Art by MiFic.
From the author: Nyonya trader Yap Siew Fei is on another voyage, but her indomitable maid Ching Seow Fen won't let her forget about New Year.
She paced back and forth on the deck, her hanfu rustling on the floor, and she was so lost in thought, all crew members just hustled out of the way when she approached and went back to whatever they were doing after she had passed. Her soft shoes made little sound on the wooden floor of the deck, and her robes hid her walking motion, so she looked like she was floating very quickly round and round. She would pause occasionally, stare out to the distance, and, very rarely, sigh.
Yet when she sighed, everyone on deck took note, because it was so unlike her usual calm, her normal air of arrogance. Had the captain failed at wooing her? (Again? There was gossip about that, but nothing substantiated.) But if he had failed, would she sigh?
A spry Tamil boy whistled as he clambered up to the crow’s nest, the long-scope bumping on his hip. He took a good look around, then climbed back down to report to the captain. They were close to their destination. Lu Gen Wei nodded, satisfied. He ruffled the boy’s hair, and went to his cabin.
“We’re on course,” Gen Wei said placidly when his employer sailed into the room to flop ungraciously into a chair. “We should be docked in a day or so.”
“That’s good,” she replied.
“Everything,” she said darkly.
His face crinkled in a smile. Yap Siew Fei had a childish, petulant demeanour, displayed only around those closest to her. “Did one of the engineers say something bad? Do I have to discipline him?”
She shot back an unfriendly look at him. “It’s not that.”
The captain raised an eyebrow.
“Seow Fen keeps pestering me for money. And well-” She grimaced.
“Ah,” was all Gen Wei said, full of sympathy. The last trading post they had stopped at in Aceh had not been that profitable. Her coffers were not as well-filled as she would have liked. Ching Seow Fen, her maid and ship’s cook, would of course want to go shopping for more supplies at the next stop, even though they had enough preserved food for one more month.
”I keep telling her she doesn’t need to get anything. I’ve never seen her so stubborn before! I don’t understand why she’s doing this.” Siew Fei sat up and rubbed her temples.
“On the bright side-”
She had clearly stopped listening when he went into details. Lu Gen Wei had learned only recently that despite all her travels, Yap xiao-jie had never really understood ships, and merely listened to him talk out of politeness, perhaps even affection. At least, he hoped it was affection, rather than indifference.
Passing through Aceh had been an interesting exercise. The Dao Yi’s reputation had preceded her, and a huge crowd had clustered at the docks to have a good look at the steam-powered ship that had taken part in ousting the British from Binlang. Lu Gen Wei knew the ship was impressive, but, he supposed, he’d spent so long among its noisy engines that he forgot how awe-inspiring it must look to people who had never seen her before. It had not, however, worked to their favour.
Perhaps because the merchant who owned it was a woman. Perhaps because she was so young. Perhaps because the traders were genuinely intimidated. Perhaps because they were disappointed to see an ocean vessel, not the flying ship that now patrolled over the Kingdom of Kedah.
Yap Siew Fei left his cabin after a while to take a nap. Lu Gen Wei went to look for the maid.
Ching Seow Fen was hard at work with her pestle and mortar. Gen Wei crinkled his nose. He had been all over China, but there was still something about the food of Malaya he had yet to get used to, even though it was prepared by descendents of Han ren. Seow Fen had explained to him before, very patiently, how really it was the same recipes, with slightly different ingredients, but he still wasn’t sure whether to believe her.
“Ching ai-yi,” he began.
“Pass me the ginger,” she said.
There was something about his luck with women, he thought, in how he was always surrounded by the bossiest of them who had no interest in paying attention to his rank. He did as he was told; every crew member, old and new, learned quickly not to cross Ching Seow Fen. Deft at her craft, she could cook any number of dishes for any palate on board the ship, which, considering its cosmopolitan nature, was very impressive indeed. It was a pity how small the kitchen was, really.
“So when are we docking?” Seow Fen asked as she thumped the pestle.
“By tomorrow, hopefully.”
“Is there anything in particular you want from port?” Gen Wei asked carefully.
She flashed a conspiratorial smile at him, and touched the side of her nose slyly.
