Wednesday, 25 January 2006

Memoirs of Margaret Chan

Margaret Chan – yes, that’s what my friends used to call me. They decided that I had been mistaken for a Chinese too many times that I needed a Chinese name. They taught me how to say, “Wa emsi Teng Lang. Wa Honna Lang”. I don’t know how these words are spelt but they are Hokkien for “I am not Chinese. I am a Malay.” So, when that didn’t work, they named me Margaret Chan and I masqueraded as Margaret Chan when it suited me and I acquired quite an impressive volume of Chinese words –enough to carry a conversation.

I believe Margaret Chan was concieved in my mind when I was a mere toddler. People used to comment to Mak, “Laaa, anak sapa ni? Lain sangat. Anak nyonya mana?” And Mak used to play along and say, “Aha, anak Ah Nui kedai depan tu...dia suruh bela!” So, for a long while, especially when I felt slighted and entertained thoughts of running away from home after a quarrel with Kak Cik or when Mak favoured Lilah more, I really thought I was Ah Nui’s offspring.

Ah Nui helped her mum in that small shop by the big brick house across the road. It’s near enough for Mak to trust me to go and buy little things like matches and salt or sugar. I’d always take the opportunity to play ‘tikam’ and I remember having to stand on my toes to reach over the counter to pay her. And what a messy counter it was – full of buku tiga lima, old Chinese movie magazines and jars of asams and Hacks and Kiss Me. I always wondered how Ah Nui and her old mum knew where everything was among the clutter.

I didn’t have many friends then apart from visiting cousins, not even among those little girls whose mothers chased after them with their bowls of steaming porridge every evening. But I remember a regular visitor – a Chinese boy – a bit older than me, I think. He used to come to the house to escape the wrath of his mother. From the whisperings Mak had with Tok, I gathered that his mother was suffering from what I now know as post natal depression – but I heard Mak described it as gila meriyan. And I remember trembling with excitement hiding with him under the huge platform that Pak made in the kitchen, or in that small room under the stairs. Nowadays whenever I went home, I’d remember the boy whose name I never knew whenever I looked under the pangkin or in that small room that we now store old shoes. I never knew what happened to him or whether his mother ever recovered.

Anyway, when Pak got the transfer to Yan, we lived in front of Ah Gek’s house and Ah Gek had her nieces with her. One of them, Hooi Yong, was a classmate of mine. Very clever girl and we’d play hide and seek or do our homework together. But most of the time, she had to help Ah Gek, especially during Chinese New year, to sew up the hems or make kueh kapit. And sometimes, Poh Choo would join us. Thus my knowledge of Hokkien increased and at Chinese new year do’s where we all donned our brand new dresses with stiff petticoats underneath, no one was none the wiser about my ethnic origins. Poh Choo and Hooi Yong with their slightly darker skin looked more Malay than me.

Margaret Chan then moved back to Alor Star when Mak went to Mekah and acquired some new friends in the big house that Pak rented out to a Chinese contractor and his family. Thus besides learning the tulang belud from Tok, I also learnt how to play Chinese checkers with his two daughters who went to Keat Hwa. It was the year the song Pu Yau was a hit and I’d belt out the song with such emotions in the bathroom when Tok was having her afternoon nap.

Then, the big brick house across the road had a new occupant. Gaik Hong came to live with her grandparents and since then our friendship grew. At noon, when I waited under the big tree for the school bus, Gaik Hong would ask her trishaw man, Ah Chang to stop and give me a lift. We were like sisters going every where together. Almost every year when I go back, we’d have a reunion and last year, Gaik Hong made it to the party looking as lovely as ever. There were so many others from the primary school of SNC. Some of us proceeded to do our Form Six at Sultan Abdul Hamid College – our first direct contact with the boys whom we only used to see cycling the opposite direction to their school. Again, friends like Teng Boo, Wah Long, Hong Choo remained friends until now and four years ago we celebrated our 30th Anniversary.
Reunion of SNC friends Posted by Picasa

At ITM the Margaret Chan side of me didn’t quite lose her identity, nor forget her Hokkien for she found her soul mate in Fatimah Abu Bakar who at that time was more well versed in Hokkien than in Malay. And my dressing too alternated between the kebaya and cheongsam tops. Such was my split personality. I wasn’t complaining then and am not complaining now.

