Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Happy 101st, Aunt M.Y. ~ Your stories live on in cyberspace!

Aunt M.Y with my mother Moon Loy in Johore Bahru, 1982.

Sometimes it takes a while to register that somebody you dearly love is no longer around - at least not physically.

My Aunt M.Y. - better known to her friends and fellow Wesleyans as Grace Lee - was born Dai Moong Yang on 18 October 1916. She spent her final years at the Lentor Residence nursing home in Singapore, gradually succumbing to senescence, and died sometime in February 2009 a few months after her 92nd birthday.

Those are but the barest facts of her life. What does it mean when you see the figures "1916 ~ 2009" engraved on a commemorative plaque in some airconditioned columbarium? Nothing much, really. Every human existence is essentially a multi-layered jigsaw of memory fragments stored in a multitude of contemporary minds. It takes a storyteller to assemble and reconstitute each life that has come and gone. To me that is what resurrection means. Each of us is a story unfolding in time and space and when we no longer inhabit our physical forms, all that remains are anecdotes.

I have only a tiny fragment of M.Y.'s story. I'm sure there are a couple of faded sepia photos of Aunt M.Y. tucked away somewhere in the appalling clutter of my study, salvaged from silverfish-eaten photo albums that survived a series of floods and stuffed in a manila envelope or two, but I have yet to locate them.

Fortunately, M.Y. was a compulsive storyteller and took pains to record a bunch of anecdotes typewritten on double-spaced foolscap sheets. She handed me a collection of her stories sometime in 1991 and asked if I could edit them for publication. I spent weeks hunched over a manual typewriter retyping her manuscripts, tweaking her syntax here and there for ease of reading - and, occasionally, adding a few literary effects to make her enchanting stories more vivid. I suggested she commission my then 19-year-old daughter Belle to come up with a few cartoons to spice up her stories.

She liked the cosmetic changes I had included and subsequently passed the material to her granddaughter, also named Grace, who owned a word processor and knew about preparing text for publication. Finally, in 1995, a thousand copies of a slim, self-published volume titled In Those Days... were printed and distributed to her friends, colleagues and relatives.

On one of my last visits to Aunt M.Y. in her Singapore nursing home, I was pleased to hear that a new edition of In Those Days... was in the works. M.Y. had just celebrated her 90th birthday and I thought it would be wonderful for a spruced-up version of her one and only book to appear as a celebration of her seemingly ordinary - yet in many ways extraordinary - life. I offered to proofread and help with the book design, as I had plenty of time on my hands and had since acquired some facility with computers.

However, as with so many good intentions, nothing transpired in the end. With my aunt's passing in early 2009, only a tiny handful knew of her humble collection of short stories. Family members are funny that way. I remember asking my own mother, M.Y.'s middle sister, whether she had finished reading In Those Days... and what she thought of it. "Oh, you know your Aunt M.Y. She loves telling tall stories!" That was all I could get out of mum.

Years later I realized how fortunate I was to have at least one storyteller in the family. Nobody else seemed interested in recording the everyday occurrences of their lives or of their ancestors - though my mother religiously kept a diary for many years. But after she died in July 1995 and I finally had access to her diaries (she had agreed to bequeath them to me after I pestered her), what I found in them read like a series of Facebook status updates: "Bad cold since Monday. Took some Aspirins but that didn't help much." Mundane stuff like that, apart from a few more intense entries whenever there was a bit of domestic drama. Truth be told, I still haven't read all my dear mother's diaries (there were at least half-a-dozen leather-bound volumes). She wasn't a natural-born storyteller like her big sister M.Y., who had a gift for narrating juicy sagas with genteel discretion.

When my affable and jocular Uncle Kong Beng (affectionately known as K.B.) died unexpectedly of a heart attack, leaving his beloved M.Y. an attractive widow in her late 40s or early 50s, a few tongues began to wag, just because she began spending a lot of time in the company of Uncle Ho - who had been best man at their wedding. In 1970 I got a job in an ad agency and moved in with Aunt M.Y. She kindly let me sleep in a curtained-off portion of her kitchen and often cooked wholesome meals for me.

Uncle Ho would drop by almost every day and that's how I got to know and like the man. He had worked and lived in Singapore for years and had raised a family there. Now he was estranged from his wife and found M.Y.'s company far more appealing. In turn M.Y. found Ho mentally stimulating because he was a well-read man who enjoyed discussing politics, philosophy and literature with her. I thought they were a perfect match for each other and was delighted when Aunt M.Y. bought a house in Bangsar and invited Ho to move in with her.

I often visited M.Y. in her cozy Bangsar home. She invariably insisted that I have something to eat and would busy herself in the tiny kitchen preparing a good old-fashioned meal while I tinkled on her antique upright or discussed current affairs with Uncle Ho. He struck me as essentially a pragmatist, torn between socialist ideals and a conviction borne from bitter experience that a great divide would forever exist between theory and practice because of the damnable recalcitrance of "human nature."

