Chapter Three: The Introduction
1925 – George Town, Penang
Mei Yee settled quickly into her “pre-wedding” quarters. It was actually an attic located at south wing corner of the mansion. By every means, it was much larger than the tiny room in her village. The attic was generous in size and décor. There was a formal sitting area, a separate enclosure for the bedroom and dressing room. Most of all, Mei Yee was impressed to find that the room had an en-suite bathroom. It was complete with modern plumbing, a soaking tub, a washbasin and accessories. She never had a private bathroom before. It was a new experience for her. In the village, an entire household would share a common bathroom and the toilet would be located outside of the house. It was mainly a hole dug into the ground and a shed was built around it. Mei Yee had always hated going to the toilet in the night. She hated the darkness, and the long walk from her house to the external toilet. There were many nights when she would just endure the urge to go to the toilet, and had forced herself to go back to sleep. As for the bath, it was basically an outhouse built around a well. However, this was established right next to the house. Or rather, the house was built next to the well. Water extracted from the well would be used for a variety of things, and not just for washing. The same water from the well would be used for cooking and cleaning as well. Hence, Mei Yee began to appreciate having her own personal bathroom tremendously.
As the attic was located at the highest point of the mansion, Mei Yee had an unobstructed view of the city. She could see coconut trees, palm trees, shops, places of worship, and the streets leading all the way to the train station at the far distance. There were other houses around the Wong residence, but none could match its size and grandeur. Mei Yee also noticed that the Wong family owned two automobiles. In the whole island of Penang, there were but a few motor vehicles. Only the most affluent could afford to own one. However, to possess two vehicles under one roof would prove that one had not only the means to purchase; but also the authority to import. The Wong family was not only wealthy, they also held influential positions in the community. The family business extended from shipping, agriculture, land and property ownership to banking. Many other businesses in Penang were supported by the Wong family’s empire. No one would dare speak a word to injure the family’s reputation. Therefore, Mei Yee would have to think twice before voicing any disagreements within this particular family. The Wongs never forget, and would bear a long grudge against anyone who did not comply with their wishes.
On the first day of her arrival, Mrs. Wong permitted Mei Yee to rest in her room. She was excused from joining them for all the meals. Instead, Ah Ping delivered her lunch and dinner to the attic. Despite Mrs. Wong’s lack of approachability, she was generous in furnishing Mei Yee with an abundance of food and drinks. There were canisters of snacks and biscuits sent to her room, in addition to the main meals of the day. Mrs. Wong was not joking about “fattening” her up for the wedding. It took Mei Yee some time to get accustomed to being served. At her own home in the village, Mei Yee was the one who helped her mother serve her father and brothers. Her family could only afford two domestic helpers – a cook and a cleaner. Actually, they were more like relatives than helpers. Mei Yee had to assist in the household chores, as well as, in serving the family on a daily basis. Here, it felt rather strange to be at the receiving end.
Mei Yee’s personal maid, Ah Ping, was about the same age as her – both of them barely eighteen. Ah Ping had joined the Wong residence when she was 7 years old. Ah Ping’s mother had given her to the Wong family because her family was too poor to feed another mouth. It was very common in Penang to marry off their daughters, and if they could not be married off, they would be given away to rich families to be incorporated as part of the household staff. Ah Ping’s fate led her to be a servant for life to the Wong family. It was sealed from the moment she had walked into the mansion. In this respect, Mei Yee felt that she shared the same predicament as Ah Ping. The both of them had no control over their lives, and there seemed to be little hope that they could change their fate. Mei Yee thought that the female race was given the rotten end of the bargain in life. It was a curse to be born a woman in this society, at this time – she lamented. Women were nothing more than commodities which could be sold, traded or disposed of. It did not take long for Mei Yee to bond with Ah Ping. They were different, yet similar in their dispositions of life. They both felt imprisoned by their circumstances, like a bird in a gilded cage.
On the following morning, Ah Ping came to the attic and delivered the morning tea to Mei Yee promptly at 8am. This was Mrs. Wong’s unique way of training Mei Yee to be ready by this hour every morning onwards. Then, Ah Ping would help Mei Yee get dressed for her breakfast with the other ladies in the household. Mei Yee would be meeting them for the first time. Ah Ping had kindly enlightened her with a brief history of the Wong family, and the other significant members living in the mansion.
