An amorous deck hand learned a painful lesson when he targeted a proud and resourceful Klong Toey girl as his child bride
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
We never knew mum when she was young and not yet ravaged by cheap booze and hard hot years under the Southeast Asian sun doing unskilled sweatshop labour, living wherever there was work on the decks and holds of rusty out-of-date cargo ships in the Bay of Bangkok.
When only daughter Miss Tip whispered to mum "Today's my 14th birthday", there on the cargo ship, mum had another excuse to get hammered one more time. There wasn't much beauty left, but even the slight traces still showed she was a beauty in her days of yesteryear. Just like Miss Tip, a Klong Toey beauty with a good complexion and sturdy stature.
Mum was an amiable drunk who would agree to almost anything after a few. That's when this guy -- a fellow sweat on the cleaning crew -- told hammered mum he wanted to buy Miss Tip. True, he used some nicer words, but the meaning was the same.
You see, all this started with this sweat, missing a couple of teeth, going bald in front, with arm tattoos. But not with proper meaning and symbols, like from prison, nor even the tiger tattoo. He was a day hire contracted to temporary work on the ship. No one knew him very well. He was a stranger. Not Klong Toey born. Didn't go to school here.
He came up to hammered mum, big grin, showing his missing teeth. Came right up to her, right there on the deck, in front of everyone. Offered 4,000 baht for the hand in matrimony of 14-year-old Miss Tip.
Proud of himself, like he was doing mum and Miss Tip a favour, he said the ship's captain could say the words and make it formal and all legal, which wasn't true but sounded uppity yuppity. Besides, the captain could say it in Chinese as this was an old Chinese leased cargo ship. Certainly unsafe in a storm.
Mum's words were quite clear. We are not low class from the rice fields -- my daughter is a Bangkok-born Klong Toey girl and we have dignity. She's strong and healthy and can hoist and carry 50kg rice sacks better than most of you men. And she's pretty with nice skin, has good teeth and can work all day in the sun and not get sick. And no one has ever touched her, and if you do, I shall toss you off the side of this ship.
In spite of the booze, or maybe because of it, mum knew of these things. Things you don't always learn in school. Her earlier days weren't always "pretty please with sugar on it and flouncy pink". She and a neighbour lady, totally loyal to the end, who rushed mum to the hospital when she came back on the bus from the ship … but back to that in a moment.
These good ladies had worked a Klong Toey pleasure place for lonely sailors at the mouth of the port, just a few steps from the ships and no customs officials and immigration folks to deal with. And a nicer place called the Mosquito Bar (now closed), also at the mouth of the port. Air conditioning, karaoke and all. Mum and her neighbour had a reputation with the Port Authority Police. Any amorous sailor who advanced too boldly would be snookered with unopened beer bottles by mum and her neighbour.
Back to the wedding plans. Mum, quite indignantly, said no dice, it has to be at least 4,500 baht. But the sweat didn't have that much cash. He would have to pay in weekly instalments. Mum said again no dice, the money has to be up front and in cash now, and not just promises. Besides, what if you don't like my beautiful daughter Tippy. You can't just return her as damaged goods, give her back, like, trade her in … and expect your money back.
When Miss Tip, who was asleep on the deck, heard about this, and then realised they were talking about her and her life, she was horrified. The sweat came over and tried to put his arm around her. In self-defence, she kicked him in his lower regions. Screamed at mum. I hate you. I hate all of you.
Seeing no place to hide, she tried to crawl over the railing, to jump that dangerously long way down off the side of the ship into the ocean. Death would be better than giving herself to this sweat who wanted her for 4,500 baht in weekly instalments.
She didn't quite make it over the rail. Some quick-acting folk grabbed her in time and wrestled her down. The sweat came over. She managed to kick him again, but this time she had a better position and really kicked him hard.
That ended any marriage plans.
The captain was totally miffed. He radioed for a "lighter" and put Miss Tip, somewhat hysterical, and her drunk mum on the small boat to the wharf about half a kilometre away. He shouted harsh words for them to never come back. He sent the Klong Toey foreman with them and told him to make sure they had pocket money for the three-hour bus trip to Bangkok.
