Visiting the professional letter writer, as recalled by my mother
A blogpost about trying to find my grandmother through writing my family stories
“As Por-Por would say…”
Growing up, I heard this a lot. Whenever my mother wanted to impart a life lesson she would often begin with this expression, speaking in English before switching to Cantonese as she quoted a Chinese proverb she had picked up from her mother.
My grandmother also featured in many of my mother’s stories about her childhood in Penang, some of which I have recorded on this blog. Many images come to mind when I think of Por-Por. I see her running out of 58 King Street, her waxed paper umbrella protecting her from the rain as she tries to hail a trishaw. I see her crouched in a squat as she inspects the basket of eggs the dan-por has brought to her doorstep. I see her carefully lowering bamboo-leaf-wrapped rice dumplings into a pot of boiling water as she keeps a lookout for anyone walking past, ready to shout at them if they dared step into her kitchen because that would mean the dumpling corners won’t cook. But these are my reimagined versions of Por-Por, drawn from my mother’s stories. My grandmother died when I was barely old enough to form my own memories of her.
Despite her huge presence in my life, when I first thought about writing down my family history it wasn’t Por-Por that came to mind immediately but Kong-Kong. Perhaps I was taken by the story of my grandfather as a 17-year-old orphan sailing away from China, looking for a life that was more than just herding cows every day. Or perhaps it was because he was the grandparent I saw the most, until he passed away when I was 16.
I never understood the implications of Por-Por’s migration story until I began researching my grandparents’ histories for my MA dissertation. What I learnt led to me to write my grandmother’s story instead. It also took me on a journey to find her; through the memories of those who knew her and to the streets of George Town, Penang where she lived and died.
I wrote about this quest in a short story published in an anthology for Suffragette Stories, a project with the University of East Anglia and Norfolk County Council. My story, Finding Por-Por, is to remember Una Stratford Dugdale, one of many British suffragettes whose lost legacies this Heritage Lottery Fund project aims to commemorate.
Writing about Por-Por for this anthology, as well as for my dissertation, was my way of paying tribute to the diminutive woman I never got to grow up with. A woman whose huge legacy lives on in the strong women she brought up – my mother and my aunt – and the proverbs and practical advice she handed down through them.
Last December, I was invited to read an extract from Finding Por-Por when the Suffragette Stories exhibition was launched at Norwich’s Millennium Library. As I looked out at the mostly British audience, it struck me that some of them may wonder what my Chinese grandmother would have in common with an English suffragette. But I like to think that a good story resonates with anyone, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or experience.
This is how I think of the stories I’ve been reading recently, stories shared by British East Asians through the Twitter hashtag #RealAsianGranny as well as #RealAsianGrandad. What began as a response to the racial stereotypes depicted in Living with the Lams, a children’s sitcom currently in development for the BBC, sparked a flood of amazing stories. Tales about strong women dealing with adversity, memories of loving and some not-so-loving grandmothers, a longing for grandparents never met – it was a testament to how diverse yet familiar the human experience is. As I read these stories I could see my grandmother, my mother and myself in them. I could also see the rich legacy we have in the form of our family stories. And how, by sharing them, we enable our ancestors’ authentic experiences to be heard even as we give ourselves a voice to make a stand on who we are.
A year ago, I wrote about how my family stories form a part of my history, my heritage. But it wasn’t until I began to seek my grandmother – as well as my grandfather – through these stories that I could really see myself as being part of something bigger, something that makes me feel less alone while at the same time grounding me in who I am. This is particularly important as my migrant experience is one of constantly assessing, adapting and adjusting to find my place in my adopted environment even as I try to hold on to a sense of myself.
But you don’t need to be a migrant, or have a #RealAsianGranny or #RealAsianGrandad, to appreciate your family stories. So start digging out those old photographs, letters, diaries, and ask the older members of your family about them. But don’t just listen to their stories. Take notes, record them. Share those stories with other family members, and if you feel comfortable doing so, with friends and the rest of the world. Start a blog like this, or if writing’s not your thing, create a photo essay like this amazing Twitter thread I came across recently.
Remember, good stories can be universally enjoyed. Also, you never know where your family stories might take you.
Photos from the writer’s personal album
“Story is the umbilical cord that connects us to the past, present, and future. Family. Story is a relationship between the teller and the listener, a responsibility. . . . Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.” Terry Tempest Williams
When I was growing up, my mother would often tell my brothers and me stories of her family. Stories of my grandparents – Kong-Kong and Por-Por – and their emigration from Southern China to colonial Malaya. Stories of my mother’s own childhood, growing up in Penang with her three siblings.
Everyone loves a good story. Even more so when it’s about the people we know well. The family stories I grew up with give me an insight to the people I thought I knew. They capture a moment in time and place. They form a part of my history, my heritage.
It is said that young children in particular greatly benefit from family storytelling. Kids who know a lot about their family’s history are said to have higher self-esteem, a stronger sense of control over their lives. Apparently, knowing that they are part of something bigger than themselves gives them a strong ‘intergenerational self’ and helps them handle challenges better. They are said to have more robust identities, better coping skills and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
For me, growing up with such stories has led to a quest to learn more about my family history, to help me understand where I come from, to help shape my sense of who I am.
Crucially, it has also motivated me to record and preserve this oral heritage for future generations, which feels particularly important for an immigrant family such as mine. Many of us – not just myself but also siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins – have moved to different parts of the world, away from Malaysia, our birthplace, and from China, my grandparents’ country of birth.
Hence this blogsite, which I’ve set up as a repository of our family stories. But I use this term broadly, as not everything posted on this site will necessarily be narrative-driven. They could also be snapshots of memories, reminiscences of people and places, reflections of love and loss.
They are all stories personal to me and my family, yet hopefully universal enough to be appreciated by many. In sharing them, I hope to inspire others to seek out and preserve their own family stories.
Sharing family stories can benefit both the storyteller and the recipient; the parent and the child. I’ve spent hours talking with my mother, mining her memories for our family history. It’s not just been an opportunity for me to know her better; it’s also given my mother a voice, a chance to reminisce and talk about her life. Those conversations are truly treasured moments.
In my family, we call our maternal grandmothers Por-Por. I’ve used this familial title in naming this blogsite, to honour my mother whom my son calls Por-Por, and to remember my own Por-Por, who used to tell my mother many of the stories on this site.
Photo credit: Joey You on Unsplash
A portrait of my maternal grandfather drawn from my childhood memories. This is a companion piece to Remembering Por-Por
My grandfather ate grass.
When I think of Kong-Kong, I see him crouched in our garden, patiently tugging at the slim strands of green growing out of a corner of the lawn, the blinding sun reflecting off his white t-shirt. That evening, a plate of green-flecked omelette appeared at the dinner table. As my brothers and I prepared to attack it, Mum stopped us. That’s not for you, she said, it’s for Kong-Kong.
Growing up we saw my grandfather often, especially after Por-Por passed away. We would visit him in Penang during the school holidays, bringing chaos and chatter to 58 King Street, the Straits Settlement shophouse where he lived upstairs and ran his business downstairs, turning pieces of gold into jewellery.
He also came down to Kuala Lumpur to see us. We would return from school to find the house filled with the smoky deep spice of his cigar and the sweet-salty scent of the tau sar pneah he’d brought us from Penang’s famous Gee Hiang bakery. But before we could look for the sticky molasses and roasted green bean pastries, Mum would send us to the spare room with an order: Go and say hello to Kong-Kong first. We would crane our necks to look at him as he towered over us, and we would stare at the prickly grey stubbles on his chin, the pair of black-rimmed glasses sitting on his nose. A small smile would appear on his craggy face as he acknowledged our greeting with a nod and a grunt. Duty done, we’d run to the kitchen for our treats.
Whenever Kong-Kong came to stay, we would hear the musical lilt of Taishanese, the Southern Chinese dialect that Mum used only with her parents and siblings. My brothers and I understood very little of the language, and could only say at dinner time: Kong-Kong hiak fan – Grandfather, eat rice – as a sign of respect before we could start on our own meal.
If Mum wasn’t around, we communicated with our grandfather using a mishmash of Malay, English and Cantonese, the Chinese vernacular more commonly spoken in Kuala Lumpur. This usually worked, except for the time when Kong-Kong asked us – my brothers and our cousins Lin and Lee – to bring him a kipas.
“No,” he said, shaking his head at us as we stood, sweaty and breathless from carrying the heavy electric desk fan down the stairs for him.
“Kipas,” he told us, making a flapping gesture with his right hand. We looked at him blankly. He walked out of the room muttering to himself in Taishanese – no doubt about the questionable intelligence of his familiar yet so foreign grandchildren – and returned a few minutes later with a hand fan made out of straw.
“Kipas,” he gently waved it in front of our laughing faces, cooling us in the tropical heat.
