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Finding Por-Por by Yin F Lim

This story is to remember Una Stratford Dugdale who planted a Araucaria Imbricata on 7 February 1911

She stares at me in monochrome, her eyes soft. Her hair is neatly pulled back from her face, square-shaped like mine. I can barely see her slender neck, half-concealed by the high collar of her samfu top. She looks solemn, but she was not always so. There are other photos of her holding the chubby toddler that was me where she’s all crinkled eyes and a wide grin.

Por-Por, my maternal grandmother, died on December 15, 1971. She settled into her chair after breakfast and never got up again. Fast and painless; Mum says that’s the best way to go—and clean too. A fastidious person, Por-Por would have been pleased she had brushed her teeth and hair before departing.

I was barely four when my grandmother died at the age of fifty-five. She had lived with a diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer for eight years. She survived long enough to see three of her four children marry and six of her nine grandchildren born. I remember being at Por-Por’s funeral, sitting behind my father and rubbing my face against the jersey cotton of his T-shirt as I tried to hide from the deafening din of drums, the clanging cymbals, the sword-waving Taoist priest jumping around a blazing fire. He was trying to ward off evil spirits, but my toddler brain thought he was coming for me.

I wish I could recall more of Por-Por. Mum tells me I was always happy to see her, that I would run to her the moment she arrived at our door after her overnight train journey from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. If I concentrate hard, I can hear a firm yet gentle voice in the Southern Chinese dialect of Taishanese, calling me to eat my rice. Was that Por-Por?

I have very few tangible reminders of my grandmother. Several black-and-white photos, a tiny diamond ring that sits snugly on my little finger. And a patchwork quilt created from remnant material that Por-Por collected, the nubby texture of its colourful squares comforting as I wrap it around my body.

***

A hundred years ago in 1918, when women in Britain first got the vote, my grandmother would have been just two years old, the youngest of three daughters living in a village in Taishan, China. Ten years later in 1928, when British women finally got the same voting rights as men, Por-Por could have been sailing away from all that was familiar to her. For my grandmother left her home and family for Malaya when she was twelve.Or was she thirteen?

Mum didn’t know exactly, but she was certain that my grandmother had left China at a young age. She was brought to an overseas Chinese household in the British Straits Settlement of Penang as a mui tsai.

“What’s mui tsai?” I asked Mum.

“Servant girl,” was her reply.

“Dai Poa, the "auntie" who brought Por-Por to Malaya, was the second wife of a rich contractor in Penang. Por-Por helped to look after their kids.”

I didn’t think too much about it when my mother first told me this story nearly twenty years ago. If Por-Por came to Malaya with an "auntie", surely Dai Poa must have been someone she knew. Perhaps a distant relative, or a family friend who had taken her in. I had grown up listening to stories about poor families with too many children and how some of them were adopted by childless relations. It was a familial practice that kept them close. I assumed that being a mui tsai was similar.
When I decided to revisit the family history recently, I did a quick search online to find out what mui tsai really means. Wikipedia told me that this Cantonese term for "little sister" described young women in China who were sold at a young age to work as domestic servants.

I went back to my mother.

“Was Por-Por sold by her parents to Dai Poa?” I asked. Hoping that she’d answer in the negative, so that I could be rid of the unease that had lodged itself within me like an unwelcome pebble in my shoe.

Mum frowned as she tried to remember.

There was a long pause before she finally answered, “I don’t know if there was any money involved. No one ever mentioned anything about it. But Por-Por used to say that her father was a gambler. So maybe he lost a lot of money, and they were already so poor…” my mother trailed off.

“But at least she did know Dai Poa? She was given away to a family she knew, right?” I persisted.

Mum looked at me, shaking her head slightly. “I don’t think Por-Por’s family knew them.”

“You mean her father gave her away to strangers!”

The pebble continued to niggle as I processed the information. Another thought struck me. “Why was Por-Por chosen to leave the family and not any of her sisters, do you know?” I leaned forward for my mother’s answer.

Mum had to hazard another guess: “Mmm…it could be that she was the easiest to train, being the youngest?”

“Did she ever resent being the one chosen?”

“No. She never said anything about it,” Mum replied, firmly this time. “That was how things were back then.”

