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My mum’s life story Part 1 – Family, growing up in Medan & Penang

Coronation Day_1953

Susie Lemos née Lim Khay-Siew: born 1935 |
This first part focuses on Mum’s family roots, how she grew up in Medan, but also lived in Penang with relatives and finished her schooling there before eventually travelling to Singapore to become a teacher.

Family background and parents

My Mum, Susie Lim Khay-Siew (LKS) was born into the Lim family in the town of Medan, the largest city and capital of the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, in 1935. Mum’s father Lim Ka-Oen (my Ah Kong) was the third son amongst eight siblings. His father Ong Lim-Eng  was an entrepreneur who had come out to South East Asia from China to seek his fortune.

Mum’s mother’s Teoh family was from Bukit Mertajam (BM), the town located on the mainland of Penang State. My grandmother (whom I referred to as Ah Mah) was one of six siblings and the family was Peranakan (which I had not realised all these years). It must explain my affinity for Nyonya or Peranakan food. The Peranakan ethnic grouping is one that emerged from male Chinese emigrants inter-marrying with the local female Malay population. The resultant culture of the Peranakans is one that manifests itself in a unique form of apparel and a language that is a patois of Malay, the Hokkien dialect and English. And of course, unique food that blends Chinese traditions with locally created ones.

Ah Mah’s father was a businessman, whom Mum claims wasn’t great at managing his affairs. As such, Ah Mah’s mother would invest in jewellery as a means of providing financial security for her children. She would keep her jewellery in Cream Crackers tins. This would explain to some extent my Ah Mah’s own similar practice of trading (and some might say) negotiating loyalties and favour with her children through the transacting of jewellery in later years.

Much later, when the Indonesian national social unifying policy dictated by President Suharto insisted that every citizen must adopt an Indonesian name, Lim Ka-Oen decided to call himself Karoen Kalimoen. He adopted the new name Karoen (derived from the Bahasa Indonesian word ‘Karun’, meaning ‘treasure’) and creatively invented a new surname (Ka-lim-oen) which was a simple re-shuffling of his original Chinese name.

Mum's family tree

How Mum's parents met

I had all along known that my maternal grandmother (whom I refer to as Ah Mah) was from the town of Bukit Mertajam, located on the mainland of Peninsular Malaya in the state of Penang. But I never knew how she had come to be married to someone from Medan.

1932 – According to Mum, my Ah Mah Poh-Tin was a sociable young girl. She invited two of her classmates, sisters Lim Kay-Soo and Lim Kay-Poh, to her home during the school holidays. They were from Medan but were studying in Penang as boarders. The two Lim girls flashed a photo of their brother to her and apparently it was love at first sight. My Ah Mah was at the time promised in marriage to a Chinese school teacher who was, so it seems, not as good-looking as her classmates’ brother Ka-Oen. Ah Mah was determined that this young man in the photo should be her husband instead.

In what must seem like a 1930s precursor to Tinder, my grandmother had picked her husband from an appealing profile pic of my grandfather. So, with a deft swipe to the right, it was swiftly arranged for this new eligible suitor to come across to meet his new bride. Next thing they knew Ah Mah’s jealous fiance (and can you blame him?) had been formally ditched. And a wedding quickly arranged for Poh-Tin and Ka-Oen in a Methodist Church in BM. 

Mum jokes that the young Ka-Oen was at first suspicious about the hurried nature of the nuptuals. He must have wondered what could possibly be defective about this young bride who was in such a hurry to wed him. He nevertheless went along with the plot and soon Ah Mah was Mrs Lim. And off she went to Medan, with her two favourite classmates now becoming her sisters-in-law. 

Growing up in Medan

1935 – Lim Khay-Siew (Susie) was born in Medan on 21 July. She was the second child of Ka-Oen and Poh-Tin, after a brother known as Khay-Ho who had been born two years earlier.

1936 – When Ah Mah was pregnant with her third child, she decided she would cross the Straits of Malacca back to BM so that she would give birth in her hometown with the support of her mother who was well off and had more domestic resources at her disposal. She took both her children Khay-Ho and Khay-Siew with her. Both of them caught whopping cough. Her Uncle Ka-Huat and his wife Sim-Ee were travelling through Penang on their way home to Medan from Singapore. They agreed to take the boy back to Medan with them so he could  be with his father. However, the whopping cough turned into pneumonia and the boy died not long after he got back to Medan. 

On 3 July 1936, Ah Mah gave birth to her second daughter Khay-Soon (Sylvia). The family kept the news of the boy’s death from Ah Mah and she only found out she had lost her first born son after she had given birth. Because of post-partum depression, Ah Mah left the newborn Khay-Soon in BM. She returned to Medan to a gut-wrenching home-coming scene where she called out for her little boy only to discover he was gone!