My first posting was to Penang and I lodged in Green Garden with Aunty Lucy, a stern looking lady with a no nonsence look about her. But I took to her instantly. Her small terrace house was spotless and she adopted me like a daughter she never had. Mak came all the way from Alor Star and was horrified to see me living in a house with a big altar in the front room. But seeing how Aunty Lucy took care of me, she didn't mind one bit. In the evenings I’d accompany Aunty Lucy to her temple nearby and late, late at night, together with Frieda and Uncle Boey from across the road, we’d drive along the esplanade and stop for some rojak or laksa Penang. Sometimes, when I stayed back during the weekends, I’d read stories to Darren, a young blind boy who visited Aunt Lucy. It is sad that now I have lost touch with Aunty Lucy and the Chinese family that adopted me during my stint in Penang.

Posted by Picasa

Chinese New Year at Leicester Square

Yesterday I was in China Town, Leicester Square and was delighted to see the transformation in preparation for the festive period this weekend. There were lanterns and lanterns everywhere and of course the smell of oranges that for me will always remind me of Chinese New Year celebrations with my friends back home.

To all my Chinese friends, Hooi Yong, Poh Choo, Ek Ti, Adeline, Mui Ngoh, Bee Em, Ngoot Chooi, Wah Long, Kee Wan, Hong Chu and Teng Boo, Julie, Siew Phaik – Xong Xi Fa Cai....Ang Pau Gia Lai..hehe! And yes to Caroline and Annabel too if you are reading this.

And not forgetting my newfound cyber friends – Lydia, Mumsgather and Lilian – have a wonderful time with the family on this wonderful day!

Happy times with Aunty Lucy, Frieda & Uncle BoeyPosted by Picasa

And last but not least – Aunty Lucy and Frieda and Uncle Boey, where ever you are, thank you for adopting me.

Knowing all of you has indeed enriched my life.

And of course, my little friend under the stairs – keep well.


Anonymous said... crita akan datang selepas "memoirs of Geisha".

My 2nd daughter also has chinese look. People will ask 2 or three times whether she is my daughter or an adopted daughter. Cian kita letih-2 mengandung dan bersalin kata anak cina pulak.Tapikan kekadangtu ada juga rasa tertukarke budak ni kat hospital. Cannot be sebab besalin kat PUSRAWI(mana ada cina bersalin kat situ)

HH said...


My father is also thought to be Chinese fr his 'sepet' eyes. He'd find himself being talked to by strangers if he were not to wear his kupiyah on his venture to the wet market. Funny thing is these people would carry on talking to him after he has declared his race being.

Three cheers for the Chinese-looking Malay!

Bergen said...

Things are different now, no thanks to our politicians.

ubisetela said...

Maggie Chan,
Hehehe.. My sis used to tease me as anak cina. She said I floated in flood water coming from the 'bukit' (where a few chinese family used to live in my kg) and Mak saved me.
I was sepet, fairer skin compared to sis (but now gelap dah) and was born during banjir month, so the story made sense to a 4-yr-old... apa lagi, lari pegi rumah Tok :)

Rugi I can't speak chinese.

AuntyN said...

Margaret? Lu ho bo?

When i was working inn my first company, the uniform was brown skirt and light yellow shirt. It was a Chinese company set up by the late Tan Sri Loy. Learnt a bit of Hokkien from the colluagues too. I used to be mistaken as a Chinese at Petrol pumps etc. So either I reply in Hokkien as well or Like u said, Wemsi Teng Lang, Wo Melayu lorr...

Now Hokkien dah terlalu berkarat sebab tak cakap dah.

Anonymous said...

aunt margaret, this can be publisher in your upcoming memoirs hor??? gather all your entries in blogs, you can published one book already lor!



~Tis§ot~ said...

Babe to KakTeh:

oh my younger sister also experienced the same thing when she's a toddler. she's very bulat, fairer than me, and has chinese eyes. while i'm a lil thin, and not so obviously sepet. so most of our parents' friends would ask d same question.

"laa, anak cina mana hang amik ni Non?"

and they'd call my sis "Ah Lin aaaa"

hehehe... kakteh, with this entry i might write abt my Ah Lin sis too experiencing the same thing one day...bila babe free la ek.

