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Chinese

No one said a word as Niang carried her weeping and kicking child to place her firmly on the couch next to her. Little Sister was pushing blindly against her mother’s neck and face, now red and contorted with frustration. ‘Keep still!’ Niang screamed futilely, again and again, in a piercing voice. In the mêlée, the string holding her pearls broke and the precious gems tumbled one by one, rolling across the carpet, onto the wooden floor.
This proved simply too much for Niang. Thoroughly exasperated, she gave a stinging slap across her baby’s face. Little Sister only cried louder. Deliberately and viciously, Niang now set about beating her daughter in earnest. Her blows landed indiscriminately on Little Sister’s ears, cheeks, neck and head. Everyone cowered as the punishment went on and on. The grown‐ups avoided looking at each other while we children shrank into our seats.
I couldn’t understand why Father, Ye Ye and Aunt Baba were making no attempt to stop the assault. Why wasn’t anyone objecting? I wanted to run away but dared not move. I knew I should remain silent but words choked me and I felt compelled to spit them out. Finally I could bear it no longer. Quaking with terror, I blurted out, ‘Don’t beat her any more. She is only a baby!’
My protest seemed to halt Niang in the midst of her frenzy. Little Sister’s screams also simmered down to a whimper. Niang glared at me. Her large, prominent eyes appeared to be popping out of their orbits with fury. ‘How dare you!’ she hissed. For a few seconds, I was fearful she was going to pounce on me instead. Across the room, Aunt Baba gave me a warning look and a slight shake of her head to say no more.
In those few moments, we had understood everything. Not only about Niang, but also about all the grown‐ups. Now that Nai Nai was dead, there was no doubt who was in charge.
Fuming with rage, Niang slowly extended her right arm and pointed her index finger at me. I felt panic‐stricken and saw only my stepmother’s long, red, polished and perfectly manicured fingernail aimed straight at me. Then I heard her words, loaded with malice, which made my heart jump and the hair stand up on the back of my neck. ‘Get out!’ she snarled in a cold, distinctive voice. ‘I shall never forgive you! Never! Never! Never! You’d better watch out from now on! You will pay for your arrogance!’
Chapter Eight
Tram Fare
Though Father sent us to expensive missionary schools, he and Niang instituted an austerity programme to teach us the ‘value of money’. To begin with, we were given no pocket‐money whatsoever, not even the tram fare. We had nothing to wear except our school uniforms. Big Sister and I were ordered to keep our hair‐cuts short, straight and old‐fashioned. For my three brothers, it was much worse. Their heads were shaved bald in the style of Buddhist monks, and they were teased mercilessly by their peers.
My school was one and a half miles from home and situated immediately adjacent to Big Sister’s. The number 8 tram ran directly from door to door. St John’s Academy was three miles away and could be reached by the same number 8 tram travelling in the opposite direction.
When Ye Ye first arrived in Shanghai, we begged him for money and he gave us our tram fare to go to school. Two months later, Ye Ye had spent all his money and he brought up the subject one evening. Dinner was almost over and everyone was eating fruit when Aunt Baba mentioned that she had decided to go back to work as a bank teller at Grand Aunt’s bank. (Grand Aunt was the highly successful younger sister of Ye Ye. Many years before, she had founded the Women’s Bank of Shanghai and had become fabulously rich.) This was probably Aunt Baba’s way of reminding Father that she and Ye Ye had run out of money for their daily needs. We were all holding our breath on their behalf.
Father and Niang looked annoyed. ‘You don’t need to work like a commoner,’ Father said. ‘You have everything you need here. Besides, Ye Ye enjoys your companionship at home. If either of you need money, why don’t you come to us and ask? I’ve told you both before that if I’m busy or in the office, all you have to do is speak to Jeanne (Niang) here and she’ll give it to you.’
How is this possible? I asked myself. Where is Ye Ye’s own money? Is he no longer head of our family? Why is he suddenly and mysteriously dependent on Father and Niang for pocket‐money? It made me cringe to think of my gentle and dignified grandfather begging for pocket‐money from my haughty stepmother.
‘You are both so generous and employ so many servants that I find little I can do to help,’ Aunt Baba replied politely. ‘The children are away all day at school. Going out to work every day will get me out of the house and give me something to do.’
