Excerpt for Iron Rice Bowl by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Iron Rice Bowl


A MEMOIR BY TOM KWOK




Copyright by Tom Kwok

Brisbane, Qld, Australia 2017




Smashwords Edition


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Cover design by Peter Cobcroft




ISBN 978-0-9942792-3-1




Published by Rainbow Works Pty Ltd, Pottsville, NSW




Dedicated to my loving family




Disclaimer


In this story, real names of the people are used as they are remembered. The places and situations are also real. Dialogue has been reconstructed as accurately as memory permits. However, some names are made up because the author could not recall them. Any similarity of fictional names to real people who had no involvement in this story is purely coincidental.




ONE





My Grandmother’s Promise





May 1954



Grandmother Do Shui Ying is leaving Hong Kong. She is going to Australia. We all go to say goodbye.

I am excited to be able to explore a huge ship. I run on the open deck, from one end of the ship to the other. Grandmother takes us down to the lowest deck, where she will stay for the fifteen days of her journey. It is packed with cargo. Part of it is cleared and set up with rows and rows of two-tiered bunks where the passengers sleep.

When the hooter sounds to remind all the non-passengers to leave the ship, I begin to cry.

“Don’t be silly, and stop crying,” my grandmother says. “I’ll bring you over to Australia to join me soon.”


Will I meet you when I come to Australia, Father? I want so much to get to know you.




It was spring. I was seven. I didn’t often have outings, so I was wildly excited to be going down to the docks to see my paternal grandmother off on her voyage. Do Shui Ying was her maiden name. My brother, Lu Kee, and I called her Ah-por1 .Por, ah-por and por-por are Chinese terms that mean old woman or grandmother.

My grandmother was born sometime in November 1905, in the Year of the Snake. According to Chinese astrology, those born in the Year of the Snake are self-composed, gentle, and philosophical; even profoundly deep-thinkers. They display wisdom, courage, warmth and understanding. They are inquisitive and cautious and show perseverance. Snakes can also be imperious, judgmental and haughty.

Ah-por was born shortly before the 1911 revolution. After the revolution, the one-thousand-two-hundred-year-old Chinese custom of binding the feet of young, wealthy girls was abolished. Foot-binding was an excruciatingly painful process in which a young girl’s toes, except the big toe, were crushed and tucked under the soles of her feet. Year after year, the feet were bound with a long cotton bandage, stunting their growth. The feet only grew to three inches long and were known as ‘golden lilies’. These girls were crippled for life. It was considered necessary if they were to marry into wealthy families, because bound feet were symbols of wealth and beauty. Women with unbound feet were from poor, peasant backgrounds and rarely permitted to marry into wealthy families.

Although she was born before the revolution, my grandmother’s feet were not bound. At the age of six, she was probably considered not yet ready for the process. She was able to walk normally. Girls with big feet were often married off at fifteen or sixteen as child brides. Ah-por was just sixteen when, as was traditional, she entered an arranged marriage to my grandfather, Kwok Lin Cheong. As was customary, astrological details were checked to ensure they were compatible with each other. The Chinese believe this is important to ensure the everlasting happiness, prosperity and longevity of the couple and their descendants.

Raised in the traditional way, my grandmother was skilled in cooking, sewing and looking after the household. She was a very capable person, despite having little formal education. Healthy, with no physical deformities, she was of average build, well-proportioned and not too short; but not a woman of extraordinary beauty. She was brought up to be a dutiful wife and a good mother; to look after her parents-in-law and the affairs of the family.

My grandfather died in 1933, aged thirty, leaving the twenty-nine-year-old Ah-por widowed with four children. The burden of running the household and the family-owned rice paddies fell upon her. Although uneducated, she was able to read — unlike many other women in China who, during that era, could neither read nor write. When her parents-in-law died, a few years after the death of her husband, Ah-por took over running the household and the rice production with absolute power and authority.

During the Japanese occupation of China in the 1940s, Ah-por displayed wisdom and courage in bringing up four children on her own. She was resilient, with a strong personality. No matter what happened, she always managed to pick herself up. Perhaps she was born with that strength, or she might have developed it during the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, and the war between China and Japan. Adversity toughened her.

My father’s family had been landlords, and well-off. Although life was hard for a young widowed mother, Ah-por was fortunate to be financially secure. In 1950, our family wealth was confiscated by the Communists and redistributed among the peasants. It seemed to me, at age seven, that we must be quite poor.

Understandably, my awareness of our home and lifestyle was quite limited. I understood that I had no father. I didn’t know why. That made me different from my peers. I was painfully aware that I was different in other ways, too.

I lived in an apartment in Lockhart Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong. Eleven other family members and a servant shared a small space in a huge four-storey building, fed by ten stairwells that led to apartments on the second, third and fourth floor. The ground floor was taken up with a variety of shops and businesses. There was a grocery shop from which, for some reason, my maternal grandmother, Leung-por never bought groceries. Three or four women sat peeling raw prawns in front of the shop next to it. It always smelled fishy around that building.

