Pek-Lin Chiew Wong
Born 14th of May, 1930 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I was born on the 14th of May in Kuala Lumpur, Southeast Asia. During that time, the country had a mixture of all sorts of people. A lot of people came from the borders of mainland China. This is because they were very poor and needed to find somewhere where they could make good. There were many Chinese who emigrated from China to Southeast Asia and found a more comfortable life there.
Because my grandmother came from a mixed cultural background, I was given a Malay name. So I didn't have a Chinese name. I was not considered Chinese. My Malay name was my grandfather's surname, which was Chiew - a Chinese name from Beijing. That's my surname. The surname always comes first. Then my other two names are Malay. Nya Chit. Nya means girl and Chit is ‘a little girl’ in Malay. So on my birth certificate, my name is Chiew Nya Chit. I lived with that right through my schooling. My Cambridge School certificate is under Chiew Nya Chit.
My father produced seven children. I'm number one. And then he had six after me. Four boys and then two girls. Being the first child, I was born in a hospital. My other six siblings were born at home. Actually, one of my brothers was born in a pee pot. My mother couldn't reach the bathroom fast enough.
So after me, I have four brothers and two sisters.
The funny thing is, I've got this Malay name, but the boys have got proper Chinese names. Because they're boys, they're going to carry on the name. My brother, Chiew Thimah Yew was born after me. Chiew, that’s the surname. Thiam is to ‘add on’ in Chinese and is the family name. All the boys receive the name Thiam. Yew means ‘is coming.’ Then came Chiew Thiam Choy. Choy means ‘wealth’ in Chinese. My brother Chiew Thiam Seng was born next. My youngest brother Chiew Thiam Loy was born after that. So the idea is that number two, he will be great and child number three, he’s going to have property, a lot of money. Names are given with expectations that the family hope the child will grow to live up to. After Thiam Loy came Thiam Seng. Loy means ‘come on’ in Chinese. Just come on! My parents didn’t have any more children until after the war ended. I was eighteen years old by this time. My next youngest sibling to be born was a sister - Chiew Pekwan. Wan means ‘a group.’ Now, you will find that the girls have Pek in their names. My youngest sister, Chiew Pekchaun followed after that.
My earliest memory is of my brother, Thiam Yew taking my toy doll off me. The doll was given to me by some rich woman. I loved that doll very much. And because I loved the doll, he took it and beat her head against the window upstairs and I cried.
My grandmother on my father’s side, married three times. The first man he married produced my father. She went on to have more children after my father. She was probably born in Malaysia. She had several, I wouldn’t call them marriages, but serious relationships, and had children with each partner. This was the way in Malaysia at the time. There wasn’t the expectation that one would marry a partner in order to start a family. As relationships ended and began.
I remember when I was a child, suddenly I had an uncle appearing and that uncle was from another man and he found my father. They looked for one another and suddenly I got a new uncle. I don't know who took him on, but he went to school, learned the English language and became a school headmaster.
As a child, everyone knew my name as being Chiew Nya Chit. Then my father, I always give him the credit. He was a very smart and far-sighted man. He said, "One of these days, China's going to come out, and all of you will have to learn Chinese." So we went to an English medium school in the morning and then in the afternoon, we went to a Chinese school. We did this every day. And then went to this Chinese school. My mother took us to be registered and that headmaster says, "No. She's not Chinese. She's got no Chinese name. "Chew Nya Chit. That's not Chinese. She's not coming in." So my mother had to go to a temple and she has a friend who's an abas. A very well educated Chinese abas.
So yes my father was a bright chap, but he doesn’t really show. He became the chief clerk of a firm of English lawyers. At that time, most Malay people were intimidated by white people and saw them as big bosses. My father held the key to the office and held a senior position there so he wasn’t about skin colour. When I was growing up with my brothers, our school was just up on top of the hill to my father's office. So when we finished school each day, we would walk down the hill, go to his office and wait for him to finish work. Then I would be sitting in front of his bicycle or at the back of his bicycle. He would be bicycling two of us, me and my brother - two. Looking back on it, it was a very hard time but when we were living it, it seemed ok. Somehow nobody complained.
