My father is now 92 years of age. Eight years ago, a minor stroke left him bed-ridden. He is almost blind, his left eye was totally sightless some twenty years ago because of a motor vehicle accident and his right eye has probably less than 1% of sight because of late detection of glaucoma.
Now, relegated to the bed he can only sit up, often times, he has to make a Herculean effort to do so. He can barely distinguish whether it is day time or night time and often asks us the time of the day. He recognizes us by our voice and not by sight. His mental faculty is still intact, though his response is slow, and it takes some time for him to register our questions. We can still engage him in a normal conversation. He can remember his younger days but he cannot recall what he has taken for lunch a few hours ago.
Deprived of his sight and restricted severely in movement, however, he is not a bitter man. He does not indulge in self-pity nor does he laments his predicament. He just accepts that this is his life and that he is thankful for all the mercies life has shown him. He still has 3 children who are devoted to him and a great wife who takes care of his daily needs. My mother is 86, frail as osteoporosis has taken its toll but her mental faculties are still razor shape.
My daily work of caring for him is almost routine, though there is a maid to cook for us and other household chores. He is just a simple obedient child, asking simple question like, ‘Should I eat the bread first or drink the cereal?’ Probably he choose to please when we give him affirmations.
On alternate days I give him a lactulose solution and a double dose of enema to help his bowel movement. I clip his nails, trim his nostril hairs, shave his pubic hairs and all those short bristles of hairs sprouting on his upper lips and chin. Occasionally I have to feed him when he refuses to eat.
In the morning I take off his overnight diaper which is soiled with urine. In the toilet he sits for about 10 minutes for his bowel movement. He brushes his own teeth and he uses the toilet paper to wipe his rear, whether there are any defecation or not. Then I scrub him thoroughly with a sponge laden with mild soap. And he sits back and enjoy a hot bath.
So my daily work is done.
But there is something more.
With not much external stimuli, his mental awareness and memory are slowly impairing and fading away. Though cannot read anymore, he still asks the where about of his books, which he will occasionally feel them with his hands, as if he can read them by going through it with his palms.
My father is a keen reader of the works of the famous poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Bai (705 – 762 AD). His favorite classical book, the Three Hundred TangPoems (唐诗三百首)which is yellowish, well worn, tattered and thumbed-through by many readings. This book is a compilation of poems of some of the most acclaimed poets during the Tang era, where Li Bai was featured prominently.
So the best way to challenge my father’s mental faculty is to ask him to recite some of these poems, which he had memorized by rote during his younger days.
Bravo! He can still remember many verses, though I have to prompt him whenever he falters as he tries hard to recall what he had read about 80 years back.
One of the most famous poem is 静夜思,or loosely translated to be ‘Contemplation’, by Li Bai. This short poem is well recited by almost all Chinese educated children and it remains one of the most favorite poetry for recital at school events.
I search through a lot of English translation and there is none that I feel reflects the beauty of this poem clearly. I give it some thought and come out with the following translation which I hope it reflects the mood, essence and the ‘longings’ of the poet when Li Bai penned it. Clearly, I take some liberty to put in something which is not in the original Chinese poem and which I think is relevant to the time and place when it was written. If some Chinese scholars think otherwise, then, I offer my apology.
The luminous moon hung over the bamboo blind
Icy frost glistened on the earthly loam
I gazed raptly at the round silvery moon
Pining for my kith and kin far away home.
This is also my favorite poem which my mother taught me in Cantonese, the prevalent dialect in Southern China, when I was 8, though I came from a purely English stream.
When I travel far and wide, I often recite this poem and I want to go home to be with my parents.
My mother was born in 1929 in a hamlet district of Ta Nam near Guangzhou, China to a family with 4 siblings, 2 boys and 2 girls. She was the third child. Her father was a literate sea merchant owning a number of steamers that sailed along the Pearl River and its tributaries to barter and trade.
During the Second World War, there was not much damage to Ta Nam as the main Japanese occupational forces were concentrated in the city district of Guangzhou. There were few active resistance fighters in my mother’s village. Retaliation from the Japanese was often swift and merciless when resistance fighters were up in arms against them. After the surrender of Japan, normal life returned to the village and once again her father plied the profitable trade routes to re-build his business. He was a shrewd businessman and her family prospered.
From her childhood days, her parents showed no favoritism among the sons and daughters. Her father believed that he should give his best to his daughters when he still could control their destinies. They should have a good life before marriage as long as he could afford it. After marriage the destiny of a woman would lie with her future in-laws. Come what may, good or bad, in honor or in shame, in wealth or in poverty, in happiness or in tragedies, she would be on her own with her in-laws without the support of her blood family. So every of her siblings were treated as equal.
When she was in her teens she would follow her father on his business trips to various parts of Guang Dong Province along the Pearl River where she could drink in the sights of other parts of China. She would be alongside her father during the square table tea discussion on what goods were in demand and in what quantity would the buyer wanted. She could sample the various types of local fare and could cook a dish or two for her family when she went home. She was given the opportunity to attend the only school in the village, buckling the trend and traditions of China where a girl’s place was in the house. Hence, her intellect was also matched by her literacy.
Mother was quick at her mental arithmetic and she could tally up a grocery bill faster than any store keeper using an abacus. Her father often asked her for her opinion on some business transactions. When she was back to her village after a trip ‘abroad’, she came home bearing gifts for her friends and relatives. Her generosity is still remembered today by two of her old friends in Guangzhou, who are now in the late 80s.
Question: It has often being said that when life hands you a lemon, then make a lemonade out of it. This oft-mentioned phrase is used to encourage optimism and faith when one is faced with adversity, hardship, disappointment and setbacks and to maintain a calm composure and positive attitude towards the handling of personal crisis.
But what will you do when life hands you a bunch of lemons?
O’Mother of mine
My mother is 86, sharp of mind and with boundless wisdom. She has her share of health related problems, osteoporosis, some of her lumbar bones in her spinal cord have fused causing her to bend to the front and a hump back has appeared for years. She walks slowly with a tri-support walking stick.
Her eye sight is still very good with the help of her bifocals. She reads the vernacular Chinese newspaper daily, poring over headlines and in particular she reads the Life Style section meticulously. She cuts up those articles relating to health, life and death, handling of mid-life crisis, marriage and divorce, living philosophy, religion and in fact the whole works, that affects the mental and physical health and the well-being of a person.
Ah … all these are for the benefit of her son …
Me, Yours Truly.
To quote part of Thomas Gray’s elegy (1716 – 1771), written in a church court yard: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Perhaps this is somewhat sombre and solemn, but I am not about to let these timeless moments lay fritter away.
So I video-taped a number of her readings.
On the following newspaper cutting from Sin Chew Daily (星洲日報), she read in Cantonese, (the most common dialect in southern China), “If destiny will to hand you a bitter lemon in life, one of the best approach is to make a sweet lemonade out of it …….”
I listened intendedly for her to finish. This was the proverbial phase written in the early 20th century and was re-introduced into the mainstream by Dale Carnegie in his million selling book, “How to stop worrying and start living.”
“Mother, I have lived for over half a century, destiny did not hand me a lemon or two, it hands me a big bunch of it!” I said as I raised my two palms, portraying an imaginary bowl of bitter lemons in front of me.
My mother was silent for a while, then tilted her head up ever slightly with a compassionate glimpse at me, her countenance mirroring a calm disposition with the smallest of a smile and her eyes had a faraway look, that perhaps she was caught in this moment with some distant thoughts of my past. This was my mother who gave birth to me, raised me as a somewhat sickly child, saw me through college and university, career and business-wise upstarts, on a plateau, crashed and came back again, borne witness to my marriage and the kids coming along, and probably she would remember every occasion of significant events on my life-time continuum.
This was the mother of mine who shared my ‘love’ story when I fell in love for the first time and in no less than a year, my mother pulled me out of the deep abyss of depression, when the girl-friend dropped me like a hot potato and I had fallen flat on earth from Cloud Nine. In this case, there was to be no hackneyed and old fashioned words from her, like ‘Cry it out if it makes you more comfortable,’ or ‘This girl friend is not suitable for you’, or ‘There are plenty of ladies in waiting.’
My mother was not the type who added drama to a deteriorating situation and instead she would made some allowances for healing and then no more. ‘Get over your loss fast, and you can love again.’ she said, and I found this to be more comforting than by aggravating the present circumstances with over-used and oft-repeated advise, as in some tear-jerking B-grade movies.
This was the mother who slept with me on the same bed until I was almost eleven years of age, because I was a somnambulist – a person who sleep-walked. I would wake up in the middle of the night, got off the bed and walked around the room. At times I would walk out of our wooden house in a dream state, ignoring the bark of stray dogs or the hoot of an owl. Discreetly, my mother would follow me around, lest I fell or being bitten by a dog or met with some untoward accident. She also feared that to wake me up would lead to disastrous outcome on my mental equilibrium.
Later, I would return to my bed on my own and in the morning I had no recollection at all. It was my sister who told me of my somnambulism much later when I began to understand more about life.
However, I did have glimpses and flash-back even to this day on certain occasions, that what I saw was not of this world, probably in my altered state of mind, I might have wandered off to another realm of a parallel or alternative universe or into an era long past. In one incident, I saw a huge mansion, aglow with golden aura and it lit up like a crown jewel in the darkest of its surrounding. There were a lot of people in costumes and dressings of an old imperial Cathay – talking, feasting and drinking and it was a sort of a grand celebration. And I was a spectator or a witness who accidentally stumbled onto this event. In a flash, the whole scenario disappeared. I was alone in the dark again and I felt a gust of cold wind on my face, jotting me. Someone placed a woollen sweater onto my shoulder and then I remembered no more.
My somnambulism weaned off around the age of 11.
There was also one poignant occasion that I remembered clearly. I was probably about 6 or 7 years of age or there about. We were living in that part of the town, called the New Town, before we shifted to a village.
For a few days, I was sick, running a fever on and off in spite of taking dosages of western medication. Late one night my fever escalated. My father was frenetic and was closed to panic. My parents had already lost a son and a daughter before me. He was all thumbs when it came to handling a sick child. And so it was my mother who took charge, as my father too had to mind my sister and a younger brother who were sleeping.
My mother wrapped me up in some warm clothing and tucked me securely to her back in a traditional sarong. She had to take me to a private clinic immediately, located some distance in that part of the town across a bridge, called the Old Town. Those days there were no taxis and the few public buses had run their last route by 9:00pm. Trishaws, the normal form of transport at that time, were all retired for the night. My mother had to walk all the way to the clinic, which was closed, but as the western doctor was residing upstairs, she was determined to knock hard and called for help.
Certain parts of the street were alive with activities in the New Town while it was almost deserted in the Old Town. As she walked in quick strides along the street with her two hands firmly around my buttock, my head was lolling onto her shoulder. My whole body was limp and my little hands were too weak to hold onto anything, though it was swaddled inside the sarong. Strange that it might be, after a certain distance away from our house, I began to have some sensation of waking up. I opened my tired eyes slowly and suddenly I was keenly aware of where I was:
I begin to see the world around me with a kaleidoscopic pattern of vivid colors. I see the dimly lit street, lamp posts spaced apart with the soft glow of sodium light buzzing with hordes of flying ants. There are rows upon rows of little birds perch on three parallel overhead electric cables, forming a jagged pattern on the wire silhouetted against the moon lit night. Fuzzily, I recognize the blur outlines of bodies scattered along the veranda of shop houses, these are the homeless beggars covering themselves with old newspapers to shield against the bitter wind that might come later in the night. Once in a while a few dark shadows passes by, people going home after the night’s work is done. A soft zephyr breeze rattles the leaves on the branches of trees and the silvery reflection of the moon on the mantle of low height bushes adds a surrealistic view unfolding before my eyes.
My nostril begins to pick up the slightest scent. After a prolong spell in bed, the familiarity of the smells of the night street comes back to me once more, burning stoves, aroma of roast meat, fetor of waste food, kerosene permeating the air, steam vapour from Chinese dumplings bamboo containers, cigarette smoke and hot charcoal blazing on clay kilns, clogged drains of decaying leaves and rubbish and the strong body odour of people as we pass them by. An acrid stench assails my nose as night-soil collectors dump buckets of human waste onto a large truck, which is the usual means of removal of human faeces in urban areas. To ward off that stinky smell, I quickly put my whole face onto the soft fabric of my mother, and I inhale her redolent scent, she is perspiring from the labour of her brisk walk. It was a familiar scent which always put me at ease for I know that the whole world can come apart but my mother will still be carrying me on her back.
I begin to feel with heightened sensation. As a gust of wind blows across, I experience the slightest of pin pricks on my face. I feel the warmth of my mother’s back and my fingers begin to wriggle, clinging onto the side of my mother’s dress. I feel her continuous soft patting on my small backside and she is muttering a prayer or repeating some mantras of her own or that she is telling me to stay with her, do not go, stay with me, child.
My hearing becomes very acute, attuning to almost every sound that emanates from people, animals and nature. Some mid-night street hawkers are packing up, ranting loudly, cleaning their utensils and the cacophony of noise of the clanging of porcelain bowls and dishes added to the milieu of the night’s activities. I hear the crunch of bicycle tires on the macadam road. I shiver inwardly at the bay of stray dogs and the shrill meow of two cats in a fight with its hackles raised. Then I place my right ear onto my mother’s back. And I hear the wonderful sound of her quickened heartbeat. I know the familiar throbbing of heart beats, I have heard this before, some far away years ago, probably, when I was inside her womb.
My stomach begins to gnaw at me. I was hungry. I bite onto my mother’s fabric and it tastes a bit salty. I struggles to put my thumb into my mouth. It was tasteless. I am still looking for something to bite as now I want to taste anything within my grasp.
All my senses are now in a heightened state. And there is more….
All at once I feel something departing from me, like a part of me is leaving my body. There, I am hovering in front, suspends in mid-air upwards and I see my mother carrying a child on her back, walking in brisk strides, and the child is me. Strange, I am seeing my mother walking vigorously with me on her back, while I drift through the ethereal space effortlessly, like a ghostly figure.
Then I slumped forward onto my mother’s back and darkness enveloped me. When I received an injection I did not feel the pain but on the next day I was still very much alive.
It was truly remarkable that I could recall certain episodes of my younger days so vividly and on occasions certain smell, touch, sight, sound or taste would trigger off these memories. When it came, I was overwhelmed with emotions, as if it had only happened yesterday, and I would close my eyes for some time to ponder, reliving all those moments. But these emotions were not one of anxiety or fear or apprehensions, rather it was a moment of cherished contemplations.
