Letters from China: Part 2

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.

Mum was unable to go back to China for 40 years

My mother was unable to return to China for 40 years

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.

Letter from China: Reading from right to left, top to bottom.

Letter from China: Reading from right to left, top to bottom.

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.”

This letter comes with some stamps with the national anthem of PRC printed on them.

This letter comes with some stamps with the national anthem of PRC printed on them.

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.

British reoccupation of Singaore 1945. View of the city of Singapore as it appeared at the time of the 5th Indian Division's arrival on 5 September 1945.© IWM (IND 4817)

British reoccupation of Singaore 1945. My mother endured hardship during the Japanese occupation in Singapore. © IWM (IND 4817)

Letters: Hope and Desperation

Here are three more letters from China:

pattern cloud
August, 1979

“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.”……

pattern cloud
February, 1980

“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.”

pattern cloud
July, 1981

“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 . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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38 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 1 | Janet's Notebook

  2. shoufeng Yang

    Excellent article! Very interesting and touching. This is living history, which has not been touched much. You can be a historian Janet!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Shoufeng for reading. Next time I must show you these letters in person. I need to get these letters restored as they are very fragile. My writing is based on my first-hand data only — I rescued these letters from my family just a few years ago, and I think some letters had already been lost.

      I hope these writings help many people understand the significant role that the overseas Chinese played in the development of China in the last century. More importantly, these are real human stories, real emotions, real suffering, revealed in every single character, and how the poverty in China, civil war, and the 1949 Chinese Revolution impacted on Chinese all around the world, and what it means by keeping your root, and how values have changed.

      1. shoufeng Yang

        Many thanks Janet for your very kind offer of showing me these treasures 🙂 you may consider scanning them using a scanner. I got a scanner at home and can help you scan them, or can lend it to you if you don’t have one. I am now in Singapore and will be back on 8th Sep. talk to you later…

      2. Janet Williams Post author

        Hi Shoufeng,

        Last year in Singapore, there was a magnificent letter display of ‘Money by mail to China: Dreams of Struggles of early migrants’: 家书抵万金—新加坡侨批文化展. The pronunciation of the word ‘letter’ is approximately ‘批’ (‘pueh’ in Hokkien), so there is this Chinese term referring to the letters.

        If you get to speak to some old people while in Singapore and Malaysia, you might strike up good conversations with them when you mention those old ‘pueh.’ There is also a museum displaying the letters by overseas Chinese in Shantou.

        When you’re back in England, we could talk about these letters and I really appreciate your help.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Daniela,

      Thank you. I’ve enjoyed reading your fine posts about Zagreb, Croatia and your new life in New Zealand in your beautiful blog. In many parts of the world today, people are still experiencing the sheer sense of loss, longing and love, and you know that sentiments so well yourself. Thank you very much for your appreciation.

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  5. chennicole2013

    I love these “letter writers.” What a fascinating job! I that they would turn “words into an embellished story full of beautiful words. They would use strong, passionate words to make my brother cry.”
    In 1983, when we went back for the first time to the island where my husband was born, his father’s only request was for us to visit the grandparents’ graves and take photos.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Nicki,

      Letter writers — such an appropriate job title! Thank you.

      I volunteered to write some letters for my mother before, and I did it for a few times. However, she preferred these ‘letter writers’, and she thinks ‘they write better – they know how to express emotions that would touch people’s heart.’ But, my mother is illiterate, how would she compare? She had her instinct.

      It brings about another topic about writing style — writing embellished stories. I remember teachers like this kind of writing — heavy use of cliches, idioms, flowery language. When Chinese people learn English, this habit of using elaborate language (sometimes without substance) could sometimes cause a problem.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you. The bond between families in China and overseas Chinese was very strong in the last century. The Chinese people have a strong tradition and family values, and these letters have revealed so much of their loss, hope, duties, expectations, and dreams.

  6. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 3 | Janet's Notebook

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  8. 经雅

    Janet, it was a true moving story about how your parents gave their financial support to their relatives in China. Your parents are very kind indeed. Your mother has a strong bond with her family, though life was hard enough for herself, she gave generously.

    I am wondering if the financial support to your mother’s brother and his family has ever ended? Do they still need such support? Do they have a better life than you mother nowadays?

    How do they repay your mother’s kindness and unconditional support?

    I have really enjoyed reading your posts, Janet. Thank you.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your kind words, 经雅.

      Good question: Did the request for financial support from China to their distant relatives ever end? Their requests lasted a few decades. A lot of overseas Chinese will tell you the same old stories.

      Yes, now our relatives, especially the younger generation in Fujian have a much improved and modern life. I’ll try to answer your questions in my next few posts.

  9. ShimonZ

    I read these letters, and identify completely with your family. It breaks my heart to think of all they went through. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you. As I was growing up, I seemed to know of my ‘family’ in China — you never see them or hear their voice, but they exist in the letters; they are on my mother’s mind all the time; they seemed to be living in the house with us. Thousands of people lived through decades of separation and yearning like this.

  10. Maxim Sense

    This was very sad Janet. I read part 1-3 and all the letters spoke of human suffering, unconditional love, sharing, strong familial ties, hope and encouragement. I have seen all throughout that your mother was amazing in her concern, care and love for her relatives. You are very lucky to have a mother like her.

    Thank you for sharing this human experiences. They inspire us to have a second look at life and take time to ponder on how have we been living ours since then and until today.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for understanding these letters. You said it so well. Thank you for your kind words.

      These letters and the people who lived through that difficult period of time are inspiring, through their own suffering. Sadly, a lot of young people have no knowledge about the history, so we need to educate them more, for them to appreciate the past, and, as you said, to evaluate how we live our lives.

  11. Addarline

    Reading your blog is like replaying scenes from the famous drama in Singapore, The Awakening (雾锁南洋) in my mind, especially the part about Hup Ann. These letter writers and readers helped convey hopes across lands… They certainly played an important role in history.

    1. Janet Williams Post author


      The TV series based on the Chinese immigrants was so touching. I remember watching it.

      I hope that in Singapore, the English-speaking generation would appreciate the suffering and contribution that the older generation had made on the soils in Singapore and China, treat the older generation with a bit more respect and give them the dignity that they so deserve.

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