He knew better than to feel anxious about that sort of smile. “Is it her birthday or something?” he wondered aloud.
She gave him a long look, then appeared to decide not to tell him anything. “You’ll see.”
Three boys sat in the corner on the main deck. As different as they looked, they were all the knobby knees and awkward elbows of adolescence. Samy held out his hands, a net between his splayed fingers, and Johari was explaining to Thomas how to transform it into another pattern. Thomas called the game “cat’s cradle.” Neither Johari nor Samy even knew the game had a name. They did wonder how Thomas had known its name if he had never played it before.
“It’s a girl’s game,” Thomas was arguing.
Johari and Samy exchanged glances. From what they had learned of the British so far based on what Thomas said, they were quite certain that all British people were strange. There were, indeed, many girl’s games which they would never play, but this wasn’t one of them. They had a bit of string, and were bored. What was so girly about that? It was better than five-stones.
The argument was tepid, because Thomas still couldn’t speak either Malay or Tamil well enough to keep the conversation going. Soon, they were bored again. Thomas had taught them how to play marbles, but after several mishaps with other crew members, they had to resort to other games. Preferably one that didn’t involve things rolling across the deck floors, with the possibility of falling into an engine pipe, causing an internal combustion. So Nakhoda Lu had said.
“Maybe as-sayyidda will let us use her chess set,” Johari suggested. “That’s certainly not a girl’s game.” He shot a sly smile at Thomas.
“But she plays the Chinese kind,” Samy replied sourly. “I can barely understand the rules for it. And neither do you.”
“Checkers! What about checkers?”
“I don’t know how to play that one,” Thomas pointed out.
“And neither do you, Johari.” Samy grinned.
Johari threw his hands in the air. “I’m just trying to find something for all of us to do!”
“We could try to steal something from Puan Ching’s kitchen.”
Thomas groaned. “She made me promise to stay on board during shore leave,” he said miserably, in English.
“You also?” Samy exclaimed.
“You’re both also staying?”
Thomas and Samy turned to Johari. “Why would she need all three of us?” Samy wondered.
“When did she ask you?” Johari asked Thomas.
The three of them started to compare notes on how they had been dragooned into helping Puan Ching not only cook, but also shop, carry her supplies, and run errands for her once they arrived at the next stop.
“It must be for a good reason,” Samy said, “or else as-sayyida would have told her off a long time ago.”
“But it’s shore leave,” Johari groaned exasperatedly. “We’ve been stuck on this noisy ship for weeks!”
Samy laughed. “You used to get so sick on the rohani, but you still got used to it.”
“Human beings are just not born to fly,” Johari protested.
“Maybe it’s Miss Yap’s birthday,” Thomas mused aloud. He still fell back on English when he didn’t have the right words.
“As-sayyida doesn’t – celebrate her birthday,” Johari said in his own imperfect English. He frowned, slipping back into Malay. “I don’t think as-sayyida celebrates anything, other than Eid.”
“You’d notice that because she celebrates it with you. She’s not Muslim.” Samy twisted the string around in his hands to form two stars. “She celebrates Diwali with me and the other Hindus. She lets us celebrate anything, really.”
Suddenly they felt a gaping absence in their knowledge.
An hourly horn trumpeted, cutting across the dull noise of the engines. The three boys scrambled up to get below deck for their shifts in the engine room. Amid the orders, errands and new knowledge, their conversation was quickly forgotten.
Yap Siew Fei was calculating when her maid came in with a tray of tea. She took in the scent of ginseng and ginger with a deep breath, and felt a peculiar paradox of wanting to both relax and tense at the same time. For one thing, Siew Fei loved ginseng and ginger in her tea, and to see it brought in when she hadn’t asked for it meant Seow Fen had sensed she needed it. On the other hand, Seow Fen clearly wanted something.
She carried on with her accounts, the beads of her abacus clicking gently in the room.
“So quiet in here,” Seow Fen said. “So different from outside.” She cleared a corner of the table and laid the tray down.
“I’ll look into soundproofing all the sleeping cabins when I can,” Siew Fei promised. “Yours will be next.”
“We should have stayed in Binlang. There’s no reason we had to come all the way out here.” Seow Fen poured a cup of tea, set down the teapot, and picked up the cup to blow on it.
