Phoa Family


My Mother
The Brood
The Wooing

The Patriarch

My maternal grandfather, who we refer to as Kong-Kong 公公, is the third son of an immigrant from China.  He was born on September 1924 in Malacca.  Three months earlier, the Johor-Singapore Causeway was opened by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Laurence Guillemard, and Sultan Ibrahim of Johor. Kong-Kong has four brothers and two sisters, of which there is a set of twins. The oldest brother is a set of twin boys.  The older of the twin boys passed away from iodine poisoning when he was barely a toddler.

My grandfather was considered the one with the most potential of achieving more and succeeding in life amongst the siblings.  He is educated and well-spoken, and has excellent penmanship. However, he is also an inflexible, cantankerous, strong-willed and ironic individual.  My grandmother, Popo, once commented that Kong-Kong is so argumentative that he can’t even befriend the devil.  Adding to that, he got into the habit of gambling.

My great grandfather left his wife in China for Malaya when there was great economic turmoil taking place in China.  He landed in Tangkak, Johor where his uncle was.  His uncle was a well-to-do landowner and possessed strips of fertile land.  Being “single” in Malaya, my great grandfather’s uncle brought a Siamese woman from Thailand in to wed them both.  Great grandfather married this Siamese woman who came from a rich family.  It is through this Siamese lady that “our side” of the Phoa family of Malaysia is born. This is why majority of the Phoa children, and generations later, are petite and dark-skinned. This Siamese lady is said to be a force to reckon with. She is very feisty and ferocious. When my great grandfather brought his first wife from China over, my great grandmother was rumored to have used a broom to “sweep” her away. On occasions, after a quarrel with my great grandfather, she would set his goatee on fire when he was asleep.

My great grandfather was a virtuous and diligent rubber estate and land owner in Tangkak, which was 48 km (an hour) away from Malacca (in those days, roads were not as straightforward.  The distance could have been farther). After his uncle passed away in China from tuberculosis, the 30 acres of land was passed down to him.  Although his uncle had a son, the lands were willed off to my great grandfather, as the son and wife were still in China.  A few years later, my great grandfather turned this 30 acres into 200 acres of prized land in Tangkak.  Everyone knew who the Phoas were.  Later, the deceased uncle’s son and wife returned to Malaya to claim their land. In time, said uncle’s son had a daughter, who coincidentally share the exact same name as my mother.

Great grandfather, being an honest, righteous and generous man, gave half of his 200 acres (not the original 30 acres) back to the family.  He even went so far as to permit them to choose the better of the lands, which they did.

In the early 40s, great grandfather commuted to & fro the two locations by sharing a taxi with a fellow rubber estate and land owner. Coincidentally, this fellow businessman had a marriageable daughter.  So through these taxi-rides, both fathers started matchmaking their children.  Furthermore, this was during the Japanese occupation and having an unmarried daughter was unsafe.

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In 1944, my Kong-Kong and Popo were officially married. In the olden times, only the rich arranged marriages to ensure that their money stayed within the family.

After the wedding, Popo moved in with her in-laws, to a huge house with a courtyard. Being the new daughter-in-law, she had to tend to everyone’s needs including her new brother- and sister-in-laws, their wives, her nieces and nephews.  My great grandmother was a smoker.  She would cough phlegm and tar-like substance into a handkerchief and make my grandmother cleanup after her.

1973 Phoa children

1973 Phoa children

Their first-born, who we call Peh Leh, was a boy, in 1945.  Their second child was my mother, borne premature, in 1947.  Popo just wasn’t able to care for her. So, my mother was sent to her maternal grandparents, the Lims, for specialized and individual care.

Another baby girl was born soon after my mom, but never made it.  She lived for only 4 months and was buried in China where Popo went. Then came my second uncle Kuleh Jee 二舅 in 1950. By the time my second aunt, Jee Mai 二姨, came around in 1952, Popo had more than 7 toddlers to look after (including her own three).  It was a blessing for Popo that Jee Mai was such a good baby. She was constantly sleeping, and when she woke up, she would quietly play by herself until she fell back into slumber again.  No one quite noticed her and she was hardly fed, a good reason for her small stature. After all why wake a sleeping baby just for food?

My third uncle, Kuleh Tah, came in 1953, fourth uncle, Kuleh Ti, 1954, a set of twins were born in 1955 – fifth uncle, Kuleh Ngok, and his twin sister who passed away from diarrhea. Malaya won its independence from the British colonial rule on August 31, 1957. My third aunt, Ta Mai, was born in 1959 and finally a youngest uncle in 1960 who we lovingly call Uncle Tak.  When he was younger he was bald and his older siblings would poke fun of him by calling him botak (baldy).  Botak was shorten to just “Tak”.  The Phoas are infamous for twins.

