Chapter 4: Teenage Years
Alas, good things never last. Anna was 14 when she decided to run away from home. It all started the year before when Anna won the talent show at school with her singing. She became more confident with her talent and started singing in a club in the evenings, without Auntie Mui knowing. She would say she needed to work with a classmate on school projects. Ling covered for her until they both had a big argument.
Two teenage girls sharing a small room would surely lead to problems. It was over trivial things like make-up but at that age, nothing is trivial. Everything is a matter of life and death. Names were called. All sorts of accusations were made.
Out of anger, Ling went to her mother and told her about Anna’s evening job. Auntie Mui was very upset at being deceived but she was mostly worried about the safety of Anna being in a club at that young tender age. Auntie Mui, out of love, set a curfew for Anna, punished her (it was normal in those days to cane children as they used to say; spare the rod, spoil the child) and grounded her after school. As a teenager, that didn’t sit well with Anna. Anna got very upset with Ling. The bicker and banter escalated until the two did not talk to each other. They grew apart over several weeks. Part of the name-calling caught on, with some of Ling’s siblings and friends at school calling Anna, “Keling Mui” meaning Indian Girl in a not so nice manner. Her darker skin tone, her curly wavy hair and her brown eyes are not quite typical Chinese features. Amongst teenage girls, there are always bound to be arguments, teasing and banter. It may have been harmless teasing but Anna, being a teenager was very self-conscious of her skin colour and being different to the other Chinese girls.
Anna got into trouble at school for starting a fight as a consequence of the name-calling. Her grades started failing and she played truant to sing in the club. She was promised that with her talent, she would become an international singer one day. She saved up what she could from her singing. One of the band managers promised her a permanent job, as a singer in a club near Damansara, a new development on the cusp of Kuala Lumpur near Klang River. They even promised her accommodation and bonuses. She wanted and she needed independence, or so she thought.
School life was getting more difficult, she even got suspended from school. Leaving school at the age of 14 wasn’t unheard of, in fact some girls would even have been married at that age, and to cap it all Anna could no longer bear to stay with Auntie Mui and her family. Ling was completely cold towards Anna. She needed to live her own life. That evening, as Auntie Mui left to set up stall, Anna started packing her things. The last four years at the Chans had mostly been good. They had given her more than just a shelter, they gave her a home and treated her just like one of their own. She wrote a little note for Auntie Mui to thank her for all her love and care in the past four years. She looked around the house one last time, with a tear rolling down her right cheek, she closed the door and dropped the keys through the letterbox. She ran as fast as she could so no one would see her.
She was now on her own. She had left the family she had been with for the past four years behind. She felt all nervous and scared inside, yet liberated in some ways. A brand new red shiny Toyota Carina was waiting at the corner of Jalan Alor and Changkat. Jonny, the band manager rolled the window down as he puffed cigarette smoke in a ring shape out of the car. He spotted Anna running towards him. Jonny was a very charismatic character. In his early thirties, he had already put together a few successful local bands. He saw himself as a talent scouter. For months, he’d been trying to get Anna on board. Jonny was always smartly dressed. He was looking very suave in his shiny black suit, white shirt with his top button left opened, John Lennon styled tinted brown sunglasses and his Brylcreemstyled side parted slightly spiky short black hair. In Anna’s eyes, Jonny was her saviour, her Prince Charming here to rescue her. She secretly fancied him.
“Anna, here, let me help you,” Jonny said as he took the rucksack and bags off Anna.
Charming as always, he opened the car door for Anna to get in. Sensing that Anna was nervous, he offered her a cigarette.
“Come on, have one. It will calm you down. A big step but you know, I will make you a superstar! Anna Lee will be replacing Teresa Teng soon,” boasted Jonny.
Anna tried to be cool and lit the cigarette. She took a puff. She coughed and almost splurted her lungs out.
“Kiddo, take it in slowly and a gentle puff at a time..” laughed Jonny as he patted her on the head. Anna blushed.
Jonny turned the radio on and they sang along, Anna was laughing and much more relaxed now.
