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Given Away At Birth

Madam Pang back at Bin Kiang School on Pulau Ubin.

Madam Pang (second from right) back at Bin Kiang School on Pulau Ubin.

“有人要你就好了 [1]”, Jie Liu (揭六) said in Cantonese, hours after his seventh daughter, Pang Tai Quee (彭大娇), was born in the early morning of September 26, 1939, on Pulau Ubin. She was the ninth of 10 children. It was a baby boy her father wanted, and seven days later she was given away to his friend, Pang Heng (彭兴). Opium brought both men together, who had to take 25-cent boat rides to buy packets of the substance from Changi back home, and had to dump them into the sea when the sirens of police boats blared in the distance.

Smoking opium in the afternoon, even though possession was illegal without certificates from a medical practitioner since 1934, eased the exhaustion of Madam Pang’s foster father – albeit temporarily. “He earned seven or eight dollars a day at the granite quarry”, she recalls, “but the labour of mining granite, which was sent in barges back to the mainland for construction, was backbreaking”.

Exhausting Routines

Taken from http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/heritage/ubin/stories/images/ubinquarry-picas1962.jpg.

Granite quarry workers on Pulau Ubin.

Besides the many quarries on Granite Island, as Pulau Ubin was known for and named after, there were large rubber and cash crop plantations. Like her birth father Madam Pang’s foster father favoured his sons, and after barely a year of education at Bin Kiang School (敏江学校) she joined her stepmother at the rubber plantation when she was nine. “重男轻女” [2], in her words. Her foster father had just remarried, two years after Madam Pang’s foster mother died of an unknown disease.

Work was tough on the island. The night before Madam Pang turned in when the sky got dark at eight in the evening, after brewing a pot of black coffee which was stored in aluminium thermos flasks. At two in the morning with lukewarm coffee in their veins, she walked with her stepmother for 20 minutes to the plantation where they tapped latex from the rubber trees. “We made the incisions early to increase the yields, collected the white latex in metal buckets, and had them weighed and recorded”, Madam Pang shares. At ten they returned home, took a nap, and busied themselves with household chores.

Pay-outs of about $60 were made by the collector at the end of the month.

Still, money was in short supply. Huddled in their three-room atap house, while they grew vegetables and raised chickens and pigs, Madam Pang and her family needed the money to buy rice and fish. It was hard to make ends meet, and her two stepbrothers stayed on mainland Singapore as apprentices to a furniture-maker at Whampoa, without completing their formal primary education.

Given Away at Birth

Taken from http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/36/fa/69/pulau-ubin.jpg.

The entrance to Pulau Ubin today.

Even as she grew accustomed to the routines of her foster family, she found out more about her birth family. During her school holidays in 1948 she visited her elder sister at Hainan Street in Singapore, and helped to look after her sons. When Madam Pang returned her foster father was incensed, because “he thought I was trying to get back with my birth family”. It also gave him another reason to stop her from attending school.

The practice of giving children away was not uncommon, especially within her families. They did not have the means to feed so many mouths. Madam Pang’s three-year-old stepsister was sold for a small amount to a childless family who later moved to Guangxi, China. One of her elder birth sisters was given to a Malay family in the neighbourhood.

Now, potential parents go through an arduous process to adopt a child in Singapore.

According to the Adoption of Child Act, some of the requirements for adoption include the age of the adopter, the maximum age gap between the adopter and the child, as well as attendance at the compulsory Pre-Adoption Briefing, conducted by voluntary welfare organisations accredited by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). With stricter checks on prospective parents – such as the home study reports, which are prepared after a series of interviews and home visits – adoptions number in the hundreds. The informal adoption arrangements which charted the course of Madam Pang’s life, since she was one week old, no longer exist.

Making a Move

Taken from http://www.chinatownology.com/images/DSCN3209.JPG.

The Majestic Da Hua theatre.

At 19 Madam Pang was married to Kwan Hin Kee. It was an arranged marriage, made in the early 1900s by her foster grandmother and his grandmother, who were good friends in Sanshui, China. With his parents Mr. Kwan had visited her on the island a year ago, and after two movie dates at The Majestic Da Hua theatre (大华戏院) they had a wedding dinner of nine tables at the New World Entertainment Complex (新世界) on February 23, 1957.

Some yearn for the lifestyles of the past, of the kampung spirit, yet Madam Pang embraced the move to the mainland. “Nothing” she says, when asked what she missed about Pulau Ubin. “Especially not the snakes we had to look out for in the early mornings”.

Madam Pang joined Mr. Kwan’s family of 11 in a shop-house at Whampoa. The family paid $85 a month for the two-room apartment. After a relocation exercise they stayed at Toa Payoh for a few months, before settling at a shop-house along Kempas Road for $250 a month in the 1970s. Over the next three decades the rent has increased from $280 to $1,000 to $2,000, and as a house-maker she help tend to the small grocery shop with her four sons. With Mr. Kwan she now lives in a three-room flat along Balestier Road, making pineapple tarts and love letters in the festive reasons.

Three years after her marriage Madam Pang’s foster family moved away from Pulau Ubin, to a kampung along Airport Road. Her older and younger foster brothers found jobs in a government agency and in a cement transportation company respectively. She made the occasional trip back to visit her friends, but in the 1960s as the granite quarries and the rubber plantations ceased operations more residents moved to the mainland. Madam Pang has also headed back on Qingming Festival and the death anniversaries of her elders.

“I feel no resentment”, she muses, “and it has been a long time since my birth and time on Pulau Ubin”. “Things have turned out well over the years, my children and grandchildren have lived quite comfortably, and I am thankful for that”.

[1] Translated from Chinese, this means “how nice would it be if someone wanted you”.

[2] A Chinese expression, used to describe someone who values men over women.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.



  1. Pingback: Throwback: Given Away At Birth | guanyinmiao's musings - April 8, 2016

  2. Pingback: On Death | guanyinmiao's musings - April 25, 2016

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