I sank back in my chair as we both sat in silence. My mother was right; that was how things were. Even if my grandmother did feel any resentment, she may never have expressed it. For Por-Por had been born in a society where her feelings did not count; a society where girls were considered as belonging "to" rather than "in" their families¹⁠. A society that favoured boys for their ability to carry on the family name, one where it was considered “better to raise geese than girls”² because daughters left their parents’ home for good once they were married. A family of three girls, like Por-Por and her sisters, meant feeding three mouths born to serve other households and bear their heirs.

I began to read up more about the mui tsai and discovered how common it was in the early twentieth century, this practice of transferring young girls from destitute households to wealthier ones. How it was considered by many in China and the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia as an act of benevolence. How the poor parents would receive some “good luck” money³ as compensation for bringing up their daughters. These mui tsai or bondmaids would work unpaid for their new families who in turn were supposed to take care of them and find them husbands when they turned eighteen.
But what if they failed to do so?

I found stories about mui tsai who were beaten for not doing their chores properly. Stories about girls kept in their new households as lifelong drudges, instead of being given a chance to marry and have their own families. Tales of bondmaids raped by the male members of their household, forced to become their concubines. Of how they were sold to brothels when the men grew tired of them.

But one word kept jumping out at me from every book or document I read about the mui tsai.

Slave.

Dislodging that pebble in my shoe was not going to be so easy after all.

***

I went looking for my grandmother this summer.

I began my quest at the cemetery. More precisely, the Cantonese cemetery in Penang’s Mount Erskine. Or Eskine, as the locals would call it, conveniently disregarding the “r”. From its hilly site I could see George Town with its red roof tiles and tall condominium blocks sprawled in front of me. If I squinted hard enough, I could catch sight of the sea. Around me was an ocean not of blue, but of green weeds punctuated with grey granite.

I had not counted on the cemetery being so overgrown when I asked my cousin Khoon to bring me there. I had expected a leisurely climb up a picturesque hill to pay my respects to our grandparents, not a laborious wade through dense foliage as we searched for their shared grave. We could hardly make out the horseshoe shapes of the tombstones around us, let alone read the inscriptions on them. After an hour of fighting the thorny thicket and the island’s stifling heat, we gave up.


“There’s just too much.” My cousin’s tone was apologetic as he swiped his damp brow with one hand. “Better to come back during Ching Ming, when they clear all the weeds.”

Khoon was referring to the annual Tomb-Sweeping Festival in April, when families would visit their ancestors’ tombs to honour and remember them.

Finding Kong-Kong, my grandfather, was easy. The day before, Mum and I had been to the Chin Si Thoong Soo, a clan association for Taishanese immigrants who share the Chin surname. Kong-Kong had been an active committee member and his spirit tablet is one of many housed within the association’s ancestral altar in its building on King Street. Relations like myself can visit to pay our respects to ancestors represented by these wooden plaques engraved with their names, birth and death dates.

In the association’s main hall, I found my grandfather among a row of black-and-white photos, his eyes intense, his ears prominent. He was also on the walls of the Penang Goldsmith Guild temple on Muntri Street, looking dapper in a suit and tie. Mum and I discovered him by chance, despite being told that he could not be found in any of their records.

But my grandmother was nowhere to be seen. As a woman and a wife, she does not have a place at the clan association’s altar. And there is no guild for mui tsai. Nor for that matter, is there one for housewives and mothers. To find Por-Por, I needed to go to the Buddhist Triple Wisdom Hall on Pangkor Road where her spirit tablet is kept. My mother visits my grandmother here whenever she is in Penang, but she has never seen her actual tablet.

“We have to try and find Por-Por this time,” Mum pursed her lips as we walked into a room filled with spirit tablets, encased behind a wall of glass that reached up to the ceiling. Unlike the wooden plaques at the Chin Si Thoong Soo, these ones were made of white cardboard, with thumbnail photos of the deceased and their details written in black ink.

Determined to find my grandmother, I began to scan the rows of tablets, looking for her face framed by the samfu she always wore. Suddenly, a familiar name caught my eye. CHIN THOONG FOO, written in block letters.

That’s my grandfather. What’s he doing here?