In the course of my life’s journey I came into contact with priests, monks, men and women of cloth, spiritual ‘masters’, religious teachers from various sects, psychologists, psychiatrists, men and women of learning, fortune tellers, tarot card readers and even to the extent of consulting a Taoist monk who went into a séance. To some I asked questions. I was curious and was interested to know whether these episodes had any bearings on my future. But nobody gave me any satisfactory answers, and I believed that most of them were interpreting these mini episodes of mine as dreams, imaginations of a child, a make believe, my days were marked, some nether world spirits would like to possess my soul as well as all sorts of ridiculous spiritualistic explanations. They gave answers as relating to their own experiences, their individual parochial leanings, their distorted perceptions or according to what they had been taught at religious schools or institutes of higher learning.
Later I realized out that there were no exact answers to these imponderables and unknowns. The answers from these multitudes of people and from the various literatures I read were not as important as the questions any more. It just had happened and there was no necessity to find out why.
Perhaps part of the answer was within me.
The probable cause could be that I was in a near death situation that sparked off an epiphany of sorts. I was walking precariously the thin line between living and death and my life was slowly ebbing away. At that age I could not even understand death.
At a critical point when all my faculty of senses was elevated to a heightened state, I felt that I was truly awakened, if only it was just for that very brief interlude in time. I became acutely aware of where I was. Keen awareness created memory and this memory would sear, like a hot sizzling iron being branded onto flesh, into the core of my very being. And this memory would not decay with time nor with age, though it may dim with the passage of time, but occasionally, it would just bob to the surface like a cork being released under water.
My mother was trying to frame a response for me when I answered my own question. “Mother, I think it is best that if destiny will to hand me a bunch of lemons, I just eat the whole damn lot, instead of making lemonades out of it.” I flicked one of my hand upwards to emphasize my intent.
An instant smile spread across my mother’s face. She said, “Perhaps you are right, son. When a situation is irreversible or we think that there is no going back, we have to accept the inevitable, no matter how bitter it is. One has to move on instead of lamenting the past, holding onto regrets or hurts or trying to self-console.”
She continued in Cantonese, “There was this Chinese poet and writer of the late Ming Dynasty, Feng MengLong, who was attributed with this quotation, “To take the bitterness and hardship of life inyour stride is to rise above humanity.” (吃得苦中苦,方为人上人).We can learn a lesson from here.”
She folded the newspaper cutting, while I disengaged the camera from the tripod. Here was my learned mother who cared for her children with unconditional love. Her frailty was quite visible with wrinkles in folds on her cheeks and there were some faint worry lines on her forehead. A medium size liver spot had appeared slightly below her right eye which had grown bigger in size with her passing years, but which did not otherwise mar her facial appearance. Her hair, which was cut from time to time by my sister, had grown sparse with streaks of white on the fore. Her eyes were alert and she spoke clearly with rhythm and reasons, quotes and proverbs, and never mince her words with flattery and unnecessary praises. There was still a lot of iron in her.
I say, she is a commoner but in my heart she has the bearing of an aristocrat or a royalty and I being a subject must always give her the utmost due respect, love and care as well as to honor her. The old Chinese adage has a familiar ring to it, “To raise a child for a 100 years, one has to worry for 99.” (养儿一百岁，常忧九十九). Thus, my frequent prayer and my supplication plead to God will be that if she lives to a hundred years or more, or if she lives to a hundred years or less, then let me live just one more day than her. She had already sent off 2 of her children and it will be the most painful experience for her to see me going off earlier.
But then again, that is not my call.
Note: The translation to English on the two Chinese proverb is my own, as I cannot find any suitable translations as yet.
Abstract: My mother is going to be 89 in May this year. My son bought her a Samsung Tap A smart phone with a 7” screen. With her new toy, she has been busy now watching old movies, on YouTube, Wechat, Whatsapp and on the family group chat. She even has a Facebook to boot!
My mother will be 89 this coming May. Racked by osteoporosis, she has bent almost double. Since my father’s death last year in July she has been alone. Of course, she has the company of her grandchildren from my sister’s side and her great grand children. I spend a couple of hours with her daily. Mmm …getting her counsel and getting her to narrate all those stories of old China. She has a phenomenal memory and her mind is razor sharp.
Calvin, her grandson (who is my second son) bought a Samsung phone for her two weeks ago. Less than two weeks, she is now quite good at handling her phone. She can make a video call on Wechat to her granddaughter in New York City. She video chats with her sister-in-law, who is 92 years of age, in Guangzhou and other relatives from China. Alas, there is only her sister-in-law who is of almost the same age group with her. All her friends and relatives have come to pass.
She also reads messages on the family group chat on Whatsapp type written in Chinese characters. She scrolls through YouTube to read those videos which are of interest to her. She watches all her favorite Mandarin movies of the 60s and the 70s and some current movies, which I have down-loaded from YouTube and store onto the external micro-scan disk. She make normal calls to us. She also reads her Facebook.
