AT five foot five, Terry Ong says he has never been made to feel insecure about his height as much as he has been made to feel insecure about a more fundamental and unalterable aspect: his own heritage.
Ong, 29, is an emcee and voiceover talent. But he is also known because he is a vibrant, forthcoming radio producer and presenter on Redfm.
In an interview with The Nut Graph on 24 Sept 2009, he talks about his firmly-rooted ancestry in the northern state of Penang and why his childhood home scared him. He also recalls how, if not for the decision of a strong-willed forebear, he would have had a different surname.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Terry Ong: I was born in Penang. I’m quite proud of the fact that I spent about 18 years of my life in the same house. It’s not that common, I think, for people to grow up in one location. So I had a lot of stability. And naturally, being in Penang, I had a lot of stability — and food (laughs).
I grew up in an area that was predominantly Chinese [Malaysian] — Jelutong — and had a reputation for being a “gangster area”. But I was never harassed; my house was never broken into; my neighbours were friendly, for the most part.
I went to Westlands primary school, and then St Xavier’s branch school in Pulau Tikus when I was 10. I went on to St Xavier’s Institution, which isn’t headed by a [religious] brother anymore, which I think is unfortunate. I wish they had held on to that tradition.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
I grew up in a bungalow that was really old, with many wooden slatted windows. Normally if you grow up in a certain environment, you get used to it; but I never got used to how creepy my house was. There were banana trees right outside my window, and in the kitchen, if you looked up, you could see the roof tiles and rafters. I always thought there would be something lurking up there.
There was a marketplace in front of the house, and every morning there would be an eu char kuey seller and a chee cheong fun seller. And because we grew up practically in front of them, we would get food for free, every single day. Those are foods I was very frequently fed with, and which I got very quickly fed up of (laughs).
Tell us about your family. Can you trace your ancestry?
My mum was a mix of Portuguese and Indian, and a little bit of Dutch in there; while my dad was pure Chinese. I have a brother who is six years older than me, and a sister who’s six years younger. My paternal grandmother always said it was very bad luck for me, because my siblings were both born in the year of the Tiger [according to the Chinese horoscope], while I was a Monkey in the middle. A monkey between two tigers? “Oh, you’re going to get it!” she would say.
Growing up, my dad would tell me to list his occupation as “business[person]”. What that meant was, he owned some property and he would rent them out, though I didn’t understand that then. My mother, on the other hand, was a [homemaker]. So I was very fortunate because both my parents were always at home, since neither of them had to go to work. My dad passed away when I was 12, and my mom passed away three years ago.
My maternal great grandfather came here from Goa in India and settled in Penang. The Portuguese who settled in Goa married the locals, and so my great grandfather was Portuguese-Indian. My grandfather, Michael Gasper, was a building contractor who developed the large Concord housing area in Tanjung Bungah. He was rich in land as well, and at one time owned the entire Kampung Pulau area, off Jalan Perak.
My grandfather had three wives who all got along. My mum and her five siblings were from the first wife. My grandmother, being part Dutch, looked very Caucasian. I believe she was a nurse before she married my grandpa, and then she became a housewife.
My great, great grandfather on my father’s side came from China, from a village in the Hokkien province of Chiang Chew Hoo. Apparently, he became a moneylender. I guess he did really well as he started buying pieces of land around the island of Penang.
My paternal grandfather’s name was Ong Joo Sun, and he was an English [language] teacher. In the 1930s during the depression, he started something called the East Asiatic Unemployment Fund, which gave money to unemployed people to buy groceries and their daily needs. He was given the honour of Justice of the Peace by King George V, father of Queen Elizabeth. I don’t know if my grandfather actually met King George, but I’m going to say that he did! (laughs)
At one point, my grandfather founded and published this magazine called Happy Home, which promoted the Confucius way of living. He was also a city councilor of Georgetown from 1952, and had a road named after him! So there’s a Jalan Ong Joo Sun in Penang. I always wanted to lie in the middle of that road, so that when a car honked at me and yelled, “This is your grandfather’s road, ah?!”, I could casually get up and say, “Yes!”
Like my maternal grandpa, my paternal grandfather also had three wives. He had 15 children, out of whom three were adopted. I am a descendant of the third wife. My dad and his siblings would call their own mother ah ee, which is “aunty”, because they called the first wife “mother” out of respect. I’ve met all the wives on my dad’s side, even though I didn’t know growing up that they were my grandmas!
One thing I just recently found out that shocked me was that my great grandfather’s surname was actually Lee. But apparently he was also a bit of a bum, and my great grandmother decided to name all her children after her last name, which was Ong. So my surname would actually have been Lee if not for the say-so of this strong woman in my family. When you think about it, my family is really matriarchal!
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
Growing up, I was told I was Eurasian; but I look very Chinese, and I used to hang out with my cousins who were clearly of mixed heritage. There was an incident in school once when I was in Standard Four and we were asked to fill in a form. When I told the class teacher I was Eurasian, she gave me this scornful look and said, “You’re not Eurasian!” She asked me my father’s name, and when I told her, she said, “What is he?” I told her he was Chinese [Malaysian], and her response was: “That means you’re Chinese.”
She made me feel like I should be embarrassed for saying what I’d been told — what was technically true — and made me feel inadequate for being what I was. That’s difficult for a 10-year-old, and that incident stays with me until today. It’s weird that people don’t recognise your ethnicity according to your blood, but according to your father’s race. Even though at the end of the day, it shouldn’t even be an issue since we’re all Malaysian.
What do you hope for the future of Malaysia?
I think what people want for our country shouldn’t be all that different from what people want for the whole world: justice; equality; unity; happiness. If all nations are striving for a better world, why say that one country is better than another? By that token, if we want a better country, why say that one [group of persons] is better than another? The truth is, we can’t do it simply by looking out for ourselves — we have to look out for everyone.
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