A string of deaths in her family over recent years left Chongchong looking for answers to her many questions about their past; some of these questions she did not even know she had until she started to unravel the mystery of Mahmi, who had seemed “part tame and part wild, part mother, part child” to her. She begins with what she knows, their life in thriving, post-war, British-colonial Hong Kong. From here, and through conversations with Mahmi, she learns about life in pre-war Shanghai, her mother’s Confucian upbringing, and of how her mother was given in marriage just before the Japanese invasion in 1937 to the dashing navigator, Sek Duk Sing who flew for a living. We also glimpse Sek’s unfortunate childhood in a British North Borneo orphanage and how he escaped and ended up in China, where he met Mahmi’s youngest aunt, his first love. His past shrouds their present.
Beyond feelings of abandonment or because of them, the father is a gambler and alcoholic. For various reasons he loves two of his children and abuses, emotionally, the other two. All four children grow up with baggage to shed in one way or another. Not is all gloom and doom, and there are many moments of hilarity as we see them celebrate Chinese New Year and other festivals, play mahjong, and gamble; the last two activities pervade their lives, and almost destroys Chongchong’s brilliant brother. The oldest brother who is not very bright, surprises everyone when he becomes an airplane mechanic and emigrates to Canada, gets married and does well financially. Here in Hong Kong, we also meet the Sek family friends and the colorful figure of Uncle Mak, who is like a brother to Sek, and who turns out to have been Mahmi’s secret love up until his wife dies and Mahmi arranges for his second marriage. This secret is so well kept that none of the Sek family members knows of it until Mahmi is forced to tell Chongchong in her failed attempt to save the latter’s marriage.
By the last third of the novel, Chongchong’s parents are living in Toronto, and she herself, having left Hong Kong for Japan and the U.S. is, having married twice, the mother of two and teaching in California. Her sister follows quite a different path. Embedded in the sisters’ stories are their complicated relationships to each other and their families and to their childhood friend, Esther and her daughter, May. When May dies, Chongchong and her husband adopt her daughter Maya, who is the catalyst that leads Mahmi to tell Chongchong about another secret, what Chongchong identifies as her mother’s “Original Sin,” of how she abandons a young girl in the Shanghai marketplace when she herself was still a child.
Given Mahmi’s background and Chongchong’s education, Cantonese idioms, Confucian dictums, folklore, and even classical poetry find their way into the novel. The shadow of the Liaozhai, Mahmi’s favorite book, follows Chongchong’s narrative, and she, in turn, is our guide in discovering its influence on Mahmi and those whose lives she touches. In this way it also opens a window onto the ancient culture that informs this modern family’s story.
Mahmi and Me
Mahmi has always felt to me part tame and part wild, part mother, part child. There is something vague about her I have yet to pin down. When people outside the family were about, she appeared like a grown woman, observing social etiquette, behaving as she was expected to behave, but she was somehow more fluid, more vulnerable, more changeable when we were by ourselves, just the two of us. I suppose you might say she was freer, more herself, behaving as she would if she were allowed, or if she allowed herself. I am making my observations all these years later, trying to understand who she was to understand, at least in part, who I am.
Anyone outside the family would have known her as a soft-spoken, kind-hearted, and occasionally, witty, and very occasionally, sharp-tongued person. She was steeped in the classical Chinese tradition and this fact would be quite apparent to those who recognized such references in conversations with her. If you had met this social-Mahmi, you would have been surprised or even alarmed by the one in conversation with me when we were alone. I think she often forgot how young I was, and often, it felt like she was not really talking to me; even in those days when she was still quite young, in her thirties and forties, she had the habit of talking out loud to herself.
My most vivid memory of her was formed in those years, when we spent entire days together, when she was unknown to me as a separate person. She was a raw almondy smell, and a voice, a sort of toasty voice, and a feel, flesh of my flesh, breath of my breath. It was the physical intimacy between mother and child of course, but because of the circumstances of our history, our intimacy was especially intense and prolonged, so much so that even now, after all these years beyond her death, I still feel her presence, detect a whiff of that almondy aroma as the shadow of her flits by me. She is always with me, as if she cannot rest until I have told her story; she is constantly teasing, taunting, comforting me, sometimes closer, sometimes from far away.