Club Damansara 1970
The hour-long journey to Damansara was exhilarating for Anna. She had not sat in a brand new car ever. She mostly walked everywhere; to school, to the stall and home. The car came to a halt outside a house in a place called Brickfields; simple yet modern double storey house with a lawn outside. Perfect, thought Anna. The sun was just setting in the beautiful reddish orangey sky. This new chapter of her life was looking very promising.
“Here we are, Anna. Say hello to your new home,” said Jonny.
Anna was excited as Jonny opened the front door. Soon all that excitement died down when she saw two skimpily clad women engaging in sexual activities with a naked fat middle-aged man on the couch. She looked away as fast as she could but she had scanned that whole image into her brain now, almost imprinted inside. She felt sick.
“Ha, that’s just Foo, the club owner having some fun with Betsy and Patsy. Don’t mind them. You will have your own room and the two girls are real fun once you get to know them,” reassured Jonny.
Anna could not get that sight out of her head. The bottles of drink, the cigarette smoke, cash tucked into the pants of the girls and that naked fat man. The place stank of cigarette smoke, booze, sex slaves and a dirty old man, all very sleazy, thought Anna, though she didn’t dare mutter anything like that to Jonny.
“Jonny, I am sorry but I think maybe I should go. I made a mistake.”
“Anna, you have come this far. It will be okay. They are just drunk and weren’t expecting company,” pleaded Jonny.
“Why don’t we go for some dinner, my treat and let them get the house ready to welcome you?” persuaded Jonny.
Jonny took Anna to a local Chinese restaurant. Anna had not eaten out except when Uncle Jack and Auntie Mui took them all for a treat last year to celebrate Auntie Mui’s fortieth birthday. Eating out was definitely a luxury. Restaurants at that time were mostly just a shop space with a kitchen, some plastic tables and chairs for customers to sit inside or outside (by the road side or in a parking lot). It was simple but very much considered a luxury for many at the time.
They had her favourite sweet and sour ribs (排骨王), stir fry kai lan, stir fry beef with scallions and ginger served with white jasmine rice. Anna even had a sip of beer! The breeze of the night air, sitting out in the open-air restaurant, such a tasty meal and especially in the company of the charming Jonny under the starry sky, Anna felt truly blessed and really happy for once. She hadn’t felt this good for a very long time.
After a little stroll, they went back to the house in Brickfields. Anna still had some trepidation. Jonny put his arm over her shoulders to reassure her.
“Welcome Anna!” greeted Betsy and Patsy excitedly.
This time, the two girls were decently dressed and one would never have guessed what they were up to just a few hours ago. The girls were probably only a few years older than Anna. They were twin sisters and were quite a popular act in the club. The girls showed Anna her room, which was simply furnished with a bed, a dresser and a mirror. Although simple, it was her own room, not shared. They helped her to settle in.
“Get some sleep. We need you on top form tomorrow. I will come and pick you up at 9am,” said Jonny.
Anna could hardly sleep that night. She was far too excited, thinking of what was to come. They would do some voice testing and a sound check in the morning and Jonny would start selecting her repertoire, and most exciting and crucial of all, her very first performance at the Damansara Club would be tomorrow night itself. Anna closed her eyes, and imagined herself singing on international stages, travelling to other countries on tour and having her very own album. She promised herself that she would work very hard and overcome any obstacles in her way, to chase her passion and achieve her ambitions. She knew she would make it to international stardom.
Club Damansara was very swanky, thought Anna. It was big enough to fit an audience of about a hundred easily. There were about fifteen tables in the centre, surrounded by a further six booths on each side, all red leather seats and gleaming glass tables. There was even a dance floor in front of the stage. As she set her eyes on the stage, she was gleaming with elation. Most would have been terrified but no, not Anna. She was always able to bring out the best in herself when she was on stage. Stage fright was never an issue for her. In fact, Anna thrived on being the centre of attention. She felt she could mask everything else and become this invincible singer when she was on stage.
The sound check went smoothly as predicted. When Jonny first discovered Anna, she was singing popular songs from Teresa Teng (Taiwanese singer) but also golden melodies from Zhou Xuan (Shanghainese singer) effortlessly. Anna had the potential and with the right guidance, Jonny knew he was onto a winner. Jonny had also arranged for Anna to do some rehearsals and lessons with Danny; a well-known voice coach at that time. A little guidance and he hoped Anna’s voice would reach new depths and heights.
