A fierce Cantonese woman – growing up in Singapore in the 60s by Chan Wai Han

“A fierce Cantonese woman” – growing up in Singapore in the 60s
by Chan Wai Han

At the end of my Social Work studies in 1978, my class of 30 undertook to produce a magazine, part of which was a collation of anonymous descriptions for one another. For me, what I remember was the epithet, “A fierce Cantonese woman.” Probably my friends found me especially loud and hearty when I spoke in my dialect outside class discussions.

Truly, Cantonese is my mother tongue, my heart language, as I grew up with my parents and Por-Por (my maternal Grandma) speaking to me in that dialect. My father, Chan Kwok Cheong (陈国璋) was born in 1925 in Sun Tak county, Guangdong province, China (中国广东省顺德县沙滘南村). He had come to Singapore as a stowaway at the age of 13 (according to Mother’s account), landing a job as a general help in an import-export company. Papa had taught me to write to Yeh-Yeh (my paternal Grandpa) in China when I had learnt enough Chinese vocabulary, so I had a special connection with the ancestral village and managed to visit it, first in 1986 and three times in year 2000 to arrange for the rebuilding of the ancestral home for my grandma and aunty.

Chan Wai Han Visiting China with Her Mother-in-Law in 1986

My mother, Lam Suet Peng (林雪冰) and her family came from Ipoh, Malaya, after World War II. Por-Por and Mum were both homemakers, cooking, cleaning, caring for their families and loving their children and grandchildren as only those with maternal instincts could do. Por-Por was literate in Chinese, and she could even use a dictionary to find out the Cantonese pronunciation of words when I consulted her in later years. Apparently her mother was wealthy enough to send her to school in a rickshaw in pre-war Ipoh town.

My Ah Gong (maternal Grandpa) also grew up in Ipoh. At the young age of 18, Ah Gong had to forego the opportunity for further studies in China, with sponsorship by a wealthy man whose son was his very good classmate. Instead, he—an English-educated student from St Michael’s Institution, with a Senior Cambridge certificate—was forced to marry Por-Por, a young woman who spoke nothing but Cantonese and literate purely in Chinese. I was told that Great-grandpa, a pork seller in Ipoh, had set his heart on taking a petite young maid as second wife. But Great-grandma was a very fierce woman (I knew her as she died when I was nine years old). So Great-grandpa took the occasion of his son’s wedding to bring in his second wife, asking her to give a cup tea to the first wife. On that auspicious day, Great grandma had to drink up (a symbol of accepting the second wife) as she simply could not kick up a fuss and lose face in front of all the friends and relatives.

Chan Wai Han’s Ah Gong and Her Son (1985)

So up to my kindergarten years, Cantonese was the only language I was familiar with. When I started first year in the Chinese-language Newton Kindergarten at the age of 5, I found that words I was familiar with in Cantonese could also be pronounced in Mandarin, and written out in Chinese characters. What a joy! Perhaps I had a good ear in differentiating sounds, so when I attended an English kindergarten a year later, it was just as wonderful to learn new sounds and written words for the things I was familiar with.

Home in those years was in one of the newest housing board apartments built at a rapid rate for the burgeoning population. In 1962, my maternal grandparents had moved into Block 44 of Tanglin Halt Road, one of the earliest units completed in the first satellite town called Queenstown. In her prescient way, Por-Por asked Papa to also apply for a flat in that estate so that we could be near one another and extend mutual support. So later that year, we moved into Block 41, unit 169D. These were rental flats, comprising two bedrooms and a living room, with a bathroom-cum-toilet behind a kitchen and wash area. By then, my family had grown to include 4 girls and later, a boy. In 1969, the PAP government found a trump card in securing votes – the almost universal home ownership scheme, whereby citizens could purchase the flats they were living in from the state at a highly subsidized price for a lease of 99 years. The way this scheme morphed over the years into a tightly controlled system of racial dispersal and election gerrymandering would take another long essay to discuss.

