The One Where My Grandma Tells A War Story

My 88-year-old Popo, my maternal grandma, has a lot of great stories to tell. She doesn’t come up with them on demand, though. You have to ride her train of thought long enough until she lights upon a good one from the archives, and then listen closely to what comes up.

I was told as a little girl that my grandparents were married during the war in an arranged marriage because it would help ensure Popo’s relative safety from the Japanese troops that occupied Singapore at the time. I’ve always been baffled as to why a married teenage girl was any ‘safer’ than an unmarried one, but there’s probably a lot I’ll never understand about wartime society and norms. So this evening, when Popo said to me, “You know, I was married when I was only 18…” I was quite looking forward to more insight into how and why her marriage came about.

This was the story Popo told me.

“You know, I was married when I was only 18. At the time the Japanese soldiers had already invaded Singapore.

I had a neighbour called Ah Jin who was close to my age. Her father sold durians outside their house, and she would help him sell the durians and sweep up the stall. That’s how a lot of people would see her.

Some bad person went and told the soldiers that there was a pretty young girl living in that house. One night they came, and they kicked out Ah Jin’s parents and her younger brothers from their own home.

The noise was terrible and it went on the whole night. I didn’t know what was happening, so I asked my mother. She said, Ah Jin is being raped by the Japanese soldiers. I didn’t know what “rape” meant so my mother said it was what we would see the wild dogs doing in the streets. I was so scared.

After the soldiers left the next day, Ah Jin’s family came home. Her mother was heartbroken. They found a rickshaw puller that they knew, a nice Hockchew man, and asked him to help them bring Ah Jin to the doctor. The rickshaw man said to them, “Let me marry Ah Jin. Don’t look down on me because I’m a rickshaw puller. I’ll take her, I’ll take care of her.”

So he married her. And it was true, he was only a rickshaw puller and they owned their own stall. They sold durians, and when the durians weren’t in season they sold rambutans. They also sold duck feet paus. Do you know what duck feet pau is? You take a piece of duck feet, add duck liver, and wrap the whole thing together with intestines. Yes, a lot of people ate those, and then there was another dish they made with the pork skin…”

And so the story continued along distinctly gastronomical lines, until we were interrupted by my cousin grumbling about her new orthodontic braces. Not only did Popo not return to the story of Ah Jin and her rickshaw puller husband, I never did find out a damn thing about how she ended up with my grandfather, either.

I bet the scriptwriters for How I Met Your Mother could learn a thing or two from my Popo…

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