Skip to main content

Phoebe Sayers: Discovering my mother's secret life

Phoebe Sayers
Phoebe Sayers is the author of Tomorrow is another trial, a biography of her mother.

ABC: Allison Chan

When she was two years old, Phoebe Sayers and her family secretly fled from Guangzhou in China to Macau, because her father had embezzled from his employer to support a gambling addiction. Not long after her mother's death, Phoebe discovered a collection of writings which unveiled another sordid secret she had no clue about. This lead to her writing a biography about her mother and a mysterious second life.

Born in China, Phoebe was raised in Macau and Hong Kong.

Unbeknown to Phoebe and her three brothers, their journey to Macau was risky. The migration was based on false employment documents, which Phoebe’s mother, Mee See, had organised.

Phoebe’s only memory of the ferry ride to Macau is of one of her brothers asking “where is the park?” This was because the children had been told they were going to the park and going to get ice cream.

The family’s migration to Macau was successful, but Phoebe’s parents separated not long after. Mee See became the sole income earner. Phoebe’s maternal grandmother, who had also fled to Macau, raised the four children.

Mee See supported her children on a single income and eventually the family moved to Australia, yet throughout her life, Mee See’s line of work was a mystery to her children.

Phoebe and her family in Macau
Phoebe, her mother and two of her brothers in Macau.

Supplied: Phoebe Sayers

As the only daughter, Phoebe recalls being treated differently by her grandmother. Her grandmother told Phoebe that she wouldn’t “bring glory or money to the house” because she would eventually be married away. Phoebe often heard her grandmother say to her:

Phoebe doesn’t remember her mother being around very often. Mee See would work at night and be asleep during the day, so Phoebe and her brothers were told to be quiet whilst they prepared for school in the morning. By the time they returned home from school, Mee See had left for work.

Photos of Mee See and her family
Photos of Mee See and her family.

ABC: Allison Chan

On the rare chance that Mee See was at home, Phoebe remembers her mother’s striking appearance:

Phoebe and her brothers didn’t know what their mother did or where she went to work. This only came to light after their mother’s death in 2011.

Her mother's writing
Phoebe's mother wrote on the back of bus tickets, take away menus, yum cha slips and scrap paper.

ABC: Allison Chan

When Phoebe was sorting through her mother’s belongings, she found erratic memories scribbled in Chinese on the back of train tickets, takeaway menus, yum cha slips and other pieces of paper. Whilst reading these scribblings, Phoebe discovered that her mother had been an attendant on the gambling tables, as well as a hostess and dancing girl in the nightclub of a casino in Macau.

Phoebe also read about Felo - a Portuguese man who had been her mother’s lover in Macau. At one point, they lived together without the children knowing. Felo was the Deputy Postmaster General in Macau and he had tried to marry Mee See because he wanted to take her back to Portugal with him. However, Mee See decided to stay in Macau and look after her children.

There had also been a period in Macau where Phoebe and her brothers saw less of their mother because she had gone to live and work in Hong Kong. Again, Mee See’s job was a mystery to her children.

Mee See working at a bar in Hong Kong
Phoebe's mother, Mee See, working on payroll at a bar in Hong Kong.

Supplied: Phoebe Sayers

In her writings, Mee See described working at a bar called Hollywood Bar on Hong Kong Island. She wrote that she worked on payroll and made $1000 a month from the fifty cents commission she got from selling Coca-Cola bottles for $1.50 each. It was a significant sum of money that paid for her family’s cost of living in Macau and covered the four children’s school fees.

Reading about her mother working in this bar in Hong Kong unsettled Phoebe. It was a life that her mother had kept hidden from her children and it led Phoebe to a confronting and surprising conclusion.

As a child, and up to her mother’s death, Phoebe never spoke to her mother about her work in Macau and Hong Kong.

Not having her mother around during her childhood years was difficult for Phoebe – particularly given her grandmother’s partial treatment. However, discovering and reading her mother’s writing, has been a way for Phoebe to reflect on their relationship.

Phoebe Sayers
Researching and writing her mother's biography gave Phoebe a new perspective on their relationship.

ABC: Allison Chan

Phoebe Sayers is the author of Tomorrow is another trial - a biography of her mother and her grandmother’s journey from Guangzhou, China to Macau and later, Hong Kong. It is written in Chinese and English.
Listen to Phoebe Sayers's story 'The mother I never knew' on ABC RN's Life Matters program.