Father now appealed to Ye Ye. ‘What do you think? Won’t you miss her?’
‘Let her work if that’s what she enjoys,’ Ye Ye answered. ‘She likes to spend her salary on playing mah‐jong and buying treats for the children. By the way, I meant to mention this to you before. The children should be given a regular weekly allowance.’
‘What for?’ Father asked, turning to us. ‘Hasn’t everything been provided for you?’
‘Well, for one thing,’ replied Big Sister, speaking on behalf of all of us, ‘we need the tram fare daily to go to school.’
‘Tram fare?’ Niang interjected sharply. ‘Who told you you could ride the tram? Why can’t you walk? Exercise is good for you.’
‘It’s so far to walk to St John’s. By the time we get there, it’ll be time to turn around and go home again,’ Big Brother said.
‘Nonsense!’ Father exclaimed. ‘Walking is good for growing children like you.’
‘I loathe walking!’ Big Brother grumbled. ‘Especially first thing in the morning.’
‘How dare you contradict your father!’ Niang threatened. ‘If he orders you to walk to school, then it’s your duty to obey him. Do you hear?’
We were cowed into silence and looked towards Ye Ye, expecting him to come to our defence; but he kept his eyes on his plate and went on peeling his apple. Big Sister suddenly took the plunge. ‘Ye Ye has always given us pocket‐money. We’re used to going to school by tram. Nobody in my class walks to school. Most of my classmates are driven there in private cars.’
Niang became enraged. ‘Your father works so hard to support everyone under this roof,’ she exclaimed in a loud, angry voice, shooting a quick glance at Ye Ye and Aunt Baba. ‘How sneaky you all are to get money from Ye Ye without your father’s knowledge! We send you to expensive schools so you’ll grow up correctly. We certainly don’t want you to be coddled into becoming idle layabouts. From now on, all of you are forbidden to go behind our backs to trouble Ye Ye or Aunt Baba for money. Do you hear?’
Though her remarks were addressed to us, they were obviously meant for Ye Ye and Aunt Baba as well. She paused briefly and then continued, ‘We’re not saying you’re never to ride the tram again. We merely want you to acknowledge your errors in the past. Admit you’ve been wrong. Promise you’ll change for the better. Come to us and apologise. Tell us from now on you will behave differently. We’ll only give you the tram fare if you’re truly contrite.’
The room was completely still. The only sound I heard was that of Ye Ye chomping on his apple. Surely he was going to say something to put Niang in her place! The maids hustled around with hot moist towels for us to wipe our fingers and mouths. Then Niang spoke again in a sugary tone, looking directly at Ye Ye with a smile, ‘These tangerines are so juicy and sweet. Here, do have one! Let me peel it for you.’
At first, we were all mad! The whole tram‐fare issue was obviously tied up somehow with the establishment of a new hierarchy within our family. Now that Nai Nai was dead, was Niang going to take over? We told each other we would always be loyal to Ye Ye. If necessary, we intended to walk to school forever (or at least until graduation) to show our allegiance to him.
Ten days later, I spotted Big Sister getting off the tram at the stop closest to our lane. Though she ignored me and I dared not say anything to her, she had obviously given in.
My three brothers held out week after week. St John’s was so far fro
m home! The weather turned cold and nasty. They were getting up in the dark and returning home exhausted. One after another, they gradually knuckled under.
Though Ye Ye and Aunt Baba both kept urging me to go downstairs and beg for my tram fare, I just couldn’t do it. Why? I hardly knew myself. Something to do with loyalty, fair play, and a sense of obligation. I did not discuss this with anyone, not even my Aunt Baba. I simply couldn’t force myself to go to Niang and admit that I (and therefore my Ye Ye) had erred in the past. Besides, it just didn’t seem right to betray him, especially when I had begged for the money from him in the first place.
When the rains pelted down in sheets, and gales howled through the streets, I would grit my teeth as I set about the seemingly endless journey along Avenue Joffre. Arriving drenched at the school gates, I tried not to look at my schoolmates stepping daintily out of rickshaws, pedicabs, and chauffeur‐driven cars. I knew some of them laughed at me behind my back and whispered to each other that I took my own Number 11 Private Tram to school daily, meaning that my legs carried me.
