The Story of Precious Moon
As Interviewed and Transcribed by
Hugh M. Lewis
Copyright © 2000 by Hugh M. Lewis
(Copies of this document may be printed and used for the classroom and research purposes only.)
The following true account is by a descendant of the Nonya tradition in Penang, given as a clear example of a "mosaic" ethnoculture. The names have been changed to protect the identity of those still living and the memory of those since passed. It is important in the understanding of this tradition to learn how its distinctive sense of ethnoculture had become articulated in the subjective experiences of the individual culture bearer. It is important to understand how such experience may actually have been shaped by culture, and how we in turn might shape that sense of tradition and impart it upon our descendants.
Peranakan society, wherever it had taken root and flourished, wherever it had spread its seed, always had its own sense of order, organization, purpose and outlook upon the world. It has long had its hopes for the future espoused in its own way of bringing up its youngest generation, and a sense of present importance with the generation that has come of age in the world, and an orientation toward the past that is passing away with the oldest.
What are your earliest memories of your grandma?
She was gray, her clothes always looked dirty, her hair was always in a mess--ends always coming out from her sanggul. Thinning. I remember her long nails too. I will probably get a nightmare about her tonight. Every time I visited her I remember her lying down in a sway-backed bed, or in the kitchen. She was probably in her late seventies then, very old. Must have been born in the eighteen hundreds--1890, around there. I can only trace as far back as my grandmother. Can't help get the feeling of old. She would usually give me a dollar if I let her hold me or touch me, which I wouldn't do because she was so old and dirty. I was such a young girl--five years old. She'll call; she'll say "lai, lai, chu, chu, Ah mah sayang." I would usually try to get away from her. They'd let her touch me once. I only wanted that dollar. Then I' d run off, scared. I really didn't know her that well as a grandmother. Maybe because she was so independent, she didn't want to stay with us. She would only stay in her "kong chu" her ancestor's house--the house that she bought, the house that she was raised in, had children in, that her son and husband lived in. Also her youngest sister lived there, in spite of the fact that the house was old, dilapidated, the atap had holes, had coconut oil lamps. She had no running water. Only had electricity for her tenets--one bulb. Had to go outside to get water. No bath room. An outside. She was so stingy with her money. She didn't want anyone to pay for it. There was only one tiny red bulb--so dim you can't even see your hand in front of you. Pretty stingy, huh. The only thing I could get out of her was that one dollar, too.
You want me to tell you where she kept all her secret money--in cigarette cans. In those days they didn't buy packets of cigarettes--they would buy only a cigarette at a time to smoke, so the cigarettes were sold in the can--50 to a can at the sundry shop. I can remember the brands--"Rough Rider,"" Kraven A,"" Torchlight," there's a few more but I don't remember them (Capstan)--their name escapes me. I remember one. It had a sailor and an Anchor on the can. She'd put all her money in there--her dollar notes, her jewelry, and then she'd put them all in a cupboard. She had those gold coins--minted gold coins. She didn't believe in banks. She never put her money in banks. She'd put them in her cupboard--soot stained. She'd lock the cupboard with a key that she'd keep around her neck all the time. The string was so black with her perspiration. She's so cheap she'd use the outer layers of coconut that would create a lot of smoke. Her pots were all black. You could never get it clean, either. All those years of accumulated soot. Poor old lady. I don't know why she would never come to live with us. My mother would try to make her come to live with us. I don't think she trusted my mom, either. I don't think she trusted anybody.
Why don't you think she trusted people?
From what I understand, she only had one son, who was the apple of her eye. I think it would have been a different story if he had lived, but he died real young--left a wife and child. I think when her son died, her world died with him. I know she didn't care for her two daughters, my mom and my aunt. She had a saying--"Daughters are ashes--you can't kindle a fire with ashes--where as a son is an ember." A daughter is nothing--your name goes down through your son--your son is more important. She always says that to my mom and her sister.
How about her husband?
Well her husband and her never did get along. Always fighting with him over trivial things--she was always domineering, aggressive and bossy, never a very loving person--in her younger days she wasn't very loving toward her children or her husband. You want me to tell you the incident that broke my Grandfather's back. My grandfather wanted to go into business with a friend of his. But he didn't have the cash on him, because my grandmother held the purse strings, all the money was with her. So he asked money from her, but she wouldn't give it to him. She made a big fuss. So he got very angry.
"You don't have to give me the money, but I'm going to my store and I'm not coming back to you. I'll send you money for you to buy food, but I'm not coming back to live as husband and wife with you. There wasn't talk of divorce or separation. Where he had his business, a few miles away. He'd send money with his friend, but he never did stay in the house. He never went into business with his friend, because my grandmother wouldn't allow it.
You know what kind of business he had?
I don't know--I think it was by the sea--so I think it had something to do with fishing: selling supplies; fishing nets; gear, that sort of thing.
My grandmother was very frugal, to the point of being stingy. My grandfather was more "chin chai"--more easy going. I think he was hen-pecked by her. My mother told me when my grandfather moved out, my grandmother would not go to visit him. Friends would come to take my mom to visit him. I remember she said how much fun she had there. She could run around. She was only about ten and my aunt about six. And then when people would come to say "its time to go home," they would always cry and cry, they wanted to stay with him.
