Letters from China: Part 6

In my past 5 posts, I translated a few letters from China from 1979 to 1992 without annotations. The letters speak to you directly — the power of love and how my mother helped rebuild the ancestral home in a village in Zhao’an, in the Fujian province of China.

I am forming a picture of my mother’s first visit to China in 1979 through our fragments of conversations over the years. It would have been unreasonable to expect my 80-year-old mother to tell her life stories in a coherent, chronological order. I thank God that she is still alive with relatively good health, with sound memories.

Some old people have a habit of repetition, and the parts that they repeat are often the facts that had affected them profoundly. This morning, I phoned my mother to ask her a few facts about her family in China. However, I did not get new facts from her, as my mother repeated this particular scene that she had mentioned to me many times before.

“It was quite scary at night. The house was old. At night, when it was windy, the house would shake. Every night, we put some buckets in the hall to collect the rainwater, as the roof was leaking. The head of the village even rushed over to ask us all to leave the house. He warned that our house might collapse.”

— My mother’s words

A leaking roof broke her heart

My mother lived through the Second World War in Singapore, nursed her late mother-in-law, who was paralysed and bedridden, for 15 years, lost a small boy to leukaemia, survived a house fire and an armed burglary in our old house in Malaysia, managed 8 surviving children across Malaysia and Singapore. She is a woman of steel. Yet, the dilapidated old house in China still shocked her.

Japanese surrender in Singapore: 4 September 1945; General Itagaki signing the terms for the reoccupation of Japan on board HMS SUSSEX. © IWM (A 30481)

Japanese surrender in Singapore: 4 September 1945; General Itagaki signing the terms for the reoccupation of Japan on board HMS SUSSEX. © IWM (A 30481)

During the two decades that my mother was sending money to China, she needed financial help from her children. With filial piety, adult children in a traditional Chinese family would give their parents money, to honour their care and love. My elder siblings showed their utmost respect and they always provided for our parents and still are, though they had their own families to look after.

Tension and a tug of war

If you have been in a sandwich situation before, you would appreciate that squeezing money regularly from a tight budget to send away to China was a challenge.

My niece Addarline, in her comment of the Part 3 of Letters from China, summarised the tension over money in our family in those years.

“I still vaguely remember how mentally stressed 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.”

— Words from my niece, Addarline

When I was a teenager, stories about jubilant family reunion in China were abundant, yet stories about greedy Chinese relatives of neighbours and friends were also spreading like wildfire. Stereotypes of certain Chinese relatives were formed: greedy, deceitful, and ungrateful. People were warned not to trust their families in China, however desperate their letters were. The emigrants’ children saw letters for money as an emotional blackmail. They worried about their parents being deceived. They began to doubt the level of poverty in China.

It was a tug of war over love.

However, my mother’s trust to her family in China never wavers.

Sightseeing  8 and 9 September 1945, Singapore. © IWM (A 30587)

Sightseeing 8 and 9 September 1945, Singapore. Signalman C Latham, of Manchester, and (right) Tel B Watson, of Dumfries seeing the sights of Singapore by “taxicle”. © IWM (A 30587)

Building a beautiful home with hard-earned money

In 1992, my mother managed to arrange for her elderly sister-in-law from the village to visit Singapore. My mother clarified that she did not pay for her sister-in-law’s travelling fees from China, indeed, her brother’s three children scrapped together some money to send their own mother to Singapore, to visit the very place that had transformed their lives in the remote countryside in the south of China, through a single-minded woman’s abiding faith over two decades – my mother.

My mother only had to pay for a fee to the Singapore government as a guarantor for the visit from China. My mother remembered the fee was around S$600. 

When her sister-in-law was leaving Singapore, my mother tucked S$3,000 in her hands. My mother told me, “S$3,000 was a lot of money in China, and it should be enough for them to build a beautiful house.”

The money came from my mother’s three-month work as a ‘matron’ in three families with new-born babies. My mother’s experience with childbirth, her reputation with cooking Chinese traditional nourishing food, and her love for children made her very popular amongst friends. As a Chinese lady requires a one-month confinement after birth, a live-in matron is sometimes hired, to cook nutritious food and look after the new mother and her baby. My mother was very sought after. Though in her late 50s, the demand of work was excessive, my mother went for the work. She wanted extra money, though she was well provided for by her own children.

A proper house with windows

Her hard-earned money through intensive cooking and looking after new families all went straight to China.

“Why did yo do that, mother?” I wondered.

My mother once saw a picture of her old house, and was dismayed that though the new house had been rebuilt, there was no windows. Her nephews in China told her that there was no money left for windows.

Happy family reunions and the power of love

Now my mother’s ancestral house has been fully rebuilt. My mother was happy, and she repeated to me often that “the roof no longer leaks.”

My mother visited China 3 more times and she brought her children along with her.

My niece Addarline shared with me reassuring news:

“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.”

— Words from my niece, Addarline

My mother will be visiting her old village again at the end of this year. She will be accompanied by some of her children and a grandchild. My mother told me this will be her final visit to China. In Chinese, we have a saying that ‘the previous generation plants the trees, and the future generations rest under the shade.’ This expression is so fitting to describe how my mother planted the trees throughout her life, and how her enduring love and firm beliefs have transformed lives, those in China, Singapore, Malaysia and also England.

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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28 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 6

  1. friendlytm

    I missed quite a number of posts of everyone as I was busy in something else. I read this post today and was amazed. You may be the next Amy Tan. Believe me, true stories like this are bases for development of good books, either non – fiction or fiction. I have lots of stories about my ancestors too but writing is not my primary interest nor my strengths. Keep up your exercises, Janet. You will be a good writer!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your kind comment. I’m trying to record what I know about my family. Once I started writing, I only realise I know too little.

      I hope to see your own writing too. I’ve read your little travel ebooks before and I’m sure you have fascinating stories to share with us. Keep it up!

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  14. lauralistar

    First of all, what a beautiful story Janet! I love the last part especially, about the house. Your mother sounds like a quite a woman. I can’t help but have a respect and admiration of her, as I’m sure that you do. We take for granted sometimes what we have here and then you think of something as simple as a window making a huge difference in someone’s life. It really makes you think. It makes you appreciate what you have. Wonderful post!

    I wanted to let you know that you were mentioned in my last blog post, Janet 🙂

    How to Feng Shui Your Blog

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for highlighting me on your post.

      Indeed, sometimes we who live in the modern age take many things for granted. When I look back and see my mother’s sacrifices throughout her life, I feel humbled and I am totally amazed at her strength.

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    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Writing about family is so valuable. Most of all, it helps me understand my family and myself better. It helps me define my root and see how I have changed. I also had to make judgement of what to tell and what not.

      I like this post of yours: What Story Should I Share? I like your argument about writing from different perspectives, and the importance to honour the people who have shaped our lives. Once again, thank you for your inspiration.

  16. 经雅

    What a happy ending story!

    The letters from China between the two decades 1970s -1990s are not only the true family stories, but also the true history of China – what people in China and overseas Chinese had really experienced in those long and very difficult period. They are true love stories, very moving indeed.

    Your dear mum is a very traditional, kind and generous CHINESE WOMAN, she is our role model. She is not only loved and respected by her own family, but by people who have read the stories about her. I certainly do.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you. Thank you for your kind words and your appreciation of these posts. I’ll convey your words to my mother. However, she is such a humble person, she would say what she did was ‘nothing’.

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