This series, Letters from China, honours my 80-year-old mother, and thousands of Chinese migrants in her generation. This series honours millions of Chinese people who strived to create a better life. I translated the letters my mother received from China during the 70s, 80s and early 90s. These letters revealed love and loss, old world and new world, struggles and strength, and dignity of the people who lived through the last century.
I was shocked to see the state of my mother’s ancestral home in China. By today’s modern standard, her ancestral house still looks shabby. However, the house used to be unsafe, dilapidated, and it could not withstand strong wind and rain.
This is the very house that nurtured 4 children, who are now grandparents. These are also my cousins that I have never met. Continue reading →
A few months ago, I shared with you some touching letters from China to my mother. These letters built the bridge between my mother and her remaining brother in China, both were separated by war, politics and poverty for 40 years.
During their separation, my mother never ceased to support her brother’s family in the Fujian province of China even though we had very little ourselves. We lived in Malaysia and Singapore then and my mother would squeeze any money that she could find and then sent money and medicine (such as ginseng) to China, for example, to help fix a leaking roof, and to help pay for the bride price so that her three nephews could get a wife in their poor village. My mother also enabled her elderly sister in law (now 96 years old) to visit Singapore in 1992 to fulfill her once-in-a-lifetime dream. Continue reading →
Have you ever sucked or chewed on raw sugarcane before? I have. My auntie grew sugarcane on her small plot of land and I loved walking to the top of the hill to find her. Through my eyes as a child, sugarcanes were gigantic plants that were stretching to the sky. My auntie would cut off the sugarcane segments and removed the husks for me to suck the juice out of the sugarcane stalks, in her crazy wild land with chickens and ducks. I would walk home with a few stalks of sugarcane on my shoulders. Sucking and chewing on the sugarcane stalks were the only and the best way that I knew of to enjoy the juice. I did not need huge roller mills to squish the sugar cane stalks. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
Writing about Chine has left me exhausted, physically and mentally. It wasn’t a clever way to end a rare spectacular summer in England.
Letters from China brought back memories when I used to be the reader of my illiterate mother 30 years ago. Though my mother’s letters to China were mostly written by a professional letter writer in Singapore, letters from China arrived by mail.
My mother would ask her children ‘who recognise words’ to read to her. My sister would read some days, and I would read again on another day. My mother just wanted to hear the voice from the same letter again and again. I was so familiar with the letters that I told my mother “I could read your letters with my eyes closed.” I even told my mother that all the letters were the same. “Mother, you brother is China is just so repetitive.” I was fifteen. Continue reading →
My mother sent money and ginseng to China for over two decades to her poor family in a remote village in south China. In return, she received some secret recipes.
When sorting out my mother’s old letters, I discovered some secret recipes for treating baldness and severe internal and external haemorrhoids using the traditional Chinese medicine. The recipes were neatly written by her nephew. The recipes reflected our Chinese relatives’ belief in folk medicine. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
Many children in the west grow up with their imaginary friends. I had an imaginary uncle.
If an ‘imaginary’ character means someone who occupies your space, your thought, and energy, someone whose existence floats around in the air, then my only maternal uncle in China fit the role perfectly. Continue reading →
Reading old letters from China is similar to listening to people chatting on their mobile phone on the train. You only hear half of the conversation. You may not like the noise, but it is impossible to ignore it. You are slightly annoyed because you do not hear the other half of the conversation. You need to make a mental effort to decipher their conversation.
Letters from China represent half of the conversation in the last century between overseas Chinese migrants with their families in China. Where is another half of the conversation stored? Now, more than 30,000 letters are saved and they are on display in various museums in the Fujian and Guangdong provinces in China. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →