I’ve been trying to get a better idea of grandma’s life, so I’ve been asking her as many questions as possible in the last three weeks. Her mind tends to drift and she gets lost on subjects; little snippets from the rest of my family sort of fill in the blanks. I’ll add more if I can get anything else out of her.
Grandma was born in Hong Kong, but she fled to Chiu Chow during the Japanese invasion by climbing a mountain with her only son slung on her back. For some reason, she feels a lot of pride about Chiu Chow even though she wasn’t born in that city, and always points out people from there1. As a result, she can speak both Cantonese and the Chiu Chow dialect.
She was married around 14, my grandfather’s third (and only) wife. I asked her why she married my grandfather, and she said, “I was tricked”. Her first son was adopted, who was good looking, and used these looks to gain peoples’ confidence. That meant he ended up being a good con artist. She gave him money for university, and he took the money to elope with a girl to Australia. Grandma became seriously depressed and suicidal when she found out. This son returned to apologize at my grandfathers funeral. After cheating my uncle of more money much later on, no one in the family has spoken to him since. There are many other step-siblings out there from my grandfather’s previous marriage, but none of them talk to us or have anything to do with grandma.
By her early 20s she started giving birth to kids of her own. My grandfather died around 75, when my dad was still a teenager. He would spend all his money on gambling, and my grandma would spend hers on raising the kids.
She never had any formal education, so was illiterate in her early years. She taught herself to read by looking at newspapers. To this day, she can read Chinese, but not write it.
As a single mom of 7 kids (two stillborn, so nine pregnancies), she spent most of her time supporting them by working. This meant running grocery stores, fruit stands, and managing properties. She had to trust other people to do her books (she had investment capital from my grandfather but no education or literacy), which meant she was sometimes taken advantage of2. That’s why she likes to hire people within the family, or family friends, but that doesn’t always make them good or reliable.
Since she was the only earner in the family, she never had time to care for her kids. She hired wet nurses who doubled as nannies to raise them — generally one nanny each kid, because that meant better attention and better quality of care — as well as gardeners, kitchen maids, and chauffeurs. The only one she breast fed herself was my eldest uncle, which is why she has a special bond with him (as well as the fact that he’s the oldest male).
Eventually, she settled on making money by managing her properties and trading stocks, although how much she earned from the latter is questionable. It become more of a hobby for her and her main social interaction, as everyone else was working and out of the house during the day. She was probably the oldest day trader in the stock market, as she only stopped trading in the last few years. Before the China takeover in 1997, my family was thinking of bringing her to Canada, but she thought she’d be too bored without being able to trade stocks, so she remained in Hong Kong.
I imagine that this kind of hardened life is why she’s so straight when she talks to people. There must have been no time to relax or even feel with the responsibility of raising seven kids by yourself. This comes out when you talk to grandma because there’s a no-nonsense attitude and strength about her. My cousin always calls her “fat woman”, and she never gets offended or hurt, because she knows how much my cousin loves her. Fat woman has become her term of endearment.