Monday, 18 November 2013

On the Dragon River: Part two

Remembering a Mother
Written by David Bell

Having covered our eating exploits in the previous post, it's time to get on to more important things. 

Winnie, her brother Henry and I arrived in Hong Kong at  five thirty in the evening on Wednesday the 29th of October, 2013 after a long flight of eleven hours with an additional two hour transit stopover at the Sydney airport. Winnie's Sister Lina, and brother-in-law Michael, were at the Lantau Island airport to greet us and it was a happy reunion. With the exception of Raymond, a brother, the family was together again at last, or what remains of it. Both their grandparents and parents have passed on and only a few other relatives remain in Hong Kong. The family, like many in today's world, are scattered across the globe with members in Hong Kong, Holland,Taiwan, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, England, the USA and Canada. Of course there are some more distant relatives in China but little or nothing is known of them at this time.

After gathering our luggage we were whisked off to the city about forty-five minutes away on a comfortable public transport bus. Hong Kong's public transport system is a marvel of technology and organisation. Upon arrival we quickly located the flat we had rented in Northpoint for our two week stay and then hurried off for an early dinner at a restaurant of  Michael's choosing. It was a good choice because I enjoyed the best yum-cha I've ever had. Yam-cha is a dining method where you select a variety of small dishes more commonly known as dim-sums and eat until your heart's content. 

The following day (Wednesday, 30 October), we went to the Buddhist temple (Kai Ming Jih) at Pok Fu Lau to pay our respects and remember Winnie's deceased relatives, especially her much loved mother. Following is a selection of photographs with written narratives about the day.

The Pok Fu Lam Buddhist temple is situated on a leafy hillside in suburban Hong Kong and offers a rather quiet and tranquil setting away from the clutter and noise of the busy streets.

Winnie's family were not really hard-line practicing Buddhists. They were probably Buddhist by tradition rather than devotion, much the same as many of us are with regard to our Christian Churches. However, the Buddhist belief in life after death is very strong and the temples are primarily places for the veneration and remembrance of the dead. They are also places where memorial plaques can be kept for the living to come to visit their deceased loved ones and perform various acts of respect and remembrance. Memorials for Winnie's grandparents and parents are placed here.

Winnie's mother, Go Lea Hua, was born in Burma, 14 December, 1922, the daughter of a skilled doctor of Chinese herbal medicine. The family left Burma when she was a little girl and returned to China. In China she was betrothed to the young boy, Ang Chay Pek, by the traditional arranged marriage where professional match-makers were hired to find her a suitable husband. According to Saam-sook (Third-uncle), she was about twelve or thirteen at the time and Ang just three years older. They would have remained betrothed until old enough to take on the full responsibility of a married couple. A fuller account of their final union will be given in a biography of Gou Lea Hua after this Hong Kong report. It makes  interesting reading.

Ang Chay Pek soon after went to the Philippines to work in the family business run by his father; a prosperous cloth and fabric shop. It was, in later years, replaced in favour of a glue factory.

Go Lea Hua and her husband saw little of each other in the first years of their married life; Ang lived in the Philippines, returning to China periodically. Their married life was further interrupted by the Japanese occupations of the Philippines and China during World War Two where they never saw or heard from each other for the duration of that conflict. One can only guess at the stress that must have been for them, especially the tender-hearted Go Lea Hua.

Nevertheless they survived the horrors of the occupation and in 1947 their first child was born. They called her Ang Ming Ling, now known as Winnie Ming Ling Bell. As a point of interest, Chinese put the surname first and given names following. For example, by this method I would always be referred to as Bell David instead of David Bell.

This is Go Lea Hua's plaque at the Buddhist temple. Her children knew her as Ma-ma, the Chinese equivalent of mum. When she became a grandmother it changed to Ah-ma. From this point on I will use Ah-ma in reference to her instead of her formal name. 

This close-up of Ah-ma's plaque translates as follows: 1. The two characters to the left of the central column say Lan An, which is the village she lived in after her marriage. The two on the right say Fujian, the Province. 2. The central column of characters state her name and some honorific quotations about her. 3. The two columns of characters on the far right indicate her birth and death dates with the signs and symbols of the Chinese Lunar calendar. 4. The group on the far left is a list of her children.

