At the top of Seraya Hill stood a rambling old two-storey house. Tall shuttered windows lined the ground floor, like sleepy sentinels, while ornate embellishments draped themselves round the upper and lower edges of the outside wall, like icing on the circumference of a wedding cake. At the front, a commanding porch presided. Wide enough to accommodate a car, it stood on smooth round columns, truncated at the bottom with floral carvings. The tops of the columns also burst into bloom with Corinthian leaves and tendrils and crowning this glorious façade was a stone triangular pediment on to which was carved in elegant lettering that is rarely found these days, the name LSH Villa.
On the first floor, more shuttered windows cast their heavy lidded gaze down on the surrounding garden. Above each window was a row of bulky square bricks that had scalloped edge holes bored through them—these was air vents, not used nowadays but prevalent in the days before air-conditioning. From one side of the first floor jutted a hexagonal turret, with windows that were capped with round pediments, each carved with a different bird: an mynah, a kingfisher, a peacock, a swallow and a cuckoo. The peacock was the centerpiece; it rested on a pediment larger than the rest and its fully extended fantail pressed the edge of its stone cage as if looking for more room to spread its beauty. The other birds might have paled in comparison, except that each of them was carved in such an exaggerated manner that they drew interest of their own. The mynah beak was gaping open as if starved or singing at the top of its voice. On the kingfisher’s head, the usual neat tuft of feathers had been extended into a Mohawk, and the swallow’s tail had been rendered to curve up and back towards the swallow’s head. The humble cuckoo was distended, roly poly, looking like it was about to roll off its pediment.
No one knew what had been the inspiration behind these bizarre, mishapened carvings. Or what lay in the turret. Or in the house for that matter. A metal grill paralysed by rust sealed the front entrance to the house, by the porch. Behind it was a large, thick wooden door that leaned against the grill in a lethargic way. In the little space that lay between the grill and the door were a handful of dried leaves, blown the wrong way by the wind, jammed and crushed between rusty metal and dried up wood. The interior of the house had not been seen by anyone for years. The last person to see it, the caretaker, had passed away several years ago.
A spacious garden encircled the house. Leading up to the porch was a graceful gravel driveway, sweeping like the train of a bride’s gown. Lining the driveway were flower beds, no overgrown and bare distinguishable from the tumble of grass that was a lawn. Still, one could catch a Japanese rose here and there, the unmistakable bold purple flowers, or a pale pink lily. Leaning against the side fence was a rickety metal frame under which lay scattered terracotta pots. These pots had once hung from the overhead rails of the frame and out of them had once grown bright white phaelanopsis orchids the size of saucers. A massive mango tree grew towards the back of the garden, its tough branches bowed over with green mangoes blackened by their own sap and any one walking past would have noticed the pungent odour of overripe fruit. From somewhere within the labyrinth of branches an bougeanvilla had taken root and sprouted its unruly, thorny twines out of the top of the mango tree, a spray of orange leaves in perfect mimicry of flowers tumbling to the ground. Buried in the tangled grass were remnants of garden sculptures. One was a naked female water bearer, holding an urn on one shoulder that presumable once held hyacinths or duckweed. She now lay on her side, her urn looking disproportionately large next to her small marble head. Another was a copy of the Venus de Milo, its brokenness looking surprisingly at home in the tangled foliage. A third was a marble fountain on a pedestal. The fountain bowl was carved with ribbons and roses while the pedestal was elegantly plain. The little metal spout from which water once bubbled had fallen off and in its place was a mossy black hole. In one corner of the garden was an old garage. A passiflora climber had taken over the much of this modest shelter, and its walls and the beams of its wooden door could barely be seen underneath the mesh of heart shaped leaves and crimson flowers.
The house had been built in 1932. For Lee Siok Han, a young bride only in her late teens. Her husband was Robert Chong, a very wealthy businessman whose family had emigrated to Singapore from Fujian in the 1890s and subsequently made their fortune in the rubber boom of the 1920s. Siok Han was Robert’s second wife, and the one that made him like he was floating a few inches off the ground whenever they were together. They had met in Penang. Robert was there to meet with a trading partner to discuss shipping a consignment of rubber to England and Siok Han, only seventeen, was the nanny of his partner’s infant daughter. He was taken by her soft eyes, the long braid of silky hair that snaked down her back and ended just at her waist, the firm hips—strong for such a young woman—that were hidden underneath the straight cotton trousers that she wore and the fact that she had smiled at him. She was unsettled by the attention he paid her, thought it impossible the man of his age and position would take an interest in her. On the day he departed Penang, he brought her a spray of phaelanopsis orchids and left them outside the nursery. Three days later he sent a letter up from Singapore addressed to her father. Three months later she was in a train heading to Singapore to take his hand in marriage.
