My Real Asian Por-Por

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

Writing Home

My grandmother Yew Choy enlisted the help of a professional letter writer to keep in touch with the sisters she left behind in China. This blogpost re-creates a visit to the se seon lou, as recalled by my mother.

 

George Town, Penang – 1952

“What are you both looking at? Walk faster!”

Yew Choy called to her young daughters Ah Thiew and Ah Moy who were trailing behind her. They had stopped by the side of the busy road to watch a food hawker toss egg noodles in soy sauce and sesame oil to make their favourite tok-tok meen.  After one last sniff, the girls hurried to join their mother under the umbrella she held aloft as shelter from the bright morning sun.

A few minutes later, they ducked into a five-foot way, a covered sidewalk that connected a row of shophouses. They walked in the cool shade until they came to a wooden table and several stools. These were set against the wall of a shophouse, on which hung several red scrolls with black Chinese characters. An elderly Chinese man sat on one of the stools, reading.  When he saw Yew Choy and her daughters approaching, he put down his newspaper to look at them through his dark-rimmed glasses.

“What can I do for you today?” the se seon lou asked. He pulled a sheaf of blank paper on the table towards him.

Yew Choy lowered herself onto one of the stools and faced the man, waiting patiently as he set up his writing equipment. Her young daughters watched as the letter writer poured a few drops of water into a worn ink stone. He took a soot-black ink stick, dipping it in the water before making circular movements to create a pool of dark liquid. This he did several times until he was happy with the ink’s consistency, before picking up a slim writing brush. He looked at Yew Choy expectantly.

“Could you please write a letter to my sisters in China, since the New Year is coming round,” she began.

“Please ask them how they are. Another year has come, please tell them I’m sending them some money for the New Year.”

“Tell them we are fine,” Yew Choy continued, staring into the distance over the man’s shoulder.  He nodded, oblivious to the two pairs of young eyes watching him as he flicked his ink-dipped brush, creating elegant strokes that filled sheets of white paper with black characters.

“Ah Kou Toi and Ah Swee are doing well in school,” Yew Choy went on, referring to her two older sons. “And so is Ah Thiew, although the teacher says she needs to work harder. Ah Moy has just started in kindergarten this year.” Nine-year-old Ah Thiew listened in fascination, her head resting on her hands. It was as if her mother was having a neighbourly chat with the man as she narrated the family’s news to be included in the letter.

As her mother’s voice droned on, Ah Thiew began to fidget.  She looked around for her sister and found six-year-old Ah Moy standing behind Yew Choy, watching the traffic on the road. Cyclists in straw hats streamed past men on trishaws pedalling laboriously as they carried their passengers to their destinations. A few cars drove by, and Ah Thiew wrinkled her nose as she caught a whiff of the exhaust fumes mingled with the dry smell of dust. She turned away to study the red scrolls on the wall. They were Spring couplets; wishes for the new year designed to be placed on both sides of one’s front door with a horizontal verse above the door frame.

Tilting her head from side to side, Ah Thiew tried to read the Chinese characters on the scrolls. She called Ah Moy over, but the girls couldn’t make sense of them. They looked like drawings instead of the writing Ah Thiew and Ah Moy learnt at school, the English-language convent they attended in George Town. Neither had been taught how to read and write Chinese as their parents were semi-literate, like many Chinese immigrants in Malaya. Yew Choy knew just enough to follow the news in the local paper while Thong Foo could use the abacus to keep track of his stock at his goldsmith workshop. Both relied on scribes like this se seon lou for any formal writing.

There were many such professional letter writers in George Town, mainly older Chinese men who could be found along the five-foot ways of shophouses. Their services were valued by migrants eager to maintain a connection with their homeland, from the coolies who worked on construction sites to the amah and ma jie domestic workers. The se seon lou didn’t just write letters but also read the ones received by their customers, and composed couplets for the Chinese New Year as well as marriage invitations and certificates. Yew Choy visited this particular letter writer at least once a year when she wanted to correspond with her sisters.

Once the letter was ready, the se seon lou placed it in an envelope and wrote out the address he had been given, before handing it over to Yew Choy in exchange for his fee. Thanking him, she tucked the letter into her purse. She then called to her daughters as she pushed open her umbrella, its waxed paper canopy unfurling noisily.

As the three of them began their walk home, Ah Thiew tugged at her mother’s sleeve.

“Can we stop for some tok-tok meen?”

 

 Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Why Family Stories

 

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