2. Mum & Rose
My mother used to scare the hell out of people.
A fire-breathing school teacher, she was acknowledged as strict but fair and made an impression on many a student over her 30+ years of teaching. And when I say ‘impression’ do note I mean that in more ways than one, caning being a prerogative of all teachers until late in her career!
She came to Malaya from Hong Kong when she was just 3, brought over by her mother - an educated daughter of a court interpreter - who had been taken in by the charms of my maternal grandfather, Augustine Wong, a merchant seaman of indeterminate origin. If you look at Mum’s family, you will see a mix of the very fair, including Mum, and the very dark. Thick, curly hair was another dominant feature and I do sport some rather inconvenient curls as well. Mei often laughs at how my ends curl up like springs while I hate sitting in the path of a fan’s turbulence as my hair ultimately begins to uncoil itself, medusa-like, from the hold of my hairband.
Besides the coiffure-challenges, I have also often wondered at my own love of Indian food. I’d always thought Augustine had Portugese blood in him but the latest I heard from an uncle was that he probably had Indian blood. Ah… that explains some things!
Back to Mum… She was always a very strong character and after Augustine left his wife and children in KL to move to Melaka, she had to be even stronger to help support her mother and siblings. She worked in a Japanese bank during the war - this was when Augustine was still in KL - and one incident illustrates her feistiness succinctly.
The civilian manager of the bank had decreed that all staff had to stay back to learn how to sing patriotic songs. Mum refused and as a result, the manager wrote a letter to Augustine, saying his daughter was stubborn and requesting he do something about it. The manager sealed it and gave the letter to Mum, telling her to deliver it to her father. What did she do? She took the letter back to her desk, opened and read it - and that is why we know what the contents were - and threw it away in disgust.
When he’d not heard from Augustine in some time, the manager asked Mum about it: ‘Did you deliver the letter to your father?’
To which my mother replied ‘No. Why should I? It was all nonsense.’ which immediately implicated her not just in failure to comply, but also of prying into private correspondence.
Infuriated, the manager raised a hand to slap her and my mother instinctively reached out and grabbed his hand, stopping it in mid-flight. She glared at him and told him ‘You are nothing if not for the Japanese Army. And after the war you will be nothing again. And if ever I see you again after the war, watch out: I will spit in your face then!’
She never had to attend singing classes, and fortunately for us, he didn’t slap her, nor do anything worse. Well, we’re here today, right?
After the war, he settled in Singapore and so, Mr Sasaki (there was only one in Singapore ten years ago when we last checked), I would like to tell you you can probably relax now as it’s very unlikely she’ll make a trip down to carry out her threat!
Mum was a girl who endured the difficulties of childhood in the 1930s and 40s and who went through life, like almost all of her generation, more than a little scarred by her experiences. She played hopscotch with her youngest sister strapped in a cloth sling on her back one afternoon only to discover later that the little girl, who had been ill, had succumbed to her illness as my mother hopped from one square to another.
She saw the bank’s nightwatchman, in hungry desperation, trap rats to eat while she and her family just got by on the meagre rations they had.
And she saw a stranger who should have known better to keep his head down, cut to bits by shrapnel from exploding bombs dropped from high-flying American B-29s as they fought to liberate the Far East from the Japanese.
Her own mother, ashamed of her lot and for having fallen for someone who turned out not to be who she thought he was, cut all ties with her family so my mother never knew her cousins or aunts and uncles. This left an indelible impression on her and as we grew up and went overseas for our studies, she never stopped reminding us of the value of family and that we ‘must write!’ We always did.
In the 60s and 70s, she became a teacher and her fighting spirit remained. She once sat in the hot afternoon sun with some of her colleagues on the divider in the middle of Jalan Gasing outside the La Salle primary school where she taught, holding up placards seeking equal pay and benefits for women teachers. She endured the shouts from parents ‘Go back to your job!’, the burning heat and ultimately the loss of her job and many years of service. But they eventually got their equal pay.
Some battles she didn’t win: she manned a desk seeking signatures for a petition to stop hillside developments in Gasing Hill. The development went ahead and stands till today. In the last decade or two, though, we’ve had a couple of hillside development disasters with loss of life and now the Selangor State government is reviewing hillside developments.
Another battle she isn’t winning is one she is fighting today. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s some years ago, she now deals with the effects of dementia. She has her good days and her not-so-good ones. I’ve seen her recount a story of something that happened years ago then, moments later, look at me and ask ‘who are you?’.
One Sunday evening many years ago in Randwick, a predominantly student suburb of Sydney where I was then living, I was walking down a wide sidewalk and headed towards me was an Asian male in his mid-20s who, despite the available width, seemed on a collision course with me. He came to a halt a few feet in front of me, stopped me, looked me in the eyes and asked ‘Are you Mrs Cheong’s son?’ I said yes, and he explained that he’d recognised me from when I used to sit in my mother’s class years ago. I remembered then that when I was 7, I attended the afternoon session of our school and I would often go a little early and sit in my mother’s morning-session class of older students. When that was dismissed, she’d make sure I had lunch and so on before I went for my classes. This stranger remembered me from that little routine 15 years before.
I like to think he remembered me because of my mother.
It’s appropriate that my sister’s name, Rosemary, contains my mother’s: Mary.
Rosemary embodies all the feistiness and selfless sacrifice my mother had stood for.
Born exactly a year after Merdeka Day, she studied locally and worked as a secretary for some years until she started a family. Shortly after her wedding in 1987, we found out my father had lung cancer. He died barely four months later.
Rosemary and her husband, Yap, had rented a place just minutes down the road but they soon moved back in with my mother and have been there ever since. Initially it was so my mother, who’d been married to my father for 38 years, would not have to deal with the loss on her own. Now, with Mum’s challenges, Rose is an indefatigable help, driver, nurse, companion.
And not just Mum - over the years Rose has been there and indeed continues to be there for a host of relatives and friends with challenges of their own. The list is a long one, and a testament to her generosity of spirit.
I’ve written about my cousin Pauline who passed away a couple of years ago. Rose was there, helping with her grocery shopping, taking her to and from her dialysis treatments, sending her to the hospital and was indeed there when Pauline breathed her last.
My eldest uncle, left alone after his wife passed away, relied on Rose for many things and she dutifully obliged even when she found out a few years ago that she had breast cancer. It took my other sister, Margaret, to tell all who’d come to rely on Rose that they would have to fend for themselves until Rose had dealt with her own battle. Which she thankfully did.
It is a wise person who measures not how a person dies but how he had lived. Rose has seen much of both death and life. Of the former, you would find Rose helping out at the Church she is so active in, making funeral arrangements, sorting out Mass books, flowers, food, and so on. In 2008 we had a torrid time with an uncle, two aunts, a cousin and a few others passing away. Rose was there for each one.
Of life, Rose may not have travelled extensively nor had the opportunity and experience of an overseas education or career, but it would be a fool who would say she has not lived. She has experienced ups and downs, seen the good in people and endured the less savoury. She continues to be a source of strength and indeed, inspiration to many who see in her steadfastness lessons that they themselves could benefit from.
At the end of 2009, I celebrate these two ladies. And the lessons I have personally learnt from them.