FOUR UNCLES AND THREE AUNTS
Life-History Interviews with Malaysian Chinese Seniors
By Hugh M. Lewis
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Copyright © 2000 by Hugh M. Lewis
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Table of Contents
Sixty-two year old uncle
Sixty-five year old auntie
Sixty-four year old uncle
Auntie in her late seventies
Eighty-four year old uncle
Sixty-six year old auntie
Sixty-one year old uncle
What follows are several life history interviews told verbatim by elderly
Chinese of Penang. They portray a sense of Penang's modern history. The prewar
days of the British colony were distant and unclear--food was cheap and their
parents were strict and poor.
Clearly the most outstanding day in all of their lives is the first day
that the Japanese had bombed Penang. That day marked the end of their world as
they knew it, and the beginning of a new one. The importance and impact of
this one day, and of the larger historical events working then in the
background, cannot be overemphasized.
There was an important difference between the interviews with the men and
those with the women, in terms of the quality and breadth of experience. The
women seemed bound into a domestic world. Such differences between men and
women emerged in other studies upon the Jetty. The length of the finished
interview varied directly with the amount of worldly experiences that the
subject had in the course of his or her lifetime.
These are a few voices from among the large silent underclass of their
time. There were few outstanding achievements in their lives. They were not
heroes or towkays or successful college graduates. They lived humble lives
with dignity and a sense of devotion that I believe in the long run transcends
Sixty-two year old uncle
How old are you and where were you born?
Chinese, 63, English 62, born in the year of 1932. I was born on this road.
At Lam Wah Eh hospital--Lam Wah Gee Keh. It is just there (pointing). There is
still a Chinese doctor practicing there. I live on Kuala Kangsar Rd. now. This
is a hospital. All Chinese are born there.
Two girls were given away--put up for adoption. One brother and one sister
and a younger sister. My father was not very responsible. He made roasted pig.
He smoked opium. He just smokes. He didn't take care of the family. My mother
was a vegetable seller. One with two baskets and a pole. I was a breast fed
baby. My mother took me everywhere. She carried me piggy back in a backpack.
This was the beginning.
What were your earliest memories of Penang?
I am going to start at seven or eight-years-old when I went to school. I
remember when I went to school. All my relatives sold meat at Kuala Kangsar
road. My mother sold vegetables there. I grew up there. My school was at
Chulia Street. "Ong Fox Sui Yeng." That's the name of the school.
Then later it changed to "Seong Moo." Now the school is not there
but the building is. It is like a club now. They have all the plaques on the
wall now from a very long time ago.
I didn't like to go to school at all. It was so close but I took ten
minutes to go to school. I'm intelligent, but I didn't like to go to school.
My two brothers went as well. My mother never gave money for school and we
went to our relatives at the market and asked for money. They usually gave two
cents each. My mother had a lot of responsibilities. Money just for food. For
snacks. With one cent you could buy a lot, coffee and noodles but not candy. I
had no interest at all in school. After three to four months, I didn't go to
school. I'm not sure about the time. My mother's friend asked her "why
you didn't send him to school." So my mother took me to stay with two
other children and we went to school together. Then I changed to the school at
Si Tiam at Love Lane. It was also a Chinese school. My mother moved to
Jelutong. She couldn't make a living selling vegetables. She rented a house
and started selling curry mee at a stall. That's why I lived with a friend and
went to school in town. That's about 1940, when I was eight or nine years old.
What do you remember about the first school you didn't like to go to?
That was probably the reason that my mother moved up to Jelutong. It was a
Chinese school. Yes. We learned reading and writing all in Mandarin.
If the kid's were naughty did they punish them.
Hit the palm. Sometimes the cane. When I was at the school at Chulia Street
the teacher beat me with a cane. The teacher gives recitation. I couldn't do
it, memorize it, so the teacher beat me.
Did you recite in mass as a group?
At first everyone together, the next day alone. If you read O.K. the next
day O.K. If you don't, you get it. The teacher teaches you the first day. The
next day you do it on your own. I had time for my homework. This time my
mother was selling noodles, not vegetables. Father was irresponsible, he never
took care of us, that's why we had such a hard life.
Did you see your father much?
No. If we didn't go to visit him we never saw him. He lived where he
My mother would come down once a week to visit us and take us out to see
Cantonese Opera. She liked to see Cantonese Opera so she would take us to see
it. It was where the Hin bus company was at one time along Prangin Road. It
used to be a Chinese Opera before it became a bus company. Saturday night she
would come down and she would take us to see the opera. There was only me.
Only one that stayed with the friends. My brother helped the mother sell the
noodles. I had two years of schooling. My brother had none.
I was number three. One sister, one brother, then me. I went to school for
two years and then the Japanese came. Yes, I was pretty good at my studies. I
was getting first to fourth position, then I had to stop. When the Japanese
came I stopped to help the mother sell things. I helped sell char koay teow.
I wasn't in school anymore. Because of the Japanese. They closed all the
schools. There weren't any schools any more. They closed all the Chinese
schools. They had a Japanese school, but I didn't go.
What do you remember about the Japanese?
They had curfew. I was in Jelutong at the time. The Japanese wanted to come
to arrest bad guys--the anti-Japanese movement, crooks, gangsters. I remember.
I saw a guy all covered, only the eyes shown. If he saw a person and nodded
his head, the Japanese would take that person away.
They did this once in a while, and then they would go to a different place
to do it. It's only the word of a person in the mask. They have no proof. They
beat the people, then put them in prison. When I lived in Jelutong, the lady I
lived with had two sons. They took them away. I called them brother. Nobody
knows what happened to them. Probably the Japanese killed them. If you're
lucky they let you go.
The people that disappeared, did they afterward find bodies?
No, I guess they took them all to Rifle Range and killed them there.
Thousands of people in a mass grave. It was common knowledge. No one has ever
excavated there. Now they have made that into a graveyard. I don't think
they'd find any remains anymore. It's been many years. I'm positive that they
are all dead. People have cheated. They are confidence tricksters. There are
no records. Nothing. I am being honest to say there were no thieves at that
time. If you steal a bicycle you get your head chopped off by him. His name
Did you see it?
I never personally saw it but afterwards the heads were put on display at
the Police Station. Only one head. They purposefully put it out so nobody
would steal anymore.
During the last few years of the war, people would be inducted to work on
the death railroad. A lot of people died in Thailand. They all died because of
the lack of medication, no food.
If you worked for the Japanese then you didn't have to go. They all went to
Burma. They didn't know the Japanese were losing so they were building a
railroad to India. About sixty percent would come back.
Did you know people who went and came back?
No, if they did go they are all in their eighties now. I recently read
somewhere in the papers that they were asking compensation money from the
Japanese. It's just the same as the emergency when British came in and killed
a lot of people. They rounded them up and massacred suspected individuals.
During the war my mother also sold rice. After I stopped helping my mother
I went over to Butterworth to work for the Japs. With my friends. They had a
Japanese boat. A PBC boat the Japanese were in charge of. A life boat. A fire
boat, we sat on a fireboat. A fleet of fireboats to take people across.
Sometimes they had bigger boats.
I did wood work over in Butterworth. It was easy. I was given a chopper and
ax and asked to chop wood. They made boats. We cut up the boards for them.
They plug up the holes.
They were big tonkans--big huge wooden boats. They carry a lot of people.
This was in 1942, around that time. 1941-2. I only worked for a while and then
I stopped. I took things. I went to Butterworth and got dried shrimp, and
nonperishables and brought them to Penang to sell. We put it in little piles.
They didn't weigh it.
Did you do this under the nose of the Japanese?
They had Japanese that checked, so we knew the Japanese would check and
then tax you, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Yes, that was the
black market. It was very profitable.
I was just a boy. Just for a while, and then I went back to work for
Japanese on the Island itself. It was a Japanese factory. I worked for the
Japanese for the ration cards--cigarettes, money. These things were not black
market. If you don't work for them, you don't get Japanese food.
What would you do with the food you got from the Japanese?
It was for my mother. My mother came back to Kuala Kangsar from Jelutong to
sell curry mee also. We still had a lot of things. When the Japanese were
here, we could still get a lot of things, it was not very hard. We could still
get food during the Japanese time and had lots of opera shows, concerts and
everything. I would sit and watch the concert and they would give you tea to
drink. They had that on Prangin Road, and an amusement park at New World Park.
Everything was cheap then, things that you ate was also very cheap. Better
then than now. Cantonese opera and concerts.
So you liked the Japanese occupation?
I was glad too. Everything was cheap and there were two cinemas that were
open to the Public. They were free. The Odeon. All Japanese movies.
Propaganda. If you wanted Chinese movies you had to go to the other theater.
I sold black market tickets also. I had a group of friends. Each would sit
on each other's shoulders. They bend over to first place (in line) to buy
tickets in order to sell to patrons. Just to get money for movies ourselves.
These weren't the Japanese propaganda movies. We could still see Chinese
movies. Not Cantonese, but Mandarin. Lili Hua movies. They were all good
You went to work in a Japanese factory?
After work I came down to see the movies. At this time we had the black
out. No bright lights. Only dim lights. I did welding. We were making
bombs--explosives. It was like an arrow. Welded the base on. About a foot
long. Less than a foot. Very small.
I did this until the Japanese surrendered. This was at the tail end of the
war. When the Japanese surrendered they gave all the workers rice, food,
cloth, sugar. They used ashes to make soap. I never made it before but they
made it. They used the durian skin to make it. They dry it and burn it and use
ashes to make the soap. So I still have to keep on working after that. I was
in my teens when the Japanese surrendered.
