…in conservative Asia

Valerie Wong was born in Malaysia and grew up in Kuala Lumpur until she moved to Sydney, Australia when she was fifteen. She graduated with Honours in Literature from the University of Sydney and currently works as the Marketing Manager for a bookstore in Sydney.

“Mum, what were you girls like growing up?”

She thinks for a moment. “Wild.”

There were four of them, the sisters. In order of birth: Ah Girl (mum), Mui Mui, Ann Girl and Pauline. The sisters grew up poor in a small, ramshackle kampung house in a little village that urbanisation forgot. As Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur rose and surged around them in the wake of Japanese occupation and British emancipation, Kampung Kassipilay remained mostly unchanged. Nestled in the shadow of the city, the village held onto its raised wooden houses with their corrugated iron rooftops, its chickens and geese wandered in front lawns and backyards unchecked, residents continued to dump their rubbish in a collective pile on the corner of Jalan Kassipilay and Jalan Tampoi. Although just a ten-minute cab ride from the city centre, even today many KL-siders aren’t aware of Kampung Kassipilay’s existence. When the sisters were growing up, a single worn out wooden bridge across the river connected the kampung to the rest of the city, and it felt a world away.

For a long while it was just the sisters running amok in the household, before their only brother, Ah Boy, came along. By then, they were already a dangerous and unstoppable force, and thick as thieves.

There was a flasher in the kampung. He would terrorise the neighbourhood girls by showing off his bits to them as they walked to school along the train tracks. Like a toad he waited in the shrubbery. When his victims came along he would make little noises – groans, hisses, gurgles – to attract their attention. Then, hello! An eyeful of wrinkled man flesh. After some days of being subjected to this unsavoury display, when it became apparent that the flasher wasn’t going to stop, the sisters decided they had had enough. This was the best shortcut to school, their walk along the train tracks, though they could never tell Mother about it. One section of the tracks was an open deck railway bridge, you see, and the drop through its wooden beams a good ten metres or so to the river below – this was not a route parents allowed their children to take. So the sisters had to take care of the flasher problem themselves. Aged eight to twelve, these little ladies one morning went on their usual shortcut, armed with pocketfuls of rocks and stones. When the flasher and his bits appeared, the sisters unleashed a terrifying onslaught of stones, screaming expletives at the top of their lungs: “Ham sap lo! Tiu lei ham sap lo! Fuck you, chi bai!” (“Dirty pervert! Fuck you, pervert! Fuck you, cunt!”) The next time, they came armed with the sharpest-pointed umbrellas they could find, too, for stabbing at soft parts. Eventually the flasher, beaten in body and in will, stopped showing up. The sisters won.

They were fearless, these young women. They weren’t afraid of some creepy old bastard trying to get his rocks off by swinging them around, making little girls scream. These four young girls fought and won. They were dangerous. There were other battles too, that the sisters fought as they grew older, ones that didn’t involve throwing rocks.

The girls were born Chinese in a newly independent Muslim country, growing up in the sixties and seventies. The Western world might have been going through its flower power, sexual liberation phase, but the landscape was quite different in Malaysia. The Muslim Malay girls were mostly conservatively dressed, with the more devout wearing headscarves and loose-fitting, long-skirted baju kurung. The Chinese and Indian girls were usually more liberal, though still fairly demure in dress. Not the four sisters. They wore the shortest skirts, body-hugging dresses, ridiculously high heels that showed off legs for days. Walking down streets dressed like that in Kuala Lumpur, they caused quite a stir. You’d think Malaysian men had never seen a woman in real life before, the way some carried on. They would gawk and whistle and cat-call and hurl lewd suggestions. Dress like that, she’s asking for it la, true or not? In broad daylight, some more. Ai-yo-yo, leng luiiii… my balls blue already!

They didn’t let any of it touch them. Those men could whistle and hiss and yell till they were hoarse. The sisters just laughed at them. They wore what they wanted, damn anyone who tried to tell them otherwise or tried to make them feel shame for their bodies. This was their feminism. This was being a dangerous woman in a conservative Asian country.

When I was growing up, words like ‘dowdy’ and ‘frumpy’ were considered bad words in my family of dangerous women. Sexy was beautiful, and a woman should never be afraid of feeling sexy. A woman should wear what she wanted, and be comfortable and confident in her own skin. I remember when I was quite young, sitting in on a conversation mum had with a friend of hers. Mrs. Cheah was confiding to mum that she wasn’t permitted by her husband to wear shorts in public. Even the most conservative shorts could only be worn in the home, away from outside eyes. Her legs were to be kept a secret. I remember my mother’s outrage. I didn’t understand any of this at the time, why Mr. Cheah wouldn’t let his wife wear shorts outside, or why Mrs. Cheah needed to have rules about what she could and couldn’t wear. These concepts and restrictions were alien to me in my household, amongst my family. Maybe Mrs. Cheah’s family just wasn’t as dangerous as ours.

When I was a little older, about thirteen, a friend’s mother felt she needed to teach me about these rules. Mum had already been living in Australia for some years by then, while I was still in Malaysia with dad. I spent a lot of time ferreting between aunties’ and grandparents’ and friends’ homes in those years. So Mrs. Tan decided that I was missing an important female compass, that perhaps no one had taught me how to be a proper Chinese-Malaysian lady. A safe lady. She pulled me aside one evening I was sleeping over and said to me, quite solicitously, “Now, Val, I know you don’t really have a mother around, so I’m going to tell you this,” she looked me hard in the eye. “You shouldn’t be wearing spaghetti-strap tops, you know. It’s not appropriate.”

I have never liked being told what to do – a genetic trait passed down through the women in my mother’s family. I bit my tongue and took the advice in stride and made sure to wear something even more revealing the next time I stayed over. But mostly though, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t appropriate to wear a tank top.

No one had taught me not to wear shorts in public, or spaghetti-strap tank tops. No one told me that I should cover up my legs and my arms or that I shouldn’t wear clothes that emphasised my curves. That these rules should be minded because my woman-ness might make men call out at me on the street, make them covet those legs and arms and curves, cause a stir. That the bad things that happened to girls, if you didn’t mind those rules, it would be your fault if they happened to you. My mother and her sisters did tell me, probably more than was necessary and definitely in more detail than was necessary, about the bad things that happened to girls. That I always had to be careful, because there were men out there who were not good people. And that a man would always be physically stronger than me, so I had to be smarter. But never once did they tell me that my body was to be blamed. The reason for sexual violence was never because you left your legs on show, it was because some men were sick in the head. Because they wanted something they couldn’t have, and had to use violence to get it.

Mrs. Tan was wrong when she told me I didn’t have a mother around. I had better than just one – I had four mothers. Aunty Mui Mui, the fierce one, who taught me to be bold and to take shit from no one, who taught me how to eat the hottest chilli. Aunty Ann Girl, the loud one, who always had a giant smile on her face and laugh on her lips, even when her husband disappeared and left her with two small girls. Aunty Pauline, the adventurous one, who went travelling and mountain climbing and jungle trekking, who never married, who taught me you didn’t need a man to be happy. And mum. Ah Girl, Irene. The first sister to leave an unhappy marriage. The only one who put herself through college. The only one to have her second marriage also fail, leaving her alone and penniless in rural central Queensland, where the only job she could get was picking tomatoes. She taught me to be brave and independent, she taught me I could do anything.

These women weren’t perfect. They were supremely flawed in so many ways. They were also powerful, and beautiful, and dangerous, and they all loved me like I was their own. I owe all that I am to these women. In a world that would have sooner seen me fearful, shamed, cowed, compliant and complacent, they made me into a dangerous woman.