This is the story of a truly remarkable little woman. However, it's not just her story. Throughout this narrative is written as much information I could get at this time about all the other folk who were part of her life. I use her as the leading character because she is the mother of my wife and a person of extraordinary character; just how extraordinary I'll let you, the reader, discover as you read through this story of Go Lea Hua.
Born in the province of Fujian, Southern China, Go Shui Cheung moved to Burma where he believed he could make a better living plying his trade. However, after several years in Rangoon he moved his family back to China to his home village of Hong-jiu in Fujian when Go Lea Hua was still a small girl. She spent her childhood at Hong-jiu, a few hundred kilometres from the coast. She had four younger sisters and two brothers. Her sisters' names were Go Lea Ju (Beautiful Pearl), Go Lea Yuht (Beautiful Moon), Go Lea Ying, and Go Chai Ha. Interestingly, Go Lea Hua was originally named Lea Yok (Beautiful Jade) but it was later changed to Lea Hua because the wife of an older uncle in her husband's family had Yok as one of her given names. Family hierarchy was a big deal back then so it was decided that the junior Lea Yok must have her name changed to Lea Hua. One would have to suppose that it was not the done thing to have a subordinate with the same name. The name stuck even after the wife died some years later. Little is known of her two brothers except that in their later years one was called Uncle Lam and the other Uncle Deung.In 1939, at the tender age of seventeen a couple of match-makers came calling, one from her village and another from the coast. It was the custom in those days for parents to choose the husband or wife for their children. They could arrange it themselves but more often than not they hired professional match-makers. One can only imagine how this poor little seventeen year old felt at the prospect of being betrothed to some stranger she had never seen before.
The match was agreed upon and sometime later it was arranged for the two families to meet, and as the search for a match would have been initiated by the future groom's family, they would travel to Lea Hua's home to discuss the arrangement and seal the deal if all parties were satisfied. It would have been a big occasion for them, both sides anxious to make a good impression. All things considered it was a good match; Go Lea Hua was the daughter of a knowledgeable doctor of traditional medicine and the proposed suitor, a boy named Ang Chay Pek, was from a village called Lan-an, two years her senior and from a family of merchants with a successful cloth and fabrics business in the Philippines.
After all the formalities it was time to check the merchandise. Go Lea Hua was a tiny slip of a girl and at seventeen probably about four foot eight or nine inches tall. She stopped growing at four foot ten.
As mentioned, first impressions were important in such matters so little Lea Hua was placed at the stove stir frying lunch. This was to show that even at seventeen she was an accomplished cook and thus a potentially good wife and mother and, more importantly, a suitable servant to her mother-in-law. Her height was a concern so she was placed on an unseen box behind the stove to give the impression she was taller than her diminutive four-foot-something.
The deception must have worked because the agreement was struck and Go Lea Hua and Ang Chay Pek were officially matched. However, it appears that taking up the responsibilities of a married couple would come later because the nineteen year old Chay Pek left soon after for the Philippines to work in the family business, returning to China periodically, perhaps once a year, if that.This way of life may seem peculiar to us these days, but it was very common and accepted in Lea Hua's time. Life was tough in China and thousands of grandfathers, fathers, brothers and sons went overseas to do business to support their families back home. Fujian possibly sent more people off-shore than any other province in China. Men and young boys thought nothing of going to any part of the world where they smelled a business opportunity. As a result, the Fujian factor can be found in the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand; in fact all over South-east Asia and further. The Ang family were no exception and even Ang Hui Gim, Chay Pek's younger sister, journeyed with her husband, Koh Kiang Dit, to Dutch New Guinea, of all places, where his family had a very prosperous mercantile and trading store along with the only petrol station and a few other lucrative enterprises. When the Indonesians later expelled the Dutch they took their substantial fortune and resettled in Holland where they remain to this day.
Ang Chay Pek's family opted for the Philippines where his father, Ang Chiu Shui (Autumn Waters) had built up a prosperous cloth and fabric outlet after decades of what we would consider slave labor today. When he was just nine years old some relatives already in the fabrics business in the Philippines expressed the need for a boy to assist in their shop. The pay was paltry; about four dollars a year by our standard. While this was certainly not a get-rich-quick salary, it was better than anything he could earn in China. He begged and pleaded with his parents to send him to the Philippines so that he could save money to send home to the family. They finally relented and he spent the next few decades working long tortuous hours as a shop boy, and make no mistake, he would have been worked to the bone for his four bucks a year.Ang Chiu Shui was true to his word, keeping next to nothing for himself and sending every spare cent home to his family in China. He left China with a couple of shirts and four pairs of pants which lasted for years, altering and mending them until they could be mended no more. Luckily, the perpetually hot, tropical, Philippines climate kept his clothing expenses to a minimum. Moreover, he stoutly denied himself any luxuries, sleeping in a pokey space on the premises and spending virtually nothing on food by eating at the shop or gathering from nature.
One of his duties was to stand at a long counter-top every day measuring and cutting orders of cloth for customers. The cloth came in long rolls and he had to haul them from the shelves, lay them on the counter-top, and then slice them to measure with a large pair of sharp tailor's scissors. Being a small boy his ribs were constantly pressing against the wooden counter-top which, over time, pushed the bones inwards causing a permanent disfigurement in the form of an indentation on his right side affecting his stance. In later life his tilted posture became one of his most recognized physical characteristics.Over the years his meager wages greatly assisted in keeping his family fed and when he became expert in the field of fabrics he started his own business which grew and prospered. When he finally had the means he married Que Him, a lady from his home province. She was unique in that she was one of the few remaining women born at the end of that era when baby girls had their feet bound; a peculiar and barbaric practice designed to announce that the child was from a privileged class. Thankfully, her younger sisters kept their big feet suggesting that the custom ended with that generation, at least in the Que family.
Ang Chiu Shui's efforts eventually bore fruit; the business in the Philippines continued to provide revenue that not only kept food on the table in China but also allowed them to purchase two large apartment buildings, one in today's Fujian port city of Xiamen and the other on the nearby island resort of Gulangyu (Drum Wave Island, referring to the drumming sound of the waves). They had become wealthy landlords.
Then she lost the rented house she had lived in for over thirty years; it was bought out and demolished to build a new mass transit railway station. I managed to find her a nice apartment in a new building in Wanchai and she moved in with Henry who had returned from Hawaii. Grandmother by then had gone to live with Second Uncle in the Philippines. Apart from her illness she was happy in that flat; it was newer, cleaner and much better equipped. During that time Winnie and her family came to visit and she even went on a trip to New Zealand with Henry which she thoroughly enjoyed. There was talk about seeing if she could move to New Zealand and live with Winnie but when she returned the old illness came back and killed that dream.
My mother was courageous in her toil and suffering. I saw first-hand how hard she worked to support us and many others in our extended family. I also saw how she faced adversity with unbelievable courage. She was small but she was incredibly resilient and strong. I have seen her during one of her many attacks of malaria, a disease she carried in her body since childhood. She would break out in a terrible cold sweat and shake violently. We would pile several layers of blankets over her and still she shivered and shook. An attack could last days but as soon as she was well enough she would be hard at work again.
I witnessed her weaken as the disease gradually destroyed her liver until it finally took her life. I remember feeling terrible as I watched her writhing in pain in the hospital bed. But I never heard her bemoan her own plight, instead, she was more concerned about us, and when she sensed her time was close, she gave me three final instructions. The first was about her burial clothing and the second was to look after Henry. The third was to remember to make sure everyone was well fed after the funeral. She died on the thirtieth of October, 1983.
I go to the temple every Saturday to visit my mother. I talk to her and give her things. I know she is not actually there but I believe she knows the intentions of my heart and is pleased. I suppose this means I believe she still exists somewhere and is still watching over us. When I talk to her I tell her I am doing my best to fulfill the instructions she gave me before she died.
I remember when I went to New Zealand to visit my sister Winnie and her family and David showed us a home movie of my mother in Hawaii holding her fat grandson. Her eyes were alive with delight and she had a smile as bright as the sun. It was the first time I had seen such a smile.
It made me realize that she had her good times and precious moments.
Notice: Raymond's memories of his mother will be added when I get the opportunity to sit with him for a long interview.