What do you think ever happened to her money?
She hoarded it. She had money. Jewelry. I think she bought gold. After my grandfather died, she must have spent a little because she had to live on it. She had a lot of money. After she died, the story goes, the bulk, 99% of everything was to go to the grandson--the son of the son that had died. My mother received a few things, my aunt, and nieces, inherited a few pieces of jewelry. But the bulk was inherited by the grandson. The house, the land, everything went to him. It was supposed to go to the grandson. But I heard strange things happened to the gold and the money.
This is like family skeleton. Are you ready? According to my mom, after my grandmother had passed away, they opened her cupboard; where she kept all her things, there was only a little bit of jewelry and a little bit of cash, most of her stuff was missing. She figured that since my grandmother trusted the old man Chin, he probably opened the cupboard and taken some things out. Like old man Ching had access to her body--anyone could have swiped her key and taken a few cans of her stuff. She had to have cash, she collected rent, she didn't believe in banks. Old man Ching was a pretty high gambler in those days--he probably just gambled it away. I wouldn't put it past him. I think he's got that streak in him that he would do it. Anyway the bulk of it went to her grandson. I should say my cousin, but he's so old we think of him as our uncle.
Now the grandson at that time was in Australia, going to medical school. His mother was working in K.L. So his mother came up to Penang and acted as a caretaker for his house while he finished his study. But the strange thing was the son never came back, he married an Australian and stayed there. The mother was left holding the property. She took over what Grandmother had then, collecting rent---some Indians had made homes under the house--Malay style house on stilts-- they made cubicles. A Chinese had rented a piece of the property to build a house on it. They were there a long time since my grandmother, paying rent. Very minimum--like 60 dollars. Then there was an Indian sundry shop on the property--30 or 40 dollars. Then another Indian built a little shack where he could put his personal things--just a corrugated pine shack. He had a small business in Pulau Tikos selling ice. Then there was another Indian couple. I think the husband pulled the cart--manpower. He was that. An odd job kind of laborer. They had built themselves a little shack there, too. Underneath the house, there was a big space that wasn't being used--Anyone that didn't have a home would stay there--any one time there were four or five men staying there. She would charge them rent too. That's where Elton and the old man Ching, everyone picked up Tamil. So this lady sort of inherited all this.
Is this the house your Mom lived in?
Yes, when she grew up she lived there. Where I lived too until I was two years old. Then we moved from there.
Did your father live in the same house?
No, remember my father had a first wife. He couldn't come visit.
So that's what happened to the money--this women, we call her Ah kim, took over.
She didn't like my Mom or aunt. She liked only her son, who had an education. My mother stayed at home and worked a lot. They weren't abused, but if they didn't tow the line they'd get beatings. My mother had to collect coconuts. Grate them. It was a pan--huge chunk at a time. My grandmother burned coconut oil. They had to wash, clean, everything, lah, these young ladies had to do. I think my mother and her sister were very close. They were like each other's support group. And then they'd have to shuffle the Chi Ki cards whenever her friends came over--one of those card games the old Nonyas would play. She'd have to make coffee, run out and buy like an errand girl. Everyday they'd have to stay up late until they stopped playing; they'd practically fall asleep on the gambling table. People would poke them to wake them up. They'd be paid twenty cents--that was a lot of money in those days--the 30's. Life was very hard for them. They had to do a lot. Sweep the Kampong. Collect the chicken eggs. I think when my aunt got married, my mom was pretty much devastated, because she wasn't there anymore. I remember hearing the story of when my aunt got married. My grandmother arranged it--sent out all these feelers. I don't think my aunt was aware it was going that fast. Next day, "well, you're getting married!" My aunt didn't see the groom before they got married. And she was devastated. She was crying for a few days, because she said her husband was so ugly, dark and black--on account he worked for this ship plying between Penang and Sumatra. I think he was in the Charcoal trade. My aunt was very beautiful. She was crying, and asked my Grandmother why she did it. And my grandmother says, "you've got to go to your husband, you can't come home anymore." That's about all I know of my aunt too. I called her "Ma-ee"--" Auntie Mommy". That's as much as I know about my aunt. I guess my mother was alone after that. Auntie Mommy had 2 daughters and a son. She died very young of cancer.
My mother told me that relatives came from Taiping. She went to stay with them there and she had a wonderful time. The father owned a bottling factory--she could drink all the soda she wanted. Those days there was a marble that would fall into the soda when it was opened. She'd drink it to see the marble floating there, and get sick on it. They both had pretty hard lives. They still had to work. I think a couple of years after she got married the war came.
You don't know anything else about your grandmother?
