Thursday, 9 July 2015



Go Lea Hua
   Written by David Bell 





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.
On December fourteenth, nineteen hundred and twenty-two (Chinese lunar calendar), a tiny baby girl came into the world in Rangoon, Burma. Her father was Go Shu Cheung, a well- known doctor of Chinese herbal medicine. Her mother's name was Tan Ma Yiu. It is useful to note here that women had no cultural or legal obligation to give up their family name after marriage. It was therefore common for married women to continue being known by their maiden names. However, when discussing their marital status they were also referred to as Go-tai, or Mrs Go as we would in English. In addition, placing the husband's family name before the wife's name was also used to designate her marital status. For example, Tan Ma Yiu might be introduced to another person as Go (Husband's family name) Tan Ma Yiu.  Also, it is important to note that the Chinese naming method always placed the family name before the given names, so Go Shui Cheung's wife's full name was Tan Ma Yiu, Tan being her family name and Ma Yiu her given names. It remains that way today.


                               Left to right: Go Shui Cheung, little Ming Ling, Ang Chiu Shui

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. 


Above: Ang Hui Yang (Ang Chiu Sui's eldest daughter) and husband outside the old family home in Xiamen, Fujian.




Above: Ang Hui Ying at the old family home on the island of Gulangyu. The old woman on the right is the same neighbour who secretly delivered food to them through a small window from the adjoining apartment during the Japanese occupation.  

Through the efforts of a nine year old boy who gave up his own childhood for his family, he could now stand back and see the results of his long years of hard work and sacrifice. But it came at a cost; he suffered from the disfigurement caused by years of pressing his ribs against the edges of the counter-top, and he got tuberculosis which worsened as he moved into his early forties. In fact, the disease forced him to retire from the business well before the end of his working life, his ravaged lungs making it impossible for him to do even the simplest physical tasks. Additionally, he was constantly plagued by severe coughing fits that caused him to spit up globs of blood. He sought medical help but in those days there was not much to be done; tuberculosis was effectively a painful and lingering death sentence. He discovered, from other sufferers, one thing that helped alleviate the pain; opium. He took to smoking opium and, predictably, became addicted.


                                                                       Ang Chiu Shui

In 1949 at forty nine years old and unable to cope with the rigors of the business, he left his sons, Chay Pek and Chay Yen to run the shop and returned to China. Also, in China it was easier to procure opium and the law was more lax. Fujian and Canton were the two provinces most affected by the opium trade. Opium had been known in China since the seventh Century when it was used as a medicine for pain relief. It wasn't until contact with the Europeans that it was mixed with tobacco and smoked; the Chinese prior to this didn't smoke. It wasn't long before a serious addiction problem set in and attempts were made by the rulers to curb it's use. However, trade in opium became increasingly lucrative and difficult to control. The British saw a huge market for it in China and through the British East India Company - the government company that monopolized the trade in its eastern colonies - began sending large quantities of opium from India into China to trade for huge profits. This opium trade began a century of pain and humiliation for China as addiction to the drug exploded. In the 1830's the Chinese officials attempted to halt the trade by seizing all the opium supplies in Canton and destroying them. The British in response sent troops from their colony in India and ravaged the coast of South China forcing the Chinese into negotiations. Holding the upper hand, the British dictated the terms of the negotiations in the Treaty of Nanjing, demanding and getting special rights and privileges, particularly the right to resume and increase the opium trade. This humiliation emboldened other European nations who also clubbed the Chinese with a plethora of such unequal treaties. It wasn't long before the Chinese found these untenable and small wars broke out which became known as The Opium Wars. Unfortunately, addiction had become so rife that the flow of opium into China seemed impossible to stem.

Ang Chiu Shui didn't stay too long in China. With the rise to power of the communists and their policies about state ownership of everything, he sensed bad times ahead and went to the British territory of Hong Kong to set about starting a new life there, probably in late 1949 or 1950. They were wealthy property owners and under the new communist regime all property must be given to the people, which in reality meant the communist government. Furthermore, working for profit was outlawed, something unthinkable to the entrepreneurial Ang Chiu Shui. He viewed it as a violation of human freedom. 
As already mentioned, Ang Chiu Shui's wife was Que Him, a woman with tiny bound feet. A pair of her slippers still exists; they are about a child's size six. The bound feet suggest that she was from a wealthy family but there is no memory of this. It may be that her family was once prominent in the community and still clung to some of the old class traditions like binding the feet of baby girls. However, the fact that Que Him's younger sisters did not have their feet bound shows that she was the last in the family to suffer that form of mutilation. 






Que Him, it seems, must have considered her condition a sign of special status because she certainly took upon herself the role of Royal Dowager over the family and ruled with an iron glove. All under her roof were considered her servants; especially daughters-in-law. And it was the smallest and humblest who suffered the most, this being Lea Hua. From the moment she entered the house she waited on her mother-in-law hand and foot until her own passing in 1983. Her mother-in-law outlived her by over a decade.

They were tough conditions Go Lea Hua found herself living under when she married - not by choice but by arrangement - into the Ang household. At just seventeen years old she was traded like a chattel to be the wife of a stranger and leave the only family she knew to live under the thumb of a domineering mother-in-law. Also, her husband lived most of his life in the Philippines, returning home once a year if he was lucky. She had no income of her own, relying solely on the good graces of her mother-in-law for sustenance. She owned virtually nothing and had no rights. It must have been an incredibly lonely and miserable existence, yet she suffered through it without complaint. What else could she do? Where could she go? Besides, that was the way it always was, the daughter-in-law traditionally became the property of her husband's family, her prime duty to serve not only her elders and their offspring, but also the babies, children, and any relatives who came to stay. Escape from such servitude came only when she herself became the Matriarch, should she live long enough. She knew this so she simply did what she was supposed to do; she worked out her own way to survive. 