“We’ve been through this before. You didn’t have to come.”
“Ha. And leave you alone on a new ship of all men?”
“They’re not bad,” Siew Fei scowled. She spent a lot of time building a reputation for her crew to fear.
Seow Fen tsked as she handed the teacup to Siew Fei. “How much do we have?”
Siew Fei sighed and put the abacus aside. “Is this what this is about? The numbers haven’t changed since the last time I counted.”
“Then why are you counting?”
“I’m… forecasting. How much to spend at next port, so we don’t make any losses.”
“Did we make a loss at the last port?”
“No,” Yap Siew Fei admitted.
“Then what is your problem?” Seow Fen demanded. “You stay in your room all the time counting, counting, counting. You are going to end up like your father.”
“I’m not in here all the time,” the young woman muttered. But the comparison stung.
“Take a break at the next stop.”
Yap Siew Fei hadn’t heard an order from her maid in five years. She drew herself up stiffly. “What?” Her maid’s jaw was set in place. “Seow Fen, I did not buy this ship to show it off. What about our cargo?”
“Fifteen days. That’s all I ask.”
That – didn’t sound as unreasonable as it could have been. She wasn’t used to taking orders anymore, but then, she wasn’t used to arguing with Seow Fen, either. “Fine.” Siew Fei slammed down her abacus. “Is there anything else?”
Apparently, there had been lots else, which Seow Fen had not bothered to clear with the mistress of the ship ahead of time. As they docked, Siew Fei prepared for an abandonment of the Dao Yi by her crew. The journey had been long enough, and she herself was looking for respite from the constant hum that pervaded the air. For the first time in weeks, the groaning steam engines could rest.
Except they didn’t.
Yap Siew Fei assumed that it had to do with the engines not being able to shut down immediately, which seemed reasonable to her. Surely the engineers knew what they were doing. Mindful of her promise to Seow Fen, she dressed in a simple blouse and trousers, pulled on some beaded slippers, and tucked away a small purse. She could deal without business for fifteen days. She didn’t have the first clue of what to do with herself then, but she was sure she could find something.
She stopped by her captain’s cabin to find him frowning over a calendar.
“Is there something wrong?”
“Not really,” he replied. “But the new lunar year is coming up. I’d forgotten.”
She’d forgotten, too. She sunk into a chair, groaning. “No wonder Seow Fen has been pestering me. Of course she’d want the holiday, and to stay in Binlang.” She calculated the years. “It would have been the first time we’d have spent the New Year on the Straits since leaving.”
“It’s not so bad,” Gen Wei said. “I’m sure she’ll find some locals to celebrate it with.”
“You know it’s not the same,” Siew Fei snapped. “She gave up her family for me. And now I’ve gone and forgotten New Year.”
“Was she married?”
“Yes. No children, and her husband was a wastrel. But she still does have relatives in Melaka. She could have gone to visit them this year.” Siew Fei bent over, knocking her forehead on her knees.
“Don’t you have relatives in Melaka?” Gen Wei asked carefully. He knew she had run away from an arranged marriage.
“Of course I do.” She didn’t look up. “But I don’t care about them.”
Gen Wei leaned back and crossed his arms. “It is good to keep family, Yap xiao-jie.”
She gave him the evil eye. “This ship is my family, Lu jian-zhang.”
He held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “So…. give them longer shore leave than usual.”
“It hardly seems fair to give them a longer shore leave just because it’s New Year. Not everyone celebrates it.”
“And you already give bonuses for everyone else’s holy days,” he murmured. “So you won’t spend money on your own people?”
“That’s not – true.” She bit her lip. “That’s not a fair thing to say.” She folded her arms, moody, and stared into space.
“Ah Fei…” he began.
“Sh. I’m thinking.” She took out a tiny gilt abacus and began calculating.
He shook his head and smiled.
Trailing behind the ship’s slight but formidable cook, Thomas whispered to Johari, “I think Mrs. Ching’s a witch.”
“A what?” Johari had never heard that word before. He shifted the basket from one shoulder to the other. He tried very hard to ignore the curious looks from the passers-by.
“A witch. You know. A woman who does magic. Not that I think she deals with the Devil, but she’s heathen, right?” Thomas was having trouble balancing the basket on his head. Samy had tried to teach him a trick that was supposed to guarantee foolproof balance, but it hadn’t quite worked.
“Just because she’s not a – person of the Book… doesn’t make her a servant of the Devil.” Johari frowned in confusion. It was hard to concentrate on Thomas’ language, watch where Puan Ching was going, and keep track of his companions, all at the same time.
“What’s the white boy saying?” Samy asked, in similarly hushed tones.
“I think he’s accusing Puan Ching of being a bomoh.” Puan Ching was a fast talker, hard bargainer and smooth recruiter, and she had bought a lot of things with money Johari didn’t know she had, but nothing she was doing today seemed terribly supernatural.
They stopped in front of a store where statues of lions and dragons leered at them from the courtyard. Puan Ching turned to them. “Stay here.”
Johari put down his basket, and sighed in relief. Samy didn’t bother to move the basket from his head, and when Thomas made a move to put down his, Samy said, “if you put it down now, I won’t be able to help you put it back on your head.”
Thomas sighed and nodded slightly, the best he could under the circumstances. “So heavy,” he complained. He looked around. “Where are we?”
“We’re in the Chinese part of the port,” Johari told him.
“How do you know?”
Johari pointed at an altar, made of red stone, with a curved covering. “They have those everywhere.”
“No wonder there are so many Chinese. Is this normal?”
Johari had to ponder a world without the existence of the Chinese. “Is it normal – to not see them where you come from?”
Thomas flushed even redder than he already was from the heat. He looked out of place here, just as he looked out of place on the ship as the only European crewmember. But Johari also felt out of place among the Chinese they had been wandering among all day. It was no shame to appear as servants of Puan Ching, but his facility in the various Chinese dialects was non-existent. Since both Samy and Thomas automatically looked to him for translation, he found himself under a lot of pressure.
“I hope as-sayyida gives us a bonus for this,” Samy muttered darkly. “I really wanted to take leave.”
Johari hoped the same.
The first thing she noticed as she stepped out on deck was the smell that wafted in the air. Yap Siew Fei looked over the side of the ship to see the dock bustling with hawkers cooking a vast variety of foods. She knew most of the smells, but couldn’t remember what they were called.
Was this how long she had been away from home? She mulled this over as she made her way to the gangplank onto shore. That was where she noticed coolies walking back onto the ship, carrying large bags, bowls, trays.
She paused again. Those weren’t coolies; those were her engineers, her mechanics, and other assorted crew members. The engines were still reverberating under her feet. One glance up showed the pipes still releasing smoke and steam.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded one of them.
“Ahh… Puan Ching asked us to get rice for the party, the one tomorrow.”
The first day of the new year. “I see. Continue then.”
Yap Siew Fei turned at the sound to Lu Gen Wei’s voice, to see him striding towards her, his face lined with concern. “Now what?”
He opened his mouth to begin, then frowned, as if reconsidering his words. “Seow Fen has transformed the boiler room into an extended kitchen.”
Pots boiled over merrily with several flavours of soup and stewing vegetables. Meats wrapped in pandan and banana leaves cooked over overheating air vents. Johari was most impressed by the use of the massive firebox: a spit had been installed in it somehow, and a haunch of cow was roasting and dripping sauce onto the low fire from the coals. The engine room was going to smell like roast beef for weeks.
His job was to stir half-cooked rice with other assorted ingredients he couldn’t begin to name, scoop them into lotus leaves, and bundle them into packets that could sit on another air vent. They would sit there overnight, he was told, and be freshly cooked for tomorrow.
Samy had the odd task of wrapping meats in slick cloth, dropping them in between two large gears running together. One of the engineers had been instructed to adjust them just for today, separating them a little, to accommodate the meats, to tenderize them without pulverizing them.
Thomas had the more mundane job of cleaning, his arms dripping as they moved rapidly from soapy bucket to rinsing basin. He was all right at it. Johari thought he could be putting a bit more strength into scrubbing the pot. But the pots and utensils had to be cleaned really quickly for immediate use, and Seow Fen yelled at him often for not cleaning fast enough.
“I said she’s a witch,” the English boy complained when the three of them were finally allowed a break.
