Whenever anyone in my family refers to "Grandma's House", I would always think of the Cairnhill place in Singapore. The sprawling, half-acre property was presided over by a stately, three-storied colonial house, with white-washed walls and a gently-sloping terracotta roof. The house belonged to my paternal grandmother for over thirty years, except when it was used by Japanese army officers during the Occupation from 1942-1945.
The family had been fortunate that they were allowed at least a day's notice to vacate the premises. In those dark days, there were many instances where reluctant occupants were forcibly removed. Often in a terrible, final way. It may well be that my father's family received "special consideration" because First Aunt Elsie, the oldest and prettiest of Grandma's daughters, was also the mistress of an army officer at the time. Cousin Ned is half-Japanese. (All names mentioned have been changed).
The approach from Cairnhill Road to the entrance of the property was secured by a pair of ornate, white-coated metal gates. Thick bamboo groves behind the gates flanked the entrance, rustling and sighing with every passing breeze. The garden was a veritable jungle, spreading out on the left of the gravelled driveway that led to the house. It overflowed with richly green foliage and shrubs vibrant with red, pink, white and yellow tropical flowers. Lush banana plants lined the foot of the garden, providing shade on warm, sunny days.
As children, we thought the garden was a fantastic wonderland. Many 'kung-fu' battles were held among the bamboo forest, where we fought off wicked bandits, carried out heroic missions against enemies, trounced the bloodthirsty barbarian hordes and saved the empire. When we played nearer the house, the banana plants obligingly sheltered us beneath their wide leafy spread for thrilling games of "hide-and-seek".
Those were glorious, carefree days. There was no talk of darkness, plenty of food on the table and the sun kept a cheerful eye on us all day. We were generally allowed to "play havoc" (run wild), scream and yell as we pleased, blissfully unaware of any past troubles when we romped in that garden.
My father's family had inherited certain gifts from my paternal great-grandmother, as well as Grandpa. Grandma's mother was a village headwoman in Thailand, which meant that she was the Wisewoman who officiated over births, deaths, marriages and other formal ceremonies. In her position, she had to have knowledge of ancient traditions and spiritual practices; after all, she lived during the late 1850s to early 1900s, when people walked a lot more closely with their beliefs in the spirit world. But that is all I know about the Thai side of the family.
Second Aunt Maggie was a great source of information on all things weird and inexplicable (when Grandma wasn't around, that is). One Sunday afternoon, when Grandma was in the kitchen supervising the evening meal, Aunt Maggie said to my father that she needed to talk to him.
No one noticed my little "pointy" ears were in the vicinity.
My older sister and cousins had decided to race each other around the garden that day. At age five, and the youngest in our "gang-of-four", I was too short to keep up with them. So I was playing by myself on the wooden floor behind the large living room sofa, conveniently out of sight and mind.
My young ears pricked up at the odd note in Aunt Maggie's voice. With the instinctive skill of the very naughty and sneaky, I instantly went quiet and on the alert.
They spoke in a polyglot blend of Hokkien and Singlish (Singapore English), with a smattering of Malay thrown in. My command of Hokkien was better in those days and I could follow the gist of the conversation.
'I hear A-bó [ah-bu: mother] talking to someone in her room at night,' Aunt Maggie confided to Dad.
'Maybe she's listening to radio?
'When I asked her in the morning, she can't remember.'
'Don't be so kăypóh [ghay-poh: nosy, prying],' said Dad in a chiding tone.
Aunt Maggie persisted, 'I'm worried about her.'
'She's not going gila [gee-lah: crazy]!' Dad sounded annoyed. 'Why you not tell Ken?'
First Uncle Ken was the oldest in the family. However it was my father, the second oldest of the five brothers, that everyone went to with their troubles.
'A-bó listens to you.'
'I'm not the păntāng [pahn-tahng: superstitious] type. I don't see things - '
I didn't learn any more because my listening post was discovered at that point. I was summarily scolded and sent outside to join the "gang".
When I asked Aunt Maggie about that conversation some years ago, she was surprisingly vague about it. All she would say was that Grandma was just "talking to the spirits".
First Aunt Elsie and her youngest daughter, Sonia had their own encounters. My aunt's bedroom was on the second storey at the front of the house, where the window with its cream-coloured shutters overlooked the garden. My cousin Sonia shared the room when she was very young.
One sultry night, Sonia (who was about four at the time) was woken up by distant feminine voices coming from the garden below. She got up and padded over to the window to find out who they could be.
The moon glowed bright and round in the night sky, shining on a bevy of ethereal Asian-looking women gathered near the banana grove in the garden. They appeared to glide over the ground, and were singing, laughing or talking among themselves.
Fascinated by the scene, Sonia quickly called for her mother. When Aunt Elsie saw what she was looking at, she hastily shushed her daughter and put her back to bed.
Decades later, Aunt Maggie brought up this incident when the family got together for Sunday lunch and were reminiscing about the peculiar happenings at the Cairnhill house. By then, Grandma and Aunt Elsie had both passed away, and the property was no longer in the family. Sonia had already married and gone with her American husband to California.
'Remember when Sonia saw the suí-suì [swee: beautiful] cā-bòh [cha-boh: girls] in the garden?' said Aunt Maggie.
'Yeah, she said it was the banana tree ghost,' said my Dad with a chuckle.
'I saw the cā-bòh myself,' Aunt Maggie announced. 'I also saw A-bó and Elsie.'
'Say again?' Dad was openly incredulous.
Aunt Maggie told us that she had problems sleeping on full-moon nights. As she lay awake in bed, she could sometimes hear women's voices from beyond her window. On a few occasions when she looked out the window, she was sure she saw Grandma and Aunt Elsie chatting with strange women in the banana grove below. At other times, she also glimpsed another group of women clustered near the bamboo groves at the gates.
There was much excited and rather heated discussion among the family. Everyone had an opinion and wanted to share it, all at the same time. I learnt a whole plethora of folktales, legends and spiritual beliefs from many different cultures that day.
Among them is a Thai legend that tells of wild banana groves haunted by the gentle "Nang Tani" or "Lady of Tani" [นางตานี]. On full-moon nights, these female spirits can be seen floating above the ground near their banana plants. They are believed to be protective of women who have been ill-treated by men. Such as the "comfort women" used by the Japanese who were kept at Cairnhill during the Occupation.
As a child, I've seen strips of cloth tied around the trunks of some banana plants in the garden. I now know they were warnings that the "Nang Tani" might just be around.