Authors: Kevin Kwan
Professor Oon found himself staring at Astrid. This woman was so blindingly pretty, it made him nervous just to be around her. He felt like he could lose control at any moment and say something inappropriate. “Er, Astrid, I must be veryâ¦um, blunt with you. Your grandmother's condition is extremelyâ¦touch and goâ¦at the moment. There's been a tremendous amount of scarring on the heart, and her erectionâ¦I mean, her ejection fraction is up to twenty-seven percent. I know it looks like she's getting better, but you need to know that we are making monumental efforts to keep her alive. All those machines she's hooked up toâ¦she needs them, and she requires nonstop care.”
“How long does she really have?”
“Hard to say, but it's a matter of weeks. Her heart muscle is irreparably damaged, and her condition is worsening day by day. She could go at any moment, really.”
Astrid let out a long exhale. “Well, it's even more essential that we get her home then. I know my grandmother would not want to spend her last days here. Why can't we simply move all the machines? Let's set up a medical suite just like this one for her at home. We can have you and the rest of her medical team stationed there.”
“Something like that has never been done before. To set up a mobile cardiac intensive care unit in a private home with all the equipment we would need and round-the-clock doctors and nursesâit's a huge undertaking, and it would be extremely cost prohibitive.”
Astrid cocked her head, giving him a subtly eviscerating look that said:
Really? Do we really need to go there?
“Professor Oon, I think I can speak for my entire family. The cost is not an issue. Let's just make it happen, shall we?”
“Okay, I'll get to work on that,” Professor Oon replied, his face flushing red.
Astrid reentered the Royal Suite, and Su Yi smiled at her.
“All taken care of, Ah Ma. They will move you home as soon as possible. They just have to set up the medical equipment for you first.”
“Thank you. You are much more efficient than your mother.”
“Hnh! Don't let her hear you say that. Anyway, you shouldn't be talking so much. You should rest.”
“Oh, I feel like I've rested enough. Before I woke up, I had a dream about your grandfather. Ah Yeh.”
“Do you dream about Ah Yeh often?”
“Rarely. But this dream was very strange. Part of it felt so real, because it was a memory of something that really happened during the war, when I had been evacuated to Bombay.”
“But Ah Yeh wasn't in Bombay, was he? Didn't you only meet him when you returned to Singapore?”
“Yes, when I went home.” Su Yi closed her eyes and was silent for a few moments, and Astrid thought she had drifted back to sleep. Suddenly she opened her eyes wide. “I need you to help me.”
Astrid sat up in her chair. “Yes, of course. What do you want me to do?”
“There are some things you must do for me at once. Very important thingsâ¦”
Called Moti Mauli, or “Pearl Mother” in Marathi, legend has it that the statue was brought to India in the sixteenth century by the Jesuits from Portugal but was stolen by pirates. One day, a fisherman had a dream in which he saw the statue floating in the sea, and this is how it was rediscovered.
TYERSALL PARK, SINGAPORE
The lid on the enamel kettle started rattling, and Ah Ling, the head housekeeper, reached for the kettle on the hot plate and poured some boiling water into her tea mug. She relaxed into her armchair and breathed in the earthy, musky scent of the
ying de hong cha
before taking her first sip. For the past two decades, her younger brother had been sending her a parcel of this tea every year from China, wrapped in layers of brown paper and sealed with old-fashioned yellow Scotch tape. These tea leaves were grown in the hills above her village, and drinking it remained one of her last connections to the place where she had been born.
Like so many girls of her generation, Lee Ah Ling left her tiny village on the outskirts of Ying Tak when she was just sixteen, taking a boat from Canton to an island far away in the Nanyang, the Southern Seas. She remembered how most of the other girls who were crammed into that stifling little cabin had wept bitterly every night on their voyage, and Ah Ling wondered if she was a bad person to be feeling not sadness but a sense of excitement. She had always dreamed of seeing the world beyond her village, and she didn't care if it meant leaving her family. She was leaving a difficult homeâa father who died when she was twelve and a mother who seemed to have resented her since the day she was born.
Now at least she could do something to quell that resentmentâin exchange for a modest sum of money that would enable her brother to go to school, she would go abroad, take the vow of celibacy that every black-and-white amah was asked to, and be tied to serve an unknown family in a strange new land for the rest of her life.
In Singapore, she had been brokered to work for a family called the Tays. They were a couple in their late thirties with two sons and a daughter living in a mansion more lavish and luxurious than she had ever dreamed was possible. Actually, it was a rather unspectacular bungalow off Serangoon Road, but to Ah Ling's untrained eyes, it might as well have been Buckingham Palace. There were three other black-and-white amahs like her in the household, but they had been there for years. Ah Ling was the new girl, and for the next six months she was assiduously taught the finer details of the domestic arts, which for her meant learning how to properly clean varnished wood and silver.
