My grandma’s stories: Ah Ma is a child bride

(This is the sixth part of an ongoing series recounting my grandma’s stories about her life and the old days in Singapore. In the last post, I did a quick update about some difficulties writing this series. Click here for the first, second, third, fourth and fifth part of this series)

Ah Ma, looking really shocked, poses with my sister who just graduated this week!

My grandma is a child bride. I learnt about this only around a week ago after living with her more than 20 years under the same roof.

You can imagine my absolute astonishment to know that my Ah Ma, who was born, bred and raised in Singapore, lived under such a traditional, antiquated system.

“I was sold by my birth parents to my in-laws at a very young age,” Ah Ma, whose last name is Choo, said. “I was then only about a month old, according to my mother-in-law.”

As mentioned in my last post, grandma is not exactly the best storyteller, but never did I realize that all the family stories had told me thus far referred to her in-laws, whose last name is See. In another words, her in-laws were my great-grandparents.

I found out when I started probing Ah Ma about her relationship with granddad. Only then I understood there was never really a courtship or much romance to talk about because they grew up with each other, destined to marry later on in life.

My great-grandmother, who is a child bride herself, bought not one but two child brides for her sons.

Such a practice of adopting child brides was common in traditional Chinese culture because of the importance placed on passing down the family name.

“Girls in the past were worthless,” grandma said with angst. “People would pay money to buy a daughter-in-law but ironically sell their own daughters away. It was just a terrible practice.”

As a child bride, grandma had to work hard for her family, particularly when her mother-in-law passed away from an ankle infection during World War Two.

Pictures taken of grandma and Aunt Mei in the 1970s (L) and 2012. Grandma is seen on the far left and far right.

Ah Ma, who was the oldest woman in the household at 16, naturally assumed the role of the matriarch for the family of eight and was expected to keep domestic affairs in check.

“When Mei (youngest sister-in-law), who was 4, wanted a pair of clogs, I had to buy it for her. When Ying, (second sister-in-law), who was 9, wanted lipstick, I had to get it too, even though I was only earning $1.80 daily.”

At 20, grandma reluctantly got married to grandpa.

“I didn’t want to marry him,” Ah Ma said with a sigh. “But my father-in-law threatened to lie on the railway tracks and die in front of my eyes. What could I do?”

The wedding was a simple affair that grandma was only willing to give no more details other than that they invited neighbors over for a home-cooked meal.

“Even though I met many other men at where I worked, I didn’t dare to date anyone,” grandma admitted. “I was too scared to do so.”

Up till today, grandma still gets quite upset that she was never allowed to choose her own partner that she blames for her hard life.

A traditional Chinese wedding letter, symbolizing double happiness, given a modern twist at a wedding I attended in 2011

Yet the one highlight of her wedding was that Ah Ma got to meet her birth parents for the first time in her life.

Such generosity from her in-laws was due to traditions stipulating brides should not meet their grooms a day before they get married. Moreover, grooms have to fetch their brides from their ‘old’ to their ‘new’ homes, symbolizing a new start to their new relationship.

It was with such auspicious blessings that grandma embarked on her new married life with granddad.

Interested to hear about grandma’s life after marriage and her new found parents? These bits are coming up in the next part of the series!

You can catch up on previous posts below:
The half-way post is an update about the difficulties I faced when writing this series
The fifth part is about Ah Ma’s job after war
The fourth part is about daily life during the Japanese occupation.
The third part is about the early years of the Japanese occupation.
The second part is about Ah Ma’s family.
The first part is about Ah Ma’s early childhood.
The introduction gives some background information about “My grandma’s stories”

6 thoughts on “My grandma’s stories: Ah Ma is a child bride

  1. Well, that certainly explains why she was not close to her brothers. I love the series you are doing on your grandmother. It shows the true history of a time long gone.

    For this, and for all the wonderful books you suggest on your blog, I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

    I am not sure if you have gone through this before, but these are the 3 steps to follow if you choose to accept it:
    1) Backlink to the blogger who gave you the award
    2) Tell us 7 things about yourself that we don’t know yet through your blog
    3) Nominate 15 blogs that inspire you

  2. What a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it. It is so sad that your grandma felt culturally obliged to perpetuate the same treatment she was subjected to. We take our freedom totally for granted, and yet the days of women being subjected to what my modern, western sensibility would call domestic slavery are still so close.

  3. Loving all ur ah ma stories Jieyi. They are
    So meaningful, and such a good reminder about the tough lives our grandparents used to have. And it makes us reflect on our own lives, we have so much to be grateful for. Keep writing! 🙂

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