The story doesn't get any easier.
The foreman made sure mum and daughter boarded the right bus. At first the bus people weren't going to let dishevelled mum on the bus, but Tip promised she would take care of her, keep her quiet and make sure there were no problems. There weren't. Mum slept all the way. Yes, she snored loudly but Tip kept shaking her.
Arriving at the Ekamai bus terminal, 10 minutes from Klong Toey, Tip had calmed down after the three-hour bus ride. Knowing she was safe for the moment, she got mum to their rented shack.
Taking one look at mum, her loyal neighbour lady from years gone by brought Miss Tip to us in the slums for safe keeping before taking mum to the emergency unit of the nearest hospital.
Mum died there three days later. Never left the hospital. Hardening of the liver, plus complications. As the nurses told the story, mum died gasping "Tell Tip I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
At the cremation, the sweat with the bad teeth who wanted to pay Tip's dowry price in weekly instalments showed up to pay respect.
He was repentant. Tried one more time. Told Miss Tip that he would take her in. She could be his wife. He would take care of her. They could work on the ship together. He also told his story that he had given Tip's mum 2,000 baht as a down payment. That's when he said, if she refused, he wanted that money back that he had paid her mum, now lying dead in a clapboard casket with no lid, donated by the benevolent society for the very poor.
Tip panicked again. Ran out of the temple into the nearby slaughterhouse. She said later she felt safe there with the pigs and a couple of stray dogs who lived next to that particular holding pen.
Seems that though she was a stranger, the dogs took an immediate liking to her. The cremation went on. Tip came back once she saw a policeman there and felt safe.
Mum had worked, sometimes for two or three weeks, on cargo ships anchored off the coast some three hours from Bangkok. She was part of a day/night team that brought their own cooking utensils, living literally on the deck of the ship. Cleaning, working in the hold of the ship. Anything. Getting 350 baht for working shifts of six to eight hours.
Hammered mum had been hauling her daughter Tip along with her for five or six years. There was no one at home in Klong Toey to care for her, and Tip could also earn money. She was safe -- until this sweat with bad teeth wanted a child wife.
Miss Tip is safe now and in school. Enrolled even though she is beginning at 14 years of age. It's never too late. Now Miss Tip also wears a locket around her neck with an old picture of mum when she was pretty. She says mum is in heaven and has stopped drinking. She never knew her dad, but mum used to say he fell off the side of a ship in a storm. That was a couple of months before Miss Tip was born.
Back to the sweat. One of our house mums, a sturdy lady, is a distant cousin from the same village as the sweat. She knows why years ago, according to village law and lore, the sweat had to leave the village suddenly and never return, at least for 20 years. She told this to the local police and they kindly mentioned this to him, so he is out of the picture. The sweat doesn't dare come around now.
It's 100 days now since mum died, so schoolgirl Tip brought two lotus leaves the fresh market lady had given her. She wouldn't accept any money for them because Tip said she wanted them for the ceremony to pray for her mum, and that mum didn't drink in heaven.
A snippet of mum's hair and a bit of an old dress were placed in the folded lotus leaves. Tip took them to the temple to place them at the foot of one of the sacred trees, sending away any bad spirits. Together with us she placed a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who protects children.
Tomorrow is another school day. A happy day. She wants to be a teacher and teach little girls like herself.
The children are so very proud. They tell all their friends: “I’ve got a new home” and my mum says that she didn’t have to borrow a lot of money so she doesn’t have to find a second job to pay off the money because our family didn’t have to borrow very much to pay for the construction.
And dad, even though he’s never done much carpenter work, helped a lot in the construction and that cut down labor expenses. And his boss at the factory is an understanding guy, and let dad work with the neighbors on the house construction, for two weeks, and didn’t even cut his wages
The houses are simple steel frames, so much stronger than the old ones, and will be even more beautiful as soon as the flowers grow.
This was always a gentile slum – a nice low-low economic community, but still always gentle, and now with the new homes, it is more gentle than ever. You walk through the area, and you feel good, and no fear of danger or violence – just nice people. True, they grew up next to the pig holding pens, and the butchering - maybe seeing violence all their lives, has made them nonviolent, after seeing so much brutality.