My father, whose name was Sek Duk Sing, was absent more than he was at home because he flew for a living; he was a navigator in those pre-computer days when navigators were still necessary in the cockpit. My father was an orphan and was almost closer in age to my grandmother than to Mahmi. Because he had to be away so much and housing was scarce in Shanghai, they lived with Mahmi’s family. In those days, women married early and therefore had much longer childbearing years; her own mother’s youngest children were about the same age as Mahmi’s three. When they all lived together, my grandmother, whom we called Paupau, continued to run the household with my father chipping in to support his own brood. Thus, for the early part of her married life, my mother had few adult responsibilities. As she put it, she was still living “a girl’s life.” Indeed, Mahmi’s own relationship to her children was not much different from her relationship to her own siblings, of which she was the third of eight. Mahmi was, after all, only seventeen when she became a mother herself.
So, when I came along, the year she turned thirty and life had restarted after the wars — the Sino-Japanese, which became the Second World War, and the Chinese Civil War or Revolution, depending on which side you were on — and my dad had moved her and their three children to Hong Kong, not only had her life been through a sea change, but she had the full weight of motherhood thrown at her all at once. Married to a semi-foreign man who brought her to this semi-foreign place, as Hong Kong was a British colony, she had to grow up fast. I am calling my father semi-foreign because he grew up in British North Borneo and what little Chinese he spoke was not even in our family dialect. He spoke Hakka and we spoke Cantonese. And he continued to fly. Their marriage must have involved a great deal of guesswork and the gulf between them deeper and wider than most spousal relationships. It was certainly not a marriage built on verbal affinity.
Thus, for the first few years of my existence, she held me close, as if the weight of me reassured her that she could manage this new reality by herself. Some lonely children have invisible friends to whom they tell their secret fears and share their most intimate thoughts. Mahmi had me. Not everything was hidden away from other people, though. She loved to show me off, and even made up a five-character ditty about me that went something like this:
Her hair is a tuft of rice sapling stuck on her head.
Her two chubby arms stick out like stuffed sausages.
When her little tummy’s full, everyone is a friend.
When she’s hungry, a tiger’s growl is all you’ll get.
In the daytime, anyone can ask for a cuddle, but
Mahmi is the only one for her when it’s time for bed.
I don’t have a clear recollection of much of my childhood, and what I do remember may well have been conjured up by what I have been told. In contrast to my siblings who were born in war-torn Shanghai, before photography became affordable and popular, I had many photos taken of me, at every stage of my young life. So much so that when we were all grown up and had flown away, my mother found enough pictures of me to fill a whole album. My sister, Yunyun, is still, to this day, green with envy about this album, though she also lovingly called it “The Adventures of Little Worm,” as if it was a storybook Mahmi had put together about me. Chongchong, meaning little worm, is the nickname my family gave me.
The summers in Hong Kong are hot and humid, and we did not have air conditioning. At night, we slept on woven bamboo mats to keep the bedding cool. Mahmi said it was great cuddling with me in the winter, as I was like a little oven, but it was a trial to coax me to sleep in the summer. Poot, park, poot, park all night long – poot is to fan and park is to pat – that was the ritual she had to perform every night until I finally stopped fidgeting and fell asleep. I didn’t cry much during the day, but if she stopped fanning at night, I would throw a fit. I would cry also at the Cantonese melodramas she took me to see. Mahmi would buy one ticket and sneak my sister in with us. I would be held in her arms, sitting on her lap and my sister, a diminutive nine-or-so-year-old, would sort of crouch, half of her sitting on the one seat we shared. Mahmi was fond of telling her friends how I could cry baby tears at the movies since I was two. I think it was more a case of monkey see, monkey do; I was crying because she was crying. Sometimes, when she went out to a friend’s house to play mahjong late into the night and I had fallen asleep, she would carry me home. This continued until I was four or five, and I was, by all accounts, still chubby, which was why they often called me Fat Little Worm.
