Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Mom's Story I

Growing up in an area like Geylang, you are bound to meet interesting characters. During my childhood, there were gangsters, gamblers and pimps. There were bar girls too who were rather nice to this young little boy. For some reason, I brought out the maternal instincts in them. They would ask me to buy stuff for them and tip me afterwards.

Errand done, I would always wonder about their fates as I cycle away with tidbit money. What did they want in life?

A few of them looked fiesty, so I think they also had aspirations and such besides wanting to snag a good man to marry. I come from an extended and complicated family, so I could understand their desire.

That desire might not be such a good thing.

There's a guy among my relatives who's quite notorious. He had three wives and five mistresses. His 2nd or 3rd wife (from two sisters marrying the same man at the same time) was a woman I had called grandma. She was supposed to be my mother's mother. Her children were supposed to be my mother's siblings, i.e. my uncles and aunties.

The operative word here is 'supposed'.

As I mentioned earlier, this has been a rather complicated family.

My mom was born in Seremban, Malaysia. Locally, the place is called Foo Yong. As a child she was given away to lead a better life. She remembers having a brother and sister. Her new adoptive parents then brought her to Singapore to live.

Her new mom found work as a singer in a teahouse - the sort you see in period movies. For side income she mended and embroidered Chinese opera costumes. Her new dad worked for a guy named Kok Leung-suk, 'suk' being the Cantonese word for 'uncle'. More about that later.

Kok Leung-suk was a serial philanderer who found joy in seducing other men's wives. According to my mom, he started off as an "um pai" or plainclothes detective in the local police force. He worked the streets to raid operations in gambling, prostitution, gangsterism, and other vices. I am sure he was no saint, and somehow became very well-off. Enough to marry three and seduce more.

By the time my mom's new dad worked for him, Kok Leung-suk had become a businessman. He owned a lucrative "mai gao" or flour mill. One day, a group of men came looking for him. Their intention was to beat him up. My mom's dad was there at the time and stupidly (or deliberately) said he was Wu Kok Leung. That got him beaten into pulp.

Back home, my mom's new mom was fighting demons of her own. She had just discovered that her hubby had been unfaithful. He had gotten their amah's visiting sworn-sister pregnant. The amah was so ashamed she packed up the both of them and left. This amah was hired to help look after my mom because her new parents were both busy working.

Enraged, my mom's new mom had only thoughts of revenge. She went to a Thai temple and asked for some black magic water. She then went home and poured the cursed water on her husband's back. He was sitting at the dining table nursing his internal injuries at the time. He had been beaten up badly but that was after he had let his wanker willy wander.

Having done that, my mom's new mom locked herself in her room, dressed herself in vengeful red and committed suicide by swallowing raw opium. The next day, my mom's new dad woke up from his day bed and stood by the window. He was still bent from his internal injuries. For a long moment, his eyes locked on a faraway object; he seemed lost in thought. He then laid down again. My mom who saw all that said that was the last time he would ever get up. For a second time, she was orphaned again.

Kok Leung-suk felt bad. After all, it was his folly that got my mom's new dad beaten up in the first place. He had seduced the wife of a Japanese man and that was a no-no given that the Japs were in ascendancy. He lost more than a loyal friend and employee. The Japs would later confiscate his mill and that was the start of his fortunes' decline.

Out of duty, Kok Leung-suk paid for my mom parents' funerals. He then took my now orphaned mom into his family. The whole gang lived in Keong Siak Road, an area infamous for its seedy residents and a red light district. My mom was just ten years old.

But my mom had scant time to reflect on her newly dead parents or new family life. WWII had come to Singapore.


After the war, Kok Leung-suk found work in a government office tasked with the issuing of vehicle licences. My mom settled into her new family helping with chores and all that expected of a young girl.

Kok Leung-suk's first wife was Tuck Mei (but most would address her as Kok Leong-sum). She was a teacher originally from Ipoh. Tired of her husband's philandering ways, she then decided to return to her hometown to lead a quiet life. She had a daughter named Lala, who became my mom's good pal.

There was Ng-ku (fifth aunt), one of a pair of double wives. She bore Kok Leung-suk five sons and two daughters. They would become my uncles and aunties that I grew up with in Geylang. Ng-ku's sworn sister was Say-ku (fourth aunt). She did not have children of her own.

How the two got married to Kok Leung-suk is like this: KL-suk was only interested in marrying the prettier Ng-ku. But Ng-ku and Say-ku were BFFs and insisted that she would only marry if her older sworn sister came along. Kok Leung-suk agreed.

Say-ku and Ng-ku were sworn sisters whose adoptive mom was called Ah Por (grand-old lady). This old lady apparently adopted five kids so she could have children look after her in old age. Apparently three of her other adopted sons worked at my grandfather's company/shipyard, Tong Lei (Mandarin tongli: 'together benefit'). That's how they got to know my dad and subsequently my mom. Ah Por and family were all from "tong shan" (Tangshan), China. My mom remembers that every festive occasion, lots of special food had to be prepared like in the old village days. It did not matter if financial circumstances it or not. Ah Por was always insistent of the old ways.

However, these special occasions were often marred by fights and quarrels when the family gathered. A couple of times, the dining room's sole light bulb would be knocked out sending glass pieces showering down on the generous food spread below. It was disappointing for my mom after slaving hours at the stove and so one time, she told Ah Por not to hold anymore celebratory feasts if the fights were to go on. My mom was then in her early teens. But despite her age, she had never been afraid to speak her mind.

However, it was through these feasts that my mom honed her cooking skills. Ah Por would ask for various tongshan foods to be cooked: yam cake, tapioca cake, "fatt go", etc. Even the cooking did not always go peacefully. There was a girl who shared kitchen duties with my mom. She would steal my mom's lighted charcoal each time. Never once would she bother to return the favour.

"She would also steal the use of my family soap. Back then, we all used this bar soap that we could cut into smaller blocks and air them on the bathroom ventilation sill. When hardened, it would last longer. But this girl, Un Nui, would take them and never replace. Because of her, we would always quarrel. And she would say some very mean things. This made living there very unpleasant," said my mom.

So, after the drama of my mom's parents' death, into this new quarrelsome family my mom went.

At the time, she had a few 'mothers' to call her own. It was not yet decided but that would soon change. One day, Kok Leong-sum's daughter came looking for my mom. -She had traveled all the way from Ipoh. She said my mother was to accompany her back to Malaysia to live with Kok Leong-sum. My mom was happy as she had found Kok Leong-sum to be kind and generous. She also believed that being a teacher, Kok Leong-sum would give her an education. Not many girls had a chance to do that at the time. My mom was smart and loved to learn so she was looking forward to joining First Wife Kok Leong-sum in Ipoh.

Having packed her few belongings into a cloth bundle, she was about to leave with Lala when Say-ku unexpectedly returned from her daily mahjong session. She asked where my mom was leaving to. She stopped them both when she learnt the reason. Or rather, she stopped my mom. "Go tell your mom since I am without child, Ah Ying (my mom's name) should be be mine," she told Lala.

With that, she chased Lala away. My mom could only stand by the doorway and watch Lala disappear down the stairs. That was the last time she saw her.

My mom would forever afterwards look back on that fateful day and wonder what could have been. At about the same time, Kok Leung-suk's fate would take a twist and my mom's life would change again, but not for the better.

In his government job, Kok Leung-suk was found guilty of taking bribes and then convicted and sentenced to 3+ years in jail. According to my mom, Kok Leung-suk did not finger anybody, he took the rap himself - why the longer jail term.

Kok Leung-suk was also into debt, some $3000. My mom would borrow a $100 to slowly repay the debt with $5 as interest each time. Slowly, the interest mounted.

