EAST OF THE HEART
Chapter Two: The Arrival
The groom’s family had sent two chaperones to escort Mei Yee from her village to Penang. One of the chaperones was an older woman, and the other was a younger man who basically took orders from the older woman. It was the chaperones’ job to ensure that the “bride-to-be” would arrive safely into Penang. Mei Yee later found out that the older lady chaperone was actually one of the Groom’s aunts. She told Mei Yee to address her as “Aunty Bee Yoke”.
Aunty Bee Yoke had come to the village at the request of the Groom’s family in order to inspect the “bride-to-be”. She had to make certain that Mei Yee was of childbearing age, and was healthy in every sense of the word. With her approval on sight, Mei Yee then left with them. Later, aunty Bee Yoke also explained that Mei Yee’s mother had been corresponding with a distant relative in Malaya, and arranged for this marriage. The relative in Malaya had convinced her mother that the Groom was from a wealthy reputable family in Penang, and Mei Yee would be well taken care of. Aunty Bee Yoke asserted that Mei Yee had nothing to worry about from here on.
Their journey to Penang from Shanghai would take more than a week by sea, depending on the weather. Aunty Bee Yoke had secured a “third class” cabin for Mei Yee and herself. It had four bunk beds and a washbasin in the middle. There were no windows. They had to share the tiny room aboard the steamship with two other ladies from Shanghai. The two ladies were also traveling to Penang to start their new jobs as seamstresses at their mutual relative’s shop. They also hoped to find better marital prospects in Penang. Mei Yee was the youngest amongst them.
During that week onboard the vessel, Mei Yee became rather ill. She had not been on a boat before this, much less a ship. She found the motions of the sea extremely nauseating. She had to rest in the cabin for the most part of their journey. Aunty Bee Yoke did not improve the situation by “educating” Mei Yee on what she was expected to do in the Groom’s household. In addition, she informed Mei Yee that everything had been arranged – from Mei Yee’s “pre-wedding” room, to the wedding ceremony itself, to the “wedding-night” room, and to the “after-wedding” official residence. The Groom’s family had their own peculiar traditions, and it was imperative for Mei Yee to assimilate herself with them. Aunty Bee Yoke gave her a list to recite and commit to memory.
1) Upon arrival, Mei Yee would be presented to the matriarch of the family, Mrs. Wong. She must greet Mrs. Wong appropriately, as she would be her daughter-in-law soon.
2) Then she would be shown to her “pre-wedding” room. This would be temporary residence for two weeks before the actual wedding ceremony.
3) Prior to the ceremony, the bride must not be seen out and about – especially by the Groom. She should only stay within her own quarters. She must not venture about the house freely without a servant, or suitable escort. There were only a few rooms within the household which the ladies in the family are permitted to gather or meet.
4) She would be expected to join the ladies in the family at all meal times – that would mean breakfast, lunch and dinner. On some occasions, she might be invited to tea with the other ladies in the household when they hold an audience with Mrs. Wong. She must be suitably attired at all times. Mrs. Wong had already arranged a wardrobe of “approved” clothing in her room. The men in the Wong household never dine with the ladies unless it was a festive occasion, such as weddings, Mrs. Wong’s birthday, Chinese New Year reunion dinner and so on.
5) A list of protocol and guidelines would be explained to her during the first week of her stay. She would be wise to remember them well.
6) At any time of the day, Mrs. Wong may summon her for whatever purpose and reason. Therefore, she must always be prepared.
7) Under no circumstances would she be allowed to issue any instructions to other maids and helpers in the household, other than her own.
8) If she should require anything in addition to what had already been provided for, then she must seek counsel with Mrs. Wong and obtain her approval.
9) She would not be allowed to go out of the house on her own unless she had received explicit permission from Mrs. Wong, and a fitting escort would be provided.
10)She must learn and adhere to the duties of a daughter-in-law together with the other daughters-in-law of the household. There would be daily morning prayers to be made, as well as evening prayers. In addition, there would be monthly prayers to the ancestors, and annual prayers. A calendar would be given out every year with all the important dates marked.
11) She must never gossip. Mrs. Wong absolutely detested females who indulged in idle chatter.
12)Proof of her virginity on the wedding night would be of utmost importance. This was to be carried out in the special “wedding night” room.
13)If she had failed to provide the family with any male child, then her husband would have the complete right to take on another wife to do the job.
14)After the wedding night, she would move into her husband’s formal residence. This would become her permanent home.