“Where did I find the strength to carry you, and even in the days when we moved to Nathan Road, and we lived on the fifth floor in that tall building with no elevators. My, my, what a ‘wild heart’ I was,” she would marvel, years later, as she recollected her prowess. (‘Wild heart’ is my take on the Chinese expression, yeh sing, literally meaning ‘untamed nature.’) “Of course, in those days, there was ‘no king in the land where I lived’ (mo wong goon), your Deh was still flying and my parents both stayed in China, so there was no one to rule over me.” Deh was what we called my father. Even as a grown woman and mistress of her own house, Mahmi still looked to her parents and Deh as authority figures in her life.
Then, I grew up. The smell, sound, and feel of her remained with me, but my separate development intruded into our world. I began to ask questions of her when she talked to me. Gradually, we grew apart, and our relationship became more complex. After school, when I was at home, she still took me everywhere she went, to the marketplace, to stores to buy things, to Chinese movies and Cantonese operas, and to friends’ houses to play mahjong. She was not one to sit still and do nothing. Even when we were at home, she would be cooking or sewing or attending to other chores, though she did not treat the first two duties as chores, as she loved trying out new dishes and making clothes for Yun and me and things for the house. She also loved to tell us stories, stories about herself and stories she heard from others as well as those she read about in books or the newspaper. Everything was a story to her, things that happened to other people or to herself, things that happened in books or movies or in real life, and often, one story conflated with another until you could hardly tell them apart. As my siblings grew older and became more and more engrossed in their own lives, I often became her sole audience. Then, I, too, left home, first to Japan on a high school exchange, then to America, under more complicated circumstances. It was not until I had become a grown woman, almost the same age as she was when she bore me, that I began to get to know her anew, mostly from afar, and in retrospect.
She was born in Shanghai. Her father was a schoolmaster who taught from home. To hear her tell it, you would have thought he was a famous scholar and had students come to him from every corner of China. In fact, he was not particularly well known, nor was their family particularly well-off, though he did groom loyal students who returned to visit years after they had left him and “made something of themselves.” They called him Master Yip. We called him Gunggung, Cantonese for maternal grandfather.
“Your Gunggung was an excellent storyteller. Your brothers and sister used to beg him to tell yune oy stories all day long,” Mahmi said on one of those endless afternoons when I came home from elementary school; yune oy was what rich landowners were called in the old days. Somehow Gunggung’s stories often involved wealthy families; perhaps wealthy families had more interesting stuff hidden in their closets, or perhaps wealthy people were like celebrities to my young siblings. “Well,” she continued, “not just your brothers and sister, Chongchong, but mine were always asking him for stories. In his classes which, if we were lucky enough to attend (or at least listen in on, sometimes outside the classroom window when there wasn’t enough room for our own desks), he would tell stories from old books, histories, even current affairs. Tantalizing tales of heroes and scholars, adventures from all over the world. He was a walking encyclopedia. What a pity he was not discovered for greater things.” To her, Gunggung was like so many scholar-statesmen across the ages, ambitious and prepared to serve his emperor and country but misunderstood or shunned, because they were too honest and outspoken. Her admiration and regret filled us with admiration and regret. “Current affairs” during that time would have had something to do with the Japanese invasion, the Chinese resistance, and the stories of Nationalist and Communist factions fighting each other and/or joining forces to fight the foreign aggressor. What an exciting and frightening time it must have been. It lasted from the mid-1930s to 1949, when Mao Zedong eventually emerged the victor.
“The war years were hard,” Mahmi would say, “but then I was young and didn’t really pay attention, didn’t have a care in the world, and we were better off than most since your Deh still had a job and continued to fly. When the Communists won, your Deh put us on a train to Canton, where my eldest sister, your Dai Yee Ma, lived. He had to stay behind in Shanghai for a temporary job at the Post Office and we needed the extra money. In those days, your Dai Yee Jeung, her husband, still owned the sock factory he inherited, so they were rich and had a big house with many rooms. In fact, in the years before the Communists took over, your Dai Yee Jeung was the big boss in Canton, lording it over everybody. Your Dai Yee Ma, too, had her nose in the air. You know the story about how she wouldn’t even touch an orange until one of her housemaids tasted it first, just like the emperors used to do to see if somebody was trying to poison them, only in her case it was to see if the fruit was tasty enough. I have seen her slap a poor maid till she fell to the ground because the girl handed her an orange that was sour and then had the temerity to argue about it. Aye-ya, how the mighty have fallen. Those were the days too when they had taken a concubine for Dai Yee Jeung.”
