Below is a story i wrote for my Literary Journalism Masters Class about my grandmother-her courage, her strength, and her love.
Guanyin1 in her white, flowing robes closes her eyes as she floats above the clouds. Elsewhere, a full figured Buddha sits in child pose as he meditates, trying to reach the ultimate Zen2 state of mind, body and soul. The walls are covered rice paper scrolls of proverbial words by Confucius3, hand written with ink and brush and arranged neatly in vertical lines. “Honour thy mother and father, for this will serve you well”. The smell of burning incense fills the room, as a petite old lady lights up a batch of burgundy red incense sticks with a match, bowing three times in front of the shrine as she offers her prayers to Buddha. The shrine, a multi-platformed altar, is decked with smiling, miniature porcelain figurines of Buddha’s, their whimsical squinting eyes and fleshy cheeks emit a childlike aura. Stacks of oranges are piled up in threes forming a pyramid structure on gold plated ceramic plates. After her prayers, the old woman turns around and smiles, the wrinkles dance around her worn, brown face. “Come, my child. Let me make you some dinner,” she beckons her granddaughter, and hurries off into the kitchen.
Li Yuk Kuen was born on July, 13th, 1930 in the province of Chaozhou, which in English literally translates as ‘Tide Prefecture’. Located in the Eastern part of the Guangdong Province of China, It borders Shantou to the south, Jieyang to the southwest, Meizhou to the northwest, the province of Fujian to the east, and the South China Sea to the southeast. Her father worked in construction, building and furnishing houses for a living. Her mother was a housewife. Being born a girl in the region, she did not get the chance to receive any kind of formal education, spending her childhood instead mending and creating flower arrangements to sell to her neighbors for money, as well as learning how to cook and make her own clothes. By the age of 5, she could manage to operate a gas stove all by herself, and by age 7, she knew how to purchase the different types of cloth to make her own clothes. Life was anything but easy for the young Yuk-Kuen, and things were about to get worse when the war came.
A frail, emaciated old man emerges from his bedroom after his nap, and slowly makes his way to the wooden stool next to the cupboard of biscuits. His hair is as white as snow and his face is yellow and sunken, his hollow eyes stare blankly into space. He grips onto the edge of the cupboard and slowly lowers his bony backside onto the chair, his withered arms shaking the entire time. The old lady rushes out of the kitchen and holds onto him. “Get off me! I’m fine!” he grunts angrily. She breathes a deep sigh and bustles back into the kitchen. The old man starts to rummage through the plastic containers of biscuits, and spends the next hour re-arranging them into neat, little piles and categories. The sweet crackers in one pile, the salty ones in another. “Where are you? Why aren’t you feeding our grandchild?” he shouts to wife in broken Cantonese, hinged with a heavy Chaozhou accent with Teochew4 words mixed in. “And pour her a glass of water too!” The woman, with the stature of child, hobbles over and pours her granddaughter a drink. “There you go, sweetheart. Your grandfather’s orders.” “Give her a packet of these!” the old man barks again, holding out a packet of almond flavored biscuits out to his wife. The old woman opens the packet and places them onto a plate for her granddaughter. “You’d think I was his slave the way he treats me!” she whispered. “Just look at me! I’m no better than a Filipina maid!”
The granddaughter pauses and stares at her grandmother, who is barely 4 ft 11, clothed in a purple, green and black floral blouse, designed to look like the upper part of a cheongsam5, complete with Chinese embroidery buttons. She smiles, and thinks how very cartoonish her grandmother appears at this very minute, with her glistening, fiery eyes, her cute little button nose, and that matted grey hair combed neatly into a bob. She looked at her grandmother’s brown, leathery hands, hands which have slaved away for the past 80 years of her life. Hands which have groveled for food during the famine of the Second World War, hands which refused to participate in the mass torture and killings of the wealthy during the rise of communism, hands which fed 7 hungry mouths and reared them all up into healthy adults. Hands which still have the ability to cook up a storm and produce the most amazing vegetarian Chinese New Year feast ever.
“It’s ok Mama, Yeye’s just probably in a bad mood today,” she consoles her grandmother.