I just know she wasn't a very pleasant lady. For example, she had cataracts and my mom made her go to the hospital. My mom would come to her everyday. She would bitch--"I want to go home to see my things." My mom told her she would come stay with her after the hospital. She fixed everything up at the house. After the first day--she would complain to go home. So my mom said go on. My father took her home. I've got to go home to see Pau Kim. That's Ching's name. She trusted the old man Ching more than her own children--being the only Man in the family, they kind of depended on him a lot. They trusted him, which they shouldn't have. He kind of hypnotized her. I think that's how he got her money. Old man Ching always told us that our mother cheated his mother out of their share of the house. He never worked much. I guess working for the British had something to do with it. Gave him a sense of self-importance. I think if he had been more manly about it, he would have been a con man. Many years later my cousin told me that he would help his wife with the laundry--in the Chinese clan he would be the laughing stock of all the men--but he would do that.
He wasn't a Baba?
He is. His mother was the nicest old lady you ever met. I call her Apo. She was very soft-spoken old lady. Nicer than my grandmother. She wouldn't give us money, but she had chickens and would give each of us a chicken egg each time we came to visit. Give each of us a Kampong egg. Would tell my mother--"you must never beat your children"--"you must love and cherish your children." Her husband left her. He was supposedly a Kapitan China, who came from Perak. That's what old man Chin always tells me. Apo was his first wife. His father was a womanizer, I guess he didn't love Apo. After old man Chin was born, the father went back to Perak, settled down with another woman, and had children. On the other hand, the husband was such a womanizer and had given Apo venereal disease. She had some kind of skin condition on both her legs from knee down. Holes and puss and festering wounds, both feet were swollen. Everyday she would clean them. My Apo cleans both her legs, use some leaves for medicinal purpose--role them up and poke the sores to drain them out. Every time she does that it grossed me out. Think how a nice person like that could produce a son like that. She had nice no pretensions--nice old lady.
Old man Chin had an adopted sister--Apo bought her after her husband left her. The story goes that her biological parents were poor so she was given away. She married a Malay guy. Old man Chin pushed her around, and kicked her out because he didn't want her to marry a Malay guy. She married him anyway. After that she was practically cut off, she couldn't come home to see her mother. Old man Chin forbade her to put her feet on her doorway. I guess after many years he relented--she let her come visit her mother. Well, that's about it.
Do you remember your grandmother's surname?
Toh, T, O, H. I think they came from Burma. She was very dark. She didn't have a Chinese face--very dark complexion. She had a mongol face--very prominent high cheekbones. Not oval but her face was very long. Very strong features. I remember her ears were very long. I remember her in a picture wearing the "paju panjang," she had a handkerchief over her shoulder. That picture belongs to Chin's wife. I remember seeing that picture.
You say she comes from Burma?
She might have some Burmese blood in her. Her father may have come down from Burma. My mother mentioned it a few times. She might have some family in Burma. Even her mother may have been Burmese, but I never heard her speak Burmese before. She was very dark. Very masculine features. She doesn't look feminine. She was pretty dirty. Old man Chin told me she could go into trance; she could be possessed by "Nenek"--a Malay spirit--a woman's spirit. She told me that one time she went into a trance, and the spirit told her my mother was possessed by the devil, so she started hitting her with a stick to drive it out. She didn't do it very often, but she could go into a trance.
Do you think she latah'd?
No, I don't think so. But I think my Apo can--kind of borderline, say a few words, like that. I didn't know her well. Grandma died when I was five. She wasn't close to us, except Seh Hahn who could whittle her money out from her. Apo wasn't like grandmother.
So what about your Mom?
Well, she always wore the Sarong and the sleeveless tops for everyday wear, except when she goes out or to functions she wore her Kerbaya. As long as I ever saw her, she wore that. I know she liked to sing her Malay songs. She would tell us that when her brother's wife would come, she would try to teach them the alphabet, but my grandmother would put a stop to it real fast-"they're dumb, why bother?" She was very close to her sister. I know that.
When my aunt got sick she took my aunt to the hospital, the doctor told her she had cancer of the uterus. My mother was so upset, because the doctor showed her what it looked like. My aunt knew about it, and she was so depressed. Well, she died. I think in 1959-60. It was a grand funeral. Everybody came. I remember it. My grandmother didn't go. I guess losing a daughter was painful to her. Before Auntie had died, she asked my mother to keep an eye on her children. When she goes she will be happy. Every week or so the children would come and visit us. My mother was much closer to the second daughter--still young, and the little boy. The oldest daughter was already married. The second daughter was going out with a young guy that the father didn't approve of. My mother was like a go between. Every time my mother would have to go convince my uncle he was O.K. He gave his daughter a really hard time. He finally relented and agreed to let them marry. But my mom was insulted, because my cousin let her father's sister do all the arranging. My mother didn't do any of it. She said she didn't carry through what she had promised her dead sister. She didn't go to the wedding.
When a Chinese sends out invitations to a wedding, they send the parents to issue the invitations. But since her mother was dead, and her father's sister had taken over the arrangements, then her aunt should have personally come to issue the invitation--she didn't do it, she didn't show respect to my mother. She felt slighted over that, since she was the next best thing to her mother. It's like my mother was cut off at that point. It was like a slap in the face for her, no recognition. After that she didn't have anything to do with them for a long time. My cousin and her husband moved to Sarawak for three years. She visited my mom again when she returned. They started communicating again. I think they had a very modern wedding, with the white veil. Even Seh Hahn had a very western one, not a traditional wedding.
