Being Sino-Filipina in Sabah, Malaysia meant that the author grew up facing discrimination from her own flesh and blood. She recalls her experience of growing up an ‘outcast’.
Illustrated by Alanis Mah / Instagram: @_paperfox_

“Oi, anak sundal!” 

That was what my grandmother used to call me when I chose to wear a nightgown over a pair of sweatpants. I was just seven back then, she was 65.

‘Sundal’, which literally means ‘b*tch’, is just one of ‘my names”. Sometimes she would call me ‘anak pelacur’ (prostitute’s child) or ‘anak Filipin’ (Filipino’s child). Those words are deeply embedded in my mind, till date.

I must agree that there is, somehow, some truth to her words. Yes, I am an ‘anak Filipin’. My father is a Sabahan Chinese and my mother is a Visaya from Zamboanga, Philippines. 

I am the only girl of four siblings. Unlike my brothers, except for the language, I did not inherit Chinese features in my looks. But my mom is not a whore, and I am still my grandmother’s flesh and blood.

My grandmother is a typical kampung-girl. She is of the Chinese descent from Kampung Radu, Kota Marudu. My grandfather, a Hakka and trader from China, married my grandmother when she was 16. I don’t have many fond memories of my grandfather, he was called by the Lord when I was nine. My grandmother, who passed away 16 years ago, however, left a lot of memories, painful ones, especially of her verbal abuse. The only good thing that came out of it was I learned to be independent at such a young age. So, on that part, I thank her.

Back then, being her constant anger target, I used to blame myself, thinking it was all my fault, although I often wonder what I did wrong. I could still remember her hateful eyes looking at me. I often asked myself: “Why does she hate me so much?” Somehow, she never looked at Thomas, my brother who is just a year older than me, the same way. She treated him well. He was given tender loving care. 

As time went by, I realised that my ‘look’ bothered my grandmother. Although I carry the ‘Wu’ surname and speak her language, I was never ‘Chinese’ enough in her eyes, especially since I very much inherited my mother’s looks. 

My grandmother was a hardworking woman, who juggled a career as a business owner, farmer and household caretaker. She was strong, fierce, and prideful. I remember that whenever we were at her small sundry shop, located in the heart of Kota Marudu town, she would introduce me as an ‘anak Filipin’, while my brother an ‘anak Cina’ to her customers, who frequented her shop to buy fermented vegetables.

Now, let’s talk about my mother. Her name is Evelyn. She is a Visaya from Zamboanga, Philippines, and comes from a poor family. She has 11 siblings. They could not afford even basic education.  My mother told me stories of her childhood–at the tender age of nine, she was already washing dishes at a restaurant to earn a living. Sometimes she would bring back home leftover food to feed her large family. Life was hard back in Zamboanga, so when she heard about greener pastures in neighbouring Malaysia, she did not hesitate and said ‘yes’ when they told her there was a trip to Sabah. At 17, she risked everything and smuggled herself into the state via Tawau. That was the beginning of her new life.

But without basic education, there was very little she could do. So, Evelyn, ended up as a housemaid to a Chinese family working at the timber mills. That was when she met Tommy, who was staying at the house. Tommy was her boss’ younger brother. Tommy is my father.

Evelyn and Tommy grew closer. They fell in love. They got married after getting my grandfather’s blessings. My grandmother had opposed the union from the very beginning, but she just swallowed her pride since her husband ‘OK-ed’ the marriage.

During the early stages of their marriage, my parents were staying with my grandparents. My mother, however, recalled that getting cold stares from her mother-in-law is normal.

My mother is an excellent cook, and she often gets praises for her cooking. But of course, even her delicious meals were no good to her mother-in-law. My grandmother even spat at my mother’s cooking and fed it to the dogs. Since my father was always not around, she would complain to my father that my mother had been lazy and refused to do house chores. My father, unfortunately, believed his mother.

My mother was unhappy, and the reason: her marriage. She could only bear the torture for a while. So when my brother and I were able to care for ourselves, she decided to leave the ‘Chinese’ family. She thought we would be in good hands when she left. She thought wrong.

My mother said her mother-in-law wanted my father, who is the youngest child, to marry a rich Chinese woman. When she learned of my parents’ courtship, she tried to break them up. When my father was so adamant to be with my mother, a Filipina who comes from a poor family, she was devastated. I guess that was why she held such grudges against my mother.

There is a saying that goes when someone dies, their memories stay with the living. The same goes for my grandmother. She may have long passed, but her words still pain me. But I am always reminded by my mother’s words—she told me not to hold grudges and said it was best to just move on and get on with our lives. 

“Just forgive her. It is not right to talk about people, especially those who have passed,” my mother told me.

