China, in the late 19th and early 20th century, was stifled with social upheavals. The Qing Dynasty 清朝时代 was on the verge of collapse. Many rebellions were mounted but were ruthlessly suppressed and brutally put down. It was very dangerous to live in that country during such a turbulent period.
Guangdong广东, a southern province, was a hotbed of anarchy. The people living there used to say “Mountains were high and the emperor was far away山高皇帝远.” Therefore, many young men in that province do not hesitate to rise up and revolt. They just wanted a more peaceful life for themselves and their families.
Against such a volatile backdrop, my paternal grandpa, Yip Kwee Kee叶巨基, was born, circa 1890 in Nam Hoi 南海district in Guangdong. Although diminutive in size, a man of few words and illiterate, like many of his contemporaries, he was drawn to the idea of a Republic.
He was a very skillful bean curd maker and very proud of his trade. Business was good and every cent he earned was donated to this cause. He was a very generous man.
The government arrested many of its opponents and their sponsors. They were executed publicly as a deterrent to others.
He learnt, to his horror, that his name was blacklisted by the government. So, to save his head from being chopped off, literally speaking, he decided to run away to Malaya 马来亚or Nanyang南洋 as it was called then. He also changed his name to Yip Soo 叶苏to avoid being hunted down as he knew the government was hot on his heels.
But something unexpected happened. The village headmaster, who was also a staunch supporter of the same cause and a well to do man, came with his only child, a young girl called Yim Mun严曼, to see him as he was packing to leave.
“I’m too old to run away but please take my daughter with you to Nanyang. You can have her as a wife since I knew you are a hard working man” he told Yip Soo.
Of course Yip Soo felt humbled by this sudden offer and could not turn down the respectable headmaster and the young girl standing in front of him. He gladly accepted this “gift” and promised to take her along to the new land. That was how an illiterate bean curd maker suddenly got himself a wife. A wife that was dropped from the sky, my Dad joked to me.
After a tearful farewell, they boarded a steamer and set sail to a far away foreign land, determined to start life anew.
Grandpa has heard about the tin mines in Perak. Back in his village, many young and able bodied men went to various places such as Gopeng, Kampar, Batu Gajah or Tanjung Tualang to work in the tin mines as coolies. Most of them went to escape poverty but later got themselves even poorer and indebted to some “middle men” or “agents” who had arranged for them to go there. Many spend years to redeem their freedom. This wave of illegal human trafficking was called “Mai Chu Chai卖猪仔 (人口贩卖).”
No, Yip Soo did not intend to work as a mine coolie. He only wanted to sell his bean curds to them. He knew there was a ready market for his products. So, together with his new bride and a few of his brothers who also followed along, they settled down in Gopeng on arrival, circa 1915. They rented a little wooden hut and started making bean curds to sell for a living.
Grandpa and his brothers quickly cut their long braids and threw them away. You could not be able to do that in China. A long braid is a symbol of subordination to the Qing Dynasty and any man found not having one will have his head chopped off at once!
Later, his brothers branched out and started their own families. Not long after this, grandma gave birth to my dad and his two sisters. They made Gopeng their home.
His business grew and he began to prosper. Having a little extra cash in hand, he began to indulge in gambling, his favorite pastime. He could always spend long hours gambling while his wife and children were left at home waiting for his return.
Grandpa always brings home meats and vegetables from the market after he had finished selling the bean curds there. On the way home, he would often dropped by the gambling dens and once he was engrossed with his games, he would totally forgot about the food which became stale at the end of the day when he finally goes home. Many quarrels broke out between him and grandma because of his callousness.
Once, he was caught in an illegal gambling den and together with the rest of the gamblers was taken to the police station. There, they were made to parade around the town with hands cuffed and placards hanging from their necks with the word “Illegal Gambler非法赌徒”. They were booed and jeered at by the locals. To shame you publicly was the way the British authorities punished illegal gamblers.
Grandpa soon earned the nickname “Tofu Soo 豆腐苏” among the miners who were mainly Hakkas 客家人. They simply loved his smooth bean curds which were cheap, nutritious and delicious. He soon became a popular figure in the market and the gambling dens!
Many years later, he decided to have another wife to help out in his growing business. You will need as many pair of hands as possible in this trade. It was almost impossible to do things alone. What with the grinding, cooking and also chopping fire woods!
Unlike her husband who could neither read nor write, not even his own name, grandma was an educated woman. She grew up reading classical literatures and doing embroideries. As a “siew cheh 小姐” or “rich missy”, she was used to being waited upon by maids in her childhood home.
As a “siew cheh” worth her salt, she hardly touches any house work, let alone roll up her sleeves and helps in chopping fire woods! That would be a tall order. Anyway, Grandpa did not expect her to do anything other than sitting down and minding the children. All hard work was beyond her. To him, she was just a “gift” from a rich man.
You can’t really fault her. You see, she has a pair of bound feet. Even though her feet was “released” after just a few years and they eventually grew back, but they were already deformed and she has difficulties walking. It took her many years to learn to walk properly again and it was excruciatingly painful for her to do so.
In those days, you do not have Indonesian maids or helpers. Driven by sheer necessity, she sat down and wrote a letter to her relatives in Guangdong asking them to look out for another wife for grandpa. The candidate must be someone hardworking, willing to slog without a whimper and preferably from a poor family. In a short time, one was found and put on the boat bound for Malaya.
Her name was Ng Mooi吴妹. She was accompanied on the long journey by her male relative. But it turned out to be a nightmare for her. She was sexually violated by him on the boat the entire journey. Once she reached Gopeng, he quickly took the return trip on the same boat back to Guangdong.
When Grandpa found out, he was very furious indeed. There was nothing he could do but to accept her. However, he was unsympathetic to her ordeal and instead gave her the cold treatment. Before long, she began to fall into a deep depression and shut herself in a room all day.
One day, Grandpa was out at the market and Grandma was asleep with the children. Poor Ng Mooi put together a heap of dried coconut shells which were use for cooking and started a fire. Soon the whole house was burnt down. Luckily nobody was killed.
When Grandpa got home and saw the flatten house, he blew his top. It was a rented house, not his own. In a fit of anger, he took her to Tanjung Rambutan and had her committed into the mental hospital. At that time it was ran by the British administration.
Fault was, Grandpa did not visit her at all. A few years later, the hospital sent Grandpa a letter written in English, but Grandma could not read it. So the letter was just put aside and Ng Mooi was forgotten.
By then, Grandpa insisted for another wife and this time he personally went to Guangdong to fetch her here. It was around this time that the family moved from Gopeng to Batu Gajah. There, Grandpa bought a plot of land to build his own house, ready to welcome the new bride, Chan Kwan陈裙, who later bore him another seven children.
At last, with ten children and a hardworking third wife, Grandpa Yip Soo finally got all the help he needed in his bean curd business!
And Grandma Yim Mun can sit down comfortably again!
Note: Yip Soo was seated in the middle. On the right was Yim Mun and on the left was Chan Kwan. There was no photo of Ng Mooi because she was send off to Tanjung Rambutan by grandpa shortly after arriving in Gopeng.