The Singapore Nyonya Who Made Penang Her Home

At 80, Annie Lim’s story is as colourful as the sarong kebayas she wears.

Annie Lim Liap Kiat.

Annie was dressed like a boy during the Japanese Occupation.

If you have ever visited the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, you might have noticed the petite lady decked in a sarong kebaya sitting near the main entrance, greeting the guests.

Fondly known to people in the neighbourhood as Aunty Annie, the 80-year-old Nyonya was actually born in Singapore. So how did she end up in Penang?

Birth and Youth

Annie Lim Liap Kiat was born on January 18, 1938 in Singapore. She is the only child of John Lim Bong Oo and Helen Chan Yot Chan. Annie’s father was from the Tong’an District in Xiamen, China and was born in the late Qing Dynasty when Empress Dowager Cixi controlled the empire. John Lim was a businessman who slowly expanded his enterprise into South-East Asia and later settled down in Singapore, where he met Helen through a matchmaker.

Helen Chan and John Lim.

Helen was a Cantonese Peranakan. Her father, Chan Ah Pak, hailed from China’s Guangdong Province, and her mother was an unidentified Nyonya. According to Annie, her mother was a typical Peranakan: she wore a sarong most of the time and could be seen doing all kinds of craftwork such as sewing her own sarong, tablecloth and pillow case. Helen could even fashion a vase out of buttons!

It is not clear when John moved his wholesale business of selling imported dried abalones from Japan to Penang, leaving Annie and her mother in Singapore. The Japanese Occupation in 1942 forced Helen to bring four-year-old Annie to Penang to reunite with her father.

Annie was too small to remember the details when the war struck. In fact, she was not traumatised; she could only remember seeing Japanese aeroplanes while she was on the way up to Penang by train. Upon reaching and settling down in her current house at Brick Kiln Road (now Jalan Gurdwara), her childhood was all about staying home to ensure her safety. Her mother even dressed her like a boy so that she wouldn’t draw the attention of the Japanese soldiers.

When the Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, they did not move back to Singapore due to Annie’s father’s business being in Penang. She received her early education at Convent Light Street in 1947, where she recounted that there were no male teachers in the school; most of the teachers were nuns. She completed her studies in 1955 and soon after that met her husband, Peter Wong Tsui Ping (1934-2007), a Hakka Chinese from Batu Gajah, through a matchmaker.

Annie was married to Peter in 1956 at the Church of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, and they stayed together with Annie’s parents. Annie noted that contrary to popular belief, the Nyonyas preferred in the past to stay with their own parents even after they got married, and this gave Annie the chance to hone her cooking and sewing skills with the help of her mother.

Annie as a maiden.

Helen remarried to Gan Teng Hooi.

Gan Teong Khum (Annie's step-grandfather).

Gan Teong Khum's wife, the daughter of Cheong Fatt Tze (Annie's step-grandmother).

Within a year after their marriage, Annie gave birth to their first son, Michael Wong, who was born prematurely. As a first-time mother, Annie was immensely grateful to her own mother for helping to take care of Michael. Indeed, Annie jokes that her mother had a special affinity with Michael, for Helen would give him a halfboiled egg every day, but not the other grandchildren.

The following year, Malaya gained independence from the British, and Annie and her parents were granted Malayan citizenship through naturalisation. Since then, she has lost contact with the maternal side of her family.

She is blessed with a total of five sons and three daughters: Michael Wong (1956), Margaret Wong (1957), Anthony Wong (1959), Lawrence Wong (1960), Mary Wong (1961), Joseph Wong (1965), Francis Wong (1967) and Josephine Wong (1970). Today, her children have settled mainly in Penang, KL, Johor, Singapore and the US, and she has 20 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Later Life

When Annie’s father passed away, her mother, after observing three years of mourning, remarried. Her new husband, Gan Teng Hooi, worked at Rex Theatre, which then belonged to his first wife (Cheah Sayang)’s father, and Gan had often treated Annie to free movie tickets. His stepfather was a grandson to Gan Goh Bee, who was at that time one of the wealthier Hokkien merchants in Penang.1 Annie learned from her mother Helen that Goh Bee was buried with his two wives at the family burial site in Gelugor, which was exhumed to build today’s Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Annie later learned that her stepgrandmother, Thio Chon Nhong, was the daughter of Cheong Fatt Tze.2 Annie saw her step-grandmother only once – during the remarriage of her mother – and nothing much was told about her.

Along with prominent Penang figures such as Cheah Chen Eok and Chung Keng Kwee, the miniature statues of Cheong Fatt Tze and Gan Goh Bee are enshrined together in Kek Lok Si’s Ancestral Hall (not open to the public) to commemorate their contributions to the development of the temple in the early 1890s.

Annie was born during turbulent times and on top of that, she had to raise her children by herself – her husband was in the field force and had been stationed at Jalan Pekeliling, KL, since 1960; he could only be home during Chinese New Year, Christmas or at the birth of a new child. It was not until 1975 that he was finally transferred back to Penang because of a health condition, and was later assigned to work as a police corporal at the airport. He later refused to be promoted to sergeant because the new position would require him to move to Selangor once again. He continued to stay in Penang until he passed away from a stroke in 2007.

Family tree.

Annie in the movie Anna and the King.

Today, Annie still lives in the house at Brick Kiln Road. After enduring war and performing her duties as daughter, wife and mother, she now chases her dream to become an actress and a singer. Annie has indeed become a familiar face in many local and international productions and advertisements, and certainly at Penang’s cultural events such as Chap Goh Meh and George Town World Heritage Day.

What advice does the aspiring songbird have to impart? “Life is unpredictable, so live your day like it counts,” says Annie, “don’t hold grudges and don’t be jealous – you will be a lot happier.”

The writer would like to thank Wong Hon Wai, the state assemblyman for Air Itam, for making his book collection accessible, and Madam Yeoh Suan Choo for her generous help in identifying Thio Chon Nhong.

1 Chin-hwang Yen. Ethnicities, Personalities and Politics in the Ethnic Chinese Worlds. Singapore: World Scientific, 2017. 479. Print.

2 Cheong Fatt Tze is also spelled Thio Tiauw Siat in Hokkien, or Chang Pi Shih in Mandarin.
Peter is a full-time PhD candidate with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Communication. He currently finds joy in writing short stories, which have appeared in Eksentrika, Ricepaper Magazine and The VSC Project (forthcoming).

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