Letters from China

Letters from China: Part 9

My mother’s mother never ‘walked properly’. My mother and her mother were living in Singapore during the Second World War under the Japanese occupation. Just after the war ended in 1945 and the British re-occupation of Singapore, when my mother was fifteen years old, one early morning she woke up to find that her mother, who shared the same bed with her, was unusually cold to touch. My mother’s mother had died during the night.

My wobbly bound-foot grandmother

“My mother had bound feet. She was wobbly.” My mother told me her mother kept simple housekeeping jobs in Singapore, looking after children and cleaning. “She couldn’t do much. She had to stay indoors a lot.” My mother recalled her mother being sickly. During the Japanese occupation, my mother therefore had to work for the Japanese for essential rice and cassava for the family. She helped ferrying stones in buckets at the Changi area where roads and the airport were built.

I never knew how close I am related to the foot-binding tradition. I am a modern woman in my forties living in the west in the age of the Internet, yet I am linked to the 1000-year history of foot-binding, which tortured millions of women. My maternal grandmother had bound feet, adored as the Three Inch Golden Lotus – 三寸金莲 (sān cùn jīn lián). Lotus, symbolising purity, is desirable in the Chinese culture. A bound-foot woman was perceived as pure and elegance.

I’m also linked to another common traditional Chinese practice – child brides (童养媳 tóng yǎng xí). Both sets of my grandparents kept a child bride for their sons. Two child brides in the family — I was astonished. I knew of the existence of one child bride, but not two. I phoned my mother this afternoon, and she told me about the other child bride in her family.

Tradition of child brides in our family

In China, my maternal grandmother adopted a girl as a child bride for her eldest son. You have already heard a lot about this son. He was my mother’s elder brother, whose letters to my mothers are the soul in this series. He was left to fend for himself in Fujian, south China, throughout his adult life, and he was cut off from my mother for over 40 years before they first met again in China in 1979.

The girl they kept as a child bride was my mother’s adopted sister. This elder sister later went to look for work in Singapore and never returned to marry the brother in the same family in China. Such was their fate. My mother’s adopted sister – the supposed child bride, the matriarch of my mother’s life, and the great auntie who made me lovely fish balls – later became the pillar of all our families. She sent money to China well before my mother did, since the communication between China and Singapore resumed after the war, possibly as early as the 50s.

My paternal grandmother kept a child bride for my father.

My paternal grandmother kept a child bride for my father.

On my father’s side, my paternal grandmother also kept a child bride, intended to be the future wife for my father. Actually, my paternal grandmother also adopted a son, who later died of illness. In those days, it was common to adopt children from friends and relatives, or transferring one’s children to close relatives. In many families, a child bride is treated with love as a daughter.

When the time came for my father to marry the child bride he grew up with, he ran away from his childhood home in  Johor Bahru in south of Malaysia to Singapore. My father disliked his child bride “because she is very ugly.” My mother could not stop laughing when she uttered this line to me every time.

I love my father’s supposed child bride, who I affectionately call ‘the little auntie who lives on top of the hill”. She is very small, short, with sunken cheeks, her teeth are misaligned, and her skin tone is so dark that she does not even look like a typical Han Chinese. Like my mother, my little auntie is illiterate. She is frugal and hardworking. She used to cycle round and round our little village every day, to collect the leftover food from each family, and deliver the food to feed the pigs in remote fields. We also call her “the little auntie who lives on top of the hill and who feeds the pigs.”

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 9

  1. 经雅

    Well written, Janet. You are not only telling your family’s stories, you are telling Chinese tradition and its culture.
    I really enjoy reading it.
    I look forward to your next chapter.

    Reply
  2. chennicole2013

    Isn’t it amazing to find how close these “ancient” traditions are? My husband’s maternal grandmother had bound feet. I never met her, but from what I’m told, she was very dynamic even though she found it painful to walk. She lived in Gulangyu, near Xiamen, Fujian Province. On her island wheeled vehicles were banned, so she hired sedan chair carriers to take her to visit friends, talk to her renters and take in the occasional Chinese opera.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      You are right, Nicki. We may think that history was too far away, yet these events and practice are so close to us. When I mentioned child brides to my 12-year-old son, he found it rather amusing.

      Sedan chair carriers sound wonderful to me!

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 8 | Janet's Notebook

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  20. janetweightreed10

    Good morning Janet. Another fascinating blog, and yes we sometimes forget in our fast paced technological age, just how close we are to ancient traditions and ways of life which were still in play up until relatively recently.

    I believe it is very important to understand our history, because in many ways it will show us the future.

    Recently, when watching the Antiques Road Show…someone brought in an ivory carving of a Chinese bound foot! It was remarkable and a very clear replica. I hadn’t quite realised until I saw this carving just how crippling and terrible the binding of feet was. Thank you…Janet.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Janet,

      Thank you for your reply. When I saw how my life was actually linked with the significant history of China, it was a bit of a shock.

      Blogging is a wonderful platform for me to organise a small part of my life here. Though I’ve been away from home for more than 20 years, I could still contribute to our family history through this medium. Writing and sharing these stories must be my destiny.

      There are a lot of replica in the market. Chinese people are also crazy about antiques too. Here is an article about smashing ‘Fake’ antiques on Chinese TV show for your pleasure.

      Reply
  21. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 10 | Janet's Notebook

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