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Family Ghost Story

Read Thursday, 4 Feb 2016

‘Hauntings fascinate me,’ says writer Lian Low. ‘I feel haunted by the country of my birth, Malaysia.’ When her Singaporean uncle refuses to share the story of a haunted house, Lian begins to coax other memories from him – of fishing adventures off Terengganu and wooden Malay palaces.

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My Singaporean uncle casts a line into my river of memories.    

Aiyah, Lian, I won’t go into detail about what happened now because it’s night. But you have to come and visit me and I’ll tell you the story of this haunted house,’ he grins.

We are dining at a Port Melbourne restaurant, surrounded by family. Uncle Hung Cheow and his wife are in Melbourne to attend the graduation ceremony of their youngest son, Zheng Yu. I’m sitting next to my mother, Leh Guat, the oldest of the siblings. The youngest, my aunty Michelle, and her family are also there – tucking into fancy pasta and kangaroo meat, rare delicacies not found cheaply in Singaporean eateries.

Hauntings fascinate me. I feel haunted by the country of my birth, Malaysia.

‘Ah Khoo, why can’t you tell me now?’ I ask, bemused and disappointed.

Hauntings fascinate me. I feel haunted by the country of my birth, Malaysia.  There are times when I wish that I were brave enough to pack my bags to return, work and live there. I wonder if this is a curse of having migrated as an adolescent. Not old enough to be confident and secure in my adult identity, but old enough to be marked with an indelible memory of what home was. I have a foreign accent and another language, but I’m not fluently bilingual, so I’m vulnerable to condescending comments along the lines of, ‘Oh what a shame, you’re Chinese, but can’t speak Chinese’. 

However, looking back doesn’t feel right. Maybe I should be looking forward. But forward to where, and in which direction? Maybe my bicultural migrant identity is a blessing, my untapped secret knowledge of an otherworldly life. I have many questions.

Aiyah, I can’t tell you now, because it’s dark’, my uncle asserts, his light moustache punctuating his boyish smile.

‘It’s too scary to tell, but I’ll tell you in the daytime. You remember Ku Sei? It’s something to do with him, and his son.’

I don’t remember Ku Sei very well, except that he is my elderly great uncle, who I would address as ‘Ku Kong’ in Hokkien and who now lives with his family in Canada.  

Giving up, I try another tactic, I cast another line, hoping for a hook.

‘Ah Khoo, can you tell me a story about growing up in Terengganu?’

Terengganu is on the east coast of Malaysia, known for its fishermen and fishing industry. My mother would reminisce with childlike wonder about all the fresh fruit and seafood she and her family had access to, growing up at the mouth of the Kuala Terengganu river. Food was super cheap, 10 Malaysian cents could get you a decent nasi lemak package, your morning breakfast, with coconut rice and sambal. Fishes were so fresh their eyes sparkled, their bodies practically jumping for joy in the baskets at the markets.

‘I used to have many fishing adventures. One time I organised to go on a fishing trip to an island off Terengganu. In the boat, we had 20 other people crammed on board’, my uncle begins, chuckling at the memory, eyes twinkling. ‘We stopped at one spot, but there was hardly any fish. When we cast the line in the water, we only catch small fish, the biggest the size of ikan bilis. You know what ikan bilis is?’

‘Yes, anchovy,’ I chirped.

‘So we put the little fish back into the water, and rowed on. When we throw our lines in the water. Wah! One fish come, then another and another! We were catching so many fish, so happy lah. But then suddenly a storm comes and then waves three or four metres high start swelling and the water fills the boat.’   

‘I ask the boatman uncle if there is a bucket to bail the water out. The boatman uncle brings out two coconut shells. Someone takes one shell and starts bailing. I panic-lah, and want to help, and want to use my shoe, but I can’t because I’m wearing slippers. Now, I’m scared that the boat might capsize, so I ask my friends, “Eh you all how many can swim?” Out of the 20, I count … one, two, three … aiyah, only five can swim! So, I ask the boatman uncle, “Uncle, you have life jacket or not?” The boatman uncle disappears and then comes back with a life jacket made out of nine coconut husks.’  

‘So dark, can’t see. Thin wooden walls … No exit sign back then, he ran straight through the wall.’

My aunty Pui Hong shakes her head, charmed by her husband. ‘He has a lot of stories,’ she pipes in. Hung Cheow looks across at his poker-faced, graduate son, Zheng Yu. ‘You heard this story before or not?’ My cousin smiles, shakes his head, quietly bemused.

‘And then another time, when we were small, my friends and I would go and cycle out in the jungle. One of the places we played at was near an old Malay istana, a palace made entirely out of wood, with golden door knobs. Old place got ghost stories lah. One night we decided to challenge each other, to see who is not scared to go into the palace. We also want to see if we can pocket anything lah.  We walk into the hallway, only light source is from our oil lamps, then we divided into two. One group went upstairs and another went another way.’

‘My friend and I go into one bedroom, so many nice things but all so big and heavy. Four-poster bed, chair and table. Can’t find anything to put in our pockets. Then suddenly we hear a loud crash! We quickly run out, and yell, “You ok or not?” The others come out because they also heard the crash. Suddenly a pot falls from the banister! One of my friends got so scared, he cabut, ran through the wall of the palace.’  

‘He didn’t use the door?’ I ask.

‘So dark, can’t see. Thin wooden walls, he couldn’t see where the door was.  No exit sign back then, he ran straight through the wall.’

My uncle chortles at his own story.

‘What about the other ghost story, Ah Khoo?’ I persisted.

My aunty and mother smile fondly at my uncle. The stories are new to them, or maybe not that new, but faint echoes. The re-telling is a nourishing reminder.  We hadn’t sat as a family to eat together for nearly ten years. However, I could see their deep fondness for their wayward sibling by looking at their faces. It didn’t matter that so much time had passed. It felt like the last time we ate together was at last Chinese New Year’s banquet. Hung Cheow’s stories were feeding our curiosities and awakening a time and place long forgotten. His stories are lifebuoys that I will use to navigate how I can find my way back home to family, whatever family means. 

‘Aiyah, it’s dark, I cannot-lah. When you come visit me, I’ll tell you,’ my uncle grins. 

This piece is an excerpt from a memoir, produced by Lian Low as part of a 2015 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellowship.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.