Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Salute to Che-cheh

Every time I think of this woman, it makes me smile. She is Che-cheh, my Chinese sister, aunt, etc. She was everything to me. Che-cheh (Chinese for sister) was my talking Chinese dictionary. Che-cheh was my personal bodyguard. Che-cheh was my chef. Che-cheh was my all-time storyteller, the best in the postwar and growing-up years. Che-cheh was Chinese. Why did I fall for this Chinese woman? She was different.

When I came to know about Che-cheh, I was a little girl, before school age. I never went to kindy. I never learnt to write my name, and never did Che-cheh. Che-cheh had very little in life to go by, and so did I. But Che-cheh was probably many many years my senior. When I was 5, Che-cheh was probably nearing her 40s. But Che-cheh never looked her age and she spoke a kind of Chinese-Malay that has stuck in my memories for more than 50 years! I can even act her role. What's special about her?

Che-cheh was my grandfather's housemaid. As the only one housemaid, Che-cheh was in-charge of everything, from cooking, cleaning, taking out the rubbish, cleaning all the toilets, to laying the table for meals, practically everything. How did she manage? Where did she draw her strength from? It has puzzled me for many many many years. Who was she? Was she made of steel?

I was a quiet child, too frighten to speak. I never would try asking anyone what they did in their lives before I met them. I had observed Che-cheh while growing up. Everyone called her Che-cheh. I kept watching her, wanting to get close and ask her who she was. One fine quiet afternoon, I went up to Che-cheh in the kitchen. She was cleaning some dishes and preparing for evening tea for my grandfather. I began asking her, things she never thought anyone would ask her. She was uncomfortable with having me by her side, as she was scared that my Chinese grandmother or my grandfather might see us together, and she would be scolded for speaking to me. Che-cheh said I cannot be by her side because we are 'different' - of different status, breed and creed. I was startled. I started begging her to tell her life story to me. She refused and sent me away. It was very difficult to get Che-cheh's story.

One day, I went to see Che-cheh in her quarters which was attached to my grandfather's kitchen. I knocked on her door and asked if I could come in and talk to her. Che-cheh was scared. She was scared that my grandparents might get angry if she talked to me. She would send me away, calling out loudly, 'Apa lu mau?!' Pigi pigi, nanti lu punya datuk malah, pigi pigi...' I wondered why Che-cheh was like that - too intimidated to even talk to me, not even tell her life story. She kept her distance from me. I was after all my grandfather's loveliest granddaughter, the best granddaughter a grandfather could ever wished for. Che-cheh knew that I was very a special child in the eyes of my aging grandfather. She respected me like she respected my grandfather. Why didn't she accept me just as a normal child?

I had to have a different approach in order to speak to Che-cheh. I began helping her with her tight schedule of house chores. She enjoyed having me by her side when I offered to help her. She became my second mother, and I became her Malay child. She called me Paa-lida. That went on for many years and we sat for lunch together and fed the dogs, and had a lot of conversation about life. It was like I just found a new mother. I was barely 9 years old.

My grandfather was retired but he worked in his postretirement years. I have no recollection of exactly where he worked but he worked somewhere in Penang and was away from home, from very early in the morning till lunch time. My grandmother also left for work with my grandfather early in the morning. She worked as a matron in the maternity wards of Penang General Hospital. People always connected her to her post at that hospital. It was like her second home, I guess, or maybe because she was what she was - a big boss! Who would if she's married to my handsome grandfather, the most charming of Penang's gentlemen?

As I recall, my grandfather was dressed, like what Tok Chu said, 'macam orang puteh'. I had thought he was a Mat Salleh flung from Europe to Penang island. He wore a hat and didn't expose his head to the hot sun. He always had a hat on when he stepped outside the house. This I found out is the Oz style whenever they step outside the house - to have a hat on the head. My children too had to have their hats on when they went to school in Perth. Much much later when I was bigger I found out that my grandfather had a cattle ranch in Queensland! No wonder he wore a hat, not any hat but an Australian jackaroo hat!

