Chapter Four: The Discovery
1925 – George Town, Penang
As summoned by the formidable Mrs. Wong, the tailor came to the mansion on the following morning with his two of his best seamstresses. Mei Yee was very delighted to learn that the two seamstresses were the same Shanghainese ladies whom she had travelled on the steamer ship to Penang with. They were Jing Fei and Bao Hua. The two seamstresses were stunned to discover that Mei Yee was going to be the Wongs’ new daughter-in-law. They were ecstatic for her, as it was considered to be extreme good fortune for any woman to be married into a family of wealth and position. Mei Yee gracefully accepted their good wishes, and said nothing else.
Mei Yee also found out that Bao Hua was older than Jing Fei by 2 years. Bao Hua was good in embroidery work, where as Jing Fei was an expert in the sewing of ornate buttons for qipaos. In a traditional Chinese ‘qipao’, the buttons were as significant as the dress itself. It took a specific skill to sew the time-honoured qipao buttons, as they were truly delicate. An assessment of how well a ‘qipao’ was made, would be judged on its cut, embroidery and the buttons.
The qipao originated from the 17th century, when the minority Manchus ruled China after the Ming dynasty. Together with their allied and conquered forces of Mongol, the Manchus created the “Eight Banner System” in China. Thus, the ruling Manchus came to be known as the “Banner people”. The one-piece dress that was commonly worn by the Manchu women came to be regarded as the “banner-quilt” or in the Mandarin language, the qipao. As the Manchus created elite classes within their social infrastructure, women of nobility wore “formal court” qipaos, and “common” women would wear everyday casual qipaos. Hence, even the qipao costume could represent the subservient relationship between the aristocrats and the ordinary folks.
Before the 1920’s, the qipao was worn very loosely and wide. It was meant to conceal most of the woman's body, regardless of her age. In conservative China, women’s attire was meant to only reveal the ladies’ heads, hands, and the tips of their toes. However, during the 1920s, Shanghai became the fashion capital of China. Thus, the modifications to the original qipao were made popular. The new version of the qipao was more “exposed” with the famous slit at the sides that showed much of a woman’s leg. The new qipao was now made to fit the modern woman’s beautiful curves. Soon, this became the standard qipao, and everyone quickly started transforming their old qipaos to accommodate the latest style changes.
The Shanghainese have always been renown in China for their exceptional talents in making exquisite qipaos. The most luxurious of all qipaos would be the ones specially tailored for a bride to wear on her wedding day. It would have to be red in colour, as red was the colour that symbolized good luck and happiness in the Chinese culture. Then the master tailor and his team of seamstresses would spend hours, days or weeks working on the bridal qipao, depending on how complicated or elaborate the embroidery work was involved.
In Mei Yee’s case, her wedding qipao would have the motifs of a dragon adorned at the front of the dress. It would start from the right shoulder and flow down to the left bottom skirting of the dress. Here, the dragon symbolized the masculine qualities, meaning the groom or the husband-to-be. Mrs. Wong wanted to remind Mei Yee to always uphold her husband’s interests in her heart. The back of the bridal qipao would display an intricate emblem of the phoenix. The phoenix has always represented the female qualities in the Chinese custom, meaning the bride herself. Mrs. Wong had deliberately instructed the master tailor to have the phoenix embellished at the back of the dress in order to remind Mei Yee that her own identity would have little importance over her husband’s. Therefore, her husband’s welfare and happiness would always come first and foremost. Mei Yee would have to ‘put herself at the back’.
This resplendent qipao would be sewn with gold threads, and decorated with precious stones such as jade, turquoise and rubies. Mrs. Wong had spared no expense in making a truly spectacular qipao for her soon-to-be youngest daughter-in-law. After all, the bride would be paraded in front of all the relatives and guests at the wedding banquet, like another priceless art acquisition for everyone to appraise.
Mei Yee and the two seamstresses became fast friends. Jing Fei was most envious of Mei Yee, as “marrying well” was her main purpose in coming to Penang. Jing Fei prayed hard that she too would end up as lucky as Mei Yee. As the ladies and the master tailor were measuring Mei Yee, Ah Ping stood silently behind squirming within herself. She has grown very fond of Mei Yee. For once in her life, she felt that she had found a friend in Mei Yee. It troubled her deeply that she was knowingly withholding some very pertinent information from her friend. She dreaded not being able to tell Mei Yee the truth about the Groom, Christopher Wong, and what Mrs. Wong had planned for her on the wedding night.
After the tailor and seamstresses have left the mansion, Ah Ping was directed by Mrs. Wong to deliver Mei Yee’s lunch to the attic. It was thirty minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon, and the other ladies in the household had already eaten their lunch. It was served at twelve o’clock in the formal dining room every day, without fail. Mrs. Wong had graciously excused Mei Yee from joining them that day due to her appointment with the tailor and seamstresses. It was more important for Mei Yee to get herself measured and sized properly before the tailor could start work on the opulent fabric chosen by Mrs. Wong.
As Mei Yee was eating her sumptuous lunch, she noticed Ah Ping acting very strangely. In fact, Ah Ping has been behaving rather oddly since yesterday. Without delaying a moment longer, Mei Yee stopped eating and confronted Ah Ping directly.
“Now, what is really bothering you, Ah Ping? I want to know. You have been fidgeting all day. And if I remember correctly, you started doing so right after yesterday’s breakfast.” Mei Yee spoke sincerely.
Ah Ping shuffled her feet and looked down. She did not know how to explain the situation to her mistress.
Mei Yee got up from the table and walked towards her personal maid. She had not regarded Ah Ping to be her domestic attendant, but more of the sister which she never had.
Gently, she took hold of Ah Ping’s hands and said, “You can tell me, Ah Ping. I treat you as my sister. So, I will do my best to help you. Don't be afraid to tell me. What is the matter?”
Ah Ping finally looked up and sobbed, “It is not I who will be afraid, mistress, but you. And I don’t know how to help you. I am so sorry.”
Mei Yee was taken back. She did not expect to hear those exact words from Ah Ping. Why should she be afraid, and what would she be afraid of? She was very confounded by Ah Ping’s statement.
“What will I be afraid of, Ah Ping? Please tell me. I beg of you.” Mei Yee was disturbed, as Ah Ping looked most distressed.
“The night before you had arrived at the Wong residence, I over-heard Madam Wong’s private conversation with Sir Wong in the library. It was an accident. I was told by the Head Housekeeper to clean up some stains on the windows of the library. I did not know that both Sir and Madam Wong were inside. I was about to leave them alone when I heard your name. I was so curious about you at that time because they had already told me that I was assigned to be your personal maid. So, I stayed behind the closed door, and listened carefully to what Madam Wong was saying to Sir Wong.” Ah Ping explained while weeping, but another emotion was beginning to surface in her tone. It was fear.
The look on Ah Ping’s face alarmed Mei Yee even though she had no clue as to what Ah Ping had heard. She was determined to find out.
“Will you please share what they were discussing about me? I really need to know, Ah Ping, please.” Mei Yee pleaded.
“Before I tell you, I need to show you something. Only then you would truly understand.” Ah Ping said as she wiped away her tears.
Mei Yee felt very uneasy. As much as she was concerned about herself and wanted to learn what Ah Ping had heard, she did not like seeing the young girl cry over her.
“All right. But please, do not cry anymore, Ah Ping. I am not worth your tears.” Mei Yee said and handed Ah Ping a handkerchief.
Ah Ping refused her mistress’s hanky and proceeded to wipe her wet eyes on her sleeves. “You have been most kind to me, mistress. You treat me like a friend and not a maid. I really appreciate that very much. So, this is why I feel so sad. I did not know how to tell you. You certainly do not deserve to be treated in this way. Please come with me now. I will show you what Madam Wong has been hiding from you.” Ah Ping added.
Mei Yee’s curiosity urged her to go along with Ah Ping. Whatever it was – be it good or bad, she knew she had to see it for herself. She was not going to take anyone’s word for it. She never did. She needed to witness the truth with her own eyes, and then she would decide for herself. No one else held the right to make any conclusions on her behalf.
Quickly, Mei Yee abandoned her lunch and crept out of the attic. Ah Ping walked ahead to make sure that the coast was clear. She took Mei Yee through the narrow corridors and opened a small door. The door opened to a series of staircases which led to various doors and corridors on different levels. This was the back of the house, where the servants would move about freely whenever they had to go from one place to another. In the Wong residence, no servants were allowed to use the main staircases or wander about in the main building. Only those who were sent for, or had to serve would make themselves seen. All of the household staff was restricted to journey around the mansion through the complex structure of stairs constructed behind the walls of the great mansion. Hence, they could swiftly get from one end of the house to another, without being spotted by anyone.
Ah Ping guided Mei Yee through an assortment of doors before they reached the North Wing attic of the mansion. They were fortunate that no one had seen them. As they emerged from a narrow aisle and into the main hallway, Mei Yee realized that they had arrived at the opposite side of the mansion. Her own attic room was located on the South Wing corner. However, this North Wing attic was much more spacious than hers. The living room had several big floor-to-ceiling windows but there was hardly any furniture. There was only a large hand-painted folded lacquer screen that was placed in a corner. In front of the screen were two sofas and a table. Ah Ping grabbed hold of Mei Yee’s hand and led her behind the large screen. She motioned her finger to her mouth and Mei Yee instantly understood that they had to be very quiet. The screen concealed the both of them completely and safely in the corner of the room. Then, Ah Ping pointed to the small gaps in between the screen and gestured to Mei Yee to peer through them.
There were some sounds of movement coming from behind the bedroom door. They could hear the doorknob turn, and it was opened. Mei Yee looked closely and saw that a lady dressed in all white was wheeling out someone from the bedroom. She could not see the person seated on the wheelchair as their backs were facing her. Gradually, the lady in white turned the wheelchair around, revealing their faces. Mei Yee gasped in shock at the sight of the man seated in the wheelchair. Ah Ping had to place her hands onto Mei Yee’s mouth quickly in order to silence her.
The man in the wheelchair had a severe physical disorder. His whole face had been disfigured. It did not resemble any human form. His fingers were curled up like they were permanently clenched. He kept shaking his head and hands uncontrollably as the lady in white wheeled him out of the room. The only limbs that did not move at all were his legs. They looked lifeless.
After the lady in white had left the room with the crippled man, Ah Ping and Mei Yee came out from behind the screen. Ah Ping ran to the door to make sure that they were not coming back. She could see Mei Yee’s horrified face waiting to launch a set of questions.
“Who was that man in the wheelchair and why is he like that? Who is that lady all dressed in white? I have not seen anything like this before!” Mei Yee asked.
Ah Ping cautioned Mei Yee to keep her voice down, and told her that she will explain later. She then took Mei Yee back to the hallway, through the narrow alleys behind the walls of the mansion and climbed the flight of stairs back to Mei Yee’s attic in the South Wing corner.
Once they were both in the privacy of the attic, she announced, “Mistress, that man in the wheelchair will be your husband in less than 2 weeks’ time. He is Master Christopher Wong.”
This revelation fractured Mei Yee into pieces. She was completely dumbfounded.
“Master Christopher suffered a terrible hunting accident almost a year ago. He nearly died. Well, he does look like a ghost of his former self now. They say that he is also damaged in the brains. Only a handful of the servants in the house know about this. I happened to know because I was taking care of Master Christopher before they got him a full time nurse. That’s the lady in white we saw earlier. This is the real reason why Madam Wong did not want mistress to be wandering about in the house. Madam Wong did not want you to accidentally see her son before the wedding. She was most afraid you would change your mind. There is no such thing about any bad luck to see the groom beforehand. Both mistresses Ai Ling and Sun Lee were formally introduced to the Wongs’ older sons after they had been selected for the purpose of marriage. They all met with one another at an arranged dinner in the house. Then it was up to Master Alfred to decide which of the two ladies he wanted, as he was to be the first to marry. Bernard would the marry with the other lady a year later.” Ah Ping clarified.
Mei Yee was astonished at the lengths Madam Wong would undertake in entrapping her to marry her youngest son. It started to make sense why the family had insisted on finding a potential bride from the Mainland, and not sought out a local Penang girl. The China-ordered bride would not have any opportunity to run back to her own family after finding out the truth, where as a local girl could stir up all kinds of trouble for the Wongs.
“However, this is not all. The worst will happen on your wedding night and the nights after that.” Ah Ping said gravely.
“What do you mean?” Mei Yee wondered what could be worse than being married to a physically and mentally deformed man.
“You know they will see to it that you will bear them plenty of grandchildren, especially grandsons. But Master Christopher is no longer capable of making any babies. His manhood was also impaired by the accident.” Ah Ping disclosed.
Mei Yee stiffened. She shuddered to think of what Ah Ping was about to say.
“This will not be easy for you to hear, mistress. To all the relatives and everyone outside of the family, you will be marrying Master Christopher. But you and I know that Master Christopher will never be seen by anyone other than his nurse and Madam Wong. His condition will remain a family secret. So, at the wedding ceremony, you will actually be married to two men – Master Alfred and Master Bernard. Like all traditional wedding ceremonies, a red cloth will be covering the faces of the Bride and Groom. No one can see, and you will also not see who is the real person behind the red cloth. Everyone will think that the Groom is Master Christopher, but the role will be rotated between Master Alfred and Master Bernard.” Ah Ping described how the ceremony will be played out.
“Therefore, on your wedding night and the nights after, you will be impregnated by the two older sons. They will take turns in being with you until you give birth to male children. This is the main reason why the other sisters-in-law do not like you from the beginning. They know about this, but they cannot do anything. Madam Wong’s decision cannot be overturned by anyone.” Ah Ping uttered the words as fast as she could in order to lessen the horror and pain to her mistress.
Mei Yee could feel rage rising inside her like a flaming sword.
Did her mother know about how this marriage was to be arranged amongst the Wong sons? Had her mother also lied to her, knowing the kind of life she was condemning Mei Yee to live with the Wong family? How could all of them make her go through with this unspeakable arrangement? How could they proceed with such a sickening plan themselves?
The hostility that was directed towards Mei Yee by the other daughters-in-law was definitely called for. They had every right to be disgusted, she thought. Of all the terrible things that had ever happened to her, nothing came close to this. Mei Yee had held her emotions intact ever since she was first told to leave her family home and village. She did not want to create any problems for her family, especially her mother. Although she wanted to cry on several occasions, she did not allow herself to fall apart. She had wanted to represent her family’s honour in the best possible light. In all this time, she has fought back all the tears that were culminating behind her fiery eyes. This was the final straw that would breach the teary barricades. Like a dam, every fibre of her being wept unquenchable tears.
What could she do? What would become of her?
What could she do? What would become of her?
The foundation of her being surrendered to an overwhelming surge of misery.
To be continued on Chapter Five…