Chapter 2: Pearl of the Orient
Singapore circa 1960
The loud steam whistle abruptly woke Anna up from her sleep. Everyone was getting their suitcases as the train pulled into Tanjung Pagar train station in Singapore. Mei held on to Anna’s hand tightly as they made their way into the station. It was a very hot and humid afternoon. Mei had a piece of paper handwritten with her friend’s address in Hougang. When they last wrote to each other Mei had informed her friend, Jen that she would be heading to Singapore. Now that she was actually there, in that noisy train station, feeling lost, she was not so sure of her decision anymore.
Just outside the station was an old man selling freshly made buns; Mei looked at Anna who was practically salivating at the sight and smell of those delicious treats. They had not had anything to eat for the last 18 hours. Mei dug into her purse, producing some coins to buy a hot steamed bun for Anna. Anna knew they hadn’t much money left, hence why her mama had only bought one bun. She divided it and gave her mama half. Tears welled up in Mei’s eyes. They hugged briefly then quickly ate their small meal.
After asking for directions, they walked all the way to Hougang. Singapore was nothing like it is now but even in those days it was a big city, bigger than anything Anna had experienced and it must have taken them around 3 hours, including detours and getting lost. Anna’s eyes opened wide at how busy it was, it was sometimes difficult to walk as bicycles and rickshaws whizzed past mixed in with noisy motor cars. At long last, they found the place; an old wooden house with an attap roof (made of attap palm leaves). They knocked on the old wooden door. A lady in her forties answered. Mei asked for Jen Jie (sister Jen). Jen was not back yet but Anna and Mei were invited into the house. The lady was Yin Jie (sister Yin), she settled them down and offered them water while they waited for Jen. In Chinese culture (common throughout Asia), it was polite to address everyone like they are family, one would call an older lady, auntie (even if they aren’t related but out of politeness), a similar age lady, as a sister (Jie), and older gentleman as uncle and similar aged man as brother (Ge).
The sisterhood – Mah Jie (妈姐)
The house was small with an open kitchen in the back, a communal toilet and a room with 4 wooden slats make-do beds, each one with a straw mat on top. Yin Jie was very kind and chatted to Mei for a while before she started getting dinner ready. There were four ladies sharing the communal house; Yin Jie, Jen Jie, Wu Jie and Fang Jie.
These ladies are the Mah Jie; a voluntary sisterhood of ladies from China who vow celibacy and work as domestic help in Singapore. They all wear a uniform of a white blouse buttoned to the neck, with black trousers. They do not trust in marriages hence initiated a ceremony to vow their celibacy by brushing and tying up their hair (自梳). Many of them heard about the misfortune of some married life; being bullied by their husbands, having to look after their husband’s families and abandoning their own.
About an hour later, Jen Jie finally returned. Mei and Jen were pleased to see each other. They chatted, shared tears and laughter. Jen invited Anna and Mei to stay in their communal house with the other Mah Jie until Mei could find a place. Although they were grateful for the accommodation, they did not have their own room and had to share a bed on the floor of the communal hall. Anna found it hard after the relative comfort of their own little house back in Penang, and she missed her papa immensely.
It was still dark but the noise was getting louder. Anna could barely open up her eyes, she was still very tired, she hadn’t slept at all well on the hard surfaces of the communal hall floor. The ladies seemed to have very loud piercing voices. It was definitely before dawn. The ladies were getting ready to go to work at their respective family homes. They all looked very neat in their uniforms of black trousers and white blouse, with their hair sleekly tied back into a bun.
Jen worked with an expat family; the Smiths. She was one of their housekeepers, solely in charge of cooking. Jen said that the Smiths had six housekeepers; 2 in charge of the little children, 2 for general cleaning, one chambermaid for Mrs. Smith and the cook; Jen. As far as she knows, the Smiths are looking for a laundry girl. She will find out for Mei. In the mean time, Mei will clean and tidy up after the Mah Jie in return for letting her and Anna stay.
It was Yen Jie who asked what was little Anna going to do; she was only about 7 years old. One of the ladies suggested that the girl; Ah Mui as they call Anna should just start out early, learn to clean and earn some money after all she’s a girl. They believed that girls need no education. Anna who was quietly listening to their conversations had tears in her eyes. She was quietly sobbing and covering herself in her thin little blanket. She wanted her papa and she wanted to go back to their home in Penang. She closed her eyes tightly, wishing this was all just a nasty dream and if she could only wake up, she would be home in Penang again with her mama and her papa; all living blissfully.
