Saturday, 28 April 2012

X for Xiao Hong

Xiao Hong had magic fingers. She was a maker of beaded slippers for the aristocratic ladies of Malacca. In fact she was the only slipper maker on the Malayan western seaboard. Her only other competitor resided in Singapore, a three day boat ride via the Straits of Malacca or four days by road or two days by train.

Like clockwork, the rich ladies of Heeren Street zeroed into her shop in Jonker Street like flies, three months before Chinese New Year and a month before the Governors Annual Garden Party. 

"Xiao please remember you promised to get my shoes ready for fitting on the first of April. The Governors Garden Party is on the fourteenth. I'm giving you two weeks for readjustments because there is always something that needs fixing" Madam Ho fussed.

Xiao said nothing in reply. Her sister Xiao Meng jotted the dates on the calender.

Madam Lee, who lived three doors away from the Ho's waited impatiently for her turn to make an order. She was determined to get her slippers before her neighbour. 

"I am invited to the Garden Party too. In fact my husband is a very special friend of the Governor and was invited way before Madam Ho's husband. I want my fitting on the 28th March. Don't get the colour wrong like the last time" Madam Lee hissed.

Again Xiao Hong continued beading the slipper she was working on. Sister Meng noted the dates and  demands of the fussy tai tai.

Tai tai's were a special breed of rich men's wives with money in their pockets and time on their hands. They spent their waking hours playing mahjong, a noisy game of chance using small square wooden blocks, rather like cards or bridge. In between play, there was the untiring job of overseeing the servants who raised their children and indulging in opium smoking from time to time.

The bourgeoisie of Malacca lived on Heeren Street while the working class lived on Jonker Street and the Governor had the Hill. Such was the social structure of Malacca at the time.

The Xiao sisters rented the space above Wong's coffee shop. During the busy season, the sisters worked through the day and night and resorted to having food sent up from the coffee shop as they could not spare the time to cook.

Designs had to be drawn, leather cut and shoe lasts made. The toxic mix of glue and sharp needles would render her delicate fingers to shreds. Even so, beading was Xiao Hong's forte. From her trusty wooden frame, she wove her beautiful patterns of roses, birds, peacocks and dragons like a poet spinning poetry.

While her slippers were sought after greedily by the ladies of Heeren Street, they had a cruel streak and often passed unkind remarks about her. But Xiao always remained unfazed.

The tai tai's stopped for a tea at the downstairs coffee shop after collecting their slippers for the Governor's Party. They chatted to Wong, but in truth were after some gossip about the quiet Xiao.

"It's difficult for Xiao Hong to find a husband" Wong volunteered.

"Why?" the tai tai's asked dying to know the reason.

"She's so clever with her hands, but sadly she is deaf and dumb" Wong added.

A wave of guilt swept over the tai tai's for their unkind remarks which quickly faded. "As long as she continues to make our slippers why do we care?"

At the Garden Party the slippers were admired by all. But after the first hour, the wearers felt pinching in their feet with each step they took.

Each unkind word, though not heard, were conveyed by cruel eyes and facial expression. Xiao Hong had 'heard' everything they said. With every bead sewn, was a little bit of hurt.


Kate O'Mara said...

Karma shoes. Great story.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

It is a great story. Karma shoes indeed. Mankind is not very kind!