Eighty-five years ago, a baby girl was born to a young couple. They were thrilled to welcome the little girl into their family, but their joy was short-lived. There was a myth that the first-born after several miscarriages must be given away for adoption for the baby to grow into a healthy child. It broke their hearts to have to give the baby girl up for adoption to a childless couple in Kajang.
The baby girl, Eng, grew up in her new home. Her poor family lived in a rubber estate on a stilt house made of bamboo. When she was 11, the Japanese invaded Malaya. Eng remembered the brutality of the Japanese soldiers, the bombings and scattered bodies of victims. Her family hid in tunnels to evade marauding troops.
Rice was a rare commodity in those days. If they managed to get their hands on some, the rice they got were often yellowish and mixed with cement or sand, and had to be washed numerous times. They ate anything that was edible – tapioca, sweet potatoes, and wild mushrooms.
When the Japanese Occupation ended, the family continued to live in the rubber estate. One day, the girl’s biological parents came to visit the family. Apparently, after giving up their first baby for adoption, the couple returned to China.
There, the woman gave birth to a baby boy. Soon after that, the couple came back to Malaya and settled down in Segamat, Johor, where they operated a bicycle shop. Two girls were added to the family later.
Eng and her adoptive mother found work in a rubber factory about 10km from their rented house. They had to get up in the wee hours of the morning to walk to work every day. They depended on the sun to tell the time because they did not have a clock. Once, Eng’s mother mistook the moonlight for sunlight, and woke her up. After walking for hours, there was still no sign of daybreak. Eng’s mother then realised her mistake. Fortunately for them, they managed to get a lift home from a passing lorry.
During her stint at the rubber factory, Eng was bullied by her co-workers. They teased her because she never had a chance to go to school.
When the family finally moved out of the rubber estate, Eng told her adoptive father that she wanted to enrol for night classes. He objected as he did not see the importance of education for girls. Instead, he told Eng to ask for a bicycle from her biological father in Segamat.
The teenager took a train down to Segamat, and returned to Kajang with a second-hand bicycle. That trip somehow rekindled ties between Eng and her biological parents.
Eng found work in a tobacco company. Meanwhile, her adoptive father, a rickshaw peddler, had become addicted to marijuana. When she was not at work, Eng would be busy helping her mother to locate her father in marijuana joints, by looking out for his parked rickshaw.
Later, Eng went to work in a beverage company where she cleaned recycled bottles. She carried bottles by the dozen on her back until a thick callus grew on her upper back. Till this day, the lump is visible on her back.
It was her that Eng met and later married my father. Both were 23 then.
A year later, the couple were blessed with a baby girl. This was followed by two boys, and another six girls, much to the disappointment of my paternal grandmother. I was the seventh child. Luckily, none of the girls were given up for adoption, although we lost the youngest to a respiratory ailment.
My mother took her responsibilities as daughter-in-law, wife and mother of eight, in her stride.
My paternal grandmother was a very conservative woman. While boys were allowed to spend time outdoors, girls were supposed to stay indoors and help with household chores so that they would grow up to be dutiful housewives.
When grandma was diagnosed with throat cancer, mother became her full-time nurse until she breathed her last.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “Women hold up half the sky”. My mother is one such woman.
After my father passed away 28 years ago at the age of 58, my mother struggled to hold the family together. That was the time I got an offer to further my studies in a local university. Mother encouraged me to accept the offer and I did. My mother and younger sister worked in a factory canteen to support my education. Years of hard work took a toll on my mother’s health.
When I was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 32, my mother became my pillar of strength. She stayed with me throughout my hospitalisation. I recovered from two brain surgeries but my mobility was impaired.
My mother’s ability to stay positive in the face of challenges, inspired me to remain tenacious.
At 85, my mother still loves to cook at family gatherings. Her brood now includes 22 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
I am so proud of my mother, and I pray that she will continue to be healthy and happy for many years to come.
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