One day, the most senior maid announced, “Mrs. Tay thinks you're ready. Pack your belongingsâwe're sending you to the Youngs.” It was only then that Ah Ling realized that her time at the Tay household had been a training ground, and she had passed some sort of unspecified test. Ah Lan, the junior maid who had been there ten years, said to her, “You are very lucky. You were born with a pretty face, and you've proven yourself good at polishing silver. So you get to work at the big house now. But don't let your head get too big over this!”
Ah Ling had no idea what she meantâshe couldn't imagine a bigger mansion than the one she was already in. She soon found herself in the passenger seat of the Austin-Healey, with Mr. Tay at the wheel and Mrs. Tay in the backseat, and she would never forget that drive. They had entered what seemed like a jungle road, and at a clearing they pulled up to a grand wrought-iron gate painted light gray. She thought she was dreaming, to suddenly come upon this strange ornate gate in the middle of nowhere.
A fierce-looking Indian
wearing a crisp olive uniform and a bright yellow turban emerged from the sentry house and scrutinized them closely through the car window before ceremoniously waving them through the gates. Then they drove up a long winding gravel lane that had been cut through the thick trees, giving way to an avenue lined with majestic palm trees, until suddenly the most magnificent building she had ever seen came into sight. “What is this place?” she had asked, suddenly becoming afraid.
“This is Tyersall Park, the home of Sir James Young. You will be working here from now on,” Mrs. Tay informed her.
“Is he the governor of Singapore?” Ah Ling asked in awe. She never knew a house could be this immenseâ¦it was like one of the grand old buildings on the Shanghai waterfront she had once seen on a postcard.
“No, but the Youngs are far more important than the governor.”
“What does Misterâ¦Sir James do?”
“He's a doctor.”
“I never knew doctors could be so rich.”
“He is a wealthy man, but this house actually belongs to his wife, Su Yi.”
owns this house?” Ah Ling had never heard of such a thing.
“Yes, she grew up here. It was her grandfather's house.”
“He was my grandfather too.” Mr. Tay turned to Ah Ling with a smile.
“This is your grandfather's house? Why are you not living here, then?” Ah Ling asked, puzzled.
, stop asking so many questions!” Mrs. Tay scolded. “You will learn more about the family in due courseâI'm sure the other servants will fill you in on all the gossip very fast. You will quickly see that it is Su Yi who rules over everything. Just work very hard and be sure that you never do anything to upset her and you'll do fine.”
Ah Ling had done more than fine. Over the next sixty-three years, she rose from being one of twelve junior maids to become one of the Young family's most trusted nanniesâhaving helped raise Su Yi's youngest children, Victoria and Alix, and then in the next generation, Nick. Now she was the head housekeeper, overseeing a staff that at its peak reached fifty-eight but for the past decade had remained at thirty-two. Today, as she sat in her quarters drinking tea and eating a few Jacob's Cream Crackers smeared with peanut butter and Wilkin & Sons red currant jamâone of the strange Western habits she had picked up from Philip Youngâa round, smiling face suddenly appeared at her window.
“Ah Tock! My God, I was just sitting here thinking of your grandmother, and suddenly you appear!” Ah Ling gasped.
“Ling Jeh, didn't you know I had no choice but to come this afternoon? Her Imperial Highness summoned me,” Ah Tock reminded her in Cantonese.
“I had forgotten. My head is jumbled with a million things today.”
“I can only imagine! Hey, I hate to make your life more difficult, but do you mind?” Ah Tock held up a Metro shopping bag full of clothing. “These are Mama's dressesâ”
“Of course, of course,” Ah Ling said, taking the bag. Ah Tock was a cousin of the Youngs through Su Yi's side,
and Ah Ling had known his mother, Bernice Tay, since she was a girlâshe was the daughter of the couple who first took Ah Ling in “for training” when she arrived in Singapore. Bernice regularly smuggled some of her finer clothes to be cleaned at Tyersall Park, knowing there was a full team of launderers that washed every piece by hand, air dried them in the sun, and ironed them with lavender-scented water. There wasn't a finer laundering service on the entire island.
“Mama wanted me to show you this
â¦the fastening hook came off.”
“Don't worry, we'll have it sewn back for her. I know this vintage
âSu Yi gave it to her years ago.”
Out of another bag, Ah Tock produced a bottle of Chinese rum. “Here, from Mama.”
“Hiyah, tell your mother she shouldn't have bothered! I still haven't finished the bottle she gave me a year ago. When do I have time to enjoy this?”
“If I had to run this place like you do, I'd be drinking every night!” Ah Tock said with a chuckle.
“Should we go up now?” Ah Ling gestured, getting out of her chair.
“Sure. How is Her Imperial Highness today?”
“Irritable, as always.”
“Hopefully I can help fix that,” Ah Tock replied cheerily. Ah Tock was a frequent presence at Tyersall Park, not because he was a beloved relation but because of his expertise in catering to the needs of his more privileged cousins. Over the past two decades, Ah Tock had smartly leveraged his family connections and founded FiveStarLobang.com, an exclusive luxury concierge service that serviced the most spoiled Singaporeansâfrom procuring that Beluga black Bentley Bentayga months before it hit the market to arranging covert Brazilian butt-lifts for bored mistresses.
