Margaret-Ann Tan: My Life in Clothes
Retired traffic officer/teacher/remand-house matron/importer-exporter, 82.
We’re always having drinks here at 7 Saint Vincent Retirement Village, Remuera, so we get dressed up in long dresses. I’ve lived here for four years. It suits me because I don’t drive a car — I go in the bus and walk and go to the gym nearby. I used to. I was the first female traffic officer in Otago-Southland.
I started as a teacher but five years is enough. I could only talk to children. I thought, “I have to get out of this and get into something where I talk to adults.” So that’s why I went into uniform in the transport department. I could speak to people and not be afraid because when you have a uniform on, you have great confidence. I thought, I’ll do it for two years. Then I went into child welfare: illegitimate babies, placing them in homes, working with families.
From there I went on the boat over to England. I taught in South London and the children had never had a teacher who respected them. They used to come to the bus to meet me.
My husband was Chinese-Indonesian. We met on the boat. Shipboard romance, nothing less. I was 31. We had an importing and exporting business based in Antwerp.
We imported Indonesian Chinese food to Europe, like krupuk and emping, and sent back things from Europe to Indonesia — chemicals and engine parts, drinks.
Anything the government needed, we’d find it and send it. I travelled every day. My husband was sick so he didn’t drive very much. He would start off and within half an hour he’d say, “Darling, I’m tired. You drive.” So I’d be driving all over Europe.
He had kidney failure. He died there. I couldn’t manage my two children by myself, and all those offices and people working for you and travelling all the time, so we came back here.
I still travel a lot. I buy all my shiny shoes in Dubai. I go there on the way to Cairo to visit my daughter. She has a big job. She’s the representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She controls all of Egypt, so she’s away travelling quite a lot. That’s why I don’t stay very long now, because her three children are away at school and I’m there with the maid, and she’s always asking me difficult questions.
I got the Paul Smith T-shirt in Dubai too. I just love this. I went to get a T-shirt for my son, Andrew, who is a high school teacher in Auckland, and I saw this. When I got to Cairo, I got it out and my daughter said, “Ooh, Mama, that’s beautiful.” So she kept it. When I came home, my daughter-in-law Jane ordered it online.
The earrings are very important beetles from Egypt. They’re scarabs. It’s a beautiful little beetle that eats all the dung and dirt. I bought them at the Cairo museum. An amazing place. I loved seeing Tutankhamun and all his gold and beauty. Two thousand years old. Incredible.
When I used to go to court every week, people from Africa would say, “Are you wearing scarabs?” I was a JP. Getting all the papers signed. You meet a lot of very interesting young people. Absolutely brilliant. New Zealanders don’t realise how lucky they are to have them.
The leather skirt is Paula Ryan. She’s done a lot for New Zealand fashion. I think she makes sensible clothes for women.
The purple ring is from Melbourne. I said to my friend, “We’re going home and I don’t have anything from Melbourne.” I put this on and my friend said, “You’re not going to buy that!” I said, “Why not? It’s from Melbourne. And we’ve only got five minutes.” I’ve no idea what it is, probably plastic. It looked pretty.
It was $5. She laughs every time she sees it. She wouldn’t wear such a thing. Whatever. I’m not too worried.