Sunday, November 15, 2015

“Young Stamp Fanatics” by Adrienne Zoe

My brother and I grew up in the seaside town of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on Borneo Island. We had our neighbourhood and the surrounding jungle to explore on Signal Hill where we lived, overlooking the town, and when Benedict was eight and I was six we discovered a passion. Our Brunei aunts got us started on stamp collecting by sending us a stamp collecting booklet which was as big as a hardcover chapter book. I loved it!
To get stamps, I quickly learned to beg. I begged from Mama first. She was cooking and didn’t take me seriously until she realized I was still waiting. Then she opened a kitchen drawer, dug out her mail, and tore stamps from envelopes to give me. I jumped for joy.
Papa was my next obvious target. He came home daily for lunch, lost in a dark cloud, his work still bearing heavily on his mind; we were always careful not to bother him. There he was, glowering over his food while I studied his face. 
“Papa, do you have any stamps?” I said, before I lost my courage to ask.
He turned his frown upon me, his eyes stony behind black framed glasses. “What for?”
“For my stamp collection,” I said.
“So you want used stamps, not new ones. Do you mind what kind? Are local stamps okay?”
“Any kind.”
“You don’t mind if they are all the same?”
I shook my head.
“Oh!” he finally smiled. “That’s easy then. I’ll tell my secretaries to save them for you.”
This was way beyond my expectation. I grinned. Soon after, he brought home this loot from the office, a fat envelope full of Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore stamps. To my amazement, we were outgrowing our first album.
We started getting mail from our aunts who lived in Brunei and Jersey Island. Benedict was addressed as “Master” and I was tickled to be addressed as “Miss.” We eagerly opened our mail, filled with letters, stamps, and the occasional first day cover. Our aunts explained that first day covers were envelopes with cancelled stamps from the first day of their issue, valuable because of limited copies. Benedict and I were thrilled to have them in our collection.  
I loved the brand new first day covers with crisp edges, and enjoyed carrying them around home. To my dismay, Benedict didn’t approve.
“Stop touching them. Even if you can’t see finger prints now they’ll show up later as yellow marks. Real collectors don’t touch stamps with bare hands.”  He rescued them from me and said, “Let’s handle our stamps the right way with these tweezers.”
I looked doubtfully at the tool. Mama used it in the kitchen for plucking pin hairs from chicken and stubble off pork skin. He squeezed the sides of the tweezers to work its jaws, but the stamp he tried to pick up from our coffee table simply slid about.
I had to clutch my hands behind my back to stop my urge to grab it.
“Try the other side,” I coached.
Chomp, chomp, went the tweezers, but nothing slid into its jaws.
“Get under it.”
Push, push went the tweezers, bulldozing the stamp about.
“Try the corner.”
Nibble, nibble. Nip!  Finally he got a corner.
Benedict lifted it in slow motion, but still, the stamp dove to the table.
“Man,” he muttered. “This is harder than I thought.”
“My turn,” I cried, sure I could do better, even if I still thought it was a dumb way to do things.
It was more difficult than using chopsticks.  I was glad Benedict finally said, “Oh, never mind. Let’s just use our hands, but make sure they’re really clean.”
Benedict also taught me how to soak the stamps in water to remove their backing, and how to dry and organize them. We laboured for hours, shuffling them in our albums because we wanted to keep the countries together.
I was fascinated, comparing stamps by country. Malaysian ones looked nothing like those from nearby Australia, and China stamps looked more oriental than our local ones even though Malaysia had many Chinese, like our family – Mama was the third generation of Chinese immigrants in Borneo while Papa was the first generation. Country-specific information rubbed off on me as I managed the collection. Without realizing, I was absorbing information about political figures, people and culture, arts and crafts, landmarks and monuments, nature, geography, and sports.
At first, I thought collecting was all about trading and acquiring stamps for free by hunting and asking around. Wasn’t that the fun and challenge? When Benedict was tempted to buy stamps at a stationery store downtown, I thought it was cheating.
“Please Mama. Can we get these?” he asked.
I held my breath. Her standard answer was “no.”
“You already have so many at home.”
“But these are different. We don’t have any from these countries.” He thrust the package at her. “Please, Mama. Look at them.”
I was about to beg too, but he put his finger to his lips, signalling me to be quiet.
“I can’t get them anywhere else,” he pressed.
“Hmmmm, is that so?” she said.
“And they’re only five ringgit ninety-five.”
