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Among the White Moon Faces
An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands
By Shirley Geok-lin Lim
Chapter One: Splendor and Squalor
Years later, I lie awake In the deep enclosing heart of a household. Years later than in a crib Floating among the white moon faces that beam and grasp.
Years later, flecking the eyes, Faces like spheres wheeling, savoring myself. Years later, I awake to see Dust falling in the dark, in the house.
I know no other childhood than mine, and that I had left secret as something both treasured, the one talent that my parents unwittingly have provided me, and shameful, how these same parents have as unwittingly mutilated me. Moving myself from Malacca, a small town two degrees north of the equator, to New England, then to Brooklyn and to the rich New York suburb of Westchester County, and now to Southern California, I have attempted to move myself as far away from destitution as an ordinary human creature can. In the move from hunger to plenty, poverty to comfort, I have become transformed, and yet have remained a renegade. The unmovable self situated in the quicksand of memory, like those primeval creatures fixed in tar pits, that childhood twelve thousand miles and four decades away, is a fugitive presence | which has not yet fossilized. Buried in the details of an American career, my life as a non-American persists, a parallel universe played out in dreams, in journeys home to Malaysia and Singapore, and in a continuous undercurrent of feelings directed to people I have known, feared, loved, and deserted for this American success.
The irony about a certain kind of immigrant is how little she can enjoy of the very things she chases. Even as she runs away from her first life, this other life that begins to accrue around her remains oddly secondary, unrooted in the sensuality of infancy and the intensities of first memory. Before I could learn to love America, I had to learn to love the land of unconditional choice. The searing light of necessity includes my mother and father, characters whom I never would have chosen had I choice over my history.
Before there is memory of speech, there is memory of the senses. Cold water from a giant tap running down an open drain that is greenish slime under my naked feet. My mother's hands are soaping my straight brown body. I am three. My trunk is neither skinny nor chubby. It runs in a smooth curve to disappear in a small cleft between my two legs. I am laughing as her large palms slide over my soapy skin which offers her no resistance, which slips out of her hands even as she tries to grasp me. I do not see her face, only her square body seated on a short stool and a flowered samfoo that is soaked in patches.
The same open area, the same large green-brass tap above my head, only this time I am crying. My anus hurts me. My mother is whittling a sliver of soap. I watch the white piece of Lifebuoy grow sharper and sharper, like a splinter, a thorn, a needle. She makes me squat down, bare-assed, pushes my body forward, and inserts the sliver up my anus. The soap is soft, it squishes, but it goes up and hurts. This is my mother's cure for constipation. I cry but I do not resist her. I do not slide away but tense and take in the thorn. I have learned to obey my mother.
Both scenes occur in my grandfather's house. The house is full of the children who belong to his sons. It is already overflowing with my brothers and cousins. But all I remember of this early childhood are my aunts. They bulk like shadows to the pre-verbal child, very real and scary. One aunt is tall and stringy; her face, all planes and bolted bones, stares and scowls, her voice a loud screech. Another aunt is round; everything about her curves and presses out; her chest is a cushion, her stomach a ball, her face a full moon, and her smile grows larger and larger like a mouth that will eat you. I am afraid of them both. They wear black trousers and dull sateen samfoo tops, gray embossed with silver or light blue filigree. Their hair is very black, oiled to a high sheen, pulled tight off their faces into round buns, secured by long elaborate gold pins.
I do not remember my mother's figure in this infant's memory of my grandfather's house. She is an outsider, and silent in their presence. This is not her house as it is their house, although my father is a son here. In my infant memory my mother is never a Chinese woman the way my aunts, speaking in Hokkien, will always be Chinese.
Hokkien, a version of Southern Xiamen, the Min dialect from the Fujien Province, is the harsh voluble dialect of the Nanyang, the South Seas Chinese, directive, scolding, a public communication of internal states that by being spoken must be taken in by all. I heard Hokkien as an infant and resisted it, because my mother did not speak it to me. This language of the South Chinese people will always be an ambivalent language for me, calling into question the notion of a mother tongue tied to a racial origin. As a child of a Hokkien community, I should have felt that propulsive abrasive dialect in my genes. Instead, when I speak Hokkien, it is at the level of a five-year-old, the age at which I moved out of my grandfather's house on Heeren Street into my father's shoe store on Kampong Pantai. Hokkien remains for me an imperfectly learned system of grammar comprised of the reduced nouns and verbs of a child's necessary society--chia puai (eat rice); ai koon (want to sleep); kwah (cold); ai kehi (want to go); pai (bad); bai-bai (pray); baba (father); mahmah (mother). It remains at a more powerful level a language of exclusion, the speech act which disowns me in my very place of birth.
Chinese-speaking Malayans called me a "Kelangkia-kwei,"--or a Malay devil--because I could not or would not speak Hokkien. Instead I spoke Malay, my mother's language. My peranakan mother had nursed me in Malay, the language of assimilated Chinese who had lived in the peninsula, jutting southeast of Asia, since the first Chinese contact with the Malacca Sultanate in the fifteenth century. And once I was six and in a British school, I would speak chiefly English, in which I became "fluent," like a drop of rain returning to a river, or a fish thrown back into a sea.
Hokkien had never been a language of familiarity, affection, and home for me. Like the South Seas Chinese paternal house I was born in, Hokkien laid out a foreign territory, for I was of the South Seas Chinese but not one of them. Hokkien was the sounds of strong shadowy women, women who circled but did not welcome me, while in my grandfather's house my enclosing mother dimmed into two hands washing, holding, penetrating me, neither a face nor a shadow.
Then, when Baba opened his shoe shop, we had our own house. Here, in my memory, my mother becomes a woman. She chattered to us, her two sons, her daughter, her baby boy, in Malay. I do not remember moving to the shophouse on Kampong Pantai. It was as if I woke up from a dark and discordant infancy into a world of pleasure in which my mother was the major agent.
In my mother's presence there is memory of talk, not labor. Mother ordered my brothers around. She scolded us for getting ourselves wet or dirty or tired. She joked with her sisters on the manners, the bodies, and crude lusts of their acquaintances. Her baba Malay--the Malay spoken by assimilated Chinese--the idiomatic turns of her ethnic identity, was a waterfall whose drops showered me with sensuous music. She was funny, knowing, elegantly obscene. I remember the rhythms of her phrasings, gentle drumbeats that ended with a mocking laugh, short scolds that faded away, assuming assent.
In my mother's house, she was a nonya, a Malayan-native Chinese woman, whose voice ran soft-accented, filled with exclamations. Scatological phrases, wickedly funny and nasty comments on neighbors and relatives, numerous commands, an infinite list of do's and don'ts, her Malay speech was all social, all appearance and lively, never solo, always interweaving among familiar partners. How could she have talked alone to herself in baba speech? It would have been impossible. Even when alone, it would be speech addressed to kin, a form of sembahyang, prayers before the ancestral altar, to dead yet watchful fathers and mothers.
I listened and must have chattered in response. From a very early age, I was called teasingly by family and strangers a manek manek, a gossipy grandmother or an elderly woman who loves talk, her own and others'. I must have chattered in Malay, for just as the Hokkien-speaking elders named me as a Malay, so the Malay-speakers placed me as an ancestral talker. But I have little memory of what I said or of this precocious childhood tongue I associate with my mother's house. In memory it is my mother's speech but not mine; it was of my childhood but I do not speak it now.
My mother wore nonya clothing, the sarong kebaya. Her stiffly starched sarongs wrapped elegantly around her waist fell with two pleats in the front. Her sarongs were gold and brown, purple and brown, emerald and brown, crimson and brown, sky blue and brown. Ironed till they gleamed, they were stacked in the armoire like a queen's treasure. She wore white lace chemises under her kebaya tops. The breast-hugging, waist-nipping kebayas were of transparent material, the most expensive georgette. They were pale blue, mauve, lavender, white, yellow-green, pricked and patterned with little flowers or tiny geometric designs. They were closed in the front by triple pins or brooches, and these borders were always elaborately worked with a needle into delicate lacy designs, like scallops and shell shapes, or leaf and vine patterns. Women with time on their hands, needing food and money, meticulously picked the fragile threads apart and reworked them into an imitation of the free natural world around them. Each kebaya was a woman's work of art, and my mother changed her sarong kebaya daily as a curator changes an exhibition.
She was good-humored in this act, surrounded by many strange containers. One was filled with sweet-smelling talc and a pink powder puff like a rose that she dipped into white powder and lavishly daubed over her half-dressed body, under her armpits, around her neck and chest, and quickly dabbed between her legs like a furtive signal. Another was a blue-colored jar filled with a sugary white cream. She took a two-fingertip scoop of the shiny cream and rubbed it over her face, a face that I can still see, pale, smooth, and unmarred. She polished her clear fair face with this cream, over her forehead, her gently rounded cheeks, and the sloping chin. Her face shone like an angel's streaked with silver, and when she wiped the silvery streaks off, the skin glowed faintly like a sweet fruit. Later, I would discover that the blue jar was Pond's Cold Cream, the tub of powder, Yardley Talc. She was immersed in Western beauty, a dean Harlow on the banks of a slowly silting Malacca River, born into a world history she did not understand.
More than store-bought magic, she was also my mother of peranakan female power. Like a native goddess she presided over an extended family- younger sisters Amy and Lei came to live with her, and younger brothers Ling, Charlie, and Mun passed through her home on their way to adult separation. She was surrounded by rituals that worshipped her being. The ritual of the peranakan female face began with white refined rice ground to a fine powder. This badak was dampened with rainwater to form a smooth paste that my mother smeared over her face. The rice paste caked and dried like a crackled crepe. It filled in the fine pores on her nose and cheeks, the tiny lines around her eyes and forehead; it turned gritty like bleached beach sand. Washed away, it left her face glimmering like a piece of new silk.
My mother was the goddess of smells. She perfumed herself with eau de cologne from cut-glass bottles that were imported from the Rhine Valley in Germany. She knotted one end of a sheer cambric handkerchief and sprinkled the cologne on the knot. I kept the handkerchief in my plaid smock pocket and took it out throughout the day to sniff the knotted end. The scent was intoxicatingly fresh. It was my mother's Hollywood smell.
Some days she dressed us both elaborately, herself in a golden brown sarong and gleaming puce kebaya, and I in a three-tiered, ruffled, and sashed organdy dress with a gold-threaded scarlet ribbon in my hair. We rode in a trishaw to a plain structure, its doorway flanked by banana palms. The walled courtyard led to an interior room; through the door there was darkness and a flickering oil lamp. Gradually my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The small room was empty except for an altar facing the door, and on the altar was a lingam, a black stone stump garlanded with wreaths of orange marigolds and white jasmines. A man as dark as the room, barechested and with a white cotton dhoti wrapped around his hips, his face marked with lines of ash, a thumbprint of red in the center of his forehead, took my mother's money. He gave her a small comb of pisang emas--perhaps ten to fifteen finger-sized bananas--and a clump of incense like a pebble of gray rock candy.
Later that evening she burned the incense on a brass saucer. As the smoke rose with a pleasantly acrid scent she walked from room to room, waving the saucer till the entire house was impregnated with smoke, the smell of frankincense, and the spirits that banish fear, pain, and illness. The gray smoke wavered across the rooms and shrouded me. My mother worked with deities to cast out the envious eye, the ill-wisher, and the intruding hungry ghosts attracted by the plenty in her home. This burning incense was the smell of my mother's faith.
