Chapter 3: Kuala Lumpur
Goodbye Singapore – the darkest night
Anna boarded the bus to Kuala Lumpur as her mother demanded. Tears welled up in her eyes as the engine roared. She sat next to the lady, whom Mei had not bothered to ask for her name.
“It will be a long journey, about 7-8 hours at least. Get some sleep,” said the lady also known as Wah.
As they left Hougang Central and passed Hougang Catholic Girls’ School, big dollops of tears rolled down Anna’s bruised cheeks. She thought about Sister Fran, the cheese sandwich and butter! She would eat them all, she would eat it and get used to it if that meant she could go back to school. She could not fathom why was this happening to her.
Three quarters of an hour later, they officially left Singapore and crossed the causeway into Johor Bahru. Her head was spinning, her body was hurting where she had been punched and kicked, but most all, it was her heart, which was aching the most. She didn’t understand why her mother did not want her anymore. What had she done wrong?
That journey was indeed a long and painful one for Anna. Finally they arrived at Puduraya Station in Kuala Lumpur. The lady, Wah took Anna by the hand.
“Come on, we are here now. Let’s go.”
Anna looked around at the busy Puduraya Station and all its hustle and bustle in the midday sun. It was very different to Singapore and the fumes from the buses were almost suffocating. She walked along with Wah.
About half hour later, they got to a row of old shops. There were some strange looking women standing outside one of the shops skimpily dressed and smoking, talking to some men, like they were negotiating. They nodded to Wah as she walked in.
“Come and wait here. I have something to do first. We will get to your Auntie’s later,” said Wah gesturing to Anna towards a small room in the back.
As soon as Anna got in the room, Wah shut the door and locked it from outside. Anna was terrified. She screamed and tried to open the door but it was futile. The room was very small, just about big enough to fit the small dirty mattress. There was a very small window. Anna banged on it and screamed but no one seemed to have heard her. Terrified, she squatted in the corner crying her heart out. She could not understand why this was happening to her. She was at school, doing so well and The Smiths were being so generous to her and now she was locked in a little room in what may be a whorehouse! How could this be happening she wondered? A twist of fate perhaps? Would she ever see her mother again?
Hours passed. She could hear all sorts in that little room from bargaining, negotiating prices to screams of pleasure and some swearing. Anna was barely ten years old. Her little body was still hurting from the beating last night. She was thirsty, hungry, tired and cold. It was getting dark. Anna clutched on to her legs, buried her face on her knees and started sobbing.
Suddenly she heard a rather familiar voice from outside the window. It sounded like her cousin brother, Man. They met just last year when Auntie Mui visited Singapore with all six of her children.
She shouted and screamed.
“Man ko, is that you?” (Brother Man)
“It’s Anna – help me. I am locked in this room”
“Anna?” asked the voice
“Yes its me. Help me Man ko..they locked me in this room and I can’t get out”
“Stay there. I am coming”
She was very fortunate. Her cousin brother, Man who was about 20 was just passing by with his gang of friends. Man was in the local triad. After failed negotiations to get Anna out, the gang of five fought their way in.
Anna was relieved when Man kicked the door down to rescue her. There was hope once more for Anna. Man had to carry her out. That little body was just too weak. Seeing Man knocking down the door, and feeling him carry her in his arms, she felt safe and protected. She closed her eyes, embraced her cousin brother tightly and whispered thank you. What a narrow escape indeed.
Fed, clothed and rested, Anna was finally at her auntie’s. Auntie Mui was Mei’s sworn sister. Mui could not understand why Mei would send Anna away and how she ended up in the whorehouse but very glad to have Anna safe and sound now.
A few days later, Auntie Mui received a letter from Mei asking her to look after Anna. She explained that she was unable to cope any more, as she no longer had a job and it was too difficult having to look after a little girl.
“Anna, you will live with us and you will share a bedroom with Ling. I will take you down to the school later and get you registered. If you need anything, come to me.” Said Auntie Mui, in a very matter-of-fact manner.
Anna nodded excitedly. Within a few days, Anna was registered at one of the best Methodist schools in Kuala Lumpur. Most Chinese families believed that they need to give everything they can to support their children’s education so they can give them a better start in life and a better future. Auntie Mui had 6 children and Ling, who’s 11 years old is the youngest and the only girl. Auntie Mui did not subscribe to the traditional thinking that daughters should stay at home, not educated and get them married off to a respectable family as early as possible. In fact, she firmly believed that all children were to be treated equally. Auntie Mui and her husband Uncle Jack owned a noodle stall. The Chans led a simple but good life. Their stall was one of the best noodle stalls in Kuala Lumpur at the time. It was always busy and customers sometimes waited for an hour to get a seat around the stall. Anna got along well with the family and all was well once again for Anna.