The anticipation was really building up when Anna saw her performing dresses. She had to pinch herself to make sure she was not dreaming and this was all real. One of the back stage helpers wheeled over a rail of dresses to Anna. They were just simply stunning and spectacular. Some even had sequins sewn on. All were in her size! In the previous club as she was just a part-timer, she only had two plain dresses, nothing as fanciful as this.
Anna sat at the dressing table. She stared at her reflection on the mirror outlined by a semi circle of lights. Even she herself could not quite believe it, she was simply beautiful. Her locks of black curly long hair framed her face perfectly. She put some final touches to her make-up and a bright red lipstick. She smiled and winked at her reflection. The show is on!
“Ladies and gentlemen, and here we present the debut performance by Anna Lee singing Tian Mi Mi (甜蜜蜜)” announced the MC. Everyone there was clapping eagerly to see this Anna Lee.
Anna walked onto the stage, dressed in a sparkling blue cheongsam with hand-sewn sequins and a slit to reveal her long sexy legs. The sparkly stilettos accentuated her height and figure. The stage lights centred on her, accentuating her dazzling apparel as the band started playing the intro. Anna looked out across the smoke filled room at her audience and smiled, then took up the microphone. Her sweet voice filled the club and the song was a perfect choice for her debut. As the song title suggests, 甜蜜蜜, it is very sweet, indeed! She sang Teresa Teng’s song with ease yet she was able to hit the high notes so perfectly. The audience applauded her and they loved her. There was no doubt, Anna was indeed a natural at this. Jonny sat at the corner watching Anna with pride, he’d probably clapped the loudest.
Anna became famous in Damansara overnight with her melodious singing voice. The club owner, Foo was very pleased when the club was fully booked to capacity each and every night with Anna’s fans. News of this new singer at Club Damansara soon reached Man, Anna’s cousin brother. Since she left two months ago, Auntie Mui had been blaming herself for not taking better care of Anna. She searched everywhere for her. She didn’t know what to do and for the first few weeks, she was heartbroken. She did truly love Anna as her own daughter. Ling felt responsible. Seeing her mother cry, Ling felt guilty for her childish behaviour towards Anna. Ling secretly missed Anna. They used to share everything, even secrets. The whole family missed having Anna around.
When Man heard about Anna, he went alone to suss out the place before he brought his gang over to Club Damansara to have a ‘table talk’, a term used in the triad world to describe a sit down discussion over Chinese tea, with the leader of each gang negotiating to reach a mutual decision. If the table talk failed, it was usually followed by bloodshed. Man was now the head of the gang in Kuala Lumpur, although not quite the big boss yet, Man was the big brother everyone feared. No doubt one day, he would be the big boss. He had connections, whether it was in the police, the government, or the underworld.
Jonny knew Man was Anna’s cousin brother, hence the special treatment for Anna from the beginning. However, Jonny did not inform Man of the Damansara Club plans. He knew he was at fault for that. Foo, the club owner had no idea of Anna’s association to the triad world. If he had, he would not have secretly coveted her like he did with all female employees of the club. He was notoriously known as the ‘Lecherous Fox Foo’ to most. The scandals he had had over the past years with his female singers led to much distress for him. Thankfully he had not done anything untoward to Anna yet.
Man knew Anna could sing and he had heard her performing in the previous club, but tonight, he was absolutely blown away. He could hardly recognise the Anna Lee on stage. The persona was so different. This Anna Lee was confident, knew exactly how to rouse her audience, the charisma she brought across and oh my, the sexy goddess on stage was not the little Anna that Man once knew. Anna wore a red dazzling Qipao (a figure hugging Manchurian gown), with a slit high up to the her right thigh, revealing her long sexy legs accentuated by red stilettos and her hair do similar to that of Zhou Xuan, it was a multitude of sensory bursts; an unforgettable night. The club came alive and was brought back to 1930s Shanghai, as she serenaded the audience with yet another crowd pleaser, ‘夜上海’(Shanghai Nights). Her voice was so similar to that of the golden voice of Zhou Xuan. Zhou Xuan was an iconic Shanghainese songstress and actress, loved by all, but died far too young at 37 years of age (in 1957) in a mental asylum possibly due to brain disease and a nervous breakdown. Zhou Xuan was one of China’s Seven Great Singing Stars in 1930s – 1940s, along with Gong Qiuxia, Yao Lee, Bai Hong, Bai Guang, Li Xianglan, and Wu Yingyin who were the prominent icons behind Chinese cinema and the Chinese music industry during that period.