The Phoas

1973 the Phoa family

Chinese people are very superstitious. One of the superstitions concerns twins. It is said that if one twin dies, the other is sure to follow as they are bound together by a strong spiritual force. My fifth uncle, who had a twin sister who passed away as a baby, lived only to a tender age of 19. After a hard day at work in the Club House, he had left for late night supper. On his way back to the Club House, where he and Peh Leh slept at night, he got into a fatal motorcycle accident. Just days before, he had asked my mom to let him see my elder sister, who was born only a few months earlier. My mother refused, saying that my sister was too young and vulnerable to be out in the general public. My mom rues this unfulfilled request till this day. The youngest of the siblings, Uncle Tak and Ta Mai claimed that they heard him weeping at the funeral parlor where his body was laid in wake. My Jee Mai heard him sobbing tearfully and Peh Leh heard Kuleh Ngok calling out to him at the funeral home.

Kong-kong was a salesman with Sime Darby, selling British goods which included chocolates. He would always bring home close-to-date Cadbury chocolates and candies like Murray Mint, for the children. That’s how my Jee Mai made friends, by sharing these chocolates with her schoolmates.  But then Kong-kong was laid-off in the early 1950s.

Through family connections, he landed the contract to run the government-owned Club House in Bukit Baru. There, he managed the Club House, cleaned it and ran the concession stand (canteen) with his boys – my Peh Leh and Kuleh Ngok.  Much of his adult life, he worked closely with the English, and because of that, never thought too highly of them.  In fact, when Jee Mai married her German pen-pal from Canada he wasn’t too happy about it.

When the contract for the Club House ran out, Kong-Kong started working for his oldest brother, together with his youngest brother, my fifth grand uncle.

As the third son of this Phoa family, my grandfather never quite got his share of the pie. Even if he did, he squandered it away gambling.  Thus, my mother and her siblings were never quite poor but neither were they “rich.”  They lived in a two story kampungattap-house and reared chickens.  They were all educated and had three square meals a day.

Jee Mai was the first child in the Phoa family to go to kindergarten (but everyone was sent to school). Kuleh Ngok was the second. Kong-Kong had a good friend, whose son needed to be accompanied to school.  Thanks to little Richard, Jee Mai not only had an early start in education, but she made many friends.

Education was extremely important in the Phoa family.  My Kong-Kong made sure that every child of his was properly schooled.  He was a strict parent. However, he was never home.  He would be gone for days on end right after paydays, leaving the family to fend for themselves. Instead, their maternal grandfather had to care for them.  He ran a grocery store / cold storage, which catered to the needs of the British army and Johor royalty, in Muar. He traveled often to the bigger port, Malacca, to pick up stock and to check on his daughter and grand-children’s well-being.  He always left them with enough food for the week and money to cover expenses.  Unfortunately, Peh Leh would keep this money for his own gambling habit.

The cheapest protein then, which stored well, was salted fish, and the children had lots of that everyday until they were sick of it (at least Jee Mai was.  My mother and Ta Mai has no qualms about eating that).

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Popo was born with the “third eye.”  She was able to see spirits and ghosts. In her younger days in China, she was assigned to take the family ox/cow out to pasture at dawn.  At 5 years old, she would pull this beast out, passing through woodlands where all the spirits would harass her by throwing things at her.  She once was passing through this same forest, and happen to look up a tree.  She saw a pair of man’s legs swinging from the tree branch without a head.

In 1961, they moved into a haunted house.  Popo had forewarned Kong-Kong not to go. But as a Christian, he didn’t believe in “spirits of the other world” and therefore insisted on moving the family into the abode. Unc. Tak was only a year old and so he slept with Popo in her room. The three older girls shared a room together; my mom was 14 years old, Jee Mai was 11 and Ta Mai was only 2. They moved out in one week.

On the first night, she saw “things,” but didn’t mention it because she didn’t want to scare the children.  At first, the spirits were just mischievous.  Even though there was electricity then, people would burn oil-lamps for a dimmer light to sleep in the nights.  Of course, these lamps were very dangerous as they were highly flammable. The spirits would play with the kerosene lamp that Popo left on the table by putting it beneath the bed.