My mother is now 85. Her ambulatory movement is still good though weak, albeit walking around very slowly with the aid of a quad base walking stick as she is suffering from acute osteoporosis, causing a few of her thoracic and lumbar vertebrae in the spinal cord to fuse. She takes her daily medication dutifully and often has to take a large dose of pain killer to numb the pain.
I bath her 3 or 4 times a week when she washes her hair, holding onto the shower while she sits on an acrylic chair, and scrubs herself clean. Her skin is still pearly, satin smooth and without any black botches or liver-spots but her spinal cord is hunched forward, her lumbar and mid-thoracic region twisted and crooked. A slip and a small fall will be fatal, given her fragile state of the bones structure.
Her mind is razor sharp and her memory is phenomenal. I often seek her counsel in almost all matters of the home and business and I can pour forth my grievances, my troubles, my unhappiness and my hardship to a pair of ears that hears every word I say and perhaps she also hears every word that I don’t want to say, for she listens attentively with her mind and her heart.
And she speaks to me with the language of a loving and compassionate heart that knows no barriers.
Someone might say that I have no right to burden her with my worldly troubles and it is better that I keep my own counsel when occasionally I am lost and I can’t see no further than I spit, (so to speak) but I can never hide my agitation and the cyclonic turbulence of my mind at such times of unrest because she can see me right through and through. So I unburden myself onto her dainty shoulders, no holds bar, and with no make-up stories. I am seeking her wise counsel and I am not trying to transfer my pain onto her.
She can take up a heavy emotional load, does not indulge in self-pity, does not blame the troubles onto others, does not fret and most times she offers practical, sound and wise counsels to my weary heart. She tells me time and time again that I have no power to change others, changes must come from within and happiness is within me and must not be dependent on others. She reads the Chinese language paper daily and she often saves a number of good articles on philosophy, living, Buddhism, health and articles of interest for me to digest.
I also share with her my triumphs, my happiness, my aspirations, my dreams and my innermost thoughts and we celebrate, we laugh and we reminisce on the halcyon days of past when we were poor as a church mouse but we were really very happy and joyful being together in a family of five, with my father and my two siblings.
I have video-taped a number of our conversations where she taught me classical proverbs and poems and told me anecdotes and all those strange tales of Liao Zhai and other fairy tales of Chinese deities, semi-gods and ancestor worship and religious matters, and related to me her stories of her past in China. Now she has given me a gem of an idea, an interesting story line and a plot to write something on Old China. Hmm, I am still working on it.
It was her fore-thought and decisive manner in an event that happened in China before I was born that made me awe-struck and it was a story that must be told.
(Read past posts on My Father And Mother and My Mother In Her Teens)
My mother was born in 1929 in the small district of Ta Nam in the outskirts of Guangzhou. From young, she was educated by her father, who was a successful sea-faring merchant and she attended school, which was rare in traditional China.
When she was 18 years of age she was betrothed in a blind marriage to a handsome man who lived in a nearby village which distance was about a day’s walk or about half a day away by bicycle. Her elder brother was the one who brokered the marriage and what he saw in my father he liked. He was 6 years her senior, a learned scholar and whose family owned vast tracts of farmland in Nam Hai, in the outskirts of Guangzhou. At that time her prospective father-in-law was a prosperous merchant in the faraway land called Nanyang (present day Malaysia) while my father tended to his farmland in Nam Hai. This was a marriage on the same status station, both were the minor scions of reputable and well-to-do families.
By that time China was in the throes of a raging and debilitating civil war between Generalissimo Chiang Kai Sek under the KuoMinTang Party and the Communist Party of China under Chairman Mao Zedong after Japan surrendered in 1945, when the two parties forged an uneasy alliance to fight the Japanese Army earlier on. The CPC won and on 1st October 1949 proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The purges of landowners, powerful Mandarins, wealthy business men, Nationalists, remnant members of the past Qing dynasty, past corrupt officials and all those allegedly aligned to the KMT were just beginning as Chairman Mao attributed every evil and failures that beset the vast continent of China to the bourgeoisie, the corrupt US imperialist aiding the KMT and capitalist owners who exploited the peasants. City by city, village by village the Red Army began their ruthless purge.
At that time my mother gave birth to a son, my elder brother. Famine was everywhere in China, even to land owners like my grandfather. My brother soon died during one winter month due to lack of medical attention and the scarcity of food. My elder sister was born the following year.
One evening my mother’s elder brother came with an urgent message. He had risen to the rank of a senior officer in the Air Force of the CPC and was privy to inside information on the troop movement of the Red Army.
“You have to leave for Guangzhou City tonight, Younger Brother.” He said, addressing the urgency of the situation to my father and mother. “The Army will be here within the next two days and your name is on their black list.”
He was taking an inordinate risk by giving such information. He and his family would be summarily executed had he being informed on by any CPC agents or former KMT informers who snitched on whoever would give them a ticket to survive. It was all for the love of his younger sister, my mother.
