On this Mother’s Day, as we honor all of our mothers, I remember my own mother whose life was like a good cup of our Keemun tea—sweet, bitter at times, but very well lived. Hers was a life that spanned just short of 100 years and through many political systems and across two continents. What I admired most about her was her resolve and her resiliency.
My mother was born in China when there was still an Emperor on the throne. She was the only daughter of a Chinese merchant who had returned from America with an accumulated fortune after working hard for 18 years abroad. As a child born in their mature years, she was beloved by both her parents and an older brother 18 years her senior. Her father nicknamed her Pearl and Diamond. The pearl in her always shone through her wisdom, determination, integrity, and caring nature; the diamond was polished well through changes beyond her control.
When she was 10, she went through her life’s first adjustment—escaping from pirates and robbers, she moved from an otherwise carefree village life to then British controlled Hong Kong—a metropolitan city with foreign influence. She went to a formal school for the first time, but she quickly adjusted. Not only did she do well but she graduated from college in a time when most girls were married off by the age of 16. When arranged marriages was the norm, my parents met and married by their choice. My mother was a teacher until she herself had 6 children and there were too many nannies and maids and their squabbles to deal with.
The good times ended suddenly when WWII broke out. My father was drafted into the (volunteer!?) army to defend Hong Kong. The island of only 36 square miles, so he was stationed where she was able to see the carpet bombings from home. Soon even communication to home was bombed out by the Japanese. I cannot imagine my mother watching and wondering each moment if she had become a widow with 6 kids. It did not take long for the Japanese to occupy Hong Kong, but fortunately, my father escaped imprisonment and death in the concentration camp—the fate of many of his fellow soldiers. He was able to do this because my mother had shrewdly sewn into his satchel the clothing and shoes of a Chinese civilian for him to change into in the event of capture by the enemy.
Hong Kong then went through a severe famine—people even had to resort to eating leaves. Fortunately, both my parents found work so we survived on the porridge made from the few ounces of rice rationed to them everyday as their pay. Soon, it was time to flee again to Macao, a Portuguese colony only few hours away which was not at war but was attached to the agricultural land of mainland China. Father went there first to scout out the conditions before we all went there.
I was a little older than a toddler, but I remember seeing my mother sobbing as strangers came purchased—for a pittance—the beautiful mahogany, marble-inlaid, red velvet-cushioned furniture that had been part of her dowry. By the light of one incense stick (for fear of Allied bombings), she sewed all night to turn new material into bags so that they could later be reused for making clothes after we fled.
We bought passage on the last boat to leave Hong Kong. I remember Mother told me to hold on to the kitten in a pillow case and with the other hand to never let go of the handle of her suitcase because she did not have an extra hand for me to hold on to. After much jostling and screaming, we finally got to the pier only to find out the boat was already filled to beyond capacity. The ferry company hailed a cargo boat which had just unloaded its contents of coal, and everyone rushed in.
Mother got us space the size of a piece of brown wrapping paper. When we were in the middle of the ocean, a storm arose. Instead of the few hours the journey was supposed to take, the boat drifted in the ocean for three days and nights. The boat we were initially supposed to be on but missed, sank in the same storm because of overloading.
We sat shivering in the rain and wet from the swirling water and had no food because what we brought with us had became spoiled. We also had no fresh water for three days except for a small thermos of hot water mother had to ration out to us. Meanwhile, my father was waiting on top of a statue for three days and nights in the pouring rain and refused to climb down to eat until he finally saw a boat in the distance.
After the war, people returned to Hong Kong only to be met with inflation and housing shortages. It was very difficult to feed 8 mouths and pay tuition for the kids even though both my parents worked. Even in difficult times, my parents were the resources and wisdom for poor relatives and neighbors. Thanks to my mother, our home was a counseling shelter for helpless wives and mothers.
Eventually, life returned to normal for my parents. However, they did not get to enjoy peace and prosperity for long because the political environment changed yet again. There were extreme political operatives in the island laying out bombs unpredictably in hope of regime change. It was time to flee again. Canada had the most welcoming immigration system and so they made their new home in Vancouver.
At the age of 70, my mother decided to learn English because she could not stand being illiterate in her new country. Of course, she was not able to be proficient, but the courage and determination were there for us to see. I remember her telling me one day how happy she was because, while at the bus stop, she able to understand and respond to another passenger’s question. Simple accomplishments pleased her tremendously.
My mother passed away peacefully one early May morning in 2006 at the age of ninety nine and a half, not long after winning against three other Mahjong players the night before. She lived a rich and colorful life spanning several cultures and political systems. More impressively, she saw to it that her family survived both the good and bad times through her intelligence, courage, and good heart. I miss my mother greatly and wish that my own grandchildren could have known her. So on this Mother’s Day, I honor her memory.