Jen came back that evening with a big smile plastered across her face, she’d found Mei a job! Although it would be subject to a simple interview and a short trial. Mei was ecstatic and could not believe her luck. She gave Anna a big hug, said finally things are looking up and can only get better. Anna was very pleased for her mama but at the back of her mind she was still worried that there was no talk of school for her yet. She would follow Mei to work. That night the Mah Jie and Mei all sat down in the communal area, laid out white tablecloths and had a celebration of sesame biscuits, a round of watered down Chinese wine, followed up with a game of mahjong. Watered down wine because otherwise there wasn’t enough to go around!
The next morning, they woke up at four. Anna felt as though she had only just closed her eyes. She hadn’t slept well what with the chat and laughter, the click-clack of the mahjong tiles and the smoky air. Mei borrowed some of Jen’s clothes as she didn’t really have anything suitable. Anna helped her mama plait her hair. Together, they all set off to the Smiths. It was a brisk half hour walk. Although it was still dark, the streets were already getting busy with people starting their work.
The Smiths lived in what to all practical purposes was a mansion. It was the biggest, grandest house Anna or Mei had ever seen. Not wooden, no attap roof, built in the colonial style with many windows, white columns and a large portico at the front. It almost resembled a castle in their eyes. They entered the house from a little gate on the side instead of the main gate. Jen explained that the housekeepers were never to use the main gate under any circumstances. Anna was completely transfixed by the splendour of the house.
Jen took Mei and Anna to the housekeepers’ quarters; a separate annex used by housekeepers for their break. Even the quarters were luxurious, there were two toilets, three rooms, a kitchen and diner, a living room and all the amenities one could ask for. Anna was to sit in the quarters while Jen took Mei around the rest of the house. It was still too early to meet Mrs. Smith so Mei would be helping Jen in the kitchen to start with.
The kitchen was enormous, row upon row of white cupboards with gleaming copper pans hanging down from racks. There were cookers that Mei had never seen before. Jen showed her the menu and schedule for the day. They were to go to the market for fresh produce shortly. Jen explained that the sooner they could get there, the more fresh meat, seafood and vegetable would be available. Apparently, by about seven, most of the fresh produce would have gone! They have to get breakfast on the table by quarter past seven. Lunch must be served promptly at half past twelve for Mr. and Mrs. Smith but the children would have their luncheon at half past one. Tea will be served at half past three and dinner at half past six. Jen also must ensure snacks are available for the children at all times. Before leaving, she would also have to prepare snacks for supper for the whole family.
The trip to the market was fascinating for Mei; she struggled to keep up as Jen walked quickly down the narrow busy streets deep in to the Chinese quarter. The market was an experience for all the senses; crowded, loud, noisy, sweaty, smelly, wet but great fun. Fresh fish swimming in barrels, lobsters with claws taped, crabs trying to escape their cages, giant prawns, wriggling octopus, cuts of fresh meat and every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. In her ears a cacophony of shouting as everyone tried to get the best possible deal. She loved seeing the haggling Jen.
The experiences Mei has had over the last few days since her arrival in Singapore have been exhilarating but she was still worried about meeting Mrs. Smith; would she be able to keep the job? It was so important that she hardly dared to think about it.
It was almost ten o’clock. Mei was due to meet Mrs. Smith in the drawing room shortly. Mei tried to make herself as presentable as possible, stroking and pressing down on her sleeves and some folds on her blouse. Her hair was still neatly plaited into pigtails. Her heart started pounding as she made her way carefully into the drawing room. Other than cleaning it, housekeepers were not allowed into the drawing room. She knocked on the drawing room oak door gently.
“Come in” said a voice with a perfect British accent.
Mrs. Smith was more elegant than Mei had imagined. She was an English lady in her early forties, graceful and slim, dressed in a very smart royal navy dress, her brown hair neatly swept into a perfect chignon. She had blue eyes, very fair skin, a sharp nose and a long graceful neck decorated by a sparkly sapphire necklace. She sat by the bureau, writing what one assumed would be a letter, very elegantly poised. Mrs. Smith was used to a high position in the society, her husband a wing commander in the Royal Air Force, serving in Singapore. He was rarely at home. Mrs. Smith would often go out for charitable luncheons with other ladies in the society.
“Gook..good morning ma..madam” greeted Mei in her broken English.
Mrs. Smith looked up, stopped her writing and gave Mei a smile. She explained in simple terms what Mei’s job would be. Mei nodded as Mrs. Smith explained on. Mei would be given fifty cents in the first couple of weeks in the trial and if satisfactory, her salary would be increased to a dollar. A whole dollar?! Mei was very, very pleased. Mei explained to Mrs. Smith about Anna. Mrs. Smith agreed Anna could work alongside Mei as long as she was well behaved. Before she left, Mrs. Smith asked to looked at Mei’s hands, presumably to look at her nails and cleanliness, she gave her a nod of approval.
“Thank you much much..” said Mei gratefully.
She returned to the housekeepers’ quarters and told Jen what Mrs. Smith had told her. Jen and Anna were both excited, but Jen sounded a note of caution that Mrs. Smith expected respect and obedience from all her staff and Mei should be careful to repay her trust.
It has been weeks now since Mei started at the Smiths. She had sailed through her trial period and she now has a proper job as a laundry maid. Everything has gone swimmingly well so far until one afternoon
Anna was playing outside the housekeepers’ quarters near a pond when she met one of the Smith children; Edith. Edith Smith was the youngest daughter of the Smiths and she was about 8 years old; a year older than Anna. They quickly became friends and played together. Edith took Anna upstairs to her bedroom. It was a princess’ room to Anna; exquisitely beautiful with shades of pink, trimmed with handmade lace white curtains. Edith had the biggest collection of toys Anna had ever seen, not to mention an enormous dolls house at one side of the room. They played with the dolls and had a posh tea party with real porcelain teapot, cups and saucers, something that Anna had never even dreamed of. Anna had never had so much fun. It was later when they were playing hide and seek that Anna ventured beyond the limits. It was Edith’s turn to seek and they were playing upstairs in the main house. Anna was hiding in the upstairs library; unknown to her that was somewhere even Edith was sometimes forbidden from entering as it was her father’s domain. Unfortunately, as she hid waiting for Edith, Mr. Smith walked into the library and was about to pour himself a glass of whiskey when he spotted Anna crouching under his oak desk.
He commanded her to come out instantly. Poor Anna was shivering with fear at this point. Wing Commander Smith was an imposing figure even to his junior officers, let alone a little girl. He stood over six feet tall with a bristling moustache, and was wearing an immaculately tailored grey-blue uniform with gleaming brass buttons.
“What on earth are you doing in my study?” questioned Mr. Smith angrily.
“I..so..so..sorry sir..I..” Anna was shivering in fear.
“That’s enough child! Victoria…where are you?” he called out loud for Mrs. Smith, dismissing Anna.
Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Smith came into the study. A few terse words were exchanged between her and her husband, who left immediately. Looking around and seeing Edith outside the door, she understood what had happened. She took Anna by the hand. At this point, tears were streaming out of those big brown eyes. Edith stood outside, frozen with fear. Mrs. Smith took Edith’s hand as well and strode downstairs into the drawing room before summoning Mei.
She gave a white handkerchief to Anna, who was now trembling with fear for what might happen to her and her mother. She knew she had really blundered this time. Oh what trouble had she gotten herself and her mother into now. Inside, she was beating herself up.
To both children, Mrs. Smith said strictly, “You can play together but never in your father’s study or the main bedroom. Edith, I am very disappointed in you, you’re the one who should have known better. Promise me, never again venture into your father’s study.”
“How old are you, young lady?” enquired Mrs. Smith of Anna.
She held seven fingers up.
“Do you go to school?”
Anna shook her head.
Mrs. Smith pondered for a while, and a smile played across her lips. Her strict demeanour softened and she spoke kindly to the two girls.
“Well, I hope you both have learnt your lesson today. Edith, take your friend to the kitchen for a cookie and some milk before she goes. Don’t be too loud now that your father is home.”
Edith hugged her mother and gave her a kiss. Anna slightly relieved but still unsure what her fate would be or that of her mother’s. Would she lose the job because of Anna? Everything was going so well and now she had spoilt it.
Mei was wondering what she had done wrong when she was summoned to see Mrs. Smith that evening. All sorts of thoughts were racing through her head. She tried to recall if she had misplaced any of the clothes or not ironed Mrs. Smith’s dresses correctly or if she had left a stain on one of the crisp white blouses. Her mouth was dry, her hands were shaking and she could feel her palpating heart skipping a beat.