“I have obtained all valid travel documents at great risk by pulling rank. The Head of Village has reluctantly signed your exit travel pass.” He said.
“You are to leave alone.” He continued. “Tonight before 9pm wait at the small pier. A boat will take you down to Guangzhou city where you will be met by your brother-in-law, Siang Pui. You may have to stay with him for days before you can get to Hong Kong as travel is very restrictive. There are too many refugees and there is only a small daily quota on those leaving. From Hong Kong you take a steamer to Nanyang.” Siang Pui was the husband of my father’s elder sister.
“What about my wife and my daughter and my step mother?” My father asked feebly, face ashen and shaken by the abrupt news of having to depart immediately. His hands were trembling as he spoke.
“They can wait. The Communists are not so brutal and heartless as painted by those imperialists KMT. But you may not survive their purge or the deathly work on their commune farms.” He stood erect for a moment, waiting for the import of the situation to sink in.
My mother, being the stronger one, made an immediate decision. She was always the wiser one and she grasped the dire situation they were in. She saw the bigger picture and her husband, whose hands had never touched the till of a plough driving a buffalo in the field or whose legs ever stepped onto a stationary bicycle paddling and diverting irrigation water from a river to the rice field, would not even survive a day under the Communist.
“Go and don’t look back. Don’t make enquiries and don’t mention any names. When you arrive at Nanyang safely then only you write, but not before.” she said to her husband. “I pack some left over dumplings for you.
“Thank you, Elder Brother, you must leave now,” addressing her brother and latching her hands onto the forearm of her brother steadily. They were family, just a word of appreciation and that was enough. The fanfare of kowtows, elaborate show of appreciation and flowery adulations were not in their books when dealing with close family members.
My father took the wicker luggage bag with few belongings which my mother had packed for him. He left without glancing back. His wife was always the pillar of his strength and he always listened to her dutifully. My mother just shut the wooden door and hugged my sister, who was only a few months old. She did not cry nor lament her predicament but my step-grandmother cried softly. In all my years with my mother I have seen her cried not more than the five fingers on my right hand. Such was her tower of strength in her character and personality make-up.
Early the next morning there was a loud banging on the wooden door. My mother opened the door calmly and standing behind the threshold of the wooden frame was the Village Headman with his three officials. They just barged in and looked around. The Village Headman demanded the withdrawal of the Exit Travel Pass which he had issued two days ago and he wanted my father to report at his official residence immediately.
“My husband has left for Hong Kong on the same day that the pass was issued, My Honorific Sir,” My mother bowed and said softly without a hint of fear nor anxiety. Had she fumbled and said that her husband was in Guangzhou then the cadres would have made an immediate snoop and arrested my father.
The Village Headman grunted. He was in his mid-fifties and he had to save himself. He had issued a number of Exit Travel Passes previously and he hoped that this one would get buried among the paperwork.
They left without making further demands.
My father stayed in Guangzhou for weeks before he was allowed to leave for Hong Kong. When he arrived in Hong Kong he registered as a student at one of the missionary schools, awaiting the availability of a steamer ship to Nanyang. He refrained from making enquiries, he did not write any letters and all he knew was to pray to his ancestors, tracing back to more than 21 generations, for the safe deliverance of his wife, his daughter, his step mother and himself.
For the next one and a half years my mother suffered terribly under the communists. There was the back breaking farm labor for 14 hours a day and at night she had to endure the endless torture of re-education where she must stay alert. Her daughter was taken care of by my step grandmother, who had dainty bounded feet, and could not work the fields.
Land owners were paraded in the Community Hall daily to be judged by the peasants. If there was even one verdict from a peasant the Red Army would investigate thoroughly. Bourgeoisie land owners and exploitative employers were executed by a firing squad on a fixed day of the week to be witnessed by the whole village. If a person from the silent audience was caught with his/her eyes shut, he or she would be severely punished. It was a traumatic experience for my mother to see these executions. She told me that after awhile she was inured to all these deaths and thought about surviving another day. She related that all her thoughts were on her daughter, she wanted to see the little baby at the end of the day and the little baby was what kept her going.
However, my mother commented that these Red Army soldiers were fair in their trials of the land owners and were not given in easily to corruption. They would not listen solely to some disgruntled peasants who would like to gain favors with them by disparaging the land owners unjustly. The Red Army always gave the land owners the opportunity of a fair hearing. Once a land owner offered them some wines and some jade artifacts which he had hoarded away, as an inducement to treat his family better. He was executed the next day.
Soon the Red Army began the detailed examination into the affairs of my father and grandfather. My mother stood trial in place of my father. She was shouted at harshly, harangued, threatened and accused of some imaginary crimes against the proletariat, called various names and addressed my father as a KMT sympathizer and denounced my father as an imperialist spy that sucked the blood of the peasants. The times of her trial were varied and on various trials she had to sit in a chair to await the tribunal for hours. Sometimes they never turn up and she went home, fearing another day of interrogation.
