A Special Story: ‘A Celestial Oddity Among Us’ by Matriarch Betty Lee

Matriarch Betty Lee is a traveller of words, an eloquent writer working on a collective of short stories punctuated with her “trademark humour” – as her daughter, Shentel Lee says. Today, BAZAAR proudly adds a third addition of Betty’s literary work to the archived collections of the BAZAAR establishment. Betty showcases the art of story telling that is engaging for the digital era. Her embracingly unique take and interest on human interest angles is heartwarming. The photography to this piece was captured in true signatory style of Shentel Lee which we left untouched for its raw visual sincerity. Below is a mini photo collage with annotations from Shentel herself.

While I was in Penang, Malaysia, I was intrigued by a brochure I picked up at the hotel lobby. It simply stated “Little atelier/workshop – curios, dolls, trinkets, creatures, objects of desire made by hand”. It was such an irresistible lure for this compulsive craft hobbyist.

Early next morning, eager beaver me was at the shop even before it opened. Noting the front door was ajar; I went in and started snooping around, when this figure with the biggest pair of haunting eyes looked up, apparently startled by my brazen presence. She is the owner, Foo May Lyn of Chop Kongsi.  Still clasping a mop in hand, she apologetically announced, “I am not ready, give me a moment to tidy up, please excuse the mess.”

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Photography: Shentel Lee

I was mesmerised by the idiosyncratic wares on display.  Every available surface was covered with uncharacteristic oddities, asymptomatically mismatched and offbeat artefacts disconcertingly mingled together. I noted a well preserved timeworn patchwork quilt draped as partition, blocking access to an adjoining doorway, a lone embroidered black kimono dangling graciously from the ceiling, another solitary white gown visibly swaying from the rear workroom, and numerous display glass cabinets showcasing copious amounts of intricately crocheted medley of odds-and-ends jewellery, and a bottom dresser overflowing with hand sewn whimsical dolls. All this mixed with odd old porcelain wares, watercolour paintings of fanciful creatures and mystical deities; as well as a huge antique collection of coloured plastic dolls and stuffed animals. Basically, it was a Mecca of awesomeness for this aspirant crafter.

She introduced herself, “I used to be an actress and have performed in Malaysia, Singapore, London, and various other European countries and festivals.  I lived abroad a long time; 12 years in Brixton, 13 years in Paris and now 5 years in Penang”. Naturally, I was perplexed as to her migratory decision to return to Penang so I enquired. May Lyn abruptly raised both her hands shielding her face as if blocking away bad vices and said, “Long story. The answer to your question means you and me having coffee quietly and bringing out the violin”.

Her troubled expression hinted of mental torment and traces of unbearable emotional anguish by this sensitive question.  I sensed intense sadness so I didn’t pursue the matter further. At this time, I spotted a fascinating piece of object. On closer examination, I realised it was a brooch.  Looking at the frayed edges, I recognised it was once a piece of delicate fabric that May Lyn had salvaged and made it into a piece of wearable art. What fascinated me was the detailed exhaustive stitching. The embroidery was so well-compacted that the piece of cloth felt and looked like fossilised cloth. Such stitching must had been done with microscopic needlepoints; a feat that is almost humanly impossible to accomplish.  Astonished by such intricate ‘condensed’ workmanship, I enquired as to what technique this might be. May Lyn laughed and said, “I am an obsessive and intensely ferocious stitcher!”

As I clutched this masterpiece, I sensed that such bizarre skill must surely be celestial in origin.I noted a tray of colourful assortment of tiny hand stitched pincushions. The psychedelic twirls of coloured thread compilations were mesmerizing.  There were no two alike.  When I complimented May Lyn on her spectacular craftsmanship, she readily admitted that these were her 82-year old mother’s contribution to Chop Kongsi.  In an appreciative tone she said, “I think this needlepoint empowers my mother to feel that she can support me, just as she did when I was a child.  And Boy, is she helping me! They sell faster than any of my own work!”

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Photography: Shentel Lee

Despite the vibrant thread works and laborious workmanship, the pincushions were all modestly priced.  When I selected one without a price on it, May Lyn promptly clarified she didn’t put a price on it because she loved this particular pincushion too much to be parted from it.  In other words, it was not for sale.  This was becoming a common theme for this chronic hoarder of a shopkeeper who couldn’t bear to be parted from many of her cherished wares.