What else about your Mom?
She liked to play the Chi Ki. She also like the Mah Jong. She could read the Mah Jong characters on the cards. She knew English perfectly well, she could understand whatever you told her, but she just couldn't speak it. She spoke very good Malay--excellent Malay, I should say. She spoke Hokkien. She loved the "Dondang Sayang." She loved that. Then she love Boria. The Boria is very Penang. It's like a group of people, usually just men, invited to social functions and they have to sing songs that praise somebody--like a millionaire who gives charity. Sing songs for five minutes. It can be anything--an animal, a person. It's very Penang, traditionally only a Penang thing. Now it's all over Malaysia. She loved Malay movies because she spoke Malay so well. She also loved Hindi and Tamil movies. Once in a while she'd listen to traditional Hokkien songs, like the Hokkien opera. As long as its Hokkien she likes to watch it. A very generous person. Always helping one person and the next. Always helping someone--feed them and clothe them. In fact, old man Chin's sister, who married a Malay guy, my mom supported them for ten years.
The whole family stayed with us. The husband, wife, two children. They didn't give my mom a single cent. Her husband was a gambler. Owed money right and left. They were so destitute they couldn't afford food. My mother had a thing, wouldn't tell them when to leave. My father would say, "well whose new here today." She was a real homemaker. She'd have four children of the first wife to live with us at a time. I think the four youngest. There were always four or five children from my husband's first wife staying with us. Then people would always conveniently drop by for lunch and dinner. Everyday she'd go to the market and buy food. She'd have a huge basket and buy ten dollars worth of food. It could feed twenty people at the time. She'd buy a big gantang of rice--a gunnysack. Everyday she'd cook, lunch and dinner. She'd have old man Chin, sister's mother-in-law, grandchildren, sister's husband and children. Always a house full of people. She always did this. She didn't resent these people coming in again and sponging off her. If you can find a more delicate term for it. Of course she would have, like on weekends, on Saturday and Sunday, my father would come home from the Turf Club, horse racing, he would take us out to dinner--my mom's day off was Saturday and Sunday. Usually I got to go. He'd take us to this restaurant called Lok Tai Ki. He always ordered the same thing--bowl of soup, curry, and fried salted fish for me, and then there would always be a bowl of sambal balachan.
What else can I say about my Mom? She was a good cook. A fantastic cook. Everyday cooked Nonya food. Everyday must have curry, sambal. She had a pounder this big. She always had one hot dish everyday. She liked to have animals--always buying baby chicks and ducklings. She loved her chickens and ducks. We never bought eggs. She kept two geese, two turkeys too. She just kept them.
She arranged my sister's wedding. She found the groom for her. Got them together. They went out a few times, and presto, they're getting married. It was arranged. That's why Seh Hahn is so bitter. The husband came and lived with her. It was a "chin choi"--literally to "marry into the bride's family"--you don't have to pay for anything, everything is taken care of. They lived with her for five or six years until my parents broke up.
She spoke very good Malay. But when she spoke Hokkien she would put Malay words into it. She'd say "tolong" a lot--"help"--"Tolong mama say chai"-- "Help mommy with the vegetables." I cannot give you examples, examples is hard to give.
She's into the deity scene. Always going around to the deities. The Dato, the Keramat, she'd be there. She wouldn't trance. She liked to go around the temples.
She ate the betel leaves--the sireh--the sireh leaves with the gambier. But she didn't chew tobacco. Thank god for that. But she smoked! Her packet of cigarettes--10 to a packet--would last her two, two and a half days.
She had a lot of friends, but nobody did anything for her when she died. Come this year it will be 10 years since she died.
Would she keep her money like your Grandma?
She'd keep her money. Not in a can, but between her clothes. She didn't keep it in the bank. She didn't trust them. I don't think she'd know how to negotiate with the banker. Seh Hahn kept her money at home up until the time when my niece started working, now they have a joint bank account. She wouldn't do it with the son. |She wouldn't trust him. They would love their sons, but they wouldn't trust them. Betsy (my niece) is always very frugal. She saves her money and when she wants something she buys it.
She likes to play the Tong Tin, like the Vietnamese play. A rotating credit circle. We call it Tong Tin. Sometimes it would go for three years--two years, a year and a half. The short ones would go for a year. Sometimes twenty people. Usually 20 dollars a month. That would be my mother's share. So you figure if she had three Tong Tins going at one time she needs to save seventy dollars a month to pay. Sometimes she'd have two or three going at one time, so she had to really keep track of them so she'd have the money when the leader comes and collects it from her. She liked to play the number game with the magical number book. She was totally illiterate. She couldn't read or write.
So tell me about your sister?
What do you want to know about her? She got married real young, maybe seventeen years old. She didn't have a choice. It was a match thing, you know. But at least she met her husband before they were officially engaged. I remember my father threw her an engagement party. My grandmother was still alive though when she got engaged. She died the same year, so the Chinese have a tradition, you have to get married within a hundred days of the death, if not you have to wait three years.
