Eight is enough although 10 will be perfect, says 80-plus Angela Yong who could have gone on to write more books but for a fall she suffered recently.
AT 84, and way beyond her retirement age, Angela Yong Mee King could have taken life easy and spent time with her grandchildren.
Instead, the indomitable octogenarian chose to write books and it was this passion that had earned her the record as one the oldest female authors in the country.
In all, she has written eight story books, including one in Mandarin titled One Thing Good But Not Both and another in English called 160 Foochow Proverbs and Idioms (solely on Foochow proverbs). Some of the idioms are still commonly used.
The rest of her books are Through The Back Door (her first published in 1997); Different Lives, Different Fates; Green Beans and Talking Babies; Sarawak Rojak, 888 — All the Way Prosper and Inai Maram
These books carry the Rejang flavours of yesteryear and all are true stories that she either heard of or encountered when she was young.
Her direct writing style from the ordinary citizen’s perspective also paints a convincing picture of the period covered by her narratives.
For instance, Through the Back Door told of the time she migrated here from China in the 1920s. She retraced the events in her life with a keen sense of irony and humour.
This book is more than an autobiography as it chronicles a time in Sarawak history through the eye of the man in the street. It depicts the struggles of the common men and women, their courage and hardships — from clearing the jungles in the early years to facing the horrors of the Japanese Occupation.
Inai Maram is her latest work — a title she chose as a tribute to the people of Kanowit who called her by that name in the early 60s.
Inai, according to Yong, means mother in Iban while Maram is a type of citrus fruit. And because the people have a deep respect for her, they nickname her Inai Maram.
She has actually dreamt of producing 10 books but a fall two months ago put paid to that. She now has to stop writing altogether.
“There is no way for me to continue. The terrible fall had not only impeded my movement but also severely affected my health,” she told thesundaypost.
Yong said Inai Maram would be her last book due to her health and old age.
“Eight is enough although 10 will be perfect. But as far as my health is concerned, that’s about it. I’m not going to write anymore books.”
Recalling the accident, she said she was walking towards the back patio of her kitchen to turn off the tap when she slipped.
“It was about midnight — I heard the sound of dripping water and since it was late, I didn’t bother calling my daughter. As I was walking towards the back, I slipped. Luckily, I managed to grab hold of a big container nearby to cushion the fall.”
Since then, she said her health had deteriorated and she could no longer concentrate on her writing.
“Initially, the fall only affected my movement. Now, my hearing is worsening and my vision also getting blurry.”
Even though her heart is willing, Yong admits her concentration power is dwindling.
Born in 1926 in Nanping, China, she arrived in Sibu with her family including two siblings, when she was barely one year old.
Two years later, her rubber-tapper father died of tuberculosis and she together with her siblings, were given to the late Mother Alphonsus for adoption.
Mother Alphonsus was head of Sacred Heart Convent Mission School (now SMK St Elizabeth School) and under her care and guidance, Yong grew up to be both educated and humble.
Those were the difficult years. Yong recalled she would occasionally follow one of the Sisters to the town to buy rations. Along the way, she would stop at shops and recite all the English words in the pictures hanging on the wall — and if she made a mistake, the Sister would correct her.
“Once, when I told the Sister it was 11 o’clock and the half, she corrected me and said it was half past 11.”
One time, she was bitten by a mosquito but did not know how to describe the effect, so the Sister taught her it was called ‘itchy’.
Gradually through constant reading, she acquired a good command of English.
Yong only studied up to Standard Five at Sacred Heart Convent Mission School. She landed a teaching job at St Francis Xavier Primary School, Kanowit, when she was about 20.
One of her students was former Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Tan Sri Leo Moggie.
In a preface on one of her books, Moggie described her as a responsible teacher who would go to great length to ensure the success of her pupils.
“It’s very easy to take for granted many of the things we enjoy today. By reading her little books, one feels a sense of gratitude for not having to go through the hard times, especially the Japanese Occupation.”
Moggie pointed out that the Japanese Occupation was something people of his generation and those younger had no direct experience of although they did hear about the difficult times.
He also commended the Catholic Mission for providing education and basic medical facilities to needy even up to the late 1950s.
Yong who grew up in Kanowit, married James Hii Mee Chiong and they had 13 children — eight daughters and five sons, all born in Kanowit.
Yong’s interests in writing story books came quite by coincidence when she was about 70. She was reading a story on the history of Nyonya by an author-friend when she suddenly felt like writing a book.
“I was thinking since my friend could write a book, so could I.”
Encouraged by children, she decided to give it a try and within months, came up with her first book Through The Back Door.
“There wasn’t much fanfare when my first book was launched. But somehow, it spurred me to write more.”
At first, it was challenging as she had to ask her children for advice and to help with the translation.
She also had to learn the art of writing simple English.
Yong said she drew inspiration from Father Muhren of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Father Muhren often told me to write my little stories using simple English — he said not all readers liked flowery English. That was the best advice.”