I speak for everyone in the community – especially the children, thank you to all of you who have helped so very much in giving our 41 children and 24 grand-mothers granddads, plus mums and dads plus some kitty cats’ new homes.
Again, thank you.
Fr. Joe and all of the children.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
That wasn't like Master Gaw. He was the toughie of the second kindergarten class, as rough and tumble as any four-year-old boy in our Klong Toey slums. Not afraid of ghosts that might lurk in a dark corner or under the bed. The kid feared nothing.
But something changed. This was different; this was scary. So they ran, the toughie and his mum. Had to. Mum's man -- her "live-in" -- could have killed them both. He was "drug drunk mixed with booze". They say druggies and boozers don't mix potions. That's just not true. And when they do mix, the potion is potent and can be lethal to anyone around.
That's what sent mum and Master Gaw running barefoot in the middle of the night. Mum cut her foot but kept going, running like mad, a petite and bleeding woman, stumbling and falling but never dropping her kindergarten son -- a large kid for his age.
Just some ‘goings on’ – Our team was here at 5 a.m. this morning to ready itself to take 40 of our senior citizens to ‘Make Merit’ (indulgences) at three well known Buddhist Temples in the outskirts of Bangkok. The bus is leaving at 7:30 a.m. and should return about 6 p.m. (depending on the traffic) You know… on pilgrimage
Recently, Bangkok city was said to have the most terrible traffic of any city in the world. Maybe that’s true – at least it feels like that some time.
And yesterday the International Rugby team from New Zealand came to visit our kids. What a glorious day and the kids were ecstatic and could not get over how big and strong the players were. The team manager gave us a donation from each member of the team, plus a signed ‘football’ and ‘jersey’ - personally signed by each member of the team… and these of course are true treasures. And the beginning of what we hope in the future one of our kids will get a scholarship to the Bangkok Rugby academy here in Bangkok.
And I didn’t tell you that a whole troop of international bikers came to visit, on their impressive Harley Davidsons with noise and smoke and all – and gave a donation, and ice cream to the kids and gave everyone a ride up and down the street on their’ choppers’ - and also some of the staff. An Amazing day for the kids – truly great guys.
And in the Mogan South, we have a nine year old girl who was born with a growth under her tongue and of course difficulty in eating and tasting and swallowing but most of all can’t speak clearly – so the other kids in school make fun of her, plus she already has a “Mogan” accent and afraid to go to school. Yesterday, after we struggled to get all kinds of special permission to leave the province where she lives on the Island, and go to a large Government Provincial hospital for an operation to remove the growth (from birth) about 150 kilometers away - and we had permission for her mum to go along also who doesn’t speak much Thai, so one of our team traveled with them.
Right now her mouth is a bit sore and even though the doctors could not operate in fear of her loosing ability to taste, she got some strong injections and medicine to kill the bacteria and hopefully it will shrink the growth.
Tuesday and Wednesday 427 children graduated Mercy’s kindergartens. 427 children that now can sing songs in English; they can brush their teeth and cut with scissors. They are excellent on walking on a straight line, and they can recite the Thai alphabet, which is 44 symbols long!!
This is the happiest day of their lives. And for us too. We, standing on the side of the stage – out of the lime light – but we also, proud as proud can be. And their parents. Especially the single mums and grannies, and granddads, who have struggled against all odds, fought off the poverty and loneliness: the betrayal, the false promises, and raised their children and grandchildren “on their own”. What unbelievable success stories!! Four hundred and twenty seven Kindergarten three graduates. Dressed formally in caps and gowns.
For 3 years they have woken up in the morning, showered, put on their school uniform (or something comfortable if they can’t afford one, as we are not so picky on that). Then they skip along, some always run in excitement to be at school by 8AM, all set for singing the national anthem, raising the Thai flag and do some morning exercise.
The new graduates from these shack slum kindergartens. Now alumni. The Pride of 23 slums. These marvellous, “never give up kids” – did it all themselves.
These fabulous slum kids who have “huffed and puffed and walked and crawled and scrapped” through three years of school, marched in solemn procession. Many cry the first couple of weeks at school – no wonder, never been away from mummy or grandma or auntie a whole day – that’s 7 hours with 20 other children, can be kinda scary. But many end their school days crying when they are leaving. Their teachers have taught them invaluable lessons in how to protect themselves, how to become an individual and how to be responsible. And they have formed friendships with kids “just like themselves”
– the Mercy preschools are filled with children from broken homes, that try their best, don’t always succeed but keep reciting ‘go to school, go to school, go to school’. 3 years with other kids that sometimes have to get to school alone because mummy ran away, grandma doesn’t have a watch or uncle is drunk. But that’s ok, we don’t judge. Our job is to provide care and nurturing in a safe and warm environment.
Some would call it a home away from home, and that’s nice – we try to fill in the gaps where the broken home comes short – a true partnership.
427 kindergarten graduates in robes and caps hearing their names called out, walking one by one to the dais to receive their Diploma. A valuable and most necessary document in modern Bangkok for entering first grade.
A document to show that 427 kids are prepared with the right tools and skills to tackle their next big adventure in life – Grade 1 – that’s the big kids’ school – with bigger classrooms, teachers that don’t know where they come from, don’t know the struggles they might face at home. But the Mercy teachers are always there and the kids know that. If they are being bullied by the big kids or they don’t understand a school assignment they know they can visit their kindergarten. We never forget you and every day we pray for your success in life, both the small ones like remembering that its important to wear socks to school and the big ones like passing an exam.
Because once you have graduated a Mercy school you are always a part of the Mercy family.
And the chant rings down the halls of time – for 45 years now: Go to School. Go to School. Go to School.
Congratulations to each and every one of you!
Please visit https://www.facebook.com/mercycentre/?fref=ts for more glorious pictures from the big day!
No one really has had permission to live there. Not even from the beginning. Nearly 70 years ago, it wasn’t that important. What was important was coolie labour in the Klong Toey Port and butchers in the slaughter house.
Let them live as they may: Helter-skelter. So they built clap-trap wooden shacks. Pirated municipal water and electricity. And last week, all these years later, those wooden shacks caught fire.
But those shacks are home. Babies born there, old folks have died there. Children grew up in, lived above and around the pig, cattle holding pens. Poor but beloved. Sacred.
Twelve days ago today, it burned to the ground. Nothing left.
Two city blocks wide & long: 51 old wood shacks & 76 families. Our homes. Yes, as squatters: no legal right to the land, except we have butchered pork and cattle for the city – 3,500 a night, and carried produce on our backs, up and down ship gang-planks now for 60 plus years. We fought for municipal water at normal prices and finally ‘won the battle of meters’ (to have our own meter) but still have one big water meter to share Bangkok city water.
We won’t leave; where would we go – This is home. And we are re-building as fast as we can. We have cleared most of the burnt scrap. We have sifted through the burnt to find our sacred statues.
WE are doing most of the clearing burnt scrap and re-building ourselves. We aren’t the best carpenters, but the work has to be done.
With strings of different colors and a single piece of paper with your name on it – that’s how to mark the spot where your shack once stood – slum style. And every neighbor respects that, understands what these basic symbols imply.
Some have been extra lucky and got a tent – a tent on top of burned wood and unsafe ground – gives you protection and you claim your turf.
We are using your money for that. Plus school uniforms for 41 school children, plus pots and pans, plus houses for a couple of our teachers who lost everything, plus shacks for elderly ladies with no source of income and certainly no money to re-build. And on and on. Time is of the essence and we won’t rest before everyone is back in the community.
Plus the rains are coming – the rainy monsoon season.
The ‘new houses’ might not look like much high class, but they are solid and liveable.
And everyone is participating, everyone is involved. The women take care of the donation box (so every coin is counted) another group prepare the food. The men take turns at guard duty at night, so that no stranger comes to wander around. The teachers come each morning to collect the children for school.
Thank you - Prayers as always fr. joe.