The house’s bathroom door was made out of wood planks. This door had gaps where the wood planks didn’t quite meet. However, when the door was closed in this bathroom, no light penetrated the door. The occupant of the bathroom would be left in total darkness. One such occupant, Jee Mai, thought that with each subsequent use, the door became harder and harder to open.

The family had a little black dog then. Every night, that poor animal would cry and howl knowing what was around it. It got thinner and thinner by the day.

After much convincing, Kong-Kong agreed to hire a tangchi 童乩 (a medium). The medium was scheduled to arrive the next morning to exorcise the spirits. That night, chaos happened.  Mischief turned into sheer rage. Chairs went flying. Popo went into a trance. She sat cross-legged and started shaking like a necromancer. She spoke in Hainanese, but what came out didn’t sound anything like her at all.  She warned sternly, “Move out now! Move out before ‘they’ take one of you!!”

One of the children was sent to the neighbor for help.  This neighbor had a whole packet of joss stick burning away and told one of the younger boys to urinate into a cup. He was then instructed to make my grandmother drink it. This poor messenger was promptly scolded by Popo, “What do you think you’re giving me to drink?!”

Kong-Kong finally relented and agreed to move out. However, he reasoned with Popo that it was way passed 12 am. It would be better to move out the next day. This infuriated her even more. She pointed to the doors in the room and angrily said, “Can’t you see? They are all there!”

That night, the entire family piled into the family’s little Fiat and relocated to their first uncle’s house (Kong-Kong’s eldest brother).  As there wasn’t any more room in the tiny car, the two older boys rode their bicycles instead.

According to Popo, every night since the day that they moved into the haunted house, the spirits would bother her.  On the night that they moved out, a black figure was putting pressure on her chest, trying to suffocate and hamper her movements (and maybe even trying to possess her).  Popo then called on Pho Tow or Tian Hou – a goddess of Hainan Island, who cares for the fisherman of the island.  She called upon this goddess and went into a trance soon after.  What happened after that, she cannot remember.

Popo was a wonderful mother, and father, to her children. She was also the most loving and giving grandmother.

My grandmother, a mentally and physically strong, patient and caring woman, passed away from breast cancer in 1984 after the disease relapsed a second time. She loved all her children, son- and daughter-in-laws and grandchildren dearly.  At her passing, her family was with her in Malacca.  All five sons, three daughters, three daughter-in-laws, a son-in-law, and eight grandchildren were gathered around her to honor and cherish this incredible being.

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My Mother

Tranquearah, Malacca to Tangkak, Johor

Tranquerah, Malacca to Tangkak, Johor

My mom is the oldest of the girls, second of 10 children.  In those days, it is rare that a Chinese family would give their children English names.  It is even more unusual when that name isn’t followed by a Chinese name.  Since Kong-Kong wasn’t around (probably out gambling) for my mom’s birth, my fourth granduncle, Ti Kong, named my mother.  She was named after the mother of Christ.

She was borne a premature baby in 1947, thus was sent off to her maternal grandparent’s home in Muar.

My mom tells me that she didn’t quite like her Siamese grandmother.  It seems that this little fireball didn’t take a liking to her third son’s wife – my Popo – because Kong-Kong loved Popo more.  She cast a nasty Siamese voodoo on her son, which is even MORE potent than the “usual” voodoo.  This “caused” my grandfather to beat my grandmother all the time.  On one of her visits home, my mother (who was still living with her maternal grandparents), stood up to him and said, “Don’t you dare beat my mother!”  Unheard of for a girl.  Unheard of at the time.

As a child, your role is to be filial and respectful of your elders, regardless if they are right or wrong. What my mom did was not only out of line, but extremely ill-mannered.  But, she did that because she truly loved her mother, and she knew that what her father did was very wrong.

Her maternal grandmother suspected that her son-in-law was being “charmed” so she sent my mom as an errand girl to bring an assortment of “medications” from different “gods.”  Nothing worked, until her maternal grandmother was introduced to this god – Wang Li Kong – from another temple.  She was instructed to bring an amulet back for my grandfather. My mother traveled to and from Malacca and Muar by herself to ship this “cure.”  She was only 6 or 7 years old at that time. The “curse” was finally broken with this amulet from this new temple. She didn’t official “return” to her parent’s care until a year later.

My mother showed her defiance once again when it came to school choice.  Kong-kong wanted mommy to get an English education. My mother thought otherwise, and registered herself into a Chinese school. It took another few more years, before my mother finally got into an English high school.

My Lim great grandfather not only cared for my mom, but he gave her whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted it.  She grew up not eating even a string of vegetable, because her grandfather said that it was ok.  The irony of this is when we were growing up, we were forced to eat a TON of vegetables, be it bitter, sweet, fibrous or just plain gross.

