Celebrating mum's helpers

Happy Mother's Day dear mum!
As the month of May rolls around, we are honouring our mothers but I’m also celebrating mother’s helpers because in this modern age when most mothers have careers outside the home, the caring of children are often left to the grandparents, baby-sitters or domestic helpers. 

When I was born my mother had a full-time career as a midwife with the Government hospital and as she returned to work after her maternity leave, I was entrusted to the care of Mei Cheh, a mah jie or helper from the traditional Chinese sisterhood of domestic maids.  Years later after my younger brother was born, my mum had to leave her job to care for him because she could not engage a reliable helper. 

Mei Cheh carrying Peggy with my sister
Ruby [Left] and Pearly at the staff
quarters at Jalan Dato Wilson in the
compound of the JB GH compound
In those days, there was no such thing as unpaid leave so when we were older, my mum rejoined the Government service but she lost all her benefits from her previous years of service.  Both my parents were then transferred to the Health Sub-Centre in Masai and the staff quarters assigned to them was a single-storey bungalow next to the Centre.  Mum soon engaged a domestic helper to do a bit of cooking and cleaning and our house was close enough for mum to pop in for a peep at us or check on the helper.  I remember it was so safe that there were no metal grilles on our windows and they were always wide open so whenever we raised our voices for fun or in fights, our parents could probably hear us.

Our first helper, Har Mui, was a young Chinese woman who chose to change her career in rubber tapping to become a domestic helper.  She was in her early twenties and it was the first time she was working in a home rather than in the plantation.  It was also the first time my siblings and I had a helper who was young enough to play with and I remember playing indoor hide-and-seek with her because there were so many hiding places inside our bungalow!

When we had more time at home during the school holidays, Har Mui introduced me to Mandarin pop music from the songs that she listened to from her transistor radio.  At that time, Mandarin was like a foreign language but I soon learnt what wo ai ni means and I remember trying to copy down song lyrics in Romanized English.  She was Hakka and spoke to us in strangely accented Cantonese but we often sang along to the pop songs in Mandarin that became so familiar that I can still recognise the tunes today even if I cannot recall any of the lyrics.

On a visit to Haw Par Villa theme park, Singapore in the 1960s with Har Mui [Right];
Peggy [Second from Left] next to mum [Left]
In return, we had fun teaching her to speak in English and she was like an older sister, taking care of us especially when we went out together as a family.  I remember how much she enjoyed our visit to the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore because she could read Chinese and appreciate the mythological legends that were illustrated by the stone sculptures and scenery.  It was a sad day for us when Har Mui had to leave to get married but we stayed in touch and also visited her after she moved to live with her husband’s family in Sedenak.

A gift for mum on one Mother's Day
It was difficult to replace Har Mui particularly because we had built a bond between us and even though my mother left word with the villagers to introduce a candidate as a domestic helper, it was some time before any one suitable came along.  Meanwhile, our third uncle whose wife just delivered their first baby was seeking a helper and as they needed someone more urgently, my mother found a young Indian woman for them.  She was Saroja, a domestic helper who took care of uncle’s young son and later went on to help our fourth aunt when she delivered her firstborn. 

I cannot forget Sornam, Saroja’s younger sister who was probably inspired by her sister’s success in working with our families and said that she too wanted to be a domestic helper.  So when my mother was approached about giving her a job, we agreed that she could come to us more as a companion because she was just a girl.  The poor girl, however, did not have the same personality and attitude as her sister and it did not take long before she realised that this was not for her and decided to quit.

Saroja [Far Right] at our house on Christmas Day in the
late 1970s with some visiting family members
Someone said that even if we forgot those in between, we would always remember the first and the last.  Domestic helpers were an extra pair of hands to help mum at home because we have always been trained in doing household chores and could manage quite well by ourselves.  However, mum still wanted an adult to keep an eye on us while she was at work and finally a Hokkien woman named Khor Mui Eng came to us.

Since we the children do not speak any Hokkien, it turned out to be something like a chicken-and-duck situation because we just could not communicate.  I was probably just playful and mischievous but I made no effort to cooperate with the poor woman who was also not quite able to follow my mum’s instructions.  Looking back, I believe that my parents had already realised that she was not fitting into our household but was still giving her opportunity after opportunity.

Things came to a head one afternoon as we sat down for our usual afternoon tea when our parents came home from work and she made us a pot of hot tea.  Mum had given her a simple recipe to mix caster sugar into black tea before serving and that day we had a huge shock at the first sip of tea because it tasted salty!  This was easily explained because Khor Mui Eng mistook table salt for caster sugar and she had put salt in our tea instead of sugar!  Happy Mother’s Day!
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 2 May 2014

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