On Sunday afternoons, Niang frequently called out for my siblings to come downstairs to her bedroom (which Third Brother had nicknamed the ‘Holy of Holies’) and pick up their tram fares. Hearing this, I’d feel a stab of anguish because I was the only one always excluded. Big Sister sometimes came back upstairs to show off by laying her coins in a row on my bed and counting them aloud in front of me, one by one.
Chapter Nine
Chinese New Year
We had been looking forward to Chinese New Year for weeks. Not only was it a holiday for all the school children in China, but for all the grown‐ups as well. Even Father was taking off three whole days from work to celebrate. For the first time since our departure from Tianjin, a tailor had come to our house to measure everyone for new outfits. In China, new clothes were worn on New Year’s Day to signal a new beginning.
On New Year’s Eve, Father and Niang summoned us down to the Holy of Holies and gave us our new clothes. My three brothers were terribly disappointed to find three identical, loose‐fitting Chinese long gowns made of dark‐blue wool, with traditional mandarin collars and cloth buttons. Big Sister was handed a padded silk Chinese qipao. I got a basic brown smock made of material left over from one of Big Sister’s garments. Fourth Brother, however, received a stylish Western outfit with a Peter Pan collar and matching tie and belt, while Little Sister acquired a fashionable pink knitted dress bedecked with ribbons and bows.
We five stepchildren trooped back upstairs in disgust. My brothers threw their robes on their beds contemptuously. They had been looking forward to Western‐style suits, shirts and ties. Nowadays, this was what their trend‐setting schoolmates were wearing at St John’s.
‘Trash!’ Big Brother declared, tossing his new garment in the air and kicking it. ‘Who wants junk like this? You’d think we’re still living in the Qing Dynasty! As if it’s not bad enough to be called the “three Buddhist monks”! If they see us dressed in these outdated antique clothes, we might as well forget about going to school altogether!’
‘The other day,’ Third Brother complained bitterly, ‘my desk partner asked me when I was going to start growing a pigtail and shave my brow. “Maybe you’re planning to be the new Emperor Pu Yi and live in the Forbidden Palace!” he told me.’
‘What gets me,’ Big Sister said, ‘is the blatant inequality between her children and us. I wouldn’t mind if all seven of us were treated the same way. If they really believed in traditional clothes, then all seven children should be wearing them, not just the five of us.’
‘Aside from the clothes,’ Second Brother interrupted, ‘what about our shaven heads? I don’t see Fourth Brother sporting a Buddhist Monk Special! Why, the little princeling has his hair cut at the most fashionable children’s hair stylist on Nanjing Lu. When he stands next to us, it’s like we’ve stepped out of two different centuries!’
‘Here Father wants to teach us the value of money,’ Big Brother added, ‘yet her children can order whatever they desire from the kitchen at any hour of the day or night. We’re supposed to eat only three meals a day with congee and preserved vegetables for breakfast every morning, but I see Cook preparing bacon, eggs and toast, fresh berries and melon for their breakfast. Last Sunday, I went into the kitchen and told Cook I wanted a slice of bacon. The idiot won’t even give me a straight answer. “I have my orders,” he told me. “Bacon is reserved for the first floor.” One day, I’m going to sock him in the mouth!’
‘It’s really getting intolerable!’ Big Sister complained, lowering her voice and motioning me to close the door. I obeyed with alacrity, happy to be included. ‘We should be careful though. Niang has her spies. That new tutor/nanny she’s employed for her two children, that Miss Chien, she gives me the creeps. She is so slimy and obsequious, smiling and bowing all the time. Yesterday, she cornered me and invited me to have afternoon tea with Fourth Brother and Little Sister in their nursery. I never saw such a spread – finger sandwiches, toasted buns, chestnut cream cake, sausage rolls. Here we are restricted to breakfast, lunch and dinner and starving between meals, while our half‐siblings are throwing their leftovers from their balcony to Jackie in the garden. It’s so unfair! Anyway, Miss Chien kept quizzing me about Ye Ye, Aunt Baba, all of you and what we think of Niang. Of course I didn’t reveal anything. I’m sure whatever I’d have said would have been reported straight back to our stepmother.’
