A Tale Of 2 Cities
Although I have been back from my vacation in Sarawak for 2 weeks now, my heart is still there, buried somewhere in the depths of the forests at Rancan Waterfall.
I came home with a truck load of indigenously- grown spices and produce like pepper, Kuching Laksa paste and Olives from Sibu which Mom insisted on lugging across seas back to Singapore. I am not sure, what is it about travelling, that compels people to do strange things, like carrying 20 boxes of pineapple tarts back to Singapore, only to watch 19 boxes disappear into the hands of relatives and friends before our eyes.
I amassed some wonderful memories of the wildlife reserves and other places of interests that I still talk fondly about, and am planning a wildlife photography trek through the forests some time with David.
Most importantly, I came home also with new familial connections formed as I was introduced to my extended family in Sarawak and was reconnected to familiar ones that I had not seen in more than 40 years. This was the tipping point in my trip because, it played an important role in helping me connect the familial dots between Singapore, Sarawak and Sibu. In the past, whatever stories told by Granny about Sarawak and Sibu did not make sense to me. They seemed to be lifted out of 2 separate story books written by several authors all at once. Now, I know better, and it made it more difficult for me to write this blog post but I did promise myself that in 2016, I would CELEBRATE. So, this post was a way I would celebrate family. I celebrate being part of a new extended family, with new-found uncles, aunts and cousins. I celebrate being part of a rich familial history that dated back to an enterprising young man who came from China to Borneo many years ago to eke a living and build a new home and family. This man’s blood courses through me enough to tell the story that I had picked up from the discussions with my Grandmother, Mom and my Aunts.
The story began with my Great Grandfather, Kho Eng Khng, who like many immigrants in his time, came to “Nanyang” or South East Asia by boat to build a life leveraging the abundant opportunities and natural resources it offered.
Great Grandfather met and married my Great Grandmother in Kuching. She was the only daughter in the family and was gifted 2 bangles by her father at the wedding. She gave Great Grandfather one of the bangles as a gift which he had very cleverly used to invest in his business. He started a textile business under the brand Nan Chi which when translated, means Southern City. The brandname Nan Chi was a meaningful one because it reflected Great Grandfather’s commitment to the city of Kuching. He grew his business on the bedrock of economic growth and development in Kuching then, at the South of the river in Sarawak, and this city had been adopted as his home, where he raised his family. Nan Chi operated out of a 3-storey shop house and that business became highly successful and expanded beyond his wildest dreams. Because of his love for nature, he started a landscaping business operating out of Nan Chi Garden which had also become very successful.
By this time, Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother had 4 children, 3 daughters and a son. One of these daughters, the youngest was my Granny.
Great Grandmother with Mom
When the kids were in school one day and my Great Grandmother was at home, a man from the local immigration office dropped by the house and told my Great Grandmother that she had to sign some immigration papers to allow for the passage of my Great Grandfather’s relative from China to Sarawak. My Great Grandmother could not read, speak or write English yet she surrendered to the concept of spousal duty by affixing her thumbprint on the dotted line, and unwittingly agreed for my Great Grandfather’s first wife from China to relocate to Sarawak.
While my Grandmother’s story veered towards the perception that Great Grandmother was just ignorant, I on the other hand believed that Great Grandmother loved my Great Grandfather so much that she just wanted to do what she thought was right for him.
The Other Great Grandmother
So with the new situation created by that thumbprint, 2 families headed by 1 man with 2 wives co-existed in that 3 storey shophouse at Nan Chi. Those were the days, when practicality took over and any negative emotions about the awkward situation were just cast aside out of spousal duty from both women to keep my Great Grandfather happy.
The household now consisted of my Great Grandmother with her 4 children, my step Great Grandmother with her 8 children and my Great Grandfather who was perhaps the happiest man within this complex scenario.
When step Great Grandmother moved in, my Great Grandmother and the 4 children had to pack up and move to the 3rd floor of the shophouse while my step Great Grandmother and the 8 children moved to the 2nd floor of the shop house with my Great Grandfather. In an Asian family, the first wife of course took precedence in importance and rank, hence Great Grandmother had no choice but to comply with the social rules.
The Relocation To Sibu
I must have got my rebellious streak from Great Grandmother who not long after, decided that these social rules were bullshit and there just could not be 2 queens in a household. Ok, Grandmother did not quite say that but I thought that was the best way to describe it in my words. The truth however, was that Great Grandmother's eldest daughter got married and moved to the neighboring city of Sibu. Her son had also moved to Sibu due to work. What else had she then in Kuching? So Great Grandmother bundled the remaining 2 kids and moved to Sibu too.
To my Great Grandfather’s credit, he did divide his time between both homes in Sibu and Kuching. Accounts about their lives in Sibu related by my Grandmother also convinced me that my Great Grandmother’s life in Sibu was a better one, surrounded by the kids who grew up to be highly successful people in their own right. Her 3 daughters, my 2 Grand Aunts and my Grandmother relocated to Singapore eventually.
Luckily Grandmother had settled in Singapore when she married my Grandfather and these are the reasons why. I am truly convinced that the food in Sarawak is much better than that in Singapore. My diet failed in epic proportions when I was holidaying in Sarawak. Secondly, Mom told me that her uncle, Great Grandmother’s only son, had the fondness of knocking her head with his knuckles to punish her for running around the estate “like a ruffian” when she was very young. Well, I would have a huge dent in my head if I had grown up there too. My Granduncle would be sending a search party through the forests and up trees to look for me.
Finally, Grandmother is now the only daughter left to tell me the tale of my Great Grandfather, my Great Grandmother and my step Great Grandmother. There were many positive stories as well as negative stories that she had related to my mother and I. I cannot begin to imagine what must have coursed through my Great Grandmother’s mind when she realized that her beloved husband actually had another wife before her. It must have been difficult to explain to the kids, why they had to move up a dark set of stairs into the 3rd storey of the shophouse to make way for a “stranger” in the home. It must have been a difficult decision that my Great Grandmother made to leave the marital home, pack up 2 kids lock, stock and barrel and move to another city to join her 2 other kids. She must have known it would alter the lives of everyone involved in that move.
However, these did not matter now. My Great Grandfather and his complex life of 2 wives, 2 families and 2 cities eventually was just a story. Its complexity was not remotely far from the complexity of what modern families go through in their daily lives of managing home, career, and family life.
What was more important though, was that I honor this family and this legacy that my Great Grandfather had built.
Underlying all that, I celebrate the strength and courage of the womenfolk in this family. When I think about my Great Grandmother, my Grandmother and Mom, I only see strength from the difficult decisions they had to make, the rocky paths they had to walk, the painful stories as well as the happy stories they lived to tell.
For this and more, I am truly grateful to be his Great Granddaughter.
The writer of this blog post is a Marketing and PR professional for over 20 years. Due to her love for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), she is also a freelance sports writer on the side, contributing MMA-related articles to several sports media. She works in partnership with her husband, David Ash, who is an avid sports photographer from www.singaporemaven.com. She is passionate about Boxing and nurtures a dream to fight competitively one day when her coach stops making fun of her. She is also a psychic intuitive by birth and runs a consultancy that does tarot and numerology readings under her brand, Sun Goddess Tarot. This blog is affectionately called "The Crazy AngMo" as she is married to one, although she has not yet explained to THE Ang Mo that when translated, he has been labeled “the bloke with ginger hair”.