The recent Mooncake Festival, a festive occasion which the Chinese celebrate, brings to mind the deeds of a lady, the matriarch in a family of four generations, who celebrates her centenary year.
Some years ago, a black, spotless, chauffeured-driven Mercedes Benz with a KL number plate pulled up outside a humble terraced house in Batu Pahat, Johor. A grand hamper, filled with expensive delicacies befitting the Mooncake festival, was delivered to an old lady called “Han Zhe Soh”. Who would shower an old lady with such lavish gifts, wondered her curious neighbours.
This is the story of that old lady, Madam Ng Sok Cheng. However, she was affectionately known by the locals as the “Sweet Potato Lady”, a direct translation of her husband’s Chinese name – “Lady” being Madam, in Chinese. She is a local heroine and a legend who has touched the lives of a few hundred people, but more than that, she is “my grandmother and my inspiration”, boasts her grandson, Sean Lee.
Born in Ipoh in 1918 to a poor family, Sok Cheng was sold as a bond-maid to a rich family in Singapore. She had a hard childhood, being a servant to the mistress and young master of the house, was forced to slave and sleep on the hard floor. Obviously, she was deprived of an education.
At 18, she ran away from the family who had mistreated her and ventured to Johor Baru and found a job as a cook in a nurses’ hostel. There, she befriended an Indian nurse who relieved her of her cooking duties and brought her to Batu Pahat as an attendant in the local health clinic. Perhaps fate played a hand; thus, began a new phase of her life that benefitted hundreds of women and children in particular.
But the war spared no one. When the Japanese invaded Malaya, she hid herself in a village and soon was arranged to marry one of the village striplings (arranged marriages were common in those days), to avoid being abducted, as most unmarried ones were, as comfort women by the Japanese. Her first child, a daughter, was born during the war.
After the war, she returned to serve at the Batu Pahat clinic and assisted a British Health Officer in providing healthcare to the town folks and surrounding villages. The country was in dire need of trained health workers and, sensing the opportunity, she applied for midwifery training. Her commitment to duty had so impressed the officer that, though she was illiterate, he did not hesitate to recommend her.
Leaving her three children by then, in the care of family friends in 1947, she made a bee-line for Johor Baru where she distinguished herself in delivering babies under supervision of the tutors. Through her conscientious work, she distinguished herself well during the fours years of mainly practical training. She qualified to be a registered midwife and was allowed to do home deliveries.
This required her to travel to remote areas at odd hours of the day, but nothing could forestall her dedication to duty. Soon, word got around of her meticulous attention to the welfare of mother and child after delivery that she became the midwife for almost every potential mother around town. Furthermore she never demanded a fixed fee for the delivery. On the contrary, she would return the fee and accept the red packet only, in which the money was enclosed, if she knew that the family was struggling to make ends meet.
But, the hallmark of her duty as a midwife was her compassion and post-natal care for the mother and child. She would, in the first month after delivery, visit mother and child free of charge to ensure that all was well. She would even provide sesame oil, an ingredient in cooking essential to the health of the mother during the month of confinement, so the Chinese believe!
In 1964, at age 46, she partnered another midwife to set up a maternity home. For almost two decades when she operated the home she never once forgot her values of dedication, compassion, generosity and selflessness. In those years, she adopted two children from poor families as her own because she knew she would be able to provide a better life for them, when their mothers confided in her their inability to raise them.
In her mid-sixties, she was employed by an obstetrician to assist him to care for the mother and child after delivery by making house visits. She worked until the ripe old age of 80; commanding respect, compassion and love from all who were privileged to be delivered or cared for by her. Believe it or not, she could tell with some degree of certainty the gender of the baby just by listening to the sound of the unborn child’s heartbeat. Absolutely amazing!
The driver of the black Mercedes Benz wearily exited the vehicle, presumably from his long drive from Kuala Lumpur, introduced himself as the personal assistant of a property tycoon. He explained that the hamper was a gesture of gratitude from the multi-millionaire. The tycoon’s family was one such family that was touched by Sok Cheng’s magnanimity despite her own shortfall. She had delivered him and cared for both mother and child during the post-natal period without charge. In short, she had made his now extraordinary life possible – and he had not forgotten her.
I could go on and on with inspiring stories of Batu Pahat’s home-town hero (heroine). None can deny the self-respecting values in life of this lady: an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a tireless worker, a devoted mother and a “saint” to the poor.
Her story is far from a “rags to riches” episode because she never made it a goal to accumulate wealth. Neither did she sit back lamenting her bad luck nor ask for alms. Rather, she fought against all odds and helped the needy. She invested in people; gave away money, created opportunities, and to borrow a well-known expression, “paid it forward”, a virtue highly adhered to by the Chinese in their religious teachings.
We may elevate her on a pedestal in recognition of her simple life’s stories as she celebrates her 100th birthday, but being the humble person that she is, she would just want us to enjoy these stories with little fanfare, and to remember her as the “Sweet Potato Lady”.
An anonymous cliché, perhaps, sums up this lady’s deeds: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent upon unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me is half owing to a number who lived faithfully a hidden life.”