A clear picture began to emerge after many trials. It was not one that the Red Army heard so commonly in other farm land. My father and grandfather were charitable persons and whatever the harvests that year, good or bad, there were always be something left to the peasants. They allowed each peasant a little plot of land for their own keepsake so that they could plant some supplementary crops and raised some pigs on their own for their family. None of the peasants in our village had anything adverse to report to the Red Army.
My mother had the presence of mind to keep all letters sent to my father from my grandfather from Nanyang detailing all monies remitted to their village and how these monies were been utilized to build irrigation canals, to buy seedlings and to build houses for the villagers. The Red Army was not that fanatical as to see every evil in every land owner. China required overseas remittance from overseas Chinese in order to finance the rebuilding of their country.
She articulated her case well and she showed them all correspondences of letters sent to her by her husband. Probably, the Red Cadres were astonished that such a village woman could speak so fluently and calmly and presented evidences so meticulously. She was not an imperialist spy nor her husband a blood-sucking land owner. In one session she had the guts to request that she would like her family including her step-mother-in-law to be reunited with her husband. What if she left for China and the remittances stopped coming in, a Red Cadre asked.
“China is my home, my country and we were born and raised here. We will come back one day. My husband will continue to remit money as our village needs finances to rebuild.” She said with conviction. She was careful not to denounce the old imperialist China, the corruption of the KMT and the exploitative manner of many land owners. A fanatical Red Cadre may denounce, rave and rant on the old corrupt system but they may not take kindly to persons, who were never in the army, to indulge in practices where it meant to put them on a pedestal and worship them, hoping to buy favors and survive a purge.
A year later, the Red Army of her district issued a military exit pass to allow her and my sister to leave for Hong Kong.
That was only the first huddle. She had to get to the port of Guangzhou and obtained clearance from the local commander before she could get into Hong Kong. Guangzhou was a distance of about 4 hours of brisk walk. Guangzhou was by now teeming with refugees, vagabonds, rift raft, the ubiquitous Red Army flooding the streets flushing out KMT remnants, counter-revolutionaries who fought against communism, persons with hidden wealth who dressed poorly with torn and forlorn clothes and the locals of Guangzhou who had stayed there for centuries.
By this time the Red Army was lenient toward my mother and did not demand the full load of her farm labor work for the day. Three times a week the Red Army allowed her and my sister to walk to Guangzhou. No public transport was available and the erratic train service was only reserved for the Red Army. If she was turned back in Guangzhou she had to return to Nam Hai on the same night and try again another time. Her pass did not allow her to stay in the city.
For one long year, my mother walked with my daughter slung on her back, leaving Nam Hai in the morning, arriving at the port of Guangzhou in mid afternoon and waiting in line on the long queue at the Immigration Exit point. When the quota to leave China was exceeded my mother and my sister were turned back. She had to trudge back to Nam Hai at night to report herself at the community hall the next morning. We still had relatives in Guangzhou, but my mother would not take the chance by staying overnight. If the Red Army found out, her pass might be revoked.
She carried with her an optimism of hope every time she walked to Guangzhou from Nam Hai and when she was turned back she did not entertain the idea of giving up. She just had to try again and again for the future of her daughter.
Walking back to Nam Hai at night was a nightmare. There was no street light, the gravel road was uneven and when it rained she was drenched to her skin. My mother was careful to keep my sister warm lest she fell sick. My sister was exceptional, probably driven by some instinct, she cried little and huddled closely on the back of my mother.
My mother said that she developed a strange uncanny sense of direction and courage to face the dark road in front of her, especially on a moonless night. She discarded all frightful stories in her mind that she heard when she was young, of jumping vampires out to draw blood or of ghost that led people astray and wanted a sacrificial victim so as to re-incarnate. She did not even day dreamed that she would meet a kindly fairy to ease her way. She did not even pray silently to any deities or recite any mantras. She was just practical and focused and she knew that she had to depend on herself.
She carried a cane to ward off wild animals and barking dogs. She used to be afraid of snakes and learned that if she came across one she would just stand still and prayed that the little baby did not cry to provoke the snake. She kept a look-out for robbers who might way-laid her. But the gravel path she travelled was safe. With the Red Army everywhere no one dared to rob or plunder. She did not talk to any strangers, she did not ask for direction for a short cut and neither did she stop to take a breather. She kept walking back to the dim lights of Nam Hai and would try another day.
By Providence, one evening at the Immigration Exit counter all those who queue were turned back. She was not even the next in line. Then she caught a glimpse of the area local commander by his military stature and his uniform. He was accompanied by a few soldiers carrying some old rifles. She approached him and was stopped short by the soldiers who shouted at her. The local commander waved a hand to silence the soldiers and gave my mother a long hard look. Most people would give military commanders and accompanying soldiers a wide berth as if they were guilty of some crimes. And this woman carrying a baby on her back had the temerity to approach him.
