This short story was written in Chinese by Miao Siew. The English-language translation was edited by The Select Centre.
As soon as she saw Aunty dragging her big, fat feet into the kitchen to prepare the evening meal, Little Pearl stopped striking the smooth white keyboard and slipped down from the huge, shiny piano. She stumbled across the drawing-room floor, climbed onto the sofa, and from there managed to reach the windowsill to press her tiny cheeks against the window pane.
Outside, across the tarmac road, there was a row of old-fashioned two-storey houses. These houses were a stark contrast to the newly-built, modern homes, which included the one where Little Pearl lived. When talking of the inhabitants of those dilapidated houses, Little Pearl’s mummy just could not help showing impatience and disgust. The houses seemed to be overflowing with people. There were so many of them that Little Pearl could hardly keep count. They rushed in and out, particularly the children. These ‘little devils’ stayed outdoors morning and night, laughing and playing in groups. The noises they made seemed even more deafening than the traffic.
To the left of the old houses was a tiny plot of vacant land. This was a result of Japanese bombing during the war. Two houses had been reduced to ruins and some of the occupants killed. Since then the land had been left bare. this page of Singapore’s glorious history was, of course, quite unknown to Little Pearl, for she had not even been born then. Nevertheless, this piece of empty ground now had great attraction for her. It had become the paradise of those ‘little devils’, who gathered there to play. Their shouts and cries continued incessantly throughout the day.
Even now, Little Pearl could see several of the ‘little devils’ playing a game of ‘horse-riding’. One of the boys bent his back to act like a horse, while another rode on him and aimed his stones at a target. What was more attractive to Little Pearl was the sight of two little girls playing with hula-hoops. Little Pearl opened her eyes wide and watched with intense interest. She pressed her little face so hard against the window that she almost flattened her little nose. Oh, what a poor show it was! She was sure she could do much better. Strangely, when her mummy forced her to do fifteen minutes of hooping exercise twice a day, after the morning and evening meals, she thought it a great torture. Now, as she watched these two girls playing, she felt like taking down her own hula-hoop from the wall and going out to join them.
As much as she wanted to, she could not. She glanced at the door. It was safely under lock and key. Mummy had already said that Little Pearl should not go out by herself, let alone play with those dirty ‘little devils’! Little Pearl came from a well-to-do family. How could she mix with those poor mean people… what a blow to her class it would be.
Little Pearl was so engrossed by the children on the street that she did not hear the sound of Aunty’s footsteps as she came into the room.
“What are you doing there, Little Pearl? You just watch, you mother will get angry with you!” Aunty peered at the big clock. “It’s not two yet! Why did you stop practising? Get down quick, what are you waiting for?”
Little Pearl climbed down from the window sill, pouting. She went back to her piano stool, banging hard at the keys in protest of Aunty’s tyranny.
As far as Little Pearl was concerned, Aunty was her single greatest enemy. The big woman not only watched her every movement when her parents were not at home, but also told them tales about her when they came home, so that she would be punished.
There something Little Pearl just could not understand. Her neighbour, Mary also had an amah to look after her. Yet Mary’s amah was very scared of Mary. If Mary cried even a little, her mother would give the amah a good scolding. Oh, Mary’s amah was not as lucky as Little Pearl’s Aunty, who was not in the least bit afraid of mummy.
One night Little Pearl overheard a conversation between her mummy and papa regarding this woman. Apparently mummy was afraid that Aunty would leave their service. “Aiyah, if this old lady goes away, we won’t be able to find one as good as she, even if we pay three times her salary. You know amahs are so scarce and haughty nowadays… Only a few days ago, Mrs Chao, from my school, was telling me that she paid $120 for an amah who only does cooking. When the child cries the whole house down, she doesn’t even bat an eye. Look at this old lady of ours. She cooks the meals, washes the clothes, cleans up the house and looks after our child. In short, she does everything for only a small sum of money. Thank goodness I’ve managed to keep her on. If not for my sweet temper and honey words, I’m sure she’d have left us long ago…”
There was one more advantage in keeping Aunty, to which mummy did not admit. It was this fact which, above all, gave Aunty such a great hold on her. The fact was, Aunty specialised in a few cheap but absolutely delicious dishes, such as roast chicken, sweet-and-sour pork, and others. Whoever tasted them would certainly ask for more. With these as the best attractions, mummy would invite prominent friends to the house, for lunch or dinner. Among them, the most interesting personalities to Little Pearl were those hawk-nosed and blue-eyed white men. Mummy did not forget to impress on Little Pearl that they were University professors, pastors and priests, and also government officials. They were the local big shots. Little Pearl, however, was far from impressed. Nevertheless they were good fun. When she saw them clumsily manoeuvring the chopsticks in order to get at Aunty’s special dishes, Little Pearl couldn’t help giggling and laughing.