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Photography: Shentel Lee

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Photography: Shentel Lee

“Did you inherit your sewing skills from your mother?” I curiously enquired.

May Lyn responded, “No, mother doesn’t often get time to do this.  They were her pastime pursuits until, by chance she sent me six pieces as gifts, which I craftily placed price tags on and they miraculously sold out immediately”.

Pointing to her huge collection of miniature dolls and stroking one of them tenderly, she said, “People refer to them as dolls, but they are not dolls! I call them creatures”.

Studying those petite adorable cherubic creatures up-close, they did not resemble any earthlings. Some of them unambiguously resembled extra-terrestrial beings, while others uncannily looked a lot like the idiosyncratic telly tubbies.

“Do you know why humans created dolls?” May Lyn asked and spontaneously answered herself, “Dolls were made to reflect the human image. Dolls have evolved in such amazing ways and often point back to civilisation and history. This is how we see ourselves and it intrigues me that we created dolls as a reflection of ourselves”.

I realised May Lyn had inadvertently created all these dolls in her own celestial image.  With her restless spirit straining at the seams, this wandering feisty soul had unknowingly unleashed her mystic personalities and cosmic characteristics into her creations. When I wanted to purchase one of them, she balked at the suggestion and swiftly and possessively barricaded her prized collection from me. She decreed, “They are all not for sale yet”.

Photography: Shentel Lee

May Lyn enlightened that her creatures, which she christened “MooFus”, were featured in an article in the Elle, Paris July 2000 issue. They were sold at a shop in Le Marais called Autour du Monde, where each was accompanied by a handmade book of illustrations and text. Beaming with pride she said, “Christian Lacroix bought two of my MooFus” then immediately felt embarrassed about tooting her own horn.  “Such information is defunct and useless; what purpose does that serve to tell people?” a discombobulated May Lyn murmured most uncomfortably. I was crushed to learn that back then, MooFus were so readily available for purchase and now I was not deemed ‘Lacroix worthy’ to deserve even one!

When I enquired as to when her creativity started, May Lyn exclaimed with nostalgic harrowing eyes, “It all started 23 years ago when I was plagued with a long term illness while I was in London.  I had to stop acting and I needed to find an outlet. My frustration was huge so I started drawing. I forced myself to draw and to sew even though I couldn’t do either. I really couldn’t even sew a button when I started creating all these stuff and I still can’t, but I realise now that everyone can draw and everyone can sew if they find their way”. I was inspired by such a simplistic poetically wise inference.

Though upbeat, May Lyn was twitchy and edgy; almost fidgety.  She appeared perched like a fretful bird on the verge of flight.  She has a commanding voice, I assumed she acquired from her bygone theatrical days on the stages of London, Malaysia and Singapore. Pointing to handkerchief sizes of embroidered fabric draping over our heads, May Lyn disclosed, “These are actually my theatre scripts manifestation onto fabric. I was transferring my deepest passion for the Arts, theatre and stories onto drawings and textile works”.

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Photography: Shentel Lee

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Photography: Shentel Lee

Pointing to the black kimono hanging from the ceiling, she announced, “I crafted this Chinese funeral mourning garment in conjunction with the 2014 George Town’s Literary Festival called ‘Dressed Text’.  I sewed on different garments, based on Malaysian history and politics, as well as folktales and research papers”.  I am not at all surprise May Lyn had chosen such a morbid item as a highlight exhibit.

I enquired whether this “mourning garment” was for sale.  Surprisingly, she exclaimed, “Yes it is for sale”, then swiftly retracted, “But then I’ve been advised to sell it to a museum”.  I guess this precious exhibit was not for sale to this humanoid either. As I admired her watercolour paintings, she leaned close and whispered in my ear, “I have a drawer full of them but I never show them to anyone” Clearly, this stock-piling magpie badly needs a curator.

When I expressed interest in the lone old white gown hanging from the backroom, May Lyn perked up and chimed, “This is a 19th century French undergarment, pure linen, very heavy which I acquired in Paris. I had loads of them and I used to walk around in them while I was in Paris and they thought I was mad.  I don’t wear them in George Town because people already think I am a little odd here too”. She chuckled, “But I will soon get back into them”.

At the counter, I noted an odd project getting under way. May Lyn voluntarily enlightened me, “I am trying to recycle plastic bags. I strip them into long ribbons, but first I have to clean and then join them to create rolls of strand, so I can crochet them into mini baskets. However, they took forever to complete and was excruciating on my poor fingers, that it is no longer economically viable to make them. I’d rather give them away”.

I marveled at what was in front of me.  These little baskets were crocheted by the tiniest hook and the plastic strip was pulled and stretched till it resembled the width of a thin thread.  She was oblivious to me watching her lovingly toying with one of these teeny carriers that can barely accommodate the tiniest pigeon egg.  I guessed she couldn’t bear to part with these baskets either.

I bade her farewell but for the rest of the day I was haunted by this mystical artisan. I had a nagging need to know more about her creatures, as well as finding out the rationale of this non-conformist returning to Penang after a quarter of a century living abroad.

I deliberately made a return visit.  Without much ado, I shamelessly begged May Lyn to let me purchase one of her creatures. May Lyn promptly shut me down, “I’m sorry I can’t sell them. Too many people have asked and I really cannot; and I can’t part with them”.

The most heart wrenching part was when May Lyn revealed she had a drawer full of creatures that were currently disintegrating in the cruel tropics of Penang. Inconceivably, this mother-hen would rather let her chicks perish than part with them to undeserving underlings.

Sensing my disappointment, she made a consolatory offer, “Betty, I tell you what. Let me show you something which I have shown to very few people”.

May Lyn disappeared into her workroom and emerged with an object lovingly wrapped in a beautiful traditional Japanese fabric, “I did the texts, drawings and creatures while my friend from Paris, Viola did the graphics, photography, printing and hand binding”. It was an exquisitely presented penguin size compilation of all her colourful creatures.

“This is the book that nearly got published by a very established publisher in Paris. The reason I cannot sell you my creatures is that they are all featured in this book.  This copy is thirteen years old now.  The publisher was excited even though we were complete unknowns in the publishing world. Unfortunately, shortly after, a change in management put a stop to it as the new bosses did not know how to categorise our book, which is meant for ages 0 to 105. They were going: Art? Nope. Stories? Nope. Illustrations? Nope. Children? Nope. Next, they wanted to talk to our agent, but of course we did not have an agent”.

If there were any disappointments for this setback, neither May Lyn’s voice nor demeanour betrayed her. Obviously, this actress was also skillful in masking her disillusionment.

The Bunkamura Gallery in Tokyo was interested and the people in charge wanted an exhibition with the books printed as limited editions. Being young, altruistic and idealistic, we did not want the book to be sold at exorbitant “Arty’ prices and in small quantities. We felt it’s a joyous book which should be priced affordably and readily accessible to everyone.

Again, incredulously, such stumbling blocks didn’t seem to faze her either. There is this perpetual optimistic aura around her that envisages a better tomorrow. This naïve bird is literally her own wind beneath her wings.Again, I probed the reason she returned to Penang.  “Oh, as I said, that needs coffee, time and the violin”, she reiterated.

As a parting remark, I asked what her mantra would be.  Without hesitation, she announced “Passion above money”. I pray that she doesn’t need to trade her soul to render a living, and that soon some astute galleries may bequeath May Lyn the honour of being custodian of her own creations.

We should view Foo May Lyn the same way we perceive fairies, pixies and elfin. Though we know they don’t exist on earth but we love them nevertheless for the joy we derive from story books.  Amazingly, here we have a living leprechaun in our midst. Her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities should be celebrated; for such ludicrous madness is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Perhaps a monument of one of her mind-boggling creatures should be constructed as a mascot for the city of Penang to commemorate an enigmatic spirit. Wake up folks, and take note, we have a celestial oddity among us.

The Dream 'Lee' Team, Elizabeth Lee-Yong, Betty Lee and Shentel Lee remains iconically within BAZAAR's The Fashionable Life pages

The Dream ‘Lee’ Team, Elizabeth Lee-Yong, Betty Lee and Shentel Lee remains iconically within BAZAAR’s The Fashionable Life pages