Khay-Soon or Sylvia, my Ji Ee (Hokkien honorific for second aunt on mother’s side) was affectionately known in the family as ‘Babe’. She remained in Medan most of her life, marrying Ong Chye-Seng with whom she had two children, Pamela and Peter.

1937 – Ah Mah gave birth to another girl. They named her Khay-Siok and also gave her the name Shirley because of her resemblance to Shirley Temple. My Sar Ee (the Hokkien honorific for third aunt on mother’s side) later went to Singapore to study at the Trinity Theological College where she met and eventually married the Reverend Dr Peter Leung, an Anglican pastor from Hong Kong, becoming a ‘bok-su-neo’ (Hokkien term for pastor’s wife). She and Peter later had two children, Angeline and Andrew. 

Uncle Peter was a lecturer in divinity who apparently had differences of opinion over ideology with Bishop Chiu Ban It, the prevailing Anglican Bishop of Singapore. So in the 1970s Uncle Peter decided to migrate to the UK with his family when the ultra-conservative and ‘charismatic’ movement took hold of the Anglican communion in Singapore. 

With the import of the American evangelical approach to faith, emboldened by the landmark Billy Graham “I found it!” Crusade held at the National Stadium, speaking in tongues became fashionable. Not only was this practice required to visibly display one’s faith but could even override one’s need for biblical scholarship. This did not align with Uncle Peter’s spiritual sensibilities so off they went to the UK to escape this newfangled nonsense! 

Living through the war

1941 – World War II is declared and the invading Japanese Army occupied both Malaya and Indonesia during the next few years.

1941-1945 – The war years were tough for the family in Medan. In my Ah Mah’s memoirs, which she wrote and published many years later through her Methodist Church in Medan, she relates how my Ah Kong was wrongfully held in a prison as a spy. Ah Mah would take her two daughters with her and plead with the prison guards to let them see her husband. Mum remembers the sounds of sirens wailing away to clear the streets during air-raids and curfews. She would play on the deserted streets on bicycles with friends such as Lee Kum-Seng (who later became a well-known pianist). She roller-skated on the streets too. This skill would come in handy when she later taught me how to roller-skate when I got my first pair of skates as a birthday present from my godmother Aunty Shirley many years later.

1949 – Ah Mah gave birth to a fourth daughter on 28 April, whom they named Khay-Suan (Suanee). My Si Ee (the Hokkien honorific for fourth aunt on mother’s side) was not close to Mum who had left Medan for good not too long after her youngest sister’s birth. As such they only became re-acquainted when Ah Suan went to Singapore years later as a young woman to pursue a Bachelor of Theology and music studies at the Trinity Theological College. Si Ee was a much more accomplished pianist than my mother. She went on to marry Koh Soo-Seng, one of the grandchildren of Singapore war hero Lim Bo-Seng. Suan became a piano teacher and had two children, Andrea and Adrian with Soo-Seng.

Post-war stay in Penang

1945 – The Japanese Occupation ended with the surrender in 1945, after which life went on. When Ah Mah’s sister-in-law Chng Ah Lek came over from Penang to visit, Ah Mah asked that she take her eldest daughter Khay-Siew back to Penang with her. Mum was ten years old then and tells of being smuggled in an old tongkang (bumboat) across the Straits of Malacca so she could spend some time studying and improving her English over in Penang. They departed Sumatra from the port of Berlawan. The crossing took three days and Mum recalls being asked to hide away while the authorities searched the boat. She didn’t eat for three days and suffered terribly from seasickness.  

In Penang she stayed with her aunt who was married to Ah Mah’s No.1 brother. The family lived in a home on Macalister Road (now known as Jalan Macalister) located above the Modern Casket Company, beside the St Paul’s Anglican Church. Mum remembers playing hide-and-seek with her cousins in the coffins. The casket company was run by Ah Lek’s older brother. Mum also recalls lying in bed beside her aunt’s older sister-in-law and her grand-daughter smelling the opium she smoked. 

Mum then stayed in Penang for two years with her sisters Khay-Soon and Khay-Siook over at Kek Chuan Road, in the home of their other Aunt’s family before returning to Medan. On Saturday’s Mum’s Tua Ee (the older sister of Ah Mah) would have her hair set at home by her hairdresser and on Sunday she would go to St Paul’s church by rickshaw. Mum’s Tua Ee (Mrs Ang) and her family were Anglicans. 

Life in Medan at school

1950 – Mum attended high school at an English Methodist School in Medan. She remembers the Principal was an American man by the name of Mr Hammill. Her closest friends were Yen-Chong and Maureen Lee (whose father was the First Secretary at the Taiwan Embassy in Medan, whom she kept in touch with after the latter married Bobby Lim and also moved to Singapore).

