Child labourer, grandmother, barber-shop owner. Born Oct. 10, 1923, in Ningbo, China, died Aug. 25, 2012, in Hong Kong of pneumonia, aged 88.
Born in the ancient coastal city of Ningbo, China, my grandmother Hon Yuk Ying lost her parents when she was two. She never went to school. At four she was sold to a rich family as a servant, and spent her childhood cleaning, washing clothes and sweeping floors. When she was 17, she fled to Hong Kong during the second Sino-Japanese war.
When I was a child I often refused to eat my rice. One day, grandma told me a touching story. When she had first arrived in Hong Kong, she found a cleaning job in the ladies’ washroom in a restaurant. They paid her little, but she was given rice to eat as part of her pay. She told me tears would pour down her face and mingle with each spoonful of rice because her infant daughter, my mom, was starving in China, where she was in the care of a friend.
Yuk Ying worked hard and sent every penny she could to China. After a couple of years, she was able to bring her daughter to Hong Kong. She taught me to be grateful for what we have, to not waste food and to save for rainy days.
Good-hearted but tough, illiterate but determined, she grew along with fast-paced Hong Kong. Some years later, she opened a barber shop and became a property owner.
She was an excellent cook. She didn’t know what recipes were, but made her own dishes that everyone loved. Each Chinese New Year, the barbers preferred grandma’s cooking over paid dinners in restaurants.
My mom left to live in another country when I was 10, and grandma cared for me and my three sisters.
Winter nights in Hong Kong were cold with no indoor heating, and grandma would lie in our beds for a half hour to warm them. I remember sleeping with her, back to back, feeling loved and protected.
She patiently braided our hair each morning, bought us pretty ribbons and used a cream from the pharmacy – the same one that kept her skin soft and unwrinkled into her 80s – to smooth our hair and make it shine. She gave us soap cases containing a wet towel drizzled in English rose water to bring to school. Whenever we flipped open the folded towel, the fragrance warmed our hearts. It was love from her.
I moved to Canada 17 years ago. About 10 years ago, when I returned for a visit, a childhood friend of grandma unsealed a long-hidden secret. I was shocked to hear that she was once a single mother of three. Two children had died of illnesses at an early age, and only my mom survived. Grandma never mentioned a word of this to anyone.
She was almost perfect except for her stubbornness. She would only use bars of laundry soap to bathe. She would not go to a doctor, wear expensive shoes for better comfort or buy a new jacket. Every penny she saved meant a step closer to the security she wanted for her granddaughters. Her sacrifices were a satisfaction that she enjoyed more than anything.
Though I can’t remember everything, grandma’s immeasurable love is deeply engraved in our hearts. My greatest regret is the missing parts in the puzzle. Time and distance have stolen these missing pieces of her story.
Eva Chiu is Hon Yuk Ying’s granddaughter.