The Jason Hahn Files: It’s Weird When Parents Talk About Dowries

‘“Isn’t that just crazy?’ Michelle asked. ‘She couldn’t talk to us about sex, but the subject of dowries was completely on the table!’”


My parents never told any of their children anything about the birds and the bees. They simply figured they were paying enough for our expensive education, so it only made sense that someone would teach it to us eventually; otherwise, what were they paying all that money for?

It’s the same approach they applied to litter. Which is why when my sister Michelle’s primary school organised a ‘Pick Up Litter At The Beach’ Day and tried to get the parents to also join in, they made a critical mistake in actually telephoning my mother.

When she put down the phone, she immediately turned to Father. “I’ve just had the most astonishing conversation!”

He stared at her over the top of his newspaper. “I don’t see how. You just said, ‘Hello’ and ‘No’ and hung up the phone. How is that a conversation?”

Mother sniffed. “That was Michelle’s school! They wanted me to pick up garbage at the beach! Why is that my job? I pay taxes so someone else can do that kind of thing!”

My father’s mother did not raise a stupid son, which is why he wisely refrained from pointing out that Mother, despite receiving a very substantial household allowance from him, did not pay taxes on account of the fact that she didn’t actually work at a job that required taxes to be paid.

Mother was so affronted by the phone call that the next day, she pulled Michelle out of school and re-enrolled her somewhere else.

Years later, over afternoon tea of kaya toast at Toast Box, we were still talking about our parents’ division of labour.

“I just don’t understand how your parents just palmed off the responsibility for sex education to the school,” Saffy said, shaking her head as she gently blew on her kopi-o.

“I know, right?” Amanda said.

“Oh my God,” Michelle said, “I’m so glad they didn’t! I can’t imagine a more awkward conversation!”

Saffy’s bosom inflated. “You know, I love your parents, but they’re really weird.”

“Tell them what conversation they had with you instead!” I told Michelle, who immediately rolled her eyes.

“So shortly after that beach litter phone call,” she began, “and I had just started at my new school, Mother picked me up one day. Which was weird, because she never picked any of us up. She never saw the point because otherwise why have a driver in the first place?”

“Which makes complete sense,” I said.

Michelle nodded. “Yes. Which meant that her coming to pick me up from school was a big deal and it also meant she wanted to speak to me about something very private.”

“Which was?” Amanda prodded.

“Which was to tell me that if and when I ever got married, I was not getting a dowry!”

Michelle sat back in her chair triumphantly. Amanda gasped.

Saffy blinked. “Wait…What?”

“Isn’t that just crazy?” Michelle asked. “She couldn’t talk to us about sex, but the subject of dowries was completely on the table!”

“What I never understand is why she didn’t get the lawyer to speak to you about it,” I said. “After all, that was his job!”

Saffy waved her hands. “Wait! A dowry? Is that still a thing?”

“Of course it is!” Amanda said. “Stanley Ho’s daughter just got $100m dowry when she got married!”

Michelle’s eyes widened. “She did? Cash or stock?” she asked, demonstrating, not for the first time, that here was a woman whose expensive education hadn’t gone to waste.

Saffy was astonished. “What century are we living in?!”

The next day at the office, it was all she could talk about, though Sharyn, surprisingly, didn’t see what the issue was.

“Ay, if my parent give me dowry when I get married, today, I no need work ah, I tell you!” Her already magnified eyes became even more enlarged behind her thick spectacles. “So shiok, stay at home all day and watch TV and shake leg!”

“Your parents aren’t that wealthy, Shazz!” Saffy pointed out.

“Who say? My fadder own the Toyota dealership in Muah, you know! Every year we go to Cameron Highland holiday! But then before I get married, he kena cheated by his business partner and lose all his mah-ney!”

Saffy blinked. “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”

“Aiyah, is old story. So now, like that lor! Must every day come to work. Boh pian,” she sighed as she stared at the stack of HR reports on her desk. “Not like Stanley Ho daughter. That one confirm go on honeymoon, come back and shake leg, one!”

Saffy says she’s never understood the allure of shaking her legs as a way of passing time, but for $100m, she could probably learn to like it.

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