paths with some cute boy or spying some dreamboat at the shops or trying to figure out who the mystery guy was who sent me a note etc. – pretty lame and innocent teenage stuff.

During the week, I had choir practice; persuaded by one of my best friends, Norfatin, to audition to join, we had both managed to secure spots in the group – a high honour, since the Convent choir was one of the best in the State, and possibly the country.

We trained hard for competitions, led by excellent teachers and song leaders, and through a lot of blood, sweat and tears, we bonded into a tight-knit group – that was also how I met one of my other best friends, Mona – an exquisitely beautiful girl in the year above us.

She was practically royalty among her peers thanks in part to her stunning good looks and, I guessed, to her genealogy (her family were descendants of the Islamic prophet Mohammed).

When we were in Form Three, our team, along with all the best school choirs in the country, converged on the campus of Universiti Malaya for about 5 days of practice, culminating in a TV broadcast of our singing.

Despite having chaperones and curfews, we still managed to have a ton of fun; the three of us called ourselves some goofy names including The Fantastics and Charlie’s Angels.

And we made friends with members of other choir teams, notably a group from KL, and the mostly-male choir team of Penang Free School (PFS).   I loved PFS’s dramatic rendition of ‘I, Don Quixote’ from the musical The Man of La Mancha – I still remember most of the lyrics – (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYXpnFm1YRQ&feature=related ).

It didn’t take long before Mona acquired an ardent admirer, a Chinese boy from PFS – a bit dorky looking, with soulful, melancholic eyes – he wrote her some incredibly flowery poems that sounded so profound and well-written I was convinced they were plagiarized.

I think he even composed a song and serenaded her with his guitar.  One of his best friends was this other guy, Alex, who was an accomplished athlete at the national level – and he was interested in me.  It was a dizzying five days, and at the end of it, he had stolen a kiss from me, so, at 15, I had my first ‘boyfriend’.  All this I recorded faithfully in my diary.

I was brought back down to reality when we returned to Seremban.  Sometime after the trip, one of my brothers, recently returned from his overseas studies, discovered my diary and read it.  He hit the roof, and told my stepmom the contents – ie. that it mentioned boys.

I was in my bedroom at night and he banged on the door, demanding I let him in.  When I refused, he broke down the door and tried to force himself in, whilst I pushed back on the other side.  I was terrified.  Things settled down at some point, and I was allowed to go to bed.

I stayed up all night and pondered what was going to happen to me from now on.  I had evidently betrayed my stepmom’s faith in me – I had used my newfound freedom to develop an interest in the opposite sex.

I didn’t know what kind of punishment was in store for me the next day, and what constraints were going to be placed on me from then on.  I couldn’t fathom what it would be like facing the combined wrath of my dad and my brother. I felt I had only one option left – so, at 4am, I packed a bag and sneaked out of our house  – I was officially a runaway.

Choir trip at Universiti Malaya campus
1982 Choir trip – at the Universiti Malaya campus

Bob Is Sexy

‘Oi, tukar, tukar!’ (Oi, change! Change!) yelled the Odeon cinema usher as he banged on the counter at my Dad’s canteen.  He needed some change for whatever reason, and forgot to say please.  I was furious; I’d had enough of his BS.

At 15, I’d had a personality transplant; from a mild, soft-spoken and obedient kid, I’d turned into a  take-no-prisoners Hakka warrior overnight.

I was ready to pick a fight with anyone, anywhere, and thanks to spending most of my time working at the Odeon, it generally meant the hodge-podge group of cinema ushers recruited, I was sure, based on their talent to piss me off.

I’d had an uneasy relationship with the cinema staff almost from Day One.  I remember early on at the ripe old age of eight, taking an instant dislike to one of the guys there – he seemed a bit too friendly and it gave me bad vibes.

One day I spotted some graffiti on one of the posters on the outside wall next to our canteen – it looked like something one of the other ushers had scribbled for a laugh. It mentioned a name, which I forget, but let’s say – Bob – and the message said –

‘Bob is sexy’.

I was disgusted and horrified at the same time – at that young age, having only started to learn English at school, I was convinced it wasn’t a good thing.  After all, ‘sexy’ came from the word ‘sex’ – and ‘sex’ was ‘bad’ – therefore, whoever ‘Bob’ was, must be some sort of sexual deviant.

So I asked one of the ushers – ‘Who’s this Bob? Is it him?’, pointing at bad-vibes boy.  He laughed and said yes.

That did it for me.  It confirmed all my suspicions about ‘Bob’.  I made it a point to be blunt and rude to him, and made sure he couldn’t get anywhere near me.

I even took pains to explain it to my younger sister and warn her about him.  It wasn’t until years later that I found out he wasn’t ‘Bob’ at all – it was actually the guy I’d asked the question to – so, not only had I maligned someone due to my lack of English comprehension, I’d done it to the wrong person.

I wonder if he ever puzzled over why I was so hostile towards him all those years.

One of the veteran staff there was nicknamed ‘Bengali’ by everyone – I never knew why – he was Chinese and bald and didn’t have any Indian blood in him as far as I could tell.  He even lived onsite, in a little storeroom upstairs plastered with old movie posters.

He was fond of me to the point of obsession, for some inexplicable reason.  Every time he saw me, he would sing out my name loudly – ‘Nyok! Nyoooook! Ah Nyooook’ – and just keep doing so all hours of the day.  I was pretty sure he was a bit crazy.

He would sit on the 6-inch ledge in front of our canteen during his breaks, enjoying his cigarettes . Every now and then, he would sneak me a movie poster pulled down from the billboards.

This was highly illegal, since they were meant to be shipped back to the film distributors at the end of the movie run.  I’ve often wondered what happened to him after we moved to Australia.

Back to Mr. forgot-to-say-please for his change, he was at the top of my list of ushers I despised.  I’d had a few verbal altercations with him in the past.  This time though, I felt he’d gone too far.

Thanks, I guess, to my family’s survival instinct to avoid having our canteen lease terminated (a constant implied threat by what I saw as the tyrannical management) I never witnessed anyone else confront him about his behaviour.  I had no such compunction about doing so.

‘Mahu tukar (Want change)?’  Here’s your bloody change, I thought – and I flung the coins hard on the stainless steel counter.  As predicted, they went flying everywhere – some hitting him on the face and others bouncing on to the floor.  He totally lost it.

He tried to grab me over the counter, and failing that, dashed around it to enter our canteen, procuring a sharp knife on his way (on top of candy and drinks, we used to sell cut fruit, hence the presence of knives).  He pinned me against the wall and held the knife to my neck, completely out of control.

I groped around for something to fight back with, but the only thing within reach was a sad little bottle opener suspended on a string.  I clutched it and held it against his neck in return – resulting in a knife vs bottle opener standoff, if you can picture it.

Everyone was freaking out (except me – I was all in despite my obviously inferior weapon).

It ended when he got dragged away by some of the bystanders.

Invariably, the General Manager heard about the commotion and summoned my poor stepmom into his office for what I presumed would be a dressing down plus more threats about kicking us out.

Apparently all he told her was to let us know not to fight with his staff.

Or maybe that’s just what my stepmom told me in case I decided to go all Hakka warrior on the GM as well.

This particular usher never bothered me again after that incident.

My younger sister at the Odeon canteen

The Odeon

Throughout my time working at the Odeon, I had at best a love-hate relationship with it.  It wasn’t always that way.  When I was younger, I stayed at home whilst all my older brothers and sisters were out all day and night working.  I wanted to join them, but thanks to my position in the family – 8th in a family of 9 kids – they didn’t really need me to work at that stage.

Before the Odeon, my dad used to be a street vendor – I’ve heard the story about my eldest sister working as a young kid, squatting over a tub of dirty dishes and accidentally dipping her hair into the dishwater as she kept nodding off whilst washing them.  My older siblings had it much tougher back in those days.