So within three months my sister got married. It was a big wedding. We didn't go to those big fancy restaurants. My mother had a "chong por"--a cook come in and cook for all the guests. He did the cutting up, in charge of the kitchen. And then also my mother had a "ch'ng kek em"--she's the one that knows the prayers, how to make up the bride. She's the one that also provides the wedding dress. It was a white one. A very western wedding. My sister also wore white. Like three days before the wedding the "ch'ng kek em" came from Kulin and she brought with her the wedding dress, and then she would have to "kui bin" ceremony on my sister. It's where they shave off all the hair of the face by using boiled egg yolk, then they cut the fringe, and then they put on cosmetic for the first time, like the rouge, eyebrow, first time.
All the brides have to go through that. I remember I was curious and wanted to see it. But every one said "shh, shhh, you're a little girl, you can't see". But they never explained why. "Little children cannot see but you'll know when you get married." Because he was a "Chin Choi" the bridegroom didn't have to give anything. The bride's parents paid for the wedding. I guess my parents gave the bride some gold jewelry, but that's about it. He was originally from Singapore. And then, I remember they had a night before the wedding, a lot of people came over. My father threw an informal dinner for relatives and close friends. And then my sister, at a special time they had someone look up the time, and she prayed to the god's. The "ch'ng kek em" helped her with all that. My parents fed Seh Hahn the sweet rice balls cooked in syrup. They fed her that. I remember that. I do not remember much of the wedding itself. Only people coming and going. My sister looked so beautiful in her bridal dress. My parents before asked her to put on her wedding veil--they put it on for her and the "Ch'ng kek em" would do the rest. I was the little bride's maid. That's all I remember.
Does your sister ever wear the kebaya?
I've never seen her wear the kebaya. She's always in a western dress. And then her husband moved in with us. And then Betsy came along nine month's later. They had the baby, and my mother hired a "orang jaga" to take care of the baby and to cook for the mother, wash for the mother and take care of her. That one-month period is special confinement for the mother so she has to have special food cooked and all that.
I remember Betsy as an infant. As a neonate when they brought her back from the hospital. I remember the "orang jaga" was there. I remember I was so interested in what they were doing to the baby--bath her, change her, powder her bottom, and then they'd wrap her up so tightly she could not move. And the baby would sleep with the "orang jaga." My sister didn't have to take care of the baby because the "orang jaga" was there. She didn't have to cook or get up in the middle of the night for the baby. She was lucky in a sense, not like me.
Does your sister cook Nonya food?
Yes, yes, they eat a lot of sambal balachan, curries, gulai. She likes hot food. Even Betsy likes that, but she likes soup too. Betsy doesn't care for hot food that much. My sister only went to school until grade six. Seems she played hooky a lot. She was good, but she just wasn't interested in being in school. My mother sent her to the convent school at Pulau Tikos--a Christian school. She even went to church a few times but my grandmother was shocked. I get the feeling she was influenced by the Convent school, because they had to say mass every morning and say prayers before they go to class, so she followed that. She dropped out after grade six. She'd make Lau Mak carry her piggy back to school. When she would act up she'd make her carry her piggyback style. My sister was naughty when she was young because grandmother spoiled her. She was my grandmother's favorite. She could get away with a lot with my grandmother. I don't know when this happened, but she was a young girl. She got on this man's bicycle that was in the compound. Olive put her on the bicycle and let go and she rode right through one of the tenant's shacks--right through the front door. She hit her head on the corrugated metal roof and cut her head on it. She bled a lot and until this day you can see the scar. My grandmother got really upset with Olive for that. Another time she was the ringleader of some of the tenant's children. Together with Tony, our cousin, they went to the Toddy shop and bought themselves a pint of toddy, took it home and went under the house and started drinking the toddy and got drunk on the toddy without anyone knowing about it. She loved curry when she was a little girl and she didn't want to eat what my Mom or Lau Mak cooked and she'd go around to the tenants and they'd feed her rice and curry. She speaks Malay, but not very good. Not as fluent as my mother.
Now she is just a housewife. She saves her money. She's rich I tell you. She's like my grandmother, very frugal. She can make a dollar out of fifty cents. Whatever she can she saves. She buys gold. She even has a safety deposit box chock full of her gold things. Now she's just a housewife, not a very happy housewife. She knows "Chi Ki", but never plays it. I've seen her play a few times with mother, when she was younger. She goes to the Kramats. In fact she still goes to the one my mother used to go to. The menora. My mom would go three times a year. She goes to the same places.
What about yourself?
You know. I was the youngest in the family. I guess I was spoiled. I was still punished severely when I was naughty. I guess Americans would say I was abused. I still got caning and the pinching. I remember the worst one in my life. My mother locked me outside and let me cry and cry. I was only five or six years old. Maybe five. In the morning until my father came home from lunch. That must have been traumatic because I remember it still. I would get to go everywhere with my parents. I was the only one they would take. On the weekends when my father came home from the Turf club, he would take us to dinner. I remember lots of toys from the Turf club.
