Monday, April 14, 2008

A Tribute to a Good Neighbour

Ah Hang's Mother, or Mrs. Lau Nguong Ding, passed away a little too early in her life. She succumbed to cancer after Mr. Lau carefully nursed her and even took her to China for a series of treatment in the 1990's, something which was rather new to the community then.

What can one write about a dear neighbour,whom you saw as a young child, whom you grew to love because your family grew familiar with her and there was so much love nurtured between the two families, one Foochow and one Heng Hua? We could have experienced polarisation.

She had boys about my age which grew lanky and naughty. My late brother, a little younger was amongst them, growing up and taking in youth and pranks. They played with sticks.They played with marbles and ran after kites, apart from making their own kites from scratch because we did not have much money to buy any other toys like what children can today. And in the evenings we ran up and down the newly constructed Brooke Drive which was only a collection of rough granite rubble. But never mind the dust and the roughness. We had energy to play away our innocent childhood. We played games of Jui Ing, Jui Ko (High tide, low tide), Eagle catching Chickens, and even rounders (just sticks and a ball).

To her evening calls, " Children!! Come back for your porridge! Chiak Mui!" the boys would rush home to her, eager for the lonely bowls of porridge, coloured only by cikap (soy sauce, mixed with sugar and a bit of Bovril) and perhaps one salted egg or just a plain boiled egg when she felt a little more than generous. This was dinner for the children, washed down by thin Chinese tea (which she had boiled in a huge kettle). Mrs and Mrs. Lau were our Heng Hua tenants. All her children spoke Hokkien and Foochow so that they could be assimilated into our community. Mrs. Lau stretched her dollar like any thrifty Chinese woman then. She spoke Foochow with a very strong Heng Hua accent, which we loved, and sometimes imitated humourously.

She was the first Chinese woman I knew personally who breastfed her babies in public, without embarrassment. While feeding porridge to her older child, a baby , another baby boy would be suckling at her breast. As a young girl of six, (now I am ashamed to tell you this), I stared at her mammary glands and the hungry baby. (She grew into a great beauty later). She taught me in her simple ways that breastfeeding was a joy and a natural way of saving money and she did not have to sterilize milk bottles which was a waste of time. I did not fortunately learn that lesson. When I have stopped having my own babies and was in my forties, the local hospitals starting having their Breast Milk is Best Campaign.

Ah Hang's Ma, as we all called her lovingly, was a mean disciplinarian. She would take out her rottan cane any time to beat her two older boys, Ah Hang and Ah Tee (both are reputable businessmen now, so I just use their pet names). They used to play Tarzan in the little forest behind the houses (as Sibu was not so developed then), or fished in the hot sun in the stream next to the kampong. When boys played, they lost count of time. And mum had to beat them when they returuned all dirty and hungry. She beat them more because her boys did not have good grades. But she was making a statement to show that she was "boss". I am glad that her message got through and her boys grew up to be real gentlement and "filial sons" to the ends of her days.

As very close neighbours, I like to see her getting ready to attend a feast. I would sit by the door and watch her put on powder and her little pale lipstick. She would apply some hair oil to her very well permed hair. In between she would pass on worldly wisdom for women to my ears and I would hang on to them. She had such a way of telling me things that I can still remember to this day. "You might not be rich,but you have to be really clean, inside and outside. And a little fragrance is all you need to enhance the clear beauty that you have inside you. Never mind you are not rich. We all become rich when we are older. When young, you must work hard and save money. Build your wealth with your two hands and you will have a good old age."

After she had finished dressing up, other neighbours would come up to her and ask, " Go eat dinner? Siak Jiu?" The simple outfit of floral homemade samfoo and the little powder she put on her face with a little lipstick, changed her entire demeanour, from a frumpy housewife to a lovely lady, proud to be by her loving husband's side. Indeed the Chinese saying, " A woman's good looks depend on 30% dressing and 70% natural beauty" is true. Her inner beauty shone and brightened up the whole street!

Some mornings, during our school holidays, I would drop by to help her carry her baby daughter or have a lively chat. She had all the time for me, over her washing and ironing. She was good at ironing Mr. Lau's white uniform of a bus driver. And I liked the way she starched the clothes. (Starching clothes is now out of fashion.) She would boil water with some tapioca flour in the basin over a wood fire and then pour into a huge aluminium laundry basin (sali turn which is still availalbe nowadays). Then she would throw the selected pieces into the basin and soak them for a while. These starched clothes would look like parchment in the hot sun!!

As a very frugal housewife she grew her own vegetables on every available piece of empty land outside the house. She would spread her blessings to all her neigbhours. A visit from her would always mean that my mother would get a bundle of long beans or changkok manis. No, she would never sell anything to her neighbours. Her vegetables were all free for all to share.

As children we also witnessed that Ah Hang's Ma never argued with Mr. Lau. She was always cheerful whenever he was around, although we knew that he had to work shifts. But her wooden dinner table was always ready with some meat, vegetables and a pot of hot rice was on the stove. Her Chinese tea was free flow and Mr. Lau would bring a flask to work. And when his bicycle was seen at the beginning of the road (duo tau) her sons would run up to their dad, with a whoop of greeting to make a father's heart burst with pride. And Ah Hang's ma would be waiting with a beautiful smile for her dearly beloved to step into the wooden house. Such was a beautiful evening along our road.

Ah Hang's mother had a heart of gold. When my father suddenly passed away,she came beating her chest and cried out loud. She was always beside my mother to give her the best of comforting words. And she shed buckets of tears for my father, always calling out loud,"the good towkay, the good teacher" until her voice became hoarse. Her empathetic grief helped my mother in so many ways. Neighours were really rallying around and helping out in our moments of need and loss.Most were inconsolable by the shocking pre mature death of a good and unassuming man. That we would always treasure until today.

In so many ways we were blessed by wonderful neighbours. And as we grew to adulthood, we also witnessed that these good people like Ah Hang's ma became blessed by God. They all became wealthy and bought good houses. (Our community was known to have very good Feng Shui). As the shophouses took over the simple wooden houses of our road, my neighbours too moved into better housing areas.

A good wooden non-gated community disappeared forever with the spread of urban development and a childhood is placed in the sacred storage of memory, to be taken out for a savoury treat in old age every now and then.

I am writing this as a token of a simple thanks to a great woman who coloured my childhood with lots of laughter, gentle words and stories,love and simple household wisdom.

2 memories:

Unknown said...


Your posting on your Heng Hua neighbours brings to mymind my HengHua friends. I dont have many Heng Hua friends but those thatI have are wonderful people, like your neighbour. They are also industrious and upright. I know of few Heng Hua who operates bicycle shop.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

The Henghuas have also played a very significant role in the development of the Methodist Church in Sibu. One man, Rev Ling Kai Cheng was an enterprising Church member who selflessly built up the properties of Methodist Church with other like minded people. He was totally selfless and humble. All for God!!

Many other Henghuas I know are God fearing and upright.


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