All the apartments were the same: rectangular-shaped shoe-boxes, with their length two-and-a-half times their width. The occupants divided the space into rooms according to their needs. Timber-panel partitions divided into four: three bedrooms and a living area.

My mother, brother, youngest aunt and I shared a bedroom that had wall-to-wall bedding. A female servant slept on a folding stretcher at the bottom of our large bed. Two other bedrooms were occupied by my maternal grandparents and by my second and third aunts. I called my maternal grandparents ‘’Leung-gong’’ and ‘’Leung-por’’, so named according to the Chinese custom of adding the Chinese word for old man or grandfather (‘’gong’’, ‘’ah-gong’’, or ‘’gong-gong’’), or old woman or grandmother (‘’por’’, ‘’ah-por’’ or ‘’por-por’’) to the mother’s maiden name.

Four uncles slept in two double bunks on the entrance side of the apartment.

By the window facing the road was a dining and living room. A circular dining table with four seating stools stood in the middle of the room and a four-seater settee, bookcase, glass cabinet and refrigerator lined the walls.

Past the bedrooms, the width of the apartment reduced to half, with a narrow balcony, just wide enough for one person to walk through, which led to the kitchen and a single toilet right at the back. A set of triangular-shaped metal brackets fixed to the edge of the balcony supported half-a-dozen bamboo rods on which washing was hung to dry. Often, washing from the floors above dripped onto the laundry of the lower floors, causing neighbors to argue.

I saw little of my mother, who worked long hours as a sales assistant and had only one full day off, on Monday, every two weeks. Leung-por saw to my care. She took me to the doctor and nursed me to recovery when I contracted diarrhea. She was kind to me. Leung-por cared for me when I was scalded one evening running toward the kitchen. A servant was coming through with a bowl of hot soup. We collided. She lost her balance. The soup spilled over the top of my head and down the left side of my face. There were no painkillers for me to take, but Leung-por calmed me. She went to the chemist shop to purchase some cream to apply to the burned area. She told me not to touch it with my fingers, as it would be even more painful if the skin ruptured.

Except for attending school, I had little social life. Life was devoid of small-boy adventures like tree-climbing and water play. I suppose I was over-protected. My mother’s parents were anxious people who seemed to feel a great weight of responsibility for our welfare. They kept us from joining in social gatherings for fear we might mix with the wrong crowd. Their protectiveness made me quite afraid, so I avoided any form of play that might result in physical hurt.

I went to afternoon school from one-thirty until six-thirty in the evening. My brother, Lu-Kee, whom I call ‘’Ah-kor’’ (‘’Kor’’ being the Chinese word for ‘’older brother’’), attended an all-day school five days a week, Mondays to Fridays. We were together on Sundays and school holidays, but we only occasionally played together. He was the quiet type, and not much interested in me.

Each day after lunch, I reluctantly descended the stairs dressed for school and tried valiantly to heed Leung-por’s warnings not to loiter about the shops below our apartment. Directly below was a motor service and repair shop. Two shop spaces were taken up by a shop that printed everything from primary school text books to traditional Chinese invitation cards with golden embellishments on a glossy red surface. A rice shop sold all kinds of rice, and also peanut oil for cooking. I ordered rice to be delivered to our apartment, and I bought peanut oil for my grandmother.

Another store sold firewood. Most households used wood stoves, as kerosene was expensive and kerosene cookers were dangerous. I often watched the shopkeeper, in the morning, chopping wooden logs into pieces to deliver in the afternoons.

In a furniture shop people worked with cane and rattan, weaving chairs, small tables, carry bags and suitcases. They wove rattan into sheets to be used as bed linen in summer, because rattan didn’t absorb heat, and it cooled quickly. Were it not for Leung-por’s cautions, I might have been tempted to stand and watch the weaving. The activity fascinated me.

My favorite shop sold sweets, chocolates, tins of biscuits, soda water, ice blocks and small buckets of ice cream. I seldom had money to buy anything from it, but I loved to look.

I suppose I was loved and cared for, but my childhood was far from carefree. At school, I was somehow a misfit. I didn’t know where my father was. I talked to him often — imaginary conversations in which he tried to reassure me sometimes, and to ease my troubles, but he never told me where he was or why he wasn’t present in my life. My mother refused to answer questions about him. When I asked, her standard answer was “You shouldn’t ask questions like that.”

Now, my father’s mother, Ah-por, was going to Australia. I assumed then, that my father must be there. Perhaps our family had somehow fallen on hard times and he was trying to make a new start in a land of opportunity? Ah-por planned to send for me to come to Australia. Things would be better then.

Surely, then, I would finally meet my father.




Two





Laughing Stock



September 1951



I start kindergarten this morning, Father.


Leung-por gives me a zippered shoulder bag made of cotton. It holds a small hand towel, a bottle of water, and a plastic container full of food.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“To kindergarten, where you will learn and play with other children,” she says.