She did well at the Bukit Bintang Girls’ School (BBGS) along with Ling. Ling and Anna had become very closed and despite being in the year above, Ling helped Anna to get used to the school life at BBGS. They were both in the school choir and Anna developed a talent for singing. Auntie Mui loved Anna like her own daughter. Even so, Anna would feel the pangs of loneliness sometimes, aching inside for her mother and missing her life in Singapore. Whenever she saw Auntie Mui hugging Ling, she felt an emptiness inside. Her mother was not one for displaying affection. She could not remember the last cuddle she had from her mother nor the last time her mother said she loved her. Anna and her mother never had that mother-daughter bond, perhaps because Anna was closer to her father in her younger days.
It was almost six months later, Anna received a letter from her mother, a very short three liner asking her to behave for her auntie and that she should be grateful and respectful to Auntie Mui’s family. Anna knew her mother couldn’t write so she would have gotten one of the other Mah-Jie to write something for her. Knowing her mother’s personality of not wanting to ‘owe’ and trouble her friends too much, the letter would have to be concise. It was the thought that counts, to know that her mother still loved her and that she wasn’t abandoned.
Life in Kuala Lumpur was good, albeit mundane. Anna felt like she was part of the family. She would help out with the housework and in the evening she would help Auntie Mui with her noodle stall on Jalan Imbi, just a street away from where they lived. She was particularly closed to Man, since the heroic rescue. Man often took Anna and Ling out for afternoon treats after school, to have their favourite satays and custard buns. Life was good. Anna finally had stability.
It was almost 2 years after the Chans took Anna in when her mother, Mei finally visited. It wasn’t easy in those days to take time off work. Anna was looking forward to seeing her mother. The anticipation was great and Anna could hardly contain her excitement that day while at school, knowing that her mother would be at Auntie Mui’s when she returned home. Ling and Anna walked home together, Ling was also excited for Anna. Just before they got up the hill to their house, Anna felt nervous. All the memory of that horrible night came flashing back; the beating, the blood, leaving the Smith’s, the pain, the agony, the journey and the abduction. It sent a shiver down her spine. That excitement and that smiley happy face turned into weary.
As Ling unlocked the main door to the house, Anna felt the palpitations of her heart. She wasn’t so sure anymore. Anxiety gripped her. She could hear the loud thuds of her heart beating as she sees the shadow of her mother.
“Ma..” her voiced slightly croaked (from the anxiety). She greeted her mother and bowed, almost too formal and too polite.
Mei was not quite sure how to react either. She got up from her seat meaning to give Anna a hug but somehow her movements were stunted. It all looked very clumsy.
As her mother approached her, Anna instinctively took a step back to her mother’s surprise. Mei felt rejected but she knew why this was awkward for them.
Auntie Mui watched the two and understood she had to intervene before things got out of hand.
“Anna, go prepare us some more tea and get some of the pineapple tarts out so we can all sit for some afternoon tea,” said Auntie Mui.
As they sat around the table, there was an awkward silence. Auntie Mui instinctively started chatting about the noodle stall and business, trying to steer the conversation onto non-confrontational topics. Mei would be staying over for the weekend. Auntie Mui had planned to take to Mei for some sightseeing, of course with Anna and Ling too.
As Anna was warming up to her mother’s presence, the time to say goodbye came too soon. The two were holding each other’s hands as Anna walked her mother to the Kuala Lumpur railway station. Tears started streaming down Anna’s face as they headed towards the platform for the train to Singapore. The train station was busy as expected. The sound of the steam engines reminded them both of their journey from Butterworth 5 years ago. How things had changed in the last five years. Anna gave her mother a hug. Mei hugged her daughter as tears welled up in her eyes. She quickly dried them to avoid Anna seeing her cry.
Sniffing, she said to Anna, “Now, be a good girl for your Auntie Mui. Hurry home and help with the housework. Now, go..”
“No, Ma.. I want to wait until you board the train. I want the extra few minutes with you, Ma because I have missed you and the last few days wasn’t enough”
There, she had said it. The two hugged each tightly as they both cried. Their tears carried all their pain, their guilt and their disappointments.
A gentle wind blew past the two as the train approached the platform and the steam engine let out a loud whistle. The vibration on the track became softer as the train pulled to a halt. Suddenly, there was a mad rush of passengers alighting from the train whilst some were pushing and shoving to get on board. Anna did not want to let go of her mother’s embrace. Now, she had finally reconnected with her mother, she didn’t want to lose it again. She sniffed her mother’s blouse for that familiar smell one more time. She hugged her tightly and whispered, “I love you, Ma”.
Tears could not stop rolling down Mei’s cheek.
“Anna, I am sorry for what I did but I love you my dear girl. I just don’t know how to be a mother for you..”
Mei sobbed as she stepped on board the train, turned around, closed the door then slid the window down. For a moment they reached out and touched hands but with a lurch, the train started moving. Anna ran alongside for a few moments but the train soon pulled ahead and within a couple of minutes was gone from sight.
Anna walked slowly home, once again feeling lonely and empty.