My mother wasn't a very sensible woman either. She had a little bit of money, and would show off to people who wanted to borrow money from her. Then she cultivated a very bad habit of gambling as well. This had a negative impact on our financial state.
When I was a child I would get up early, at 5 am, every morning. My mother always believed that the moment you get up, have a bath, a cold bath so that you become alert. Then I’d join my mother in the kitchen, pounding chilly to help her make laksa. After that, we’d sell it on the street. That’s how we managed to survive.
My mother was adopted. She also had a very sad story. She came from China. She was an only child and her parents brought her to settle in another part of Malaysia. Not in Kuala Lumpur, but in the Northern part - in Taiping. And then what happened was, it seems there were only three of them. They were robbed and then all their possessions were taken away and according to my mother, her parents said, "We better go back to China. This is not the place for us to live." But they had nothing. They had no money to go back to China and the only thing, possession they had was the girl, my mother.
They sold her to a rich family. The surname of this family was Chong. My grandparents then had money they needed to go back to China. What happened to them? Nobody knows. That was the end of my mother's history. So she was sold to this new family who didn't have a girl.
I don't think her adoptive parents could have been very loving towards her because when she was a teenager, they forced her to marry a rich old man.
But my mother was a very bold woman. It seems she escaped. She jumped from the window of the house she shared with this man and she escaped. And then, I think she rented a room somewhere, I don't know where. And that's where she met my father, who also was renting a room somewhere there. So that’s how they met and eventually they were married. They're two of a kind, my parents.
They stayed together. My father never went to look for another woman. But she developed bad habits, gambling. She would go tell, "I gamble, I win money. I bring money home." It was a lie, of course. How can you be all the time winning money?
My paternal grandfather was from China. For most of my life, I knew very little about him. I thought to myself, "Now, where do I start to find out more about my ancestors?"
In 1980, when my husband went to China for his sabbatical, I followed. I stayed there for three months. That's when I went to look for my ancestors. And you wouldn't believe it. China was so advanced even then. I went to where my grandfather was born. There was a register where all the Chinese in that area had and have their names recorded at birth and at death. The names are all there.
I spoke with someone from my husband's university that was given the role of looking after visiting lecturers. I said to him, "You take me to where this place where I was supposed to come from or rather my grandfather was supposed to come from."
When I visited the place where he came from, I met the locals who explained to me that there were three main streams. Now, these three streams, if your grandfather came from this stream, he would have emigrated to America. If he came from that stream, he would have emigrated to Europe. There's this third stream. He would have emigrated to Southeast Asia. I found that my grandfather was from that stream that had emigrated to Southeast Asia. That's where I found his name in his tombstone. On his gravestone, it has his full Chinese name, where he came from. Everything about him.
As a boy, my Grandfather had moved to Kuala Lumpur. I think he found that in Kuala Lumpur the people were different. They're not like the Chinese. Why? Because the Chinese who emigrated into Southeast Asia married local women and those local women were not Chinese because they intermarry, you see.
They mixed with other people who already emigrated before them. Some have made good, others haven't, but the women were not shy. The women from China, once they have already emigrated, they're bold and then they marry once, twice, three times. The first man my grandmother married produced my father. My grandmother, I thought, "My goodness." Even my own time, I would find it a little bit bold, but she, my grandmother, married three times.
In the old days in Malaysia, it didn’t matter. All right? You know, I've had two children with you. You're not supporting me well enough. I'm not getting on well enough with you, I'll go away. I'll find another man.
I remember when I was a child, suddenly I had an uncle appearing and that uncle was from another man and he was the headmaster of a school in Singapore, and he found my father. Somehow they look for one another and suddenly I got a new uncle. My father was so proud of him because he... I don't know who took him on, but he went to school and learned the English language. He then went on to become the headmaster of a school.