Mostly, Kong-Kong sat with his right leg over his left thigh, leaning back in his chair and fanning himself as he silently watched us play. Like most Chinese men of his generation, my grandfather was not very demonstrative; no hugs or kisses from Kong-Kong. He often looked stern, but we were never intimidated by his gruffness. In the rare moments that we made Kong-Kong laugh, his impassive face would be transformed by a smile that revealed gaps where teeth once resided. His bright eyes would crinkle, his large hands gentle as he lifted up my baby brother. He’d buy me ice-cream to make up for being left behind when the rest of you went out, my brother recalls.
My grandfather didn’t actually eat grass. Later that night, Mum told us what was in that omelette; a medicinal herb Kong-Kong used to take in China, which he’d found growing in the corner of our garden. I’m still glad I didn’t try it.
A portrait of my maternal grandmother drawn from memories, photographs and her diamond ring
They wink at me as they catch the light, like stars flickering in the night sky. Five small diamonds encased in a gold ring, shining brilliantly against the row of matte green jade on another ring I’ve pushed right down to the base of my little finger.
I rub my thumb over the rings; my maternal grandfather, who was a goldsmith, had made them.
“Kong-Kong used some lower-quality gemstones his clients didn’t want,” my mother tells me as she squints at the rings. I can feel their heft on my finger; at least he didn’t skimp on the gold.
“I remember this one!”
I point to the jade ring, which used to adorn my mother’s fourth finger along with her platinum wedding band. In my memory, I see Mum reaching into the hedge between our house and our neighbours to retrieve this very ring, and a much younger version of myself standing by, looking worried. Was this from seeing the angry red scratches on Mum’s hand when it re-emerged from the thorny bushes? Or from fear that I would be scolded for playing with it and losing it?
But I had never seen the diamond ring before. It had belonged to Por-Por, my maternal grandmother. Now it sits snugly on my little finger, barely moving when I try twisting it. I marvel at how petite she must have been.
I have very vague memories of Por-Por, who passed away from nasopharyngeal cancer when she was 55. She and Kong-Kong lived in Penang, but regularly made the overnight journey on the sleeper train to visit us in Kuala Lumpur. I was always happy to see her, Mum tells me, recalling how I would run to my grandmother the moment she arrived at our door. I hear a firm yet gentle voice calling me to eat my rice; was that Por-Por?
My grandmother died several days before my fourth birthday and my younger brother’s first. My youngest brother was born three years later and never had a chance to meet her. I remember being at Por-Por’s funeral, sitting behind my father, rubbing my face against the soft jersey cotton of his T-shirt as I tried to hide from the deafening din of drums and clanging cymbals, and the sword-waving Taoist priest jumping around a ferocious fire. He was just doing his job, trying to ward off evil spirits, but my toddler brain probably thought he was coming for me next.
My grandmother felt very present in our lives while we were growing up. She appeared in the many stories Mum told us of her childhood in colonial Penang; Por-Por taking my mother and her three siblings to school in a trishaw on rainy days; disciplining them with the cane whenever they misbehaved; buying their favourite tok-tok meen from the food hawker cycling past their home, announcing his presence by making his trademark tok-tok sound with a bamboo stick against a bowl.
Por-Por stares at me from a handful of monochrome photographs, her eyes soft, her slender neck half-concealed by the high collar of her samfu top. Her hair is neatly pulled back from her face, square-shaped like mine. She looks solemn in her photos, except for the ones where she’s holding me or Kiang, my cousin. Even then, she has just a glimmer of a smile, as if uncertain of what she should do in front of the camera. In her later images her small frame looks reduced further by illness. Yet her arms were strong enough to carry the chubby toddler that was me. Perhaps the ring was resized so it wouldn’t slide off her shrunken finger?
These photos are my only tangible reminders of Por-Por, and now this ring.
“You can have them if you want; take them back with you to England.”
Mum wraps both rings in tissue, stuffing them into a small brocade pouch before pushing it to me across the dining table.
When my mother Ah Thiew talks about Penang, she constantly refers to 58 King Street, her childhood home. This is the story of why her family moved there, and my re-creation of the shophouse as seen through my grandmother’s eyes.
George Town, Penang, 1940s
Ah Thiew was nearly three years old before her family moved down the road on King Street to Number 58. By then, the Second World War had ended, and George Town liberated from its Japanese occupiers and returned to its British colonial government.