“They? How open-minded of my Dai Yee Ma,” my precocious ten-year-old-self exclaimed. All those Cantonese movies Mahmi had taken me to see before I could even talk had taught me more about man-woman relationships than most kids my age, and I knew most women wouldn’t want to “share” their husbands. This was another one of those afternoons when I was the only one home, while the older kids were still at school, work, or afterschool activities. Mahmi always had some goodies waiting for me. That day, it was Cadbury’s chocolate fingers and Chinese almond paste soup. Afternoon tea, Mahmi style, was our ritual on school days.
She snickered at my comment and said, “Yeah, open-minded is one way of putting it. One more person in the house for her to order about is more like it. She bought him that concubine so, as she said, he would leave her alone and not go waving his thing all over town. Apparently, he was a sex fiend and never had enough.”
“Wah, who would’ve thunk?!” I said, wincing, almost choking on my almond soup as the image of a skinny old man who was my uncle as I imagined him rose before my mind’s eye. This crude and uncensored Mahmi never showed herself in public. In fact, when she talked like that, I often felt like a prop, as if I need not have been there, that maybe she had forgotten I was there and should not have been exposed to such unbecoming thoughts. Looking back, something about her disgust at her sister and brother-in-law seemed also to be tinged with pride. Was the angry talk a mask to hide envy?
“Anyway,” she continued, ignoring my distress, “when we got there, your Dai Yee Ma put us in the back bedroom with no windows, me and the three children; it was so hot and stuffy, right next to the kitchen, we could hardly breathe. Even the concubine had a better living space. Your Deh was so angry when he saw how she treated us, he whisked us out of there right away. Luckily, there was a CAT flight bound for Hong Kong, and it was almost the last one out too,” she concluded triumphantly.
Civil Air Transport, or CAT, later became an American “cargo” company. I was not aware until years later that, during the Chinese Civil War, when Deh started working for them, CAT belonged to the KMT (Kuomingtang or the Chinese Nationalist Party), and before that, many of CAT’s pilots had been Flying Tigers during the Second World War when the Chinese were fighting the Japanese invaders. Then, in the fifties, CAT was bought by the American CIA and carried out many clandestine operations against the Communists in East and Southeast Asia. Since my father worked for CAT until 1958, did that mean he flew on some of these flights? Did he know who he worked for? Mahmi obviously had no idea that he worked for Mao’s enemy, and often proudly referred to CAT as an American company even before it was one. I guess she fancied it to be just like the glamorous Pan Am that our family friend Uncle Mak worked for when they had all escaped to Hong Kong.
“Were you smuggled out of China?” I asked that afternoon, rather too gleefully. “He’s good at that isn’t he,” I said, alluding to Deh’s own boyhood stowaway story when he hid himself in the cargo hold of an ocean liner and left North Borneo.
“Sounds like fun to you, Chongchong, but believe me it wasn’t fun at all,” she said and dismissed the subject. Mahmi didn’t like to talk about difficult times, and when she did, she would talk about them as if they had happened to someone else, so everything she told us sounded like stories, and like a good Chinese storyteller, her stories often had a moral attached. This one was no exception. “Always treat people with respect when they ask you for help, because you never know when your luck will change, and you are the one on the asking end. It wasn’t long after we left Canton that Mao confiscated your Dai Yee Jeung’s properties, and then not so long after that, my sister found herself asking me for favors.”
“You mean when her children came to live with us?” I loved the way Mahmi referred to the Commies as Mao, as if he had personally gone and kicked my uncle’s door down to lay claim to his property.
