‘WASN’T AH MA your hero? Didn’t you write about that somewhere?’ Robert asks, eyes locked ahead onto the black country highway. His tone is tender and intimate, a change from his usually distant pitch. I’m not sure how to answer my uncle’s question. Piano and strings music gently gauzes the gulf in our disquiet as we speed onwards.
Robert is a music schoolteacher. He has a grand collection of classical music and an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, with a fondness for Mozart’s piano sonatas since he plays expertly himself. As a child, I thought Robert and I had a special bond because we’re both born in the Chinese animal zodiac year of the snake, albeit twenty-four years apart. However, now at thirty-three, I’ve come to accept that we’re both secretive, a characteristic that’s seen as a negative trait in our zodiac sign. So while I’ve known my uncle all my life, I only see the side of him that he chooses to show me – stoic, like listening to the background music playing in hotel lobbies and elevators. I don’t want to hurt Robert’s feelings, nor do I want to lie, so I make a ‘hmmm…’ sighing sound in response to his question, as if in deep thought about my grandmother. I look outside and feel leaden, like I’m being pulled into the night sky’s infinity. I hope for the fairy-like star twinkles to buoy me to a safe shore, even if it’s filled with the ghostly silhouettes of trees that chase us along the Western highway to Ballarat Hospital to see my dying grandmother.
MY GRANDMOTHER, LEE Soon Moy nee Lee Soon Nyeong, was born in 1922 – the second oldest in Lee Bah Chee’s family of seven sons and three daughters. She went to school until she was nine and had a grade three standard of reading and writing English. The eldest daughter in a large family, she had to help her mother; hence, her schooling stopped. When one of her younger sisters was a baby, she was given away to relatives who did not have children. Another sister passed away young from a heart attack, leaving behind three sons and a husband. In 1943, my grandmother married my grandfather, Low Thuan Boo, her first cousin, their wedding held quietly during the Japanese occupation of Malaya in World War II.
Soon Moy’s parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary was documented in 1961 by Malaysia’s national English language paper, the Strait Times, in an article titled ‘Their golden anniversary’.
Wearing Chinese traditional wedding costumes, Mr Lee Bah Chee, 69, helping his wife to cut a five-tiered cake to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in Kuala Lumpur.
Mr and Mrs Lee were married on Oct 21, 1911 at Malacca and have seven sons and two daughters and eighteen grandchildren. More than five hundred guests attended the anniversary dinner given by the couple’s children and sons-in-law.
The black-and-white photo accompanying the short article shows my great-grandmother smiling, her mouth slightly askew as she shares a knife with her stern looking and unsmiling husband while they attempt to cut the base of the ginormous wedding cake. At her parents’ golden anniversary, Soon Moy would have been thirty-nine and her oldest child, my father Kim Seng, seventeen.
For the first nine years of my life in 1980s Kuala Lumpur, my grandmother dictated my world. I adored her more than I feared her threats of using the rotan to cane for any disobedience. She was my Ah Ma, and I was her first grandchild, born the year her husband, my grandfather, died. Sometimes it felt like we were conspirators, Soon Moy dismissing my father’s house rules and confiding in me. Soon Moy taught me card games like set of fives and solitaire. She let me roam the kitchen when she was cooking, fan the fires of her charcoal burners and roll pastries for pineapple jam tarts. I thought my grandmother fearless. Once, I walked out to see her cleaver in hand, ready for the kill. The knife came down so cleanly there was hardly a squawk. She popped the whole chicken, sans head, into her giant pot on top of the charcoal burner, where it would boil until the feathers could be easily plucked. When I was sick, Soon Moy let me sleep on her bed and she’d put a cold cologne compress on my head. She sewed her own loose cotton tops on our foot-pedal Singer sewing machine for home wear. For formal occasions, like visiting relatives during Chinese New Year, she would dress in stylish Nyonya fashion – a sarong and kebaya, her long hair in a neat sanggul. Relatives we would only see at Chinese New Year would rock up just for my grandmother’s Peranakan banquet, replete with soups, pickles, stews and desserts that any restaurant would envy.