Mr. and Mrs. Wong had come from generations of power and wealth in Penang. Otherwise known more commonly as the “descendants of old money”. Each of their families had immigrated to Penang during the time of Captain Francis Light in the 1790s. Mr. Wong’s family had owned most of the rubber plantation, and Mrs. Wong’s family were the owners of tin mines. Their families had witnessed the island’s main town being named as “George Town” when Captain Light had christened it in honour of King George III of Great Britain. Over the centuries, the two families have prospered immensely. However, in 1867, the island was caught in a bloody massacre between two feuding Chinese secret societies – the Cantonese-speaking and the Hakka-speaking groups. Their brutal fight worsened to the point that the British commanding army had to bring in additional forces from Singapore to regain control of the murderous situation. Cannons and guns had to be fired. Later, it was discovered that the hostility between the two Chinese factions stemmed from opposing interests in the tin mining industry. Hence, it had affected Mrs. Wong’s family business a great deal. Then and there, the two great families decided that it would be wise to merge their “mutual interests” by the form of a marriage. Each side had only one child, but jointly, they would come to own a large part of Penang.
The union of Mr. and Mrs. Wong brought about three sons and a daughter. They had given all their children English names, in addition to their Chinese names. Penang was still very much a British colony in every sense of the word. So, it was important to the Wongs to present themselves as forward-thinking liberals to the community, despite how deeply entrenched they were in their own tradition. Their sons were named Alfred, Bernard, and Christopher. Their daughter was named Jasmine. It was Christopher, their youngest son, whom Mei Yee would be marrying in two weeks’ time. The entire household had been busy making preparations for it.
Ah Ping pointed out that the wives of Alfred and Bernard did not get along. Everyone in the family knew. Both Ai Ling and Sun Lee started as rivals competing for Alfred’s affections, as being the Wong’s eldest daughter-in-law had its own perks and benefits. Alfred was the heir apparent to the Wong dynasty. Naturally, the coveted throne of Mrs. Wong would also be passed onto the eldest daughter-in-law. Thus, one could imagine the powers that came with the title of “Eldest Daughter-in-law”in the Wong estate. As soon as Ai Ling had won Alfred’s heart, Sun Lee had no choice but to steer herself towards the next best thing – marrying Bernard. In Sun Lee’s opinion, some wealth was better than no wealth at all. In any case, these two daughters-in-law would never tire of out-scheming and plotting against each other. It had become a vicious routine around the house, with one trying to win the approval of Mrs. Wong over the other. There would be no shortage of collateral damage of innocent bystanders. Even Jasmine Wong had resigned from spending any time with her two sisters-in-law. She did not have much care for anything or anyone in Penang. All she longed for was to leave Penang as soon as the wedding ceremony between Christopher and Mei Yee was over. It had all been arranged for Jasmine to study music in England. Secretly, Jasmine was planning to marry a British gentleman so that she would not have to return to Penang ever again.
Before leaving the attic, Ah Ping gently cautioned Mei Yee to stay away from the two devious sisters-in-law. When they both arrived at the breakfast room, Mrs. Wong was already seated at the head of the rectangular table. Everything had been laid out. Ai Ling and Sun Lee were seated at her right and left, respectively. Jasmine was running late, as her personal maid came to inform the ladies in the room. Mei Yee quickly greeted Mrs. Wong first, followed by the two daughters-in-law. Then Mrs. Wong directed her to sit next to Sun Lee. No personal orders would be taken, and no one was allowed to ask for anything else unless they had already discussed it with Mrs. Wong. All the meals in the household were planned and decided by Mrs. Wong, and her alone. Everyone would eat whatever that was served before them.
