My paternal grandfather’s name was KHO Boon Toh and my grandmother’s name was EE Cheng Neo. I never knew my grandfather as he passed away during the Japanese Occupation. I learnt that my grandfather was a rice trader and migrated to Singapore and then Kuching in the 1920s or 1930s. He had grocery shops in Boat Quay, Singapore and several in Main Bazaar and Padungan Rd in Kuching. By the time I was born, the family were no longer in business as my grandmother just lived on accumulated wealth and the rental from the shophouses in Main Bazaar and Padungan and the ones in Boat Quay were probably sold to pay off my late eldest uncle’s spending spree from owning horses down to his frequent visits to brothels.
I remembered my eldest uncle vaguely. He had two wives. His first wife and him were separated and they had a daughter whom my grandmother acknowledged of course as his official wife and daughter in law. His second wife was a Malay woman and they adopted three children, two girls and one boy. My eldest uncle (Tua Pek) used to come to our house and perhaps because of the stories I heard of his visits to brothels, I used to fear him a lot and was afraid he would touch me. Tua Pek’s motive for most visits were to ask grandma for money and my 3ko who was grandma’s ‘treasurer’ would open up the antique money safe that stored bundles of notes and gave him a few. I would hide whenever Tua Pek visited under the big square table that had a table cloth around it so I would be safe in hiding there. That table stood at the front entrance hall of the house and my late grandfather’s picture hung on the wall where the table stood. This table was the ancestral table to display food whenever there was any occasion to worship such as ‘Cheng Beng’ (All Souls Day). I hated ancestor worship then and the burning of joss sticks and incense but have now come to accept it a way of respect of the death, being part of the family’s tradition and culture. One day when I was about eight years old, I remembered someone came to our house and told us that Tua Pek had died falling down the staircase of a shop in Main Bazaar (which I believed he must have visited a brothel up there, had too much to drink and fell down and died). No one really talked about it and to this day, this is what I thought had happened.
My second uncle (Ji Pek) was a top government officer hence no one carried on my grandfather’s grocery business when he passed away. My father was also a government officer (we called them government or civil servants during the colonial days in Malaysia) and so were the rest of my other younger uncles. I was told the japanese invaded grandfather’s shops and warehouses and grandpa feared them so much that he died of a heart attack (maybe). Looking at my grandfather’s photo, he must have been a successful typical chinese ‘Tau Kay’ (business owner).
Grandmother was a Nyonya dressed in Sarong and chewed betel nuts. Every morning, 3ko would comb her long hair and tie it into a bun. In the early days, my grandmother had servant girls (or maids or slaves as they were called in those days) that waited upon my grandmother and my aunties. These servants were children from poor families who came to live in my family home when they were young and in return their families received some money as compensation. Once these girls were of marriageable age or got married, they were then independent to move out. My three aunties never got married because grandmother did not find any men good enough for them (maybe). My late eldest aunt was married to a Singaporean businessman, a business acquaintance of my grandfather. My father had fallen in love with a woman of Catholic faith but grandmother was against it. My mother was my grandmother’s choice for my father.
Grandmother came to know mother through my eldest aunt (Tua Ko). Ah Nen (what I called my mother) was a young woman of eighteen who came round to my Tua Ko’s house once or twice a week to help with the household cleaning chores. Ah Nen was the eldest child of my maternal grandmother and they lived in a farmhouse in Yishun (previously known as Nee Soon) before all the apartments were built. To get to the bus route, one had to take a 30 minutes walk by foot through the jungle to get to the main road. I used to dread visiting Ah Mah, something we did once every year and would stay for a month during the last school term holidays. I would write letters home to 2ko and drew faces with tears on them and she would fret and missed me so much till I came home.
Grandmother passed away when I was twelve. She gave me my first monopoly set. She named me ‘Jessica’ and she named my sister ‘Lilian’. Grandmother also named my brothers ‘Samson’ (after the strong man who lifted the earth on his shoulder as in Samson & Hercules) and my youngest brother ‘Robin’ as in Robin Hood. Samson did not like his name so he changed his name to ‘Roger’. We were typical Malaysian Chinese family where English names were rare in the 1960s and I have no idea how grandmother came to know all these English names. Most of my childhood friends (except for a few) adopted their own English names when they attended school.
- A taste of the Nyonya flavour (authenticnyonyakueh.wordpress.com)
- A Message to the Malaysian Chinese (aimanamani.wordpress.com)
- The Quays (as in Keys): Boat, Clarke and Robertson (clcelenza.wordpress.com)
- In the City of the Cat (mandyandtheworld.wordpress.com)