Still, I cannot forgo the name-calling. I grew up listening to her bickering and shaming me. Back then in the 90s, there is a stereotype of Filipino women—they are often associated with prostitution. Since I pretty much looked like my mother, I was also stereotyped. My grandmother just simply called me an ‘anak sundal’ just because I looked like my mother, who came from a poor family and used to be her daughter’s maid.

The stigma that Filipino women are prostitutes, servants and the lowest rung in society runs deep in the veins of Sabahan society.

My mother and I are no exception. Since my grandmother had proudly announced to the world that I was a Filipina’s child, I was also often teased at school. My schoolmates would say: “Eee, mama kau orang Filipin kan? Jadi ko pun Filipin la kan?” They continued making jokes and laughed at me. They treated me like an alien.

I grew up in an environment that made me hate myself. I hated being born as a Filipina’s child. I hated the fact that my mother was a Filipina. I was embarrassed of myself. I even cursed my fate for not looking Chinese enough.

I was so desperate to be accepted by society that I lied to everyone outside family that my mother was a Kadazan.

All I wanted was to be accepted and was willing to do anything to feel a sense of belonging. I did get that feeling when I lied about my background. I was happy and bright because I have many friends, nobody made fun of me anymore. It felt so good. But I was never truly happy because although I was finally accepted, I was living a lie.

My parents decided to reunite after 10 years of living apart, and we all moved to Ranau, where my parents run a small hardware store together. After our family got back together, the numbers grew with the addition of my two younger brothers.

I once asked my mother why she left us. She told me it was not an easy decision, but she just had enough. She was tired of the endless harassment from my grandmother, in her words: “In her eyes, I was never a daughter-in-law. To her, everything I did was wrong. I was just an ‘amah’ (housemaid) to her, and I don’t deserve to be part of her family.”

“No-one is born hating another person of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn hate, they can be taught love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

“Long Walk to Freedom” (1994), Nelson Mandela

I knew the lie I was living had to stop. Our reunion as a family made me learn more about my mother and her background. And when I entered university in Peninsular Malaysia, I learned to love myself more. I began to accept the original me, the Sino-Filipina. 

That happened in my second year of uni. I remember it was the Communication Management subject. We were discussing the conflicts in communication in an intercultural marriage. Without realising, I shared my story—the stereotype and stigma, the verbal abuses, the lies and denial of having Filipino blood in me. I told my course mates that I did all those because I wanted to be accepted by society. After my presentation, I cried uncontrollably.

I wept before my coursemates, at the centre of the lecture hall. It was so quiet that one could hear a pen drop. My lecturer ushered me to her office to calm me down. I am grateful that none of my coursemates judged me. Letting it all out gave me a sense of relief. It felt so good to end the charade, finally. It was from that day on I stopped lying about myself and my background. 

As part of our uni syllabus, we were supposed to do an internship at any news agency. I decided to do mine back home in Sabah.  During the interview, the Chief Editor of a local-based newspaper asked me to tell me about myself. So I told him my background, including the part of my mixed-parentage. He was surprised and skeptical of my citizenship. I told him I am a Malaysian, and showed him my MyKad. 

Since leaving her hometown as a teenager, my mother has called Malaysia home. She has been here for nearly four decades now. She finally became a citizen of Malaysia in 2007. Holding the MyKad gave her the freedom she yearned for. 

Sometimes my mother would confide in me. She once told me that people still talk about her background, and there were times when she overheard church-goers gossiping about her Filipino background and claimed that her MyKad is fake. The gossip started when she was chosen as one of the committee members at a church she frequents.

Despite living in Sabah longer than her time in the Philippines, she never felt truly accepted. She once prepared her favourite Filipino dish – Sinigang Baboy, during one of our family gatherings. My auntie told her that Chinese families do not eat that kind of food. No one touched her food, although it was delicious.

While I learned to accept my imperfect background, my mother, unfortunately, remained an outcast, especially during big family gatherings. Instead of chit-chatting with the family, she would be sent to the kitchen to do the dishes.

“You’re a towkey nyong now mom, the helpers are here to clean the kitchen, don’t bother yourself with cleaning work anymore,” I would say to her, but my mom would just smile and say that it was okay. My mother said she enjoyed cleaning and doing dishes with the others.

The fact is, my father would always ask her to work in the kitchen with the maids. Maybe it was his way of protecting my mom from being harassed by his family, or probably he was still ashamed of marrying his sister’s former maid. Although I feel it was unfair of him to do so, I always want to think positively, no matter what his reasoning for making such a decision.

Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” said: “No-one is born hating another person of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn hate, they can be taught love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This is my story. I do not intend to wash my dirty laundry in public. I am just sharing my story because I want to tell everyone that we are human, our blood is red, and we all deserve to breathe the same air. 

*The author of this article has chosen to publish under a pseudonym due to privacy and safety concerns, and reasons related to family conflict and job security.

This article is a collaboration between Borneo Speaks and ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion. For more information on ARTICLE 19, please follow this link: