Letters from China: Part 1

This week, I’ll share with you some letters from China.

My mother left Fujian, the poverty-stricken province in the south of China in the late 30s, and arrived in Singapore a few weeks later, after surviving the turbulent journey of the South China Sea.

Letters from China: Longing

Letters from China: Longing

My mother was about 4 years old. She returned to China in 1979 for the first time, more than 40 years since she left.

I obtained a stash of old letters from my mother’s late elder brother from China to her. Through these letters, you will feel how life was in the late 70s and the 80s, in some of the poorest parts of China. These letters are about love, loss, separation, and hope.

Historical background

I first need to provide you with some background information. My mother was brought to Singapore by her mother, who died when my mother was 15 years old. My mother never got to meet her father and her second elder brother in China again. Her second brother died very young, and father died of illness.

The Japanese Campaign and Victory: 8 December 1941 - 15 February 1942: Civilians in a Singapore air raid shelter during a Japanese bombing raid. © IWM (KF 102)

The Japanese Campaign and Victory: 8 December 1941 – 15 February 1942: Civilians in a Singapore air raid shelter during a Japanese bombing raid. © IWM (KF 102)

Then the Japanese invaded Malaya during the Second World War, and ended with the surrender of British forces in Singapore. China turned red. Complex ideologies were at war in Nanyang (“South Sea”, i.e., Southeast Asia). Two decades of Cold War relations endured.

In Singapore, my mother had an adopted elder sister from China, who had arrived in Nanyang before them. This elder sister acted as a matriarch in my mother’s life. My aunt had returned to China in the 70s before, and she decided to take my mother with her to return to their ancestral home for the first time in 1979.

But, a few weeks before their journey, my aunt, the matriarch, passed away.

Letter of grief

Here is a letter from China dated July 1979, from my mother’s elder brother:

pattern cloud
July, 1979

“Dear sister,

"Remember to send me a photograph of you". Letters from China on Janet's Notebook

“Remember to send me a photograph of you”

I received a letter from our nephew on the 7th lunar day that our elder sister had died of illness. Your brother’s family — all of us, young and old — are totally distraught. Our faces are covered with tears and we can’t sleep and eat.

My dear sister, now you’re my closest blood family, and there is no one else. Since I’ve separated from my dear sister since you were so little, with thousands of mountains and rivers between us, I’m hoping that my dear sister would now take the responsibility, to communicate with me by letters regularly….

Dear sister, you’re coming back to our ancestral home, but when are you going to set out? You must let me know in a letter beforehand, and please remember to send me a photo of you, so that when I meet you at the harbour in Shantou, I’ll be able to recognise you. I also hope that you’ll bring our sister’s portrait and her last words home to us. Her portrait will be displayed for worshipping, for her to be remembered by the future generations.”

The Letters from China series was inspired by Blog Exercises: Before the Blog by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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29 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 1

      1. Janet Williams Post author

        I’ve thought on working on these letters for a few years, and now it’s a chance for me to really translate them. I used to read out these letters for my mother over and over again. Actually, I don’t think that I need to explain too much about these letters — they speak to us directly. Thanks for your appreciation and I’ll try to write more with these precious letters.

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  2. Lorelle VanFossen

    I can’t wait for more. You’ve just given us an appetizer.

    When we sit in our elite corners of the world, wailing over hangnails and bruises, we sometimes forget the struggles of those who went before us to get here, and to help us be where we are now, as well as the suffering and loss of so many around the world today still. Thank you for reminding us. We need wake ups like this more often to remind us of how far we still have yet to go. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Lorelle for your inspiration for me to work on these letters. Aren’t suffering and loss recurrent themes? The human suffering was painful, yet the resilience against adversities that people experiencing suffering displayed was astonishing.

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