There was a fairly well-to-do butcher’s family named何in东莞南埔, a small village in Canton province. This family had a few sons but only one precious, yet stubborn daughter, our grandmother.
Despite objections from her family, our grandmother married Leong Hon/梁汉, younger son of a poor family in东莞石龙. They had three sons:
- the first-born (a son) died at birth
- the second, Leong Chau/梁秋
- the third, Leong Seng/梁成 (aka Chee Seng志成 /金玉).
Life was hard and the people in Southern China began leaving for greener pastures overseas and one such place was Singapore. In 1924, grandmother left her husband and sons behind with her mother-in-law (单凤仙) and set sail for Singapore, empty-handed. She found her first job as an attendant at the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital (廣惠肇留医院KWSH), learning to look after the sick. She was, like most girls in old China, illiterate.
She worked hard like every new immigrant and in 1927, barely three years after she arrived in Singapore, managed to save enough money to send for her husband, mother-in-law and two sons. Unfortunately, the second son (Leong Chau/秋) died not long after arriving in Singapore. She had two more sons (Leong Chee Kin志坚/aka Leong Kong 光 and Leong Moong Tong满棠) and five daughters (丽琼, 丽嫦, 丽萍, 丽珍 and 丽娟). The youngest daughter, 丽娟, died in an accident as an infant during the Japanese Occupation. It was, indeed, painful for grandmother to lose another of her child. In remembrance of our deceased youngest aunty, grandmother named 志坚 uncle’s eldest daughter, 月娟 (Leong Y.K). She was also given an alias, 葵卿, by her father which became unofficially, her official name.
One night years after our youngest aunty丽娟 had passed away, she appeared in grandmother’s dream, telling her that she had met a man in the “other world” and that they would like to be married. In the dream, details like the name of the man, address of his living parents, etc. were given to grandmother and that she should be expecting a visit from the man’s family, officially asking for her hand in marriage. Grandmother, not sure if her dream was true, went to seek a medium who, after some prayers and rituals, confirmed her dream. True enough, not too long later, a representative from the man’s family did show up to 提亲, informing grandmother that their son had also appeared in their dream with the same request. They were “married” at a 冥婚 prayer that took place at the 成皇庙 (temple) near the then Yan Kit Swimming Pool at Tanjong Pagar, complete with model paper bridegroom and bride, wedding accessories, etc. Our family, therefore, had a 鬼亲家.
New immigrants do not think very much about their future since making ends meet on a day-to-day basis was hard enough. Even for their children’s future, they have not thought about it. Grandmother, however, sent her three sons (志成, 志坚, 满棠) to 通志学校, a study-centre at Smith Street (戏院街) which was next to 东兴茶室to study. Barely after three months, classes were disrupted when the Japanese occupied Singapore in February 1942. Uncle 满堂was the luckiest to be able to resume his studies after the war at 中正中学.
Even with this little bit of education, our uncles were literate enough to look for work to help the family out. 志成 uncle joined the Public Utilities Board at around the age of 17, first working as an apprentice at the St. James Power Station, then the Pasir Panjang Power Station, Jurong Power Station and finally retiring as Supervisor (Workshop) at Senoko Power Station at the age of 63. He received the Pingat Berkebolehan (The Efficiency Medal) presented to him by the late President Benjamin Sheares at the National Day awards ceremony of 1978. He had worked at his truly first job for almost 46 years. Our aunties worked at rubber/latex processing companies.
Grandmother spent many years working at KWSH. Even when war broke out in 1942, she would live with her daughters at KWSH’s dormitory but rented a tiny cubicle for her husband, sons and mother-in-law to live at No. 57 (头房) Sago Lane. The other tenants were made up of barbers, fishmongers, carpenters, food hawkers and even a few 妈姐. It was usual for dwellings in Chinatown those days to have many people living under the same roof (like in the movie七十二家房客 House of 72 tenants) – families in tiny, windowless cubicles (you pay more for a window unit) and bachelors on double-decker beds along the narrow common corridor. Kitchens, wash areas, toilets, etc. were shared amongst all the tenants and that built harmonious living with a lot of tolerance, patience and friendliness. Nobody had time to find fault or create trouble because all their times were used in making a living. The other tenants along and around Sago Lane were coolies (labourers) quarters, an abattoir (at the next lane), opium-smokers’ den and the popular真真好凉茶 “factory”.
Sago Lane had a special name made known by the locals - 死人街 (dead men lane), a lane with all businesses relating to the dead like hospices, funeral parlours, undertakers, joss-paper shops (紙紮舖) which made model paper houses, cars, ships, servants, etc. to be burnt to the dead at rituals so that they would “live” a more comfortable life than before. Every day of the year, there was bound to be a funeral procession in the day and rituals/prayers by Taoist priests in the night. They would be jumping over burning joss-sticks and incense, playing cymbals and all sorts of Chinese musical instruments. These rituals (破地狱) were carried out to guide the dead through a smooth journey to the after-life/hell. Also worth mentioning were the traditional food stalls set up at night serving pure Cantonese peasant food. Green Spot was the most popular 荷兰水 (carbonated soft drinks) then, served at wakes in the funeral parlours.
Everywhere in Chinatown was a playground for children but for the adults, it has to be Banda Hill (山仔顶) where the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre now sits. It could be called the centre of entertainment where people would gather in the evening to cool off the heat, pugilistic clubs practising their skills, play Chinese chess or listen to 李大傻 telling stories. There was even a bomb shelter built for use during the Japanese Occupation.
The hardship to feed so many mouths (10 altogether) must have molded grandmother’s character even stronger. After the war, grandmother left KWSH and worked with hospices/undertakers (郭文 and 同福寿) along Sago Lane as a caregiver, looking after the terminally ill, cleaning, dressing and moving the dead. Grandfather was unable to work due to an injury to one of his eyes suffered at work, thereby doing his part by being a house-husband, taking care of his children and grandchildren with his aged mother, our great-grandmother. Grandmother was more popularly known as 妹姐 in the Chinatown area.
1962 was a dark year for grandmother. She lost her 4th daughter-in-law (barely 30 years of age) on 五月初八, her mother-in-law (at 93 years of age) on 七月初三, and eventually, her husband (at 65 years of age) on 八月二十六.
Grandmother never stopped working even when she was in her 60s, mainly as a caregiver to aged ladies. She lived an independent life, choosing to stay alone in the Chinatown area of Kreta Ayer and Banda Street after all her children moved to Pasir Panjang, Tiong Bahru and Queenstown with their families to live in HDB flats.
The last time we celebrated grandmother’s birthday was when she turned 81. She passed away in 1987 at the age of 87 due to old age. She came to Singapore alone and built 4 generations of our family line – 10 children, numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the youngest of the great-great-grandchild, 梁昊骏 (aged 14 months).
Grandmother never talked about 石龙 or 南埔. We, therefore, know very little about these two places since all contacts were lost. We were told that she was angry that, though she was from a better-off family, she received no financial help and had to leave her hometown for an unknown place to make a life for herself and her family.
We are very glad that she made the decision to take the trip to Singapore and not anywhere else. Otherwise, we would not be proud Singaporeans, celebrating 50 years of independence and having a great man, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as our leader in nation building. We have never looked back, yet making sure that our future generations of the Leong family know our beginnings in Singapore.
Our grandmother’s story will not be forgotten.
Information contributed by: Edited by:
Leong Lai Peng Leong Pui Ching
Leong Lai Chan Leong K.F.
Leong Pui Ching Leong Pui Ying
Leong K.F. Leong Pui Chue/Lillian