That morning, they were having an English Breakfast with bacon, sausages, eggs and toast. Mei Yee had never seen anything like it, and was not quite sure how she was going to eat her breakfast without chopsticks. Neither Ai Ling nor Sun Lee bothered to offer her any help. They did not even look at her. It was not until Jasmine’s arrival that she finally had some assistance. Jasmine took her usual seat next to Ai Ling, and showed Mei Yee exactly which utensils to use in eating their English breakfast. From across the table, Mei Yee slowly learnt how to use a fork and knife for the very first time. She found it amusing that the Westerners would take the time and effort to invent various utensils for eating different foods. All they ever needed in the village were a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. They ate everything under the sun with just that.
The breakfast area was a charming room that faced East, where the morning sun would rise and cast a brightly coloured glow through the stained glass windows. It held the views of the gardens. Mei Yee was told that the gardens were landscaped according to a typical British garden in England. It was definitely a stark contrast to the flowerbeds in Mei Yee’s village. No one spoke at breakfast unless Mrs. Wong questioned the individual directly. Mei Yee could see that Mrs. Wong was very fond of her daughter. Jasmine was the only person in the family who was allowed to go as she pleased, and spoke whenever she chose. Jasmine was also the only one who wore Western clothes at all times. Initially, Mei Yee thought Jasmine looked quite obscene with her hands and feet being so exposed. A traditional Chinese dress would have ensured that the ladies’ arms and ankles were covered up gracefully. However, the western “flapper dress” was way too short, and it had hardly any sleeves. It was not something that Mei Yee could imagine herself wearing, but she could not deny that Jasmine did look very lovely in them.
After breakfast, they were allowed to return to their individual chambers, or join Mrs. Wong in the sitting room. The sitting room was another area in which the ladies of the house would be allowed to gather. There was a gramophone, a grand piano, stacks of magazines and some newspapers organized neatly in the room. The sitting room faced the views of the water fountains. When the windows were opened, one could hear the calming sound of water flowing through the fountains and into the ponds. Each lady found her own preferred seat, and made herself comfortable in the sitting room. Ai Ling read the newspapers, while Sun Lee chose some magazines. Jasmine would go through the collection of records, and took one out to play on the gramophone. Then she guided Mei Yee by the hand to a nearby two-seater sofa. Jasmine informed Mei Yee that the ladies would have their afternoon tea served in this room as well, and it was usually at 4pm everyday.
“This is also a visitors’ room. If any of us had visitors such as family members or relatives, we would receive them in here as well.” Jasmine explained.
However, it was very rare for any of the ladies to have visitors – except Jasmine. She was allowed to invite her friends and cousins over to the house at any time of the day. Only weekends were strictly reserved for family time – whereby the men in the family would take their wives out to town, and make their formal appearances at the country club.
“Mei Yee, I have arranged for the tailors to come over tomorrow. They need to measure you and start making your wedding costumes. I have already chosen all the fabric. There will be two sets of formal wear. You’ll be wearing the traditional “qipao” for the wedding ceremony, and then change into a modern evening dress for the wedding banquet. Since we would be inviting some important British guests for the banquet, a western gown would be most appropriate.” Mrs. Wong announced.
Mei Yee swallowed hard.She could not bear to bring herself to wear any of the Western apparel. She glanced at Jasmine, who happily turned the pages of a fashion magazine to show her what Mrs. Wong meant by a “western gown”. It was a long dress which showed much of the women’s bare shoulders and arms. Mei Yee was panicking inside. If her parents or anyone from her village were to see her in that kind of clothing, they would have her beaten to death. It was most indecent. How could any woman walk out of her room in that flimsy thing, much less the house?! Suddenly, the room began to spin. Mei Yee had trouble breathing. She begged to be excused. Ah Ping was summoned to accompany her back to the attic room.
Once she was safely hidden in the privacy of the attic with Ah Ping, Mei Yee stuffed her face into the pillow and let out a muted scream. Ah Ping was taken aback.
“I am going to be completely humiliated and disgraced by the time the wedding is over!” Mei Yee exclaimed.
Ah Ping turned away from Mei Yee and gave a sorry look. Underneath the personal maid’s demure appearance there lurked a conscience that was stricken with guilt. Ah Ping struggled internally, contemplating on whether she should tell her mistress the truth of what she would inevitably uncover on the day of her wedding.
To be continued in Chapter Four….