Still I held my breath. When she took it and headed to the cashier, I was floored. Benedict’s face split into an infectious grin.  On the spot, I dropped my ideals and cherished our bought stamps.
We were soon swamped with stamps, especially since we never threw any out.  Extras were piled in a red Cadbury tin box. No matter how many we had, we still yearned for more. When Mama told us guests were coming, I couldn’t wait. I hauled our thick, heavy albums to the living room where visitors sat.
“We have stamps from all over the world. Here are some from Africa, and we even have some from Egypt. Here is Christmas Island. Do you like this one?”  Blah, blah, blah. 
The adults smiled, amused. At the end of my show and tell, I pleaded for donations. Some remembered to pass me their stamps in the days ahead, but I worried when I didn’t hear from them. Were they giving their stamps away to someone else? Or worse, were they throwing them out?
Besides begging from adults, I traded at school, and when Papa went back to the office one weekend, I tagged along to see what I could find.
His civil engineering consulting company occupied the second floor of the Chartered Bank building downtown. The white colonial building overlooked the waterfront and had a grand lobby and a wide shiny flight of stairs. I was filled with importance whenever I visited his office because Papa was the big boss.
Papa unlocked the glass door entrance to the office and the fluorescent lights flickered and clinked softly when he switched them on. The place smelled of paper and ink. Without the two secretaries rapping away on their typewriters, the office was super quiet. Papa went straight to his desk in his private office.
I wasted no time. “Papa, do you have any stamps?”
“Maybe. You’ll have to find them yourself. You can look in my drawers but you must put everything back, exactly the same way.”
As I rummaged through his mess, I was excited to discover he had so many stamps.  The quiet office seemed to amplify the noise of my tearing them from envelopes. I cringed and kept glancing at my father to make sure he wasn’t bothered. He appeared angry, frowning over his papers. Then I discovered how by tearing ever so slowly, I wouldn’t make a sound.
Next I searched his shelves. Finally, I scoured the rest of the office and all the garbage bins. By the time we left, I had a stack of stamps from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, USA, and England. 
“So, did you find any?”
“Oh yeah. Look at them.” I was delighted he’d asked.
I thumbed through them to show him. When I got to a dull USA head stamp I stopped. Why was this old man on it? With his chin held low, he looked up with dopey eyes, seeming unsure of himself. His bushy mustache drooped and his long white hair stood on ends in all directions in a shocking mess. Only a madman or a retard would have hair like that.
“Look at this silly old man.”
Papa slid his glasses down his nose to peer at it in my hand. He straightened up. “That’s not a silly old man. That’s Einstein, a genius.”
My mouth popped open. Part of me felt really dumb for saying such a stupid thing and for not knowing the famous genius. The other part of me wondered what the man had done to make it onto a stamp. I could understand queens and kings, but some ordinary person?  
He must have done something impressive. How nice if one day my face or name would also be known around the world. I realized I would have to earn it. For the first time I dreamed of achievements far beyond my child’s world.
We stepped out into the warm evening. A dozen open motor boats were bobbing about, moored by the seawall. A few shirtless Malay boys were standing there fishing, silhouetted against a dazzling orange sky as the sun dipped into the South China Sea. By the time we had driven home it was dark. The sea which had been so colourful earlier was black, and lights of fishing boats twinkled there like stars in a night sky.
Like a fisherman proudly showing his biggest catch, I showed my stamps to Benedict and Mama. Mama was making dinner and I was disappointed by her quick glance, but Benedict congratulated me. I couldn’t wait to put the stamps into our album and place Einstein with the American stamps.
When I wasn’t working on our collection, I spent hours admiring it. One day, Benedict said, “Why do you keep looking at the albums?”
“They’re so nice. I think I’ll remember every single stamp when I’m grown up.”
“No, you won’t.”
Why was he laughing at me? Not looking at the stamps for years was unthinkable.
“You might not look at them for years. You think you’ll still remember them? Don’t waste your time just looking at them. Read this library book about stamp collecting.”
“No thanks,” I said. Benedict, the bookworm, had read our entire encyclopaedia from beginning to end. I was happy to leave the stamp research to him.
“I found out what those weird countries are. Remember, Helvetica is actually Switzerland, and Sverige is Sweden? It’s in this book. You should read it.”
I ignored him and said, “Here’s another funny-sounding country, Deutsche Reich. I wonder what country it is.” Was I even pronouncing it right?