It was the Japanese who gave you things when you surrendered?
Yes. It was the Japanese. Already they surrendered. Already they had extra
stock so they just gave it to the workers. It's now 1945. They surrendered in
How much did the Japanese pay you when you worked in the factory?
Very low wages. Very little. We didn't work for the salary, just for the
ration cards and rice and all that.
It's 1945 and the British came back. Then I would buy cigarettes from the
British soldiers and sell them in front of the Cathay (movie house). It was
just hawking. Small business but very good profits. If you get eight dollars
at that time its good already.
The British were on the boats. They send Sampans out to the boats and
exchange bananas and fruits for the cigarettes. We used fruits to bargain
with. Even broken down old pens. We'd repair them and take them to the ship
and exchange them. We'd go to this place like a big bazaar and sell things and
buy a bunch of broken down old pens. We'd watch the repair man fix them, then
learn how to repair them ourselves and do it. We used fountain pens missing
the nib or rubber. One pen for one tin of cigarettes.
Just two things, pens and bananas. My friend used watches but I didn't know
how to repair them, just pens. They all liked pens.
After a while, they didn't send troops any more so I started in the
gambling business. On Kuala Kangsar Rd. At one time, that was San Pan Tai Sai.
They use a bowl and a die--1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. I'm like the croupier, Pai
Sai--big and small; 3-10 is small, 11-18 is big. Did this on a side lane at
Kuala Kangsar Rd. It's not there anymore. Now houses. Just by the Sun Cinema.
They don't play it anymore. No, you cannot play it anymore.
Also, the police tried to catch us. When the police came and clamped down,
After the police began clamping down, then what?
I began selling Sunkist oranges in front of the bazaar. Only Sunkist
oranges and apples. I buy it from the wholesaler and then sell it to
individuals. I did it for a half day only. The second half of the day I would
go to waterfall and swim. Near the waterfall it's very cool.
Did you make a good profit?
Yes, very good. Because you get a good profit, then run off to Waterfall. I
was young and didn't think about profits. The bus only went to Pulau Tikos ( a
village outside of Georgetown), so I walked the rest of the way. As a
youngster I didn't care how long it took. As long as I bathed. I was happy go
lucky. Everyday I liked to go see the movies. A lot of amusement parks had
concerts. Concerts with music, bands and singers like across the road but
better than this. No dancing, but they had dancing at City Lights and at the
Merlin. I've never been there. I only liked to listen to songs.
I didn't just sell Sunkist and apples. Sometimes candy. Anything that can
make a profit. If I'm not selling apples and oranges, then I sold the
Hollywood picture cards--Ester Williams, Shirley Temple, Eva Gardner, Betty
Grable, Marla Monte, John Wayne, Alan Ladd. I can still remember all their
names. They would ask me what names they are, and they write them down on the
This was until 1946 only. Then my mother asked me to become an
auto-mechanic. An apprentice. This is a humorous story. I had no interest
there at all. I learned only for one month.
Now it is 1947. My mother asked me to learn at the end of the year. Then I
learned plumbing. I had to dig up earth to lay pipes for buildings. I learned
from somebody. When I did the plumbing I was taught to do different jobs at
the same time. Not for very long. Then painting. House painting. I did that
until 1948. Also plumbing was in 1948. When I started selling the photos it
was after 1948.
At that time I got involved in the gangs. Triads. Wah Ki. A very famous
triad name. A big triad, Hong Kong and everything. Now its called "See
Kang Gnah." I was only in my teens then. The reason was because all the
kinds of jobs, the friends I fraternized with were not a good class. To the
outsider's the triad is an underground. To the members they take care of their
own. They take care of each other. If anything happens to the members, they
will help. If it's a branch in Ipoh, they will help each other. I'm a lifelong
member. I have a chair to sit on. Now I'm older I don't really go in. The
fellow members know me. I still have a chair to sit on.
They helped each other with gang fights. Money sometimes, even rich, rich
people are members. Even government people sometimes join the triads. A lot of
rich people in Ipoh. They don't want to get involved too much.
From 1948 to 1951, I was involved with this. Now start with the Emergency
in 1951. The British were trying to recruit soldiers. So I volunteered my
services. A friend recommended me. He was in already. They worked for the
civil service. They helped me get in. We were supposed to go in and fight with
I was part of a jungle squad. I went into the jungles. The length of time
depended on the area. We were on standby at the police station. Sometimes one
week, sometimes two weeks. They give rations and allowance money for being in
the jungle. If you are on standby you get only a salary.
Did you see a lot of action?
Not much. We didn't meet up very often. When we get information on the
whereabouts, we would go in and set up an ambush. I don't remember how many
times we did this. In the beginning there were twenty people. As the contracts
wore out they just left. At first, most of the squad members were Chinese.
That's when they started bringing in the non-Chinese. There were only 30
people in a battalion so they brought in non-Chinese. I was stationed at
Setapak--called into Cameroon Highlands.
Lieutenant was a Britisher. His name was John Abay. He's not very strict.
An O.K. person. We got on well with the man. There were translators. If we
didn't have information, then we were always on standby. We would only patrol
an area on a map. We must keep within the limits on the map. Only standby in
the camp if we didn't have anything to do.
Most of the communists were Chinese?
Yes, most were Chinese. I didn't think of it that way. They were enemies. I
thought of them as communists. In 1955, I was transferred to Chemoor. Now its
called Chupo. They just changed this a couple of years ago. I was on standby
at Chumoor. After 1955 my term was up. I reenlisted for three more years. We
didn't go on patrol. Only on standby. By this time they had Malays and
Chinese, fewer Chinese.
Did you take part in any ambushes during this time?
Yes. We guarded the police station. Four gates at the police station. Four
road blocks. One to Jelutong. One to Ipoh. One to Kuala Kangsar, and also
patrolled around the area.
Did you ever get shot?
Not me, but my friend did.
When you were on patrol, were you likely to get ambushed?
That's right. We happened to cross each other. We didn't take the same
How long did the Emergency last?
So, 1951-1959 and then I'm back in Penang again. I was in my 20's. I was 27
or 28-years-old. I joined when I was 19. Sometimes, when I had off, I went to
Ipoh. In Ipoh, I was like the King of Ipoh. It was a major city. Our
Kingdom. The hotel has been demolished. They made a supermarket there. One
room cost four dollars a night. All the different squads went to the hotel to
stay. It was for different people. Every time we went to Ipoh, we met there.
All the soldiers in our group liked to go there.
For a while after 1959, I didn't want to work. I got lazy. I didn't want to
do anything. Didn't do anything. Just sat around. After I left the army, I
went back to the gang. I'm always like a life member. Went around the gambling
halls and collected money for the gangs.
I was arrested one time in 1959 as a suspect. There was gang warfare. I got
rounded up on December 1st, 1959. They detained me for 14 days. We had to work
while in prison. I got a salary while in prison. We made wire fence and wound
it. I got out during Christmas. Got released from detention on December 14th,
I didn't work at all. I was still with the secret society, gambling. The
society helped me in terms of cash flow. Also if a parent dies they help pay
the burial expenses. If your mother died, they will help carry the coffin to
the burial site. Everyone carried the coffin in the old days. No work at all.
Until 1964 when my mother died. Before then my mother advised me not to mix
with the members of the Secret Society.
Did you heed her advice?
Yes. She asked me to help my brother sell pork. I helped my brother in the
morning only. Other than that I did odd jobs. Until 1969 I was doing that.
That time my brother moved his stall from the roadside into the market itself.
I did painting, shellac, carpentry, wood work. A little bit of money, not a
lot. But enough. Whatever I got I gambled away. I play mah jong. I still play
it. Yesterday night I played. In the afternoon when I'm free I'll play mah
jong from 2:00 to 4:00 P.M. Now only when I'm free. If I work nights like now
I don't have time to play.
I helped my brother until May 13th (1969). I was in the market. The town
was safe. I was still selling meat that morning when it happened. I heard
about the riots that night. When I heard about the curfew I knew something was
wrong. They gave you hours after they relaxed the curfew. I was staying at
Kuala Kangsar Market right across the road from the market. I was born there.
I was raised there. I know that area. Even until now my I.C. says Kuala
Kangsar. I have moved but I still keep the same address.
Before May 13th, they had general elections on May 10th. After the May 10th
elections the value of the Malaysian Ringgit went down. They had a boat, a
sailing boat, on the Malaysian ringgit at that time. They had the Queen
(Elizabeth) on the first ringgit. After that they changed to the sailing boat.
The labor party made an issue of the whole thing. They started it. They
protested on the street and they met up with the Malays on Dato Keramat road.
I didn't belong to that group. I wasn't involved in it. After that, business
went downhill. So my brother decided to stop his business and to seek
employment with another person.
My brother's stall was in the center and there were two side entrances. The
stalls at the entrances got all the business. They picked a number to see
which stall they got. They only did regular customers. Not a lot of people
came. Then I worked for a person doing painting and shellac. I had a boss
doing painting and shellac wax. I started in 1970, until 1972 or round about.
Then I went to Butterworth also doing the same thing.
The towkay in Penang didn't have enough work for me. That was when my boss
got a contract doing woodwork for Palm Beach (Resort Hotel). Hanging doors,
shellacking, painting, installing chairs, a lot of things. I worked for him
for a long time. Twenty years. Also I worked on the Police Quarters in Bukit
Mertajam. This boss had a lot of contracts. USM, YMCA.
My boss got the big profit. We just got a salary. It was enough for myself.
My boss also had a contract to do work behind the jail in Penang. So that's
what I did. Also they worked on the nurse's quarters. A small one, a four
story building. Over sixty-odd rooms. Furniture, beds, cupboards. Only
furniture, not building. After making it I paint it and shellac it. Golden
Sands, Lone Pine. Also went to Alor Setar, Petani, Butterworth. On the
Butterworth side there. The factory was there. I paint and shellac and help to
Did you like the work?
Yes. My boss's factory. Someone wanted the land back, so he had to vacate
and move to Telok Tawar. Above the airport. The land where Rasa Sayang is, it
belongs to Palm Beach. So they sold it off to Rasa Sayang. My boss also did
the furnishing of Golden Sands. This is all in the 1980's. Bagan Dalam, then
we shifted to Telok Tawar. Golden City hotel. Also I did the furnishing there.
I only resigned last year. After this, I did odd jobs here and there. I
worked with Golden City--painting, repair, odd jobs. That was on my own. Not
for very long. In September of 1992 I stopped working in Butterworth in the
factory work. Then I came to Golden City Hotel doing odd jobs. I was getting
old. But the truth was I wasn't getting along with the towkay's son. He was
not very good. He implied that I'm old and cannot work any more. The young man
made me out to no be good and not worth anything anymore. I resigned. If I
went to the father he would hire me again. Now they employ more Malays than
Chinese, so I don't work for them anymore.
Is that the son or father?
Son. I see the son's attitude and I don't want to work for him anymore. The
first reason is he must employ more Malays. The government wants it that way.
The government wants them to hire more Malays. In our factory there are more
Malays than others. I'm older so the son says, "if you want to go then
go." Over there when I worked, I got a bonus of RM. $500 or a thousand,
but now I get nothing.
Now I get a lot less at my current job. Over there during the New Year you
still get a salary if you don't work. Public Holidays now I get nothing. Now I
must also come. This New Year I will be working from eight until six in the
Were there any other reasons they employed more Malays?
They demand less. Their salary is lower because the Chinese are more
experienced. The Chinese are skilled. The Malays are non-skilled.
Until here. This April, it will be about a year that I've been here. No
choice. To tell you the truth, I don't like it in my new job, but what to do.
I prefer an eight to five job. Sunday off. Now nothing. I've thought about
looking for another job. My heart really wants to look for something else.
Four to eleven is the best time. From eight to six is O.K., but the worst time
is 6:00 P.M. to 10:30 in the morning. Over ten hours.
You told me you had three wives?
No. I'm just kidding. Because this lady was teasing me. No, I've never been
married. I worked all my life. I never thought about marriage. My mother
always asked me whether I want to get married. Because I never had a stable
income I said "no." After my mother died in the seventies I got a
real job but I didn't think of marriage anymore.
Sometimes I take my friend's children out to Kentucky Fried Chicken and we
eat, the three of us.
Are you a Godfather?
No. I just love them a lot because I stay with them. I take them to
Kentucky, and buy things for them at Komtar. I used to stay with their father.
Things are expensive. Every time I take them out I spend over a hundred
dollars. I usually take them to Kentucky. I buy a lot of food for them to eat
during Chinese New Year. This weekend I'm taking them out so I get a hundred
dollars ready. Once in a while I take them out.
One time when I started work at my present job, I went off at 9:30 an hour
early. When I got back they really screwed me over. They gave me a hard time.
So I don't do it anymore. I don't go weekdays because their mother is home. I
only go every three weeks. This Sunday I will go. I have to ask them.
They are 14 and 15. One boy and one girl. The older is the boy. When I
stayed with them, they still hadn't gone to school yet. Their father has his
own business. Carpentry. He's a small time carpenter. Wood work, repairing
things in the house.
You still have a seat in the Secret Society?
I am not an active member. I know every one of them, but I do not know the
newer members. If they introduce me to the newer members, then I know them. It
is a good triad. To me it's good. They help me. It's just that the younger
generation make all kinds of stupid things. The only good thing they do,
during the May 13th, the triads all got together to help the Chinese at this
time. In times of trouble they get together. Here in Penang also. This is a
very dangerous thing what we are saying now. Once a member always a member
Are there people other than Chinese?
Yes, Indians sometimes too.
Sixty-five year old auntie
Where were you born?
Penang. Before the war we heard rumors of the war pending. Everybody
started buying a lot. For us we just bought a little bit and the Japanese came
already. Those who bought a lot got to eat. We went hungry. The Japanese were
here for three years and eight months.
The government gave us rations. Rice, beans--all cooked already. We would
line up to get the food. When the Japanese came my Grandmother told me. I was
nine years-old. Grandma came down to town and there was a lot of looting that
happened. There were lots of robbers. People hid things. There were lots of
dead bodies and bad smells. The government took all the dead bodies and buried
them by Penang hill railway station. Grandmother told me that. We ran to hide
at Thean Teik estate. We heard the Japanese bombing. When we were young we
didn't know anything. We counted nine planes. They flew in low and dropped the
bombs. Poom. Poom. The Japanese came and confiscated everything. Plantations
and livestock. And then after one week we all had to line up to get supplies.
Fish, roti--the bread they gave us was small, sticky, glutinous. Not good. One
household, two loaves of bread only. People became hungry after that, so most
people ate sweet potatoes. For three years and eight months we only ate sweet
potatoes and tapioca. Maybe once a week they would give you a little bit of
meat. They stole people's chickens away. They confiscated all the livestock.
By that time father had passed away already. It was not only us that didn't
have food, but also Grandmother's family. No milk to drink. We would pound
rice up until powdery--cook it over a fire and feed it to the baby. Mix a
little sago with it. The mother didn't have any good food.
Then when the British came back we had food again. For the grownups, cook
up broth, leaves of sweet potato plant and one big pot of sweet
potatoes--that's all, no protein.
Some people just take salt, put water in the salt to dissolve it and pour
it over the porridge to eat it. Then some people take fish turned bad, salt it
and eat it up with the porridge already. Very difficult times.
I'm the eldest in the family. I remember running away with my mother and
grandmother when the Japanese came. Father worked at Prangin road. An
accountant for a firm. When the Japanese bombed we all ran out and started
walking. Prangin road market was the worst place to get hit. Father said there
was lots of black smoke and chaos everywhere. Thick black smoke everywhere.
People running around. Father heard the bombs. One of the shop houses totally
collapsed. They had bombed it already. They used machine guns and some people
got it in the head and lost the head. Ambulances came to take the bodies away.
Father felt very scared. His heart was pounding. My maternal grandfather saw a
man get hit by bullets while strafing so he ran off. Prangin road was the
worst place to get hit. Maybe the reason it got hit was because one of the
shop houses had a very prominent structure, very high.
Where were you when they bombed.
Father stayed in town. We were already up in Thean Teik estate when it
happened. My maternal grandfather knew the war was imminent so he asked all
the kids to go up there to avoid all the confusion. Father worked at Prangin
My father was working when the Japanese bombed. When bombs fell he came
out. Two houses away had collapsed already. After that happened, father went
to get two aunt's hiding in the bathroom. They ran off to Thean Teik estate,
leaving the house as it was, no locking the doors already.
A neighbor from town with a small infant baby stayed with us. All she could
manage to carry was a flask of hot water and a can of milk. Baby got hungry.
To cool the water down, she stuck the bottle inside the drain.
Father told us when we were young that if the Japanese came we must hide
inside the bamboo grove. We had to be silent father told us or the Japanese
would find us. It's very stupid to think about it now. We thought the Japanese
could drop a listening device and hear you.
Every time we heard the sirens we would hide there, close to the river.
Where we stayed was a well used for drinking water but not for bathing. There
was no electricity. We used a kerosene oil lamp. It was very dark and there
were lots of mosquitoes. My grandparents and father told us that up on the
hillside if you light the lamp the Japanese will see you and bomb you. Now
that I think about it, it was very stupid. Nothing there the Japanese wanted.
If you talk about the Japanese, the aunties hate it a lot. There was a lot of
There was a rice shop on Prangin Road. It sold rice. They didn't run but
hid in the sacks of rice. The Japs bombed the shop. As luck would have it,
everyone died--all nine. After the war they went to pick the bones up. Only a
few pieces left anymore. Young and old had nothing to eat. Not even a single
bit of biscuit. Some people had no fish. Had to buy the bad fish--tiny, tiny
fish nobody wants to eat.
When the British came back then we had things to eat. Then even the dogs
ate bread up. During the Japanese occupation, there was nothing, even the dogs
did not eat.
What were your earlier memories as a little girl before the war?
The place where I stayed was very quiet, called "kiam hu tia"
("salted fish street," now Malay street), along Prangin Lane. Very
quiet there, not so busy. All houses. We used to walk everywhere. No cars.
With a bottle of water we just walked to school. Brother and me. Buses went
to Ayer Itam only. Not trishaws, but we had rickshaw pullers. I remember when
I was a little girl I could buy things for two cents. A kaya bun was one cent.
Kaya pao one cent. Char siow pao, five cents. Things then were very, very
cheap. Sugar was only twelve cents a kati. Rice was also cheap. One gantang of
rice was only five cents. Fried mee was only three cents. Very, very cheap.
Did you go to school then?
No, I haven't been to school. Not at all. I'm the only one who didn't go to
school. Mother told me I had to stay home and take care of the little ones.
Maternal grandfather told me girls don't have to go to school, but must stay
home and take care of the littler ones. Paternal grandfather also the same. My
grandpa from China didn't believe girls should go to school. My mother and
aunties never went to school.
Did you ever go to movies or anything?
Never. I haven't ever been. Only see the Chinese opera along the street. I
never travel about. Father sometimes took me to town. But mother never. Father
took me out to buy a glass of sugar juice, walk about the town and come back.
That's all. My father was a wage earner only. Twenty dollars a month only. I
had eight siblings. Many children. Only the boys got to go to school
My mother was very frugal. Everything she did. She never hired anybody. She
took care of the kids by herself. My father died over 40 years ago. When the
British came back. He was in his 50's when he died. He had hypertension. He
had to take care of so many people. After the Japs left he went back to work.
Earned over a hundred dollars a month. It went up to over RM $100.
What did he do during the war.
He didn't work. No one worked. There were no jobs. Father and uncles grew a
little bit of sweet potatoes for them to eat. People asked for forested land
to clear and plant their own things. Sweet potatoes. Only one meal, that's
all. In the afternoon eat sweet potatoes. At night eat only broth--salt water
only. No soy sauce. Very difficult life. During the Japanese occupation it was
pitiful and sad. When the British came back we were all very happy. We all
came back to town and rented this house. We moved around a lot before we
finally settled here. This was the last one. Over 20 years here. Close to 30
years. This is the last one.
What do you remember about your mother?
My mother came from China. When she was an infant they brought her out. She
wears only a sarong still. Still alive, over 80 already. When she was a young
girl she wore a sarong. Father was born in Taiping, and came to Penang to
work. They were match made. Never saw the bridegroom until the day they got
married. The maternal grandparents knew somebody who match made my parents.
Mother was 18. Father was around 20. Married for about 25 years before he
died. He had eight children. I now have two younger sisters not married yet.
That makes four not married--three girls single and one boy. Four married and
four not married. My younger siblings are taking care of the mother now.
Grandmother and mother have a little bun at the back of the head. Like a
sanggul (hair tied back in a bun). They were born in China. Mother came to
Malaysia when she was three-years-old. Grandfather, when he came from China,
worked in a sundry shop, carrying goods for people. He used a bicycle.
Grandmother didn't work. Grandma had ten children. Mother was also the oldest
girl. All the girls never went to school. Only the youngest girl went to
school and worked in a bookstore along Carnarvaron Street and got married.
There were four boys and four girls. Now only seven siblings left. One died
I've taken care of my nieces and nephews. I've helped them. The younger
sisters don't know about the Japanese occupation. Too young. The British came
back and it got better. More things to eat. Things were very good. Things were
Was there conflict between Chinese and Malays after the Japanese left?
One time, in May, during one year--it's hearsay. Chinese were carrying tall
flags. Chinese flags. They hit against a small structure owned by the Malays
and then they clashed. During May. They used broken soda bottles to fight.
Riots. I didn't see anything myself, all hearsay.
Then the government imposed a curfew and then we could not go out and buy
things. We had about 2 hours to go out and do things and then come back in.
Malays see Chinese and Malays will beat them up. Chinese see Malays and beat
them up. Will break soda bottles by the lorries and use this to fight.
Did you ever work outside?
During the Japanese occupation we made ropes. One day five Japanese
dollars. Cannot buy anything because the value of the Japanese note was
nothing. That one was to buy things to help the family. No one had anymore.
Extra income. The owner also closed shop, only worked a little while.
How do you see Penang as having changed?
More busy. Lots of housing estates. Flats. People build a lot of homes.
Supermarkets, last time there were no supermarkets. Now its prettier. Last
time there was nothing like it. People can earn more. There is more scope.
Jobs are more easily available. To earn a living is better now. Very, very
good now. More improvements.
The worst time for me was the Japanese period, no rice, vegetables, no soy
sauce. First and second year you could still find all these things. Japanese
were coming. Afterwards nothing.
Do you remember the first day they came?
I forgot. Not sure already. I was very afraid of them. They came inside the
house to look around. We all run outside to hide. They go everywhere to see if
you have livestock. If there is any they want it for themselves and they would
simply take it away.
All the people said was to be more careful with the Japanese. I never heard
if the Japanese would take girls. We only heard "Run, Japanese coming to
steal the children away."
Sixty-four year old uncle
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1931. In Penang, Georgetown. On Ropewalk, the place where
they sell old things on the sidewalk. I have been back to China when I was
Like a midwife...like neighbors. Those olden times it was like
midwives...only in old days but not now.
What were your earliest memories of Penang?
During school days. At seven-years-old I went to school. Two schools. One
is on Chulia Street. The first year was on Chulia Street. Transferred to
Transfer Road on the corner of Transfer and "Ka La Why" (Northam
Rd.). "Si Teong" is the name. It is still there. They haven't torn
it down yet. The school is still standing very close by. It is 3 or 4 stories.
A few people go to it. After that the Japanese came to bomb. The Japanese
In those days it's what your father wants you to do. If you go it's to
Chinese school. We learned Chinese script, how to read and write Chinese
script. It is more or less the same as today. After the Japanese came I
couldn't go any more. Father got sick, lost his business and we fell into hard
He was a goldsmith. He worked on gold jewelry. Doesn't own a shop. He
brought it home to work. He made bracelets. Not solid but hollow thin pieces.
Only bracelets. He made it for anybody. Nonya also can wear it. If you dare
not wear it you can keep it. It is thin but looks heavy. It looks like rich
man's wife. Now it is not very popular anymore. When my father was doing this
at the height of Nonya jewelry, each goldsmith did different pieces. They had
a sie haw--a master chief who did Nonya pieces. Only the real masters can do
it--the hairpins, anklets. All hollow, not solid, but very big.
My father asked me to learn. I was a boy. My father made me sit beside him
all the time. I was not very keen about it. Not very serious about it.
When the Japanese came they stopped all that. Once the bombing started they
couldn't do it. My father did the business under the British occupation.
What other things did you remember about this time?
I mostly remember playing. I went swimming near the beach along Northam
Road and at the waterfall with four or five friends. I liked to play with
water as a little boy. I would go fishing. I still go fishing even though old
already. I fish at Gurney drive. Sometimes I rent a boat and go out to the
My mother just died three years ago. My father died when the Japanese came
and started bombing. He fell sick and died. During this time there was no
medication or qualified doctors.
Then I became a hawker selling vegetables at Chowrastara market. I was 11
years old. My father was sick for many months. All I know is his leg was
swollen. It started on his foot, swelled up on his body. There was no good
food to eat, no medicine.
Has Chowrastara Market changed much since then?
It's different now. When I was young, I just put things where ever. Not a
lot of people were selling then. Now there's a lot. Now its crowded and stalls
are inside the market. In the old times, there were a lot of buyers but not
many sellers. Streets weren't crowded.
Business was quite good for sellers then. You didn't get a huge margin,
just enough to survive on. I have a big family so I had to go back to my house
so my mother could cook for my family. At eleven years old I knew the
business, but younger ones had to stay home. We did whatever we had to do.
After the Japanese, after the war, during the Korean war, things got better
for me. I started learning my father's goldsmith trade. I had some kind of
background in it so I continued it. During the Korean war, a lot of people got
rich. The price of rubber was high. I worked for a towkay and earned a salary.
How many siblings did you have?
Eight plus. I have two older sisters. I am the eldest boy but I was third
in line. My older sisters did house work, washing clothes, cooking. Both did
that. It was very hard during the Japanese occupation. Even the young one's
had to work. Only the little ones stayed home with mother. When I started back
to the goldsmith trade I was about 18.
What other things did you remember about the Japanese period?
I was doing the vegetable trade. My younger sister took over from me. I
stopped and went over to Butterworth and worked for the Japanese making wooden
boats. It was manual work. Pick this, pick that, chop wood for the Japanese. A
boy--"gi na"--can do it, child's work. I was forced to do it. They
gave you rice. There was no rice or food if you worked outside.
During the Japanese occupation even if you had money you couldn't buy rice.
Sweet potatoes and tapioca flour only. Have to buy through the black market.
It's very expensive. Even rich people couldn't get it. The Japanese paid very
little money and coupons for the rice. It's as a "gi na lang" (young
person). Child's work not much money in it. Just three meals a day. With the
children they were all right. They like the young ones but beat the older
ones. When you work for Japanese, you cannot steal anything. If you do they
beat you up. I remember bodies burning right in the center of the street. They
bombed over here, and then across behind the Townhouse Hotel. A lot of people
died during the bombing raids. From this car park to the Oriental Hotel, a row
of two-story houses were bombed. A lot of people died in that row. Behind the
Townhouse a big house was there. A warehouse for the Japanese who lived here
and did business. When the British came back people destroyed the whole
building. The people died by bombing. Then the Japanese were here already and
asked the people to burn the bodies in the street. We also used to exchange
bananas for cigarettes with the Japanese, and then resold Japanese cigarettes.
Usually if we didn't have money we did this. Bananas were worthless,
cigarettes were worth their weight in gold.
As a child, I was not frightened by the Japanese. Only most adults were. If
you don't bow your head when you meet them on the street then they beat you.
You have to respect them. If you don't they beat you up. They were like kings
with absolute power.
What happened after the Japanese left?
That's when I went back to the goldsmith business. And then construction.
First houses--cement work, rebar reinforcement. Park Royale, a 5-star hotel.
Two hotels in Batu Ferringhi. One with a bridge, Batu Pahan, Mutiara. Just a
few months. If you do steel, it's very fast. One hotel, five or six months.
