Celebrating Women

Grandma with some of her grandchildren in the garden of
154 Jalan Ngee Heng [Peggy is 4th from Right]

Grandma, my wonder woman

In the course of my work, I’m very privileged to meet a number of exceptional women and as I admire them for their career or academic and social achievements, it never ceases to amaze me that these wonder women managed to pursue it while juggling another life as a daughter or daughter-in-law, sister, wife and mother. 

On March 8 International Women’s Day has been celebrated worldwide and our country has also organized events to show our love, respect and appreciation for women and their many achievements.  As outstanding women and their achievements are being celebrated throughout the month of March, there are still thousands of heroines among us – unknown and unsung – who also deserve recognition. 

Grandma the homemaker, with wet towel on head, doing
chores at 154 Jalan Ngee Heng in 1960's
I recently saw a film, “I don’t know how she does it,” based on a novel about a successful finance executive with two young children portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker and even as I laughed along with the comedy, I also empathized with her situation.  

Like her, career women with multi-faceted lives have honed their management skills into a fine art as they juggle their multiple roles daily at home and at work.  With the help of supportive husbands, members of the extended family and hired helpers, these versatile women are able to run their family lives like well-oiled machinery. 

Grandma in her wedding finery with two bridesmaids

It is easy to admire strong women in politics, science, education and social work but homemakers also deserve praise and recognition for their multi-tasking skills. 

Looking back to the days of our mothers and grandmothers when the only career option they had was raising a family, they too did an admirable job as the backbone of the family and bringing up large families usually on a single income. 

My grandma, Mak Cheng Hai, was the eldest daughter in her family and she stretched Ah Kong or grandfather’s salary to help her widowed mother and siblings while she cared for her own growing family through the challenges and struggles of World War Two. 

Uncle Billy [Left] and Aunty Sylvia,
Johor State Mixed Doubles champions 1967,
receiving trophy from Tunku Shahariah
Grandma had an uncanny memory and was a fountain of information not only about the family but also on the way of life in Johor Baru. 

She told me at that time when only boys deserved to go to school, she was among the few girls who had the privilege of an education and also learnt English and played badminton.  It was common to marry young so grandma was about 18 when was married and from an old photo, I saw that instead of wearing the traditional kwa or qipao for her wedding, grandma chose to wear a Western-style wedding gown! 

She had eleven children by normal birth and one son was born during World War Two.  Many families had their share of horrendous experiences of hiding in the jungle to evade capture by marauding soldiers but grandma had the added stress of nursing her newborn, making sure the baby’s cries did not attract unwelcome attention.  It was a nerve-racking life-and-death situation because if they were discovered, every life was at risk.

RTM filming grandma [seated] with mum, Amanda,
Uncle Billy and Aunty Sylvia [Left to Right] looking on
After the war, the family lived near Jalan Quek Keng Kang, within the Wong Ah Fook kampong and later shifted into Government quarters, first at Bukit Chagar and then at Jalan Waterworks or Jalan Sungai Chat, opposite English College. 

Ah Kong, who was working with the Malaysian Public Works Department and later with the Land Office of Johor Bahru, was transferred to Muar and when the family moved there, they grew their own vegetables to eat and for grandma to make kueh for sale to supplement their income.  Grandma was only a homemaker but she certainly had a head for economics and took up the challenge to be a part-time property broker to earn extra income. 

To commemorate grandma's 90th birthday in 2002,
we presented materials to a special school
to start a resouce centre for them

When Ah Kong was transferred back to Johor Baru, the family moved into No.154 Jalan Ngee Heng and grandma managed the household in a regimental routine and in the fashion of large families, older sibling helped to look after the younger ones and took on a share of household chores.  But grandma coordinated everyone and assigned tasks all around to keep the home spick and span.  In those days when washing machines were still unheard of, she would hand-wash huge basins of clothes and I remember the many t-shirts as the family was big in sports and playing badminton was their daily exercise.

In our school-going years, my sisters and I lived with them and we had our share of daily chores and I remember being responsible for folding mountains of crispy, sun-dried clothes that grandma collected neatly from the lines and taught us the technique to fold for a look-like-ironed effect.  Grandma was the chief cook and had a weekly market visit to buy fresh food to keep the family nourished with delicious, well-balanced meals, always with slow-boiled soups in the Cantonese tradition.  These are just a few of the myriad of experiences with grandma and they are now treasured memories because after a long and eventful life, she will be celebrating her 100th birthday this May. 

Grandma, as she looked in 2006
In 2002, we had a grand family celebration for her 90th birthday and a separate party with special children where materials were presented to start a resource centre in their school.  I can still recall the excitement in our house in 2007 when a crew from RTM came to film grandma for a segment in a documentary on retired sports personalities.  It was beautiful to see her children, former national badminton stars Dato Billy Ng and Sylvia Ng, acknowledging their mother for her role in their successful career in sports.

As we celebrate exceptional women this March, we don’t have to look far because we have our own wonder woman in the family.  Grandma may be frail in mind and body now but she still deserves top honours for her contribution to the family as sister, aunt, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.  She may not be able to appreciate very much now so we give back by loving her, being there for her and making her comfortable in the twilight of her life.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 22 March 2012


  1. NancyMak3/22/2012

    Dear Reporter Peggy, enjoyed every bit of this article (and others too) and as i read, my imagination went along with your words recalling the days at NgeeHeng and how my Khoo Ma (and not Kumar) runs the double storey bungalow house with precision like tick-tock clock-work. She most certainly deserves to be super-wonder-woman. 3 Cheers for my Khoo Ma!!

  2. Anonymous3/23/2012

    Sylvia Ng ... now that is a name from the past ! Good badminton player and one of my heros.

  3. An inspired bit of writing about an Inspiring Woman!! For your female readers, the message is clear - if you aspire to a long life....do more housework and toughen up!!

  4. Beautifully written and what a grand topic to write on as well. Loving the nostalgic b/w pictures too. Keep up the good work!