When I was five years old I started my schooling at an all girls Catholic school by the name of the Convent Of The Holy Infant Jesus. And I think I went to that school because my father managed to get a grant for me to study there. Later on, my brothers attended St John’s which was a boys’ catholic school down the road. I wasn’t a very good student. This is because I never really took exams well. So I would attend this ‘English medium’ school during the day and in the afternoons I would go to Chinese school, to learn the language. When I was a child I went by the name of Chiew Peklin. The teachers at the Chinese school discriminated against me because of my name. They’d say, “Shu Peklin. She doesn’t even have a Chinese name.” Peklin:
My mother took us to be registered and that headmaster says, "No. She's not Chinese. She's got no Chinese name." Me. "Chieu Nya Chit that's not Chinese. She's not coming in." So mother had to go to a temple and she has a friend who's an abas. Very well educated Chinese abas. Abas means head of the temple. So she ran this temple, and people would go and pray and give her donations. It was a common thing for unwanted children to be left at the temple. She would then look after these kids.
So the thing is this, the abas gave me a Chinese name - Chiew Peklin. She gave me this name because it points back to an old story of a woman who was very well educated. So my name has even got a history behind it.
The Nuns at the Convent school were horrible. If you were rich they were very good to you. If you weren’t rich, you were considered a nobody. Every week the Reverend Mother would sit on a chair, and there was a bowl in front of her. Everybody walked past and put money in the bowl. And she could see who was or wasn’t putting in. And she was judging.
I used to get in trouble a lot at school. Because of my loud, high pitch voice, I did stand out in a class. When a teacher would come into a noisy classroom, the teacher would locate the source of the loudest student - me. I’d get blamed all the time because my voice is loud and I like talking.
When I was in my teens there was one nun who saw the potential in me. She saw it when nobody did. And she thought that my English was clear. She thought I could be good at acting because when we did drama, she placed me as Jane Eyre. I got the starring role. And when she put up this play, everybody was shocked. I was Jane Eyre. I was shocked, myself. First I was shocked that I was selected to do the main role. And then when I did it, I was shocked that I didn't have any problem. I didn’t know I had it in me. Those who saw it thought that I was a good Jane Eyre.
I had some wonderful friends at the Convent school. To this day I’m still friends with some of them. One of my closest friends, Ah Fat, is a woman I became friends with at the convent, after the Japanese left, all those years ago. We were in the same class. She lives in Perth now. We talk often.
The Japanese arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1940, when I was ten years old. One of the courses of action was to shut down all schools. So I had to stop going to school. My parents organised for me to work with the Abbas in the Chinese temple. I went there instead, secretly learning classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is like the old literature. It's very high class. Only the ruling class were using the classical Chinese.
After the war, schools were reopened and returned to the convent to finish my schooling. Back then the options for a girl were very limited. The only possibilities I could see were Typing, Shorthand or Teaching. That's all.
So after I got my Cambridge School Certificate, I studied typing and Pittman’s style shorthand. Then I got a typing job. I wasn’t earning enough money to help my family and so I applied for a teaching job in a village outside of Kuala Lumpur. Nobody wanted to work outside of Kuala Lumpur due to fear of the communists and the possibility of being brainwashed. I wasn’t worried about that. So I taught English in a Chinese school.
Then there was a boy who worked in the police department and I think he was a bit sweet on me. One day he rode his motorcycle to see me and said, "Hey, there's a job going in the police department and if you work for the police, you're paid very much more than anywhere else."
He said, "You know both Chinese and English, you apply. You will get it." I applied, not because I think I would get it. I applied because the money was very good. It was twice as much as what I was earning from doing both teaching and typing at the same time.
I went for the job and it turned out to be a position working for the secret service. I was successful in getting the job. While working there I met a woman by the name of Joy Magill. She was the secretary of the director of intelligence in Malaysia. Later on Joy went back to London but insisted on taking me with her so that I could further my studies and career. This was in about 1953 so I was twenty-three at this point. I studied hard and got A Levels in English.
After that Joy Magill put me through a one year secretarial course at Cripplegate Secretarial College. I was so busy but it didn’t bother me. Joy gave me a collection of Charles Dickens novels and made me read the whole bloody lot.
At this point I wanted to do a degree in Chinese studies. It was a prerequisite to learn yet another language. Joy got me a private tutor to help me to learn French. I got my GCE A Level in French in six months.