As matriarch, Soon Moy was the spiritual force behind our household. The foldaway altar would pop-up under my grandfather’s photo in the main hallway during Chinese New Year and the anniversary of his death, the two major rites that we observed privately as a family. I would help to set up the altar with all the ceremonial fineries, and to dismantle it once the prayer period was over. My grandfather’s favourite dishes were served together with fruits that symbolised luck and fortune. Additionally, she had pedestrian rites like her weekly smoking ritual. I often woke to Soon Moy waving a clay incense burner in my room. She would do this just after her morning shower, so her face would be powdered white with bedak sejuk. She looked like a witch, long hair out loose to her waist and wafting smoke.
When I turned nine, Soon Moy left for Australia to live with Robert. The week before she left I had a horrible sore throat, so she let me sleep in her bed, a cold cologne compress on my head. I was miserable knowing that she was leaving and not returning, but she assured me that she’d visit often from Australia. I was comforted with the knowledge that my family would join her in Australia in a few years time. Australia in my imagination was compiled from random sources: my uncle Robert and two aunties, who lived in Melbourne; postcards, keychains and toys that informed me the native wildlife of Australia was mostly koalas, penguins and kangaroos; the Australian science television show Beyond 2000 with Amanda Keller (who I had a crush on), which Malaysian TV broadcast uncensored; and Robert’s ‘adopted’ white Australian brother, Scott, who he met at church and whose Strine sounded very authentic, with all his ‘G’days’ and ‘mates’. As a teenager, Robert had converted to Catholicism and became very devout. Scott wasn’t really orphaned; however, he was part of a church program that facilitated role-modelling and caretaking, which my uncle participated in.
After migrating to Melbourne, from 1986 to about 1990, Soon Moy would visit and stay with us in her old room. On one of her visits, Soon Moy caught me by surprise with a question. I’d started reading the comics and arts section of the newspaper, when she sprung an ambush: ‘Don’t you think I cook better food than your Mummy?’ I was still pre-teen, but ‘your Mummy’ was like a hot iron prod. The question confused me. My grandmother was testing my conspiratorial allegiance to her. Later that day I asked Soon Moy, ‘Why don’t you love Mummy?’ I’m not sure why I asked; in my pre-adolescent logic, all families cared for and loved each other. As simple as that, how could it be anymore complicated? My grandmother reacted like I’d taken that same hot prod and used it to slap her face. In anger, although not raising her voice, she replied, ‘You don’t care if I die.’ Then she left.
AS A DUTIFUL son, Robert took Soon Moy everywhere with him. We would receive photos in the mail of their holiday travels and it seemed like she went all over the world with him – the United States, Europe, Asia. When Robert moved to Singapore for a few years for a teaching post, she moved as well and stayed with him.
In early-2000, my father’s younger sister, Aunty Junie, moved with her husband Jonathan to their Clunes property in country Victoria after Jonathan – a chain smoker – took sick with emphysema. They hoped the good country air and quieter lifestyle would aid his frail health. Jonathan was entirely dependent on Junie, needing her to wheel him around and monitor his oxygen levels. Junie cared for him willingly, despite her own health issues. Her back was bent like the curve of a question mark from scoliosis, but she had no social compunction. She reared native birds – cockatiels, rosellas, sulphur-crested cockatoos – in her backyard and kept some as pets in her house. She was the only Peranakan in this rural town and she was determined to die in Clunes. She’d already organised three spots in the Clunes cemetery – one for Jonathan, one for Soon Moy and one for her.
Jonathan died on the Western Highway during the long drive back to Clunes after a Christmas dinner at Robert’s house in Nunawading. On the day of the funeral, I told Junie that I would stay overnight to keep her company because she hadn’t eaten properly the past few days. Her church friends had gathered round her in this tight-knit community and kept her company as much as she wanted it. When the pallbearers bore the coffin away, my aunty shrieked with grief like a cockatoo’s scream, her mourning haunting the church walls.
