Friday, 8 April 2016

China woman: My grandmother’s other life

BY MELISSA CHI KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 23 — Whenever someone says, “Go back to where you came from”, I’d just shrug, because it didn’t apply to me. I’m from here. Born and raised. But it did make me wonder what made my ancestors uproot their family, leave their homeland and come to Malaysia. Adding to the long list of discoveries in the past week, I learned that my paternal grandmother, a Hakka, was the last one in the family who wasn’t born and raised in Malaysia.
She was born in MeiZhou, about five hours' drive from GuongZhou, in the year 1926, and being a girl in a poor family, she was sold off to the wealthy Yong family from the same village of Seh Khong Zhen to be a servant when she was about six years old. This, I learned from my granduncle, who is 76 this year, and happened to be her youngest and favourite brother, when I visited China last week. He was so excited to see us that he wore a pair of trousers my grandmother bought for him 18 years ago. It looked brand new because he had only worn it a couple of times, during very special occasions.
Hakka Yong Fau Fu (left). Mui Choy Kou Yuk (sliced pork with preserved mustard greens)(right). My maiden trip to China was to learn more about my ancestors and the culture that seems so foreign to me at times. It never occurred to me that this trip would mean anything more than what it is, a trip to China. But meeting my grandmother’s relatives, going to her family home and being served the best Hakka dishes I’ve ever had filled a hole in me that I never knew I had.
My grandmother's family home. I was especially close to my grandmother as she helped raise me and we've lived together my whole life, until I left the country to study abroad. Being away made me appreciate our time together even more, each time I returned to visit. However, on January 2, 2010, my grandmother slipped into a coma in her sleep. A week later, she died.
One of the bedrooms in the house. Not being physically there for her made it challenging for me to accept her death. I constantly forget that she was no longer here when I finally got home two months later. I keep seeing her, thinking of her and reminding myself to tell her something, before catching myself. Not being there for the person who helped raise you and played a big part in shaping who you are, is a hard thing to live with. As much as I had questions about her sudden death, I grew more curious each day about her life before she became my grandmother. During my six-day trip to China last week, I got a chance to meet and have long conversations with my granduncle whom I call kao-gung.
The courtyard. I learned, among other things, how hard life was for them, when they were growing up. My great grandparents had made a trip to Malacca to visit a relative and left when the Japanese invaded Malaysia. They left behind their other daughter and sold her to a family in Malacca. Somehow, my grandmother found her after living many years in Ipoh. Back in MeiZhou, on the second day, two of my grandmother’s nephews opened up their family home to me; the home where my grandmother was born, lived till she was about six, and was given away as a bride in her early 20s. It was a typical Hakka style house, with a fishpond in front of it, to supposedly bring wealth to the family. It didn't work for their family of course.
The entrance to the house where my grandmother was born, and given away as a bride. There are about six rooms, including the kitchen, where firewood is burned to generate heat to cook with. It has a well with a pump to extract water in a room next to it and a room to stock grains as well as several living quarters. The house also has a courtyard in the middle. They had dragonfruit plants, pomelo trees, and all types of vegetation in front of the house. There were at least 10 chickens roaming around the house, a dog that had just given birth to three pups, a few ducklings and two cats. Being in the house was surreal to me. I was lucky enough to pick up the Hakka dialect from my grandmother. Although I was having a hard time understanding her nephews, I was pretty proud of myself that I could still hold small chats in the dialect as they told me stories of the Liew family. The sound of these Hakka conversations was surprisingly comforting. I used to think it was a very obnoxious dialect because it sounded like people arguing very loudly, all the time.
The kitchen... up till this day, firewood is used for cooking. I was also treated to the best Hakka Yong Tau Fu, Mui Choi Kou Yuk (sliced pork with preserved mustard greens), Yim Guk Kai (salted baked chicken) and chicken cooked with Hakka rice wine and ginger, among others. Had I not made the trip back to my grandmother’s village, my tummy would not have known such joy. It was a bittersweet journey for me. As I learned more about my grandmother, I found myself missing her terribly but I sure am glad I made the trip. - See more at

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