Every once in a blue moon at the Odeon, they would play a movie with an extended running time – eg. blockbusters like Ben Hur, Oliver! and The Longest Day.  This was especially exciting because they would have an intermission during which time the audience would come out to stretch their legs in the lobby.

And my dad would put out some trestle tables and arrange to have hot coffee and tea as well as yummy curry puffs to sell.

At one of those screenings, my dad finally decided he could use my help, so I was allowed to come along.  My parents  asked if I had any homework to complete for school the following day – I was in Std 2 (ie. second grade) – ‘Nope’ – I replied truthfully.

I didn’t tell them that I did, however, have exams starting the next day in case they changed their mind.  There was a ton of coffee cups and saucers to wash up afterwards, but it was fun.

After that, I started working there every day, and was put in charge of the ice cream stand.  My younger sister decided, at 5, that she’d rather tag along than stay at home, so that’s how the two of us got started with full-time employment.

We learned to scoop ice cream into wafer cones, and to order stock etc.  It didn’t take me long to encounter rude customers.  I learned to shortchange them with scoops of ice cream that looked round and full but actually consisted of a great big air pocket in the middle.

Then I discovered my dad was a tyrant to work for.  Nothing was ever good enough for him – because of his various other business ventures, he wasn’t around fulltime, but he would drop in every day.

We were always tense when he arrived – there was always some stock we forgot to refill, a soft drink bottle on display that didn’t have the label facing squarely to the front, or a spot we missed in our cleaning efforts.   And he was brutal in his admonitions.

As my older brothers and sisters left to continue their studies overseas, the ones left running the canteen were my stepmom, my older sister, my younger sister and myself.  Jessica was always his favourite – she was a natural sweet-talker; my younger sister was the baby of the family and super-cute, and caught some breaks on that basis.

I, on the other hand, felt that I bore the brunt of the verbal abuse meted out by my dad.  One time, as a young teenager, I showed up for work in a pair of shorts, which he thought was inappropriate.  He told me if he caught me in them again, he would break my legs, and happily spend a few years in jail in the knowledge that I would spend the rest of my life a cripple – that’s how dysfunctional we were.  There was a lot of pent-up hatred in me.

One of the things we had to do before they banned glass bottles inside the movie theatre, was to go around collecting empty soft drink bottles in-between sessions, and carry them out in wooden crates.

One time, I grabbed a bottle in the dark without realising it was broken, and managed to gash my hand pretty badly.  As I walked out to get my hand fixed up, a cinema patron said to his companion disapprovingly – ‘Kids these days will do anything for money!’  I wanted to yell at him that I wasn’t in fact getting paid – we never even officially got pocket money.

I noticed early on that instead, my older siblings would help themselves to the money at the canteen for their spending needs.  I started doing the same, and took it to a whole new level, to, as I saw it, make up for the treatment I was getting from my dad.  I finally got caught out by my stepmom, who took all the money away, but banked it all in an account in my name even though I didn’t deserve to keep it.

As I got further along at school, I realised most of my circle of friends were from better backgrounds economically, and I became ashamed about having to work.

When I spotted someone from school catching a movie at the Odeon, I would crouch down underneath the candy counter until they were out of sight.

Then, as I grew older, I began to appreciate some of the benefits of working there.  First off, we got to see all the movies we wanted, for free.  Back in those days, The Odeon was the most popular cinema in town, and all the best movies were screened there.  The cinema across the road primarily showed Chinese movies; I was grateful that wasn’t the case with The Odeon.

When big movies like Alien and Star Wars premiered in Seremban, people would wait outside the cinema before it opened so they could get in line before the sessions sold out – the fact that I could procure hard-to-get tickets enhanced my standing among my friends.

Also, I guess in hindsight, in an era before mass TV channels and the internet, the opportunity to view English-language movies over and over again probably helped prepare me for aural comprehension of the language in a variety of accents when I was to relocate overseas years later.

Odeon Cinema lobby

Odeon Cinema exterior