Growing Up in Malaysia

Apr 12, 2011

What makes a home? To one child, it’s of a leaky roof, a scary outhouse for a toilet and the sound of cock crows at the break of dawn. 




What do you remember of your childhood home? My immediate memories are of the shapes formed from the rainwater marks on the ceiling of a wooden house I grew up in.

When it rained heavily, some parts of the roof leaked. As a seven-year-old, lying on the bed, I would stare up the ceiling and try to imagine of what animal shapes those uneven marks resembled. Very much like how a child looks up the sky and tries to guess what the shapes of the clouds resembled.

I have never been embarrassed to share that I didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury. In my childhood days, I had lived through homes that were built with attap-roofing, bare cement-flooring and walls built out of wooden planks.

I was born in Ipoh, Malaysia but grew up in Taiping ever since my father relocated there for a new job when I was six. Between my primary and secondary school years, we had lived in a total of five different houses, before my father could afford to buy his first property – one that had tile roofing, smooth marble flooring and solid brick walls.

I remember our first rented house near Taiping Lake Gardens. It was an old wooden house where one hears cock crows at dawn. Whenever it rained heavily – which happened very often as Taiping is the wettest town in Malaysia – a worried expression would wreath on my mother’s face.

She would stack our clothes and food stuff like rice and canned food on high shelves, to get ready in case the flood came. But to me and my brother, that was play time. While the adults prayed for the rain to stop pelting, the kids folded origami sampan to float on the murky water that filled their living room.

We enjoyed such wet fun while our constantly worried parents started looking for another house to rent.



During the ’70s in the kampung, some homes still didn’t have an indoor flush toilet. If you live in such a place, answering nature’s call required you to walk or dash, depending on the urgency of your bowels, to an outhouse we called jamban. It’s a wooden cubicle the size of the British red telephone booth, with a creaky door.

This common toilet had a raised platform with a hole in the middle for the user to squat over it. Underneath, stood a rusty bucket with handles, ready to catch the folks’ morning “contributions”.

At night, this common toilet was very dark as it had no electricity. If you must visit it at night, you held on to your torch light while squatting down. You tried your darndest not to slip into the bucket of extreme unpleasantness.

I shall spare you the descriptions of the stench…

Every time I squatted above the bucket, it was not a fall that I feared. I was more petrified that a monitor lizard or other reptiles might flick its tongue to taste my butt.

Our third rented house was a vast improvement. It had proper roofing, it was never hit by flood and the neighbours had many children for me to play with. Most important of all, yay, it had an indoor toilet, never mind it was the squat type. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know there were other types besides the outdoors kind, anyway. It was a great house, despite the fact that other children loved to create stories that it was haunted.

After two years, we had to leave that house. It wasn’t due to any sighting of a ghoulish guest. It was the landlord who wanted to sell his property. And so, we moved again.

By the time my parents rented our fourth house, we were in an unprecedented luxury. The house, though rented, was much bigger and had a compound where we could play a game of badminton in.

What I remembered most was that it was there that my father had bought me my most expensive present ever – a piano! He had a job promotion and could afford to give me a little luxury – a piano and music classes.

I could never forget the day a lorry arrived with a brand new Korean piano named Young Chang. Our neighbours spilled out to catch a glimpse of the grand luxury being moved into our house, a novelty then. It was the proudest moment of my childhood. I excelled in piano exams, and would open a music school in my later years.

Two years on, my father finally could afford his very own home. I was 14 then. I remembered when I had to fill in my school’s student data, pride surged all over me. I could finally write rumah batu (brick house) instead of rumah papan (wooden house) in the column for the type of house I lived in.

It had been a long way home, sauntering down memory lane of the homes I used to live in. I kept photographs of those houses. They are the milestones of my parents’ constant effort to improve our living condition. They also marked the progress Malaysia has made.

Today, my three children are fortunate that they live in an era different from mine. When I shared stories of my childhood homes with them, they thought it was unthinkable for anyone to live in a home without an in-house toilet (now they have attached bath in their own room), without a telephone (they each have handphones and Internet at home), without a water heater (they have never bathed in cold water since birth), air conditioning, and Astro cable network. All the amenities and facilities that today’s middle-class kids take as their birthright.




I truly appreciate the home I have today, but reminiscing my various childhood homes has filled me with a deep sense of humility, and helps me treasure the better days. There’s a Chinese saying that goes, “You must taste the bitter in order to savour the sweet.”


Yvonne Lee's website is at Her published works include Madness Aboard! Welcome to Plane Insanity, The Sky is Crazy: Tales from a Trolley Dolley and Vanity Drive: The Vagaries of one Woman's Vanity.