Recently, at the age of 89, my grandma has finally left her hometown of Rawang. Having lived there all her life, surviving her husband Lau Lai Thong (my Ah Yeh) by a good 20 years, Au Choon Mui (known to me simply as Ah Ma) is now moving between the houses of her five sons and two daughters.
During her stays, we try to jog her fading memory a bit by showing her old photos. In the process, I discovered that my Ah Yeh was an unusually avid photographer for his time. Do allow me to immortalise these two remarkable individuals as I share with you some images from an earlier and very different time.
Marriage, late 1940’s
Ah Ma and Ah Yeh got married in Rawang in the 1940s. Before the wedding, Ah Ma’s foster mom had told her to invite fewer guests for the Chip Sun Leong ceremony to keep costs down (Grandma: “Ku hon do sei la!” or “So stingy can die one!”) Unfortunately, the tradition back then was to have nine cars in the convoy to symbolise a long and enduring marriage. The outcome? A convoy made up of nine almost-empty cars.
Asked about her feelings on the day, Ah Ma recalls being worried. “So many old people in the family to take care of once I get married! I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” Where did they honeymoon then? “No such thing as honeymoon. No work also lucky already.”
Grandad – early 1950’s
I was very young when Ah Yeh passed away, so I don’t remember much of him except that he seemed like a kind and gentle man. What surprised me the most during this photo excavation was how much fun he seemed to be. With so many pictures of the wine and glasses, it seemed like my grandad was really living it up. “I don’t remember wine,” recalls my dad (Lau Chee Hong). “So this is probably just aerated grape juice.”
Freelance Extraordinaire – early 1950’s
My Ah Yeh juggled many careers: as an insurance manager, a government petitions writer and even a cinema manager. “Father was one of the first to get a phone number,” my dad recalls. “His number was just 103. Those days, they had a lady who sits somewhere in Rawang who asks you what number you want, and connects you manually. I don’t remember using the phone ever, but Granddad obviously had his reasons to.”
Ah Ma doesn’t even remember where Ah Yeh studied. “Last time when people got married, we wouldn’t ask too much,” she recalls.
Grandma – 1952
Ah Ma was a labourer, pulling weeds from rubber plantations, chosen for marriage because she was a good worker. In the house, she spent most of her time cooking (with firewood, no less) and cleaning for Ah Yeh, his parents, his three employees, and eventually, seven kids, including my dad. Once in a while though, they would pack into a car and head somewhere. She recalls that for her, even going to KL for a movie and a trip was a once-a-year occasion.
Babycare – 1950’s
Grandad took many pictures of his kids. In this photo, the pillows are used to great effect to ensure my uncles wouldn’t run about unattended, padding out a popular pram of the time.
The Occasional Party – 1960
When the moment took him, Ah Yeh would put a bowtie on one of his sons and plan a birthday party, in their small concrete house in Rawang. “I won’t say we celebrated our birthdays every year, but each of us got to celebrate at least once,” my dad recalls.
The parties were nothing extravagant, with tai choy ko (a simple jelly cake), sweets and a few fruits. “Once in a while we got a plate of noodles from Peng Nam (a restaurant in Rawang that is popular to this day), which was something quite special. Oh, and by the way, this is actually father’s office… that’s his office table we’re having the party on.”
Family Trips – mid-1950’s
“Father used to enjoy taking day trips out – Morib, Fraser’s hill and Genting,” my dad recalls. “Honestly, I don’t remember how we packed into the car. Five of us kids plus grandpa plus father plus mom piled into my dad’s Peugeot 403.”
In those highway-less days, Genting was a two and a half hour ride away and was simply one hotel, a picnic spot and a lake. Pictured here is the half-way stop after the tunnel, with a few sundries, vegetables and light snacks to break up the journey.
United Theatre – early 1950’s
This is the only picture of United Theatre we could find – the only cinema still standing in Rawang today, and an integral part of the Lau family history. After being match-made to my Ah Yeh, who just happened to be the manager of United Theatre, Ah Ma was given tickets to watch a movie there so Ah Yeh could get a sneak a peek at his future wife.
Growing up, my dad recalls they used to watch movies there with his brothers – “When the cinema first opened, I remember the first movie was To Hell and High Water, a war movie,” he recalls. “Very little comedy because the Rawang crowd wasn’t all that sophisticated. Didn’t really matter what show was on, the theatre was always packed. Tickets ranged from RM0.40 all the way to RM1, which could buy supper for 5. Since no one sits in the RM1 section, we’d go and sit like kings… every other day.”
My dad also remembers that once in a while, the theatre would host big Hong Kong stars to visit, and sometimes even sing and perform for the local crowd. “The whole show no one claps. It was just weird, but I don’t think it was in our culture.”
The Japanese occupation and surrender – 1945
Pictured here are Japanese troops laying down their weapons in Rawang. No one’s quite sure who had the balls to take this photo, but it signifies the end of a dark period for many locals. Thankfully in Rawang, the bombs only dropped once.
Ah Ma recalls that most people had to resort to growing their own vegetables, tapioca, sweet potatoes for own consumption. The Japanese would confiscate whatever chicken, fish or other food they could lay their hands on – so most people resorted to hiding most of their food. She also remembered that most girls her age would keep themselves away from public view and her parents would move everyone to a friend’s upstairs shop lot to sleep at night as they felt it was safer.
The Queen’s coronation – 1953
This was Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation celebration in Rawang. Under British rule, this was a pretty big deal with the parade of officers marching straight through one of only two main roads in Rawang (which are relatively unchanged to this day).
Instagramps – mid-1950’s
A hilarious shot of my Ah Yeh with his friend, Wong Kok Ho, the owner of a mechanic shop. There are quite a few “photoshopped” shots like this in the collection, but this is my favourite. As far as we can tell, it’s a composite of two shots, apparently done in Songkla in South Thailand. When asking my dad if Ah Yeh travelled alone a lot, he replied “I wouldn’t know. The culture is a bit different now. Back then my father would never tell me where he was going, or for how long. And we never thought to ask.”
Chak is a voice, pen and personality for rent who’s waving at his whole extended family right now. Check out his ongoing adventures at www.chak.me.