A Tribute To My Mother

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My mother in one of the recent video grab.

My mother is now 85. Her ambulatory movement is still good though weak, albeit walking around very slowly with the aid of a quad base walking stick as she is suffering from acute osteoporosis, causing a few of her thoracic and lumbar vertebrae in the spinal cord to fuse. She takes her daily medication dutifully and often has to take a large dose of pain killer to numb the pain.

I bath her 3 or 4 times a week when she washes her hair, holding onto the shower while she sits on an acrylic chair, and scrubs herself clean. Her skin is still pearly, satin smooth and without any black botches or liver-spots but her spinal cord is hunched forward, her lumbar and mid-thoracic region twisted and crooked. A slip and a small fall will be fatal, given her fragile state of the bones structure.

Her mind is razor sharp and her memory is phenomenal. I often seek her counsel in almost all matters of the home and business and I can pour forth my grievances, my troubles, my unhappiness and my hardship to a pair of ears that hears every word I say and perhaps she also hears every word that I don’t want to say, for she listens attentively with her mind and her heart.

And she speaks to me with the language of a loving and compassionate heart that knows no barriers. 

Someone might say that I have no right to burden her with my worldly troubles and it is better that I keep my own counsel when occasionally I am lost and I can’t see no further than I spit, (so to speak) but I can never hide my agitation and the cyclonic turbulence of my mind at such times of unrest because she can see me right through and through. So I unburden myself onto her dainty shoulders, no holds bar, and with no make-up stories. I am seeking her wise counsel and I am not trying to transfer my pain onto her.

She can take up a heavy emotional load, does not indulge in self-pity, does not blame the troubles onto others, does not fret and most times she offers practical, sound and wise counsels to my weary heart. She tells me time and time again that I have no power to change others, changes must come from within and happiness is within me and must not be dependent on others. She reads the Chinese language paper daily and she often saves a number of good articles on philosophy, living, Buddhism, health and articles of interest for me to digest.

I also share with her my triumphs, my happiness, my aspirations, my dreams and my innermost thoughts and we celebrate, we laugh and we reminisce on the halcyon days of past when we were poor as a church mouse but we were really very happy and joyful being together in a family of five, with my father and my two siblings.

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Photo of my mother with my sister taken in Hong Kong for vaccination purpose in August 1953.

I have video-taped a number of our conversations where she taught me classical proverbs and poems and told me anecdotes and all those strange tales of Liao Zhai and other fairy tales of Chinese deities, semi-gods and ancestor worship and religious matters, and related to me her stories of her past in China. Now she has given me a gem of an idea, an interesting story line and a plot to write something on Old China. Hmm, I am still working on it.

It was her fore-thought and decisive manner in an event that happened in China before I was born that made me awe-struck and it was a story that must be told.

(Read past posts on My Father And Mother and My Mother In Her Teens)

My mother was born in 1929 in the small district of Ta Nam in the outskirts of Guangzhou. From young, she was educated by her father, who was a successful sea-faring merchant and she attended school, which was rare in traditional China.

When she was 18 years of age she was betrothed in a blind marriage to a handsome man who lived in a nearby village which distance was about a day’s walk or about half a day away by bicycle.  Her elder brother was the one who brokered the marriage and what he saw in my father he liked.  He was 6 years her senior, a learned scholar and whose family owned vast tracts of farmland in Nam Hai, in the outskirts of Guangzhou.  At that time her prospective father-in-law was a prosperous merchant in the faraway land called Nanyang (present day Malaysia) while my father tended to his farmland in Nam Hai. This was a marriage on the same status station, both were the minor scions of reputable and well-to-do families.

By that time China was in the throes of a raging and debilitating civil war between Generalissimo Chiang Kai Sek under the KuoMinTang Party and the Communist Party of China under Chairman Mao Zedong after Japan surrendered in 1945, when the two parties forged an uneasy alliance to fight the Japanese Army earlier on.  The CPC won and on 1st October 1949 proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The purges of landowners, powerful Mandarins, wealthy business men, Nationalists, remnant members of the past Qing dynasty, past corrupt officials and all those allegedly aligned to the KMT were just beginning as Chairman Mao attributed every evil and failures that beset the vast continent of China to the bourgeoisie, the corrupt US imperialist aiding the KMT and capitalist owners who exploited the peasants.  City by city, village by village the Red Army began their ruthless purge.     

A Mao Zedong poster. Apology am not sure of original source of photo.

At that time my mother gave birth to a son, my elder brother.  Famine was everywhere in China, even to land owners like my grandfather.  My brother soon died during one winter month due to lack of medical attention and the scarcity of food.  My elder sister was born the following year. 

One evening my mother’s elder brother came with an urgent message. He had risen to the rank of a senior officer in the Air Force of the CPC and was privy to inside information on the troop movement of the Red Army.