I remember he bought me a nice toy pram, and then one time he bought me a magician's box, and then one time he bought me a buy and sell box with little scales for weighing up things. Those were the nice few things he bought me. I remember that. Then if he came home drunk, he'll let me go through all the pockets and take all the loose change. Sometimes there would be three or four dollars of loose change. I was rich. Sometimes I would watch those little scenes on TV if a man got drunk they'd put hot compresses on the head. I'd do that a lot, acted nurse for my dad.
We'd go out on weekends. Just travel. To Butterworth, Ipoh, Taiping. Spend the day with relatives and then come back the same day. He was pretty relaxed with the kids but my mom was the strict disciplinarian. She was good when she was good, but when she was bad she was bad. I pretty much had a very normal childhood--nothing much until the teens. Teenagers always have problems anyway--insecure, you always don't feel good about yourself, and all that.
How about Betsy?
Well when Betsy was growing up I thought she was a pest. Maybe I was a little jealous. I had center stage so long, and then she came along and took the stage. There's only six years between us, not a lot. When she was growing up, my mom was the one who took care of her. Seh Hahn didn't do a lot of that, after the "orang jaga " left. Betsy would sleep with us. She would follow my mom and dad everywhere. Seh Hahn was the mother but that was it. My mom would let her play with my toys and books and she would tear them all up. I got real mad at that. As she grew old, I guess we got closer and closer, she began to catch up with me. Pretty soon we were real close. She's like my little sister. A very nice girl.
When the Malay boy friend was going out with her, her parents gave her a hard time. They didn't like that. Her father gave her a hard time. Nothing came of it anyway. At least I don't think so. Peter is pretty much the spoiled one. He gets away with a lot. He gripes and in the end they always give in to him. I think they love Peter a little more. He was brought up by his mother. My mother didn't take care of him. He was much closer to his parents than Betsy.
Seh Hahn has never done a lot. Always close to home. She's lucky. Everything is taken care of for her. Until she got into her thirties, then she had to do a lot for herself. But before then she was very dependent on my mother and father. Very stingy lah. Too stingy for words. I don't think I'm that way. That's why I don't save money. I have my gold, but that's about it. She doesn't have any friends. The only friends she has belong to my mother's age group. Her own age group, she doesn't have any. She knows the rules to cards, but she doesn't play them. She's cut off from the world. She's lonely. If it weren't for Betsy. I think she lives for Betsy, she's so attached to her, hanging on to her. My sister is sad--she's not happy with her life. Her marriage isn't good. I don't think her husband really loves her. There's no love between them. She doesn't have any friends. The only person she can relate to besides her daughter is myself, and I'm eight thousand miles away.
Do you miss Betsy?
Yes. I think it would be nice to have her around. But, no can do.
I get the impression that the Nonyas are very domestic and it persists from Mother to daughter?
I think the women are the only ones who maintain the bond of being "Nonya". If a group of Nonya's came here they would still be the same way--"What is the women's movement" or "Women's lib", I still take care of my own family. They are very much family oriented. Family is very important to them. Their children, their husband. In that order too, I think. When the children come along, the husband sort of takes a second place. The men have always kind of protected them, so the woman is always at home. The daughter's are raised to be the same way. It's passed on from mother to daughter. The sons go out and go to school. The women are the one's who carry the whole thing. Not the men. I never hear anything about the men. They don't wear Malay clothes. They wear Chinese clothes. Basically the only thing Malay the men ever do is eat sambal balachan.
Look at my sister, she is the same way. But Betsy is not that way because she has to go out and work. The world is changing now--you just can't do it any more that way. Even for myself--I had to go out to work, in the 70's. It stopped at my sister, who grew up in the fifties and got married in 1963. There's no more Nonya culture--which is a sad thing. It kind of died out. The women don't sit around in their groups and play Chi Ki, chew sireh leaves, talk about food and their families. That's all gone. It's sad in a way, and in another way it's just the change of the times. You cannot live in the past; women do not do that anymore.
You're pretty much a "home-body" too?
Yes I am. I'm proud to be a homebody, so hoots to anybody who says otherwise. For me, my family comes first. It is very important to me. I'm sorry if a lot of people disagree with that. It's the opposite of people who think its very "unliberated"--not what a "modern woman" should be. Every one is entitled to their opinion. It's just that my choice is to be at home with my family. My career is my family. That's a career. Personally I think it's a very important career. My mother was a homebody, my sister is a homebody, my Grandmother was a homebody, and they didn't turn out bad. They may have had problems, but who doesn't.
Since you're being represented by this, is there anything else you want to say about the Nonyas?
I think it's a shame that it's dying. There's no such thing as pure Nonya culture and customs anymore. I would like to have my daughter learn about it. What I know is so minimal, it won't help her to learn a lot, except teaching her how to cook. I retain that part. The customs and culture are all gone. Some of my thoughts are still very Nonya. My outlook on life is also that way too. I resent the fact that some Chinese, when they ask me--"Do you know Mandarin?" or "Do you know which part of China your Ancestor's come from?"--I reply "No, I don't, I only know Malay and English and my own Hokkien dialect." I get the feeling that though they make a polite reply, they deep down feel like "What an odd ball, she doesn't even know Mandarin."
I resent the Malays, how they are treating the Chinese population there. The policies are not fair. The Chinese are being pretty much discriminated against, economically as well as politically. I think with the policies being that way, I feel very Chinese when the discrimination is against my own people. Then I don't feel very Nonya any more.
Post-Script, Four Years Later
You recently told me of a memory you once had of your childhood?
I remember when I had my first period, and my mother kept me back from school. She didn't tell me what it meant. She had my aunt tell me. I guess she was too embarrassed. Or she didn't know how to explain it to me. So my aunt took me to the bathroom, and told me how to put on a sanitary pad. And she told me to remember the date that I had my first period, because "it's very important." I remember that, "It's very important," but she never explained why. But now I know why.
I remember I cleaned up, took a shower, washed my hair and everything. My mother said it's very important to be clean when you have your menstruation. The blood that you expel from your body is dirty, and she made me sleep on a canvas cot--not sleep but lie down. And she had a clay incense burner. She put some charcoal in it. A little bit. And then she put some sandal wood shavings in it. She put the clay burner under the cot. I remember that. She let the smoke go over my body with the incense burner. She blew it over my whole body, so that the sandalwood would purify or clean the body because it smells good and menstruation is dirty.
When my dad came back from work I remember she told him "Precious Moon is a woman now." I remember I felt very embarrassed about it. And also she told anybody who cared to listen about it, especially relatives. I was very embarrassed. It was one significant day, because everyone treated me special on that day.
You mentioned a cremation to me?
I was about six or seven-years-old, maybe younger. It was before I went to school. There was an old couple--a childless old couple. They didn't have any children, only each other. I remember how they spoke Hokkien and Thai. And they lived with a family that also spoke Hokkien and Thai. I think they came from Thailand originally. The old woman died. She must have been in her eighties. I vaguely remember her. She always wore a sarong, and she wore a long-sleeved cotton blouse that had buttons down the front--that buttoned up to her neck. I can visualize her now. A skinny woman, tall and skinny. Bedak (powder) on her face every time I see her. Very neat, her hair was always tied up, scraped away from her face and tied up in a little bun in the back. A little sanggul. She didn't have much hair on top though, thinning hair.
I remember she died and I went to her cremation. It was at a Siamese temple. I don't remember what her coffin looked like. All I remember were the logs that were piled on top of her coffin. As the coffin and logs were burning, people who were watching over the crematorium were pouring water over it so it would burn slowly rather than fast. And they told us to come back in a couple of days to sift through her bones and pick them up.
The day that we went to pick them up, there was all these little kids and grown-ups. It was early in he morning. It was like a picnic. Nobody was crying or anything. Everybody was happy. The children were at least, playing. The children jumped into the pit and the grown-ups said "everyone look through the ashes for the bones," and everyone was sifting through the ashes for the bones. After collecting a handful of bones, a little pile, we put all of them into a little handkerchief. I remember one lady telling the children, "Now whoever finds the biggest bone, that means the deceased Auntie favors you the most." And a little boy found that bone. I remember that.
Her husband cleaned the bones up. Washing them and transferred it to another big piece of nice handkerchief. He sloshed a lot of perfume over it. And then he put it in a little urn, and that day he buried the urn with the bones in it inside the cemetery. I didn't go to ceremony.
It was interesting that you seemed to suddenly remember the cremation after someone was talking about witnessing cremations in India along the Ganges?
I never even thought about it. It just came into my mind. It's been so many years, more than thirty. I forgot about it completely. It's amazing what things you can remember if somebody just pulls that little trigger. It suddenly occurred to me that I had done all that too. I jumped into the pit and rifled through the ashes looking for the bones. Can you imagine it? I wouldn't do it now.
I remember this old man; someone told me he was a Thai shaman who could do love potions and charms. I remember what he did for us. Every year my father and mother believed in praying to the spirit of the house you lived in. They would find a suitable date, and then on that day they would invite that old man to come to our house. He would make out of banana leaves little square containers about an inch high and square in shape. He'd make a lot of those. Then my mother would put a little bit of rice, fish and I don't know what else, I think a vegetable, and she would stick a little candle into the rice and place all these little plates around the house, inside and out. Then the old man would have a string and tie it around all the little plates around the house until it comes back to where he was sitting. And in front of him he would have the same thing, the same plate with the food in it. Then at the right time he would start chanting in Thai. After that we would all leave the food where it is and not touch it until the next day, when we'd throw it out.
I remember you mentioning going out-station once a year.
Oh, "Or Chik," it means "black tongue" because he had a black tongue. He's supposed to be like a living saint. A very old, old man and he lived in this out of the way place. The village he lived in was Naka, close to the Thai border. I've been there, there's nothing there but this small temple. Nobody else, there wasn't even a village to speak of.
But his reputation had traveled all the way down to Penang, even further maybe. Anyway, my father, mother and me decided to go see Or Chik one day. It must have been a weekend. We traveled there and got there in the afternoon. And my parents had taken some offerings like rice, coffee powder, sugar, cans of sardines, for the temple. That's how the priest sustained himself, through these donations.
When we got there, there was just this priest and two other young men. Maybe they were temple keepers. They weren't wearing robes, just everyday clothes. We went into this big hall. It was clean, I remember, kind of airy because there were windows at the side. And he was seated on this raised up chair. And we were there for a specific reason. My mother wanted the blessed black pepper pods for school children. Presumably after taking the pepper pods, one once a day, they would have a better memory. She bought herself a whole kati bag full of pepper pods and gave it to Or Chik so he could chant and put blessings on the pepper pods.
After that we traveled back to Penang and she would distribute these pods among friends and relatives, whoever had children in school. At home she poured ours into a little glass bottle.
She put it in the kitchen cupboard, and every morning she would make all of us take one pepper pod a day before we went to school. Wanting to be smart, all of us were very diligent about it, but I don't think it did much good.
You don't remember much about your Grandma's funeral?
I don't remember because I was very young. Five, I think. All I remember was my mother crying. She would crouch down behind the coffin every time anybody came and she would wail. She would wail in a singsong fashion. "Amah, so and so is here to visit you. Why did you go like that without leaving any word? Why did you go so suddenly without any last minute requests?" And she would crouch there by the coffin until the visitor would pull her up.
I remember a little bit of the funeral. I remember walking down the streets with the coffin in the funeral truck. Walking behind it until we got to Codrington Avenue, right in front of a big Chinese clan Kongsi, right as we got there the funeral train stopped. Then someone told everyone to kneel down and not to look at the coffin. Everyone started crying again. All the mourners then got onto the bus, and the bus followed the cortege again.
I don't remember the actual burial, but I remember after the burial we went to a temple by the cemetery. And then I remember drinking some kind of sweet water they gave to everyone. Kind of like a sweet drink.
Do you remember your Mom's funeral?
Similar, but very small. They had a band, the Sai Kong with a little bell that he would ring. Every night he would ring the bell and prey, as long as you had the body.
Everything was the same. Go with the coffin, and stop half way and load up on the bus. Then you go to the cemetery. You are not supposed to see them put the coffin inside the ground because it's supposed to be bad luck. And then afterward you throw soil onto the coffin. Then you go off and cut up a big roasted pork. Everyone has a piece to take home, also a little red string and sweets.
What's the little red string?
The death is supposed to be "Or Su." It's not a bad thing, just dark. You take the red string home so that the darkness of the burial will not follow you home. The candy is supposed to signify sweetness, because you don't take the sadness of the funeral home with you. If you go to the funeral to send the deceased off, you don't go into your house first. You burn the red candles first, because you are considered dirty. Then you have someone bring out a pail of water for you and you wash your feet and face and hands outside the house, and then you go inside.
Has your feeling changed any about being a Nonya since the last couple of years?
I think I've grown away from it. It's not so important. There's nothing special about it. You're you, you know. There are the little quirks, that's all. The books and the slippers and porcelain I've bought is just to remind me a little bit of my heritage. I know I'm not going to wear my kerbayas or my sarongs anymore. It's just nice to have them, like keepsakes.
How about in regard to your daughter?
Oh, my daughter is my sayang. I know she's not going to grow up being a Nonya. Maybe just some values like filial piety, respect your parents and not answer back. I don't regret that she will not be a Nonya. I will not try to force her to be like a Nonya when everything around her is contrary to being a Nonya.
At some point you seem to have let go of it all?
Yes, I don't know when. It happened, and I don't even feel hurt about it. I just don't care anymore. No one writes me anymore or calls me, but it doesn't bother me.
Post-script, January 1st, 2000
I have been in the States for 13 years now and every so often I think about my life in Penang, the food and my family. I wonder what it would be like to have remained there and carried on my life as the last dying breed of Nonya. My life would have been very different then. I still miss my hometown and sure would like to go back one day with my daughter. The last time we were there she did not enjoy it at all. Maybe now that she is getting older she will begin to appreciate some aspects of living in Penang.
I still try to instill a sense of being a Nonya in my daughter. I show her pictures and tell her stories of how my life was growing up with a Nonya family. Some days she is interested and some days she shows no enthusiasm at all. I get disappointed but that is to be expected from a young girl. I try to teach her filial piety, towards her parents and her elders. It is semi-successful. My daughter likes my chicken curry and salted fish that no other American kid will try to eat. She still likes her hamburgers and fast food though.
When my daughter comes of age all of these Nonya business will have no relevance to her life her in the States. What a shame. It will be totally gone then. But I hope that she will teach her children and children's children some of the values I have taught her especially filial piety and respect towards her elders if nothing else. They need not eat Nonya food, wear Nonya clothes or even speak Nonya language but if I know that I have passed on at least one of my Nonya traits then I will be happy.
Copyright © 2000 by Hugh M. Lewis