Some say marrying a person one hardly knew was a recipe for disaster, a life of long silent suffering with a spouse one was not compatible with but forced by social convention to stay tied to for life, of children born of sex without intimacy, of tolerated mistresses, of boredom, loneliness and wishful longing for a different life. But Robert and Siok Han were a match made in heaven. They adored each other and spent as much time together as they could—listening to music he would play her on his gramophone, jazz and swing imports from America that he loved and she found amusing, she would tell him stories of her childhood in Georgetown, her working middle class Straits Chinese family, her five younger siblings whom she helped raise and her grandmother who taught her how to sew and cook.
All this played itself out under the watchful eyes of Robert’s first wife, Guan Eng. She observed the two love birds flutter about the house which she considered to be hers with much disdain. Her marriage to Robert had been arranged, like so many marriages of their time. She knew from the start that it was a business marriage—her family had a large stake in the tin industry and with Robert’s success in rubber, together they could be the most wealthy and influential family in the Straits Settlements. She never expected to be his only wife; two, three or even four wives were quite the norm. But she also never expected him to fall in love like he did with Siok Han. Seeing their affectionate glances, the little gifts he would bring her, their stolen touches in public, hearing their cries of passion in private, reminded her in a way she didn’t want to be reminded of what she would never have.
Guan Eng knew that even though she held the position of most authority in the house, she had no power compared to young, barely eighteen year old Siok Han. The first year of Robert’s and Siok Han’s marriage passed painfully for Guan Eng. She struggled to organize the household routine, to be a good hostess at the parties they threw, to choose linen, plan menus and keep the house decorated. Then the second year passed, and as they were well into their third year, Guan Eng began to see a glimmer of hope. Siok Han could not produce a child. Three years and no sign of a baby. This was Guan Eng’s opportunity and she seized it. After all, she had produced two children, a boy and a girl.
Things started subtly. Guan Eng would throw Siok Han a questioning look in the mornings, a sigh of disappointment each month and reproachfully mention how patient Robert must be to handle this. At first Siok Han thought Guan Eng was merely being sympathetic, but as the glances were followed by smirks and the sighs by sneers Siok Han realised the truth. After a few months of this, Siok Han and Richard stopped making love. She withdrew from him and spent much of her time alone. She started to long for Georgetown, for her parents, siblings and the babies she cared for. Finally, Guan Eng spoke to Robert one evening over a dinner that they were sharing alone because Siok Han had refused to join them.
‘You must find a third wife Robert’, said Guan Eng seriously, ‘It’s important for our family.’ She a knowing look in her eye, a glint that was at once tender but more reproachful.
Robert pursed his lips in silence and looked the other way. Without saying a word, he pressed his chin to his chest, tightened his fist and walked out of the room. Guan Eng folded her arms uneasily; she was unsure of Robert’s response. He was obviously unsettled at the suggestion he take a third wife, or—and this she hoped—he knew the weakness in his marriage with Siok Han and was upset that he was being forced to confront it. Guan Eng’s unease gave way to harder determination.
Four days later Robert requested a private meeting with Guan Eng in the study. When he arrived he found her waiting there, seated back in an armchair, her hands clasped firmly in her stiff lap. He sat down in the chair across from hers, leaned forwards, his elbows propped on his knees.
‘I will take a third wife,’ he said, ‘You arrange it.’ His voice was firm, yet Guan Eng thought it was laced with sadness. Was that a tremble in his fingers, a glisten in his eyes? With that, he got up, brushed down his trousers and left. Guan Eng felt a wave of triumph rise within her. It had been that easy! She had prepared herself for a long drawn out swordfight and was surprised that he acquiesced this easily. The powers that be were greater that a silly infatuation with a hopeless young girl.
Guan Eng threw herself into the task for finding a third wife for Robert. Given free rein, she fluttered from matchmaker to matchmaker, buried herself under astrological charts, consulted priests and fortune tellers who threw sticks on the ground, read cards and muttered chants, before zeroing in on the one young maiden she thought would make the perfect third wife. The girl she chose was doe eyed, barely sixteen and so shy that she never looked anyone in the eye. Fresh from a village in the outskirts of Malacca, she was simple, malleable and so daunted by the whole prospect of leaving her parents and becoming someone’s wife in bustling Singapore that she obeyed any order given to her. She was of good health, plump and in her reproductive prime.
Robert was surprisingly welcoming of Guan Eng’s choice, and Siok Han was, amazingly, unmoved by it. On the day of the wedding, Robert was the perfect groom, gentle, gracious and patient with his new bride. Siok Han stood on the sidelines, performed the obligatory rites when it was her turn and said nothing more that what she was supposed to. While Guan Eng was on one hand pleased that things were progressing so smoothly, she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of suspicion. Things never progressed so smoothly—unless something was up.
After the wedding, the third wife moved into the matrimonial household. Guan Eng took her under her wing, set up her chamber and showed her where everything was, explained the household routine and what was expected of her. She also told the girl, in a reassuring woman to woman way, that should she and Robert require any help in their martial relationship, she Guan Eng knew exactly what Robert liked and proceeded to whisper into the girl’s ear positions, potions, games and tricks that made the poor girl’s eyes widen with fear. When Guan Eng saw Robert enter his new wife’s chamber for the first time, she felt like her mission was well on its way to being completed.
The morning after Robert’s first night alone with his new wife was bright and sunny. The new wife appeared for breakfast looking calm and smiling. Robert too looked cheerful, almost relieved. Siok Han was nowhere to be found. ‘This is going better than I expected’, thought Guan Eng, ‘this little girl has learnt how to be a woman in the matter of an evening.’ And she was impressed at her husband’s skill. That Siok Han was not around only added to Guan Eng’s satisfaction. ‘It won’t be long before that wisp of a creature goes crawling back in disgrace to her mother in Penang,’ though Guan Eng.
By noon, Siok Han still had not showed up. The door to her bedroom remained shut, as it had been all morning. The suspicion that Guan Eng felt at the wedding grew. There was nowhere for Siok Han to go, she had no money nor means of transportation of her own and if she had attempted to run away she would have been noticed immediately. Guan Eng went up to Siok Han’s door, pressed her ear against it and listened for sounds of movement. All she heard was a hollow silence.
Pushing against the door she found it opened with no resistance, and almost fell forward with her own weight. As she stumbled into Siok Han’s room, she gasped. Except for the furniture that had been there before Siok Han moved in, the room was empty. Every little possession of Siok Han’s was gone. Every blouse, jade earring, silver hair pick, embroidered slipper, perfume vial and jewelled comb was gone. Guan Eng threw open all the wardrobe doors, pulled out drawers and flung back bed covers. Nothing. Siok Han was gone. But from the way all her things had obviously been meticulously packed, she hadn’t run away. She had escaped. With help.
Guan Eng stormed out of Siok Han’s bedroom and marched angrily to Robert’s room. Pounding on his door, she demanded to be let in. Again, all that answered her was a silence. ‘Robert!’ Robert!’, Guan Eng yelled, ‘Open the door! I want to know exactly what is going on!’ The door remained steadfastly mute.
Practically wrenching the doorknob off its frame, Guan Eng pushed the door open. She screamed. Most of Robert’s things were gone too. Except for a lone hat dangling of the arm of a hat stand and one of two of his suits, the rest of his personal effects were not there. His shaving stand was empty and his dresser was bare. ‘This is preposterous!’ she thought. ‘I will get to the bottom of this and they will pay for this stupid behaviour!’ She let out a loud roar of frustration and stormed out of the room, only to see a bewildered third wife standing at the end of the corridor with her eyes wide open.
It was two days before Robert returned to the house. He was alone and empty handed. He carried not even a night case. In the two days that he was absent, Guan Eng was totally out of sorts. She could not confide in anyone as it would immediately bring untold shame upon her and the family. So she ate nothing, pushed food around her plate as she stared at the dining room clock, paced up and down, checked and rechecked Siok Han’s and Robert’s rooms and neglected the third wife. Robert arrived as Guan Eng was picking at her midday meal. When she saw him, she bolted upright, stared incredulously and then flung aside her bone chopsticks.
‘What do you think you are doing!’, she burst out. ‘Are you mad!’ In the face of the daggers flying from Guan Eng’s eyes, Robert was calm, even a little smug.
‘I’ve bought a house’, he said quietly.
‘Really!’ snapped Guan Eng. ‘What on earth for?’
‘For Siok Han and I’, said Robert firmly.
‘For Siok Han and you!’, Guan Eng spat, ‘What do you mean! This is your home and this is your responsibility. You think you can just run away! Just like that! You and that girl are mad. Stop playing your foolish games and face up to reality.’
Ignoring what Guan Eng just said, Robert proceeded. ‘There will be a new living arrangement. As I said, I have bought a house for Siok Han and myself. I will no longer be residing permanently here, although I will return a few times a week to attend to matters and of course see that you and the girl are well provided for.’
Guan Eng was stumped. She fell back on to her chair, her face crumpled, flattened. While it was not unheard of for a husband with several wives to take one as his favourite, it was completely unheard of for a husband to move out of his matrimonial home and chose to live with a minor wife over the first wife. This was total and utter humiliation. Be visited a few times a week and handed spending money … that was a position of a minor wife or mistress, not a first wife! A deep hatred for Siok Han welled up in Guan Eng. She suddenly imagined Siok Han and Robert embracing, falling into each other’s arms, him on top of her, her legs entwined around his back and their cries of pleasure, and burst out, ‘You can’t do this!’
‘It’s already done,’ said Robert. ‘Here, this is for this month’s expenses and then some.’ He placed a wad of money on the dining table, pushed it towards Guan Eng, got up, left the table and walked out of the house.
‘How dare you! How dare you do this! You’re mad, you’re crazy’, Guan Eng was now screeching, flinging the notes into the air. The front door clicked, and a heavy silence fell like a stage curtain over the house.
At Robert and Siok Han’s villa, life was humming along. They decorated the place to their taste, he with his Western imports and she with pretty vases and trays. They revelled in each other’s company, spending hours together reading, dancing, sitting in the garden when it was not too hot, making love as the ceiling fan thudded softly overhead. Siok Han grew so secure in her marriage that even Robert’s obligatory visits to his first wife did not disturb her. Siok Han and Robert never had children, they could not, but their mutual love sustained them. And, tucked away in their secluded villa, away from the prying and gossiping eyes of society, they could lead their lives in private, not hearing and not caring what people might say.
As for Robert’s third wife, she adjusted to life in the matrimonial house and became rather contented there. Her material needs were more than adequately provided for, and she got along well with the staff. Her marriage to Robert, as it turned out, was never consummated. He explained to her that first night they were together, that he was happy to relinquish her from her wifely duties and expected no more from her that she tell no one. She slept on her bed, and he took the floor. After having heard Guan Eng’s description of what a wife might have to do to please her husband, a description which the third wife found scary if not quite revolting, she was more than relieved to be freed from sex. Robert, with eyes only for Siok Han, was glad to have one less duty to fulfil; and the happy looks on Robert’s and the third wife’s faces that morning at the breakfast table which Guan Eng thought were looks of sexual satisfaction were actually ones of sheer relief on both parts.
As Guan Eng’s last hope of victory—a child from Robert and the third wife—vanished, she descended rapidly into bitterness. Her pallid cheeks sagged, her eyelids were always half drooped, her shoulders stooped and she began to limp on one foot. Her make up started to look garish, with lines that were too harsh, like an old stage actress. She dully watched the amahs raise her two children whom never greatly interested her anyway and who left home early on, returning only to pay formal filial respects. Guan Eng dried up and faded, dying relatively young. At her funeral, Robert performed the rites required of him while her two children said goodbye to a mother they never really knew. After her death, the third wife ascended into her shoes and became head of the household. Because there wasn’t really anyone left to be head of, the third wife, happy to be left alone, kept the house and grounds looking good and in this way lived out the rest of her years.
Siok Han and Robert lived to a ripe old age and died within months of each other. She first, of a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-five. Beside himself with grief, Robert wept for days by her coffin, unable to part with her. The thought of laying her to rest in an impersonal plot in a public cemetery was unbearable to him, and so he arranged for a private burial in the grounds of the home they shared. From their bedroom window, he could see her grave, the sight of which comforted and saddened him immensely. And then, one night, he simply died in his sleep while dreaming that she had come to him for a dance. He was buried in a public plot, but her grave remained where it was. In fact, if one enters the house today, goes to the master bedroom on the first floor and looks out the window, one can still see, peeping out from under the tall grass and overtaken by a clump of stray paelonopsis orchids, the top of her headstone and the words ‘To my one true love, yours forever, Robert’. Neighbours have reported that on some nights, music is heard wafting over from this big old villa, scratchy jazz music from an old gramophone, and the shadowy outline of a man and a woman is seen flitting past the wooden shutters, again and again, until the music winds down.
The House on the Hill
Written on 3 December 2003