Monday, July 30, 2007

Unbound Feet

In my family, my step paternal great grandmother was a Chinese woman with a pair of perfectly bound feet. My maternal grandmother Tiong Lien Tie was a different case.

My grandmother Tiong Lien Tie had loosened bound feet after only one year of foot binding. As she was sold at the age of five to a Nanyang family, her father had no more say regarding her bound feet. So if it suited the husband's family in Nanyang to have a big foot bride, it was ok. (I would put up another posting on bound feet women later)

Grandmother or ngie ma used to tell me how painful it was to walk with bound feet. And washing her feet was an extremely torturing procedure. When she was brought to Sarawak almost immediately after she was sold to Granduncle Lau, she had the great freedom of loosening her bound feet and at the age of five she was intelligent enough to soak her feet every night and massage them until they were flat and well formed.

How intelligent she must have been to unloosen her own feet while many of her contemporaries were still having bound feet in the heat of a tropical rainforest! I found this fact amazingly refreshing.

Grandmother was a very fair woman and I can still see her extremely pure white feet and white shins glinting in the sun. A special bath time ritual for her was in the midafternoon after she had "sunned" her bath water in the open platform of the house in Lower Nang Chong (Lower South Village). We would watch her (although it was impolite) slowly unpin her long hair and then slowly pour the sun heated water over her hair carefully. She used a very coarse China made soap to wash her hair(this was before Sunsilk Shampoo came to Sarawak). And then slowly she would wipe her body over and over with a damp cloth, while still clad in a red Chinese cotton sarong. When she finished her ritual, she would then dab a handkerchief or small terry towel with Florida Wa ter (or Hua Luk Chui) and she would just smell heavenly to us children. As she was very lithe and full of propriety, we never could see her wash her underarms openly. She would be so discreet in her ritual that it was amazing to us later how she maintained her personal hygiene. To this day, I still think she had the bes t smelling hair for an old lady. She never powdered her face and yet, fragrance just came out of her.

She used to tell us that if we were good women, we would smell good. Fragrance comes from women of good reputation naturally. I still believe that that is true.

My grandmother's feet remain size three, small and dainty. Once I took her to buy a pair of shoes in Bata (then owned by a Mr. Lau Kiing Chong) in Central Road. Mr. Lau (also an cousin to me because he was of the same generation as me) had to look for many patterns before one could fit nicely as her feet were so narrow. After purchasing that particular pattern, I remember she would another pair when one was worn out. In fact it took her quite a few years to wear one out.

Grandmother never went walking about for a long time. Besides she was very lightly built and probably weighed the most 45 kg. I enjoyed watching her using a trishaw. And that scene remains lovingly in my mind like forever. She would be wearing her blue samfoo top and her black brocade trousers which she would have made by hand, stitch by stitch. All her buttons were cloth buttons which she taught us to sew. She used to tell us not to buy anything if we could make it ourselves. Just keep the well earned money for old age. She would place a beautiful small white cotton handkerchief at the samfoo opening just below her armpit. And the unforgetable Florida Water fragrance would float in the air whenever she passed by.

She bequeathed all of us with wonderful recipes as she was a very good cook. Not only was she a good cook, she was a generous and hospitable hostess. No one would go home hungry if he passed by our home in Lower Nang Chong. Rice was ever ready in the huge kuali and dishes of pork,chicken or duck and vegetables would be in the wooden Foochow food cupboard ready to be heated up at a moment's notice. She had salted duck eggs in big urns ever ready to be boiled at a moment's notice.

With her as our role model, all of us became a little like her, kind to strangers, respectful towards elders, warm to relatives and always ready to lend a helping hand. Her daughters whom she married off well had good reputation and helped to nurture well brought up grandchildren for her. Her sons were filial and men of good repute too.

Grandmother Tiong saw the downfall of the Manchu Dynasty and the government of Sun Yat Sen, two world wars, the suffering of the Chinese in Japanese hands in China,the withdrawal of the Rajah Brooke Rule and the coming of the British colonial government, the rise of Mao in China,the rubber boom in Sarawak in the early fifties, the communist uprising and the formation of Malaysia. She lost her husband because of the Japanese Occupation, she lost her youngest and favourite son because he was so in love with the new Maoist government and left for China and never to see her again in 1954. This uncle of mine was English educated and a class mate of Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui. Later she would lose her rubber smallholding business because of communist insurgency all along the Rejang basin. All these she took on with her small frame of less than 5 feet. She was resourceful, she was proactive and she spoke Malay extremely well. How could she not be a lesser Malaysian than any of us? She held a red identity card for the whole of her life in Sarawak.

Grandmother was a indeed a resilient China born woman with bound feet and a great elder who helped build Sibu by her role a wife, mother, counsellor and a highly intelligent and well regarded matriarch and leader of three generations of a Foochow family. She did not have a single day of school, yet she could recognise Chinese characters and read the Bible in Foochow. She loved reading the newspapers and the Chinese Movie magazines. And in a shy manner, she could sing most of the hymns in the Methodist hymnal.

When she died she was only about 30 kg, the size of a small girl, after a slow painful road to her final days and like a candle, the wick grew weaker and weaker and finally the light went out. When Elton John sang,"Like a Candle in the Wind" I was thinking more of my grandmother than anyone else in the world. Because someone made that comparison in 1984 when she died.

She was worth many thousand times the Five Dollars Granduncle Lau paid for.

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