I blinked, and this time I saw two photos on the tablet. And her name: CHEE YEW CHOY.

I had never seen my grandmother looking so young. But here she was in a fuzzy photo, her lips in a half-smile. Next to her, my grandfather stared solemnly at me.

I reached my hand out to my mother who was on the other side of the room. I tried to call her over but my voice came out as a croak.

“Mum, look, I found her. Them.”

Hah? Where?” my mother rushed over. She was silent as she stared at the tablet, but I could tell how excited she was by the way she gripped my arm, hard.

“Oh, your Kong-Kong is here too,” she finally spoke. “I never knew that. Your uncle must have put this here, but he never said.”

Later, I stood with Mum in front of the tablet-filled room as we bowed several times in honour of my grandparents. Hoping that the ribbons of smoke from our joss-sticks would hide my red-rimmed eyes from her.

***

“As Por-Por would say…”

Growing up, my brothers and I would hear this phrase often, when Mum would quote one of the Cantonese proverbs she had learnt from her mother:

Sik dou lou, hok dou lou – If you can eat until you’re old, you can continue learning no matter what your age. Mum would tell us how important education was whenever we complained about having to study.

Yut yin sit choot, fei mah de lan zhui – Once you’ve uttered a single word, not even a flying horse would be able to chase it. Mum’s reminder to watch what I said, as I left the house for the first day of my first job.

Mah sei lok deih haang – If the horse dies, get down to the ground and start walking. Mum would listen to us complain about a hard day at work, then tell us to make the best of our situation.

There’s also the advice that Por-Por had given Mum, her eldest daughter, who in turn handed them down to me, her only daughter:

Zaa sat ge hor baau zai - Hold on tight to your little purse. Make sure to always have your own money, was my mother’s not-so-romantic advice as I planned my wedding.

Mou goum sei sam, choeng faan lei sik – Never give up everything for your children but hold on to something for yourself, Mum told me after I became a mother myself.

Kau yan pat yi kau zi gei – If you want to ask others for a favour, it’s better to ask it of yourself, was Mum’s advice on not being beholden to anyone.

Practical advice from a practical woman whose life choices were determined by others; a father who shipped her off to a life of servitude with strangers; an “auntie” who chose her husband for her. A woman who did not go to school but according to Mum, never imposed on her children the traditions of a society that penalised her for being female. A mother who ensured her daughters were given the same opportunities as her sons, sending them to a convent school run by English-speaking nuns even though she and her husband could not understand the language. Giving them an education that enabled them to have their own careers as nurses.

The last time I was at my mother’s house, I came across a familiar keychain. It had a colourful cartoon on it; a female Smurf running across a finish line, two male Smurfs behind her and “Girls Can Do Anything!” printed at the bottom.
I had almost forgotten about this keychain. Ah Yee, my aunt, had given it to me a long time ago, when I was a teenager. Rubbing my thumb over its smooth acrylic surface, I thought about my aunt, who fulfilled her dream of seeing the world and inspired me to do the same. I thought about Mum and how she has never held me back from following my own dreams, even if it meant living halfway across the world from her.

Both now in their 70s, still fiercely independent. Both strong women who have always encouraged me to be the same; to be as strong as the suffragettes who fought so that we could have a say over our lives.

I had been searching for Por-Por, but perhaps I didn’t need to look far after all.

I turned to my eight-year-old niece Mabel who sat next to me, watching TV. I showed her the keychain:

“Girls can do anything – remember that!”

Yin F Lim is a Norwich-based writer and editor who just completed an MA in Biography and Creative Non-Fiction at the University of East Anglia. Yin, a former journalist, moved from Malaysia to the UK in 2006. Interested in food, family stories and the East Asian diaspora, she is working on a memoir about her grandparents’ migration from China to colonial Malaya, writing from her perspective as an emigrant herself. 

¹ Leow, R., ‘‘Do You Own Non-Chinese Mui Tsai?' Re-examining Race and Female Servitude in Malaya and Hong Kong, 1919-1939’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 6 (2012), pp. 1736-1763

² Hong Kingston, M., The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. (New York: Vintage USA, 1977) pp. 45-46

³ Jaschok, M. Concubines and Bondservants: A Social History (London: ZedBooks, 1988)