“You have to leave for Guangzhou City tonight, Younger Brother.” He said, addressing the urgency of the situation to my father and mother. “The Army will be here within the next two days and your name is on their black list.”

He was taking an inordinate risk by giving such information. He and his family would be summarily executed had he being informed on by any CPC agents or former KMT informers who snitched on whoever would give them a ticket to survive. It was all for the love of his younger sister, my mother.

“I have obtained all valid travel documents at great risk by pulling rank. The Head of Village has reluctantly signed your exit travel pass.” He said.

“You are to leave alone.” He continued. “Tonight before 9pm wait at the small pier. A boat will take you down to Guangzhou city where you will be met by your brother-in-law, Siang Pui. You may have to stay with him for days before you can get to Hong Kong as travel is very restrictive. There are too many refugees and there is only a small daily quota on those leaving. From Hong Kong you take a steamer to Nanyang.” Siang Pui was the husband of my father’s elder sister. 

“What about my wife and my daughter and my step mother?” My father asked feebly, face ashen and shaken by the abrupt news of having to depart immediately. His hands were trembling as he spoke.

“They can wait. The Communists are not so brutal and heartless as painted by those imperialists KMT. But you may not survive their purge or the deathly work on their commune farms.” He stood erect for a moment, waiting for the import of the situation to sink in.

My mother, being the stronger one, made an immediate decision. She was always the wiser one and she grasped the dire situation they were in. She saw the bigger picture and her husband, whose hands had never touched the till of a plough driving a buffalo in the field or whose legs ever stepped onto a stationary bicycle paddling and diverting irrigation water from a river to the rice field, would not even survive a day under the Communist.

“Go and don’t look back. Don’t make enquiries and don’t mention any names. When you arrive at Nanyang safely then only you write, but not before.” she said to her husband. “I pack some left over dumplings for you. 

“Thank you, Elder Brother, you must leave now,” addressing her brother and latching her hands onto the forearm of her brother steadily. They were family, just a word of appreciation and that was enough. The fanfare of kowtows, elaborate show of appreciation and flowery adulations were not in their books when dealing with close family members.

My father took the wicker luggage bag with few belongings which my mother had packed for him. He left without glancing back. His wife was always the pillar of his strength and he always listened to her dutifully. My mother just shut the wooden door and hugged my sister, who was only a few months old. She did not cry nor lament her predicament but my step-grandmother cried softly. In all my years with my mother I have seen her cried not more than the five fingers on my right hand. Such was her tower of strength in her character and personality make-up.

Early the next morning there was a loud banging on the wooden door. My mother opened the door calmly and standing behind the threshold of the wooden frame was the Village Headman with his three officials. They just barged in and looked around. The Village Headman demanded the withdrawal of the Exit Travel Pass which he had issued two days ago and he wanted my father to report at his official residence immediately.

“My husband has left for Hong Kong on the same day that the pass was issued, My Honorific Sir,” My mother bowed and said softly without a hint of fear nor anxiety. Had she fumbled and said that her husband was in Guangzhou then the cadres would have made an immediate snoop and arrested my father.

The Village Headman grunted. He was in his mid-fifties and he had to save himself. He had issued a number of Exit Travel Passes previously and he hoped that this one would get buried among the paperwork. 

They left without making further demands.

My father stayed in Guangzhou for weeks before he was allowed to leave for Hong Kong. When he arrived in Hong Kong he registered as a student at one of the missionary schools, awaiting the availability of a steamer ship to Nanyang. He refrained from making enquiries, he did not write any letters and all he knew was to pray to his ancestors, tracing back to more than 21 generations, for the safe deliverance of his wife, his daughter, his step mother and himself.  

For the next one and a half years my mother suffered terribly under the communists.  There was the back breaking farm labor for 14 hours a day and at night she had to endure the endless torture of re-education where she must stay alert. Her daughter was taken care of by my step grandmother, who had dainty bounded feet, and could not work the fields.

Land owners were paraded in the Community Hall daily to be judged by the peasants.  If there was even one verdict from a peasant the Red Army would investigate thoroughly. Bourgeoisie land owners and exploitative employers were executed by a firing squad on a fixed day of the week to be witnessed by the whole village. If a person from the silent audience was caught with his/her eyes shut, he or she would be severely punished. It was a traumatic experience for my mother to see these executions. She told me that after awhile she was inured to all these deaths and thought about surviving another day. She related that all her thoughts were on her daughter, she wanted to see the little baby at the end of the day and the little baby was what kept her going. 

However, my mother commented that these Red Army soldiers were fair in their trials of the land owners and were not given in easily to corruption.  They would not listen solely to some disgruntled peasants who would like to gain favors with them by disparaging the land owners unjustly.  The Red Army always gave the land owners the opportunity of a fair hearing.  Once a land owner offered them some wines and some jade artifacts which he had hoarded away, as an inducement to treat his family better.  He was executed the next day.