Anonymous said...

must be a thing in many families then; ada je yang muka mcm anak cina ;) like my two sisters when they were little, sebijik macam anak cina, mata sepet, fair skin and all - while i look as un-chinese as one can be.

Lydia Teh said...

KT, Kam Siah manyak-manyak. Wah, lu oo ah ni chuay teng lang peng you. KT boleh!

lifecuppa said...

those experience are invaluable kak teh.

now we live among chinese and my immediate neighbour is very2 caring and friendly..

yes, kak teh a book should be published.

may said...

nice nostalgic post, margaret chan! and whilst you were mistaken for a chinese, sometimes I'm mistaken for malay when even chinese cabbies start talking to me in bahasa.

doesn't matter, we're one big happy family at the end of the day, aren't we?

Leicester Square looks so festive!

Noni said...

Kak Teh...

my mother is a Chinese convert... so naturally anak-anak dia ada muka Cina. Of course we all have our horror stories of being mistaken for Chinese salegirls kalau pergi kedai and have people calling us 'amois'. However amongst all my siblings I am slightly darker with bigger eyes than the rest of them and when i was 5 my brother told me that I was an anak angkut yang Mak jumpa kat 'tombot' (townboard/MPJB/garbage dump) kat depan rumah. When I looked in the mirror and saw that I looked less Chinese than them I had to believe it and also knowing that there was a 4 year gap between me and my elder sister when the others only had 2 year gaps. My brother had always been the family prankster sampai ke tua ni pun...

While my mother is the Chinese she is however dark-skinned, wears the tudung and has spoken and thought in Malay for 3/4 of her life. She looks and acts more Melayu than many of her kids. We once had a neighbour who complained that her nephew was marrying a Chinese girl and said "macam dah tak cukup'orang Melayu kita' ni", and my mother asked her "orang Melayu sapa???"

But the sad thing is even though I am a product of a mixed marriage my father was very conservative and had forbidden my mother from teaching her children Hakka so now the only Chinese words I know are swear words hehehe....

BTW Kak Teh... I don't know if it was a typo but incase it wasn't the phrase is 'gila meroyan'.

Sekian terimakasih.

hehe jangan marah... itu belum dengor i cakap non-stop lagi...

ety said...

Kak Teh,
thanks....ME and 2 of my younger sister pun macam cino wo...kulit manyak putih...mata ada cepet...kawan ayah selalu tanya gak...Aji, lu ala cina anak ka?...
abang2 sawomatang jer...

Uja said...

kakteh, my Hokiien are all R-rated :)

How how? Shall I sound the good people at Marshall Cavendish ?

Noni said...

@ Uja...

no Uja U shall not... i cop first...

Anonymous said...

eh margaret-ah,

wah ai ang pow pun. lu ha wah, ha!


MA said...

All the Hokkien,Cantonese words I know - cannot be printed one.


Gong Xi Fa Cai.

Jane Sunshine said...

Dear Margaret Chan, Gong Xi Fa Chai. We celebrate Lunar Year on Friday okay?

Honeytar said...

Dear Margaret Chan,

Gong Xi Fat Chai.

Gua melom kawin. So lu kena kasi gua Ang Pow woooo... :)

Honeytar Chan

Anonymous said...

*Inside my Heart*?

he he he

Anonymous said...


wah! lu ching li hai kong teng lang hoh. bhe bai, bhe bai. =)

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

tho am half-chinese, am glad i still speak my mum's mother tongue Hakka and acquire a few other dialects too. sufficient to survive in case i land myself in china or yg sewaktu dgnnya. hehee.. i hope it is somethg i can pass on to my children..

Anonymous said...

dear Madam Chan,

nee how maa..?


how are yuu?


Gong Xi Fa Chai.


Ordinary Superhero said...

Back in my kampung, semua chinese families yang I kenal ada nama melayu. (Ali, Mek Ali (wife to Ali), Mek Wa etc. and we use the term 'mek' instead of 'nyonya' when we call elderly chinese lady).

anedra said...

GOSH! There is so much about you that I don't know! And I thought I knew just about everything! Sheesh! Thank God for blogs, eh?