Years later while living in Australia, I applied to Macquarie University to do a Bachelor of Japanese Studies. I had struggled for a long time with resentment, due to war time experiences. I went to the Macquarie University, I had to see the Head of Department. I said, “Look, I really want to do this degree. The reason is because I want to purge myself of the hatred I have for the Japanese.” She was a Japanese woman. Her name was Susie Wong.
In 1940, during the Second World War the Japanese occupied Malaysia. They were very ruthless. They stayed there until 1945. Every crossroad you passed, whether you're riding a bicycle, most of us were riding a bicycle, we had to get off the bicycle and we had to push our bicycle past a sentry, who is a Japanese chap. We had to bow our head as slow as we can, because he represents the Emperor. My father was slapped many times by these sentries because he's a short little man. He couldn’t bow low enough, and so he was beaten. That's one thing. Or what you should see is when you go in the crossroad in Kuala Lumpur, you see the heads of people you know, hanging there for everybody to see. They were ruthless. I was in my teens at this point. I was forced to go and work for them. I don't know why they wanted steel wires to be rolled up. And they would say, ”You sing a Japanese song.” I didn’t know any Japanese songs. And so if I didn't sing it well, I’d get slapped by them.
The Japanese seized houses they wanted and more seriously than that, they took women whenever they pleased. Because they didn’t bring Japanese women with them to Malaysia, the soldiers would go to houses and look for ‘Kun Yung’ (women). One day the Japanese came to our place. I was twelve years old at the time. In those days the bathrooms had big tanks of water because we couldn’t waste water. My mother and I hid in our water tank. We kept our heads under the water, not breathing so that there were no bubbles. Luckily they didn’t find us. I was too young to be terrified. My mother must have been. All my mother did was push my head down so that I didn’t resurface to breathe. This remained a big fear for me but in my case, at that time, I was small and didn’t look my age. I looked younger. Quite a number of my friends weren’t so lucky.
Many years later when I was living in Australia I did a degree in Japanese Studies. I went out to Macquarie University and met with a Japanese woman who was the head of admissions. Her name was Susie Wong. She married a Chinese man. I told her the reason that I wanted to do the degree was to purge my system of the hatred I’d been holding onto for the Japanese since the war. She said, “Yes, I give it to you.”
I said, “Don't give it to me if there's no place because it's not fair.”
I did the degree. I studied part-time over several years. The course looked at Japanese history, language and literature. Doing the degree was very helpful and helped me in the way that I hoped it would. One of my best friends who lives in Osaka, communicates with me. Not in Japanese. But no more hatred of the Japanese. Because I blamed them for all the problems I had.
The Secret Service
After I finished school and had completed some study to learn typing and shorthand I secured a typing job. This didn’t pay very well and so I started teaching English at a Chinese school in a village outside of Kuala Lumpur.
I knew a boy who worked in the police department. I think he was a bit sweet on me. He told me about a job going in the police department. He felt that with Chinese and English language skills, I’d have a good chance of getting the position. The money was very good, paying almost twice as much as what I was earning for both the jobs I was currently doing.
When I was interviewed, I wasn't even interviewed in an office. I was interviewed out in the open with two tall white men and two communist Chinese men. At the start of the interview it became apparent that this wasn’t for a job within the police force - this was for a position with the secret service. The white men spoke to me in English and the Chinese men spoke to me in Chinese to see whether I was up to scratch or not.
For a long time I couldn’t talk about the work I did there. In fact, I tried to wipe it out of my mind. Even now I don’t even want to talk about it. It was quite confronting. It involved staying in the prison. I heard and saw awful things.
While I was there, I met a woman who was to become a very important and influential person in my life. Her name was Joy Magill. She was an English woman who worked as the secretary of the Director of Intelligence in Malaysia. Joy often needed me to translate and speak Chinese. It was through doing this for her that I rose.
Joy’s husband was a major in the military. When he finished his assignment in Malaysia, he and Joy had to return to England. Joy came to me and said, "I'm not leaving you behind. You're coming back with me."