The Second Sino-Japanese War came in 1937 when Li Yuk Kuen was only 7 years old. The war was the result of imperial Japan aiming to dominate China both politically and militarily, take over its raw material reserves, natural resources, food and labour force. The fighting between the Chinese National Army and the Japanese Imperial Army began in 1931 after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, after which the two countries fought in small, localized regions. It wasn’t until 1937, however, after the Marco Polo Bridge6 Incident, in which the Imperial Japanese army seized the crucial access point to Beijing and took control of Beiping and Tianjin that the war became a full-fledged national affair. From 1937 to 1941, China fought Japan with some economic help from Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States. This was a period of time where the Chinese Civil War was put on hold. Chiang Kai Shek, leader of the national Kuomintang (KMT) army, and Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), decided to joined forces to combat their mutual enemy, forming the Second United Front7.
The war was a dark time for the peasants and the lower working classes in China, where famine took the lives of many. Wheat and rice was virtually non-existent, so Yuk-Kuen, her older brother and her older sister ate sweet potatoes and vegetable roots for their meals. She cried every time she ate. Oh how she hated the taste of the hard boiled vegetable roots! Her mother would stand by the side of her three children, tears streaming down her face as she watched them eat their dinner. She would always give her portions to her kids, preferring to starve herself rather than see her children suffer. One day, while Yuk Kuen was walking through the streets with her brother, she saw huge Japanese military airplanes zoom past her in the sky. Then, something dark fell down from the planes, landed on houses, and blew them up to pieces. The little girl was so terrified that she fainted at the sight and sound of the bombs. Her older brother carried her on his back all the way back home.
By the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Communists were in control of nearly all of the areas of North China which were not controlled by Japan or its puppet forces. Within the Japanese occupied provinces, the Kuomintang army (KMT)and the Communist Party of China (CPC) forces carried on warfare with each other, with the Communists eventually destroying or absorbing the KMT forces. The war ended in 1945 with the surrender of the Japanese when Yuk Kuen was 15 years old. Independent, resourceful and unafraid of hard labour, she joined in the assembly line at a nearby matchstick factory with two of her best friends. Every day, the girls would go in, sit at their delegated post, and take the small pieces of wood, dip them in phosphorus sesquisulfide, then coat them with gelatin. She never uttered a word of complaint and performed her duties obediently. She was grateful to be employed and to feel useful to her family.
Scooping up mounds of brown rice, the old lady mixes it with bean paste for her husband to make it more palatable for him to eat. It’s taken her awhile to convince him to eat whole grains as opposed to the refined carbohydrates which he loved so much, but endangered his health since he was diagnosed with diabetes some ten years ago. She prepares a simple vegetarian meal for the family. “Eat, eat!” she tells her granddaughter, as she hands her the plate of seaweed and vegetarian fish balls. “You have to try these, they’re vegetarian pork chops! Very delicious!” she exclaims, “they’re made with gluten and mushroom stems. Very tasty! Eat!” “Ok Mama, I will!” replies her granddaughter. Taking a bite of the tasty, fried, MSG-laden fare, she thought about why her grandparents had never seemed to understand the words “I am full now. I can’t eat anymore.” She remembers the many times she had visited her grandfather in hospital, and even in his ill, fragile state, he still managed to shove a packet of biscuits into her hand and told her to eat it.
Following the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Second Chinese Civil War began in 1946, where Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party fought for control of the post-war China. Li Yuk Kuen would wake up every morning and walk to work, passing large swarms of Chinese Red Army members, seizing every opportunity to confiscate possessions of wealth. The Chinese Communist Party members were everywhere, using violence to terrorize the feudal class of land and business owners. Food was scarce, and peasants such as Yuk-Kuen relied on food rations to survive. It was not uncommon for the CCP to force the lower working classes to torture and murder members of the middle and upper classes in order to receive their food rations. On her way home from work at the matchstick factory, Yuk Kuen would be stopped dead at her tracks, watching an angry mob hang a landowner on hooks by his ears, and beat him to death with wooden planks. One day, Yuk Kuen saw a pregnant woman being beaten to death, with the accusation of neglecting to pay her employees who worked for her restaurant. Yuk Kuen would often shut her eyes, but the screaming and the yelling by both the crowds and the victim would haunt her till this day.
“Mama, tell me the story of how you and Yeye met again! How did you guys fall in love?”
“Love?! Pfftt, there was no such thing as love back in my day, sweetheart. What folly. Such a word never even existed in our vocabulary back in the day. There was no dating. There was no courtship. There was just arranged marriages. None of us chose who we would marry. Our parents made all the decisions for us. They were the boss. We didn’t dare disobey them! Silly child.”
She gazes at her dainty grandma, wolfing down mouthfuls of rice in between her gold and silver teeth implants, and wonders how she used to look like as a young woman.
Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party rose to power in 1949, the year Li Yuk-Kuen turned 19 years old. After a prolonged fight against Chang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang in the Second Chinese Civil War, the CCP achieved victory and seized control of the country. China is renamed The People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Mao begins his campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries and seeks to reunite China under one political umbrella.
1949 was also the year that Yuk-Kuen met Ng Luk Keung. They met at their local matchmaker service in the heart of Chaozhou’s main city, by accident of course. Yuk Kuen had no intention of looking for a potential husband, although most girls her age were already being married off by their parents. She was simply there to accompany her best friend to meet a guy. The slim, dapper 24 year old Ng Luk Keung was also there to accompany his best friend, who was there to look for a girl who was wife material. After the initial small talk, Ng Luk Keung, went to collect a pot of Chaozhou’s famous bitter tea and miniature teacups to serve the girls as is customary. As he passed Li Yuk Kuen her cup of tea, he slipped her a note asking her what her name was, how old she was, and whether or not she was single.
“What a silly boy!” she thought, throwing the piece of paper away as they parted ways, “Who does he think I am? I can’t even read!”
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” asks her best friend as she picked up the discarded note, unfolded it, and read the contents out loud. “He’s interested in you!” she giggled, nudging Yuk Kuen, “What are you going to do?”
“I am going to do nothing!” snapped Yuk Kuen.
Later on, Yuk Kuen found out that Luk Keung’s best friend was not attracted to her best friend, mainly because her mouth was too large and her cheeks were too round, signs which indicated that she would eventually become a dominant, controlling wife. This, of course, did not fit in with the patriarchal Chaozhou society, where a submissive wife was deemed ideal, as a woman’s ultimate goal in life was to get married, produce children, and serve her family for the rest of her existence.
The next day, Ng Luk Keung sent this aunt and uncle to meet with Li Yuk Kuen’s older sister at her dumpling shop to ‘talk’. Crawling out to the back shed to eavesdrop on their conversation, Yuk Kuen and her best friend listen in as they discuss a potential future relationship between Ng and Li. She didn’t even know this young man, how on earth was she supposed to just have a relationship with him? She thought anxiously.
The very next day, Ng Luk Keung travelled a whole hour from his village to the city to see Li Yuk Kuen at her sister’s dumpling shop. “I’m here to teach you how to learn to ride a bike” he announced. Yuk Kuen’s face flushed with embarrassment. She had never really had a proper conversation with a boy before, nor did she know how to behave with the opposite sex.
“Go on!’ her sister urged her.
The shy Yuk Kuen reluctantly agreed, and during the next fifteen minutes, Luk Keung would push her around the block on a two-wheel bike. Her face flushed red, she could only manage to nod or shake her head to the young man’s questions.
“What are you wearing on your finger child?”
“It’s my ring Mama”
“Why is it so big? It doesn’t match you at all! Here, let me show you something.” The old lady goes into her bedroom and emerges with a little silk purse in her hands. She takes out two rings and places them in front of her granddaughter. “Here, put this on” she says, placing a delicate pearl ring onto her grandchild’s finger. “There, doesn’t that look much better?”
“It’s beautiful, Mama. What about this one?” her granddaughter asks, examining the diamond encrusted silver ring, with a large, black colored pearl placed in the center.
“Now this is a special one. I’ve saved it just for your wedding day. It’s worth a lot of money!”
The next time Li Yuk Kuen would lay eyes on Ng Luk Keung was the day he decided to take her to the movies. It was a group date, of course. Luk Keung brought three of his closest friends, and met up with Yuk Kuen and three of her girlfriends. The group of eight took the bus to the cinema to watch the latest film in black and white. During the ride and the movie, the boys sat separate from the girls, and neither of them spoke much with each other. After the movie, the boys took the girls to the nearby market to buy salted watermelon seeds. Neither Yuk Kuen nor her friends had ever eaten watermelon seeds before, so when the boys weren’t looking, they spat the seeds out into their hands and threw them away in the rubbish.
The next day, her sister told her that rumours about Yuk Kuen philandering with the boys started spreading throughout their neighborhood. Apparently, someone had seen the boys take the girls to the red light district in town and spent the night with them. Yuk Kuen burst into tears and denied the accusations. Despite her innocence and her sister’s backing, Yuk Kuen’s father was livid. She had brought shame onto her family’s name and reputation. Feeling tremendous amount of humiliation and shame, she thought to herself-“Since I’m in so much trouble I might as well marry the young man!”