Mummy also said the fact these noble guests condescended to come to their house was a great honour to papa. It enhanced social position, and his business became more prosperous.
This credit must therefore go to Aunty and the delicious dishes she prepared every Sunday. That’s what mummy would say. But Little Pearl couldn’t care less. If mummy couldn’t do without Big Aunt, Little Pearl certainly could. She made faces behind the old lady’s back as she bent her old bones to dust the tables and chairs. While the old lady was in the room, Little Pearl struck the piano keys mechanically. But as soon as Aunty went into the kitchen, Little Pearl slipped down once more to the floor and climbed on to the window.
This time, a surprise awaited Little Pearl. A maroon A40 drove up and stopped at her door.
It must be mummy coming back from school. Little Pearl hurriedly climbed down from the window and went to the little chair which her mummy had assigned to her. She sat down demurely, her small body slightly tilted to one side, and her legs crossed. She was the very image of a little princess.
The key clicked in the keyhole and the door was thrown open. Mummy’s hoarse voice followed. She had not come back alone; she was talking to a stranger.
Little Pearl stood up on her mummy’s entrance and greeted her formally. She then resumed her perfect seated posture.
Mummy was highly pleased with Little Pearl’s behaviour. She turned to the stranger, and said, laughing, “This is my daughter. Pearl, come and meet Mrs Lu.”
Mrs Lu patted Little Pearl on the head and said to mummy, “Oh, Mrs Shan, how well-mannered your child is!”
“Well, you know I have to be very strict with such matters, or else she will never learn. She is so lazy.”
“You haven’t seen my boys. They are beyond control.” Mrs Lu sighed as she thought of her two rowdy boys. Though she and her husband were both teachers, they hardly had the time and energy to teach their own children at home. Mrs Lu was just the opposite of Mrs Shan. Mrs Lu was extremely small built. On her small face were cramped her small eyes, small nose, and an equally small mouth. She did not use make-up and one could see that her skin had begun to shrivel. She looked older than her age. Mrs Shan, on the other hand, was a tall, generously proportioned woman. Her broad, heavily made-up face was topped off with an Audrey Hepburn hair-do.
“My dear Mrs Lu, your two boys are almost of schooling age now. How can you allow them to stay in the same room as yours? Don’t you think it’s about time you moved to a bigger place?”
Greatly impressed by the stylish furniture and luxurious ornaments in the drawing-room, Mrs Lu
shook her head sadly and replied, “I’m not as lucky as you are. You know, my pay is only a meagre sum and my husband is no good at making money either. Where could I get enough money to pay for such a beautiful house as yours?”
This was true. Both women were teaching at the same Chinese school. Mrs Lu’s subjects were Chinese language, history and geography, while Mrs Shan taught English language. Their pay was more or less the same. Nevertheless, there was a great difference between the two women.
“My dear Mrs Shan, how could I possibly be compared to you? Your husband is such a well-known, prosperous and influential man. You are only teaching for fun.”
On hearing this, Mrs Shan’s face beamed with pleasure, for this was a fact which she wanted everyone to appreciate. However, she was still obliged to make a show of sacrifice.
“You’re telling me. My husband is angry with me for this very reason. He is against my selling my time and energy for the meagre salary the school is paying me. He thinks I ought to spend my time more profitably in looking after the family.” Mrs Shan opened a tin of cigarettes and offered one to her guest. “Have a cigarette, Mrs Lu. It’s mentholated.”
“No, thank you. I don’t know how to smoke.”
Mrs Shan lighted her cigarette and drew deeply. She continued, “On further consideration, I think there is some truth in what my husband says. Why should I, as a woman, neglect my husband and child to earn a living? Moreover, with the recent paycut and the increased hours of teaching, I really feel like giving up this unrewarding job. Just think, last year I had only twenty-four periods, and this year it’s been increased to thirty-two. Everyday I come home with a huge pile of exercise books. It’s all so sickening, I’m so tired out, I can’t even supervise my own child’s homework. And her results are getting worse and worse this year. This is all because I’m too idealistic. When International Women’s Conference was held in Singapore last year, I made a strong speech urging all women to come out of their kitchens. On reflection, how ridiculous I was!”
Her complaint about the paycut and additional work weighed so heavily on Mrs Lu’s mind that she didn’t pay any attention to the second half of what she said, about the Women’s Conference. Mrs Shan paused and waited to hear what Mrs Lu had to say about her ideals. Not knowing how to reply, Mrs Lu blushed and turned to the subject of Little Pearl.