Mei entered the drawing room where Mrs. Smith was sitting on a comfortable couch with what appeared to be a pile of clothes next to her. Mei had cold sweats. She knew it was over, it had all been too good to be true, she was fired! Mrs. Smith’s favourite chambermaid; Ling, came in shortly with a cup of tea for Mrs. Smith and waited by her side.
“Mei, why is your daughter not attending school?” enquired Mrs. Smith.
“I..I..” Mei was shocked at the question and was not sure of what to answer.
Mrs. Smith spoke to Ling and asked her to act as translator if language was a barrier.
Mei sobbed, pleaded for her job and apologised if she had not washed those piles of clothes properly. She even said she would not take a salary for the next month as long as she was not sacked.
Ling had to explain slowly to Mei that Mrs. Smith was not angry at her nor was she complaining about her work quality. After a few minutes, Mei settled down. Ling enquired about Anna. Mei said she had been thinking about sending Anna to school but it was too much for now. They hadn’t even a proper place to stay as yet and Anna would have to wait a little longer.
Ling translated for Mrs. Smith explaining that she knew the founders and the nuns at the Catholic girls school, she would have a word with them and get Anna a place. Anna could have a bursary if she did well at school. It would very much depend on Anna whether she would be able to continue there. She handed over the pile of clothes, which was Edith’s school uniform.
“These clothes are too small for Edith but if Anna does not mind having a slightly larger uniform, she can have them. If you are happy, Anna will go to school with Edith next week. The driver will take them together in the morning.”
Mei was flabbergasted. She was very grateful, so much so that she knelt down and kowtowed to Mrs. Smith thanking her again and again. Mrs. Smith smiled and told her there was no need to thank her, the reward would be if Anna justified her faith and did well at school. Now everyone should get back to work!
Anna was over the moon when her mother told her about school. That whole weekend passed really quickly. That Monday morning, she was the first to wake. She handled Edith’s old uniform like it was made of silk. The clothes were a bit big for Anna but she was so proud to be wearing them, it didn’t matter at all. Mrs. Smith also gave her a pair of white shoes and some stationery in a small cloth satchel. She stared at her reflection in the old mirror in Jen’s room, beaming with pride.
Mei could not allow Anna to go to school with Edith in the Smith’s car. She knew that there were unwritten rules between the employer and the help, no matter how nice Mrs. Smith was to her and Anna. She could not overstep the boundary. She was very grateful but it was just too much. They walked to the school over the weekend – twice! Just so that Anna could familiarise herself with the route.
She got there on time and waited outside the principal’s office as directed. Most of the children were from well-to-do families. She knew she was very privileged to be there.
The principal was a nun in her late fifties, wore thick glasses and looked very stern. Anna knew instantly she was one not to cross, perhaps because she was carrying a cane in her hand! Hougang Catholic Girls’ School was a very prestigious school known for its academic results and strict reputation under Sister Fran’s leadership.
Sister Fran invited Anna to her office. They had a brief chat and Sister Fran explained to Anna that only Anna could decide her own fate. If she worked hard and paid attention in her classes, no doubt she would do well, but if she failed her exams, she would lose her place in the school. Anna nodded and she knew this was her only ticket out. She would work hard, she must work hard.
Just as she was about to leave Sister Fran’s office, her stomach let out the loudest growl! Ooops!
“Have you had your breakfast Anna?”
Anna shook her head without looking up, utterly embarrassed.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day – it kick starts your day. Come with me.” She beckoned to Anna.
Sister Fran understood Anna’s situation and background. She told Anna that from now on, Anna would have to get to school half an hour earlier to have breakfast with the sisters and she would have lunch with them, too. In return, she was to help tidy up the kitchen and chapel. She smiled and had a little twinkle in her eyes. Anna was touched by her kindness. She felt very, very happy. There was a warm, fuzzy feeling deep within that she hadn’t felt for a while when she was handed a cheese sandwich. She gobbled it down within minutes although she gave some strange looks as she was chewing it.
“Please Sister Fran, may I please not have cheese sandwich again?” asked Anna politely as she started to feel nauseous and looking a bit pale.
“Ah, yes of course, it’s not to everyone’s taste. You can have something else tomorrow, perhaps a jam sandwich?” Sister Fran laughed.
