One of the reasons I moved in to live with Father was the real possibility to follow him and the family to Singapore after high school graduation. Yes, Singapore! And there, maybe Seventh Uncle would look on me mercifully and generously and deem me worthy of his investment. After all, Seventh Uncle and his wife had no children to shower their affection and surplus pocket change on. It wasn’t relevant to me that Seventh Uncle’s cash came from prostitution and gambling in Singapore. It mattered that he should care for a deserving relative, like me. I was banking on a hunch. Why not? I was absolutely charming, diligent, ambitious, pliable, and willing to do anything to please my uncle.
Years ago, Brother went up to Cameron Highlands (Malaya) and worked with Seventh Uncle on his farm to escape the tentacles of the Japanese. There were many beautiful young girls dressed as dirty-looking boys to escape being raped by sex-hungry Japanese soldiers. Many young men were conscripted or simply disappeared without a trace. Seventh Uncle had since abandoned the tomatoes, the tea leaves, and the asparagus, left the farm, and enjoyed cultivating his taste for young prostitutes and fervid gamblers. And why not? It was less labor intensive for both Uncle and the prostitutes and the gamblers. Easy money, I heard. Precarious? Maybe.
I didn’t think Seventh Uncle would say no to me, especially if I tried real hard to please him.
I didn’t think about what I would do if Seventh Uncle did say no to me. I was naïve, abysmally so.
I didn’t think life could be difficult because others from the village had gone to Singapore and prospered. At least they tried. Of course, many were Chinese-educated and Singapore could use people with Chinese education. Though a cosmopolitan city, Singapore was predominantly Chinese, with immigrants from mainland China now dominating the economic landscape of both Malaya and Singapore.
A friend’s father, a teacher of Chinese, spoke to me over a bowl of hot noodles before I left for Singapore. “Most Chinese only receive Chinese education,” he said carefully, like a hen laying its first egg, “therefore they couldn’t find jobs in the public sector, which requires English language. So they turn to business and petty trades, some rear pigs and chickens.”
Was this a warning or instigation to take my English education seriously?
“Many, through hard work,” he went on, “save money and buy properties and plant rubber trees. Those who manage to pass high school opt to become Chinese school teachers. Salaries are lower than the English school teachers, so many turn to farming. The English educated come mostly from well-to-do families. They go overseas for further studies and become professionals. Many work for the government. They lead a better life and feel superior to those who are Chinese educated.”
“Thank you, thank you,” I thanked him for his honesty and fatherly concern.
I counted myself superior because I was English educated. At the moment, I wasn’t sure about furthering my education overseas—Australia or England or other countries within the British Empire. Since Singapore is an island, it can be considered overseas from the Malay Peninsula where I lived. The island is linked to the peninsula by a causeway, like two conjoint twins.
I didn’t think I would be left out in the cold because First Uncle’s children and other cousins and distant relatives found gainful employment in Singapore. One operated an opium den and worked with prostitutes. Some kind of pimp. Others were in the hotel business. One worked for the Chinese YMCA. Others were involved in life insurance, gambling, teaching, nursing, law enforcement, and banking, et cetera.
All I had was a British certificate (from Cambridge University, mind you) indicating I had finished high school and with that I was on my way, with Father and the mistress and the children, to Singapore.
I did possess something else, invisible but valuable: I was armed with innocent but abundant optimism. That should keep me afloat, temporarily.