1961 Mommy's dance recital

1961 Mommy’s dance recital (farthest right)

My mother was quite the crafty person and loved the limelight.  As a young girl, she would perform in dances for her school. She was also a prima donna of her time.  My mother picked up crocheting and knitting just by looking at patterns and later, some of her works were even exhibited in her school.

Her love for her maternal grandfather was so great that when my mother started working, her first paycheck went to him.  Of course, her grandfather refused this – knowing that she was living on a tin of cream crackers.  Till this day, my mom has the habit of scrimping and saving, even though there really isn’t a reason to.

1965 Mommy with her classmates (farthest right)

1965 Mommy with her classmates (farthest right)

My mother led a very protected life.  The fact that she was a girl made matters worse for her.  Even when she was a senior in secondary school and was invited to a girlfriend’s party, her little sister – Jee Mai had to tag along – as chaperon.  Beats me what the kid was supposed to do IF there really was a need for a “chaperon.”

Even though my mother never quite grew up with her siblings, she is extremely protective of them.  As the eldest sister, my mother would always look out for the younger ones.  Before cycling off to school in the mornings, she would ensure that her younger siblings were safe on the other side of the road for school. Whenever possible, if someone was in need, she would give as much as she could – be it in physical aid or in monetary ways.  As children growing up, we would get a set of new clothes every Chinese New Year.  My cousins too got a new set every year, just like us, from my mother.

Unfortunately for me, my mother never quite spent quality time with us and never told us stories.  That’s why the stories aren’t quite cohesive.  But what she gave to us, was more than stories.  She made sure that we had home-cooked meals everyday throughout our 18 years at home. Eating out was actually a treat for us.  She is an exceptionally devoted mother to us.  Her days started at 4 in the morning, waking up before the crack of dawn to wash our clothes, and to prepare our breakfast and lunch before we headed to school at 7 am.  When we got back from school, lunch was already there, waiting for us. After work, at 4:15 pm, she would be back in the kitchen preparing our dinner.  She calls it a day at 8:30 pm.  Sometimes, on a rare occasion, I would get a chance to talk to her, before I did my homework and before she went to bed.  There was no stopping even on the weekends.  There was marketing for the following week to be done, cleaning and sweeping, gardening and the occasional outing. For 18 years and more, she gave her life to us.  She may have led a pampered life when she was younger, but with us, it was grueling.  I may not have stories of her past, but I have stories and memories of her present.


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The Brood

Oldest brother is an odd-job worker living in Kuala Lumpur.  His wife passed in 2002.

Second sister is a retired chemist and a teacher who lives in Canada.  The Ludwig family has two girls. Her husband passed away from lung cancer in 1992.

Second brother is in a forwarding business who lives in Klang.  He has a son and a daughter.

Third brother is also in a forwarding business who lives in Klang.  He has a daughter and a son.

Fourth brother is a welder for a shipyard living in Johor.  He has a son and a daughter.

Youngest sister is a nurse who lives in Canada.

Youngest brother is an engineer by training, but banker by trade. He lives in Canada.  He has two sons.

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The Wooing

My father met my mother in March of 1971.  He was looking up a friend who happened to work in her office.  The introduction was of pure coincidence, but the courtship was no fluke.

” “Your papa, that China man, I never liked him when I first saw him. He had such a typical China man’s dressing, the old fashioned type of white shirt.” (what did I say about my mom being really fashion conscious?!).

So we got married and had the 3 “devils” ” (this is her extent of what “story-telling” is)

1972 My Mother

1972 My Mother

Their offices were right next to each other in Petaling Jaya.  Everyday, they would meet each other for lunch and then walk back, hand-in-hand, to work.

They were married in September 1973.  My father had a dowry to pay my Kong-Kong.  Kong-Kong wanted X-number of cakes at his door step.  Not only that, he made sure X-number of tables were set aside for his friends and family (of which, Kong-Kong kept the red packets for those tables). It is customary for the groom’s family or mother of the groom to “chip-in” or be the “middle person” for talks between the groom and the bride’s family.  Unfortunately for my father, he did most of the “talking” for himself. Kong-Kong never thought my father was good enough to marry his daughter, as he came from such poor standings.  He ensured that my father had to jump through enough hoops before he permitted my mom to be married.

1980 in Malacca

1980 in Malacca

Credit: Thank you Jee Mai for helping with the story.  My mom gave 1/3 of a skeleton.

The Children

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