In the 1960s, the environment at Tanglin Halt Road was a wonderful place for children to grown up in. We had Malay and Indian neighbours besides Chinese families from various dialect groups. We could run down to the grassy space between blocks to play badminton, catching, cycle, and so on – dressed simply in home-sewn pyjamas. I must add here the degree of trust present among neighbours then. Many of us would leave our doors wide open from morning till night and we children could easily run into one another’s home to play. The next-door neighbours – also Cantonese – comprising a grandma, mother and daughter, were particularly trusting. I was allowed to use their home for quiet study during examination when none of them was at home and the bedroom doors were left unlocked!

My mother was a veritable linguist, and I would hear her conversing with market stallholders and neighbours in Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Malay and English! She had been to school before the war and must have been a very bright child. Alas, the period after World War II ended in 1945 was not conducive for over-aged girls like her especially, to continue their education. Her language skills extended to culinary prowess in the kitchen and our nickname for her is “flying aeroplane hands”, for the speed with which she could whip up a nutritious and tasty meal any time of the day or night!

My older sister, a year ahead of me, and I started primary two and primary one respectively at Tanglin Girls’ School, a neighbourhood school, but one not near enough for us to go to on foot. There was a “pirate taxi” (that is, unlicensed taxi) driver with an old Morris Minor. He was enterprising enough to put a wooden bench on the back seat so that two tiers of students could be sent to and from school! I don’t know why, but we gave this uncle the nickname, “ngau nai jeiu”, which means baby pacifier in Cantonese. This uncle spoke with us in Cantonese though he was a Hokkien, an indication of how pervasive Cantonese was understood by the Chinese, whatever their dialect.

Chan Wai Han’s Por-Por and Her Family (1973)

Often after school was over and homework done, I would run over to Por-Por’s flat just to be with her. It was an oasis of peace for me. Neat and quiet. So it was not surprising that I loved being with Por-Por, chatting with her in Cantonese, learning Chinese idioms and wisdom sayings naturally from her in the course of our conversations. Life lessons were aplenty even as I, as a young child, observed the interaction between my grandparents who were match-made.

Ah Gong would be back for his lunch break and reading his newspapers on a recliner before heading back to Cold Storage as its store manager. Apparently, Ah Gong was entrusted with a big sack of Straits Settlements dollars by the company when World War II broke out and the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942. When the British colonial master returned to Singapore after the Japanese were defeated towards the end of 1945, Ah Gong returned the whole lot of money, with not a dollar missing, earning the gratitude and trust of its management. In the Cold Storage job, Ah Gong’s income must have been fairly substantial as he actually owned a car – a Holden.

Going over to Block 44 became much more frequent when my baby brother was born in 1965. His nanny was Por-Por’s neighbour, two doors away, so my third sister and I would often take every opportunity to go over and cuddle our brother. Granny Seng was also a Cantonese-speaker.

Thus the whole of my growing-up environment made sense to me mainly in this dialect. But soon after, a cabled radio service, run by Rediffusion, was introduced into our home, adding tremendous enjoyment to my young life. This was a commercial service, with a receiver set placed on a table at a corner of the living room. There were two channels, gold and silver, broadcasting from 6am to midnight every day. Cantonese stories told vividly by the inimitable Lee Dai Sor (李大傻) provided staple entertainment before the advent of television. Apparently, in Chinatown, people of various dialects would also tune in to his stories. There were other programmes imported from Hong Kong, with famous radio stars stirring our hearts with romantic tales as well as tearjerkers. Perfect Cantonese could be learnt by people of other dialects from Rediffusion, Cantonese film shows and later Cantonese drama serials from Hong Kong, the bastion of film making in the 1960s and 70s.

Lee Dai Sor’s tales ranged from martial arts epics to historical exploits of scholars, judges, kings and villains, based on more than 5,000 years of Chinese history. He had a perfect way of pausing during his storytelling, or speeding up at exciting moments, besides introducing sound effects to boost the enjoyment of his audience.