“Where is your little girl schooling?” she asked ingratiatingly.
“She’s in an English school. Pearl, tell Mrs Lu which is your school.”
Little Pearl had been watching mummy and the guest intently. She had looked from one to the other, not understanding what they were saying, but not daring to go away. Now bored, she was glad of this opportunity to join in the conversation.
“I am studying in the St. Mary School!” she responded clearly, as if answering a question in class.
“Which standard?” Mrs Lu asked again, smiling.
“Primary two. My mummy also send me to a music school.”
“How clever you are, little girl.”
Mummy was all smiles. Her white dentures gleaming, she explained, “It’s a private music school. And quite good, Little Pearl has been there for almost a year. Pearl, play something for our guest.”
Obediently, Little Pearl went to the piano and played. The two women listened, Mrs Lu’s small eyes fixed on the floor. Her face looked even tinier as she bent her head. She appeared to be listening with all her might and understanding. But in fact, she was wrapped in her own thoughts. The music was intermittently loud and soft. It paused… and then resumed with greater vigour. It was all too profound for Mrs Lu.
All of a sudden Mrs Shan’s triumphant voice broke through the still air. “This is Tchaikovsky’s ‘Prelude No. 73 in A Major’. The child has not been practising. She spoils the music.”
“Very good, excellent,” responded Mrs Lu, waking up from her daydream. “She plays very well for her age. She must be quite talented.”
On hearing such lavish praise, mummy was inflated with pride. “The truth is, Mrs Lu, my child is not very good at her lessons in school. She seem to be more gifted in music and art. They come more naturally to her. That is why, since last year, I have sent her to a ballet school in Tanglin. She is learning ballet from a European lady. Pearl, show Mrs Lu how you dance.”
Little Pearl began to dance. She moved on tiptoe, step by step, very cautiously, as if she were afraid of dirtying her heels. It was such an effort that Mrs Lu was in constant fear that she would fall.
Fall she did. As she tiptoed towards a small tea-table, she lost her balance, falling on her back and knocking down the only decoration on the tea table: an exquisite little sailing-boat.
Little Pearl groaned, and struggled to get back on her feet. Mrs Lu rushed forward to help her, asking compassionately, “Oh dear, Pearl, are you badly hurt?”
Mummy, however, was not in the least worried. She said curtly, “Never mind the child, Mrs Lu. Who will ever learn ballet without falling seven or eight times a day?”
Mrs Lu helped Little Pearl to the sofa, and took her seat once again. Mrs Shan, caressing her little sailing-boat lovingly, told Mrs Lu, “Take a good look at this sailing-boat, Mrs Lu. Isn’t it a beautiful piece of art! I received it as a present from a blind fourteen-year-old boy when I was volunteering with the Red Cross.”
Mrs Lu carefully took the sailing boat from her hostess’ hand to scrutinise. It really was a lovely thing. The small, brightly painted sailing boat had masts, sails, a rudder and all the other details of a real boat.
“This is marvellous! Who could tell it is the work of a blind boy! I think even a boy with normal eyesight wouldn’t be able to do it,” Mrs Lu exclaimed, again full of praise.
Just then, Little Pearl sat up and interrupted, “Mummy is mistaken, Mrs Lu. This is not a present. She has forgotten, but I remember clearly. Mummy and I went to a Japanese shop in Tanglin and bought it from there for—”
Before she could finish, mummy snapped at her, “Little children should not interrupt. Go upstairs and lie down, Pearl.”
Little Pearl pursed her lips and left the room quietly. She climbed the high staircase, entered her own room and lay down. Her eyes were wide open. She stared hard at the ceiling. She couldn’t understand why mummy had lost her temper with her and ordered her upstairs. Did she say or do anything wrong? She had only reminded mummy that the little sailing boat was not a present. They had bought it at a shop… mummy must have forgotten.
Time seemed to pass very slowly. At last, Little Pearl heard mummy saying goodbye to her guest. It’s time for lunch, Little Pearl thought. Just as she was about to get up and go down, the door opened. Mummy entered.
There was a very fierce look on mummy’s face. Little Pearl was frightened.
“What a chatterbox you are. You naughty girl! No lunch for you today. This ought to teach you a lesson.” Mummy finished, slammed the door shut, and went down.
Little Pearl burst into tears.
Miao-Siew or Miao Xiu was one of Malaya’s first homegrown bilingual writers. Educated in colonial Singapore’s Anglophone education system, he succeeded Yu Dafu as editor of the literary supplements of Singapore Daily following the Pacific War. He later wrote the acclaimed novels Under the Singapore Roof and Savage Night Voyage.