On one of these visits I learned from M.Y. that not everyone "approved" of her cohabiting with Ho, who was still legally married to his Singaporean wife. I didn't wish to poke my nose into other people's affairs, so I never asked Ho why he didn't obtain a formal divorce - and in any case it has never once occurred to me that couples who opt to share space must first apply for a licence from any government or seek approval from some priest.

Ever since I found out about these artificial constraints imposed on human behavior I have felt nothing but contempt for those who actually believe God personally laid down those rigid rules and regulations. As a kid I had come to my own conclusion that if a God truly existed, he or she or it would most certainly be completely free of the mental shackles of society's Caucasian chalk circle taboos.

Aunt M.Y. had been a dedicated Methodist all her life. Indeed, she told me her grandfather had been among the pioneer Foochows who migrated to Sarawak at the turn of the 20th century and established the first Methodist church in Sibu. Yet she never once presented herself as a prude, and always showed a profound empathy for human frailty. To me, if one insisted on professing Christianity, the ultimate exemplar would be my Aunt M.Y., who was well-known as Mrs Grace Lee to all Wesleyans in Kuala Lumpur because of her vigorous efforts in community service. Indeed, she was perfectly comfortable sharing her modest home and her widowed life with her old buddy Ho, a lifelong atheist and pragmatist.

My Aunt M.Y. and I were, in many ways, kindred spirits, despite our generational differences. She told me about her adventures in the astral realms, revealing how she often found herself floating out of her body and moving around with utmost freedom and facility. For months after her husband K.B. died, M.Y. would encounter him in the astral. He apparently missed her greatly and she him. The last time she visited her departed husband in the astral zone, she saw him happily remarried. He was now a simple farmer, working his fields in an idyllic valley, where life flowed in harmony with natural rhythms. She was finally able to put closure to their previous life together.

Quite often she was asked to clear stagnant ectoplasm and poltergeists from haunted houses. She described how she would get goose pimples upon entering certain areas and that would indicate the presence of discarnate entities or lost souls. Often she would be accompanied by a clairvoyant friend or two and they would simply acknowledge the cobwebs of psychic distress and pray for the release of the unhappy souls. The simple fact that she entrusted the ritual cleansing to Jesus and the Archangels made her unquestionably a disciple of the Christ.

Before she moved to Bangsar, M.Y. underwent surgery for a thyroid disorder. She reported to me, a wee bit regretfully, that she no longer astral projected after her thyroidectomy. Instead, she caught the physical travel bug and relished her speaking tours of the United States, representing Southeast Asian women at Methodist World Conferences. Back home, she devoted a great deal of time to serving in various church committees and providing free counseling to all and sundry.

Many a time when I visited M.Y., she would be dispensing sage advice and spiritual succor to distraught young women or friends undergoing domestic crises. She also began to upgrade her mastery of Mandarin and try her hand at writing articles and short stories.

In Those Days... has yet to be resurrected in print - and I can understand why, because publishing books involves not only money but an enormous expenditure of time and effort. Besides, very few publishers are prepared to invest in unknown quantities like a humble collection of personal stories written by a rank amateur, especially if there is absolutely no sensational content to be found - just a frank and sympathetic documentation of memorable episodes in a fairly ordinary human life.

After giving the matter considerable thought, I was convinced that if my Aunt M.Y. had been introduced to digital technology while her faculties were still acute, she would inevitably have become an ardent blogger or at least a ubiquitous commentator on a variety of social-political forums. Indeed, I would go so far as to visualize M.Y. getting her first whiff of tear gas at the Bersih 2.0 rally for clean and fair elections on 9 July 2011.

So I created a blog on her behalf, called... In Those Days... and when better to go public with it than on what would have been her 95th solar orbit? I have had to retype every single page, beginning from the end, so that when I finally complete this labor of love, the blog will be an online version of her first and only book. I've only managed five chapters to date, but will shoot for at least one more after I upload this post.

To any member of the family who may be displeased with the liberty I have taken by making M.Y.'s stories accessible online, I humbly apologize for disagreeing with the notion that it's best to "keep it in the family." I sincerely feel that my Aunt M.Y.'s stories have a charm all their own and provide an invaluable record of what life was like if one happened to be the granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant in British Malaya, born just after the First World War. I feel a deep enough spiritual connection with my Aunt M.Y. to assert that nothing would please her more than for her modest contribution to literature to be preserved and shared with the world at large - the world she has left and which she so unconditionally loved.

Last photo taken with my Aunt M.Y. in Singapore @  February 2008

The fact that my Aunt M.Y.'s stories will now be floating around in cyberspace may indeed catalyze a hard-copy reprint of her limited first edition - and I think that would be the most appropriate way to celebrate her 100th birthday!


[First posted 18 October 2013]