Mothers and grandmothers have often been the inspiration for women everywhere, and much in that same vein comes this compilation of articles by Pan Jun-E, put together lovingly by her 11th grandchild, Tan Ju Eng.
“My late grandmother was just an ordinary woman,” said Tan. “But she was very strong, and I wanted to share her stories with others in the hope that they would not feel alone in their struggles.”
The self-published book, When A Turtle Cries, is a compilation of 13 of Pan’s original articles, written in Chinese, together with an English translation, peppered with some lovely authentic family photographs.
The title loosely refers to one of the stories in the book, Grab The Eggs And Kill The Mother, in which Grandma Pan shares the tale of a holiday in Penang when she learnt about turtles laying eggs, and was both in awe as well as saddened by the natural order of life.
Tan, 58, initially began documenting her grandmother’s work as her gift to her adult sons, Jirwan and Ilyas.
“Yes, it was for my sons. It all started with me doing research on my grandfather (rubber trader Chen Tong Fu) so that I could share with my children their ancestry. It is important that they (and future generations) know their roots, so I was tracing his story for that reason. I have dragged the boys (often by the nose!) to Xiamen in China, so they could see for themselves where their ancestors came from.”
While Tan, who spent 37 years working as a journalist, was doing research on her grandfather, she stumbled upon Pan’s articles among his possessions. Although not literate in Chinese, the articles intrigued her and she engaged her cousins, Wu ZongJie and Wu ZiShan, to delve into their grandmother’s writing career and legacy.
“We found a scrapbook with lots of articles (by my grandmother), but they were also accompanied by my grandfather’s notes in Chinese,” Tan recounted about the time they rummaged through stuff they found at the home of her grandparents, at 29, Hume Street Ipoh, Perak, now Jalan Masjid.
“I was very curious and asked my cousin ZiShan to translate, and she said it looked very much as if our grandfather was responding to grandmother’s articles,” Tan shared, adding that it struck her then that Pan’s stories were not entirely fiction. “I didn’t know enough then but was naturally curious to want to know more.”
Tan remembers the day she and her cousin were going through one article in particular – the tragic tale of a child called Chen MingRuo.
“We were in a room and we had spent the whole day reading and translating this article until late into the evening and it had turned dark. Both of us were crying and crying because we knew our grandmother and what she was like … but we never knew that she had gone through so much pain, we never knew that she had lost a son!”
Tan recalled her late father had mentioned that he had a brother who had died.
“We put two and two together and realised it was this boy – Chen MingRuo! The article summed up what my grandmother went through when he died, and the details were amazing. Imagine, she wrote this article in 1936, four years after MingRuo had died … but she still felt the pain, it still cut through her.”
For Tan and her cousin, it was a “wow” moment, when they realised how strong their grandma was. “We remembered her … when she was bringing us up. Her whole disposition and character never revealed to us that she had gone through all that pain in her life,” Tan shared.
From her grandmother’s articles, they discovered other parts of their family’s history that were not spoken of. Tan decided that it would be an honour to recognise, as well as document, her grandmother’s legacy.
Local women’s stories from the prewar and postwar era are scarce, and Pan’s articles, after all, offered valuable insights into the status and struggles of women during those times.
Around The Mahjong Table
Pan married at the age of 19, and had six children, one every consecutive year. Although she had a writing career that spanned almost four decades, Pan remained mostly a faceless writer.
She was primarily a mother and grandmother, a housewife who ran a huge household, a seamstress by day, and writer by night, after all her tasks were done. Contrary to stereotype, Pan’s husband encouraged her to pursue knowledge, read and write.
“I have now learnt that she went through a lot more pain. There were many problems – betrayal of love, poverty, keeping the family together, cooking, washing – at the end of the day my grandmother was still a woman who had to go through all of this on her own.
“I have heard of many women who have wanted to end it all – to take their own lives, or the lives of their children – just to keep their husbands in tow. Yet, here was this woman who went through so much without even having a network of support – no single mothers group or the WAO or Befrienders – she only had herself to rely on.
“She may not have been poor, but she was emotionally battered, yet she continued to strive on,” said Tan, adding that it is her fervent hope that as many people as possible get to read Grandma Pan’s stories and are able to find inspiration from her strength and resilience.
Tan has lovely memories of her grandma writing every night on an onion skin letter-pad with a BIC pen. The articles were sent off to Nanyang Siang Pao (in the days before Singapore and Malaya had split in 1965, so many of the letters were archived in Singapore) and a women’s magazine.
It is believed Pan found solace from her pain and hard life when she put pen to paper. Where did Grandma Pan get her material from? Tan reckons that the stories are all real and revolve around Pan’s own life, as well as the lives of her neighbours and friends.
“They would talk over the mahjong table. My grandma had debts to pay so she had to have mahjong sessions to earn some money, and all sorts of people came by, from inspectors to guest relations officers and bar girls,” Tan offered, pretty sure that grandma’s tales were gleaned from the people she came into contact with in this way.
“And I know many of these people… They were all real.”
Tan worked with a group of family and friends to compile, translate and edit the book including her cousins, Wu ZongJie and Wu ZiShan, as well as journalists Christine Cheah, Ivy Soon, Raymond Tan, and Singaporean academician Joe Liew, who trawled through Nanyang Siang Pao’s archives to find Pan’s articles.
Initially, they attempted to translate the articles literally but found that the translation didn’t quite capture the essence of Pan’s works. “The hardest bit for us was not losing her voice in the translation,” Tan shared. “I couldn’t have just engaged someone to translate the stories word for word.”
With what she knew and remembered of her grandmother, and after reading all the articles she could find, Tan was able to translate the articles in a manner she felt was closest to her grandmother’s work.
Tan decided on self-publishing the book because she was never out to make a profit from it, but rather to share a legacy with her sons, and then with anyone else who would benefit from knowing that no problem is too large to overcome.
“My cousins and I finally decided proceeds from the book’s sale would go to single mothers.” So one can donate RM25 (or more) for a book and the funds will be channelled to single mothers in need of aid.
To Tan, however, the ultimate and most important goal of this book project has always been to share her grandmother’s precious stories.