She played the piano which Ah Mah had acquired for the family and took piano lessons from her Aunt Kay-Poh, whom she referred to as Sar Kor (the Hokkien honorific for third sister on father’s side). The lessons were done Sar Kor’s home located at No.53 Sumatra Straat (the colonial Dutch legacy reflected in the street name). My Sar Kor Poh was apparently rather eccentric and when I finally met her in Medan in the 70s, I was told how she would sit and play the piano for hours, stripping off her clothes while totally immersed in the music. 

Mum recalls her classmate Tan Yen-Chong who was interested in her. He was sweet and asked her to listen to a radio request program so she could hear the Irving Berlin song “Always” which he had dedicated to her.

Extended Lim family in Medan

Mum also recalls the Lim family getting together at her grandfather’s home in Medan and the daughters and daughters-in-law taking turns to cook for the extended family at these gatherings. The Lim siblings in Medan comprised 4 boys and 4 girls. The No.1 son was Lim Ka-Huat who married Khoo Sim-Ee. He worked for the Bank of Indonesia, before moving his whole family to Singapore after the war. The No.2 son was Lim Kay-Wan, who together with No.4 son Lim Kay-Hin went off to Burma to study Medicine so they would both became medical doctors. They subsequently fled to the USA when the military regime took over the country following the end of British Rule and the country gained its independence in 1948. No.3 son was Lim Ka-Oen who was my grandfather.

The No.1 daughter was Lim Kay-Tin, who became Mrs Oei, a young widow who had a daughter Kim Eng and who adopted Ka-Huat’s son Kim-Hock. The No.2 daughter was Lim Kay-Soo who married Chng Peng-Seng and had a daughter Dolly. The No.3 daughter was Lim Kay-Poh who married Yap Boon-Han. She was the accomplished pianist who taught my mother to play the piano. Daughter No.4 was Lim Khay-Cheok, who went on to study in China and married Victor, who was a translator of films and TV series into English.

Finishing off high school in George Town, Penang

1951 – Mum left Medan again when she was sent over to George Town in Penang to finish off her high school. This was the Anglo-Chinese Girls School (ACGS), an English Methodist school for girls. Mum was escorted to Penang on Christmas Eve by Uncle Geh Han-Keng, her mother’s friend who had three sons studying there. Because she was a ‘foreign’ student Mum was made to repeat a grade before then sitting for and graduating from her high school ‘Senior Cambridge’ exams. While studying at AGCS, Mum joined the Girls Life Brigade (GLB) which was subsequently renamed Girls Brigade. She was also a member of the Glee Club. ACGS was eventually renamed Methodist Girls’ School.

This time round, Mum stayed with her mother’s sister and her family. This was the Ang family headed by Ang Cheng-Kow who was a school principal and they lived at Keck Chuan Road then. She became close to her cousins Irene, Jess, Maggie and Michael. Many years later I would accompany Mum to attend the 50th Wedding Anniversary of Mum’s Ah Thio and Tua Ee, when I got to know Mum’s Penang cousins and their children who were around my age.

Music and church

While in Penang, Mum continued her piano lessons from an Indian teacher (whose name she cannot recall). But she remembers learning and playing from memory Christian Sinding’s Rustle of Spring for the ACGS end-of-year concert. Music was a big feature of the Lim, Teoh and Ang family’s lives, enhanced by their involvement with either the Methodist or Anglican Churches which had a stronger music ministry (well, it seems a lot more so than the Catholic Church which I was subsequently also exposed to).

Sundays would be spent attending church and MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) at the Methodist Church at Madras Lane (now known as Lorong Madras). She fondly remembers how her friend and “protector” Ah Ba (Larry) would pick her up early in the morning from Kek Chuan Road and they would cycle over to Wesley Methodist Church where they attended the early “Dawn Breakers” service followed by Sunday school across the road. These churches still exist today and the one at Lorong Madras is now known as the Chinese Methodist Church or Penang Hokkien Methodist Church.

Graduating high school

1953 – LKS completes her Senior Cambridge (final high school year) at ACGS in Penang. She scored 6 credits but failed Malay. It was however good enough for her to apply to teach and the school expressed their willingness to hire her as a trainee teacher. However, due to her status as an Indonesian ‘foreigner’ coming from Medan, her application was formally rejected. With her teaching prospects dashed in Penang, Mum then looked towards pursuing her teaching in Singapore instead.

When Mum got her results confirming she’d passed her Senior Cambridge exams, she celebrated with her two favourite people at the time. They were her cousin Irene Ang and Poh BIn-San (her boyfriend). She treated them to banana splits at the ice-cream parlour. Mum tells of how she also had her first kiss with Bin-San on the eve of leaving Penang, in defiance of her aunts who told her not to “fool around” with him. She was petrified she would become pregnant from that kiss. Such was the quality, or rather absence, of sex education in Penang at the time. She was extremely relieved when it became apparent that she hadn’t become pregnant!

Penang Cousins