I am three years old and have just come back from Malaysia. The VHS tape plays and four girls with sweet angelic voices sing in Mandarin on our Sony TV. According to my mother, I am mesmerised; I do not remove my eyes from the television, rewinding and rewinding the video, copying the girls movement for movement. I am young, so I am able to pick up languages like a sponge, and I learn to sing each song fluently. These videos are all I eat, sleep and breathe for the next three years. I am occasionally scolded for how much I rewind the tapes, for fear I will break both the video and the cassette player, and it becomes a running joke that sitting too close to the television in awe was the reason I started wearing glasses.
But clearly, I didn’t care.
My friends recall The Spice Girls or Britney being their first musical idols. For me, 四千金 (sì qiān jīn) - The Four Golden Princesses - are my first introduction to the world of musical stardom. The four members -Ginger Keong Hueh Chin, Mins Eng Lee Min, Samantha Ee Kai Chee and Richell Lee Lian Hong were brought together by recording company Ya-Ko Enterprise in 1994 in Kuala Lumpur during their school holidays. After their 1996 debut, they ended up selling 50,000 records worldwide and having a fourteen-year career. Their image was built upon their diverse, playful interpretations of popular Mandarin folk songs, dressed in matching dresses and Mary-Janes whilst performing wholesome dance routines or covers of Yankee Doodle dressed as rice farmers. They were living a life of the showbiz I could only dream of - pretending to live in the mountains or singing about Lunar New Year with the classic Gong xi/ Gong xi/ Gong xi ni ya (‘Happy/ Happy New Year to you) chantsamidst the sounds of firecrackers, acrobats and lion/dragon dancers.
I stopped watching and listening to the girls by the time I was seven. By then, the western education system had gotten a hold of me. As one of three East Asian kids out of a year of nearly a hundred children, I knew singing songs in Mandarin wasn’t going to help me make friends. I’ve always been a people-pleaser, and have spent a lifetime trying to fit in with a part of the world that patronises and belittles my culture who most recently has scapegoated my community as the cause of a pandemic. Embracing my heritage was limited to once a year when my mum was invited to talk to my class about Lunar New Year traditions, teaching us how to write ‘Happy New Year’ in the form of Chinese calligraphy. By the time I was eight, I’d replaced The Four Golden Princesses with S-Club 7 and Children’s Party Songs Compilations that included the likes of ‘The Ketchup Song’, ‘Barbie Girl’ and ‘Macarena’.
I recently googled what the group was up to - they’re all in their thirties now but they could all be mistaken for still being in their early twenties. One of them is even married to a seventy-one -year-old Malaysian businessman. Three of them were recently in a surprise Lunar New Year music video with Malaysian artist TR Chen in 2021. I search them up on YouTube and click on a 480p video of an old favourite - 眼睛找朋友 (Yan Jing Zhao Peng You) ‘Eyes & Friends’. The Princesses are somewhere between five to seven years old, running around in pigtails and all-red tracksuits singing about a child who reads so much that his eyes become damaged. I remember a home video where I’m singing along to it without a care in the world, entirely unaware of the fact I’m being filmed. At twenty-five, the innocent, catchy melodies put a smile on my face that I don’t notice at first, but the warmth is soon joined by an empty longing. I tear up about no longer being the care-free girl in the home video. I’m overwhelmed with fondness, excitement, grief and regret. I mourn the fact that I’ve not re-visited this part of my childhood in over twenty years. Though I knew she had to do what she needed to survive, my heart breaks for the past me who didn’t feel like she could embrace who she was. I try not to live with regrets, but I am full of it for my present self who despite now being unashamedly proud of her roots, can barely speak a word of her native tongue.
But I am happy that for a short while, there was a version of me who was unaware of socio-political constructs and would proudly sing in Mandarin about having poor eyesightat the top of her lungs whilst dressed as Tinkerbell. Instead of Cinderella or Rapunzel, these Malaysian-Chinese Princesses were her first brush with royalty. That her first introduction to Pop idols were girls who looked just like her and that if she wanted to, she could be just like them.