Johari looked around at the great technology that propelled their ship forward into the future, the highest point of international engineering efforts, the pride of the Straits seas – set to work making food. He had to admit the concept was rather magical. “It’s a mothering thing, maybe.”
“This is the most expensive voyage I’ve seen with you yet,” Captain Lu commented to his employer as he approached her vantage point on the upper deck, where she was watching the horizon. The day was still early, so no one was awake yet, except maybe Seow Fen in the bowels of the engine room. Yap Siew Fei gave him a wry look. “Ah,” he amended. “Xin nien kwai le, xiao jie.” He clasped his hands together and bowed.
“Thank you.” She returned the gesture. “At least she can’t say I didn’t do anything.”
“Buying the entire crew new clothes seems a bit much.”
She cast a critical look over his new uniform, a light blue silk robe with gold trimming. She adjusted his collar. “I don’t think so,” she said, satisfied.
The sun broke in the distance, and Siew Fei began to fold her sleeves up, from their long length covering her hands, until they were neatly elbow-length.
“Where are you going?”
“To bring out the food. You better come help.”
Children shrieked as they ran across the deck, hid between cannons and jumped on the stairs up to the crow’s nest. Barrels and containers were converted into seats, and visitors brought their own stools from the land to enjoy the vantage point of the upper deck overlooking the port. Siew Fei delighted in the sounds of various dialects and languages, even if they weren’t quite her own.
She found Johari, Samy and Thomas trying to surreptitiously watch a group of girls. They weren’t succeeding, but she gathered it was supposed to be a game. “Boys, have you seen Puan Ching?”
They all swung around, blushing variously. “No, as-sayyida,” Johari replied.
“You better come with me then. I’ll teach you how to earn your bonus from her.”
She found Seow Fen sitting among a group of elders, laughing as they exchanged stories of children, grandchildren, business and neighbours. “Ching ma.” She bowed low. “Kong hey fatt choy.”
Ching Seow Fen nodded, and waited until Siew Fei had similarly greeted the other elders around. Carefully, she withdrew a string threaded through two coins from her sleeve and handed it to Siew Fei.
The merchant turned to the three boys accompanying her. “Your turn.”
Awkwardly, they repeated the phrases to each elder, who smiled indulgently, and received the same gift. “Handsome boys,” a granddame said critically. “Too bad they’re not Han ren. Is this your daughter?”
“Yes,” Siew Fei answered before Seow Fen said anything.
“Pretty girl. Is she married?” another of Seow Fen’s new friends asked her.
With that, Yap Siew Fei excused herself.
“New clothes! Good food! Money!” Samy exclaimed gleefully as the boys re-grouped in their small room to count their earnings from the day.
“What kind is it?” Thomas asked, inspecting the coins closely for the first time. “Chinese?”
“It’s the new Chinese standard,” Johari replied, undoing the strings on his. The coins tinkled together as they rolled free on the cabin floor. He arranged them in small piles according to value, and counted the total mentally.
“Best shore leave ever,” Samy sighed, shoving his coins under his pillow.
Thomas found the bit of string Samy had been using for cat’s cradle. Quietly, he undid the knot, and threaded it through all his coins. He’d never have to play that game again. At a loss for what to do once he was done, he strung it around his neck, letting the coins fall against his chest. For luck.
The ship was finally quiet, from engines and people. Lu Gen Wei walked softly up Yap Siew Fei’s door, to see if she was still awake. There was no light under her door, so he went outside to take in the night-time air. One look around and he saw her perched on the railing of the upper deck, a hand balancing herself, the other idly rubbing two coins together.
Joining her, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
He leaned on the railing next to her, and they watched the moonlight on the waves in silence.
Finally, she spoke. “I gave her a piece of jade today.”
“She took it, thanked me, then gave it to me.”
“Elders must save face. It’s lucky to give money on the first day.”
She looked down at the coins in her hand, turned them over and over between her fingers. They were plain copper coins, of the lowest value. An old memory surfaced, of smaller fingers clutching a single copper coin tightly. “Maybe.”
The hourly horn trumpeted, signaling the end of the first night-shift, the end of the first day of the new year.
This story originally appeared in Crossed Genres.