In the early ’70s, my young life was like walking through portals. By day, I went to a local primary school in Hampshire, England. I got on a school bus, ignored the sing-song jeers coming from the back row, tried to get through the school day incognito, and walked home alone.
Stepping through the portal that was my front door, I took off my shoes and entered my Malaysian-Chinese home, with its sepia-coloured photos of ancestors long gone, the occasional colour photo of relatives whom I had not met, and an odd set of house rules which I would not dream of sharing with any English friend I might one day have. Perhaps the oddest of these was NEVER to put my feet up and show the soles of my feet to the television set when the Queen was making one of her broadcasts.
At home we ate nor mai fan, chicken rice, pork ribs, agar-agar seaweed jelly, rice porridge jook and “one hundred-year-old” black eggs. God forbid they heard about that at school.
Conversely, Mum was aghast when I said the day’s school dinner was toad-in-the-hole and frog spawn. She thought blue cheese was very suspect and I was forbidden from eating Cadbury’s Creme Eggs because she didn’t trust that they were cooked properly.
Mum did not make English friends and she and I were a solitary unit in a small village unpoetically named Cowplain.
One afternoon we passed a small group of people, including three retired servicemen in uniform, sitting at a table outside a department store called Landports, in the Commercial Road shopping precinct in Portsmouth. There was a collection tin and a tray of plastic red poppies on the table.
My mum paused, took out two brand new fifty pound notes from her purse, folded them and put them in the tin. She made a slight smile at the group, averted her eyes, and took a poppy.
This was an extraordinary thing for me to witness. We lived a frugal life. The hot water boiler and central heating was turned on for half an hour each morning and late afternoon (for my benefit I later realised. Mum stayed in a cold house all day.) We never ordered takeaways. We had two shared extravagances: to eat fish and chips for lunch in the Landports cafeteria, and to have strawberries and cream in Summer.
“Mummy!” I hissed frantically, “Those are fifty pound notes! Are you sure?”
She ignored me.
One of the retired servicemen stood up.
“Excuse me, Madam. May I ask where you are from?”
“I come from a place called Sabah, in British North Borneo,” she said. “We – we are always grateful to the Allied soldiers.”
My mother was self-conscious about her English, and was already moving away. The man stepped out and they shook hands. They stood there for a moment. My mum patted his forearm and nodded. Then we left.
I moved to Sabah for the first time in 2008. A year later my husband Mike took me to the Sandakan Memorial Park Service. Sandakan is a town in Sabah, Malaysia, and the memorial park honours the British and Australian POWs who endured the Sandakan Death Marches in World War II. Mike placed a wreath at the memorial on behalf of SAAA (Sabah Australian Alumni Association).
Here is a bagpiper from that day playing Waltzing Matilda and Flowers Of The Forest.
This Anzac Day April 25th is the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, when Australian and New Zealand forces went to fight the Ottoman Empire in World War I. On this day Australians remember their sons and daughters who have served their country in times of war and conflict. People from other countries remember them too.