My grandmother was born about half a decade before the Second World War began. She barely completed her first year of Primary School before she had to quit school to work to feed her family of 4 siblings.
She was young and uneducated. She bravely went to the nearby coconut plantation to look for a job. Her first job during the Japanese occupation was to shred the husk off coconuts using a table razor (a large razor blade embedded in a hole in the centre of a table).
Imagine how she felt, at 7 years old then, standing for hours on a small overturned wooden crate, shredding coconuts one by one till her hands were raw. Once, her hand slipped too low and she cut her palm on the blade, but she just bandaged her hand with spare cloth and worked through the shift.
The Japanese occupation ended. My grandmother went back to school but dropped out at 14 years of age to look for a job again. She now had 10 siblings to feed. A few years later, she married my grandfather in an arranged marriage.
She bore 6 children within 9 years. Contraception was not entertained back then due to rumours of making men infertile, and it was an “unnecessary” expense.
My grandfather worked really hard, but didn’t earn enough as a labourer to feed the family, only enough to pay rent and school fees.
Desperate to make ends meet, my grandmother started sewing after midnight when her children slept, and making kueh early in the morning before they awoke. She would arrive at the local market by 530am.
With what little she earned, she bought her first hen, then a few more, a goat, a cow and 3 pigs. Her little homegrown farm also had a vegetable and fruit patch.
Her confidence rose as she reaped enough to feed the family, barter trade at the market for rice and fish, and secretly pay a travelling doctor (who made his rounds at various kampungs) for a ligation procedure at age 28.
But one night, a python killed all her hens and strangled the beloved family dog, an adopted pariah (street dog). Everyone cried when the dog was buried.
With no money to buy more hens and sell their eggs, my grandmother decided to look for a new job. In the middle of the night, she would take a kerosene lamp and a large basket to an attap hut in the middle of a durian forest.
There, she would wait alone till 2am in pitch darkness for durians to fall, memorise their location, and then light her lamp to collect the durians. After 2 hours of sleep, she would wake up and make durian kueh to sell at the market.
To her pride and relief, her children studied hard. All of them got a college education, sustained by food and money from my grandmother’s farm and kuehs, together with some government scholarships. The house and land they lived on was bought back by the government to build flats.
One by one, her children married and had grandchildren. Kampongs and swamps gave way to offices and housing estates. Farms and street markets became schools, parks and hawker centres.
Although she always tells us she’s blessed to see how far her family has grown to include us, my grandmother really kept many burdens deep in her heart while toiling away for the sake of her family’s future.
It was only recently, as she is now nearing 80 years old, that she opened her heart and shared the struggles and the pain of surviving through 5 regimes, the British, the Japanese, the British again, the merger and then finally independence.
I wonder how it was like to be in her shoes 2 generations ago, and I am convinced my relatively uneventful upbringing has made me soft. My cousins and I sometimes angrily complain about poor service, lack of work-life balance, no money to buy a car and fear of foreigners taking away our jobs. While these are valid concerns, my grandmother would have just found another way to make things work, by hook or by crook.
We are constantly reminded that our nation’s success is due to the government having the foresight and grit to develop our country e.g. public housing with amenities, education, foreign relations, etc. while quelling racial unrest.
But ultimately, I believe our progress and success boils down to the determination my grandmother’s and parents’ generation had in looking after themselves, conquering disadvantages and overcoming setbacks.
I can only hope that when I become a grandmother one day, I can reminisce without regret and tell my grandchildren what my grandmother told me – “I’ve done my best, the rest is up to you.”
– Reader’s contribution to Five Stars And A Moon by Emily Neo
(article photo credit: Loke Hong Seng)