She would not see Ng Luk Keung until their wedding day.
“Do you have a boyfriend my dear?” asks the old woman, her mischievous eyes twinkly with affection.
“Oh no, Mama! I’m single, free as a bird.”
She reaches out and holds her granddaughter’s hand. “Good! Enjoy your youth. But make sure you tell
me if you do plan to get married one day.”
“Of course I will, Mama!”
Li Yuk Kuen and Ng Luk Keung were married in the year of 1950. He couldn’t afford a wedding ring on his delivery boy salary, and so he borrowed his aunt’s ring. She couldn’t afford a wedding dress, so she just wore her best floral blouse and silk trousers. She was 20, he was 25. There was no wedding reception, nor was there a marriage certificate. They were simply married off by Ng Luk Keung’s village chief. After the ceremony, Li Yuk Kuen could not stop the tears from flowing. She was 20 years old, and she was now bound to a man she barely knew. The words of her father rung in her head-“A woman’s duty is to marry, bear children for her husband, take care of her family and grow old with him.”
“Stop crying!” her husband demanded, “People are going to think I kidnapped you!”
They moved into her sister-in-law’s house on the outskirts of Chaozhou. She got pregnant immediately after their marriage, and bore her first child, a daughter, in 1951. She would bear six more children in the next 15 years, four girls, two boys. The Ng’s migrated to Hong Kong in 1959 to escape the reign of Mao and to provide a better life for their children. In Hong Kong, Yuk Kuen worked 12 hour days at the cloth factory earning $2 Hong Kong dollars (25 American cents) whilst her husband delivered rice from the factories to the shops to make ends meet. They couldn’t afford the luxury of eating meat, and so meals consisted of rice, choi sum and tofu.
“You know, your grandfather has never said thank you to me, or an “I love you” throughout the years we’ve been together. Nor has he taken me out to a meal or bought me a present. I’ve literally been his slave for the past 60 years.” The old woman suddenly looks ancient now, shrunken and frail, as her shoulders droop and a wave of sadness floods her eyes.
Not knowing what to say, her granddaughter puts her hand on her grandmother’s back and gently rubs her. So why did she stay by his side after all these years? She wondered.
In a flash, her 23 year old granddaughter feels rather self-conscious about her naïveté and her youthful vanity. Expecting a Hollywood fairy tale romance, she was given instead a real story of long suffering, endurance, submissiveness, loyalty and faithfulness. She was told a love story, not one with passion, but one which stood the test of time. As she watches her grandmother tuck her grandfather into bed, she thinks about the many lessons today’s instant gratification obsessed society can learn from
“Mama, you’re so beautiful” she blurts out all of a sudden. The old lady looks up and laughs. “Beautiful? At age 82? Oh come on get real!”
And just in that moment, she sees exactly why her grandfather fell in love with her.
1.) Guanyin is the bodhisattva associated with compassion as venerated by East Asian Buddhists, usually as a female. The name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin which means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World”
3.) Confucius was a Chinese politician, teacher, editor, and social philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity.
4.) The Teochew dialect of Southern Min Chinese is spoken in the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong and by the Teochew diaspora in various regions around the world. Teochew preserves many Ancient Chinese archaic pronunciations and vocabulary that have been lost in some of the other modern dialects of Chinese. As such, many linguists consider Teochew one of the most conservative Chinese dialects.
5.) The cheongsam is a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress for women. It is known in Mandarin Chinese as the qípáo, and is also known in English as a mandarin gown. The stylish and often tight-fitting cheongsam or qipao (chipao) that is most often associated with today was created in the 1920s in Shanghai and was made fashionable by socialites and upper class women.
6.) Marco Polo Bridge, located outside of the walled town of Wanping to the southwest of Beijing was the choke point of the Pinghan Railway (Beijing-Wuhan), and guarded the only passage linking Beijing to Kuomintang-controlled areas in the south. Prior to July 1937, the Japanese military had repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of all Chinese forces stationed in this area, and had attempted to purchase nearby land to build an airfield. The Chinese refused, as Japanese control of the bridge and Wanping town would completely isolate Beijing from the Kuomintang-controlled south.
7.) The Second United Front was the brief alliance between the Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist Party of China (CPC) during the Second Sino-Japanese War or World War II, which suspended the Chinese Civil War from 1937 to 1946.