Soon the Red Army began the detailed examination into the affairs of my father and grandfather. My mother stood trial in place of my father. She was shouted at harshly, harangued, threatened and accused of some imaginary crimes against the proletariat, called various names and addressed my father as a KMT sympathizer and denounced my father as an imperialist spy that sucked the blood of the peasants. The times of her trial were varied and on various trials she had to sit in a chair to await the tribunal for hours. Sometimes they never turn up and she went home, fearing another day of interrogation.   

A clear picture began to emerge after many trials. It was not one that the Red Army heard so commonly in other farm land.  My father and grandfather were charitable persons and whatever the harvests that year, good or bad, there were always be something left to the peasants.  They allowed each peasant a little plot of land for their own keepsake so that they could plant some supplementary crops and raised some pigs on their own for their family.  None of the peasants in our village had anything adverse to report to the Red Army. 

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A family photo circa 1958, from left, my sister, mother, my younger brother, me and my father

My mother had the presence of mind to keep all letters sent to my father from my grandfather from Nanyang detailing all monies remitted to their village and how these monies were been utilized to build irrigation canals, to buy seedlings and to build houses for the villagers. The Red Army was not that fanatical as to see every evil in every land owner. China required overseas remittance from overseas Chinese in order to finance the rebuilding of their country.

She articulated her case well and she showed them all correspondences of letters sent to her by her husband. Probably, the Red Cadres were astonished that such a village woman could speak so fluently and calmly and presented evidences so meticulously. She was not an imperialist spy nor her husband a blood-sucking land owner. In one session she had the guts to request that she would like her family including her step-mother-in-law to be reunited with her husband. What if she left for China and the remittances stopped coming in, a Red Cadre asked.

“China is my home, my country and we were born and raised here. We will come back one day. My husband will continue to remit money as our village needs finances to rebuild.” She said with conviction. She was careful not to denounce the old imperialist China, the corruption of the KMT and the exploitative manner of many land owners. A fanatical Red Cadre may denounce, rave and rant on the old corrupt system but they may not take kindly to persons, who were never in the army, to indulge in practices where it meant to put them on a pedestal and worship them, hoping to buy favors and survive a purge.

A year later, the Red Army of her district issued a military exit pass to allow her and my sister to leave for Hong Kong.

That was only the first huddle.  She had to get to the port of Guangzhou and obtained clearance from the local commander before she could get into Hong Kong.  Guangzhou was a distance of about 4 hours of brisk walk. Guangzhou was by now teeming with refugees, vagabonds, rift raft, the ubiquitous Red Army flooding the streets flushing out KMT remnants, counter-revolutionaries who fought against communism, persons with hidden wealth who dressed poorly with torn and forlorn clothes and the locals of Guangzhou who had stayed there for centuries.  

By this time the Red Army was lenient toward my mother and did not demand the full load of her farm labor work for the day. Three times a week the Red Army allowed her and my sister to walk to Guangzhou. No public transport was available and the erratic train service was only reserved for the Red Army.  If she was turned back in Guangzhou she had to return to Nam Hai on the same night and try again another time. Her pass did not allow her to stay in the city.

For one long year, my mother walked with my daughter slung on her back, leaving Nam Hai in the morning, arriving at the port of Guangzhou in mid afternoon and waiting in line on the long queue at the Immigration Exit point. When the quota to leave China was exceeded my mother and my sister were turned back. She had to trudge back to Nam Hai at night to report herself at the community hall the next morning. We still had relatives in Guangzhou, but my mother would not take the chance by staying overnight. If the Red Army found out, her pass might be revoked.

She carried with her an optimism of hope every time she walked to Guangzhou from Nam Hai and when she was turned back she did not entertain the idea of giving up. She just had to try again and again for the future of her daughter.

Walking back to Nam Hai at night was a nightmare. There was no street light, the gravel road was uneven and when it rained she was drenched to her skin. My mother was careful to keep my sister warm lest she fell sick. My sister was exceptional, probably driven by some instinct, she cried little and huddled closely on the back of my mother.

My mother said that she developed a strange uncanny sense of direction and courage to face the dark road in front of her, especially on a moonless night. She discarded all frightful stories in her mind that she heard when she was young, of jumping vampires out to draw blood or of ghost that led people astray and wanted a sacrificial victim so as to re-incarnate. She did not even day dreamed that she would meet a kindly fairy to ease her way. She did not even pray silently to any deities or recite any mantras. She was just practical and focused and she knew that she had to depend on herself.