Ah-ma's plaque is easily recognised by the small vase of purple orchids attached to it. Her daughter, Lina, has, for the past thirty years, made a weekly pilgrimage to her mother's memorial to refresh the flowers and perform small symbolic acts in remembrance of her. These include keeping her memorial adorned with flowers (purple orchids were her favourite), symbolic offerings of food and money in the hope for a healthy, happy and prosperous afterlife, and the burning of an incense stick to take the thoughts and prayers in her heart to her mother in the next world. 

Because land is ridiculously expensive in Hong Kong, a permanent burial plot costs a fortune. Consequently, most people choose cremation after death with memorials at a temple if they are believers or can afford it; the temple facilities, while very much cheaper than a burial plot, still come at a cost.

Ah-ma's ashes urn is situated in a cavity behind the memorial. Below Ah-ma's orchids and to the left is an empty cavity awaiting an occupant. When the ashes are placed in the cavity the plaque is fixed over it.

A picture of the ever faithful Lina arranging fresh flowers to present to her mother. These will remain in a special place in the temple until the next Saturday when she will return with another bouquet. 

Words are inadequate to describe the loyalty and love of this faithful and devoted daughter. But for those who knew Ah-ma, they understand why such love can extend even beyond the grave, for Go Lea Hua was the gentlest of souls who's entire life was spent
sacrificing and giving to others.

The memorial plaques for the grandparents and Ang Chay Pek, Ah-ma's husband, also reside in the temple, but these don't get the same love and feeling reserved for Ah-ma. Their plaques are simpler, and not as prominently placed as Ah-ma's. This is because they all have permanent burial places. For example, Ah-yeh (Grandfather) is buried in a large cemetery overlooking the bay. He has a prime spot and believe it or not, his final resting place is today worth hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars. We visited his grave and took the picture shown below. Ang Chay Pek is buried in the Philippines and the others in various places.

Translation of the inscriptions:

1) The two characters to the left of the engraved photograph read, Lan-an, his home village, and the two on the right say Fujian, the Province.

2) The lower left inscriptions lists his children.

3) The central column states his full name with some honorific titles and phrases about him.

4) The characters on the right tell his birth and death details in accordance with the Chinese Lunar calendar. 

Ah-ma sadly passed from this world on 30 October, 1983 from liver failure caused, it is suspected, by a lifelong struggle with malaria, most likely contracted during her early years in Burma. She was just sixty years old. Her husband preceded her by six years, dying 
at the age of fifty eight in the Philippines after a protracted battle with emphysema. 

Before we took our leave we noticed a poster of Buddhist proverbs that I thought were good to ponder on. It is titled, Hau, Hau, Hau...which means Good, Good, Good. There are twenty six of them and I have written the translations of several below for your amusement,or enlightenment - whichever grabs you.
As you read you will quite likely remember some quotes from your own cultural environment expressing similar thoughts, as with the first two which might also read: the love of money is the root of all evil, and, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

        It matters not if you have a lot of money or little money, having enough is hau.

·         Whether we regard a person as beautiful or ugly is not the point, it's what pleases eye that is hau.
·         Be you old or young, to have good health is hau.
·         Whether your family is rich or poor, as long as there is harmony in the home that is hau.
·         Whether the husband is home early or late, to have him home is hau.
·         Even if the wife is a grumbler, as long as she nurtures the family that is hau.
·         Teaching your children correctly from infancy is hau.
·         To have a master degree is good but selling vegetables is just as hau.
·         It doesn't matter if your house is big or little, as long as can live in it is hau.
·         Fancy brand or no brand, as long as you can wear it is hau.
·         Two wheels or four wheels, as long as you can ride it is hau.
·         Life is full of misery and trials but as long as you can resolve them that’s hau.
·         Just because you have lots of money doesn't mean all will be hau.
·         If your heart is good and you do well, your life’s path will be hau.
·         It doesn't matter who’s right or wrong as long as Heaven knows then all is hau.
·         If you are good and I am good then the world around us will be hau.
·         Knowing when enough is enough is hau.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
With these happy little proverbs bouncing around in our heads and with good feelings in our hearts that we  remembered Ah-ma and our other departed ancestors, Winnie and I left feeling we had in some small way brought the two worlds together if just for a moment and perhaps only in our minds. 
     Either way, it was nice.

Cabinet containing grandparents plaques

Sacks of paper money and gifts for the ancestors

Burning the paper money in the temple fireplace
symbolizing it going to the next life.



1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting insight into Aunty Winnie's family and culture Uncle Dave - thanks for sharing! I love the purple orchids!!