It would appear to a third party that she was brought into the family more as a domestic worker than the wife of the eldest son, for as such one might think she should have had some privileges. But as a lowly daughter-in-law she had none. She was firmly pushed to the bottom of the family hierarchy and became everyone's servant. She did the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, washing, and any other household duties lumped upon her. Yet, somehow, she found happiness. Her total acceptance of her position, her humble compliance to everything thrown on her, and her unwavering loyalty and love under such trying conditions made her the heart and soul that held the family together, and in the end it is she who shines through like gold. Her total acceptance of the role tradition forced upon her and the tireless efforts to fulfill it, her submission and obedience to a mother-in-law who could be bad tempered and demanding, her patience and long-suffering towards a lifestyle that separated her from her husband for most of her married life, and her years of unwavering service to the family into which she was thrust, in time left an indelible mark in the hearts of all whom she served. There was not one member of that extended family whose lives were not blessed in some way by her love, loyalty, and unending toil.  
One of Ang Chiu Shui's sons, Ang Chay Hum, the youngest and in his mid-seventies at this writing holds some fond memories of her. One in particular stands out:
He was about ten years old and paddling about in a small boat on the river near their home on the island of Amoy (now called Xiamen). To his astonishment a large fish leaped from the river into the boat and flapped about at his feet. Recovering quickly from his shock he grabbed the fish by its tail and struck it against the side of the boat, stunning it. Bursting with excitement he paddled furiously to shore. Taking his fish he rushed into the house to show everyone his catch. Go Lea Hua was the only one home and her excitement at his good fortune almost equaled his. She immediately took the fish; scaled and cleaned it then cooked it with herbs and spices. She then placed it on a large plate of steaming noodles and gave it to him, taking none for herself. It seemed that it was reward enough to watch her little brother-in-law devouring his fish with such relish. Chay Hum is today affectionately known as Third Uncle, or Saam-sook. He said he can never forget how Lea Hua genuinely shared his joy and how she immediately cooked the fish for him. But it is more than that; it is an insight into the personality and character of Go Lea Hua who always put others before herself. At the time of the fish incident Lea Hua would have been a young woman of about eighteen.

By 1938 Ang Chay Pek and his wife had not yet produced offspring, which is not surprising considering they saw so little of each other. Then, to make it even worse World War Two broke out and the Japanese invaded China and the Philippines occupying both countries. This effectively cut off all communications between Lea Hua and her husband for seven long years. It was only after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese in 1945 that the family was able to be reunited once more.


Above: Go Lea Hua and Ang Chay Pek about 1946

Ang Chiu Shui and his sons found themselves trapped in the Philippines and forced to endure the occupation. They were careful to steer well clear of the Japanese who were renowned for their brutality. A person could be shot or tortured for the most trivial reason. And they took what they wanted, no permission required. As a result Ang Chiu Shui lost his business when the Japanese simply walked in with their guns and cleaned out his store. However, being forewarned he quickly hid a few bolts of cloth which the Japanese never discovered. It was a dangerous risk because had they found his hidden stash he might well have been badly beaten or shot. The cloth became a lifesaver later when food became scarce (the enemy also requisitioned all the food they could get their hands on with no thought for the starving population) by trading it for rice, meat and vegetables with the villagers deep in the jungle where the Japanese never ventured.


The people of the Philippines suffered dreadfully under the occupation so it was good news when the Americans arrived to fight the Japanese. The war in the Philippines was long and grueling with some of the bloodiest battles of World War Two taking place in its jungles before the Americans prevailed and the Japanese were forced into an unconditional surrender. Ang Chiu Shui later told his family that it was a great moment of relief and celebration for the people of the Philippines when the Japanese were defeated. The Americans were welcomed as heroes, especially the swaggering, egotistical, and impressive General MacArthur.

The Philippines were finally freed of the despised Japanese but Ang Chiu Shui and his sons were penniless, their business being destroyed by the Japanese. He didn't even have any money to get himself and his two boys back home to China. Then, to his great surprise and good fortune, an American businessman approached him about doing business in his old trade of cloth and fabrics. In an interview Third Uncle (Ang Chay Hum), the only one living today, gives an account of what transpired.

"My father," he said, "was left bankrupt after the war. The Japanese took everything from his shop. They didn't ask, they just took, and if you said anything they would shoot you right away. He had no money at all. Then an American businessman came looking for him and said he knew who my father was; people had told him that my father had a big fabric business before the war. The American said that he was also in the fabric business and that he believed there was now good business to be done in the Philippines. He wanted to sell cloth from America to my father, as much as my father could buy. My father said to the American, 'I can't buy your cloth, I'm bankrupt, the Japanese took everything and I have no money to pay you.' The American businessman told my father that he knew he was an honest man and that he believed in him, so he would send a big shipment of fabrics from America and my father could pay for it after it was sold. My father couldn't believe what he was hearing. If he could do that then he could start up his business again.
"The American businessman went back to America and sent him a large shipment of fabrics. The Philippines had a shortage of good cloth because of the war and when word got out that the Ang family had a big shipment of top quality American cloth on the way they put in their orders. My father pre-sold all the cloth for a huge profit weeks before it arrived in the Philippines. He was able to pay the American businessman and order more."
"Because of the trust and kindness of the American businessman my father got his business going again. That business continued to support our family for many years after the war and my father was always grateful to that businessman. In fact, everyone in the Philippines liked the Americans for driving out the Japanese. My father said that he celebrated with much happiness when the Japanese were forced into an unconditional surrender; he really liked the unconditional bit."

While the war raged in the Philippines, things were worse back in Fujian. Go Lea Hua had no idea how her husband was faring in the Philippines and was learning herself how cruel and brutal the Japanese could be, and they were especially hard on the Chinese whom they regarded as inferior Asians. The Japanese were particularly hard on men and young boys who they saw as potential fighters, rounding them up and imprisoning or executing them for no other reason than they were old enough to use weapons. Women were also in danger if they were not very careful; kidnap and rape were a constant threat. As in the Philippines the Japanese took anything they wanted; they had no sympathy for the suffering of the locals.

Go Lea Hua was careful to keep well away from the Japanese and did much to protect the others in the family, especially the younger ones. The Japanese had commandeered the nearby police station and the pitiful screams of men and women being tortured coming from it were stark reminders to be ever vigilant, along with the constant flow of reports of people being executed on the flimsiest of excuses.


No-one ever spoke to Lea Hua about how she coped through those terrifying years so we can only imagine the stress and fear she had to live with. Many times she was caught out on the streets when some Japanese soldiers showed up. On such occasions it was essential to stop in your tracks and bow as they went by. To fail to do so could mean immediate death. Food and other necessities were in short supply which must have been a further hardship. And, being the lowly daughter-in-law, a lot must have fallen on her shoulders. We will never know the whole story and are left to guess and all those who could take out the guesswork are now gone. But she and the family managed to come through unscathed.



The Japanese lost the war and were cleaned out of Fujian and the Philippines.

If you were to think that this was the end of the story, that the family was reunited and all worked out well, then you would think wrong. More loss, upheaval, and hardship was yet to come.