To make ends meet, my mom then had to stop schooling so Ng-ku's children could continue with their education. By right, my mom was the eldest and she should have been given priority. But she was an outsider and Say-ku insisted the boys came first. She was in particular referring to Ng-ku's eldest Ah Sek. In effect, my mom had to give up her education for him. Not only that, she had to earn income to supplement what the now jailed Kok Leung-suk could not provide. And the two ladies were not the sort to do hard labour.

Fortunately for them, Kok Leung-suk earned a bit of luck. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1953 and in so doing, an amnesty was declared all over the Commonweath. After serving a year plus in jail, he was released. That might have been good news but Kok Leung-suk was still the wine-and-dine philanderer he'd always been. He cared little about family. Thus the family situation remained uncertain. My mom remembers always having to ask Kok Leung-suk for household/marketing money or else he would conveniently forget.

One day, my mom found a suitcase containing some $10,000 under a bed. Kok Leung-suk had stashed it there for safekeeping. She told Ng-ku and Say-ku about it and suggested that they take it and start a life somewhere new.

A life without Kok Leung-suk was no different than their present circumstances. But the two women refused. Not only that, they then went out and "yum cha" as if to celebrate the fact that Kok Leung-suk was not poor. My mom was flabbergasted. How stupid could these two women be?

As years went on, and as my mom got older, she had to find work to support her adopted family. One time, at age 17, she had to work as a tea dance hostess to help clear the debts. It must have been tough on my mom as she had always been prim and proper. But my mom had also a steely resolve. Coupled with a quick wit and a good sense of humour, she could make light of any unpleasant situation. By 17, she had met a man who would take care of her. They would later have a child.

But it was meeting my dad that her life-situation changed for the better. My dad's family was well-off and owned several properties. My mom leveraged on that to give fly to her natural enterpreneurial instincts. She traded in jade and tried her hand at starting a chicken farm. Eggs were a precious commodity back then, especially the large, white ones. But a dishonest partner put an end to that.

She recalls this: "I gave my partner the seed money to start the business, but he would always come back to ask for more. I wondered how much chickens could eat in a single day! I later confronted the feed merchant about this but my partner was smart and would present himself there each time. The feed merchant couldn't say anything with him present. But one time, out of earshot, the merchant lady whispered, 'You better not carry on with this business.' To further confirm my suspicions I went and visited my partner's home. He was not in at the time but a neighbour pulled me aside and told me that the man was up to no good. 'He would burn incense and curse you bad luck once you leave,' she said. The next day, I returned on the pretext to discuss business. I purposely left an umbrella behind. True enough, once I left, he would burn incense and curse me behind my back. I asked him what he was doing. He gave no reply and became shifty. There and then I decided to end any business dealing with him. Previously, each time I visited, he would lay out a big spread of food and drink. On this occasion, he did not even offer me drink of plain water. I was so disappointed with his hypocrisy that I just wanted to drop the whole thing. I did not even want my share of the investment back. It would have been a figure of about $600-$700. Not a small sum then.

"This episode taught me that certain people cannot be trusted at all. They not only cheat you of money, they would curse you to hell as well," she said, rather ruefully.

I felt bad for my mom when she told me this story of her life. I've known her to be an easy-going lady, someone who made friends easily. She was not a calculative person and would give you her share of food if you had none. But I guess that was an important lesson for her to learn in business. We kids also understood later why she would always warn us to be extra careful of friends who asked for favours. To be able to distinguish between the genuine and the fake.

In my own dealings, I've come across folks who would borrow money from you just so they did not have to use their own funds. It was quite rampant in the 1990s when investment in shares and stocks was taking off. But seriously, a person who cheats you of money and burns incense to wish you ill is truly diabolical and evil. Have these people no conscience at all?

Previous stories: Small Figurines; Next story: My Mom's Story II
Related story 1: Crazy Aunties; Related story 2: A Firecracker Fight Related story 3: A Life in Jade

Colorised B&W photo of my mom from My mom was a fan of Doris Day's dresses.
This pic from 1956 when she was 22 (It think).