Why did you leave gold smithing for construction?
There was not enough. The gold trade went downhill. The boss didn't want to
give gold any more. Seven or eight years in the gold business. Training was
one or two years. The best time was during the Korean war.
After construction I went to work on containers on the boat on the Penang
side. We cleaned containers out for pouring latex. I've worked on all kinds of
ships--American, Japanese, every kind of ship in port. Now they have a new
method where it is dry rather than wet, like little grains so they don't need
people to wash the old. In one month we could wash a lot, like 10 or 20 times.
Once they changed the method I lost my job. They use machines now. Machines
took over what we were doing. They don't need people anymore.
I did a lot. Many kinds of things. I made soy sauce. I worked for people
who made tomato sauces, chili sauce. They made three kinds, kim kwa, pumpkin.
No tomato sauces. Chili sauces, pumpkin, chilies, peppers. They soaked the
chilies in pumpkin rinds that were cooked until soft. Local Chinese chili
sauce. I did this for five or six months only. Then I started working here
already. It's been over a year already.
At one time I worked in front of the cinema selling candies. Four or five
years down by the alley. My youngest brother died so I took over the business.
It was 1985. Now the Odeon Cinema only has a lot of Mandarin movies.
Did you ever marry?
Yes, 1958. Over twenty years. My wife is dead now. I have two children, one
boy and one girl. The oldest boy is 36 and the girl is 35. He is a technician
dealing with metal. He's in his own business now dealing with machining. He
used to work for the factory but resigned and started his own business. A
machinist with iron and aluminum.
He learned his trade from the factory he was in. Then he quit and started
his own business. He is doing pretty good now. He just rents his shop. He has
one son who has been in school for two years. My daughter-in-law is a nurse in
a dispensary--a dispenser. One of the relatives of the daughter-in-law is a
doctor. She worked for him. She's been in Canada for half a year. She's back
now helping the husband with the business.
What was she doing in Canada?
I don't know. I dare not ask my daughter-in-law. She's been there twice.
She left her son behind?
Yes. Her mother took care of the boy. He was seven or eight-years-old. My
son has a better life than myself now. For me I'm so unlucky I don't even know
how to ride a motorbike. My son knows so many things, how to drive a car. He
did it all on his own. Whatever success he has, they did it on their own. He
has never asked me for money.
My daughter is married in Butterworth. One son. The daughter is not as
smart as my son. My son is more aggressive, more pushy in business. I have two
grand children, all boys. No girls yet. Most important, my grandsons are
smart. My son studied only to form three and then stopped and started working.
It is grade nine, lower junior high.
I've worked until old and I still have nothing. I've worked so hard and
I've had nothing to show for it. As long as I don't hurt people, that's all I
wish for. I've worked until my eye-sight is bad. Optometrists have said I
can't work, they can't get glasses for me. I've had surgery done on one of the
eyes. The optometrist said they cannot do it for me. They've tested--it's not
cataracts. My eyes bother me a lot. No choice, it can't be helped.
My mother and father were both born in China. When my father was alive we
were better off. I got to go back to China with my mother and sister for
several months. I was six years-old. I was very giddy on the boat. I remember
paddy fields. A small village and everyone is related to each other. All
Wongs. Same clan. If you are of a different name then you are not very welcome
there. I was very happy then. I've also been to Hong Kong. My father's father
is from China. My mother's mother is from Hong Kong. We stayed in Hong Kong
first, then took the train over to visit the village. I remember catching fish
in the paddy fields with one older boy. At that time in China people were very
poor. We ate lots of potatoes. That's why they all wanted to come here to
The rich Chinese here have never helped the poor Chinese.
Auntie in her late seventies
When and where were you born?
I don't know. My mother didn't tell me what year I was born in. Never
talked about the year. I was born in China.
In what part of China?
I was born in a house.
When did you come here?
I don't remember. I was 20 when I came here. I don't know the year. I don't
remember. My mother didn't remember. I came straight to this house over 60
years. I didn't bring my birth certificate.
What's your earliest memory of Penang?
Lots of trees and birds. There used to be homes around here but now there
are no more homes. There used to be trees on both sides of the street but now
no more. It's been so many years I don't know how to say.
In China, the houses were all different when I was young. They have torn
the houses all down in China. It's all new.
What did you do when you first came to Penang?
I worked as a domestic. I cooked. Washed clothes. Took care of families. I
worked for Hokkien families. All my employers are all dead already. All
grandparents are all dead. My first employer employed a lot of people but now
he's dead. He stayed in K.L. (Kuala Lumpur) but he's dead already.
What about the war?
Things here are all different now. It has all changed. They have torn down
everything. In olden times things were much prettier. Now it is like the
I stayed in the forest when the Japanese came. I was scared. For three or
four days. I dare not come out, but how to eat. I had to find work. I worked
for the Japanese. My employer didn't take me back. I cleaned furniture, houses
and washed the clothes for the Japanese. I worked until the Japanese left. I
didn't have any friends at that time. A few went back to China at that time.
I went back. I don't remember the year. In my twenties I went back. Only
one time, I remember. For over a month. China has changed. Here has changed.
Everywhere has changed.
You went on to other jobs?
Yes, different people who move around. When your wife was a month old, I
came to work for her mother. I don't know the time. Two or three years I
worked for her mother. Now she is so old. I took care of her until she was
older and more independent. I quarreled with her mother and got angry and
I would come and visit her. Once every two or three weeks. When I got older
the relationship reversed. When I stay here, she always comes and visits me.
When did you stop working?
Many years already. When I have work, I do it. Sometimes people come and
ask me to pray for them. Last time it was two or three dollars, from cents to
two dollars only. Now its seven or eight or ten dollars.
I am too old. I work when I need money. When I have money I don't work.
In China they don't ask questions about when. Children don't ask questions
How many different employers have you had over the years?
Only two. They're dead already. Why talk about them.
I terminated the interview after realizing she didn't want
to talk anymore. It seemed she had put away memories of the past and did not
want to think about these things. The following interview was also cut short
when we reached the point of the Japanese occupation, and the gentleman became
very sensitive over what to record. It seems these memories were very
difficult for him too. He abruptly retired to take a rest and was never
available to finish the interview afterward.
Eighty-four year old uncle
When and where were you born?
Now its '94. Is it 1912? I'm 84. You can calculate. Around 1910 or 1912. I
was born right in this house. My parents came from China, from Hokkien
province. I don't know the village, I've never been there.
Do you know what year they came?
I'm not sure of the year. My parent's got married in Fukien. Then came
here. All the children were born here. There were a lot of children. Six boys
and one girl. I'm the fourth son. Presently four sons have died. Only two sons
and one daughter are left.
They died from illness. My daughter died when I was 75. My father died over
forty years ago. He died during the Japanese occupation. He died around
1943-44. Around that time he was ill. He died of old age. During the Japanese
occupation there was no medicine, no doctors. He died in this house also. But
now the family is split apart already.
When I was in my teens I rowed boats. I ferried passengers. That's how I
earned my living. There was no ferry. From here to the mainland. When the
ferry service started we stopped doing it already. There were no fixed rates
for rowing passengers. Some give more, some less. Last time only five cents
one day. One could buy a lot of things with five cents.
My brothers and sons did it as well. On this Jetty here, if they don't
ferry passengers then they are fishermen. Only two occupations here. I was
never a fisherman. I strictly carried passengers. Later on when the big ships
came I began carrying goods.
When did the big ships come?
During colonial times. During the British period. After the Japanese left
no more boats came in already. I ferried passengers from my teens until my
thirties. Now I am old already. I do not do it any more.
Rowing was all manual. No engines. We used our muscles to do it. No fixed
time. Just when customers come. Less passengers, we relax. All young men did
this job. Only one rower. Like these little sampans here, that length only.
Can sit eight people. The license for eight passengers only. One hour at least
from here to the mainland, sometimes longer.
I went to elementary school. About six years. They were the Siah Cheah Kong
Si, but also Le Teik Seah and Tiang Hua. These are the schools. I went to so
many schools because it wasn't compulsory. Go off to work a couple of years,
and then come back again. Last time even if you were older in the teens you
could still go back to school. No age limits. The quality of education last
time was better than now. Standard six was the equivalent of high school. All
ages all together in the Chinese schools. All Chinese, English was taught only
very little. I started to work when I was in my teens. At 17, I started to
What did you father do?
In business. In China, he did business. When he came here he started
ferrying passengers. He settled here already. Before my father came here,
there was already a settlement here. My father's own people were here and he
joined them. If you have no family where would you go?
What was the Jetty like when you were young?
Ten homes only. Before also other people. This is not one of the first.
Three homes were before this home--number 48, 49 and 51. This house has been
renovated many times. If you had kept the money spent renovating this house
you could buy a big bungalow. Pilings occasionally corrode and must be
replaced. The planks must also be replaced. Now there are two rows of houses.
What do you remember about Penang before you were ten?
Penang used to have electric trams on the road. From Weld Quay to Ayer
Itam. Carried passengers. Over head electric wires. No lorries at that time.
Very few cars. We used bullock carts. We carried goods with hand carts. No
lorries. In the 20's this happened. Very few cars. No motorbikes. More
Would you ever go to the theater?
Yes. I went to the cinema. There were two or three only. Could see
anything, Tamil, Chinese, English. I don't remember the names but I'd go to
see them all. Fighting ones usually. I know the "Shaw Brothers."
Police headquarters used to be a cinema. Little India also had movies. Showed
Tamil movies mostly. The police station--it belonged to Lim Cheng Teak. The
station belonged to these two guys, who sold it to the government who wanted
it for a station.
What do you remember of the British?
Used to be very lax, at the beginning. Later on they became more strict.
There were just a few only. They had a lot of bad things happen. Before as a
young man no robberies happened. Now there are many. It used to be people
collected money in bullock carts. Now it would be stolen. The dollar notes
collected by sacks, one cent by one cent. Sacks were heavy, and so were
carried by bullock. Value of money was great then.
Couldn't finish five cents in one day. Now you go out and spend RM $100.
Wage earners earned only four or five dollars a month. One gantang of rice was
25 cents. Sugar two cents. Koay teow with eggs, three cents only. Kopi, one
large container, three cents. Two cents a cup. Three people shared a large
By Penang street and Gho Guan Tang (Chulia Street), there used to be
livestock there. Carnarvaron Street used to be paddy fields. Along Weld, along
this route used to have a thing like this--lights with chains separated. They
had Casuarina trees all along here.
It was very pretty. Can still see the remnants. Now nothing already. Fruit
was also cheap, by the few cents only. One half and one apple only. If you
have five cents a day, can't finish five cents. One glass of almond tea and eu
chiar koay (the long one) only one half cent. Now its one dollar already. That
was when I was young. A plate of rice plus dishes only three cents. Now three
dollars not enough.
Did you ever go swimming?
Just swam here when I was young. Before at high tide it was very clean.
Jump in water with friends and swim across to the Lim Jetty and swim back
again. All the boys did.
Last time the water (under the Jetty) was very deep. Height of two persons,
eleven or twelve feet deep. Now it's shallow. The children learned how to swim
by themselves. They just acquired it. No fixed stroke. They just practiced and
learned. The water would come up to the kid's knees. Let the tide come in and
the water rise up until the water comes up to the level that they can't touch
the sea bottom. Now they can swim but it's too dirty.
I would go under the house and fish anytime and catch it. "San kat
chi" (black cat fish). Not very good fish. Shallow water fish. If you
want good fish sometimes grouper come in. Sharks never come in.
"Jaws" are in deep water.
I've seen whales come into the end of the Jetty here when I was young. They
came in a pair. Do you know what kind. "Hai tu, Hai tu" (literally,
"sea pig"). Mouth is like a pig. A whale. They don't eat people.
Dolphins, as big as arm's length, over ten feet.
What year did you get married?
My wife is two years younger than myself. I was 20 years old and my wife
was 18 years old. If my wife was still alive she would be 82. We were husband
and wife 50-60 years. Married in the 1930's.
It was not a very grand wedding. Simple. Before the Japanese occupation
there were hard times. Depression. We got married "chin chai, chin
It was match made. Never saw my wife until the wedding day. Even photos I
didn't see but my mother liked her. Last time match made marriages never ended
in divorce. Now love made marriages end in divorce. When all the brothers got
married they lived here. Wives lived here.
Was there any friction between daughters-in-law and mother?
Very rare. Older people shout stop and they stop. Small quarrels, yes.
Older people tell to stop. There were three families living here. Over 30
people. A lot of children. Descendants from myself, from only five plus
siblings over 100 people. I was married two years before my first child, a
daughter. There were seven boys and four girls. None died in childbirth. All
eleven in diapers. All survived.
What do you remember about the Japanese occupation?
I was in the thirties when they came. When they bombed we ran off. When
they stopped bombing we came back again. We took our boy and went to the
middle of the sea in a sampan boat. We rowed out when the planes came. When
they flew off we came back.
Did they bomb here on the Jetty?
Over on the other side. Only the roads but not the Jetty. They bombed and
burned the whole Lim Jetty. Not many people died, just the homes were
They killed a lot of people. They had a curfew. They picked up a lot of
people and killed them. For no reason also they would come and pick you up.
Yes, I knew them (other people picked up by the Japanese). The Japanese picked
up people and beat them to death.
There was very little rice. We had to use rations. One person, two gantangs
per person. In one month must have at least six gantangs. We'd have to find
black market rice--smuggle rice in from Thailand. Black market rice from
Thailand. Eat mere potatoes and tapioca, also very expensive. Never ferried
Japanese back and forth. I don't want to talk about this period anymore.
After the Japanese period what happened?
Started back on the old job. During this time, the ferry was not yet there
yet. They started building the ferry terminus during the British occupation.
Not sure when it was. there used to be a ferry terminus. British built a
jetty. A train jetty. Take the ferry to go to the train station. Now it is
demolished. Then they built a second one. Then a new one. This is the third
one. this present ferry terminus used to be the old one. This was the first.
Before this, another, but a storm blew it down. A very big storm. The roof of
the ferry was like corrugated tin. The storm blew the roof off.
He abruptly told us that he was tired and we stopped the interview.
Afterward he seemed no longer available to be interviewed. I interviewed an
aunty of the Jetty informally while we were sitting in the coffee shop talking
one morning. I reconstructed the follow story, based on the notes of the
Sixty-six year old auntie
I have twelve children. Six boys and six girls. All were married by affairs
of the heart except the second eldest daughter who was match made. She was the
one who knows how to cook, all the others just buy out. I've been married 50
years. I was frightened during the war that the Japanese would take all the
young girls so I became married to a man at 14 years old. I took a trishaw to
marry. I never saw the groom, a trishaw puller. The Japanese would come and
knock on the door, and everyone would run and hide in the toilet.
My father died when he was in his thirties when the Japanese bombed,
leaving mother and three children. All of us ran up to Ayer Itam. Along the
street all dead bodies. A lot of people died along Carnarvon Street. When I
was young I wasn't so scared. Now I would be very scared. All of us crouched
There was no transport, nothing. All walked. We ate tapioca. Take rice
rations. Rations for bread. We had to wait for a few hours to get one loaf of
bread. Everyone just got a piece of bean curd. We lined up for hours. We had
to go to the reserve place to get mee (noodles). Now it's much easier.
The Japanese came and took men and old people. Also they took girls away. I
saw them. Some of the girls cut their hair and disguised themselves like young
boys. They'd tie breasts up to try to hide them. The Japanese capture the
people and put them in the police station along MacAlister Road. They'd dig a
hole and put the person in and cover them up until the head and put only rice
in front of them. I didn't see it but someone told me about it.
I had my first daughter during the war, and became very ill. So we took our
daughter to a catholic convent and left her there. We lost contact with her.
After many years, we went back to find her but she didn't want to come back to
us anymore. She had taken the veil and become a nun. She didn't want to come
back and see us.
When father was alive he'd give me ten cents in one day. He was a fish
monger. Then when he died we had no money. I am related to the other people
here. If the same surname, then related already. All related. "Cha
em," because I am a mother-in-law, like "in-laws."
Now grandfather lets our granddaughter do whatever she wants. My
granddaughter must be watched over so I must hurry back.
Sixty-one year old uncle
Where and when were you born?
I was born on the Jetty itself. The house is still there. It was #5 but
somebody has taken over the house now. When the Japanese came, the house was
sold off to somebody else. The whole family went to Butterworth.
I was born in 1934. You want the date? June 31st. I also remember the
Chinese date. There was my father, my mother. There were seven people when I
was born, and a younger brother after I was born. My father came from China.
When he came here he was a sampan man. Ferrying goods and people. He came by
himself first. A single man when he came.
My mother is from Penang. She is Nonya Lang. She was a housewife. She spoke
Malay also. Wore sarong also. Yes, a long blouse and a sarong. When she was
young she had the sanggul (a hair bun). Could eat spicy things. I can consider
myself a baba. I can understand and speak Malay.
What are your earliest memories of the Jetty?
Yesterday, they had the twelve pillars. The sea goes right up to the road.
There were 13 steps leading from the road to the shore. The planks were not
running lengthwise like they are now. The boards went width-wise. The boards
became more narrow past the six stone structures of the 12 pillars, and the
houses started at the narrow end.
Before the Japanese came people chopped firewood. Big boats came in and
brought big fire logs. People cut them up. Sampans would bring them in. Before
the Japanese time, people chopping firewood moved to Ba Kau Street--1936-7-8.
Later older people told me the reason they had moved was that the British
wanted to reclaim the land to make roads and so evicted them. Also they wanted
to evict the locals. I saw them doing all this, but then the war came along
and changed everything. I remember there was a very big tree. They used to cut
logs under it for shade. A very old lady sold cigarettes there.
Then we didn't have any electricity or water supply. We used a kerosene oil
lamp. Had no water but further down across the street there was a water pipe.
They built a little round container. We would bathe, wash clothes. They
covered it. There was a real bathroom the size of this room. Women would wash
clothes there and carry them back on their shoulder with buckets and pole.
Very hard. As a young boy I would also have to help carry small things.
Whoever goes to the bathroom carries a tin to bring water back. Once in the
morning and evening. If you do bodily functions it is all here.
Where you take the ferry now, there were two railway tracks that ran from
there to Dato Kramat, where there was tin smelting. Didn't use lorries. From
there to the smelters, then back to the boats to reload it. They had buses but
used the overhead electric poles. Don't remember the fares. This was until
after the Japanese left and the British came back. The buses used tires and
electricity to go.
Do children of the Jetty nowadays and back then still play the same games
No, different. We played seven stones. Throw one stone up and try to catch
the other stones. Liak chi. They call it this. You don't have to use money,
any stones. Just use pebbles, no money. "kan dok" top. Roll and
swing it and it goes around. Wrap the string around here and just throw it.
They play money now. Marbles too.
We used to play it, but we didn't use money. Used bottle caps and marbles.
Last time we had no money. How to get money. If you wanted something you asked
your parents and they would get it for you.
Our parents were strict with us. If one of us did wrong, all of us got it.
Mother was a disciplinarian. She used dried pepper. Mother used a coconut
shell. Put burning charcoal into it so it smokes. Then put pepper into it so
it smokes. Then mother would grab us by the hair and force our faces down into
the coconut and smell it. Burns and stings. We'd cry "That's not
fair." If she beats one, everybody would laugh, and then everybody would
get it. Nobody would fight. She used these two methods, the cane and pepper.
Father just scolded only.
If mother were alive she would be in her eighties now. I keep my mother's
death certificate. Father died first and then mother. For my family, I am the
patriarch for the family. I keep everything.
We used to fish from the end of the Jetty. When I got bigger I'd get in a
sampan and row out. When I was young I fished. I would catch a lot. Take some
to the market to sell. I'm the only one in my family who liked fishing. I used
to fish and catch birds.
I never went swimming.
When I was eight or nine years old the Japanese came here. I had one year
of Japanese school. "A, I, U, E, O", "Ka, Ki, Ku, Ke, Ko"
in Japanese. We learned that. At that time the Japanese were here.
My brothers were just the right age for conscription to work on the railway
line. At that time we stopped and went to Butterworth and started farming. The
Japanese took over rubber plantations, cut down the trees and gave a plot to
do whatever you wanted to do with it.
I worked until my back became blistered. We weeded out the roots of trees.
Carrying in buckets. Back became all blisters. I never worked so hard in my
life. Everyone became sick. Latex flowed into the stream. We had to drink the
water also. The stream became very milky. When you feel cold you are so cold,
when hot like fire burning inside the body. I was nine or ten years old. We
stayed there for two years.
They had a clinic. All nurses. No doctors. Prescription for malaria.
Quinine. Yellow in color, very, very bitter. I remember. This is like at the
end. Now we have to go back to before the war.
We never went to the movies, our parents wouldn't allow it. Mother never
allowed it. We had a hard life. One egg four children shared. Braised pork,
tau you and one egg cut into four pieces. Poor. Father didn't have a good job,
my mother was very diligent, refitting and tailoring. Mother was a very frugal
person. Father never fished. He just ferried goods and passengers only.
When I was young I only had my first long pants when I was in my teens.
When I first wore them I started laughing. My mother sewed these for me also.
My first long pants. I was seven when the Japanese came.
Do you remember the British?
I don't quite remember the British occupation. It was nothing. I didn't go
to school when young so I didn't look at papers to see what was happening. I
remember the Japanese warplanes. Small ones up high. From here I could see
across the channel Japanese war planes flying on the mainland. Then we heard
they were coming to bomb. The older people were more aware. Mother filled up
buckets and buckets of water. The most important thing we kept was water. We
remember poison gas and everything. People were telling us that if the
Japanese come here and drop gas, then soak a piece of wet cloth, cover the
nose and mouth with it. Older people were telling this to the younger people.
I remember around evening five or six o'clock. A plane flies over from the
mainland. Then artillery firing, a big explosion, and then the plane flying
So that night after that happened, we got all the clothes tied up in a
sarong in case we had to run. Then next day the Japanese came already. I
remember that day well. Mother was washing clothes and father went over to
Butterworth. I remember that day well.
I can see the planes. I watched them until I could hear the bombs and then
ran inside the house. Counting and see how many planes. But don't remember.
"Pop, pop, pop, pop," then "boom." "Pop, pop, pop,
pop....boom." They dropped two bombs, one on both sides of the Jetty.
They exploded. People told me about poison gas. I did this also. I ran inside
the house and put wet cloth on my face and crouched down. Then mother came
back. She had wounds on her body and she was bloody. Debris hit people. They
hit the wires and the wires fell down. As thick as the little finger, and they
People in the mainland, far from the shore, all ran under the houses to
hide. They fired the bombs. It just touched the house and it burns. It was an
incendiary. My house got one and it caught fire. The kitchen. They dropped
some of those on the house. It fell on the cinders of wood. I was in the
front. Seeing the smoke, people shouted fire, fire. People ran out of the
house and down the Jetty shouting "fire, fire!" People came out from
under the house and used the water they saved to douse the flames, while the
owners all ran off. We ran across the street. A big place to dry things. But
people wouldn't let us in. They said, "Too many people, go away." So
we ran somewhere else. That place got bombed and caught fire also. Luckily,
were young and hid under the trees. People said, "why under the trees,
the machine guns will hit you there also." Luckily we were young. We
could see across to the Yeoh Jetty, it was already burning, in flames already.
Yeoh, Tan, Lim, Chew are the old ones. Yeoh also has cinder blocks in the
water. The four Jetties also have these blocks.
We heard the wail of the siren a half hour later. "All clear"
again so we came out. Where Komtar is now, we heard everyone should go there
and buses were waiting to evacuate people to the countryside. It wasn't true.
As we walked to where Komtar is now there were no buses. All rumors. No buses
waiting to take us to the hills. We saw bodies along the way. Then I remember
a particular body with the head in the drain and feet sticking out. I figure
it was a man, his behind all bloody and then after that we kept walking. We
walked and walked. Dato Kramat, Kajang Road. We met friends of our mother. She
asked "where are you all going." My mother said "I do not
know." So the lady told her to come and stay with her. It was a house
converted into a Chinese temple. "Stop there and think about where you
Father didn't know where we were. So we asked somebody to come down to
Victoria street at another Chinese temple to tell them to tell father we were
at Dato Kramat road. So early next morning father found out where we were and
he joined us. So we all, father, mother and all the children, walked up to the
Thean Teik Hooi estate where the British had set up a refugee camp for people.
One piece of salted fish. They had things to eat already. We hadn't eaten for
a day. Had a plate of rice and a piece of salted fish. A lot of people were
there. A "refugee" camp. The next day they gave us blankets and
eating utensils but they still cooked. You just go and collect the food.
Still the next day the Japanese bombed the city. Not the country. We heard
it. It was a rainy day. We still hid under the tree. Some kids who were
curious would stick their heads out from the canopy of the trees to
investigate. Some adults too. Then people would scold them. "So stupid,
you want them to come and shoot up." Now I think about it was so silly
also. We didn't have tunnels, just trees to hide in. If they wanted to come
and bomb us, they could also.
After two or three days of bombing the Japanese came already and occupied.
We returned to our house on the Jetty. So when we came we were not on a
starvation diet. Thai boats would come in and we could get food. The only time
we had a hard time was when we went to Butterworth. I went to school for a
year and then to "Juru". It was what the place was called. We stayed
in Butterworth two years until the British came back.
We were young. From Juru we had coconuts to pick and we walked down eleven
miles from there to Butterworth and then to Penang to sell coconut oil.
Sometimes we would hitch a ride on a bullock cart. Tapioca flour. Coconut oil.
Coconuts we would pick and process into oil. Pick, skin and grate it, and cool
it down to oil. All is hard work. The whole family was there doing it.
What money we got went back into the house. There was no profit. Five or
six bottles of oil and tapioca. Sold enough to buy other things--sugar, salt,
rice, like that--to put back into the house. Two years of hard life. Everyone
has to work.
I was 12 years old and I rowed sampan. I would take passengers from the
Jetty to the boat. I had no strength to row. Passengers would take over and
row, and take their money back. After the war, the British came back already.
I sold koay, rowed sampan, hawked, and pushed the Indian handcart to earn a
few cents. I went back to elementary school when I was fourteen years old.
They didn't teach ABCs. At that time you went at any age. "Eng
Chuan" school. Fourteen years old. Studied there for four years. Chinese
Mandarin school. After school I peddled the trishaw.
My brother-in-law's trishaw. A few trips, I would get a few dollars. My
brother's eyes were not good. A few years I could do it without a license.
Then the government wanted a license and then I dare not do it anymore.
After four years at this school, I went over to Chung Wah school at 19. I
was 19 and I studied there for one year. After twenty I left school and
started working in a Sundry shop. That time was good. RM $40 a month pay. That
was in 1954. That time it was considered good pay. Out of RM $40, RM $30 would
go back into the house. Last time when worked in the sundry shop, I ate with
the towkay. Everything was there. I just came home and slept only. I remember
taking charcoal to customers on bicycle. If customers lived upstairs I'd have
to carry it up. Sometimes from town to Ayer Itam. Sometimes have to push my
bike up the hill, loaded down with charcoal, groceries, everything.
After two years the towkay increased my pay to RM $60. I worked for the man
many years, for four years. The highest pay you can get is RM $100. I was
still single then. Still haven't married yet. The sundry shop is no longer
there. Then I started my own. I sold charcoal on my own.
What happened in that first couple of months after the British came back?
When the Japanese were leaving, the British also bombed Penang Island.
B-29s. I remember. I was in Butterworth. When the sun shines on it you can see
like a cross flying across the city. Very high up. Japanese planes were small.
These were different--bigger. The British bombed where the Bumiputra land
office building is over there now. Bombed that place, totally demolished it.
Don't know why they bombed this place. That's the only place that got hit.
A few days later the Japanese surrendered. I was still in Butterworth so I
don't know how the Japanese left it. I stayed in Butterworth for two years at
Was there fighting between Malays and Chinese?
No, the Japanese didn't allow it. After the war no, because there was no
Back to 1954. About three years after that time, I didn't have a store. I
was a retailer. I buy from a wholesaler and sell to customers. The charcoal
all came from Thailand.