Since 1927 China was in a state of civil war between the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek and the communist uprising led by Mao Tse Tung. When world War Two broke out and the Japanese attacked China, both sides agreed to a cease-fire to fight the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated it should have been a good time for the two forces to peacefully work out their differences. But their causes, ideologies, and politics (and the egos of the leaders one would be tempted to add) proved insurmountable and they promptly picked up their weapons and resumed the struggle. After some of the bloodiest battles in history the communists prevailed and took power. Chiang Kai Shek and his vanquished followers fled to the island of Taiwan across the strait from Fujian. It was this communist rise to power that was the catalyst for the family's next great adventure.

For millions of Chinese the communist takeover in 1949 was a cause for great joy; especially the poor and the young. Third Uncle, himself a youth at the time, told about where he and the family fitted into the communist movement.

"When the communists took over many people were very happy, especially the poor. The communists promised them land and a better life. The young people were the easiest to brainwash. The communists told them that they could be part of a new start for China, that together they would build a new and better world. Everyone believed it. I was one of them. I was a high school student at the time and the communist officials came to recruit young men into what they called their military academy. They made fiery speeches about the good things we could all accomplish if we were united for the common good. I signed up. When we got home my sister rushed in and told my mother what I had done. My mother quickly got word to my father in Hong Kong and he got very angry and worried. He said, 'Don't let him join the communists and don't let him go to that academy. Before you know it he'll be sent to goodness-knows-where and like so many others already we'll never see him again. The communists will brainwash him and our other children and turn them against even their own family. You are to all pack up immediately and come to Hong Kong. I'll organize it and pay for it from here. You must be ready to leave as soon as I get word to you. Leave everything behind and carry only what you need for a week on the road. Bring as much of our gold as you can safely carry and hide the rest; it may be possible to go back and get it later'. He was very stern about it and he was the head of the family so we had no choice but to obey him. Also, we were getting reports about rich people in other provinces being beaten up and publicly shamed by the communists then having all their money and property taken away. We kind of knew it was only a matter of time before it was our turn which made it easier to obey Grandfather's orders. We made preparations straight away."


Back row: Ang Chai Hum, Ang Hui Lan, Ang Hui Ying, Go Le Hua, Que Him.
Front row: Ang Hui Kim, Ang Ming Ling, Ang Chiu Shui. This photo was probably taken early 1948 in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China.


From left to right: Ming Ling (Winnie), Lea Hua (mother), Ming Lung (Lina) and Yan San (Raymond), photographed probably in 1950, Xiamen, China.


The flight from Fujian began on a September afternoon, 1951. It was, ostensibly, a holiday trip to Hong Kong; the new communist government had not yet totally closed its borders, people were still free to travel. Soon, when the communists shut their doors to the outside world and kept their own people locked up in China, such 'holiday tours' would be forbidden. Therefore, it was a case of now-or never.

In retrospect the family was very fortunate that Ang Chiu Shui had such foresight. It was also fortuitous that they responded to his charge to leave China without hesitation. Had it not been so, their family history would have gone down a completely different road and where that would have taken them is anyone's guess. One thing, however, is sure; life in Hong Kong offered the kind of liberty and opportunity that would soon be closed off in Fujian.

The exodus started with a 10 minute sampan ride from the island of Xiamen (formerly Amoy) to the mainland. There were no jetties or ferry terminals in those days, the boatman simply chose the shortest route between the island and mainland and went for it, the boat powered by a small single-cylinder outboard motor. They spent one night at Xiamen waiting for others to arrive who were booked on the same journey. In the morning they boarded a rickety old 'tour bus' with hard wooden seats and a top speed of about twenty-five miles per hour. As Third Uncle said, a bicycle was faster. 

The whole trip was prepaid with the bus fare and basic accommodation and food stops along the way all included, like a package tour.The family included Que Him (the Matriarch), her two daughters Ang Hui Lan and Ang Hui Kim, her youngest son Ang Chay Hum, her grandchildren Ang Ming Ling, Ang Yan San, and Ang Ming Lung. Two daughters-in-law, Tan Shuk Hui and our own Go Lea Hua were also in the party. She also brought along her domestic servant, Ah-hou. There were about twenty others on board all with the same goal; escape to Hong Kong.

The old bus bumped and ground its way over rough roads which at times were nothing more than dusty tracks. The route took them along the coast to a small village called Yuen Shiao where they gratefully disembarked to refresh themselves. Being evening they dined on rice, fresh vegetables, roast duck and other foods prepared by some local villagers glad to make a few dollars, the meal taken in a small, basic, but adequate dining hall. They spent the night at Yuen Shiao and continued their journey early the following morning.

It was a long, tortuous drive to a small village called Yun Zhio, then Zhao An and then on to a bigger town called Shan Tou where they dined and rested for the night before continuing to Hui Zhou, another small village.

They reached Hui Zhou late afternoon on the fourth day since leaving Xiamen. Hui Zhou was a small, impoverished fishing village on a sluggish river that ambled lazily into the sea. The river was set between them and the village. An unsafe looking ferry was waiting to transport them across to the village. The ferry was nothing more than an old motorized barge with a flat bottom. The passengers were all ordered off the bus and the ferryman laid down two well-worn planks from the stern of the ferry onto the greasy river bank. The driver then proceeded to drive the bus onto the planks and onto the ferry, the planks just wide enough to take the wheels. Once safely on board the bus was taken across the river, which was not too wide, and offloaded. The ferry then returned for the passengers.
Third Uncle's most vivid memory of Hui Zhou was the children; they all swam about in the river unashamedly naked. Additionally, they were much darker in complexion than he was accustomed to seeing; their skins toasted from running about naked all day in the hot sun. He was fourteen at the time and the sight of naked boys and girls running about so publicly startled him. He thought that the place must be very primitive and poor.
Poor and primitive as it appeared; Hui Zhou had one thing that impressed him, a beautiful lake. Although his stay in Hui Zhou was but an evening and part of the next day, he took every opportunity to visit the lake and take in the fresh air coming off its clean, cool waters. At Hui Zhou the driver happily informed them that they were nearing the end of their journey, much to everyone's delight.
They spent the fifth night at Zhangmutau, a seaside village. From Zhangmutau it was but a short drive to Shendzen, the village right on the border.

About mid-morning on the sixth day the long awaited moment arrived; the bus was ready to leave for Hong Kong. The passengers, with more than a little apprehension mixed with a good dose of heady excitement, clambered aboard and took their places on the crude wooden seats. Within half an hour they were at the border.

The bus clattered to a stop at the gates and a big, ferocious looking man with dark skin and a thick black beard stomped out of the guardhouse and marched up to the bus, ordered the door opened and clumped up the steps to stand in the aisle like a giant. He was dressed in a uniform and carried himself with an air of stern authority. Others like him spilled out of the guardhouse and stood around the bus appraising the occupants. The passengers had never seen such alien looking people and were petrified.


"Where are you all from?" the man on the bus shouted menacingly in heavily accented Cantonese. They were all so afraid of him they were speechless.  He repeated his question, more gruffly this time. "Where are you all from and where are you going?"
More silence.

His already huge black eyes grew even bigger as he began to grow impatient at the lack of response, and still everyone sat in silence staring wide-eyed with fear at the huge Indian border guard filling up the bus in front of them. As Third Uncle explained, 'All of us small Chinese had never seen such people before and they were so big and ferocious looking. We were very scared and couldn't say anything.' It was just before the guard opened his mouth for the third time a woman cried out in perfect Cantonese, "We are all from Canton and we are going to Hong Kong for a holiday and to visit relatives." She was a middle-aged Cantonese woman who had married a man from Fujian and like the rest was leaving to escape living under communism.

The Indian guard looked hard at her for a moment then said, "OK, you can go!" and clambered off the bus and ordered the barriers lifted and waved them through. After a period of stunned silence, and when they realized they were safely on the other side of the border and away free, they let out a collective cheer and hailed the Cantonese woman as the hero of the day.


It was a joyous moment when the old bus from the Mainland - battered, dented and covered in dirt from its long trip across two provinces - rattled onto the streets of Kowloon. While the bus was a curious sight chugging and smoking among the more modern vehicles, it was not uncommon and brought only stares of curiosity from people on the streets. These holiday tours had become a frequent sight in the city and everyone knew that the holiday-makers on board were planning a very long vacation indeed.

Hong Kong was a technological world away from their former home; the streets seemed crammed with traffic, new buildings were sprouting up everywhere and the whole city seemed alive and vibrant. The energy of the place was not the energy of revolution or political change, but the energy of people engaged in what the Chinese do better than anyone in the world; trade and business.


The great differences between this place and the war-torn and poverty stricken mainland still reeling from the aftermath of two decades of war and caught up in the turmoil of political change, was not lost on the young Ang Chay Hum and he felt his communist leanings quickly leaking away as he stared, wide-eyed, at the sights around him. The life and energy about the place was breath-taking. But, despite all these wonders it was the double-decked buses that astounded his young mind the most; he had never seen anything like it. 'Why don't they tip over?' was all he could say.

The old bus, overheated and coughing smoke, finally reached the end of the road; an old depot of sorts where it had offloaded 'holiday makers' several times before. The owner-driver, a Fujian native now resident in Hong Kong was doing a roaring trade. But he sensed from the changes taking place in China that his tour business was doomed. He was, therefore, making-hay-while-the-sun-shined. After dropping off his passengers he would rest for a day, do two or three days shopping and load the carefully selected items onto his bus which he would sell back in Xiamen for a good profit, meet with his contacts about another 'tour' and  then drive all the way back to repeat the journey. If he was lucky he might pick up a few passengers heading back to Guangdong or Fujian. These he considered 'lucky money' as the flow of people to the east was not as brisk.


Ang Chiu Shui, or Ah-yeh to his grandchildren, was waiting at the depot. Word had already got to him of their safe arrival and he was visibly relieved to see them all in good spirits. Old Ah-ma, keyed up with excitement and bossier than ever before, barked orders to everyone around her, even the other passengers who, seeing her bound feet and in respect to her age, submitted to her commands. As a result her whole family got off the bus first. Others were also at the depot to meet their families and the din of reunions was deafening. The Ang family, nine in total, accounted for most of it as they shouted and laughed with glee.


The route from Xiamen to Hong Kong
The family lived for three months in a guesthouse above a shop owned by Ah-yeh's brother. In December, 1951, Ah-yeh leased a large apartment on Kings Road in Northpoint on Hong Kong Island for $HK300.00 per month. That apartment became the family home from 1951 into the 1990's when it succumbed to progress and was demolished. The Northpoint Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station now stands in its place.

Above: The location of the old family home, now the Northpoint MTR station. Below: Kings Road.
 

The new apartment had four good sized bedrooms, a kitchen, running water and toilet facilities; all pretty basic but adequate to the family's needs. The space was the main factor because it had to immediately house ten people and perhaps more later on. When they moved in they had no furniture and only a few personal belongings so the first task was to purchase some cheap beds and drawers and other essentials like a table and chairs. Bit-by-bit it all came together and the family settled in. Only then had they the time to start thinking about what they had left behind in Xiamen.

The two apartment blocks they owned on Xiamen and Gulangyu were substantial and profitable buildings and they hoped that despite the communist threats that the law would prevail and the ownership would remain in their hands. Before he left Xiamen Ah-yeh had paid some relatives to oversee the buildings in their absence and entrusted some of the family valuables, including small gold bars, to those he had confidence in. And the family, before their exodus, hurriedly concealed more gold bars and valuables under the floorboards and behind the walls. At a more opportune time Ah-yeh would make arrangements to return and reclaim them.


There was to be no opportune time, the communists were true to their policy of state ownership of all property and wealth. He lost the Apartments and all the valuables and gold secreted in its walls and under the floors. It was said that the communists virtually tore the place apart to get it. The gold and valuables he left with relatives also mysteriously vanished. It was true, everything in China was lost. At least the business in the Philippines was still there and most importantly his family was together and free. Surely, that was what really counted and worth more than all the gold he had lost. 

Nevertheless, the Chinese love of gold and valuable things is strong and the loss of so much was a bitter pill to swallow. A bad taste has lingered in the family mouth that has never completely gone away, even long after Ah-yeh and the other old folk have departed.  

Above: Ang Chiu Shui's funeral procession in Northpoint, Hong Kong. Below: His headstone, Hong Kong.



They did manage to bring some of their gold from Xiamen; the old dowager stuffed her bags with smaller items and tied a thick, pure gold cord around the waist under the clothes of the young Chay Hum, thinking that if they were stopped along the way by robbers or communist officials, they would be less likely to search a young boy, focusing more on the adults. The cord was worth a small fortune and Chay Hum was instructed to guard it with his life. Other valuables were scattered about in the bags and on the persons of the other family members. As it turned out there were no robbers or communist officials. The journey was long and uneventful.

Back row left to right: Lina, Winnie, Go Lea Hua and Ang Chay Pek (parents), Raymond and Henry. Seated are the grandparents Him Que and Ang Chiu Shui.

The apartment in Northpoint was to be their home for the forty or more years. At this point let us pause for a moment and get back to Go Lea Hua, our main character, and revisit some of the things that were said of her earlier and elaborate on some of them. First of all she was short, standing no more than four feet ten inches. But don't let her size fool you, she was strong and tough for one so small; she could wring the neck of a live chicken and pluck and clean as fast as a professional. Also, when you were with her you didn't notice her stature because she was perfectly proportioned. She was extremely pretty and had a sweet calmness about her that made it feel good to be with her and there was a brightness and intelligence about her that shone through eyes that were always smiling.

She was dedicated to her children. Her first was a girl whom she named Ming Ling, translated as Brightness, implying that she would grow to be very intelligent. Years later in Hong Kong on her first day at school her teacher gave her the English name Winnie, the name she is commonly known by today. The Hong Kong schools required their students to have English Christian names and it fell upon the new entrants’ teacher to choose for those children who had didn't have one. The teacher usually had a book of English names from which he or she randomly selected from. It must have been amusing when the child got home and proudly announced his or her new name.

Winnie was born in Amoy, China in 1947, a couple of years after World War Two and presumably hurriedly conceived on one of Ang Chay Pek's infrequent visits from the Philippines. By then it would have been one of their duties to produce offspring; preferably a boy. To the old Chinese, male births were prized over female babies. Boys carried the next generation whereas girls ended up becoming the property of the families they later married into. As it turned out the first child was a girl and whether or not this was a disappointment has not been said. If so it was only momentary because Ming Ling was taken in by her grandparents as if she was their child. She was virtually raised by them and being the oldest child she was privileged and spoiled.


Their second child was a boy born in 1948 who they named Ang Yan San, later given Raymond as his English name. Boys, by tradition, were more preferred than girls in those days because they carried the family name whereas girls, when they married, left home to become the property of another family. Yan San's arrival was, therefore, particularly auspicious.


Lea Hua's third child was another girl and received the name Ming Lung, later given the English name, Lina. She was born in 1949, also in Amoy. Her arrival, it seems, was received with a note of disappointment. Noises were even made about giving her away. The source of these noises was an uncle; Ang Chiu Shui's younger brother. Fortunately, little Lina's mother would have none of it so the baby stayed. If ever a child had to live with the middle-child-syndrome it was Lina. Yet, in so many ways she has turned out to be the strongest in the family.


                                             Above: Ming Ling and little sister Ming Lung.

It should be noted that all three of these children were born during troubled times in China. Prior to World War Two the communists and nationalists had plunged China into a bloody civil war. Then, when the Japanese occupied China the nationalists and communists suspended the shedding of Chinese blood to fight the occupier, but when the Japanese withdrew after their surrender to the allies the civil war resumed with a vengeance. Ming ling and Yan San were born in the middle of the civil war part two, and Ming Lung at the end, just three months after the communist takeover in 1949.

When Go Lea Hua married into the Ang family she entered at the bottom of the family hierarchy. Her lowly position as a daughter-in-law placed her firmly under the authority of her mother-in-law who saw her as a personal handmaid, house servant and child-bearer. She had no rights to property or person; she was herself a possession. Harsh as this seems it was the family law of the day and she was fully aware of her status and her duty to her husband and his family of which she was now a part of for the rest of her life, and she would have been culturally conditioned to accept her fate and do whatever it took to fulfill her role. By nature she was the archetypal Chinese maiden, submissive, obedient, and self-sacrificing. It was with these traits she worked out her survival and in the end it was these traits that made her the most respected and loved of all.

In Hong Kong she watched her children grow and flourish. Winnie, her eldest, was sharp and intelligent and did well at school and during her high school years became interested in the Mormon faith (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and joined that congregation - her family were traditionally of the Buddhist faith. At twenty two years old Winnie left Hong Kong to attend the church-owned Brigham Young University at Laie, Hawaii, and while there married New Zealander, David Bell, and gave birth to two children, Jared and Miriam. This sojourn in Hawaii was a great time for Winnie, but also Go Lea Hua for one happy year.

At the birth of Winnie's son Jared in 1974, it was determined that Go Lea Hua go to Hawaii for an undetermined duration to be with her daughter and grandson, the first grandchild in the family and joy-of-joys, a boy! She duly arrived and fulfilled her grandmotherly functions. The following is a description of her stay in Hawaii from information furnished by Winnie.

I had a very hard first pregnancy and an even more traumatic birth. My baby came about three weeks ahead of schedule and my labor was long and painful. Then, when the moment finally arrived I was in excruciating pain and screaming for relief. Our Doctor was a bit old-school and preferred I give birth without any chemical assistance. He said it would be better for the baby. I was thinking it would be better for the baby if I could get through this alive. In the end, I demanded with great force that he provide some medical intervention to take away the torture. He relented and gave me an epidural. The relief was instant. I lost all feeling from the waist down. With the pain gone I regained some composure and very bravely inquired, "Oh, that's better. What do I do now, Doctor?

"Nothing Winnie," he replied, "it's all up to me now." And with that my baby boy was delivered after the slice of a surgical knife and a pair of horrendous looking forceps.

I was quickly cleaned and stitched up and finally got to hold my wailing baby. Exhausted and traumatized it was still a delight it was all over and my child was well. I instinctively looked him over to make sure he had all his fingers and toes and was relieved he looked normal; until I saw his head. I was shocked to discover it was severely cone-shaped and worriedly asked the doctor what was wrong with his head. I was informed it was the result of pulling him out with the forceps and not to worry, it would naturally regain its proper shape in a week or so. Thankfully that proved to be the case. Also, despite being quite tiny (five pounds) and arriving earlier than expected he was very active and animated, constantly waving his arms about and kicking with his legs. That was comforting; it meant that despite his size he was strong and healthy.

It took time for me to make a full recovery and I was still a student with classes to attend and work to do. With an infant to care for my studies went on hold for a while and I really wanted my mum with me. I needed her expert advice and experienced hand at child raising. We asked if she would come and live with us in Hawaii for a while; at least a year. To our delight she was enthusiastic about the idea and arrived at the Honolulu airport when our son was only a few days old.

Our student flat was small; one bedroom, a combination lounge and dining room, and a tiny kitchen. My husband and I would have the bedroom with the baby and she would have the lounge. We had a fold-out couch that served perfectly as her bed. My mother was well accustomed to cramped conditions so she had no trouble with the arrangement. It was wonderful to have her at my side and I was extremely happy. It's great to have a mum around after the first child; there's so much you need to know.

My mother loved her grandson, especially as he ballooned into a fat and chubby little boy; Chinese grandmothers traditionally dote over boy babies and the fatter the better. When I went back to studies and work I think she was happy because she had her baby grandson to herself all day. She was unashamedly proud of him. She would wander around the small community during the day with him in her arms or in a pushchair and critically observe all the other babies out and about with their mothers. Often, at the end of the day when we were all home she would tell us that none of those other babies were anywhere near as fat and beautiful as hers.

Above; Winnie, early twenties. Above right: with her mother, Hong Kong, March, 1952, seven months after leaving China

























She also took a great liking to David, my husband. I never heard her ever say she didn't like anyone but when she really liked someone she went all out for them. She treated David like a king! That was the way she was, forever giving. It was good to see her and David hitting it off so well (his respect and affection for her being mutual) because I remember my anxiety a year earlier when I went back to Hong Kong to inform her of my plans to marry a 'gwailou' (foreigner). I was afraid she would disapprove. But this is one thing I am always grateful for about my mother, she always trusted me. Even though I was her daughter, she treated me as an adult and respected my judgement. I was twenty-four at the time.  Also, she was never concerned or prejudiced about where a person came from. She looked only for goodness of character.

She stayed with us for almost a year before she decided she had better go home. Selfishly, we tried to convince her to stay longer but we knew we couldn't keep her away from the others back in Hong Kong. We had to settle for being grateful she stayed so long and helped us through a critical period in our studies. It was a hard day when the time came and David was sad to bid her farewell. Her gentle presence had lightened our hearts and her tireless work looking after Jared, tidying the flat and cooking the most fabulous dinners had lightened our load. The only compensation was that Jared and I flew back to Hong Kong with her for a couple of weeks. But most importantly, I know she had a wonderful year in Hawaii with us; she said it herself, it was the happiest time in her life.

In time we graduated and moved to New Zealand. Once again I longed to have my mother with us. We talked about seeing if she could move permanently but unfortunately an old illness began to do bad things to her body and her health began to deteriorate. We did manage to have her and my brother, Henry, come to New Zealand for a holiday in 1982 which she enjoyed. Henry also attended Brigham Young University-Hawaii and had recently graduated and returned to Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the illness had set in and our hopes of having her with us permanently were dashed. The malaria she had since childhood gradually destroyed her liver and she left this life after a long struggle on the thirtieth of October, nineteen eighty three, in Hong Kong.

My sister Lina once asked why someone who spent her whole life giving to others had to die so painfully and with so much suffering. It just didn't seem right or fair. I must admit I felt the same. She died before she should have, she was just sixty one. I couldn't answer Lina's question except to say we mustn't dwell on the sad things of the past, we should celebrate our mother for all the good things she was to us. All I know is that life and death is different for each of us and we don't have much choice in the matter. We just have to move on.
 
Go Lea Hua is my mother and I wish I was more like her. Her mortal frame was only four-feet-ten but within that tiny frame was a spirit the size of the universe.

Her youngest son, Henry. Photo taken 2013
Her son Ang Yan Kang (Henry) also gave this account of her from his perspective:

I was born in Hong Kong in nineteen fifty-four. These are some of the things I remember about my mother. I believe I was especially favoured by her, perhaps because I was the youngest and she sensed I would be her last child. Whatever the reason, I know I got a lot more of her attention than my older siblings. I remember how every day without fail she would be waiting for me on the corner when I finished school at midday. Our school, like most in those days, had a morning and an afternoon shift. I went to the morning shift starting at eight a.m. and finishing at twelve p.m. Money was tight but somehow she always had at least $10.00 to buy my favourite honey pork to go with the lunch already cooked for me at home. Like every child, I took her and her kindness too much for granted, not fully realizing until she had gone how much she meant to me. I know I gave her a lot of grief during my school years; I was a very poor student and had a strong dislike of school. As often as I could I would sneak out of school and spend part of the day at a small zoo looking at the animals. With some of the other boys like me we made a small hole in the bottom of the fence through which we made our escape. I didn't skip school all the time because most of the teachers were strict about attendance but there were a few who didn't seem to care that much if I wasn't there. Those were the classes I would cut.

However, on several occasions my crimes inevitably caught up with me and I was hauled before the Principal. My mother would be summoned to attend with me, which for her was both shameful and embarrassing because not only was she ashamed her son was cutting school but she couldn't speak Cantonese very well and found it difficult to communicate. Sometimes my sisters had to be there to interpret.

Yet, for all the trouble I caused, she never once yelled at me even though she was embarrassed and disappointed. She was like that under any circumstances. No matter what nastiness anyone in the family did to her she bore it with grace and dignity, never responding with hate or anger. I have never heard a foul word come from her mouth.

This may seem ridiculous to some but I slept in the same bed with my mother until my teenage years. The only reason I admit this is because in those days there was nowhere else to sleep. Our house was crammed full with people and every bed slept two. That was how most traditional Chinese lived for generations; the whole family together. In some villages every person was related. We simply took that village tradition and applied it to our four bedroom apartment. It was the way of life that we grew up with and so that's how we lived. I remember her special nightly ritual when I was little was to put the pillow over my head and with much laughter pretend to stifle me before I went to sleep. You will be pleased to know I outgrew that game.

One of my best memories is going with her to the marketplace. In Hong Kong in those days most people of our economic level did all their food shopping at the local markets, of which there were many. The one she always went to was on Marble Road, not far from our house. That market had everything and it was a place of great fascination to my young mind. There were numerous tanks of live fish of every kind, and crates stuffed with live chickens, ducks, quail, pigeons and other sundry poultry, their heads poking through the slats. I don't know how many hours I must have spent over the years gawking into those fish tanks and studying the poultry. There were also cages of live snakes of all sizes and colors and even bins of edible insects for those with a palate for them. Most fascinating to me was the way the vendors killed and prepared these unfortunate creatures for their customers. They wielded their heavy choppers with great skill; a few deft strokes and a few swift slices and your fish, snake, salamander, bird, or small animal was dead, dressed and neatly tied with string. Preparing a frog was the best to watch. The vendor would spike the poor creature through the head then with a couple of lightning-fast flicks of a small knife somehow have the skin off its body in the blink of an eye. We often ate frog for dinner and the old cliche is true, it tastes like chicken; I suppose that's why the Chinese call edible frogs tin-gai; field chickens.

The butchers were there as well, cutting up pork and buffalo meat. Every part of the animal was for sale, from the nose to the testicles. In the summer the smell of offal and blood could be overpowering and it attracted flies by the millions. No matter, a good roasting soon got rid of any bad germs the flies left behind.

The northern Chinese have a saying about their southern relatives: "If it has wings and it's not an aeroplane, they'll eat it, and if it has four legs and it's not a table, they'll eat that too." The typical Hong Kong market in those days gave truth to that saying.

My mother went to the market every day of the week and more often than not took me with her. I was like her little shadow.

There were several festivals and celebrations throughout the year when I was growing up, and each one required a family banquet. Feasting was very important to us. Our living conditions being so crowded meant we often experienced tension and divisions to one degree or another and family feasts were valuable mechanisms in bringing us all together again. The only trouble was the burden of putting together a festive banquet always fell on my mother. I will always remember this tiny woman going to the market early in the morning and buying baskets of food. Then, while the rest of the house slept, she would carry as much as she could home and return for another load. This could take as many as two to three trips. And, with little help from anyone else, she would spend the rest of the day preparing and cooking. In the evening we all sat down to a feast fit for royalty, laughing and rejoicing without a thought to all the work our little four-foot-ten mother had done that we might celebrate together.

My mother's kindness was universal and unconditional. I never saw her pass a beggar without dropping a few coins in his or her bowl. She was compassionate also to those with disabilities. I vividly remember a woman relative with mental issues who, knowing my mother's good heart, often came around to visit, always with a sad story. Inevitably, the story ended in a request to borrow some money but not until after some suitable theatrics like running to the window and threatening to throw herself onto the street three stories below. My mother would always give her a sympathetic ear and pretend to be horrified that things were so bad she would jump to her death (she knew the woman had no intention of doing so), then loan her the money. My mother didn't have much money herself and she knew full well that despite the woman's assurances she would never see her loan repaid.

That was my mother exactly, she gave and gave and never expected anything back.

Lina, Ming Lung, Go Lea Hua's second daughter
The following account of Go Lea Hua is taken from information given by her second daughter, Lina Ming Lung, perhaps the most appropriate of her family to have the final word. From childhood to Go Lea Hua's passing no other member of her family has experienced so intimately the sufferings and sorrows of her eventful life. These lifelong experiences have given Lina a rightful and special place in the life of her mother, but it has come at a cost; thirty years on she is still coming to terms with her loss. Nevertheless, while difficult at times, she has given this heartfelt account of her days with Go Lea Hua.

  My mother left this world thirty years ago and I still grieve. Time passes and they say that time heals, and while my tears are fewer I am yet a slow healer in matters of emotion.

I miss my mother, dreadfully. Her death was, in my mind and heart, horribly unfair. It has caused me to question how heaven could allow a person with such loveliness of soul to die well before her time and with so much pain and sorrow. Recently when I was particularly down I confided in my sister who told me not to dwell too much in the past, especially on things I could never control, because doing so only fills my heart with negative emotions which unbalance my state of well-being. She said that it is important not to let the negatives overwhelm the positives, that instead of dwelling on all the grief and sorrow we should be relieved that our mother's suffering ended. We should now put it behind us and celebrate the good things about her. When we think of her we should remember the perfection of her nature and how it is impossible to find a single person who can say a bad word about her. Not just us, but everyone who ever knew her testifies to her sweet character. That's the legacy she left us. Hers was a life of devotion to her loved ones and she gave us a mother's love that has bound us together with a bond that crosses the divide between life and death. We are blessed to be born of the finest mother we could ever have wished for; an angel on earth. 

I was born in Xiamen (formerly Amoy) in the province of Fujian in China, but I have lived most of my life in Hong Kong, having arrived by bus with the rest of the family when I was a toddler. I believe that form the start I have had a special relationship with my mother because my older sister, Winnie, while living under the same roof was, by-and-large, raised closer to our grandparents. A lot of family lived in our house and I suppose lots of duties were shared, even the child rearing.

These are the things I remember best about my mother:

My mother was incredibly soft-spoken and had a calmness of spirit under almost all circumstances. There are only four known moments in her life when that calmness was disturbed. The first was in China when she was newly married and living in the Ang house at Gulangyu. She would have been about eighteen at the time. As with tradition the home was multi-generational, accommodating herself and her husband's parents and grandparents. It was also probable that other relatives had space there as well. She got along particularly well with Ang Yuk Lum, her husband's kindly grandfather who treated her with dignity and respect. She always spoke highly of him and told us he taught her how to cook a variety of excellent dishes. I have wondered why my mother remembered this so strongly and can only suppose that when she came into the house as the lowly daughter-in-law she found herself under intense pressure to provide good meals. His kind tutelage would have been of great value to her.            


Ang Yuk Lum and his wife, Dhi Biao
The old man, unfortunately, suffered from a serious illness which by all accounts sounds like tuberculosis and, as with tuberculosis, he had good days and bad days. On his good days he and my mother enjoyed each other's company. On the bad days she nursed and cared for him. This mutual dependence created a bond between them that would have eased much of my mother's loneliness. But as the days wore on the disease took greater hold and he passed away.

Sometime after the old man's death she took her young niece, Hui Ying, with her to visit his grave. She hadn't been there since he passed and on approaching the grave she fell to her knees and cried her heart out. Hui Ying was just a small girl at the time but the memory of the scene stuck like glue in her mind. She had never seen Go Lea Hua cry with such grief and anguish. For my part, I believe her grief was not only about losing her protector and friend, but also the release of all the emotion bottled up inside her. She was like that; she kept all her troubles to herself.

The second time was many years later in Hong Kong when a letter arrived from China informing her of her mother's death. The letter would have been days - if not weeks - old, so not only was it too late to visit her mother, she couldn't even be at the funeral. I was old enough to witness her sadness.

The third time is a particularly bitter memory, one that gives me grief even to think about it. My father, Ang Chay Pek, came down with emphysema and was hospitalized in the Philippines. It came as a shock to all of us because as far as we knew he was in good health. Now, out of the blue the doctors were telling us his blood pressure was fatally high and his lungs were wracked with emphysema. He was a heavy smoker so the disease must have been developing for a long time. Now we were being told he didn't have long to live. He was put on a ventilator and as it turned out it kept him alive for over a year. My mother flew to his side from Hong Kong to give him the care the nurses and doctors could not. It was expected that it would be a few weeks at most but a year later she was still there. She remained at his bedside all day and slept on a couch in his hospital room at night. What breaks she took were brief; a little exercise on the hospital grounds, a short trip somewhere for food, or a quick visit to the family house in Manila. Always, she hurried back. Towards the end of the year the breaks became fewer. Her ailing husband even tied a string to her hand when she slept to alert her should his ventilator malfunction.

By the time he passed away she was worn out. To make matters worse, the monsoon brought torrential rain which delayed the funeral for over a week, adding to the strain.

In due course it was time for the funeral and Chinese funerals can be elaborate affairs encumbered with a multitude of rituals and cultural traditions. One important tradition is for a son, preferably the eldest, to lead the procession carrying a portrait of the deceased. On this occasion, none of Ang Chay Pek's sons were available. Raymond (Ang Yan San) was in faraway Holland and second son, Henry, was studying in Hawaii. This created a good deal of consternation and it was suggested by an aunt that if a son wasn't present a nephew could do it. But Second Uncle was not agreeable and gave reasons as to why his boys were also unavailable. Superstition and tradition were raising their ugly heads. The same aunt then said that with no sons available then let a daughter carry the portrait. I was the only daughter there so it fell upon me, but because I was not a son I must carry it on my back instead of in front as was the tradition. I carried my father's portrait on my back all the way to the cemetery.

It broke my mother's heart when she saw it.

Up until that point she had been courageous and stoic, holding back her tears and controlling her emotions. She was being strong for all of us. Then, without warning, she couldn't hold her grief back any longer. The sight of me with the portrait on my back was too much for her to bear and she burst into tears and wailed out her pain. I believe to this day that the sight of me with father's picture on my back was hurtful, disrespectful and deeply offensive, especially after all she and I had been through the past year. Not only was it offensive to us but also to the memory of my dead father. She shed a lot of tears that day. Perhaps it was a good thing but it would have been nicer if she could have grieved more privately as was her way. It was the saddest day of her life and I still feel her pain.

The fourth ripple on her lake of calmness was caused not by sorrow but anger, an emotion I never knew existed in her. It was when she was nearing her own death and I was by her hospital bed scolding Henry about losing a pager I had given him; I was always scolding him for something or another, most of which was rightly deserved. However on this occasion it was too much for her and she turned on me sharply with a scolding of her own. "Lina! I haven't much time left and when I'm gone you are to stop publicly reprimanding your brother."

I was stunned by her outburst; she had never been angry with me before and it was so alien to her nature it left me speechless. Nevertheless, her admonition has been burned into my soul and I have endeavored to do as she commanded.

I have thought deeply about these occasions and have concluded that it is almost unbelievable that a person can go a lifetime with only four observable emotional outbursts; three due to sorrow and only one to anger.

I have spent a lot of time with my mother and my relationship with her is best described by an old proverb, "Sai seui cheung lau." I use this proverb because normal words don't seem to adequately express it. Translated literally it says, "Small waters long flow," with my best interpretation going something like, A small stream can flow a great distance. Like a little river my mother and I have always been together as one. We have wound our way through hills and valleys, forests and cities. We are an insignificant little trickle in the great scheme of things, but we are on an epic journey together. I like to think we will flow on forever. 
                            

My mother was a wonderful cook and I miss her beautiful food. I used to see her as something of a magician because she only received about ten dollars a day for the purchase of food. With a paltry ten dollars she had to buy enough to feed more than ten people in our dwelling for the whole day. Often, we had relatives drop by and so she had to use all her talents to stretch it even further. Grandfather Ah-yeh held the purse strings and he was tight with money. I know for a fact she often topped up the grocery money from her own funds, meager as they were.

My mother was very smart. She could read and write very well and was able to recite long verses of classical poetry by memory. We should not let her humble, submissive nature deceive us into judging her as simple minded. She had a sharp intellect and many times I was surprised at what came out of her head. Besides, one glance into those bright, dark eyes of hers and you could see the spark of intelligence behind them.

My mother was particular about her grooming and personal hygiene. She never went out without powdering her face and neatly arranging her hair. Her standard outfit was a cheongsam, that high-collared, snug-fitting traditional Chinese dress popular in her time. She looked very pretty in them.

She was a splendid housekeeper and in our family arrangement nearly all the domestic tasks fell on her. When I was small I paid no heed to her workload but as I grew older I became aware of how burdensome her household duties were. In fact I would call them horrendous. I tried to help as I grew older but I was only useful as an assistant sweeper or dishwasher. I was never as thorough as she was but something must have rubbed off on me; I became rather fastidious myself about cleanliness. My sister jokingly dubbed me the Health Inspector

My mother must have been bitterly disappointed in my brothers during their school years, though she never showed it. Both Raymond and Henry were poor students and found school an unpleasant place to spend their days. Raymond was just plain non-academic and Henry was both non-academic and misbehaved. His truancy and poor performance often saw him in the principal's office. Raymond was no better. On these occasions my mother was called in for teacher-parent conferences. However, her poor Cantonese meant I was taken from my classroom to act as interpreter. It was a frightening experience for me and I can only imagine the shame and embarrassment my mother felt. When Raymond was being hauled over the coals he would cry and howl bitterly. Henry, on the other hand, would hang his head in shame and admit all his deficiencies and promise with all his soul to improve, only to be up to his old tricks a short while later. I think it was a considerable relief to my poor mother when they both quit school, albeit as unqualified as the day they began. Surprisingly, Raymond made a success of himself in the fast food business in Holland, and Henry went on to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree from University in Hawaii. He now resides in New Zealand. 

My mother's favourite color was purple and her favourite flower was the orchid. This all came about after a special and thrilling occasion in her life; one of her few truly happy moments. In 1971 she went on an airliner for the first time in her life. She and I went to visit Dai-gu (Big Aunt, big denoting oldest), my father's sister. The airline we flew with was Thai International and along the way the stewardesses gave the women passengers a beautifully tied purple orchid to pin to their clothes. She was very taken with the little gift and from that time forth purple was her hue and orchid her bloom. This is why in my weekly visits to her memorial at the temple I always take her a fresh bouquet of purple orchids.
      
Go Lea Hua (left) in Taiwan on the trip where she fell in love with purple orchids
In time we children all grew up and moved away leaving her alone in the big house with Grandmother. Freed from looking after a houseful of people it should have been a time for her to finally relax and enjoy some leisure time, but it wasn't to be. Her husband's hospital care had eaten up all their money and left her destitute. I had moved out of the house to live with my husband and visited her every Sunday. To make ends meet she went to work in a factory until she and Hui Lan, her sister-in-law, opened a small street-side diner. She was high spirited and buoyant about her small enterprise but it pained me to see her working so hard yet again. I truly believe it was the stress of that year in the Philippines coupled with the rigors of life following that caused a sudden and rapid decline in her health.


Above: Taking a break with Jung Jai Lei (Jared) outside her small eatery. Winnie seated inside.

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.


Purple orchids, her favourite blooms.

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.



                                                                                  End


Notice: Raymond's memories of his mother will be added when I get the opportunity to sit with him for a long interview.




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