“Deutsche Reich? I bet it’s Germany.” Benedict jabbed a finger at a head stamp. “I’m right. Look, here’s Hitler.”
Why did Benedict know everything? Why couldn’t I have figured that out?
We had other stamps of Hitler and there was no doubt – Deutsch Reich was Germany. We saw all kinds of movies at the cinema, including war movies.  I knew Hitler was defeated. Yet, I took it for granted he was on the stamps. It didn’t dawn on me they’d been issued before the end of World War II and it was unthinkable to print another of him.
Though I missed the historical significance of stamps like those of Hitler, I was keenly aware of dead country stamps through Benedict. We were thrilled our collection included stamps from the Gold Coast which had become Ghana, North Borneo which had joined Malaysia, and Malaya, which had become West Malaysia.
“I’m letting you have my stamps,” said Miss Han, our private Chinese instructor, surprising us with her gift. “These North Borneo stamps aren’t issued anymore. Keep them well. They’re collectors’ items.”
She went on to explain that Sabah, the state we lived in, used to be called North Borneo and was run as a business under the British North Borneo Chartered Company. During the Second World War the Allies heavily bombed Borneo to root out the Japanese who had invaded it. 
After the war, the company could not afford to rebuild the territory. Control was turned over to the crown and it became a British colony. In 1963, North Borneo became one of the states of the new independent country of Malaysia and was renamed Sabah.   
“Oh, Miss Han, we’ll keep them forever,” I said, “and they’ll be worth a million!”
Monochrome and yellowing with age, they looked wonderfully ancient. We dreamed of having a valuable collection, and towards that end we vowed to look after it and keep forever.
Eventually, Benedict learned that our slide-in pocket albums were for temporarily storing stamps until a collection was achieved, and subsequently stamps were transferred into a permanent collection that allowed for a layout.  Benedict bought a sleeveless album and patiently showed me how to lay out pages by mounting stamps with hinges. We spent many afternoons designing our pages on the verandah floor, not the best place since stamps accidently slipped through the wooden slats and we had to run to the garden below to look for them.
One day, Benedict got tired of arguing with me about the layout. He left me to do the rest of the transfer and buried his nose in an Isaac Asimov book instead. I was stunned. I waited, but he never came back to our hobby and instead went on to devour the town library’s entire science fiction collection – I felt too sad to continue without him.
Over four years, we accumulated stamps from every continent except Antarctica, and from islands all over the world. We had stamps of more than fifty countries and places contained in three albums. Another album was filled with first day covers.  We had managed the collection with no hands-on involvement or advice from our parents and were so proud of ourselves.
Looking at the albums recently, I felt lost in nostalgic wonder. They are exactly as we had left them over thirty years ago, with the addition of age marks. Benedict predicted correctly – I hadn’t looked at them for years and couldn’t remember everything. But my emotional memory returned fully and made me gasp as I once again felt the yearning, excitement, fun, and proud sense of achievement, coming from the albums.
When I came across an air mail envelope, it struck me that it was perhaps our last entry.  Benedict had found out stamped envelopes could be more valuable than stamps alone. However, we only saved one envelope because we stopped working on our collection shortly after.  It was a beauty, we thought – Aunty Priscilla’s letter addressed to Mama in her spidery handwriting, with two regal Jersey stamps of Queen Elizabeth in her cloak and jeweled crown, looking magnificent.
As the younger sibling, I competed with Benedict and wanted to credit myself for amassing the most stamps between us. Looking at it all, I finally understood what was so wonderful about our hobby and why the collection meant so much. It was because we made it together.
In our teens we left Borneo to study in the U.S. Benedict now lives in the U.S. and has entrusted our childhood stamp collection to me. I currently live in Waterloo, Ontario, and would love to continue collecting North Borneo and Malaya stamps. I can continue this hobby again, now that I understand why I couldn’t before. The vow Benedict and I made still echoes in my ears: “We’ll keep the stamps forever, and then they’ll be worth a ton of money.” To me, they’re worth so much more than that.

Adrienne Zoe was born in the Sabah, a state of Malaysia on the Island of Borneo, but is now a resident of Waterloo, Ontario.  She is currently writing a memoir of what is was like growing up in Borneo, and maintains a facebook writer’s page (  A mother of two, she is a fine art photographer and an avid tennis player.   She is one of the artists of Uptown Gallery of Waterloo and her artist information and sample art can be found on the gallery website at

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