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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Funnily enough, I had the same experience in primary school when my class teacher was registering us for UPSR. She scolded me for registering myself as Malay, when my father was Chinese. There were several of us in that class of mixed parentage with Chinese [Malaysian] fathers, and we all took our exams as Chinese students.
Before that moment, I had called myself Malay unquestioningly. When my mother got upset that I was registered as Chinese, I asked her why. And she told me that if I weren’t Malay, it would be hard for me to get a place in university — basically that my future would be entirely different. Shaken by the experience of questioning my own identity, I found this statement surprising and sad.
I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven the idiots who put this policy in place. Nowadays I stray away from racial identity, calling myself “constitutionally Malay with a Chinese father” when pushed to a corner. And I always follow this question with, “But what is race anyway, and why should it matter so much to you?”
Needless to say, filling out forms becomes an angry task.
Jaey Firdaus says
I was once asked by a friend if I am Malay. I said I’m international, as I come from a background [of mixed heritage]. I would say that I’m 1/4 Malay, Portuguese, Ceylonese and Pakistani.
Whether or not I’m Malay per se is something that even I am confused about. Do I share the same privilege as the Malays through the definition of “Malay” in the constitution? Can 1/4 Malay be considered Malay? Instead of looking myself as Malay, I would rather say I’m Malaysian, as my parents and grandparents are Malaysian despite the fact that [my grandparents] were not born in Malaya.
As in [Ong’s] case, I shared the same experience [in school]. My teacher stated that I was Eurasian when he asked about my grandfather’s race for a government scholarship form. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get the scholarship as [only Malays were entitled]. Sigh.
Sang Beruas says
S.Saw and Jaey Firdaus, you guys should have acted smart [and] skimmed off the constitution! Even if you are 0.01% Malay, you could have got away with it. The Umno Indonesian politicians have done it, why not you? Should have listened to your mums lah… mum always knows best, you know…
Grandfather's road says
Funnily enough, I have my grandfather’s road in Penang, too. Jalan C. O. Lim. I wonder if it’s still there or if they have changed it to a Malay name already.
…”This is your grandfather’s road, ah?!”, I could casually get up and say, “Yes!” …
LOL. I love Terry’s story. It is somehow weird how we are identified by our father’s race.
ed de souza says
Why not use the slogan “Malaysian: Simply Asian” for all?
“Why not use the slogan “Malaysian: Simply Asian” for all?”
Simple Ed. My Malaysian children are not Asian, even if some of their ancestors are.
My in-laws here asked me when my wife was pregnant: “What are you hoping for?” “A human,” I replied. “Boy or girl?” they asked. “Yes, ideally, but physically healthy and emotionally robust would be good enough”. “No, no,” they persisted. “What do you want them to look like?”
“People – only smaller.” I answered.
I love my kids. I’d probably love your kids too, as long as they weren’t completely obnoxious. Who cares who they look like or where their great grandparents were born? It says ‘Malaysia’ on their birth certs and passports, and Malaysia is the only place they know. Isn’t that enough to make them Malaysian?
Farouq Omaro says
It is strange in Malaysia that the authorities decide our race for us. In school teachers decide our race. And when we register our child’s birth, the National Registration Department decide the race. In West Malaysia it is even harder. There is a tendency to divide people into four races; Malay, Chinese, Indians and others! Anyone who is Malay looking is Malay, and if the person is not Muslim, then they would be “others”. Anyone who is Chinese looking is Chinese. Anyone who is Indian looking must be Indian. And all Muslims are Malays!
Ryan K.H. Lee says
Terry, your teacher was not wrong. The fact that your father is a Chinese makes you a Chinese, in spite of your being of mixed parentage. This is known as Jus Sanguinis.
However, what’s more important, we all ought to identify ourselves as Malaysian; first and foremost. Race comes secondary.
I think you’ve misunderstood Jus Sanguinis, Ryan. ‘Right of blood’ would make Terry Chinese – if he went to China. It’s a right to claim citizenship of a country based on ancestry, not a right to be rejected! Maybe you are confusing it with the ‘One Drop Rule’?
I see you believe race is way up in the identity rankings too. Lim Kit Siang recently declared himself “also Chinese” after years of being a Malaysian Malaysian, presumably because there were lots of potential DAP members distraught by the collapse of their racist organisation and wondering “who will feed me now?”. Is the notion that you are totally free to determine your own identity and choose your own peers so utterly alien? Why not “Malaysian first, daffodil grower second”? Since we are able to determine many things about our lives, why report race at all? Race is as meaningless as any of our other inherited traits.
Perhaps you won’t agree with my point of view. But you mus’ accep’ that I am right. Nobody should question my authority. You have dry ear wax and I have wet. That must mean I am superior right? Or is it just that I have smellier ears? Is my inherited earwax utterly irrelevant to our experience as people sharing the same time and space? I think it is.
YJ Tan says
Serani Chinese~~not bad~~we’re all Malaysians.
OMG Terry!! I listen to you every day on Redfm and I had no idea you were mixed.
Before I saw your picture I was so sure you were Indian [Malaysian] based on your accent. And then when I saw your pic I was so sure you were Chinese. After reading this interview, it turns out you’re everything, hehehe.
And I disagree with Ryan, I think your teacher was DEFINITELY out of line to speak to you that way, especially since you were only 10 years old.
Also think the baby pic is just too too sweet, just want to pinch those bak pau cheeks!
Love this interview, keep it coming, Nut Graph!