She carried a cane to ward off wild animals and barking dogs. She used to be afraid of snakes and learned that if she came across one she would just stand still and prayed that the little baby did not cry to provoke the snake. She kept a look-out for robbers who might way-laid her. But the gravel path she travelled was safe. With the Red Army everywhere no one dared to rob or plunder. She did not talk to any strangers, she did not ask for direction for a short cut and neither did she stop to take a breather. She kept walking back to the dim lights of Nam Hai and would try another day.

By Providence, one evening at the Immigration Exit counter all those who queue were turned back. She was not even the next in line.  Then she caught a glimpse of the area local commander by his military stature and his uniform. He was accompanied by a few soldiers carrying some old rifles. She approached him and was stopped short by the soldiers who shouted at her. The local commander waved a hand to silence the soldiers and gave my mother a long hard look. Most people would give military commanders and accompanying soldiers a wide berth as if they were guilty of some crimes. And this woman carrying a baby on her back had the temerity to approach him.

She bowed a little but did not prostrate on the ground to plead her case. She knew the communist mind, these were the proletarians, they did not belong to the upper Mandarin class where subjects often had to prostrate themselves to make obeisance to their master. Even Mao Zedong ate his frugal meal and chain-smoked his rolled cigarettes with the peasants under a tree shade, where he propounded his ideals of communism and the evils of a bourgeoisie and imperialist society.

My mother did not quaver but stood deferentially and explained that she had been trying for the past year to get to Hong Kong. She held the military pass she was issued with both hands. Then she bowed her head slightly and stood in silence. The baby behind her back became slightly restless and was waking up.

The commander stared at her for some moments. He barked an order to one of his adjutant, “Let her go on board.” Stately, the commander walked away.

My mother uttered a ‘Thank you’ in Cantonese, quite unbelievable in her reversed fortune.

The adjutant took my mother and sister to a closed counter, placed an official red chop on her pass and they took the night steamer to Hong Kong 

Arriving at the port in Hong Kong in mid-night was quite an unnerving experience. Though my mother had travelled the length of the Greater Pearl River by following her sea-faring father, she was a total stranger here.

She kept her wits. 

The rough and tumble port of Hong Kong was a bee-hive of activities throughout the whole night. People were milling around, trishaws, coolies and hawkers were bumping into each other and there were people sleeping on walk ways. A few strangers approached my mother and volunteered to take her to her hotel. She bore a letter from my father’s sister who resided in Hong Kong telling her to wait at a certain hotel. She refused to talk to any strangers and she looked for a suitable spot amongst the sea of humunity besides a building to spend the night. It was dangerous to be on a lonely spot.

It was very cold as the Northern Wind blew in from GaungTong, the southern most province of China. Mother and daughter huddled closely together to savor their first night in Hong Kong.

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My mother and sister back to her village where she was born. Man holding the umbrella was the son-in-law of my mother’s brother, who was the Air Force officer. Pix circa 2009

She was a light sleeper and was alert all the time. Occasionally she slumbered off only to wake up suddenly staring at the shimmering harbor. She had come this far and would not let her guard down. It was a relief when day broke.

She had memorized the route to the hotel, refusing to take any trishaws though she had enough fare for that. When she reached the hotel she mentioned my father’s sister name and the proprietor immediately recognized that this was the woman and the baby that my father’s sister was waiting for. He addressed her by her full name and my mother knew then that she was in safe hands.

The proprietor engaged her in a light conversation. He gave her a flask of hot water and some buns. My mother was starving. The baby was asleep now as if she also knew that she was now safe. The proprietor told my mother that her auntie, that was her husband’s sister, had come here often and enquired. Her visits were now less frequent but she still dropped by occasionally.

“Did anybody approach you when you landed in Hong Kong?” the proprietor asked, more out of concern than curiosity.

“Yes, they volunteer to take me to a hotel if I named it.” My mother said.

“You are lucky that you did not heed them. Most of them are con men and would take your pass, either to exhort you for huge sum of money or to sell your Pass Exit. I am glad that you are safe now. I get you a room.” He said with a smile and kept nodding his head to acknowledge that this was a woman with street sense.

Two days later, my father’s sister came and took them to stay with them. A month passed before my mother and sister were booked on a junk steamer on their onward journey to Nanyang.

They landed in Singapura in the month of May 1954 where they were finally united with my father.

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Vaccination Certificate issued by the Hong Kong authority to my mother and sister in 1953, permitting them to leave Hong Kong

The above events were narrated by my mother to me without fanfare, without the self aggrandizement of how hazardous her journey to Nanyang was, nor how brave or smart she was. There is never any necessity to make some tall tales between mother and son to soothe her ego.

My step grandmother eventually came over to Nanyang a year later.

My parents are now living with my sister and all her family members are very devoted to them. My father is 91, prostrated on the bed for almost 5 years caused by a stroke but his senses are still good.

I love my mother, then, now, always and forever … 

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone …






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