After that I became a contractor to goods from the boats. A work force. I
tell them to go down and load and unload the boats in the middle of the
Channel. Big boats I usually did the Indonesian boats. A lot of things, all
kinds. Now they don't come here, all in Butterworth any more.
When the ship came in, then I went to the agent. The agent said "I'll
pay a dollar per ton. Then I would find workers. I get paid two shares and the
workers get paid one share. I make RM $20 and the workers get RM $10. If
workers are slow, then I get it from the agents. I go to find the agent, the
agent pays me, and then I go to find the workers. Sometimes when they are
finished working and the agent is not around, I would have to pay out of my
own pocket, else the workers won't come the next day. I'm the one having to
find the business. Now it's different. Contractors will go find the agent and
they will agree on the sum--how much for the work.
Now its like you can loose money. Agent agrees with you how much. If slow,
take two days, then you lose money. In the old days you always gain something,
even if just a little bit. Now days gain a lot or lose. There's too much
competition nowadays. People were hired not just from here, from all over. Who
ever wanted work can.
How did you get into it?
I had a friend who was an agent. He asked me. He was just starting out as a
new agent. The rules are if you are an agent you can only do ships for me and
ask no one else. So I started doing it and getting better at it. If any new
agents come up, you go and ask if you can be offshore contractor for them. If
more agents there is work every day.
In my time, sometimes in one day three ships come in so work 24 hours a
day. It was difficult finding more people to get the ships off loaded. Last
time there were no factories, it was not hard to find labor. Now its
different. Now mostly use machines. Don't use people. Now use forklift to
carry big containers. Now if doing this its hard. Won't find many people doing
it any more.
Now I also sell gas to the ships. I do these two things alongside my bird
Previously the boats weren't very big?
Now over 200 tons. A ship, not a boat. I did this for many years, from the
50's until the 1960's. I married in 1960. I probably did it until the 1970's.
I did it until after Malaysia gained Independence.
I stopped doing this and then I did the bird shop. I've done the bird shop
for about 30 years...only birds. So back track. I personally went into
Thailand to get the birds. Sometimes Indonesians get the birds and bring them
in. Mostly birds from around this area. I know, if birds fall sick I know the
Do you remember much about the emergency?
Penang wasn't affected by it at all. Mostly around Perak. No jungles in
Penang. No place to hide in Penang. There's some "C" (communist)
elements in Penang. Really don't know because you can't pinpoint them. Of
course there's some communists in the jungle and some in the city. Penang
Island nothing. Don't hear of them ambushing the soldiers or anything.
During that time I worked only. Strictly work only. Not too difficult but
had to be there to see if people work. Mark down their salary. No one wants
this kind of job now. Hard work. Nowadays people want a day off. Contractors
have to work also. Can't say you want to stop. I have only one bird shop.
Besides birds I have bird food. I let the birds eat the worms.
Is there any fighting between the Jetties for contracts?
No. Gentlemen's agreement. We never touch each other. You cannot invade my
territory. For example, this agent has three or four ships coming in, not
enough workers, so contract agent can ask another fellow contractor to help
out. This is possible. It means the contractor is giving money. Only
contractors can ask so that way they won't fight.
How did you get into birds?
During the Confrontation, between Indonesia and Malaysia, ships didn't come
here anymore. My business slowly phased out because I dealt strictly with
Indonesian ships. I knew people who had birds. I'd spend time with them. Then
I got to know how business was run. I had a boat and would contract business
around Singapore. People would ask to go to Thailand to get birds. Always
doing it on credit. People want bird food. Bird shop people owed me. They had
no money, so I started business for myself.
I export a lot to Europe, U.S., all over the world. Taiwan. The best
customers are the Japanese. The Japs are good. He asks can you give me so
much. We don't see each other, only handle through the phone. I call the
Japanese. We converse in English. No one else can understand. Just use the
phone only. I have birds. They know the kind. Can you send money. They will
send it. Only the Japanese will do it.
It is all a gentleman's agreement. Ask for RM $10,000 to buy birds. I will
buy RM $5,000 worth. Send back the money, then tell them that there are no
more birds, don't send any more money. Japanese will accept the reverse
charges. Taiwanese won't. Worst customers are the Taiwanese. With them it is
the other way around. I see the goods first and then do business. That was in
the good days when there were no restrictions. Now there are a lot of
It used to be birds came from Thailand. But Thai's have a policy
prohibiting export of wildlife. People would bring birds down to the border
and I would buy from them and sell abroad. Now Malaysia wants an export permit
from Thailand. Now Malaysia is a member of the world wildlife organization and
must follow its restrictions.
Now all the birds go to Singapore because they don't have these kinds of
restrictions. In Singapore all you need is a RM $5 import license. Can only
use it for one import time. If you bring a thousand birds you only need five
dollars. Actually the Singapore government doesn't worry about anything. As
long as you pay the RM $5.00. So all business has gone down to Singapore.
Business is not so good now here. Last time there was shortage of powdered
milk in Malaysia. All going into Thailand. The government allows it. Malaysia
is so concerned with other peoples' rules that they are not taking care of
their own. So business is hurting a lot. All Thai business goes down to
Singapore. Not here anymore.
Sometimes Thai people put birds on the plane. Officials close one eye. Pay
some cash. Birds stop here in Penang in transit, then go to Singapore. Birds
fly to Singapore and so does business. All my children don't want to take
over. I'm getting old so I just do enough for my wife and myself. So I used to
go personally to get birds in Thailand. Since restrictions I don't care
anymore. Before I started I went all over Thailand and Malaysia to make
business contracts and to see the kinds of birds. I had to work hard when I
first started because I didn't know anyone.
How many children do you have?
One daughter, one son. Daughter is in K. L. My son is in his twenties. He
doesn't want to take over. When I get older I will probably have to sell off
the business. I have one granddaughter.
My son does accounts at a factory. My daughter is married. The son is
working and also studying part time to get a degree. My daughter is in K. L.
She's married already but not working. She keeps in contact. If holiday, she
comes and stays. Hokkien people only. Only husband, wife and child. If want to
come just lock everything up and come and visit. She doesn't live with her
in-laws. Just daughter and son, and a three year-old grandaughter.
How did you get married?
It was a love match. Wife works at a gas station. I buy gas there. That's
how I met her. I was 28. She was only 18. It was 1960 when we got married.
Thirty odd years husband and wife. At that time parents were dead. No one to
match make. Father died in 1953. Mother in 1957. Father was 65. Mother was 58.
Within four years both of them died. Brother was match made. Both brothers are
dead now. One died at 53 years and one at 43 years. Sister has also died
All have high blood pressure. They didn't take care of it. Heart attack. At
that time, I didn't know about my father. No one talks about hypertension.
Mother was diabetic. She had a growth in the Thymus gland. It was probably
cancer. I have hardening of the arteries. Medication is very expensive. Over
RM $100. In 1989, I really felt bad. Hard breathing. After eating something I
really felt uncomfortable.
Your mother loved you even though she was strict.
She taught us the right way. She knew we were poor so she taught us the
right way. She loved us. She didn't let us gamble. They couldn't even see
people gamble. She'll come from behind and hit us with a broom. I'll duck.
Though you were poor it seems you've had a good life. Being poor hasn't
seem to hurt you in your life?
If I'm not like that, I'd have gone mad a long time ago. The hardest thing
is just the physical work only. I had a house. The worst thing that happened
to me was I lost money on my business for three years. I owed people over RM $
200,000. I sold and mortgaged my house to pay people. I used my house as
collateral to help a friend. He left me holding the bag. So I had to sell the
house. This friend owed gas money for the boats but he couldn't pay. If I help
him for his business, my house went for collateral. I sold off my house and
bought a flat. My friend played me out. My missus didn't want to sign. She
doesn't have an education but knows. I trusted him and my friend turned tail.
If you think about this you go mad. I lost my house and everything. My
children felt bad. Might as well cut it clean and sell. Then buy a flat.
Better to cut it at the roots. Clear everything off.
It looks to me like you've had a hard life--you've worked hard?
Yes, a very hard life. Now I'm a little bit successful. I've told the
children. I said you don't give me your money. But what I have here belongs to
me and my wife only. When I wanted to go to China, my children wanted to give
me money, but I didn't want it. I have a little bit now. Enough for me. I
bought a flat and put it in the children's name. I'm old. I put the flat in
both my children's names. If anything happens to me, its easier for them.
For me, I told my children and my wife, "I'm old. When I die, burn me
and throw my ashes into the sea." Why? Because who knows. Maybe my
children will move away. During Cheng Beng, maybe they would feel bad not
having the money to come back. They will feel bad. "Just be kind to me
while I'm alive," I tell them. I told my wife, "if you die first I
will do the same thing to you." My wife said, "Hey, I cannot
swim." I tell her, "but you will be dead already." She says,
"But my spirit will come back to haunt you."
Once you are gone, no more. So why put ashes in a temple just taking up
space. Since I was younger I think of it that way. I used to like to see dead
bodies. I want to know what it is about, the dead bodies. I've been to the
mortuary to see dead cadavers. Old people say, "Don't see all these
things." I don't care. I dig a hole and peek. I used to go and pick out
dead bodies drowned in the sea. No reason to be scared of death. Nonsense. No
matter how bloated and smelly.
I bought a Chinese coffin. It says "huat" on the bottom,
"guan" (like "judge") on top, and "chia"
(money). The meaning is different. The pronunciation is the same but the
meaning is different.