Man went backstage to see Anna. Anna froze when she saw her Brother Man, he was her life saviour and the strong figure of the house after all.
“Man Ko (brother Man), I am so sorry for leaving..” said Anna when she managed to finally muster up some courage.
Man hugged his little sister. A proud tear fell out of his eye. To the rest of the world, Man was tough and would never shed a tear, yet that night, he hugged Anna and cried a tear of joy for her. He patted her on the head as he always did. The two went out for a late dinner after her last show to reminisce about the good old times. They ate, they drank, they cried, they laughed and most importantly they reconnected.
The sit down ‘table talk’did happen the very next day between Foo, Jonny and Man. Man’s followers surrounded the whole restaurant where they were meeting, just for precautions. Man was very clear to both Foo and Jonny that Anna was his little sister, not just a cousin sister. Anyone who disrespected Anna would be disrespecting Man. Anna is there to sing and nothing else. She will not be sitting at the tables to entertain clients at any point. Anyone found to be taking advantage of Anna would answer to Man directly. In return, Man and his gang would protect Damansara Club too. It was all said and done in a very matter-of-fact manner. Man was certainly a man of his word and he had a reputation as such. No one would have ever dared to cross Man.
Under the influence
Anna spent most of her time at the club, fair to say about 15 hours a day was quite normal. She was usually in by ten in the morning and depending on the audience and song demands, she would leave around two in the morning and at the weekend, it could be a lot later. When you live and breathe in that environment as a teenager, it is normal to succumb to some of its habits. Anna started smoking and drinking. Smoking was trendy and cool at the time, it was a symbol of being in an approved group when you smoked together, sharing a light and sometimes even a cigarette. Anna had always yearned for that sense of belonging. Betsy and Patsy were the first to introduce Anna to her now best friend, Tequila. Anna had even turned up late several times because of her hangover and failed her own sound check and rehearsal when the golden voice became the drunken croak. Foo was not happy. There were instances when Jonny had to intervene with a very drunk Anna and take her home before something terrible happened.
That night, Anna had too much to drink again. Jonny took her home. Betsy and Patsy were home around the same time with some other friends, too. They all decided to have another round of drinks. Several bottles of Tequila were had. One thing led to another and the next moment, Jonny found himself in Anna’s bedroom. Anna had always admired Jonny and Jonny always had a soft spot for Anna. He knew jolly well knew what Man would do to him if he was to get together with Anna. He ignored the sensible side of him pleading him to leave the room instantaneously but followed his deepest, darkest, inner manly desire. Anna stripped down to her knickers and though she was drunk, she was a willing participant and she enticed him to her bed. They made mad passionate love to each other that night. It was Anna’s first.
Anna woke up that morning with more than just a splitting headache. She had a naked Jonny in her bed with his arms around her, spooning her naked body. She was happy, yet shocked and nervous. After all, she was only fifteen and he was at least twice her age. Her breath stank. She wanted to sneak off to brush her teeth, put on some clothes and perhaps hide away! Jonny sensing her movements to escape, playfully grabbed her, climbed on top of her and pinned her down.
“Trying to escape me I see,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
“Erm, I was going to brush my teeth,” she said almost honestly.
He kissed her lovingly.
“I like the stinky breath but I like you best,” he said charmingly. Anna succumbed to his charms one more time.
The two were very happy but they kept their relationship a secret to avoid any professional interference as well as away from Man’s radar. Anna could not be happier. A doting boyfriend and a successful start in a career, what more could one ask?