My sisters and I had a roster for helping Mum to wash up after meals and sweep the floor. When it was my turn to wash dishes after lunch, the tap would not be turned on too strongly so that the noise of running water would not obscure the voice of Lee Dai Sor coming from the Rediffusion set in the living room. And if it was my turn to sweep the floor, the area in front of the little round table on which the Rediffusion console was placed would be particularly clean. I would linger over that spot as the broom swept to and fro, to and fro, but my mind would be concentrating on the story unfolding from the master storyteller’s lips.

The Chan Family (1975)

Such enjoyable engagement with my mother tongue was heightened by my interaction with Papa. Though he had little formal education, Papa certainly was a keen learner, devouring magazines, books and every page of the Chinese daily, Nanyang Siang Pau, even bringing dismembered sections into the toilet. (As an aside, considering that the toilet was attached to the bath area, the moment one person was inside, the next person who needed to answer the call of nature urgently would bang on the aluminium door most unceremoniously; my parents purchased a sturdy metal spittoon and placed it outside the toilet as a temporary solution. We lived in these circumstances until I was 16 before we moved to a bigger apartment with two toilets, a real luxury!)

In my teens, I learnt that Cantonese has 9 tones (while Mandarin only has 5), easily more than one whole octave found in any musical instrument. And the Tang poems tend to rhyme lyrically, as a single sound can often be used to mean many different things, written with different characters. From age 7, Papa had taught me to memorise some of the famous Tang Dynasty poems in Cantonese. These were written in the classical style, with a fixed format of either 4 or 8 lines in each poem, and each line consisting of either 5 or 7 characters. Thus, the shortest poem would have 20 characters, while the longest would have 56. For me, learning Chinese as a subject in school and memorising passages by rote (and reciting them in Mandarin) was no chore at all. Though educated in an English-medium school, my best friend (from age 8) and I would often top Chinese tests.

I loved spending time with Papa. He was smart enough to rise to the position of a clerk in the import-export company, and later joined a garment manufacturer as a manager. Later he went into the import-export business himself with some friends and began to entertain and be entertained more often, and later into the night. When Papa came home, I would be the night owl still awake to pour him a cup of tea. He would often pull out a sheet of paper from his pocket and start to read and explain the poem he himself had written for his friend or friends. Often he would use the person’s name to write an acrostic poem with a blessing word, and with the content describing the person and the occasion of their meeting. The rhythmic recitation of Papa’s poems implanted them into me, such that today, I could still recite many of his poems.

Papa suffered a major heart attack at the age of 42. He was warded at the Bowyer Block of Singapore General Hospital. The block is now turned into a museum. I was only 11, and I remember visiting Papa with a tiffin of porridge, feeling very important to be entrusted with carrying the hot pot to him. Papa survived that bout of health scare, stopped his smoking habit and went for morning walks at the Botanic Gardens. A memorable poem arose from that time:


Papa described his joy of taking morning walks at the Gardens in bright sunshine with his friends, bumping into groups of other early risers; and as they strolled along the footpaths, they would be exchanging views and sharing stories, with little care for the heroes of the past or the present.

Somehow, I was the only one of his five children to have inherited this love of writing Chinese poems, though of course, my efforts are far feebler when compared to the breadth of Papa’s understanding of Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it has always been a good entry point for me when meeting new friends to leave a little memorable gift with them. I am now 63, and in the last few years especially, I had managed to make some elderly people happy by writing such poems for them (see photo below: a poem for my friend’s mother).

Besides listening to stories, I was also greatly influenced by Mum and Por-Por in learning to love Cantonese opera. What with the loud gongs and long-drawn arias of opera actors, my younger siblings were not as enamoured with this art form as my older sister and I. Eldest sister or “Ka-chay” (家姐)—the honouring way we were taught to greet our eldest sister—and I are only a year or so apart. In our Tanglin Halt home, two sets of double-decker beds filled one room for us four girls. Ka-chay would drape a blanket over the top railing to make a curtain for the stage. Then the two of us would use bath towels and drape them over our arms, using clothes pegs to secure one end around the neck. She would often take on the role of emperor or empress while I was the willing slave or maid. Ka-chay somehow had memorized the lines sung by a princess in a long-running opera and I would tag along in our little show for the younger sisters!

