On 7 July 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge incident marked the start of Japan's all-out invasion of China.
Mother, still in Pudong to keep my grandmother company while she visited Chinese doctors, was just beginning to get the hang of Chaozhou embroidery. Alarmed by the news of the war, and unsure if the invading Japanese might reach as far south as Chaozhou, they abandoned the medical treatment and hurried back to Malaya.
For Mother, returning home meant being reunited with her schoolbooks. Before her journey to Tng-sua (China), she had already had a few years of informal education in the family's private schoolhouse. This consisted of a simple attap hut built on the family's land, and a single teacher from Chaozhou named Lee.
Public education available to children of Chinese settlers in colonial Malaya was scanty, if at all. Those who could afford the expense would employ family tutors from China to teach their children to read and write in a sishu, or a private schoolhouse.
In recognition of this practice, the colonial administration allowed private schoolhouses with twelve or fewer students to operate without a licence. The deal for Mr Lee was to teach the five or six kids in the Lau family who had reached school-going age, in return for board, lodging and laundry.
WHY GO TO SCHOOL?
"So you want to go to school, eh? Isn't it bad enough that you've learned to smoke? What other nonsense do you want to learn? You're already a samseng pua (female gangster)! It's hard enough for me to feed this family, and yet you want to go to school! What use is that to girls?
GRANDFATHER, flying into a rage after Mother repeatedly pleaded with him to let her go to school in Singapore
Given the rate at which the Laus were reproducing, Mr Lee need hardly fear that his pipeline of students would dry up. Nevertheless, my grandfather also agreed that Mr Lee could teach a few more students from other families for a fee. This gave him an income of seventeen or eighteen dollars per month - a tidy sum in those days.
After a while, Mr Lee was replaced by another tutor. His surname was also Lee, and his full name was Lee Yew Sin. While my grandfather saw to it that his daughters could attend classes along with his sons, he had no intention to educate them to the same extent. In his view, girls needed just enough schooling to be able to write a decent letter home once in a while after being married off.
Hence, the Lau boys were taught primary school-level Chinese, arithmetic and English, in preparation for entering secondary school in Singapore. The Lau girls were only taught Chinese and arithmetic. There would be no secondary school for them.
Mother was sixteen years old when she returned from Tng-sua.
She was old enough to be assigned household chores, and was put in charge of the daily laundry for the entire household. While her chores kept her busy, she managed to complete the primary school curriculum for girls at the family's private schoolhouse within two years. By then, she was literate enough to devour popular novels like Ba Jin's Family, Spring and Autumn, a trilogy chronicling modern young Chinese protagonists' struggles against oppressive traditional practices like arranged marriages.
TITLE: Chasing Rainbows
AUTHOR: Choo Lian Liang, translated by Sim Ann from the 2010 original in Chinese,
- PUBLISHER: Straits Times Press
PRICE: $28 (before GST) at most
Somewhere along the line, a radical idea had begun to take shape in Mother's young mind. It could have been the trip to Tng-sua that had broadened her horizons and whetted her appetite for adventure. Or, perhaps, her experience with embroidery had left her cold at the thought of relying on traditional crafts for a living. Whatever the reason, she wanted a way out of the life that awaited her. She began to appeal to her father to let her go to secondary school in Singapore, just like what he had planned for her brothers.
Persuading him was no easy task. As his business grew, my grandfather had become a prominent member of local society, known for his staunch support of good causes, such as building a proper village school. At home, he was very much the stern patriarch. Although a man of few words, he nevertheless held a firm grip on all major decisions. Apart from festive occasions when he had to put on a smile to entertain local officials at home, he was rarely given to displays of mirth and affection.
The women and children of the household learned to observe him carefully for signs of temper before bringing up issues requiring his decision. Mother, however, knew that she was one of his favourite children. She kept badgering him to let her go to school in Singapore and never once bothered to gauge his mood before speaking.
She paid dearly for her insolence. On one particular day, she found her father in the reception hall and tried once again to cajole him into letting her leave for Singapore. Her mother, usually meek and mild-mannered, plucked up the courage to speak up in support of her daughter. Their timing could not have been worse.
The outbreak of the Second World War had sent rubber prices plummeting, and my grandfather was in a dark mood. To make matters worse, it had been just a few days after he had caught Mother in the middle of a most unladylike act.
She had been helping some hired hands with farming chores and, just for fun, decided to try smoking tobacco just like them. My grandfather happened to observe his beloved daughter from afar, lounging around roguishly with a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from her lips. He did not confront her there and then, but simmered in silent anger.
So, unbeknownst to Mother, she had ignited a powder keg. Her innocent pleas drove her father to a terrible rage. He dragged her out of the front door and into the yard where he trussed her up by her wrists, threw one end of the rope over a tree branch and hoisted her into the air. He then drew out a rattan cane and rained blows upon her dangling form.
"So you want to go to school, eh?" he roared. "Isn't it bad enough that you've learned to smoke? What other nonsense do you want to learn? You're already a samseng pua (female gangster)! It's hard enough for me to feed this family, and yet you want to go to school! What use is that to girls?"
Mother bawled and shrieked in pain. The punishment was so violent that even my grandmother, ordinarily so deferential to her husband, could not bear watching any longer. She had long harboured a sour resentment of the love that her husband had shown for his concubine's children, and it was too much to see him whipping her own child now. She threw herself between them and wrapped her arms tightly around Mother.
"If you want to whip Ah Nee to death," she screamed, "you'd have to kill me first." Ah Nee was Mother's pet name.