My mother lived through her senses. I do not believe she was capable of thinking abstractly. Her actions even late in her life were driven by needs--for food, shelter, security, affection. When needy mothers love, there is a shameful nakedness about their emotions, a return to flagrant self-love, that embarrasses. Their heat is distancing: we are driven to reject them before they can eat us up. Because my mother abandoned us when I was eight, I was never certain that she loved her children till later in life, when she needed us. Living through her senses, she could not lie about her needs. In this way, my mother's actions were always honest.
When she lived with us, my mother did not read except for magazines on Hollywood stars. Father was enthralled by the movies that frequently came into our town, and he bought expensive copies of Silver Screen and Motion Picture, fan magazines imported from wildly distant cities like Chicago and Burbank. I grew up in the company of glossy photographs of Leslie Caron, Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, even Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and those magnificent creatures Trigger, Lassie, and Francis the Talking Mule.
Other than these Hollywood familiars, we had few photographs and no pictures hanging on our walls. Framed certificates testifying to Father's success in passing the Senior Cambridge Examinations and in achieving the status of a Queen's Scout hung along the upper floor's corridors. So Father's identity was literally imprinted on the walls of our home. But Emak's presence wavered in our senses, entangled among our synapses, roused involuntarily by a scent from a perfume counter, a passing sadness at the sight of white-colored blossoms, an undercurrent of loneliness in a church or temple where old incense still lingers in the empty pews.
My mother's aesthetic sense was insensible to anything as abstract as a picture or a photograph. It must have been Father who cherished the photographs of actors and actresses, which came all the way from California, to be gazed upon by my five-year-old self. These portraits were as remote from me as the statues of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, whose temple my mother visited, as remote as the gold-leafed, soot-covered seated figures of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, and Kwan Ti, God of Literature, War, and Justice, that rested on the tall altars where we placed jogs-sticks twice a year in the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple--the Temple of The Green Merciful Clouds. Hollywood, Hindu, and Chinese spirits circled the maternal air, fit denizens whose presence in our lives gave comfort, interest, and security when we chose to remember them. But except for ancestral worship days and forays to temples, Mother lived chiefly from day to day without spirits.
In the background another woman ruled, a doughy-complexioned, large-boned woman in a cotton samfoo. Ah Chan washed our clothes, cooked our meals, and cleaned the bedrooms upstairs. Ah Chan came in the mornings and left every evening. She was and was not one of us.
Ah Chan made it possible for Mother always to be carefully dressed. She ironed our clothes to a high starched gloss. Often she sat on the little stool by the open-air bathroom area next to the kitchen, where she had a large zinc-plated tub full of water and dirty clothes. Or she stood in front of the baked clay charcoal braziers, raising a shower of ash with each blast of her breath, stirring the blackened wok with a huge cast-iron ladle. Ah Chan swept the rooms upstairs with a soft straw-plaited broom, pushing the skirt of straw from one corner of a room to the other. Stocky, broad, silent, she was always doing something. I never heard her speak.
Ah Chan's daughter, Peng, older than I was yet also a young girl, came to our house in the afternoons to help her mother with the laundry, ironing, cooking, and washing up. I did not play with Peng, for she was the servant's daughter and, like her mother, she remained busy and silent.
My earliest remembered dreams are of Ah Chan. Behind my shut eyelids white spots move and dance. Gradually, then faster and faster, the spots rotate and magnify till they each resolve into a round shining face with two bright black eyes and a beaming smile. They are all faces of the same woman. Her smile brightens till the myriad rows of white teeth shine and blind me, although my eyes are tightly shut. I am terrified of this female vision, these expanding faces with their pasted elongating grins spinning bodiless everywhere. Why should Ah Chan terrify me when she continues to remain in the background, seemingly screened and unheard?
Memory fixes two versions of Ah Chan, the maternal servant. In one she is stoically silent. Constantly moving, she works at small domestic chores, a necessary machine in the household. In the other version, a nightmare of beatific power, her face multiplies and expands to claim the entire ground of my vision. I wake up with my five-year-old heart racing. Awake I am careful to stay with my mother or to play in a room away from Ah Chan's presence.
Before there was trouble there were years I remember as happy, when we ventured out as a family to visit Grandma, Grand Auntie, and Mother's and Father's friends. In the evenings or on Sundays after Father had taken out the plank panels, fitted them into the metal tracks, and closed up his store which sold Bata shoes, we squeezed into his dark green Morris Minor and drove slowly up the coast with its old colonial houses, or to Bandar Pasir where friends lived in new housing estates.
It was a ritual my mother called makan angin: to eat the wind, to move as leisure. Not as a challenge or as a means to an end, which are Western notions of travel, but as easy pleasure. It held nothing of the association of speed that "wind" arouses in the West, but rather of slowness, a way of drawing life out so that time is used maximally. Makan angin makes sense only in a society in which time is valueless, a burden to be released with least financial loss and most pleasure. It speaks for lives that have not understood necessity or luxury, and that drift in dailiness, seeking escape from boredom of the senses through the senses.
The Tan family lived in a grand rambling house in Klebang. The circular driveway enclosed a flowered plot that was circled with yellow and blue tiles. Bachelor buttons, cockscombs, and zinnias glowed orange, blood red, and plum purple in the evenings when we visited. I wandered by the garden dazed by growing things. Pink clusters of sweet william flourished above me, and a thickly-branched jambu-ayer offered green-pink watery guavas. Inside the polished planked living room, the adults sat on rattan armchairs. Who knew what they said to each other, why the Tans felt it necessary to welcome us, what my parents intended by these visits?
I do not remember these relatives or friends visiting us except for Chinese New Year. There was something different about my parents: their restlessness to be out of the shophouse, shuttling their children, first three, made up of Beng, Chien, and myself, and gradually including Jen and Wun, all of us putt-putting into an unpaved driveway, stopping by to visit for an hour or two. Was there a pathos to this unreciprocated ritual? Even as a five-year-old child I understood social place. We were a piece of Malacca society but not secured in it.
