Letters from China: Part 3

When the ship from Singapore docked in Shantou, south of China, my mother soon recovered from bouts of sea-sickness, and was taken to a local hotel near the harbour with a hundred of other Chinese passengers sharing the same mission: meeting their long-lost relatives.

Voyage to China

Voyage to China

My mother was pacing up and down at the lobby of the hotel, clutching a photograph of her elder brother. How was their first meeting like? My mother recalled:

“Quite a lot of local Chinese rushed to the hotel, examined our faces individually, tried to match our faces with a photograph in their hands. Then my brother spotted me, with his elder son. He howled, hugging me. His wrinkly face was covered with tears, mucus and saliva. He howled like a cow.”

My mother was shocked by her brother’s howling, and his messy face. She told me she shed some tears, but remained relatively composed.

My mother described her brother howled like a cow when they first met after more than 40 years of separation.

“Brother howled like a cow.”

There was one touching scene.

The trip organiser (Hup Ann – 合安 – from Singapore) organised a simple reunion meal for the families at the hotel, with chicken, pork, vegetables, soup, and a lot of rice. For peasants, it was a banquet.

My mother was astonished:

“My brother and his son gobbled down the rice very quickly. They each shovelled  3 or 4 bowls of rice in minutes.  They had never seen so much food.”

pattern cloud
March, 1981

“Dear younger sister and brother-in-law,

The Chinese New Year is approaching, and I’ve received the medicines you sent me. In this letter, I’m going to repeat to sister what I told you in my last letter.

Because you and me are blood-related brother and sister, and there is no one else, I must  discuss this matter with you and seek your advice.

Sister, you came back to China last year, and you worried about our ancestral matters, and we all want to honour our ancestors, our heaven and gods, and expand our family.

Brother’s son needs a wife

Letters from China - letter of love from China to Singapore

Letters from China – letter of love from China to Singapore

Brother has three sons. Sister, you know fully well about our family’s humble situation. I follow sister’s instructions, and make sure my three sons will all have a wife one day.

Sister, your opinion shows you care about our descendants, and it also shows your supreme moral standard.

A year ago, my second son, YL, wanted to marry a girl from a nice family. We two families are equal in our social status, like matching doors and parallel windows. The girl’s family did not complain about your brother being poor, because they have heard about my sister, and how sister you are always so dedicated in helping us with our ancestral home, and now brother will be able to keep this good girl to be my daughter-in-law.

We originally planned to marry the couple in January and February, and I had sent you a letter well before the New Year, but I have not heard from you. Now, once you’ve received this letter, please could sister discuss this matter with brother-in-law, and come back to China happily to help brother prepare for their wedding, and honouring our ancestors and gods. Please could you reply to reassure me. I hope you could pass on this message to all my nephews and nieces, such as ML, LZ, LF……”

pattern cloud

April, 1981

“Sister, you sent me some medicines, H3 and B12, and I’ve received them. Please do not worry.

In your letter, you told me that after your son has got married in spring, you will help rebuild our ancestral home for brother. Sister, you said you would tell all nephews and nieces in Singapore about our exact problems with the house in China, and you would try to get the nephew (son of our deceased sister)  to return to China with you, to see the ancestral home, and honour our ancestors and gods. Now brother can be rest assured.

Sister, you are my only blood relative, now brother is old with poor health, and I hope sister and brother-in-law can show your generosity and support me.

Sister I can trust you. Now my second son YL is 26 years old, and sister you had asked me to expand our family for the glory of our ancestors, but brother is not brave enough to seek a marriage alliance with another family. This spring, we showed our intention to a few families, but all our efforts have failed. Our reputation is bad; we are laughed at and humiliated. Brother is now very distressed, and my sorrow is like a knife piercing through my heart.

Seeking marriage alliance for son

Letter from China - a handwritten letter from blood relatives from China.

Letter from China – a handwritten letter from blood relatives from China.

These girls’ families complained that our house is just a shabby thatched hut, and since we inherited this ancestral home, we are broke, and our family is in sharp decline. There have been gossips about us. I’m here waiting for sister to return to China again, to rebuild our ancestral home, before I can ask the permission of another family to marry their daughter to my son.

However, we can’t lie to another family. The demands by the girls’ families are all very practical. Sister, you and our deceased sister had both returned home once before and you know exactly our poverty. With our current condition, we can’t possibly seek a marriage alliance.

However, I’m concerned that my son YL is getting old, and the older he gets, the more difficult it is for him to seek a marriage alliance.

As brother is helpless and clueless, brother is writing this honest, desperate letter to sister for urgent help. I hope after sister has received this letter, you will quickly pass on the information quickly to all my nephews and nieces, especially ask the nephew of our deceased sister to support us, because he would not want his uncle to become a poor old beggar. If I do, it would damage your reputation in Singapore.

P.S. This year, in the village, the farming method has changed. We are responsible for a little plot of land, and it is where we get our food from. But, we are short of cattle-drawn farm tools, and we need to make our own ploughs. I hope sister can help me out and support your brother financially by sending me some ginseng in the next two months. I can exchange it for 100 renminbi every month, to buy some farm tools.”

Next letter: “Chinese doctors are the best.”

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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30 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 3

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    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      I really appreciate how well you relate to these letters, through your own experiences and the history of your people. There were and there are human suffering that you know so well, but human’s strength to survive adversities are also strong. Thank you Shimon.

  6. 经雅

    I cannot imagine how your dear mother and family had coped with the huge financial responsibility and pressure.
    A well written true story.
    I look forward to your further chapters.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear 经雅,

      Thousands and thousands of families — most of them migrants — experienced the same in Southeast Asia. They supported their families in China whole-heartedly. Love and tension. It was not easy to most people, however the support was overwhelming and the concept of ‘blood-related relatives’ was overwhelming.

  7. Addarline

    I still vaguely remember how mentally stresssed grandma was when she received the letters asking for financial help, yet she couldn’t do very much because she was relying mainly on her children to provide the financial support… Further made worse by fact that Uncles and aunties (and my mom especially) were not keen to help as they were afraid it’s going to be an endless request, like many many stories they’ve heard. It was really difficult for grandma as she is very compassionate and helpful.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Addarline,

      Perhaps you could also write from your perspective, as the 3rd generation who saw how her grandmother juggling.

      You so honestly pointed out the other side of the story — the misunderstanding and conflicts within the overseas Chinese family, caused by these letters from China.

      I welcome your contribution. I’d also follow up this topic. Many thanks.

      1. Addarline

        Grandma, on every trip back to China, brings along my mom who sees the improvement and upgrading done to their lives with the money Grandma sent. The relatives, feeling grateful, also treated them very well, bringing on the best they could serve and swarm them with hospitality. It certainly changed the negative perspectives over the years and relationships built. Now, the trips back are very much looked forward to, without the stress in the earlier days.

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  17. passer-by

    My grandfather did the same too.. he passed away in 1996.. and my mum started corresponding with my 叔公(grandpa’s brothers)after that. My parents went back to visit my 叔公 few years ago.

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