Anna joined the sisters every morning for breakfast and had lunch with them, too. She still could not tolerate cheese or butter though! Anna was well loved by all although there were a few girls who were jealous of Anna. She gave her full attention in class, and completed all her homework before she even left school. She would stay on in the afternoon to help the sisters in the chapel and they helped her with her reading. Edith and Mrs. Smith had been coaching her as well. She came on leaps and bounds within months and successfully secured the scholarship. Things were looking up.
It had been almost two and a half years since they arrived in Singapore. Mei and Anna now lived in housekeepers’ quarters at the Smith’s. Everything was going so well. Anna was doing well at school. Mei had been promoted to be Mrs. Smith’s personal help. Although Mei worked very hard, she still grieved over her husband’s passing. She numbed her pain mainly by playing Mahjong and gossiping with the other Mah Jie. Influenced by the Mah Jie, she spent less time with Anna and also picked up the bad habit of smoking. Mei would play Mahjong until late at night and sometimes drunk when she returned to their room in the quarters. Anna noticed the change in her mother. She tried to talk to her mother but it was difficult. They had never shared that bond, they seldom hugged, words and touchy-feely emotions were beyond them. They both found different ways to deal with their emptiness, their grief, their pain – one through books and songs, whilst the other through some bad habits of gambling and smoking.
The late nights of Mahjong and drinking started to take its toll and her work was slipping. Mrs. Smith first noticed it when she smelt alcohol on Mei one morning. She thought nothing further until she saw some cane marks and bruising on Anna’s arm.
She questioned Anna. As soon as Anna started avoiding her eye contact and said she hurt herself accidentally, Mrs. Smith knew something was wrong. She found out from the other housekeepers that Mei had a huge Mahjong debt. One of the other housekeeper who lived next door to Mei told Mrs. Smith about the beatings. She heard Anna crying and pleading when Mei came back drunk having lost her game of Mahjong and it was happening more frequently. She knew she had to intervene.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse before Mrs. Smith could intervene. Mei came back around two in the morning in a foul mood. She had lost in her game of Mahjong again. She was very drunk. She dragged Anna out of bed.
“Pack your clothes!” she demanded as she dragged poor Anna out of bed.
“Ma, why? It’s very late. Can’t we do this tomorrow?” pleaded Anna.
A hard slap across Anna’s left cheek made her lose her balance and she banged her head onto the corner of the table.
“How dare you defy me? You little wretch!” She pulled Anna’s hair and continued slapping and beating Anna’s little body until she was satisfied.
There was a bit of blood trickling down to the side of her cheek from where she had banged her head, her cheeks were red and swollen as were her eyes. Her body felt sore from all the beatings.
“You are going to your auntie’s in Kuala Lumpur. I cannot keep you here. You bring me bad luck and you are a hindrance. You are going now. Pack up!”
Anna was scared but she had to say something..
“But what about school? I have a test in the morning. I..”
Before she could finish, another blow towards her back rendered her speechless. She laid there on that cold floor for a few seconds almost too weak to move. Another kick to her body that almost took her breath away. She didn’t understand why was all this happening to her? What had happened to her mother?
Mei could not control herself. She knew she couldn’t live with that child anymore and it was better that she was looked after somewhere else.
That night, they packed up and left the Smith’s residences. Anna was taken to the bus station. Mei got Anna a ticket to Kuala Lumpur. There was a lady in her forties at the station who was also heading to Kuala Lumpur. Mei asked the lady to keep an eye on Anna who was barely ten years old and asked for her to be taken to an address (Mui – Mei’s sworn sister) in Kuala Lumpur where she would receive a fee for her kindness.
“Ma, please don’t abandon me. I don’t want to go..” she pleaded.
“I will be good. I will do whatever you want .. I promise.”
“Ma, don’t.. don’t abandon me. I need you,” she cried.
She knelt on the side of the road.
“Please mama, I am sorry for everything and I promise to be good, please let me stay with you..” she begged and held on to her mother’s hand.
Mei shook the little hand loose and turned away. She left in haste. There were no further exchanges of words between Mei or Anna. Mei walked hurriedly away from the bus station as she lit her cigarette. She needed to clear her head and she needed a new job. She could not think or care for someone else now. Like the Mah Jies said, “She is not even your real daughter, why are you so nice to her? She is a girl and girls always bring bad luck, that’s why you are losing your Mah Jong!”
Who would have known that those clickety-clackety Mahjong tiles and a few glasses of Chinese wine could cost a child her future?