A very important person in Junwen’s upbringing—and the current matriarch of the family—is our Ah Ma. “Ah Ma” is the name for “Paternal Grandma” in Hokkien, the particular Chinese dialect that most Chinese-Singaporeans speak (originating from the south of China). Ah Ma is 85 years old, and as such, she has a lot of exciting life stories to share—from traveling two weeks by boat while immigrating from China, to dressing as a boy to hide from Japanese soldiers! I wanted to record the ones she shared with us before forgetting.
A New and Better Life in Singapore
Firstly, I should mention that Singapore and Malaysia, while populated by the indigenous Malay people, are also filled with immigrants from China and India. I’ve often heard Singapore described as the “Asian America”, as it is a new country where Asian immigrants flock to start a new and better life. When Ah Ma’s father was only 17 years old, he moved from Southern China to Singapore to start a business selling ice. Since people back then did not have freezers that easily generate ice like our modern ones do, it was a very lucrative business. People selling fish needed ice to keep the fish fresh in the hot marketplace. People selling drinks needed ice to make it cool and refreshing.
Ah Ma, however, was born in China and lived there until she was five. She shared some scary stories about growing up: as a child, adults would offer her and other children candy and toys. Ah Ma ran away screaming and crying, but other children fell for the trap and were stolen away to be sold in other countries. (Sounds similar to stories our parents would tell us to avoid kidnapping!) When she was five, her father and mother purchased tickets to take a boat from China to Malaysia—a two week journey. Because they could afford it, they purchased a room meant to house two people. Others could only afford passage, meaning that they all slept in a common room on the floor. Ah Ma and her mother settled in KL (Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia), while her father traveled back and forth between KL and Singapore where he had another wife. In total, her father had four wives and sixteen children. When I asked Ah Ma if she ever met the other children, she said, “Yes, we hung out together.”
In her childhood, Ah Ma attended a convent for her schooling, which is where she learned English. (I had always wondered how Ah Ma knew English so well! Many of the elderly only know Hokkien, and maybe also Mandarin.) The nuns were Chinese. Her siblings, however, attended a Chinese school—so eventually her mother moved her to the Chinese school. Ah Ma unfortunately did not fit in, since she had to start at the beginning and thus was much bigger than the other children. She was made fun of for her size, and the children treated her as if she were stupid and lazy such that she had to be learning with the younger children.
Evading the Japanese in WW||
Jump forward to when Ah Ma was fourteen years old. The Japanese invaded during WWII, and her mother chopped Ah Ma’s hair short and dressed her as a boy so that the soldiers would not take her as a “comfort girl”. Whenever the soldiers came, they would hide in tunnels under the ground. Some of the young women were not so lucky, as the Japanese grew wiser and started to check their ears. If the ears were pierced, they knew it was a girl dressed as a boy. Ah Ma’s family bought (or rented) a home out in the hills, far away in the country so that they would be safer.
After the war, when she was 17 years old, Ah Ma’s father arranged her marriage with Ah Kong’s father (Ah Kong is the name of the paternal grandfather). Her father told Ah Kong that they should wait to be wed until they were 20, so Ah Ma wore her ring for three years before moving to Singapore to marry Ah Kong. Her father gave her a dowry of “many beautiful jewelry”. This beautiful jewelry would later be sold when Ah Kong’s business was not doing well. She told him to sell it all—that later, when his business was doing well, he could buy her more if he wished.
Do you think you could give up all of your assets to support your spouse? When Junwen and I got married, it was actually incredibly easy for me to view all of my assets as “ours” instead of “mine”. I realize though that today, more people are continuing to live separately within marriage…Some may call it wise, what with divorce rates so high, especially if you are the more “dependent” spouse…they may warn you to maintain your assets to protect yourself. I guess to me, though, that marriage is not just signing a paper to say, “I love you and always will!” Marriage is a partnership: “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine”. All that’s not to belittle Ah Ma’s sacrifice—I think it’s much harder to give up possessions that may have sentimental value than pure hard cash!
Ah Ma’s wedding ring was not sold, however, and was instead saved to give to her eldest son’s wife when they wed. This tradition was carried through such that when Junwen, the eldest son of Ah Ma’s eldest son, married me, his mother gifted me the ring. Unfortunately, the ring that fit my petite mother-in-law and Ah Ma does not fit my Dutch-American hand—perhaps it would fit on my pinky—so we keep it beautifully displayed in our home with other wedding memorabilia.
I found this tradition interesting, since I would naturally assume jewelry would pass down via eldest daughter. I suppose it is a hallmark of the weight the culture puts on the men in the family. Another thought I had, is that it really demonstrates the melting pot that Singapore is of traditional China and Western tradition. Perhaps the ring was given to Ah Ma by Ah Kong in Western fashion (much like their bridal clothing was Western), but was later treated similarly as the rest of Ah Ma’s dowry—dowry which, traditionally, may be transferred to daughters or daughters-in-law. I didn’t think to ask these things while I was there!
Together, Ah Ma and Ah Kong had seven children: three boys and four girls. Junwen’s father, Chee Young, is the eldest son. Each of the three boys have names that begin with “Chee”: Chee Young, Chee Soon, and Chee Sing. “Chee” means “to have self-confidence”, something I’m sure Ah Kong wanted for his three boys.
Now, Ah Ma lives in the family home with one of her sons, her helper and her dog, Lucky, and is well-looked after by her children. These stories are only the tip of the iceberg that is her life, but I wanted to share! I thought it was so cool to learn a piece of her life story, having only ever heard stories about The War and “childhood during the early 20th century” from my own local community members, or from Western books. Our grandparents hold such a treasure trove of memories and stories—I hope we can treat each of them as the precious pearl that they are!