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

Advertisements

The Street of Boatmen

My mother Ah Thiew grew up on King Street, once called The Street of Boatmen because of the South Indian sailors and stevedores who lived there. This blogpost is my re-telling of a story from my mother’s childhood in Penang’s Little India.

George Town, Penang, 1950s 

A scrawny man rushes into Foo Heng workshop, surprising the few workers in the  room. He looks around frantically before ducking under an empty work table, folding himself into the tiny space and refusing to move even when someone calls out to him to leave.

Tolong!” he calls for help in Malay before mumbling incoherently in his mother tongue of Tamil, clutching the table’s legs.

Standing by the workshop’s inner doorway, eight-year-old Ah Thiew can hear the table rattle with the man’s trembling. She is close enough to detect the sweet-sour odour of his cold sweat mingled with the palm toddy on his breath. His thin face is turned towards her, the whites of his eyes stark against his deep brown skin. Ah Thiew thinks she’s seen him before.

Through the front windows, she can hear shouting and banging. It becomes louder as her father Thoong Foo and his staff try to shut the workshop’s double timber doors, but they’re not fast enough to stop a burly man from pushing his way in.

Oi!”

They shout at him to get out, but the man ignores them as he strides around the room, his fists clenched, his face thunderous. Ah Thiew shrinks back to avoid his eyes, which barely skim over her before they land on the shaking table. He reaches over to grab the smaller man by the arm, dragging him out of his hiding place.

Tolong! Aiiieee!”

Ah Thiew puts her hands over her ears to block out the man’s high-pitched cries, but not before she hears the sickening sound of bone crunching. She can’t look away though, transfixed by the blood streaming from the man’s nose as he runs out of the workshop, followed his attacker. Ah Thiew’s heart is pounding so hard she thinks it will burst through her chest, especially when she feels a sudden grip on her arm. She opens her mouth but has hardly made a sound when she sees her mother’s angry face in front of her.

“Nothing to see here – go to the back!”

Her mother Yew Choy pushes her into the kitchen. Her heart still beating rapidly, Ah Thiew glances at the workshop to see her father pushing a wooden bolt across the doors. His workers are putting several upturned tables back in their proper place as they shake their heads; she can hear snatches of their conversation: “playing cards…lost money”.

Yew Choy makes Ah Thiew sit at the dining table with her little sister Ah Moy, before plonking a bowl of warm congee in front of her.

“Eat!”

Ah Thiew brings a spoonful of the rice porridge to her mouth. She tries not to think of the man’s bloodied face, but she now remembers why he had looked so familiar.

He is one of several men who would gather on the walkway in front of her father’s workshop every evening. The men that Ah Thiew and her siblings would watch through the iron grills of the workshop’s window as they sat cross-legged facing one other, each holding a fan of playing cards. Occasionally, they would slap a dog-eared card on the growing pile in front of them as they chatted in Tamil.

These men lived in the two boarding houses that neighboured Foo Heng workshop. They were among the many labourers from South India who were either stevedores at the nearby docks, or worked at the corner godowns on King Street. Ah Thiew had often seen them run out of the warehouses to unload gunny sacks of onions and potatoes from huge lorries.

Observing them from afar, she could tell the difference between the swarthy labourers in their scruffy t-shirts and sarong, and the godowns’ North Indian owners who were always dressed in white, shielding their paler complexions from the sun with one hand as they gave orders to the labourers.

But she couldn’t tell her neighbours apart, as so many of the coolie workforce came and went from the boarding houses. There were so many of them, they had to sleep in rows on the wooden plank floors, and they would escape the stifling indoors whenever they could, spilling out onto other people’s doorways every evening to catch a breeze.

For some reason however, Ah Thiew had recognised this particular labourer. Perhaps he had once smiled at her, showing his teeth stained red from too much makan sireh or betel-nut chewing, while most of the others hardly ever looked at the children living next door.

In the days following the incident, Ah Thiew would look out for him, curious to know what had happened to him, to see if he still had blood on his face. But when the group of labourers resumed their card-playing in front of the workshop, he wasn’t among them.

Walking home from school with her siblings, Ah Thiew would stop by the kiosks along the way to scan the faces of those buying sticks of rokok – cigarettes –  and parcels of sireh from the vendors. She would peer at the men squatting by the roadside as they chewed their parcels of betel nut and leaves slathered with a chalky lime paste, careful to avoid the red juices of the sireh they would spit into open drains.

She looked for him among those perched on stools eating from bowls of coriander-flavoured sup kambing – mutton soup – sold by the travelling hawker who would set up shop outside the restaurant opposite her home every evening.

But Ah Thiew never saw him again.

 

 

Photo by Tadeu Jnr 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