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After years of badgering, my Kim Kim, Sally Lee, finally came to Melbourne to visit this Baba hanyut (adrift) who has lived overseas for the last two decades.
For three weeks I nostalgically spoke our Peranakan patois. Kim Kim’s expressions were, of course, more colourful and poetic. She used an intriguing term – sedara anjing- to refer to step siblings with different fathers (as opposed to adek beradek tiri who are step-siblings of the same father)! Trust the Peranakans to conjure such colourful yet disparaging imagery. Kim Kim also shared a number of forgotten nyonya recipes and most fascinating of all, we unearthed many cherita rumah tangga…
I found out that our rumah abu on Kim Yam Road in Singapore was apparently cursed — rumah tu makan kepala — apparently the house would “eat” or kill the males of the family. My grandfather died in his early 30s (and was tak benair or mentally unsound) and the other males died even younger. Eventually, the house had to be sold to the Buddhist Lodge in order not to perpetuate the curse. I hope to be able to verify this when I am next in Singapore and by tracing the ownership of that plot of land which is still owned by the Buddhist Lodge.
Kim Kim’s stories of growing up in her grandfather’s plantation estate in Lengkok Tiga were captivating. She talked me through the processes of rubber tapping, and her uncle’s prowess at fishing, using toba that would make the ikan mabok! However, her story of the family’s char bor kan or indentured maid proved most interesting. Apparently, the char bor kan was only a few years older than Kim Kim, whose Mama (grandmother) had purchased the former when she was no more than 10 years old. She was of Cantonese descent, but she quickly learnt our patois so that when she spoke, dia chakap tak pelat. The char bor kan eventually ran away after enduring years of ill-treatment. She was a purchased commodity, and this gave Mama the license to vent her frustrations upon her! Kim Kim also mentioned that the char bor kan “ada kena kacho” by her rascally uncle. She finally fled when she was in her early 20s. A few of the family members had gone on an outing. She was instructed to buy some ice cream but never returned. The whole family went out in search of her, but to no avail. Mama finally said, perduli sama dia! If this char bor kan was still alive, she would be in her 80s. It would be fascinating to speak to her.
Many of my Cho-cho came from similarly unfortunate circumstances. As I was growing up, I remembered one Cho-cho distinctly. Although she never wore the baju panjang or sarong kebaya, I was instructed to teriak (address) her as Cho-cho. Her preferred attire was a floral samfoo and black silk pants. As I grew older, I learned that she was the third and favourite gundek who attended to my Kong-cho till his dying day. Kong-cho had apparently saved her from a teahouse and she showed her gratitude by devoting her life to him. Kong-cho had a wife and three concubines. I am a descendant of the legitimate nyonya wife, who wore a baju panjang—she was known as Cho-cho Mata (eyes) because she wore glasses. Cho-cho Mata had only one daughter – my grandmother. I believe it was because she tak turunan(could not conceive a son) that she had to accede to Kong-cho piara gundek. In those days, men of status and wealth were expected to piara gundek, and in this case, there was a genuine reason. Kong-cho’s first concubine produced four sons and two daughters. The second concubine apparently absconded with the family jewellery! Cho-cho See Koo was the third and she was the same age as my Mama — imagine that, being the same age as your stepdaughter! Therefore, it was inappropriate for Mama to mourn Cho-cho as a parent. At Cho-cho’s wake and funeral, Mama wore a blue baju panjang while her other siblings donned black.
Cho-cho See Koo, like Cho-cho Mata, could only conceive a daughter, yet her daughter was the only female willed an equal share as the sons in Kongcho’s estate. When Kong-cho died, knowing that as a female she had no claims to her father’s estate, Mama only wanted her mother’s (Cho-cho Mata) kerosang intan, which was willed to the eldest son. She used to say bitterly, “Buat apa tak kadang dia pakay?” For my sister’s wedding, she borrowed them from her stepbrother. Kim Kim said that when Kong-cho’s will was read and Mama learned that she was not entitled to anything, she stormed out of the room yelling, “Ini suma anak sundal tapi dapat harta!”.
Mama was a true garang (fierce) matriarch. She instilled my pride for our culture and heritage. When I learned in school that I had been mispronouncing Malay words, I made a conscious effort to use the correct pronunciation at home. I asked Mama, “Mama pisau mana?” I was duly reproached: “Lu apa, anak Melayu yeh?” Since then, I have made sure to pronounce the “au” as “o” and “uar” with “air” sounds.
I asked Kim Kim, “Mama ada toh tiap tak?” She promptly replied, “Boleh tak ah… Lu boleh tanya eepoh-eepoh lu suma, Mama mia baju chukup tegang—siapa oot? Oot salah sia lu mati ah! Eepoh-eepoh lu suma chakap chukup sabair Mama mia menantu…”
Mama was of pure stock, so she always held her head high. According to Kim Kim, she had no regard for her mothers-in-law (my other set of Chocho) because they were indentured maids who later became concubines. When my Gua Kong (maternal grandfather) died, Ku Ku (mother’s brother) had to shoulder the responsibility of looking after the whole family. When Kim Kim married into the family, she assumed the role of attending to the physical needs of these Cho-cho — they were practically and deprecatingly nicknamed Cho-cho Panjang (tall) and Cho-cho Pendek (short)! They were of Cantonese stock and Kim Kim said they both chakap pelat-pelat. “Mama tak peduli jorang,” Kim Kim said. As Kim Kim had taken care of them, Cho-cho Pendek gave Kim Kim her kerosang, which Mama borrowed on an occasion and never returned. Her excuse was “Buat apa lu mo balek lu tak pakay.” Kim Kim was thankful that Mama never pawned them.
Kim Kim also filled me in on the details surrounding the deaths of our close relatives, particularly my Ku Ku, Mama and my cousin who were killed in a car accident. Kim Kim said that Mama “ada pesan Kim Kim” (had instructed her) to bury Mama with her cheo thau (wedding undergarments) which were wrapped in a large handkerchief. They were so fragile that she herself did not dare unwrap it. At Mama’s death, she carefully instructed the undertaker to put it in the coffin. Realising the importance of the article, the undertaker got Kim Kim to arrange them inside the casket herself.
All these cherita rumah tangga have added to my appreciation for our heritage.
My Kim Kim gave me glimpses of a culture and lifestyle that no longer exist. I consider these insights to be a most precious heirloom. The experience is deeply profound and cathartic: I have discovered a part of myself. As to the constant and endless bickering over where the family estate and heirlooms end up, my Kim Kim has an apt and wise idiom - harta dunia nanti suma pulang balek dunia. How poetic! Kamsiah (thank you) Kim Kim for giving me so much of my Peranakan legacy!
The original article was published in The Peranakan, 2011, Issue 4