Aunty Bee Yoke had made Mei Yee read the list
every single day. It made Mei Yee feel much worse each time. Mei Yee was beginning to worry about how she would cope. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this. The list
gave her the impression that she was not getting married, but receiving a prison sentence without any hope of a reprieve. Above all, she was very apprehensive about her “soon-to-be” mother-in-law. Mrs. Wong was obviously the matriarch of the whole family, and her words would be LAW in the household. Mei Yee began to suspect that the likelihood of her getting along well with Mrs. Wong, would be as sure as “the porridge turning into rice”
. This was part of a common Chinese proverb in her village. Once rice has turned into porridge, it would be irreversible.
When the steamship had finally docked at the Penang port, Mei Yee felt queasy again. The sight of her future looked bleak and utterly confusing. A set of trishaws took them from the port through the streets, and nothing looked familiar. There were buildings, schools, churches, temples and shops. Penang was not exactly as progressive and modern like Shanghai but it was definitely more advanced than her village in Fujian. Houses were very different in Penang, especially the Wong Mansion. It was a huge masonry building with three stories, and a large surrounding garden.
Cautiously, Mei Yee alighted from the trishaw and followed Aunty Bee Yoke through the imposing main entrance doors. The visitor’s hall was truly impressive with a huge crystal chandelier hanging in the middle. Wealth was evident from every corner of the room. There were many corridors that led to various rooms. It was like a maze. The two ladies weaved their way through a long hallway and reached a small sitting room where an elderly lady sat, dressed in all her fine silk and jewelry. Mei Yee had only seen brides on their wedding day dressed with such regalia in her village. It was not everyday attire from where she came from. The elderly lady was addressing a group of household staff, while waiting for Mei Yee’s arrival. When she finally saw Mei Yee, she did not rise or smile. She only acknowledged aunty Bee Yoke and Mei Yee after she had spoken with her servants.
“Big sister, I trust you have been well. May I introduce your “soon-to-be” daughter-in-law, Lim Mei Yee,” Aunty Bee Yoke said with reverence, laced with a little fear.
This was the first time Mei Yee witnessed how very polite and timid aunty Bee Yoke behaved. Aunty Bee Yoke was visibly afraid of her elder sister. Then she tugged at Mei Yee’s blouse. That was her cue to greet the grand older woman.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wong. It is an honour to meet you. Thank you for allowing me to become a part of your great family.” Mei Yee said nervously and bowed.
Mrs. Wong looked at Mei Yee closely and motioned for her to come forward. She started to inspect Mei Yee for herself.
“A little on the skinny side, I see.” Mrs. Wong remarked.
“Believe me, big sister, she is the best from the village.” Aunty Bee Yoke added.
Then Mrs. Wong introduced Mei Yee to her personal maid-in-waiting, “Ah Ping”. Ah Ping would be attending to Mei Yee throughout her stay in the Wong household. Apparently, it was customary for every mistress and master in the household to have their personal maid or manservant. These personal servants would follow and serve their assigned mistress or master till they die. In fact, all the servants in the Wong household belonged to the family, and would not leave until it was the time of their death. Mei Yee began to realize that her fate was no different from theirs.
“Ah Ping will take you to your pre-wedding quarters. This is where you will stay for the next two weeks until the wedding ceremony. We have strict rules and traditions in this family. We consider it very bad luck for the Groom to see his bride before the wedding. And besides, we need to prepare you before the wedding. It would not do at all if our guests saw how scrawny you are. They would think that we did not feed you enough. By the day of the wedding, you’ll have to be a lot heavier than you are now. Only manual labourers are thin in Penang. Portliness and prosperity go hand in hand.” Mrs. Wong explained sternly.
It was then Mrs. Wong noticed Mei Yee’s feet and her eyes widened in shock.
“Your feet…were they not bound when you were young?” Mrs. Wong was appalled.
“I did not like how they had restricted my mobility. So, I had refused to have my feet bound.” Mei Yee answered earnestly.
There was a moment of tensed silence. Mrs. Wong stared at Mei Yee. She was tempted to say something, but refrained herself. Mei Yee could feel the matriarch’s eyes slicing into every limb of her body.
“You’d be most wise to embrace every single tradition of this family. This family owns you now. You’ll live here, as a daughter-in-law of the Wong Family, and you’ll die here to become a ghost of the Wong Family. See that you do not forget.” Mrs. Wong declared her first and only warning.
A tight knot churned inside Mei Yee’s stomach. She neither replied nor nodded her head. She simply looked at Mrs. Wong with dread. This would be the beginning of an agonizing ever after.
(To be continued in Chapter Three)