Saturday, September 3, 2011

Grandmother Story by Zedeck Siew

My younger brother is a writer of sorts. He is currently working on what probably is his biggest writing project yet. In amongst that writing, he wrote this little piece which I'd like to share with you because I truly do love it. The simplicity in the writing, the Malaysian nuances and the true-to-life translation of Poh Poh's voice (Poh Poh means "grandmother" in chinese). Most of all, I'm sharing it with you because I'm sure there are many of you out there that will experience a wave of nostalgia.

Poh poh with my brother in the background. (Photo courtesy of my cousin, Chrysler Cheong)

Grandmother Story
by Zedeck Siew

“Your Poh Poh has been giving away her jewellery, and visiting Kong Kong’s grave,” my father informed me, last Chinese New Year. “If you want to record her stories, you better do it soon.”

Apart from looking like a typical grandmother (tiny, wrinkled like a shar-pei, constantly in a samfu) my Poh Poh is also known as a chatterbox; it’s difficult to spend time with her and not be spun some outlandish yarn.

These stories are always about family – and, as visits to the cemetery where her contemporaries are buried become more frequent, they reach further and further into the past. Poh Poh told my father and I the following tale after reunion dinner:


The Pregnant Woman and The Coconut

“My father was a respected man in our village. He owned a lodging house, and also supplied people with simple medicines, and people came to him with their problems.

“One day, a villager was out collecting coconuts; it so happened that a coconut fell on his pregnant wife’s head, so much so that her head sunk into her shoulders, like tortoise. So the man went to my father and said: ‘My wife, she’s like this,‘ – he hunched his shoulders – ‘How? Can you help?’

“So my father said: ‘Call your brothers to come.’

“He got the woman to lie down, then rubbed herb oil into her neck. When the husband and his relations arrived, he directed them to hold the wife’s legs and arms. My father held on to the head.

“ ‘One, two, three,’ my father counted. Then, with a jerk, he pulled the woman’s head out. And out it popped.

“After applying some kung fu oil, the woman made a very good recovery – some time later, she even delivered a healthy baby.

“ ‘Thank you,’ said the woman’s grateful husband. ‘How you know what to do?’

“ ‘Actually I didn’t know anything,’ my father said. ‘It was just an experiment!’


When I listen to Poh Poh I am listening to narratives of subaltern history. Folk Remedies of Pre-Independence Malaya, for example. Recording her stories is part of a family history project – and such a personal endeavour is useless without some sort of wider relevence.

I ask Poh Poh what kung fu oil is made of.

“It’s kung fu oil,” she answers.

This has been a frustrating process, and it’s not even my idea. The project was something that my parents proposed, mainly because they had a writer and journalist in the family. I accepted, mainly to prove to them that I actually cared about family.

It’s not like I don’t like my tribe. It’s a language issue: they speak Hakka; as an Anglophiliac child of a middle-class household, I refused to learn any of the Sinitic languages – an indulgence my parents regret.

Ditto my Poh Poh. Conversation is possible, if we both speak in Malay: but this difficult, between my schoolyard bahasa and her Kelantanese loghat. Talking to her properly requires my father’s presence as a translator.


Poh Poh was born two months premature; she was so small her parents didn’t think the baby would survive. Only a year later did they register her birth. Poh Poh’s certificate says she was born in 1927, in a place called Sungai Yu.

(Domestic dynamics of pre-war rural households.)

It was virgin jungle, then. Before becoming a quack doctor, great-grandfather was a foreman for track-laying work; he was directly responsible for about six miles of the northeast railway.

(Industrialisation of North Malaya.)

He fell into the job because of a scandal. Our 23-year-old hero, then living in Kajang, had gotten in trouble for striking up an affair with a married woman.

“My father was tall and handsome, you know,” Poh Poh says, in explanation. “And your great-grandmother was quite short.”

“Anyway, he got this other lady pregnant, so her people wanted to get rid of him. So he had to run to Kuala Lipis. But not far enough, so my aunt got him a job as a railroad mandur, to lay track all the way to Kelantan.”

The interview pauses as my father and his mother have an animated discussion in the mother tongue.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“This is the first time I’m hearing about this!” my father says.


During the war, with the Japanese at their doorstep, Poh Poh was tasked with hiding away the family’s belongings. She gathered up all the household money and valuables, put them in a bag, and started into the jungle.

On her trek she happened upon a cave, and in exploring it found a suitable cavity to stash the fortune. Covering the hole with rocks, Poh Poh marked the spot, the cave, and the way to the cave with various secret signs and marks: sigils only she could recognise.

The occupation happened, much tapioca was eaten, Kong Kong barely survived a mass execution. When the war was over, life got in the way, and Poh Poh never returned to her hidden riches.

“She thinks she still remembers how to find it,” my father translates, laughing. “Buried treasure. Don’t know la.”

But Poh Poh’s treasure maps have worked. By listening to her accounts, my father managed to track down his mother’s long lost sister:


The Stationmaster’s Daughter

“Your Poh Poh has been repeating that story about her sister – who was sold to the Kajang Railway stationmaster, because the family couldn’t afford to support so many children – since I was little.

“So we decided to look. This was about 1980. We took your Poh Poh to the Kajang Station to enquire about the old stationmaster. They remembered he was a Christian fellow.

“So we went to see a priest, who consulted the church directory to give us an address. The stationmaster’s family was now living in a kampung near the new Kajang Jail.

“ ’You, I still recognise you!’ the old man told Poh Poh, when we met him.

“He told us that my Aunty Rose was married and now living in Ipoh. She and her husband owned a laundromat, and had a son named Paul.

“So we went to meet Aunty Rose. When we turned up, the workers in a nearby beauty-parlour commented that I looked like my cousin.

“The reunion was very touching. Aunty Rose and Poh Poh look very much alike.”


Listening to Poh Poh’s stories, I realise that I have lost the ability to see my family as anything more than opportunities to make points of national substance.

I’ve been trained to think that, in my country, stories are told so they can be taken as parables of tolerance, patriotic vision, or socio-political ambition. Of gender, class, race relations. We are a young nation; if what we are doing isn’t in the business of nation building, it is not important.

But Poh Poh’s stories take place in a different country: where daughters are given away and tearfully reunited; where herbal oils cure a woman’s posture; where there are wild-boar traps and buried jewellery in the jungle. And stories about these things are told merely because they happened.


The Man in the Wild Boar Trap

In his free time, Great-grandfather liked to lay traps for wild boar. He’d trek into the jungle, dig a 12-foot-deep hole, and mark this pit with a rotan fence so that other humans would know it as a snare.

But chopping one’s way through the jungle-brush with a machete can be a soporific affair: step, step, cut, cut, step step, cut cut. So perhaps it was inevitable that the 70-year-old hunter Tok Late, stepping and cutting, chopped right through the makeshift fence and fell down this 12-foot deathtrap.

It was only a day later that my great-grandfather returned to check whether he had managed to catch a delicious non-halal dinner. When he heard Tok Late’s panting and groaning issuing from the hole, he couldn’t believe his luck.

“Wah,” he thought. “That’s a big boar!”

Great-grandfather released the safety on his rifle, crept up to the pit’s lip, and took aim. When Tok Late saw the gunbarrel pointed at him, he cried out – and Great-grandfather, startled, nearly shot him.

When he recovered from shock, Great-grandfather pulled Tok Late out of the wild boar trap. He carried the old hunter on his back for the entire mile-long journey back to the village.

On their arrival, Tok Late’s son thanked Great-grandfather for returning his missing, injured father.

“What happened?” the young man asked.

“Your father fell down my wild boar trap,” Great-grandfather answered.

“Oh,” said the son. “Please wait here. I’m going to bring my father up into the house. Then I’m going to come back out and beat you up.”



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