Around mid-2000, Robert and Junie decided it was time for Soon Moy to move to Clunes, in country Victoria, to live with Junie. They said that the country air would be good for her and she would have her own space out the back in a granny flat. In her first year in Clunes, my grandmother seemed content as she was in the main house with my aunty. When the granny flat was built at the back of Junie’s property, we’d alternate Chinese New Year and Christmas celebrations between Soon Moy’s granny flat and Robert’s apartment. To get to Clunes, I’d make the long trip from Melbourne to Ballarat via V/Line and my aunt would drive the half hour to pick me up, as I didn’t have a car. I would try to keep my grandmother company, but it was hard striking up a conversation with her. She would be up for a while, with the television switched on, and then she would retire to her bedroom for a snooze. Conversation revolved mainly around food. Whenever I visited, I’d cook a meal – usually laksa on her little kitchen stove. The only way to have a relationship with my grandmother was to be with her, but as I didn’t have a car my visits weren’t frequent.
SOON MOY TURNED a grand eighty-eight in May 2010. In Chinese fortune telling, eight is considered a very lucky number because its Mandarin pronunciation sounds similar to the word that means wealth. By extension, eighty-eight indicates double fortune.
A few weeks before her birthday celebrations at a Ballarat Chinese restaurant, Soon Moy had a painful fall. Junie had to travel somewhere for a few days and so placed my grandmother in an aged-care facility. At her birthday, when we toasted Soon Moy, I looked on worriedly at the black-brown bruise prominent on her cheek. When she fell, she’d hit her cheek on a sideboard. It was difficult – impossible, even – for her to have any independence since her children had always taken care of her. Despite all the good country air, she spent most of her time indoors with the television blaring listlessly in the background.
When Soon Moy had her first heart attack, Junie was with her, and the ambulance arrived to take her to Ballarat hospital. My family and I visited not long after, and she was sitting up after just finishing a meal. She even asked me to accompany her to the toilet. So when Robert rang to tell me that Soon Moy was dying and asked if I wanted to go with him to Ballarat Hospital, I was caught by surprise. I knew Soon Moy was old, but she had been talking normally just the week before. I understood that her body couldn’t cope any longer, that the second assault was too much to bear. But Soon Moy was always around. My Ah Ma was always there for me. On the first day of kindergarten, she accompanied me and my brother on the bus. When the teacher closed the door to class, I sobbed inconsolably, crouching by the door while Ah Ma sat patiently on a stool outside. She was there waiting for me when the class ended.
WHEN ROBERT AND I arrive at Ballarat Hospital, Junie greets us in the room where my grandmother lies unconscious. The rest of the family are on stand-by in Melbourne and Glen Waverley. Even though I know Soon Moy is dying, I hold onto some hope that she’ll wake up. There are tubes stuck in her nose and she looks tiny. Her eyes are clamped shut, wet around the edges, like she’s shutting out the pain. ‘They’re giving her morphine,’ Junie explains. We don’t talk much. Robert decides to stay overnight on the camp bed beside Soon Moy. Junie drives me the half-hour back to Clunes.
The next day, Junie and I leave early for the hospital, the smell of bird feed in my breakfast of white bread, jam and instant Nescafe. Before we leave, Junie says goodbye to each of her birds, calling them by name. She also checks to see that there is enough water and food for them, as she expects to be gone all day.
At the hospital we meet Robert, who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep. He greets us solemnly and is distracted, frequently checking on his mother. Hoping for some sign of consciousness. Soon Moy is still breathing but it is heavy, laboured – no change from the night before. My aunt leaves for the kitchen cafeteria. It is around a quarter past eight.
‘Raina is dancing at 8.30 this morning at Fed Square, and she’ll be on Sunrise,’ I say to my uncle as conversation filler; also I’m curious about how Raina, my girlfriend, is coping with dancing in the freezing June morning. There is a little TV set above my grandmother’s bed and, coincidentally, it’s tuned into Sunrise. At 8.30 am, the journalist presents Raina and her Mohiniattam dance troupe, and I gesture excitedly to my uncle. We then realise Soon Moy isn’t breathing. I remain at the edge of the bed as Robert rushes to Soon Moy’s side and holds her. Two tears roll down one side of Soon Moy’s cheek. My dead grandmother is crying.
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