Grandma's Story

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.

  1. She says she rec­og­nizes them by their faces. []
  2. People she would trust to deposit the prof­its in her bank account would deposit them in his own instead []


  1. I don’t have enough words to com­ment on this. Wow is the only word I can come up with. Sometimes you see peo­ple or look at pic­tures and you just can’t pos­si­bly know what it’s taken that per­son to get to this present day.

    • It cer­tainly is amaz­ing that my grandma has such a decent out­look on life. It seems like war and hard­ship was noth­ing to her. Maybe because she’s a nat­u­rally strong per­son, or because she just didn’t have enough time to worry or be sad.

  2. When we look at the war and depres­sion, and the hard­ships of a poorer world the older gen­er­a­tion had been through, we can appre­ci­ate how triv­ial the prob­lems each of us faces today are.

    • Very true. Sometimes my Lebanese co-workers tell me about why they moved to Canada. They have sto­ries of the war there, and how they would need to get their kids to school by avoid­ing bombs and such. Nothing seems to bother them, now that they’re here. Aside from the Canadian winter.

      I try to think of their sto­ries when­ever I go through hard times, and some­times it’s hum­bling. When it doesn’t work, I remem­ber that I’m a Taoist and shouldn’t be com­par­ing myself to people. :)

  3. I was think­ing recently of par­ent­ing in the long-term sense, and how it fol­lows that a later gen­er­a­tion also suf­fers for the prob­lems of the ear­lier gen­er­a­tions. It’s no suprise to me, for exam­ple, that black cul­ture in America is still strug­gling with a lot of self-destructive behav­iors. Where did it come from? Abuse, by ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, and before that, slav­ery. Obvious, but I’d never thought of it that way before until lately.

    Here read­ing about your grandma’s incred­i­ble harsh con­di­tions, I can see how dif­fi­cult a time your father might have had relat­ing to you. Who was there for him as a child?. His sib­lings, per­haps — and you didn’t get that chance. Such a lot of growth that didn’t get to occur; but such amaz­ing suc­cess for your grandma.
    I have immense respect for peo­ple like her.

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