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)


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.


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 – ( ).

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



‘Hi, this is Jackie, can i speak with Joanna please?’ ‘Hi, this is Dior.  My name is no longer Joanna.  Can you call me Dior from now on?’

Joanna, aka Dior, had been a friend of a friend from Hong Kong who had offered me a break in waitressing.  I figured she must have become a fan of Christian Dior since I last spoke with her a week or so before.  It’s not uncommon for the Overseas Chinese to adopt western names.  But these honkies as I call them (yes, I know honky is meant to refer to whites) take this whole name thing to a crazy level, I thought.

And it’s not just me – just Google it and see for yourself – some first names taken from HK publications and business cards include – Lancelot, Wanky, Hitler, Churchill, Superman, Morpheus, Nausea, Raccoon, Oreo, Alien,  Princeton and my personal favourite, Chlorine.

My own adoption of a Christian name came about when I was about 12 years old.  I’d had to live with an oft-mispronounced/mis-spelled Chinese name my whole life.  It didn’t help that in a dominantly Cantonese sub-culture, most girls with my name (Min Nyok) had it spelled the Cantonese way, ie. Ming Yoke.  My teachers often struggled with it as well; calling me variously Min York or better still, Min Yuck.  From there, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to come up with one of my nicknames – ‘Minyak’ (Malay for ‘oil’).  Thanks to my chunkiness as a kid, my stepmom sometimes teased me with ‘Choo Nyok’, ie. ‘Pork’ in Hakka – ironic since I’ve always hated pork.

My older sister had just settled on her own Christian name after a couple of false starts, so I asked her for suggestions.  We’d been attending church for awhile and she came up with something appropriately pious – ‘How about Grace?’ – she said – as in, by the grace of God.  I considered it at length – it sounded relevant, and it wasn’t as if I’d been exposed to too many Western names at that stage.  In the end, I decided against it – it just wasn’t ‘me’.

I was a voracious reader of magazines at that age, and my favourite was a UK publication aimed at teenage girls, called ‘Jackie’.  I used to buy every issue religiously and would chase up my Indian newsagent when it was late arriving at the newsstand.  I even ordered back issues from years prior, which he would bundle up in cling wrap and save for me.  All the way from England.

So, I thought, well, Jackie – why not?  I was worried my school teachers wouldn’t acknowledge it since it wasn’t listed on my birth certificate, but funnily enough, they were all too happy to adopt it – I think they were frankly relieved not to have to struggle with my Chinese name any longer.

And so it came to be, that I became Jackie Tang (and not, by the grace of God, Grace Tang).  One of my friends told me once that her older sister had seen me at the newsstand – and she quoted her saying in amusement – ‘I saw Jackie reading Jackie the other day’ – if only she knew, I thought.

I was well and truly Jackie and not Nyok by that age.

I was well and truly Jackie and not Nyok by that age.


One of the most disturbing memories of living at the Templer Flats was the suicides.  The twin towers were easily the tallest buildings in Seremban, and the obvious choice for those wanting to end their lives by leaping off a tall structure.

We all knew what it sounded like – the sickening thud that signalled the end of another life.  I recently saw a headline which mentioned a woman killing herself by jumping off a building in front of her young son – it had taken place in Seremban, and further research confirmed my suspicion that it was at the Templer Flats – I guess after all these years some things haven’t changed.

My older brother, a devout Christian, was convinced some of these suicides were caused by demonic possession.  One time, there was this lady roaming the floors of our block, muttering to herself, and looking crazed.

She bumped into my brother, gave him a look and cursed in disgust – ‘Christian!’ – then went on her way.  A few minutes later, she wandered up to the top floor and leaped to her death.  He couldn’t figure out how she would’ve known he was a Christian without ever having met her before, hence his theory.

Not all the suicides were from jumping off the towers.  I had a playmate on my floor, who had moved in after my family.  She was one of four or five young kids in her family.

I remember not seeing her for a few days, then finding out the news.  It was in the papers.  Her mom had tied herself and her kids together with ropes and leaped into a river.   They’d all drowned. Apparently, her dad had been cheating on her mom, and she had found out.

I couldn’t imagine the horror my friend and her siblings must have gone through.

Fast forward to my teenage years, and one of the publications I used to read was a weekly local paper that specialized in tabloid/paranormal stuff.  It had a readers’ submission section where you got paid if you sent in jokes and poetry etc. that got published.

I started out writing rhyming poetry, which followed all the rules regarding stanzas, alliteration, rhymes and what-not.  They all got rejected.

Then I started writing random prose that broke all the rules and had no rhyme or rhythm and very emo in tone – I thought they were rubbish, but the editors loved them and they all got published.

I started getting RM$5 cheques in the mail, which I was proud of, so I wrote quite regularly.

One day, I sat down at home at about 9am and started to write a new poem.  I’d been feeling pretty crappy about some friendships at school – the usual teen angst stuff which I was sure, based on their track record, the editors would lap up.

I was struggling with writer’s block and over the course of a couple of hours, the poem evolved into one that involved a woman standing near water, looking at it contemplatively, then jumping to her death.

It implied that it had been because of betrayal by her husband.  And she’d taken a life with her – their baby’s.  When I looked at the clock, I realized I’d spent over 3 hours writing.

About that time, my dad came home and announced it – one of our relatives by marriage had just killed herself.  She’d drowned herself in an old mining lake and taken her toddler son with her.

The suspicion was that her playboy husband had been cheating on her.  I asked what time it had happened.  About 11am, I was told.  That was the same time my poem had taken a turn in subject matter.

I sent the poem off and it did get published.  That was the last time I submitted my work to the paper, and the last time I wrote poetry.

Templer Flats, Seremban


It didn’t take long for me to feel like an outcast at my new school.  The first time I contributed to a class discussion, on my first or second day, I made the mistake of standing up when answering a question posed by the teacher.

As you did, if you were in a Malaysian classroom.  But such traditions were foreign at Fairvale, and presumably at every other school in this new country.

Darren was next to be asked a question.  Mimicking me, he slowly stood up and made a big show of pushing his chair back with his legs as he did so.  The sound of the chair legs dragging across the floor had the whole class in laughter.

Then the rest of the boys did the same for the rest of the lesson.  Even the teacher tried to stifle a laugh.  I wished the ground would open up and swallow me up.  I sat at the back of the class after that, laying low and keeping my trap shut in case I embarrassed myself again.

I noticed the students showed no respect for the teachers.  I remember the corporal punishment meted out by our primary school headmistress back at the Convent each time we got our report cards back.

It wasn’t a question of whether we would get whipped, it was a question of how many lashes we would get – and we were in the A class, so we were no slouches at our studies either.

I remember an incident when Miss Lee in 5th Grade was marking my English homework. She summoned me to her desk,  yelled at me and then instead of giving my exercise book back, she threw it halfway across the room.

All because at eleven years of age, I got “it’s and its” mixed up.  I had to take a walk of shame across the front of the classroom to pick my book up from the floor.

I sometimes wish some Australian journalists had had Miss Lee as their English teacher back in school.

I never witnessed this combination of fear and respect among the students at Fairvale.  Nothing seemed to work to get them to behave, whether the grumpiness of the History teacher – about whom the boys joked relentlessly about being a closet homosexual, or the kindliness of the Chemistry teacher, whom they treated like a doormat by loudly engaging in personal conversations while he tried to teach.

Then there was the Extension Maths teacher, who walked into class each day and wrote down on the board what exercises we were to do from the textbook for the day, then sat down at her desk to do her own thing – no teaching or class instruction provided  – and we would have to approach her individually if we got stuck on a problem.

Not a bad gig she had going there when all she had to do each lesson was scribble a few letters on the board, I thought.

Most students didn’t even bother asking her any questions – usually they’d just hit up the contingent of Indochinese guys for help – they were damned good at Maths.

The one that took the cake was my Extension English teacher,  a newbie on her first assignment who saw herself as ‘one of the guys’ by partying with the male students.

She auditioned to appear on  a TV game show once, and got the gig – Perfect Match – where she had to ask 3 questions each of 3 guys behind a screen, then pick her ‘perfect’ guy, sight unseen, from their answers.

The winner got to spend a weekend holidaying with her in Queensland, where the cameras followed their romantic exploits.  They then had to report on how hot and heavy things got (or not) on a later show.

That a teacher would engage in that kind of behaviour seemed unbelievable to me.  I’d nearly lost my prefect’s badge at the Convent when I was spotted once holding hands with my boyfriend in town after school, while still in school uniform.

They shut down lessons for the entire school for a couple of hours the next day while the teachers convened an emergency meeting to decide whether to strip me of my prefect’s badge – that’s how serious it was. Clearly I was no model student back in my day, but I can’t even imagine what they would have done at the Convent had one of the teachers gone on a TV dating show.

If I had started out miserable, I was getting more so every day.  I even started to envy the Indochinese guys – they might not speak much English, but they commanded a grudging respect for their Maths skills even from the most obnoxiously racially intolerant students.  And they were in a group, and always hung out together.  I was alone and isolated.

I started staying home from school and wrote my own sick notes for ‘chronic sinusitis’ – a fancy name for my hayfever (hoping my teachers didn’t know that was all it was) .  My parents couldn’t read or write English anyhow – and they were busy with their own long days at $5/hour factory jobs.

I even signed them myself, though in Chinese, to give the impression that they were signed by a parent. Technically I didn’t lie because the notes never mentioned either parent as the author or signee.  And I never got called on it – I don’t think the teachers or the school cared enough to get involved.

By the end of my time at Fairvale, I had missed at least 35% of my school days, compared to an average of one day a year at the Convent.  And the idea that I would sail through Years 11 and 12 because of the advantage of re-learning all the stuff from the Convent went out the window with that.

School in Malaysia

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.


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?’


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