My Chinese grandmother was dressed in a 'weird'-looking attire, and that weird-looking attire has remained in my mind for a long time. I was usually in my grandparent's bedroom when they got dressed for work. I was usually still in my pyjamas when I went to their bedroom. My grandmother would have her matron's uniform brought to her bedroom the evening before. Che-cheh would bring her uniform into her bedroom and hang it on the rail close to the bathroom cum dressing room. My grandfather would get dressed first and sit at the lounge chair in his bedroom, reading newspapers and listening to easy-listening music - a habit that has caught on to me. I sat with him while waiting for my grandmother to get dressed. When she was dressed in her white uniform, it looked ok but so stiff! Then much later she wore the green matron's uniform, it was weird, so very weird! And she would smear red lipstick across her juicy lips and make smooch-smooch gesture to my grandfather! Cheeky grandma, I thought! Well, that's them. Every couple has its own way. Then they would happily go off to work. I too left the bedroom and went off to see my favourite friend, Che-cheh. Of course it was mandi time for me and Che-che would boil some hot water and make a pail of lukewarm water for me to bathe. She would call out to me and say, 'Paa-lida, lu punya ayak sudah siap ma, mali mali kasi mandi...' After mandi it would be my breakfast and again she would call me, 'Paa-lida, lu punya loti sudah siap ma, mali mali kasi makan...' After I was done eating my breakfast, I would thank Che-cheh in my usual way, 'Sher-sher Che-cheh, wo ai nee' and I gave her a child's hug and a big kiss for doing everything for me. That was how I bonded to Che-cheh. Then I was off to play in the garden till Che-cheh would call me again for morning break. Sometimes I followed her around, sometimes I played by myself.

Since there was no one else around in the mansion, just Che-cheh and me, I felt very much like a princess with an aide by my side. I didn't feel like a brat but I enjoyed being left in Che-cheh's company. I followed her around while she did her routine, cleaning, wiping and dusting, taking out the used clothes to wash, putting on fresh sheets for the bed in my grandfather's bedroom, removing the waste from the wastepaper basket, etc. His bedroom was better than any hotel room I have visited. His was a king's bedroom, in the true sense. I enjoyed being given the privilege to be in his bedroom and to experience what a 'master bedroom' means and what 'king size' really means. Not little cubicles.

Anyway, back to my story of Che-cheh. After cleaning the bedroom, Che-cheh would clean the livingroom and my grandfather's study cum TV room. They were luxurious living spaces, something I cannot find in modern homes anywhere. After she's done with dusting, cleaning, emptying out waste, etc, she goes back to her prime spot - the kitchen, facing the road and the dog house. I watch cooking on TV, Master Chef etc, but it is nothing compared to how Che-cheh worked in the kitchen. She was more than a master chef. She was a chef par excellence, I would say.

Che-cheh taught me how to cook crab and French beans, the loveliest I have ever tasted! She taught me how to make fried pomfret (bawal hitam) with soy sauce, Chinese style. She taught me how to cook vegetables, Chinese style. Everything was 'Chinese style' such that when I had my own kitchen, I only knew the Chinese dishes that Che-cheh taught me and the dishes I learnt in my Domestic Science classes in Form 1 to 3. But Che-cheh's dished were better. When I looked through French cuisine magazine, I can't help but smile, noting the similarities of the dishes Che-cheh taught me and the pictures I saw in the magazines. There was so much similarity between cooking Chinese and French vegetables and presentation matters if one is to stimulate the appetite! Now I understand what it means to 'fill the appetite'. Of course it was vague for a 9-year old.

After feeding the dogs and cleaning the dog pen/house and hanging the clothes in the garden, Che-cheh and I would sit outside the house in the shade, and we listened to Chinese drama on radio. Che-cheh would have her glass of Chinese black coffee and I had my cup of Milo. Che-cheh said little girls like me must not take coffee. We would sit and listen to radio and that was the time I found it right to ask Che-cheh about herself, about her life and about her future.

Che-cheh had a beautiful heart. She was married and had 2 daughters. When the Japanese war broke out, Che-cheh and her family ran south on foot mostly, from China to Malaya, landing in Kota Bharu, Kelantan where my grandfather worked at the hospital in the postwar. While on the run, Che-cheh had no breastmilk to feed her infant daughter and the baby died. Further into the war, the elder daughter died, I suppose from starvation. Finally the husband died, I suppose from exhaustion and starvation. Che-cheh said he was very thin and weak. Such was the cruelty that struck Che-cheh's life. When she was found, Che-cheh was brought to the hospital where my grandfather worked in the postwar. At the hospital, my grandmother had attended to Che-cheh till she recovered and could walk again. They took her in for full recuperation till she regained normal health. Because she was found and she was fully nursed by my grandparents, Che-cheh said she owed her life to them, and would do any work for them. She wanted to be their maid (orang gaji). She had her wish granted. My grandparents took her back with them to Pahang first and thenlater to Penang. She was with my grandparents from that time onward till she went to her Chinese kongsi in her old age. I last met her in 1976 before I left for California. The last I heard of her, she had died at her kongsi and they had buried her somewhere. I love her anyway. She's my sister, my mother, my sifu....

My grandparents
Che-cheh carrying baby Din