“Well, not quite yet. First it was just money and necessities. It was after the first Mao years, like after the Great Leap Forward and the famines, that she smuggled her family out of there, first her oldest daughter and her only surviving son, and several years after, herself and her youngest girl.”
“Was Sunny not her only son?”
“Oh no. There were two more. One died when he was still a baby, and Ah Joh, her eldest, died of typhoid. Only seventeen he was when it happened. Aye-ya my sister has had her share of tragedies. Maybe it’s bo ying, what goes around, comes around, Chongchong, always treat people with kindness and never spread rumors.”
“Hm, okay,” I agreed, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant about spreading rumors. I wanted to return to my cousins’ arrival and the gift they brought us. “We were already here at Waterloo Road when Pearl and Sunny came, weren’t we?” I asked, leading her on, knowing full well that that was the case. My cousin’s names were Ah Ju, which means “pearl” and Ah Wing which means “glory,” but many young people in Hong Kong had English names, so my cousins wanted them too. My sister and I came up with Pearl and Sunny for them almost as a joke.
“Yes, we had just moved here,” Mahmi replied.
“I can still see that so-called duck they brought us.” I jumped in before she could continue, recalling that unforgettable gift. “It was a dried-out, flattened thing that looked just like those preserved ducks we buy for Chinese New Year, but after we ate it at dinner, she told us it was a rat! Yikes!”
“I know, it looked and even tasted just like dried duck,” Mahmi giggled. “ It must have been a field rat. The Cantonese will eat anything that moves, Chongchong, that’s what people say about them.”
Mahmi always referred to other Cantonese people as “the Cantonese” or “those Cantonese,” as if we ourselves were not. Having grown up Cantonese in Shanghai, one would have thought that she’d be self-consciously Cantonese, an outsider even. Instead, her identity with Shanghai was so strong that, to this day, all my Shanghai-born siblings think of themselves as Shanghainese. On the other hand, one of her favorite stories was that of her in labor with my eldest brother. She was very proud of the fact that the nurses at the maternity ward called her “that good Cantonese girl” because she suffered her labor pangs quietly instead of crying bloody murder like the Shanghainese women who were in labor around her. She didn’t mind being called Cantonese then, maybe being praised was more important to her. In retrospect, her preference for being Shanghainese might well have been an identity she chose after the family came to Hong Kong, where the Shanghainese were a minority and of that minority, they seemed better educated and better-off.
“What a night that was too,” she said, recollecting my cousins’ unexpected arrival. “The doorbell rang while I was preparing dinner in the kitchen with our amah, Ah Sheung. This stranger – I only remembered he smelled like rotten garbage when I answered the door – demanded that if I wanted the kids, it would cost me a hundred dollars each. And when I hesitated, not knowing what he was talking about, Ah Ju called out to me from behind him, ‘Sarm Yee, it’s me, Ah Ju!’ and said she had come with Ah Wing. (Sarm Yee means third and younger sister to one’s mother.) Only then did I realize it was my sister’s kids, and immediately understood what had happened as so many people were being smuggled by these snakeheads across the river in those days. Good job I had some money at home. Two hundred dollars is not a small sum, but it was midwinter and there was money in the house in anticipation of Lunar New Year. Plus, they sure picked a good time to come ...” She paused and took a deep breath before continuing.
“Truth be told, Sek Duk Sing is simply the best when it comes to helping out his wife’s family.” Mahmi usually called Deh by his entire name when she was especially pleased or especially angry with him. “Never has he ever complained about my sending money and parcels to the mainland, or with your cousins living with us, or Paupau, coming and going, longing for the ones in Shanghai when she was with us and longing for us when she went back to them. Aye-ya, once a mother ... And Deh paid for all her trips. The only one of my siblings he couldn’t stand is my eldest sister because of that dark room incident, and even so, he didn’t hold it against her children ... but then again, he has no family of his own, being an orphan and all.”
These two sentiments, I imagine, a wife’s gratitude toward her husband who took care of her parents and siblings and a mother’s tenderness toward a child with no parents, sustained her love for him even after that romantic attraction she felt as a young woman faded away and all those terrible things happened.