Or less secured than the Malacca families we visited. My envy of intact families begins with those Sunday afternoons when, like a gypsy troupe or a circus mob, we stopped before a private home. Not a shophouse like ours, nor an ancestral house with five or six families in it like Grandfather's, but a house with a garden, a living room, a dining room, and bedrooms, possessing the banal regularity of the Western home.
So we made our way to another Lim home, no relative of ours but another businessman like my father, who sold books, magazines, stationery, and school supplies. The family had once lived above their shop the way we were living above the shoe store, but, newly prosperous, they were able to move into a bungalow in Bandar Hilir. The parents bustled each time we dropped by, and we never stayed long.
Their house seemed to have been constructed completely of cement. The rooms led one to another with no logic of space, no markers for inner and outer lives. They had two girls and only one son, their most valuable possession, whom they called Kau Sai, or Dogshit, for fear of the envious spirits. We thought Kau Sai was as obnoxious as his name, given to deceive the gods. The children, usually kept busy with tuition classes, piano lessons, and homework, played with their toys when we visited, disregarding our envious looks.
Perhaps we felt temporary and unimportant because we no longer lived in Grandfather's house, like the families of First Uncle, Second Uncle, Third Uncle, and Sixth Uncle. This ancestral home was a long, many-roomed, merchant's house Grandfather had built for his children. Grandfather had come to Malaya as a young man from a village near Amoy, in the Fujien province. He came as a coolie immigrant with no education or social rank, one of thousands of poor males from southern maritime China who poured into the British-controlled Straits Settlements at the beginning of the twentieth century. A common laborer, he carried sacks of charcoal wood, rice, dried foodstuffs, and agricultural imports from the cargo ships anchored off the narrow mouth of the Malacca River, onto the light boats that navigated the mud flats to unload on the quays. Through industriousness and foresight, he managed to save sufficient money to set up a chandler's shop beside the river mouth.
As a young child, I visited Grandfather's shop, a large room that opened immediately onto the street. Untidy and crowded, it was a child's fantasy of strange things, boxes and barrels that overflowed with nails, bolts, screws, brass fittings, washers, various thicknesses of ropes, steel wires, and other clunky metal fixtures. He must have done well, for he went on to buy farmland which he rented out. Grandfather weathered the world depression of 1929-32, and his store and farms prospered with the establishment of Malacca as a careening station, in the wake of British colonial and naval expansion in the Malayan peninsula.
With seven sons, the coolie transformed now into a merchant, a towkay, Grandfather built a handsome house on one end of Heeren Street, named after the Dutch burghers who had first settled along the coast by the mouth of the Malacca River. In the early twentieth century Heeren Street was where Malacca society lived. There, merchants like Grandfather built solid deep houses, ornately tiled, floored with quarried marble and fired red clay. I was born in such a house.
All my life I have dreamed about Grandfather's house, sometimes that I had bought the old house and was repairing it. These dreams are rarer now; more often I dream that I am exploring its rooms again. The rooms open up one into another, and old fragments of carved screens, an etched glass pane, antique spaces of yellowing marble and worn teak flooring flow in a visual stream. I am almost always delighted to rediscover its grandeur. A pride not of possession but of identity pushes the exploration. The images trigger a strong visceral sensation of identity. I know this material world, and know myself through it. The spaces are dream spaces, distorted, like the looming image of a cavernous hall for the altar room, or seeing an enormous room from under the altar table, as a child might have done, crouching in play, a long time ago. The dreams are usually pleasant, yet I am sad when I wake up.
I do not remember speech between my grandfather and myself, as if my early childhood were spent in a dumbshow, a silence of mutually uncomprehending animals. I see Grandfather in our home on Kampong Pantai. He is burnt brown, not so much scrawny as stringy, like dried toughened meat. His head is shaved and short gray bristles cover his scalp like pinpricks. His face is narrow, his cheeks drawn. He sits on the chair, an exhausted man, neither smiling nor talking. I know he is Ah Kong, but what does Ah Kong mean? With so many sons and grandsons already in the world, I must have struck him as insignificant. He is mute in my memory, giving nothing of himself except his utter weariness. He sits like a man who is only a dried burned body.
My other memory is of Grandfather's portrait which I first saw during his funeral, and then for a number of years on the altar table facing the front door, where anyone entering the house on Heeren Street would have to see it. Tinted in shades of gray, it shows the unsmiling face of a man in his early sixties, somber yet not grim, as if a history of hardship and sorrow were masked in the stoical mien and deliberately erased. It is not a face of suffering but of suffering blanked out.
This is how I envision the history of the Chinese pioneers to Malaya, the men who lived for three bowls of rice a day, and then for their sons, so that their sons would be able to feast on pork fat and white chicken meat. My grandfather's life repeats the myth of immigrant Chinese heroes, but his sons, my uncles, to whom he refused to show his sufferings, were beginning to fall away, even before he died, from the lives he had struggled to achieve for them. This truth may explain the exhaustion I saw in the man on the chair. It explains the hysteria that came over the extended family when he died.
My mother took us to a tailor's shop in the back streets of Malacca and had us measured for mourning clothes. We needed sufficient black clothes for six months, and because we had to wear black immediately, some of our other clothes were sent to be dyed. For a week until the tailor was able to complete the newly fashioned mourning clothes for us, we wore these stiff dyed cloths. They were more of an indigo than inky black. The dye penetrated the fibers and made them hard, as in a form of rigor mortis, and the seams of my blouse sat on my body like rulers. Through the day I walked in an ambience of indigo stink. It circled my head as the dye diffused with my body's heat, and its odor rose, wafted from my armpits and pores. I smelled like a corpse being prepared for burial, so that, although I was not permitted to see my grandfather's enormous teak coffin as it rested for five days on trestles in the front hall of his house, I was reminded every moment that a death had occurred.