She bowed a little but did not prostrate on the ground to plead her case. She knew the communist mind, these were the proletarians, they did not belong to the upper Mandarin class where subjects often had to prostrate themselves to make obeisance to their master. Even Mao Zedong ate his frugal meal and chain-smoked his rolled cigarettes with the peasants under a tree shade, where he propounded his ideals of communism and the evils of a bourgeoisie and imperialist society.
My mother did not quaver but stood deferentially and explained that she had been trying for the past year to get to Hong Kong. She held the military pass she was issued with both hands. Then she bowed her head slightly and stood in silence. The baby behind her back became slightly restless and was waking up.
The commander stared at her for some moments. He barked an order to one of his adjutant, “Let her go on board.” Stately, the commander walked away.
My mother uttered a ‘Thank you’ in Cantonese, quite unbelievable in her reversed fortune.
The adjutant took my mother and sister to a closed counter, placed an official red chop on her pass and they took the night steamer to Hong Kong
Arriving at the port in Hong Kong in mid-night was quite an unnerving experience. Though my mother had travelled the length of the Greater Pearl River by following her sea-faring father, she was a total stranger here.
She kept her wits.
The rough and tumble port of Hong Kong was a bee-hive of activities throughout the whole night. People were milling around, trishaws, coolies and hawkers were bumping into each other and there were people sleeping on walk ways. A few strangers approached my mother and volunteered to take her to her hotel. She bore a letter from my father’s sister who resided in Hong Kong telling her to wait at a certain hotel. She refused to talk to any strangers and she looked for a suitable spot amongst the sea of humunity besides a building to spend the night. It was dangerous to be on a lonely spot.
It was very cold as the Northern Wind blew in from GaungTong, the southern most province of China. Mother and daughter huddled closely together to savor their first night in Hong Kong.
She was a light sleeper and was alert all the time. Occasionally she slumbered off only to wake up suddenly staring at the shimmering harbor. She had come this far and would not let her guard down. It was a relief when day broke.
She had memorized the route to the hotel, refusing to take any trishaws though she had enough fare for that. When she reached the hotel she mentioned my father’s sister name and the proprietor immediately recognized that this was the woman and the baby that my father’s sister was waiting for. He addressed her by her full name and my mother knew then that she was in safe hands.
The proprietor engaged her in a light conversation. He gave her a flask of hot water and some buns. My mother was starving. The baby was asleep now as if she also knew that she was now safe. The proprietor told my mother that her auntie, that was her husband’s sister, had come here often and enquired. Her visits were now less frequent but she still dropped by occasionally.
“Did anybody approach you when you landed in Hong Kong?” the proprietor asked, more out of concern than curiosity.
“Yes, they volunteer to take me to a hotel if I named it.” My mother said.
“You are lucky that you did not heed them. Most of them are con men and would take your pass, either to exhort you for huge sum of money or to sell your Pass Exit. I am glad that you are safe now. I get you a room.” He said with a smile and kept nodding his head to acknowledge that this was a woman with street sense.
Two days later, my father’s sister came and took them to stay with them. A month passed before my mother and sister were booked on a junk steamer on their onward journey to Nanyang.
They landed in Singapura in the month of May 1954 where they were finally united with my father.
The above events were narrated by my mother to me without fanfare, without the self aggrandizement of how hazardous her journey to Nanyang was, nor how brave or smart she was. There is never any necessity to make some tall tales between mother and son to soothe her ego.
My step grandmother eventually came over to Nanyang a year later.
My parents are now living with my sister and all her family members are very devoted to them. My father is 91, prostrated on the bed for almost 5 years caused by a stroke but his senses are still good.
Brief:Today is the first anniversary of the demise of my father. So I thought it is appropriate that I re-post this article on the first anniversary of his death.
Our family will always remember him as a great and loving husband and father.
May his soul rest in peace …
The following post below first appeared last August 2016.
My father was 94. For the first two weeks of July 2016 he was weak and refused to eat. As we could not feed him anymore, we hospitalized him and was immediately put on an IV drip. He succumbed to old age and passed away peacefully.
Below are the comments from my previous post, FB, well-wishers, prayers, contributions and condolence messages during his wake. We wish to thank all of you for being with us at a time of distress when a dear one is called away.
Comment (from many): Our deepest condolence to you and your family on the demise of your father. May he rest in peace.
Arthur: Thank you to all for your kind thoughts and condolence messages.
Le O’ Lah Ham
May God’s Will Be Done.
I have heard …我听说过…
A jester once annoyed the King with an inappropriate joke in the medieval court. To vent his displeasure, he sentenced the jester to death.
Immediately when his words left his mouth, the King regretted it. The jester was his most loyal and favorite subject. But as the King of the court, a command once uttered could not be rescinded.
So the jester was imprisoned, awaiting the day for his execution.
A few days later, the King summoned the jester.
“I shall grant you one last request. You may wish to die by the sword, or by the gallows, or by a chalice with poison or by any other means.” said the King. This was the least he could do for the jester.