Now many years later, I have revived my opera singing, learning new lyrics for old tunes to sing Christian gospel songs to entertain the elderly. 

To me, this is a most meaningful and satisfying outlet for volunteerism, as I had come from a Social Work studies background.

Here is a Cantonese gospel opera I sung for some friends. Tune: The Flower Princess:

Truly, life works in curious ways. Though my heart was set on becoming a social worker, my father’s sudden passing in 1977 at the relatively young age of 52, when I was in the midst of my final year of university studies, changed my focus completely. My three younger siblings were still in school while Ka-chay had just started work as an accountant in Papa’s firm. I felt it imperative to continue one more year in university to complete an Honours course in Sociology (University of Singapore’s Social Work Department then did not offer an Honours programme) in order to garner a better-paying job to help Mum with the family’s finances. And it was while I was completing my Honours studies that my lecturer pointed me to a potential job with a publishing group.

Guess what? I actually did join this publishing group. And one of its subsidiaries wanted to do a series of books on the culture heroes of Singapore. The first in this series was to be Lee Dai Sor. Just imagine my joy when I was given the opportunity to interview this master storyteller, hearing his life events and finally seeing the book in print. In fact, when I was married in 1983 to my Social Work classmate, the guest speaker was none other than Lee Dai Sor. It was so memorable, not just for me, but for many of my teachers and friends who were also his fans. My Social Work Head of Department then was Mrs Ann Wee, an English bride who made Singapore her home. She also came for the wedding dinner and she could understand and speak Cantonese. When I met her again years later, she would still allude to the fact that Lee Dai Sor spoke at my wedding!

Mr Lee Dai Sor at Fong Hoe Fang and Chan Wai Han’s wedding
Mr Lee Dai Sor sharing jokes at the wedding

Unfortunately the voice of Lee Dai Sor was silenced over the airwaves when Singapore launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign with a vengeance in 1982. All forms of dialect programming, be they even news programmes in Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka or Hainanese, were pulled off radio and television, and even commercial cinemas! My view is that this sanitization of the language environment did a huge irreparable disservice to the people of Singapore. Generations of young people lost their intimacy with their grandparents and elders who could not adapt to the monolingual Mandarin dictate. My children are also victims of that ruthless language policy, ostensibly to help unify the Chinese population that spoke many different dialects. But my own analysis is that the policy arose out of a mistaken understanding of how little children learn languages, besides more sinister political purposes in destroying the Chinese language environment and its culture. It is not a win-lose situation if a child has to cope with different languages. Especially when the written Chinese script is universal and can be read in any of the numerous Chinese dialects, knowledge of dialects in fact helps in the learning of written Chinese and spoken Mandarin. More important, dialects facilitate communication between the generations and preserve interest and practices in Chinese culture.

From my Cantonese-only Por-Por, Mum and Papa, who would be considered uneducated because of their lack of paper qualifications, I had learnt the richness of Chinese culture, mores and moral code of conduct. Por-Por had, without fail, prostrated in front of the family altar and kow-towed 100 times for each grandchild undergoing a major examination. I would never forget the scene. Cantonese stories told over Rediffusion and later in films and on television imprinted in me tales of justice and righteousness, honour and service, which lay the groundwork for my eventual choice to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Today, I would forever identify myself first and foremost as a Christian, then as a wife, a mother of two, and a grandmother of four. And last but not least, as a daughter of the Chan family, who shaped her into a proud Cantonese woman.

Fong Hoe Fang and Chan Wai Han on their 35th Anniversary

FONG Hoe Fang and CHAN Wai Han both have printing ink on their hands since school days. Two years apart in age, they met in the Social Work Department of the University of Singapore on Bukit Timah campus in 1975 after Fong completed his national service. Neither went into direct social work practice after graduation, but they had never left their first love for looking at their society, warts and all. And still trying to make a difference through their publishing efforts.

One thought on “A fierce Cantonese woman – growing up in Singapore in the 60s by Chan Wai Han”

  1. Great childhood story. Now understand where your Cantonese poems ability came from

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