‘I simply detest that sneaky stool‐pigeon Miss Chien,’ Big Brother confessed. ‘Day before yesterday, Father calls the three of us down to the Holy of Holies. Big lecture! “Miss Chien says that one of you was playing with the tap of the filtered water tank on the stairway. How many times have I told you not to drink out of that tank? It’s permanently out of bounds to you, do you hear? If you want drinking water, you get it from the hot‐water thermos flask in the kitchen. Otherwise you boys have a habit of leaving the tap turned on when there is temporarily no water. Later on, when the tap water percolates through the filter, there is a big pool of water on the stairs. Your mother has had enough of it!” So we deny that we even touched the tap. Does he believe us? Of course not! I told Father that I personally observed Miss Chien fiddling around with the tap early that morning. Probably nobody ever warned her about how finicky the water tank is. What’s the end result? Father chooses to believe her and we each got two lashes from the dog whip! The liar! I hate her!’
‘This just can’t go on,’ Big Sister declared. ‘Let’s get organised! If we unite together and protest in one voice, they won’t ignore us. What about a hunger strike? That’s sure to get their attention! Are you ready to join us, Fifth Younger Sister?’
I was thrilled that Big Sister was addressing me personally. ‘Of course I am!’ I exclaimed ardently. ‘But I don’t think a hunger strike will work. They’ll probably be very happy that we’re not eating. Five less mouths to feed, that’s all. For a hunger strike to succeed, they’ve got to care whether we lived or died.’
‘I’m for a revolution!’ Second Brother exclaimed. ‘Out and out war! We go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, eat what we want and face the consequences. What can they do? The food’s already in our stomachs being digested. Won’t be so easy to get it back out.’
‘You’re always so impulsive and volatile!’ Big Brother exclaimed critically. ‘Just like that rash general Zhang Fei () in the Three Countries War. We’ve got to be more subtle and patient. Diplomacy and subterfuge are always superior to confrontation. Let’s ask for a private conference with Father and point out the inequities in a calm, logical fashion.’
‘It won’t work!’ Third Brother counselled. ‘Father’ll never come to the table without Niang. What about an anonymous letter written in Chinese sent to Father through the mail? Niang doesn’t read any Chinese. Big Sister could write it with brush and ink. Her handwriting is excellent and could pass for that of an adult!’
‘Brilliant idea!’ exclaimed Big Sister. ‘Let?
??s draft the letter now!’ We hunched over the table muttering suggestions, becoming more and more excited at our escapade. Third Brother decided he might as well go to the bathroom and relieve himself while the letter was being written. He yanked open the door, stepped outside, and, to his horror, almost collided with Niang – who was standing immediately behind the portal with her ear glued against it.
Ashen‐faced and petrified, he stared dumbly at our stepmother without fully closing the door while she looked down at him disdainfully. There was a deathly silence as they regarded each other. Third Brother started to tremble with terror.
Slowly, Niang raised her right index finger against her lips, warning him not to make a sound. She then waved him on with her open left hand.
In the bathroom, Third Brother locked the door carefully behind him. Recalling Niang’s intimidating stare, sphinx‐like immobility, and expression of distinctive menace, he was seized by a surge of nausea. How long had she been listening? What had she heard? Was everyone still plotting? Would they send him away from home? Where could he go? He vomited again and again, rinsing his mouth out over and over at the tap, dreading the moment of truth. If only he could postpone his return indefinitely and stay here forever! Alone. Uninvolved. Away from everyone. Behind a locked door . . .
A thought suddenly hit him like a blow. What if Niang was still waiting for him to go back? Could his absence be construed as a deliberate warning to the others that something was afoot? How long had he been away? He felt his mouth go dry as he quickly flushed the toilet and stumbled out. His legs seemed to keep buckling under in an extraordinary way.
He hurried back and noticed at once that no one was standing outside his bedroom door. A wave of relief washed over him. True, the door was still slightly ajar, the way he’d left it. But Niang was no longer there. He could clearly hear the murmur of Big Sister’s voice, tinged with purpose and excitement, drifting down the corridor. Niang must have caught every word.