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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