Anonymous said...

kakteh, memoirs of MC ni akan jadi kenangan abadi. entah bila pulak akan ke Chinatown bersama-sama, 2 makcik bertudung bertinggung di tengah Chinatown, sorting out the bags of belacan, ThaiSing, mee and taugeh...

thanks for the lovely and the non-stop ketawa time..

anggerik merah said...

Nice entry Kak Teh! Hope you will be able to meet yr adopted family in Penang again one day.

mommy@lif said...

kak teh!i can so relate to ur memoir!my mak is anak cina yg given away to a childless malay couple since my TokNya was poor. plus my mom ade twin sis, so lagila TokNya tak mampu bela 2 org sekali gus. i am forever grateful of course, kalau tak, tak tau la i akan lahir ke tak :P however, mak tak pandai langsung cakap kantonis (family dia dari jenis Lai)sbb tuh anak² dia pon tak paham ape pon he he
anyway mak memang jenis so lah the malay thinking cuma part rajin berniaga je yang i rasa dia dapat from chinese trait. in my office ade another 2 guys yg kes macam i (mak diorg cina dibela melayu). seriously, dulu² memang byk chinese giving away daughters kan? but arwah Tok respek kat TokNya, dia mintak permission nak raise mak as a muslim & kawinkan mak ngan ayah. masa kat univ dulu, selalu org mistaken i cina siap speaking ngan i. so memang byklah i kena tegur even sampai sekarang with tudung, 'you ada darah cina kaa?'

LifeBloom said...


I identify with your story bila your mum kata you anak Ah Nui. I am darker compared to my other siblings and if I am nakal - my mum will always say that I ni anak "buluh betung"!! (remember that movie in the 60s??). At least you had Ah Nui to run to! There wasnt even a hint of a bamboo forest where we lived.

Thanks for the nostalgic stories and for a while it transporetd me back to memories of my best friend in primary school - Kwinnie Khoo.

I was supposed to be a journalist and Kwinnie dreamed of being a fashion designer. I will then be writing all about her fashion shows and write a book on her designs when we grow up. She went on to work for major designers and Milan and I became a plain old boring lawyer...oh well. Que Sera sera..

In the spirit muhibbah - GONG XI FA CAI everyone!!!

p/s Sorry KT - very the long one!!!


Memang 'cerah' pun Kak Teh ni. Loved the photos u took at London's chinatown. My late father had a chinese sister as well. We call her Mak Chak. I think in Kedah lagi often the case of anak cina diberikan kat org melayu berlaku kan? FYI, kita pun org kedah gak.

dith said...

Dear Margaret Chan,

Reminsicing your 'chinese' past I see? And what were you doing trembling with excitement under the staircase with that boy may I ask? :))

My mom is chinese, adopted. So we have chinese looks especially my sis who is btw married to a chinese too and living in Beijing, she has no difficulties blending in due to her looks.

So Margaret, are you a geisha too? hehe

Anonymous said...

kak teh, whenever I brought my kids out and I was left alone fending them from toppling over the tables (usually when H went to get the food for us all), most people would look at my kids and me, back and forth..they'd give me a wierd look whenever one of my kids called me mama. I guess they thought I was just a maid. Even one of my neighbours spoke chinese to helmi which helmi just stared at the poor guy. I was there at that time and I told the guy that my kid is malay. hehe

Awang Goneng said...

Aiyoo, gua bo chai lu teng lang!

Kak Teh said...

easylady, hehe kak teh pun rasa macam tu jugak. eh mak tertukar masa kecik ka?
anim - we have the advantage of both cultures.
bergen - yes it is sad -in those days we do not even think twice abt religion or race when choosing friends.
ubisetela - macam cerita putri buluh betong!
auntyN - ta k boleh lupa. try thinking backa nd the words will come backt o you.

Kak Teh said...

raftah - we can compete with memoirs of a geisha?? hehehe
babe - i think memang dulu2 orang suka cakap macam tu kan?
crimsonskye - sometimes ada lah genes yang tersesat tu cos in one family we can have so many different traits.

Lydia - kam sia lu, lau peng eu!
onde-onde - insyaallah - dokan kak teh ada tenaga dan rajin menulis.
may - i also thought u are a malay ...BUT HAPPY NEW YEARRRR May!

