The day I was born, in 1938, my family’s house in Melaka, Malaysia, was quiet for such an auspicious occasion. No red eggs and delicious cakes were distributed to relatives and friends to mark the arrival of a newborn baby.
You see, even before my Peranakan mother could cuddle me in her arms, she had arranged that I would be raised by a foster family. Mother was concerned that my Hakka grand-mother would snatch me away. When she was pregnant, Mother overheard her say to Father: “If it is another baby girl, it would be best you let your brother Pek Yong and his wife adopt the child. They have two sons and would certainly love to have a daughter.”
Father was willing but Mother refused to give her baby away. So to keep me safe, I was whisked away to the Malay kampong, or village, of Klebang Kechil, where I grew up under the care of my foster mother, Mak Esah.
Mak Esah was a gentle Malay widow who lived with her daughter Nya, son-in-law Abang and their daughter Cik Wah. I was their pride and joy – the little girl with plump, rosy cheeks and small “Chinese eyes”.
The kampong was approximately 3 kilometres from Melaka town, facing the sea. Hidden among the cluster of houses with atap roofs was Mak Esah’s domain. There was an extension in front of the house where people would gather for a chat. As Mak Esah sat there with me on her lap, humming a lullaby, a sense of security would come over me.
Few buses plied the roads then, so whenever Mak Esah and I made our periodical visits to town to see Mother, we had to walk. I loved these walks. Mak Esah carried cakes bundled in banana leaves, and every now and then she would give me one to munch along the way. On the walk home, Mak Esah carried bottles of Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil and castor oil. This was on Father’s instruction – he said cod liver oil was good for my lungs and castor oil would help wash my bowels clean.
In the kampong, the muezzin’s call to the Muslim faithful to prayer was music to my ears. Abang, or big brother, and his fishermen companions would go to the mosque, while Mak Esah, Nya and Cik Wah rolled out their prayer mats at home. I was given one too so I could join them in prayer. I had become accepted as part of the fabric of life in Klebang Kechil.
When I was five, Mother announced that I had to return home. Mak Esah was heartbroken and cried for many days. All the kampong folks came to bid me goodbye.
Before I left, Mak Esah told me that when I was one, my Hakka grandmother came to visit. She didn’t speak Malay, so her taxi driver acted as her interpreter. “The driver said that your grandma heard that you looked exactly like her,” Mak Esah recalled. “She personally came to see if this was so. She then took you in her arms and as she pressed her face against yours, we all remarked that you certainly resemble your grandma.
“Then as she turned towards me, and said loudly in her peculiar Chinese style, ‘Mak Esah, my granddaughter will grow up to be as hardworking as I am. I hope she will not forget that she is a Hakka. I am happy I saw my granddaughter and thank you for taking good care of her.’”
After I returned home, an aunt innocently asked me, “Rose, are you a Chinese or a Malay child?” I remained silent for a while and then haughtily replied, “I’m Mak Esah’s child!”
Life back home was very different. Mother often scolded me, whereas Mak Esah never chastised me; even if I had done something wrong, she would just tell me gently not to be mischievous.
One quirk of mine that annoyed Mother was my refusal to eat pork buns because I could not bear the smell of pork. In punishment, she sent me out of the house. I amused myself by jumping over a drain. I must have slipped because my forehead hit the edge of the drain and I screamed in pain as blood oozed down my face.
I lay in bed for several days with stitches and bandages over my right eyebrow. Mother tried to console me, but I kept calling out for Mak Esah.
Mother finally relented, and when Mak Esah arrived, I whispered, “I want to go …” Before I could finish, she said, “Shh, anak (child) Rose, this is your home. Mak Esah loves you and your mother loves you too.”
Mother eventually let me spend a week in the kampong with Mak Esah. The reunion was a grand affair. Abang held a party and all the kampong folks were invited. On my return home, Mak Esah gave me a bundle of her famous “kuih dodol”, a traditional sticky and sweet Malay dessert, for Mother.
I wanted to live with Mak Esah but, of course, Mother would not permit it. Eventually I came to accept my situation, and settled into my new life, though I visited Mak Esah as often as I could.
Mak Esah died shortly after the Japanese Occupation ended in l945, and Nya passed away five years later. Unfortunately, the only photo of Mak Esah and me was mislaid.
There is a saying that a person is never whole until he or she is reconciled with his or her roots. Though my ancestral roots originated in the Hakka village of Toi San Xin Nen in Guangdong, China, deep in my heart, my cultural roots started in a small kampong in Melaka, where I was much loved.
As I grew into adulthood, I could see the beauty and the fine points of both Malay culture and Chinese civilisation. The matter of race was never a problem for me.
It’s not just the peaks in one’s life that are worth treasuring. Life is more meaningful if we taste the bitter with the sweet, the sadness with the joy. As I write these lines, tears well up in my eyes as memories of Mak Esah and her family come flooding back. Even now, I consider myself to be Mak Esah’s child!
3 of 9 Comments
|Fauziah on 08 March 2013 ,17:02 |
The story has reminded me of our adopted sibling left to live with us at the age of 4. How pitiful to see him separated from his birth mother and lived with strangers. Eventually, time healed the agony.
|Mellissa Cobain on 26 July 2012 ,14:07 |
what a beautiful story. really touch my heart and yeah u always Mak Esah child.
|hashimah on 23 May 2012 ,01:40 |
THank you for sharing your precious memory with us. yours will be a good example for the saying "love knew no boundaries"
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