That put a stop to the whipping.
After the trauma, Mother fell quite ill and was confined to bed for a few days. My grandfather was probably stricken with guilt and regret, for he gave her ten dollars for her to see a doctor in Singapore. Although physically battered, Mother was far from ready to give up on her dream. She accepted the money gladly, as it was the perfect cover for her backup plan.
Before leaving Pengerang, she took a gold pendant that my grandmother had given her. She made her way to Singapore and showed up at the Laus' family doctor at his clinic in Middle Road. Instead of paying him with the cash she had been given, however, she put the consultation fee on the family's tab.
She then went to see her uncle Chua Teck Yam, who was working in Singapore, and told him that she intended to travel to Kajang, a town in Malaya, to enrol herself in its overseas Chinese secondary school.
Teck Yam was a cousin of my maternal grandmother. He had migrated from China in the 1930s together with his brother Teck Seng. They went to English medium schools and Teck Yam managed to obtain a Cambridge School Certificate, plus some additional training in accountancy. This made him a well-educated man in those days.
Teck Yam was working for a British firm on North Canal Road. He was a plump and cheerful man and always had a joke to share. He was especially fond of Mother and was delighted to know of his niece's plans to run away from home and go to school.
"Uncle, here's my gold pendant for safekeeping," said Mother. "I might need you to pawn it and send me the cash if I run out of funds."
"With pleasure," he replied. "When you're a safe distance away, I'll tell your father you've eloped."
"What? But I haven't done any such thing!" exclaimed Mother.
"Ah, that's just to wind him up! Don't worry, once he's no longer upset with you, I'll let him know where you really are."
Having secured her uncle's support, Mother spent two dollars on a suitcase and some toiletries, and arranged to meet with two other girl friends who had similar plans to run away. All three boarded the train to Malaya. In Kajang, she enrolled in secondary school. Even after many years, she could remember clearly that the headmaster's name was Hu Yisheng.
It turned out that Mother had heard of this school from her family tutor, Lee Yew Sin. Under Hu's leadership, the Kajang school offered a few subjects that went beyond an ordinary academic curriculum, including international affairs and democratic theory. The school library was filled with "progressive" journals and books. In other words, the school was well known in Malaya for being a hothouse for budding left-wing activists. What was less well-known, however, was that the Chia-born headmaster Hu was in fact an underground Communist Party member.
In the late 1950s, Mother met her old headmaster Hu Yisheng and her old tutor Lee Yew Sin in Guangzhou once again. But that's a story for later.
After settling down in Kajang, Mother wrote a letter to her parents. She explained that the only reason why she had run away was to gain more education, and that she believed that women could be independent if they were endowed with the right knowledge and skills. When my grandfather received the letter, he read it out loud to his illiterate wife. Tears rolled down his face as he read.
"Why, who knew that Ah Nee had it in her to write so well," he said. "She's making a lot of sense, and she certainly hasn't run away with some man!"
It was the first time that my grandmother had seen her husband react so emotionally to a letter.
My grandfather travelled to Singapore frequently on business. While on one of these trips, he looked up Teck Yam.
"Say, why don't you take me to Kajang one of these days?" he suggested. "I would like to see how Ah Nee is getting on."
Teck Yam was more than a little pleased that his prediction had come true. The patriarch had indeed relented! These words were gleefully relayed to Mother, who was to remember them for the rest of her life.
The visit did not happen. My grandfather was tied up with business and never found the time. But he did send Mother money, together with an offer to continue paying for her school fees if she would agree to move back south and enrol in a Singapore school.
In late 1939, Mother made her way back to Singapore after having completed a semester in Kajang.
The first school she applied to was the Nanyang Girls' High School, then helmed by headmistress Madam Liew Yuen Sien. The school was highly regarded and Mother wanted very badly to get in. It was a long shot, Mother knew, for she was already overaged. She sat the admission test and passed in Chinese and Mathematics, but failed miserably in English. She had blown her chance, and was sorely disappointed.
In early 1940, Mother decided to try her luck with Nan Hua Girls' School. Her English hadn't improved, but the headmistress, Feng Yimei, took a different view. She believed that Mother was perfectly capable of catching up. So, Mother was placed in Secondary Two in Nan Hua.
In her old age, Mother would reminisce about this period of her girlhood from time to time. She never quite liked to dwell on the fact that she had been rejected by Nanyang Girls' High School, but she always spoke gratefully and admiringly of Feng Yimei. She had also mentioned several times that Feng Yimei was the wife of the painter Situ Qiao.
Feng Yimei was nothing more than a name to me, but Mother's esteem for her did arouse my curiosity. In the course of writing this book, I found an autobiography by Feng tucked away among Mother's belongings. Only then did I realise that she had been a great literary talent. Born in Huizhou, Guangdong, she was educated at Fudan University in Shanghai and studied in France for some time. Upon returning to China, she taught at Zhongshan University. She became the wife of the painter Situ Qiao, who had made it a personal mission to document the wartime sufferings of the Chinese people in numerous oil paintings. The couple travelled all over China, and ventured as far as Burma, Penang and Singapore.
Feng Yimei's stay in Singapore had been all too brief. She served as headmistress of Nan Hua Girls' School from early 1940 to late 1941. Nevertheless, in that short span of time, she had irrevocably changed Mother's life. Not many headmistresses would have been as sanguine as she had been about Mother's chances for academic success. If not for her, Mother might never have made it to secondary school in Singapore.