During my time working for the Secret Service, Joy and I had become good friends. She just took on a liking to me. I think it's because I'm straightforward. You see, when I talk, I don't hold back. I don't have all this, what do you call it? Looking up to the whites or looking down. Everybody is equal. I was raised this way. And I think she appreciated that. So Joy was always very encouraging and eager to help me further my education. She bought me this whole set of Charles Dickens Novels and she said, "I want you to read through." And all my vocabulary came from there. When Joy’s husband’s assignment in the military came to an end, they prepared to return to England. Joy came to me and she said, "I'm not leaving you behind. You're coming back home with me." And that's where I got my break.
I was worried about my family as I was helping support them with my income. At the time I had a very rich boyfriend. He said, “I will look after you and look after them.” Knowing then that my family would be able to manage without me there I happily agreed to go. My boyfriend couldn't leave me alone, but he provided me with lots of money for the entire time I was in London and I was able to help my family out. In fact, he bought a house for my family in Malaysia to live in. This man was my first serious boyfriend, although I didn’t care for him all that much. At this stage in my life I didn’t know what love was, in that way. I was very grateful to him for supporting my family and I. In doing this I think he thought that he was securing a future together with me. I didn’t feel the same way and so we never married.
When I arrived in London, the first place I stayed at and lived in was at a YWCA. I shared a room with this Irish girl, her name is Beatrice. I called her "B". We were on the fourth floor. And there was a swimming pool at the bottom. And I have always been a cheeky person. I've never changed, poor or rich. We were playing around one day and I’m not sure exactly what I said but I teased her. She took great offense at what I said. The windows were wide open. She said, "You say it again, I'll pull your arm and throw you out that window." So I thought to myself, "This is losing face. How can I not say it?" And then I was saying to myself, "No, she can pull me, she can pick me up and throw me down." So we were sitting opposite each other. "Say it again. You're going to get it," she told me. I said it again. She was coming up to pick me up, to throw. So I had to think. I actually gave myself full marks. Before she could reach me, I jumped onto her and tickled her. Then I said, "Say sorry. I won't stop tickling you until you say sorry."
Sometimes I think of this because to me at that time I surprised myself. I realised that under pressure and in the face of what was going to be a serious confrontation I could come up with something to diffuse the situation. I could think very quickly when I needed to.
Anyway, B and I became good friends. She was an Irish national swimmer, training for the Olympics. We stayed friends for a long time. She even took me to Dublin to meet her family. We were very close.
Later on, I got a very good job, given by the Malaysian government. I asked B to come and stay with me at my new flat in Maida Vale. It was quite a good area. While I was living in London, I got to know this group of doctors. Some of them were married. Even though they were all a bit older than I was, we got along quite well. They seemed to appreciate my straightforwardness. It was through my doctor friends that I was introduced to quite a number of what you may call upper-class people. The class system in England means that its people can be very very discriminating. But I never really let that bother me or influence who I became friends with. So in the case of my doctor friends, I didn’t feel inferior to them, because you see, Joy had taken me on. Wherever she went for weekends, she’d take me with her. So I met some very interesting people.
My job with the Malaysian government involved placing students into good universities in London. And when the office couldn't succeed, they would say "You go. You'll be able to put him or her." And I invariably could.The thing is this, I think my own estimate of myself is I'm small, and I talk loud, and I'm not bad looking, and when I go meet these people, I'm not worried about them. I talk to them as equals and as a friend. I don't know how I cultivated that confidence.
And so I never really failed. I would go to Cambridge, I would go to Oxford, and I would persuade the person in charge of admissions to take on students. I’d say, "This is a good candidate. If I were you, I'd ask her or him to come over for an interview and see whether you think he's good enough for the course or not." I gave them ideas.
Then I earned an English Degree For some reason, in order to do the degree who had to gain your ‘A Levels’ in English. So I did that too. I think language is in my system. I am grateful for that. I studied the greats, reading Chaucer and Charles Shelley, among others.
While I was doing this, Joy put me through secretarial college. The college was called Cripplegate Secretarial College and I studied there for a year.
I decided then that I wanted to do a degree in Chinese Studies. I discovered that in order to do this I needed to pick up another language. I chose French. Then Joy said, look, I'm getting you a private teacher to teach you. In six months I got my GCSE level in French.