60 or so years before Asians became apparently crazy and rich, some better-off families hired female helpers from China as live-in nannies or daily helpers. They were called ma-jie or mother-older sister, a respectful term that combines two salutations for elder female family members.
Ma-jie were typically dressed in a white mandarin-collared loose top over loose black pants. They usually had their hair neatly pinned in a bun, or in a single long plait. They were loyal, dependable and, in many instances, integral members of the families they worked for.
Many took vows of celibacy, and never returned to China. They remained with their employers or shared accomodations with fellow ma-jie until their retirement or death.
In the above photo, you can see a ma-jie washing clothes. A lady’s Peranakan attire is drying on a clothesline; not an uncommon scene in an employer’s courtyard.
But here’s the full picture.
This is a mural I came across in Singapore. It was so realistic I stood for quite a while just admiring it.
I had dinner with The Clan last Saturday and, as we normally do when the bellies are filled and chatter increases, we moved to the outside tables of the dinner venue for tea, coffee or whatever the folks preferred.
An elderly blind man was making his way on the pavement, white cane tapping before him. There was enough space for him and other pedestrians to walk safely. But not enough, apparently, for this teenaged girl: she had those Princess Leia headphones clamped on her head, she was preoccupied with her phone, and she walked right into the elderly man, cane and all. Several diners rose, ready to help, but all was well, fortunately.
I have plenty to say about folks who are so plugged-in to a digital universe they’ve forgotten how to function in the one they’re in, but this post is about an act of kindness.
“You know, your dad helped a blind man once,” said one of my uncles. “Years ago.”
Oh? I know my father never hesitates to help anyone in need. But this was news to me.
“He was supposed to meet us for a game of badminton but he never showed up. We were worried so we called your mum but she didn’t know where he was either.”
I looked at my father, who stared back. “What? I had no mobile. How to call?”
The story unfolded: my father came out of his office and found a blind man sitting at the bus-stop. When his bus came, he thought he should check if this was the bus the man might be waiting for. The man cited a bus number that did not make a stop where they were. Indeed, that bus came nowhere near where they were.
My father said he explained the situation to the man, and offered to take him to his destination. So they boarded the correct buses (a change was needed somewhere) that took them to the man’s home, forty minutes away.
The man was safely delivered to his frantic family, then my father came home. He missed his badminton game but claimed he had plenty of exercise anyway because he walked home, having used up his transport budget for the man’s fare. Yep, my father is one of those who only carries the amount he needs.
I have no recollection of this event happening back then, but I will remember it now.
Years ago, when I was still at primary school, the family was scrambling around getting breakfast and packed lunches ready one morning. Amid the usual chaos of looking for items that only ever go missing at that hour, came the banging on the front door.
It was Sally, who lived six houses away, and she was frantic.
“Have you seen my mother?”
None of us had. Apparently, Aunt Lannie (everybody called her that) had been left alone at breakfast for mere minutes while her caregiver fetched more coffee or whatever it was she’d asked for. Those minutes were all it took for Aunt Lannie to disappear. Her family had looked everywhere at home and were in the process of expanding the search area, leading them to us.
I remember my annoyance that the school bus arrived at this critical point of developments, and we kids were herded up the bus. We would learn the rest of the story after school.
While waiting for the police to arrive, the menfolk had decided to spread out on foot, out of the neighbourhood and towards the city centre. My father took the path that would lead to the sports centre: an open track with a soccer pitch in the middle, spectator stands at one end and exercise stations at the other. This centre was a 15-minute drive from our home, making it unlikely that Aunt Lannie would have ended up there.
Yet, there she was. My father recalls his shock at seeing her sitting in the sand pit used for long jumps. How she got there in her nightclothes and one slipper, no one ever knew. My father’s problem then was how to get her home. He had no mobile phone, no coins for the payphone and, other than carry Aunt Lannie home, the solution was to flag down a charitable passing motorist.
At this point, I should explain that Aunt Lannie was 75 years old and had Alzeimer’s. She required round-the-clock supervision, hence the caregiver. On a good day, she might engage a neighbour in a lucid, normal conversation, but on a bad day, she would yell at whoever was passing to “take me home”. We could only assume she intended to head “home” when she went missing.
My father managed to stop a passing cab. He admits to some relief that he could honestly assure Aunt Lannie repeatedly he really was taking her home, particularly when she started fussing about being in the unfamiliar vehicle with two strange men. He also admits to panic when Aunt Lannie relieved herself fully in the cab.
Anyway, by the time I returned from school, Aunt Lannie had been lovingly bathed and seen to by her doctors. My father, the driver and some neighbours had cleaned out the cab, and I learnt that my father had actually taken every side road and back lane on his way to the sports centre.
I still remember that strange feeling that wrapped around everyone that evening when returning neighbours were told about the incident or spoke about their roles in it. There were no recriminations about how Aunt Lannie managed to sneak away, no “should haves” or “why didn’t yous”. There was only quiet gratitude that everything turned out well. And that strange feeling? I’m going to call it the spirit of a community that came together when a neighbour was in need.
April is the month of my father’s birthday, so I’ve decided to post one or two stories about him. I can’t verify any of these, but folks still talk about his exploits. He, on the other hand, pretends they never happened.
Years ago, when he was considerably younger, my father cycled to work. On this particular evening, he was cycling home when he heard an almighty crash behind him, and felt a warmish whoosh. He remembers panicking because he had no idea what had happened. He thought if he moved, whatever it was might happen to him too.
It was the scream and the thud that made him alight and turn around.
In the uncovered drain that still runs alongside the road, lay a young girl who had been hit by a car. The car, which had been travelling in the opposite direction, had been hit by a bus (the crash my father heard). The impact sent it across three lanes to hit the girl, who had been walking on the pavement, just steps behind my father. The car was upside down several metres away.
My father has never said much about what happened next, only that others checked on the driver and the passengers in the bus. The terrified girl (let’s call her Anne) kept crying and asking him to call her mum, so he got the number and went knocking on the doors of nearby houses (cell phones were a rarity then). He’s referred to this as the hardest call he’s ever made because he didn’t know how to soften the news, and he felt the mum’s anguish down the phone.
The emergency vehicles arrived and the casualties were attended to. Because Anne’s mum had yet to arrive, my father rode in the ambulance with Anne, after ensuring that the police officers would update her mum. I remember my father calling home from the hospital, then being really late for dinner. He was also missing his bicycle which, to this day, no one knows where it went.
I remember coming home from school about three weeks later and finding a family of five in the living room. It was Anne, her parents and siblings. She had a cast and healing bruises but was recovering well.
Turns out, the family had returned to the accident site to talk to the homeowners in order to locate my father because all they had was his name. Eventually someone told them where they thought he lived.
Anne revealed how he’d climbed into the drain to sit beside her after making that call, and kept her calm by telling stories about nothing in particular. It had meant the world to a frightened young girl, and the parents had wanted to thank him personally. His reply? Anne needed someone and she reminded him of me.
Today, our families still get together on festive occasions. There are grandkids now, and Anne’s mum still tells the story of how Anne first met the kind uncle.