Yew Choy couldn’t wait to leave their present home, where she had given birth to Ah Thiew. She had been reluctant to live there ever since their section of King Street had been hit by a bomb during the Japanese occupation. Thankfully, it had missed their home but many others living on their street had been killed, and it had left behind a huge crater where several shophouses used to stand.
A shudder would run through Yew Choy every time she walked past the site on her way to the wet market, and she would keep her face averted as she tried not to think of the many bodies that had been unceremoniously dumped into the gaping hole before it was filled up. Deprived of a proper send-off, these restless souls continued to roam the area, Yew Choy believed. She was convinced she heard them every time the house creaked; she saw them whenever she caught a glimpse of a shadow from the corner of her eye.
Number 58 was located close to a busy intersection between King Street and China Street, among a row of Straits Settlement shophouses linked in front by a covered kaki-lima or five-foot way that offered shelter from the tropical heat and rain. A structure unique to colonial Southeast Asian towns, the shophouse was built to be used as a home as well as business premises. It was perfect for them; Ah Thiew’s father Thoong Foo would have his goldsmith’s workshop on the ground floor while the family lived upstairs. Also, Number 58 was just two doors away from the clan association building where Thoong Foo spent a lot of time as a committee member.
Yew Choy stood on the ornately-tiled kaki lima in front of her new home, craning her neck to look up at two gold Chinese characters, shiny on a dark wooden plaque that’s hung above the double timber doors. ‘Foo Heng’ it read; the name of her husband’s workshop. Walking through shophouse’s entrance, she carefully stepped over the mun cham – a raised wooden threshold – that was bolted to the floor to ensure that the family’s good fortune wouldn’t flow out of their home. She stood for a while in the coolness of the dark workshop, enjoying a reprieve from the blazing heat outside. As her eyes adjusted to the room’s dimness she could make out the rows of tables where Thoong Foo and his staff would work, tooling pieces of gold jewellery under bright lamps.
The shophouse was long and narrow, and as Yew Choy walked further on she came to the air well, an open-air courtyard placed in the centre of the building to provide light and ventilation. She looked around her, already envisioning the tables she would set up in the bright and airy space for the workshop’s staff to have their lunch. A short flight of stairs on her left would take her upstairs to the rooms that would be her family’s living quarters, and if she walked further towards the back of the shophouse, she would find the spacious kitchen with its firewood stove.
Yew Choy glanced up at the wooden shutters that overlook the courtyard, squinting against the sunshine as she imagined laundry hanging out of the windows, the sound of her children’s feet on the wooden floorboards above.
This would do just fine for the family, she thought, especially now that it had grown to include Ah Moy, a younger sister for Ah Thiew and her two brothers.
Photo caption: Tiled five-foot way linking a row of restored shophouses in George Town. Photo by Yin F Lim
My mother Ah Thiew was born in George Town, Penang during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. This is a creative reconstruction of the night of her birth, based on the stories she was told by her own mother Yew Choy.
Church Street was eerily silent, a stark contrast to the hustle bustle of barely a few hours ago. Under the dim glow of the street lamp, Thoong Foo glanced worriedly at his neighbour walking next to him as they made their way back to King Street. Catching his frown, she tried to quicken her pace but she knew she had to match the quietness of their surroundings. It wouldn’t do to get caught breaking the night curfew; just last week a man from a few streets away had been shot in the back by patrolling soldiers, no questions asked.
Recalling the incident, Thoong Foo felt a chill run through him despite the stiflingly warm night. If they were stopped, would the Japanese soldiers give him enough time to explain why he was out so late at night? Would he be able to tell them that his pregnant wife had gone into labour just after dinner and that he needed to fetch the zap maa – midwife – from the next street?
Thoong Foo had brought his neighbour along with him, in hopes that the soldiers wouldn’t shoot a couple without notice. Safety in numbers, he tried to reassure himself as he looked at the zap maa shuffling on his right. She was struggling to keep up with them, hampered by the large basket on her arm.
The three of them soon arrived back at King Street. Thoong Foo nodded a quick thanks to his neighbour as he ushered the midwife through his front door. Stepping into his home, he let out his breath, feeling his shoulders relax. They had arrived just in time, as they found Yew Choy standing hunched over a chair, gripping its back and breathing hard, her face pale from advanced labour. The zap maa helped Yew Choy onto her bed before she began unpacking her basket, laying out everything she needed to deliver the baby.
In the late hours of that April evening in 1943, Yew Choy gave birth to their first daughter Ah Thiew. She would be their third child, joining her older brothers Ah Kau Toi and Ah Swee in the family.