On the day of the funeral, we joined our uncles, aunts, cousins, and numerous related people in accompanying the coffin as it moved out of the house to Bukit China, or Chinese Hill, the oldest and largest cemetery for Chinese in Malaya. We began the funeral procession at Grandfather's house. The coffin, carved with upturned ends like a pagoda roof, was hoisted with ropes and pulleys onto a lorry, and blanketed with wreaths and embroidered banners. Then, his portrait, set in an oval frame, was tied to the hood of the lorry. The scent of the cream and pink-centered frangipani wreaths masked our sweat and indigo heat, as we followed the lorry on foot, crying and lamenting. Hoods of sack cloth covered our heads, and we shuffled in straw sandals to show how his death had stripped us to destitution. First Aunt, half-carried by the other women through the hot streets, screamed the loudest.
The procession filled an entire street, the flower-bedecked lorry trailed by dozens of weeping adults and children, and they in turn followed by a solemn brass band, with drums, trumpets, and Chinese flutes blowing dirges. Behind the band fluttered banners carried streaming from a single pole or spanning the breadth of the street between two men. The banners of bright crimson, purple, midnight blue, and garish green satiny stuff were emblazoned with the names of associations and shops that had done business with Grandfather. Men in blue shirts and trousers ran up and down offering yellow "charm" papers, blessed by the Buddhist temple, to the passers-by. Grandfather's funeral was a civic occasion as much as it was a private grief, and as we dragged our fraying sandals behind the slow jerking lorry, the streets rang with the shouts of the banner carriers, and with the cries of the water carriers as they hurried from group to group dispensing bamboo joints of cool water from their covered buckets.
A photograph captures this single moment, when I felt Malacca not as a town but as a familiar spirit, a space extending from the family, and familiarity encompassing territory intimately inside ny memory. In the photograph, the coffin-loaded lorry occupies center stage. The sons, faces visible under their sack-cloth hoods, kneel in front of the lorry and stare into the camera. Grandchildren stand on the sides, fanning outwards with mothers and related womenfolk behind us. There are so many grandchildren that the photograph, forming a broad, flattened rectangle, appears to have netted me within the psychic space of the extended family, that veining trajectory of multiple cousins, blooming for a shortened history in our lives.
This moment imprinted on me the sense of Malacca as my home, a sense I have never been able to recover anywhere else in the world. To have felt the familiar once is always to feel its absence after. The town through whose streets I mourned publicly, dressed in black, sack, and straw, weeping with kinfolk, united under one common portrait, is what my nerves understand as home. It doesn't matter that the family is lost, and that the town has been changed long ago by politics and economics. Every other place is foreign after this moment.
Father came from a family of six boys and one girl. He was the only son to have taken a peranakan woman as his wife. He broke away from being Chinese, and as soon as his children started school, he began to speak to them in English. As the fifth son, he had been left to his own devices, and, finding his pleasures in films and Western music, he constructed a life out of Western products. These included books. Before poverty stripped him down to essential pleasures, he read widely if with little depth. Newspapers, magazines, and omnibuses of Reader's Digest novels filled our home. He must have spent recklessly on subscriptions. We received National Geographic and two film magazines; later, as his tastes grew cruder, we received the British Tatler and Tid-Bit. He ordered copies of British funnies for my brothers, so that we were raised on popular British humor, with Desperate Dan, Billy Bunter, Dennis the Menace, and Gnasher.
When I study the few photographs I have of him as a young man, it becomes clear how differently he saw himself from his older Chinese-educated brothers. My father is almost always smiling in his photographs, as if there were an injunction against solemnity or misery in his world. In this way his image is already un-Chinese. The convention of individual portraits, a seriously considered expenditure when it wasn't an extravagance, taken perhaps only once in a lifetime, was that of the gaze across the centuries. One was looking at masses of one's great-grandchildren and expecting their worship. It was as human deities that Chinese parents looked into the camera, lofty, and as always under the eye of eternity, with a tragic cast. But my father's image for the future-capturing camera defies this Chinese deification. He sees before him the bent, tilted, shoulder-slanted pose of the Hollywood stars, the Howard Keels and Douglas Fairbanks of the non-Chinese world. His boyish head is always askew in the frame. He tilts it back as if to invite admiration. He has a smile that can charm any woman, even a five-year-old child. Sometimes he is posed with other men, but he is always in the center and at front. His pants are broad linen slacks, and he wears a cardigan whose sleeves are casually draped over his shoulders and tied loosely around his neck. In one photograph he wears a Panama hat and cradles a mandolin. He could have been a Chino in Cuba.
Where did my handsome father get his Western ways?
Father's imagination was possessed by Western images. He had a Gramophone that needed to be cranked up, and after he placed the needle in the groove of the heavy dinner-plate-sized records, music poured out of a mouthpiece curved elegantly like a horn of plenty. A little puppy with a brown-splashed ear guarded the instrument, and a man sang, "Oh Rosemarie, I love you, I'm always dreaming of you." A bright female voice promised, "Mangoes, papayas, chestnuts in the fire, the food is so good that you'll wanna stay!" My favorite was "The Mockingbird's Song," a tune which veered in my memory as the sound of happiness in the melancholic years that soon followed.
There was a time when Father and Mother enjoyed taking us to the Great World Amusement Park, a fenced-in area adjacent to the Rex Cinema. We bought entrance tickets for admission and filed through a narrow gate. Once inside, an entire brightly lit world surrounded us. Shops full of records, magazines, dolls, and knickknacks beckoned. A carousel of metal horses with large painted eyes and flying manes swirled giddily. A screen kept us from seeing into the darkened dance hall where sailors and playboys paid taxi-girls a dollar a dance. We could hear the brassy music of the Malay joggett or the slow thump of fox trots through the open yet hidden door. Food stands offered exotic cut apples, pears, and red plums from Australia. We sat around the rickety wooden tables of an open-air coffee shop, drinking colored syrups and listening to an ancient Chinese musician as he sawed on his two-stringed erhu. With an artist's pride, he placed a dried plum on our table, and in exchange we gave him some coins. He did not play for money, and we acknowledged this in accepting his plum for our coins.
Passing by the record shop we stopped to let Father browse. A large doll with bright yellow hair and blue irises stood propped by its box. "Look," the salesman said, "if you lay the doll down, it closes its eyes." Perhaps Father saw the way I held it, with incredulity and delight. A white and pink doll with the plumpest arms, and legs that moved the way the German soldiers marched in the movies! I went home that evening with my first doll, an alien almost half as big as I, so wonderful that it was placed in its box high on the highest cupboard, to be brought down only on special afternoons for me to play with gingerly.
Father was an inveterate movie fan. Although films from Hong Kong and Bombay also showed daily in Malacca, he seldom saw a movie that was not in English and imported from Britain or the United States.
There were at least three movie houses in Malacca in the 1940s and '50s: the Rex, the Lido, and Capitol. The names of these pleasure houses, owned by the Shaw Brothers who lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, blazed above two-storied buildings. These imperial Latin names hardly signified the cheap shambling structures in which light poured out through a peephole and filled a screen with new images of the West: white cavalry chasing after wild Indians; Errol Flynn with a kerchief round his forehead hoisting himself up a mast, pirate's shirt blowing in the wind and pressing against his giant pectorals, waving a cutlass and challenging a dozen sailors to a fight.
The cinema facades were festooned with giant posters advertising the latest Hollywood extravaganzas. A mustachioed Clark Gable, hair slicked back and head lowered, eyes half-closed, gazed into the green irises of a flaming red-haired beauty, her skin tinted pink, who tilted her giant head and lips to greet him. This fantastic American idealized passion, posed with broad male-clothed shoulders and bare woman's flesh, covered the Rex Cinema's facade for months. It dominated the entire open square where singlet-clad peddlers sold slices of pineapple, Chinese pears, apples, and chiku, packages of melon seeds, dried salted olives, sugared plums, and barbecued squid. We would stand over the dazzling array of snacks for long minutes, agonizing over what we should buy with our five-cent treat. We could already taste the tropical treasures in our eager mouths, together with the American imaginary--the luxurious orchestra sweep, panoramic scenes, close-ups of white male and female beauty--to be ingested in cool darkness and silence. We emerged from the cinema hall gorged with Western images, our ears ringing with the accumulated noise of the finale, our children's eyes blinking in the afternoon glare in which suddenly everything appeared dull, flat, and small.
Since Father's shop, which sold only fashionable, brand-name Bata shoes, was carried in the Rex Cinema's opening advertisements, we were given free admission to every show. Even after Father went bankrupt and lost the shop, the regular ushers knew us so well that they continued to allow us in without tickets. Some weeks we saw three or four movies at the Rex. On weekends Beng, Chien,Jen, little Wun, and I set off in a trishaw, the smaller boys balanced on the older, and myself, a small six-year-old, squatting, scrunched by the floor. We caught the 11 A.M. matinee, then the 2 A.M. main feature, and reeled home at five in the evening, drugged and speechless after so much spectacle.
A vivid memory at ages five and six is of being wakened by my mother who wraps me in a blanket. She carries me to the Morris Minor and my father drives us to the Rex Cinema. We climb up the stairs to the more expensive balcony seats where I doze in the midst of flashing pictures and glitzy amplified music. This ritual of the midnight show is repeated frequently. My brothers must have been left alone in the shophouse while my parents silently smuggled me out. But why me? Do they provide this midnight treat on alternative nights to my brothers? Or am I special, the only girl and my father's favorite child, the one he double-dates with my mother?
The pictures I absorbed in those late night moments now form part of my involuntary imagination. A Busby Berkeley musical with Esther Williams diving and backstroking, her strong muscular body pushing through the water. Then she stands perched on a carousel composed of long-legged sleek women, smiling and waving, a surprisingly asexual figure of womanhood. A clunky metal figure ominously emerges out of a metal hulk, the light dims, the music threatens. This image frightens me and I keep recalling it for years. Decades later, in New York, I learn that this is a shot from The Day the Earth Stood Still' a science-fiction fantasy that I believed a part of my Malacca world. I remember a musical with prancing men and pert women dressed in long flouncy gowns. That, I find in Boston, was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Each midnight show, I wake up in time to watch the finale and see the screen filled with loudly singing, gesturing, good-looking people.
I didn't ask in the morning about the dazed fantasies. I was too busy filling in the blanks of the day with sensory motions and with explorations of my body. The second story of bedrooms and a corridor play-area had a smooth polished wood floor, planked and deeply grained. Bored and delighted at the same time, I lay on the floor, feeling its cool surface on my cheek, and traced the wood grains with my fingers. I sat by the glassless window in my parents' bedroom that faced the street, a wooden balustrade like a fence marking the division between bedroom and open air. I held onto the round bars of the balustrade, pushed my head as far as it could go between two of the bars, and studied the street below. It was dazzling hot and sunny outside. A car drove slowly past, a trishaw moved languorously in search of a passenger. Across the street was a row of other shop fronts: the goldsmith's shop showed only a dark interior, although the steel accordion gates were pushed back all the way. A lorry was parked before the sundry shop, but no one was unloading anything. The street lay silent like a somnambulist's vision.