Crossing the quadrangle that separated the servants' wing from the main house, they passed the kitchen garden, which was meticulously planted with rows of fresh herbs and vegetables. “Oh my. Look at those little red chilli padisâI'm sure they must be extra hot!” Ah Tock exclaimed.
“Yes. Burn-your-mouth hot. Let's not forget to pluck some for your mother. We also have too much basil right nowâit's just gone wild. Do you want some of that too?”
“I'm not sure what Mama would do with that. Isn't it an
“We use it here for the Thai dishes. The Thais use basil a lot in their cooking. And also sometimes Her Imperial Highness demands fancy
food. She likes this disgusting sauce called âpesto.' It takes so many of these basil leaves just to make one little batch of pesto sauce, and then she eats one tiny plate of linguine with pesto and the rest gets thrown out.”
A young maid walked past them, and switching to Mandarin, Ah Ling ordered, “Lan Lan, can you pluck a big packet of the chilli padis for Mr. Tay to take home?”
“Yes, ma'am,” the girl replied shyly before darting off.
“Very cute. She's new?” Ah Tock asked.
“Yes, and she's not going to last long. Spends too much time staring into her phone when she knows she's not allowed. All these young China girls don't have the same work ethic as my generation did,” Ah Ling complained, as she led Ah Tock through the kitchen, where half a dozen cooks sat around the enormous wooden worktable, deep in concentration as they meticulously folded little bits of pastry.
You're making pineapple tarts!” Ah Tock said.
“Yesâwe always make a huge batch whenever Alfred Shang comes to town.”
“But didn't I hear that Alfred brought over his own Singaporean chef to England? Some Hainanese hotshot?”
“Yes, but Alfred still prefers our pineapple tarts. He complains that it's not the same when Marcus tries to make it in Englandâ¦something about the flour and water being different.”
Crazy rich bastard
, Ah Tock thought to himself. Even though he had been coming here for as long as he could remember, he never ceased to be awed by Tyersall Park. He had of course been into many homes of the high and mighty, but nothing else came close to this. Even the kitchen was impressive beyond beliefâa series of cavernous spaces with vaulted ceilings, walls covered in beautiful majolica tiles, and rows of shimmering copper pans and perfectly seasoned woks hanging over the gigantic Aga stoves. It looked like the kitchen of some historic resort hotel in the south of France. Ah Tock remembered a story his father had told him:
Back in the old days before the war, Gong Gong
loved entertainingâthere used to be parties for three hundred people every month at Tyersall Park, and we lesser children weren't allowed to attend, so we used to peer down at the guests from the upstairs balcony in our pajamas.
Taking a service staircase to the second floor, they walked down another hallway leading into the east wing. There, Ah Tock found his cousin Victoria Young on the sofa of the study room adjoining her bedroom, going through stacks of old papers with one of her personal maids. Victoria was the only one of Su Yi's children who still lived at Tyersall Park, and in many ways she was even more imperious than her mother, hence “Her Imperial Highness,” the nickname Ah Tock and Ah Ling used behind her back. Ah Tock stood in the room for several minutes, seemingly ignored. By now, he should be used to this kind of dismissive treatment, since his entire family had for three generations basically served as glorified help to these cousins, but he nevertheless felt a bit insulted.
“Lincoln, you're early.” Victoria finally looked up for a moment to acknowledge his presence, calling Ah Tock by his English name as she riffled through a set of blue aerogram letters. “These can be shredded,” she said, handing them off to the maid, who immediately fed them into the paper shredder.
Victoria's severe chin-length bobbed hair was looking frizzier and grayer than ever. Ah Tock wondered if she had ever heard of hair conditioner. She was wearing a white lab coat stained with paint marks over a polyester leopard-print blouse and what appeared to be white silk pajama pants.
If she wasn't born a Young, everyone would think she's an escapee from Woodbridge.
Fed up with waiting, Ah Tock tried to break the silence. “That looks like a ton of paperwork!”
“Mummy's personal papers. She wants everything destroyed.”
“Erâ¦are you sure you should be doing this? Wouldn't some historians be interested in Great-auntie Su Yi's letters?”
Victoria frowned at Ah Tock. “Precisely why I'm going through all of them. Some we'll save for the National Archives or the museums if there's anything relevant. But anything personal Mummy wants gone before she dies.”
Ah Tock was taken aback by how matter-of-factly Victoria put it. He tried to change the subject to more pleasant matters. “You'll be pleasedâ¦everything is on schedule to be delivered. The seafood supplier is sending a big truck tomorrow. They promised me the very best lobsters, jumbo prawns, and Dungeness crabs. They've never gotten such a large private order before.”
“Good.” Victoria nodded.
Ah Tock was pleased with the huge kickback he was getting from the seafood supplier, but he still found it hard to believe that the two Thai daughters-in-law of his cousin Catherine Young AakaraâSu Yi's second-eldest childâsubsisted on a diet of shellfish and nothing else.
“And I managed to track down that mineral-water bottler in Adelboden,” Ah Tock said.