Kak Teh said...

noni - aaah - gila meroyan kut - tu lah masa budak2 tak dengar betul2! but u do have an interesting story as well.
ety - same here. macam2 warna.
Uja...wahhhhhh Marshall canvedish ha?
aneeta - wa boh lui!!
Mak Andeh - that's the best way t learna language. learn the rude ones first.

Kak Teh said...

tenah - inside my heart???
jane - that was a wonderful celebration and must do it again!
honey chan, wah wa boh lui. Lu gia wa lah!
fatihah - tu la advantage nya - best of both worlds.
Po - How, how? HOW???
OSH - wow - no racial divide pun kan? How ideal!
anedra-- hehehe - watch this space!
klmuk - i enjoyed that day with you as well. Will miss our chitchat when you go! take care .

Kak Teh said...

AM, yes, hopefully but i just dont know how ro start searching.
alif'smommy, yours is such a wonderfula nd intersting story,. You shd document more -a sk around for more details. I have a book on how to write a family'll be good for anak cucu cicit kelak.
lifebloom, no problem, everyone's story and contribution help to make an entry more intersting.
putri, i also had a mak chak yang half chinese!!!
DITH - oh no - me no geisha!!
atiza - my son was called Bruce lee in school!
awang goneng, ta paw peng eu..wa ai ni!

MA said...

Wah terrer Kak Teh jawap 30+ komen in one breath !

hehehe... :-)

Count Byron said...

Kak Teh. I love this riot.Some more .. on a Chinese New Year day.. I wish you all Chinese-Malays a very Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Count swayed between being an Indian (when dark tan, wearing kain sarong the way kelantanese indians do) and a chinese (sometimes even now i still hear ' I thought you are Chinese').

And that is a range too wide. I knew it was a tease..but the child's heart could not but wonder if it was true.

Ewok said...

dear KT,

thanks for a very good dinner and conversations. muaaah

Mdm Noris said...

Kak Teh, that really nice to go back on memory lane.

That really reminds me of my old neighbour Ah Boon & Ah Hui - my childhood friends who taught me how to speak Mandarin & till now I can be proud of my Mandarin for being able to speak the whole sentence correctly.. phew...

I hope I can track on them still coz they move out somewhere elses for more than 20yrs. No Doubt Spore is small to 'jejak kasih' but its not gonna be easy...

Anonymous said...

Akum Kak Teh

Just a quick one. Baru lepas tengok vcd Konsert Siti dekat RAH ( i went to the concert too ! ).

Then ada interview with a woman called Zaharah Othman. Is that you ke Kak Teh ?


Atok said...

sadly, we've become more segregated nowadays. during my early years, we were delighted to receive CNY hamper from Papa's friend and enjoyed the 'kuih bakul' etc etc... my guess, these days... mmm, people would say all sorts of things.

Anonymous said...

my mom is cindian and my dad is malay. i have 7 siblings and all of us look different from each other. and sometimes, it's heartbreaking when ppl say one sister looks like anak cina, but you look like anak keling.

i guess, it's better to look like anak cina rather than anak keling - im speaking of the typical malay mentality! luckily ive learned not to layan all these remeh temeh things.

btw - keling is not a race, nor a nation. it's Indian!

Anonymous said...

Teringat my experience with my mom. We were busy choosing bawang putih and bawang merah at a pasar malam at my kg when suddenly this curious apek asked , " eh, ini you punya amma ka?" Kenapa? I asked. " You punya amma cina ka?" I said " tak dalah.. melayulah" "wa.. dia serupa cinalah, tapi apa pasal lu serupa india?" At that time nak tergelak pun ada, but that happened a lot of time. In my family, only one sister inherited my mom's chinese look ( she is jawa+bugis btw)and people always mistaken her for either Japanese or chinese. While I inherited my father's indian look ( he has no indian blood as far as I know) I guess, unknowingly we are multiracial in our own family.


Anonymous said...

Kak Teh, I only started reading blogs in April and I missed this article. Wah, 'lu sing ka ting nang' (You are like Chinese).
Anyway, I am amazed how you remember all the names to even the trishaw puller. I tried to remember my trishaw puller's name but to no avail.
When I was working at Lily Norma in KL, customers used to think I was a Malay when talking to me over the phone. When I told them I am 'Cina', they wouldn't believe me and would ask the Manager. Sad to say, I have lost touch in speaking Malay let alone speaking Malay with a Malay accent.