My father's shop had a prominent place on the street, but the street always appeared quiet and empty. Sometimes I went through the curtain that separated the family rooms from the sales area and found him sitting on a stool, slipping a customer's foot into a shoe with a shoehorn. He wore dark-rimmed glasses and appeared serious, a different person in his workplace, a person who frowned impatiently. After the customer left he wrapped the shoes back in their paper tissues, placed them in their boxes, and put away the boxes precisely in their places on the shelves, like a stack of catalogued books. He swept the floor and neatly rearranged the cushioned chairs. With a feather duster, a huge cluster of black and brown rooster feathers, he dusted the counters and chairs.
He was compact, efficient, and angry. When his anger erupted, he would seize the feather duster, chase after my brothers, and thrash them with the rattan handle, gripping the feathers so tightly that they shredded and fell like pieces of my brothers' bodies. The rattan whipped through the air with a singing tone, and red welts appeared on my brothers' bare legs and arms. They raised their arms to shield their heads. When they rolled themselves into balls, the rattan cut them on their backs and shoulders. I watched terrified, guilty: was it because of me that they were being caned? Had I cried, complained, or pointed a finger at them? I was aware that my father's arm, striking again and again at my brothers, could as well be aimed at me. I stayed in the corner of the room, unable to move away from his fury. Sometimes he yelled at me, "You stay here and watch this. Don't think I won't cane you either!" I knew he would also beat me some day.
We were not allowed in the shop except on Sundays when I could stand on a cushioned chair and jump off, imitating my brothers. Once, I fell clumsily, my elbow wrenched out of its socket. I screamed with pain; the elbow bone stuck out of the skin like a sharp stick. Nevertheless, I was determined to follow my brothers, to act as they did. To be one of them, I had to keep up with them. And they were a bunch of demons. They shrieked and ran like crazed animals all over the neighborhood.
Indoors they had to be quieter, and they delighted in games that excluded me. I stood by the closed door of their bedroom; they were whispering, conspiring about a game that I was not permitted to play. I pushed at the door, but they had blocked it with the full weight of their four male bodies. I begged them to let me in, I wanted to play with them, but they refused with gleeful laughs. I cried, exhausted. Why was I outside the magic of their play? I knew it was because I was a girl. What did it mean, that I was a girl? It meant that I was slower than all of them, although my youngest brother, four years younger, was barely a toddler. I was unwanted and unloved by my brothers.
My oldest brother, Beng, the prized first-born, was the one who disliked me most. In my earliest memory, he was gruff and distant. He was comfortable in Malay, and over and over again I heard him say of me, "Benchi!" signifying antipathy, even hatred. I understood he disapproved of me because I was a girl. The house was full of brothers, except for me, third-born. I was a despised female, but I was also the only girl whose tears, whines, requests, whims, and fancies my father responded to unashamedly. The only daughter overtook the first-born son in a family with too many boys. This childish anger that Beng showed me never shook my sense of being special, but it made me timid of the feelings of rivals.
Yet I held an unequal position over my brothers. All my brothers spoke of my father's favoritism toward me as a fact of life, and I assumed that I deserved my father's favors. Because my father treated me as a gift, a treasured child, I felt myself to be a gift, and that I held treasures within me.
Being a girl also made me precocious and edgy, asking not"Who am I?" but "How can I prove that I am not who I am?" From the moment my father dealt with me more gently than with my brothers, and I understood my oldest brother when he muttered "Benchi," from the moment I stood outside a door and felt my sex make me unwelcome, I decided my brothers' acceptance was preferable to my father's favoritism. I rejected the identity of girl. Since I could not have both, I chose equality as a boy over privilege as a girl.
My parents explained to their friends with exasperation that I was a tomboy, born in the year of the monkey. But I was not born one. It did not come naturally to me to run fast, to jump from high walls, to speed on a bicycle, or to stay out late alone at night. I would not have wandered from place to place, except for the promise, barely sensed, that something was to be picked up, learned, found, discovered, given, taken, ingested, desired, something that I couldn't find in my home, that I would be stronger, better, improved, changed, transformed in a stranger's house.
I was given the trappings of a girl-child: like an antiquated pleasure machine, my memory churns out images of tea-sets, blond dolls, doll wicker furniture, frilly dresses, red tartan ribbons, and my power as the only girl. Lying on a rattan chaise lounge, with a high fever, I was a very small and sick four-year-old. But Baba hovered over me; he had bought grapes, rare delicious globes. Emak stripped the green skins from them. The flesh was translucent, pale jade, veined, and firm. Delirious with happiness, I held each cool fat fruit in my fevered mouth.
In a later image, I sat on the floor gravely arranging the plastic teacups and saucers, holding each teacup in turn by its little handle. Today, this child playing house is a mystery to me. What was she thinking of as she sipped the air and set the emptied cup on its daisied saucer?What company did she enjoy this solitary hot afternoon while her brothers were away in school? There was a stillness in this child, attentively at work with imaginary companions, that absorbs me now. Was she imitating her mother and the many aunts she had met? But Malacca society ran on glasses of Sarsi and Greenspot, frizzy, sugared pop, colored violent blood-brown and orange, rather than on cups of tea and cream. Tea in Malacca was Chinese tea, poured into small handleless cups that you clasped in one hand. Where had this girl-child learned to drink tea in the British way, grasping the handle gingerly between thumb and middle finger and sticking her pinkie out like a society woman? The illustration on the box that held the tea set showed a blond child, also on the floor, drinking tea with her equally blond dollies. The girl had studied the picture. She was more like this blond girl than like her aunts or even her mother. Her doll with the straw-textured blond curls sat upright across from her, the hard blue eyes wide open. The girl played not so much with the tea set as with the picture on the box. It was quite satisfactory.
But finally it was not as good as the real thing, which was my brothers' pray. The boys played at fighting with each other, noisily and excessively. All kinds of sounds came from them--bangs, rattles, yells, screams, shouts, yipes, hollers, short murderous silences, stampings, thumps, pings, singing. It seemed to me that none of the boys were ever alone. They were always whispering together, laughing, planning something, sharing a joke, exchanging a look, chasing each other, pushing, shoving, howling, pinching, punching, kicking, blaming each other. I whined because they would not tell me what they were doing, but that was their favorite game, conspiring to keep me out. And when I had begged enough, they let me run with them in their chases, but they ignored me. It was too easy to catch up with me. I cried and whimpered when I was hit, which was after all the aim of their games, to see how often they could hit each other.
And I? My chest hurt as I flew down the narrow sidewalks, trying not to stumble against the dustcans and baskets of garbage left by the sundry shops next to our home. My breath hammering against my ribs, I scrunched down inside a dry drain, fearing to be discovered, fearing my brothers' physical play, listening to their hoots as they galloped up and down above me. I wanted desperately to be up there, out in the open, whacking them as hard with an open palm as they were dealing each other. But I was grateful to be hiding, to be silent, secret, left alone, and safe. The minutes passed, and I leaped from the drain, scrambled in front of the three boys, raced panic-stricken, and touched the pillar that spelled home.
It was my brothers' enmity that made me refuse to be a girl. To be a girl, as I saw through their mocking distance, was to be weak, useless, and worse, bored. It was to stay in one place and gossip for hours the way my mother sat gossiping with my aunts and grandaunts.
My mother's parents had lived in Malacca State all their lives. Their parents were descendants of Chinese traders who had migrated to Malaya as early as the fifteenth century and who had married local Malay women. My mother's father had been a station master at Tampin, a civil servant for the British administration. He had moved his family, four boys and five girls, to a house in Klebang outside the town of Malacca, survived the Japanese Occupation, then died suddenly of a bad heart, leaving behind five children still at home. His wife died soon after, and Mother found herself hosting one teenage sibling after another as they passed from her older brother's hands to hers and then to Singapore where two married sisters were able to set them up with opportunities and jobs.
A series of aunts came through our home. First, Aunt Amy, sweet-faced, gentle, always with a smile that meant nothing except how good she felt to be simply wherever she was. If my mother was wickedly funny and driven by the needs of her senses, Aunt Amy was amusing and grateful to receive whatever was given to her. Her strange contentment made happiness inevitable for her, while my mother's uncontainable needs marked her for misery. Aunt Amy was a bowl of brown-sugared oatmeal, delicious yet surprisingly good for you. Her warm and easy temperament gave her the halo of good looks. When Aunt Amy left for Singapore, Auntie Lei, Mother's youngest sister, came to live with us.
Auntie Lei was a short woman, darker-complexioned than the rest of her siblings, and fiercely passionate, almost as I imagine I might have appeared at sixteen. She had a willful vivid face, not pretty at all but catching because the eyes were so restless, the compact shape of the skull and cheeks seemingly too small for the furrowed countenance, the concentrated inward focus of a furious self. Her slight body was dense with resistance; she was like an animal that would not be housebroken. She quarreled continuously with my mother, kept her distance from the rest of us, and finally ran away with a fair-skinned young man whose languid manners promised a life of poverty.
I watched these aunts, intimate, fleeting, subordinate in my mother's household, the only women of my blood I would know from the inside. They offered two different selves, but each inescapable from kismat, or fate, as Emak loved to say. Aunt Amy was tamed for pleasure; whatever entered her mouth turned sweet if insipid. The youngest sister, however, was ruled by passions. Intense, brooding, her eyes tugged inwards, she was blind to self-interest and to safety. They were both of marriageable age, but, orphaned and dowryless, with no parents to negotiate their value, they were social waste, excess, unhoused women to be taken in by their married sisters as unpaid domestic help. Aunt Amy willingly waited in another sister's home in Singapore in hopes of a meager marriage; Lei, sexuality brooding in her sullen body, defied social approval and gradually disappeared into the Malacca underclass. Appearing more and more worn through the years, her face never lost its countenance of discontented sexuality, as if in the narrow squalor she had chosen she had kept unscattered that appetite of the sixteen-year-old.
Uncle Ling came through, then Uncle Charlie, to be followed by Amy, Lei, and Mun. Ling and Charlie stayed only briefly, but long enough for me to remember Ling's good nature mixed with a cruelty that had him throwing me into the waves. I screamed with panic as he seized and tossed me casually like a sack of charcoal into the deep water into which I gurgled and could not find my footing. I was perhaps four, a child who could drape her entire body over a blown-up plastic tube and imagine it to be a ship, but who also had a mind that could understand cruelty and be afraid of it. My grandparents' orphans introduced me to tragedy, and I learned in self-defense to stand apart, not to be like Mother and her sisters, who wept helplessly and who ran away and gave themselves to helpless men, nor like her brothers who were forced to depend on reluctant relatives.
So much family! Uncles, brothers, cousins! But all were only one step from strangers. Baba and Emak were the bedrock, that which could not be lost, although they might lose each other and themselves. But by the time I was six, even they were changing into strangers moving away from me.
Baba's temper grew more uncertain and unchecked, and Emak became pregnant again. The house was permeated with the scents of chicken and pork liver in Chinese wine boiled with ginger and ginseng root. One night I saw her using the flowered porcelain-covered metal chamber pot placed in the corridor connecting the three bedrooms. No one went to the bathroom downstairs after we went to bed; life was lived upstairs after 8 P.M. She was huge, her belly floating in the dark like a boat. The night sarong barely needed to be folded over.
Weeks later we were told that we had another brother named Wilson, but that our Tua Ee, our maternal First Grandaunt, would be taking care of him. Lei told us that a fortuneteller had predicted that Wilson would be a difficult child who would bring disaster to his parents, and that he would have to be given away. Tua Ee took him in although she already had three sons of her own and an adopted daughter. Our baby brother came and left without our ever seeing him.
Source : https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/amongthewhitemoonfaces.htm10170