My mother returned to her ancestral home in China for the first time after 40 years on a big ship from Singapore in 1979. “I was very dizzy for the whole 7-day journey.” How big was the ship? I wondered. “Oh,” my mother recalled, “it was so big that some pigs were on board too.”
My mother could see from her room on the upper deck some pigs eating their left-over food.
My mother spent her 16 laborious years giving births to 9 children.
She had no money and no time to visit China, until in 1979, her motherly adopted sister paid for the ticket for her to visit. Her sister filled two containers with valuables for China in 1979.
Journey home after 40 years
The valuables included: a few new bicycles, Titoni watches (the swiss brand Titoni was considered the best by the Chinese), pickled vegetables, a large container of home-prepared lard, rice, thick fabric, sewing needles and threads, and medicines.
A unique postal and money transfer service between the overseas Chinese in Asia and their relatives in China emerged. Trusted agencies run by decent Chinese people were the umbilical cords for the people separated by the vast, raging South China Sea.
In Singapore, a reliable agency named 合安 (Hup Ann in the Hokkien language, based in Tanjong Pagar in Singapore) dealt with all my mother’s communication with China.
My mother regularly sent money and medicines to her only brother in China, whom she parted since she left for Singapore in the late 30s, though she was struggling to feed her own kids spanning across south Malaysia and Singapore.
Whenever a letter written on flimsy, almost translucent paper arrived from south China which cried over roof leakage, food shortage and an urgent need to find wives for her brother’s adult sons, my mother’s mind would be disturbed and she would secretly scrape together some money to send back home to China.
“You’ll never understand poverty”
When I was a teenager in the 80s, I used to complain that my mother sent ‘too much’ money home. We were not sufficient ourselves. My mother would explain:
“You’ll never understand. They are destitute. I must help my brother and his family. Their roof had been blown off, you know?”
— Words from my mother
My mother would collect her letters from Hup Ann. An educated, kind man wearing spectacles would interpret the letters written in Chinese to her in her Hokkien language. To reply, my mother would express her sentiments, and a personal, elaborate hand-written letter would be written for her.
“They know how to write for you. These people. I just told them something very simple, and they would turn my words into an embellished story full of beautiful words. They would use strong, passionate words to make my brother cry.”
Hup Ann would deliver the hard-earned money from the overseas Chinese, most of them coolie and uneducated labourers, and wrote elaborate letters packed with tears, warmth and longing. The one-to-one tender care was superior than the modern day PayPal and Amazon services combined. These educated, trustworthy men sat face-to-face with their clients, crafted each letter for them with care, read out their loved one’s letter and interpreted the messages for the illiterate, in their clients’ own regional languages. They gave their clients comfort. They soothed their heartache. They cried with them. They earned respect and trust.
Letters and gifts would be dutifully delivered. From Singapore to the harbour at Shantou, on the eastern south of Guangdong province in China, it took 13 days for a parcel to arrive, and a persevering local footman in his straw sandals with an oil-paper umbrella would spend another 3 days to deliver the letters and goods, to far-flung, near inaccessible homes.
Letters: Hope and Desperation
Here are three more letters from China:
“Dear younger sister and brother-in-law,
I’ve heard that younger sister has confirmed to visit our ancestral home at the beginning of September. I’ve also received 40 Hong Kong dollars that sister had sent me. Brother has received it, please do not worry.
With the support from brother-in-law, my dear younger sister is returning to the ancestral home. I’m so thankful of you, brother-in-law. Now sister will be able to worship our ancestors on their ground, the root of her origin. Brother-in-law, you have displayed the highest moral standard of heaven and earth, and words of your kindness will be passed down for thousands of years.
Our deceased elder sister had ordered that our ancestral home should be restored. Dear sister, you and I are blood relations and joined by flesh and bones, now our elder sister has died and turned into a deity, only sister you and me are blood related. I do hope more of you would come back to the ancestral home.”……
“I’ve just received some money and medicine from you, dear sister. I’ve distributed your medicine away accordingly based on your instructions in your letter to me, so please do not worry.
Just before the Chinese New Year, I received yet another letter from you, my dear sister, with 240 Hong Kong dollars. I know that the 100 dollars was from our nephew ML, for his maternal uncle in China to spend during the Chinese New Year.
This just showed how much my nephew cares for his uncle, and he misses us too. Nephew gave us money to show his filial piety to his uncle, in remembrance of his mother who had just passed away. It also shows his gratitude to the grace of our ancestors.”
“I’ve received younger sister’s 20 renminbi (note: Chinese currency), ginseng 2 liang（note: Tael, a common Chinese unit of measurement 两. One tael is about 31.25g.)
Dear sister, you asked me in your last letter about how much it would cost to restore our old house. Sister, you visited our ancestral home once, and you know the situation well and our difficulties. I hope sister and brother-in-law can give us money generously. I think sister you should also get other nephews and nieces to help raise some of the money.
Sister, you are concerned about the rebuilding of our ancestral home, and brother has contacted some people about the building materials. I hope sister can reply to me immediately, so that our house can be rebuilt soon.
This year, the big temple in our ancestral village has also been restored…. I hope brother-in-law and nephews could return to China to worhip our ancestors and discuss the construction of the house.”
Tomorrow’s letter: Brother’s son needs a wife
The Letters from China series was inspired by Blog Exercises: Before the Blog by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on Lorelle on WordPress. This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.
My Related Posts:
- Letters from China: Part 10
- Letters from China: Part 9
- Letters from China: Part 8
- Letters from China: Part 7
- Letters from China: Part 6
- Letters from China: Part 5
- Letters from China: Part 4
- Letters from China: Part 3
- Letters from China: Part 1
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