Jimmy and Ariel Tan

Jimmy comes from a Peranakan, or Straits Chinese family, descendants of the Han Chinese who came to Malaysia between the 15th and 17th centuries. Straits-Chinese were defined as those born or living in the Straits Settlements: a British colonial construct of Penang, Malacca and Singapore constituted in 1826. Straits Chinese were not considered Baba Nyonya (Peranakan) unless they displayed certain Sino-Malay syncretic attributes. The term Peranakan is most commonly used to refer to those of Chinese descent. They do not speak Chinese, but a patois of Malay. Penang Hokkien is a subdialect of Zhangzhou Chinese, together with widespread use of Malay and English borrowed words.

Many were the elites of Singapore more loyal to the British than to China. Most have lived for generations along the Straits of Malacca. They were usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa because they were mostly English educated. Because of this, they almost always had the ability to speak two or more languages.

When the British colonized the country, the Peranakans were among the first group of locals to adopt the English language. They began to view themselves as superior to the other Chinese, who couldn’t speak English. During the colonial era, many Straits Born Chinese regarded themselves as the “Queen’s subjects,” a fact that did not endear them to either the Malays or other Chinese, who were against British rule.

Jimmy was the first-born son of a wealthy palm-oil plantation owner in Penang. When he was two years old, his mother died. Soon after, his father married again. Within a year, the second wife had a son. There was an immediate realization that Jimmy’s (or Chi Mi’s) position as the first born of the first wife usurped any claim that the second son could have on inheriting the family business.

Knowing her jealous and rapacious nature, Jimmy’s father feared for his son’s life. He decided to have him raised in Vancouver by his brother Tan Beng Siang and his wife, Teck. Paying off officials, Jimmy’s birth certificate was changed. Because Beng imported palm oil products from his brother’s plantation, he spent a good deal of time in Penang, so it was not that difficult to claim that Jimmy was their son. There were always ways around that when questions arose in Vancouver. For example, Tan Teck could say they wanted Jimmy raised around family members early on, so he remained there until it was time for him to enter kindergarten.

Jimmy, however, had to be told the truth because he would take trips to Penang to visit his father up until the time he entered university. During these visits he stayed with other relatives so that his stepmother would not be reminded of his position in the family. Unfortunately, his father was stern and not able to demonstrate his love for Jimmy. Even his uncle seemed distant. Only his aunt and Mr. Lim, the houseman, showed him the affection for which he yearned.

We know that he defied his father and studied criminology and others Arts courses. It was in a history class where he met Ariel.

Ariel Allen was from a middle-class family in Vancouver. Her father, Robert, was a foreman at a lumber mill and mother, Kate, a legal secretary. They doted on her and her older brother, Jeffrey, a materialistic stock broker. When he proudly informed Ariel of his latest acquisition she always asked, “Are you happy yet?” They do have heart-to-hearts, but he is so driven by business that she couldn’t convince him that he was throwing his life away. No wife, just a series of arm-candy girlfriends. Her father, however, was proud of him.

He was also proud of Ariel, being the first female in the entire Allen clan to attend university. In her second year, she met Maysoon and Farkad al-Rawi from Baghdad. President Clinton had already begun his “quiet war” against Iraq, but on June 26, he ordered U.S. warships stationed in the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in downtown Baghdad. Ariel’s friends then had to return to Iraq.

At that juncture, Ariel took a look at her life and decided she didn’t need to be living the carefree life of a student. She needed to go out in the real world and find a job. Luckily her mother had taught her shorthand and she knew how to type, so she got a clerical position. After a period of time, she rented an apartment. There were a few letters from Maysoon, arriving long after they were posted and all were pleas of one kind or another, most of which Ariel could not fill. How could she, one person, see that they got papers to immigrate? Maysoon didn’t seem to understand how immigration worked. And certainly Saddam Hussein would not let his educated elite leave the country. Gradually her letters dried up.

Ariel returned to university in 1996 for her final two years. She did well earning scholarships and bursaries throughout her academic life. When she graduated, her parents were thrilled. But at this point they were not aware of the presence of Jimmy in her life.

When they met in a history class they were instantly attracted to each other. He was 19 and she was 23. They were inseparable. He spent most of his time at her apartment where they played Scrabble. It annoyed her that he always won. He was the “Adorable Ass” and she was the “Lady with Spunk.”They would listen to rock music, watch Bruce Lee films in Chinatown then go to a Chinese café afterwards for hot chili dishes. In the winter they strolled along the beach.

They graduated together and after the ceremony she introduced Jimmy to her parents as her “good friend.” It was only later, when they made plans to marry that she felt trepidation about bringing Jimmy to her parents’ home. It was an awkward visit. When her father heard that she intended to marry him, he didn’t say another word. He simply got up and left the room.

The next day he phoned her and called Jimmy a “Goddam Chink.” Her mother thought Jimmy was a gentleman, and obviously from a “good background” – implying wealth.

Jimmy had already enrolled at the Justice Institute on his way to becoming a policeman. They had a small wedding with friends from university and the JI. Jeffrey did show up. He thought Jimmy was okay but should be in business, not be a cop. Her mother was there.

Ariel talks to her occasionally, but she and her father have not spoken since his phone call.