The kindergarten is in walking distance, on the second level of a four-storey apartment building. It is small. There isn’t much space for children to run or play. Animal pictures are pinned on the wall: horse, cow, dog, cat, rabbit and elephant. There are also pictures of a fire-engine, police car, ambulance, ship and aeroplane. A toy box holds cars, trucks and aeroplanes for the boys and dolls, cooking utensils and a tea set for the girls. Rag dolls sit on shelves. We have lessons, singing, play, lunch, a sleep, then more play. Then it is time to go home.

I don’t join in the play much. I stand and watch other children, joining in only when the teacher says I must. I’m not used to playing with other children. I don’t know how to make friends.





A few days after I start kindergarten, I notice a part of my right chin and neck is a little swollen. It isn’t painful. When the teacher notices, she tells other children to stay away from me. She says I have mumps, and others can catch it just by touching me.

I stay at home for a few days.


Leung-por says I won’t be going back to kindergarten, Father. I don’t know why. I feel sad that I can’t go.


Later, I wonder if Leung-por didn’t have time to take me to kindergarten and collect me every day. Or perhaps the teacher upset Leung-por by telling her she did wrong to bring a sick child to kindergarten. Maybe my mother simply couldn’t afford the fees?

SEPTEMBER 1952



I am to start school today, Father. I hope school might be like kindergarten, with lots of things to play with. Maybe I will make some friends.


Leung-por takes me to school. It is a ten-minute walk. We enter through the back gate and she asks for my Primary One teacher and introduces us.

“Don’t lose sight of the teacher,” she says as she prepares to leave.

Two playgrounds are separated by a single-storey assembly hall. My teacher tells me to play in the playground for Primary One to Three students and not to go to the one for the Primary Four to Six students.

Before classes start, the whole school gathers at the assembly hall to listen to the principal’s address. Afterwards, students go to their classrooms. Our teacher leads us to our classroom. I don’t know any of the other thirty-nine students, and I am embarrassed that I am among the youngest and smallest. I am so skinny.

All sorts of pictures are stuck on three classroom walls, while one wall is all windows. Twenty twin desks with seats are divided into four rows. Children sit in pairs — a girl and boy at each desk. When the teacher enters the room, we must show respect by standing up and bowing, before sitting down.

Our teacher is a young woman with deep brown eyes and a big smile. Her voice is soft and sweet, but firm. I liked her until —

“Students,” she says, “when I call out your name, put your hand up and answer me with ‘Yes, Teacher’. I want to see who you are and put a face to your name.”

She calls the names of children, not in any particular order. They all answer promptly.

“Kwok Loo Shang,” she calls.

“Yes, Teacher,” I answer softly, and without hesitation. My right thumb is jammed in my mouth, muffling my reply.

“I can’t hear you, Kwok Loo Shang,” the teacher says. “Pull out whatever you have in your mouth and put your hand up.”

I pull my thumb out of my mouth and raise my hand.

“Only a baby sucks his thumb!” one of the students shouts. Everyone laughs loudly.

“Loo Shang sounds like a girl’s name,” says the teacher. “You are not a girl.”

“Are you a boy or a girl?” the girl beside me asks, laughing uncontrollably. Another round of hearty laughter follows.


What is so funny about my name, Father? Nobody ever told me my name is for girls. I don’t like school. The teacher and students make fun of me.





After roll call, the teacher asks questions to test our knowledge. Students who know the answers raise their hands and hop up and down in their seats to draw her attention. I don’t know many answers, so I try not to draw her attention.

“Kwok Loo Shang,” she calls out suddenly. “If you are facing east, which direction is your back?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“West, stupid!” a student exclaims. The class bursts out laughing again.

“It is not nice to call people stupid,” the teacher says. “Now, Kwok Loo Shang, tell me which is your left hand?”

I hesitate, then slowly raise my right hand.

“No, that is your right hand.”

Again, the whole class laughs, and I squirm in my seat. A burning sensation rises up my neck. The teacher continues her questioning, and I again try to be inconspicuous.

After testing our general knowledge, the teacher says, “It’s time for me to hear what your father does.” She focuses on one girl and asks, “What does yours do?”

“My father has a business,” she replies.

“My father is a fireman,” says another, full of pride.

“My father works for the government,” says the girl who sits next to me.

This goes on until every student except me has related their father’s occupation.

“Kwok Loo Shang, what does your father do?”

“I don’t know,” I reply. The whole class erupts into laughter again.

“Be quiet students,” she says, then turns back to me and asks, “Why don’t you know?”

“I have never met him. No one has ever told me anything about him.”

“A bastard!” one older student shouts.

Silence.

Mouths open wide. Hands of older students fly to cover their mouths. Students my age are staring at me. Perhaps, like me, they don’t know the meaning of the word.

“I’ll be very angry with you if I hear that word again.” The teacher’s tone is authoritative. She seeks to defend me, but she is to blame. She should not have asked me those questions.


What do you do, Father? And what’s a bastard? Am I one? It seems like it’s a very bad thing to be.





I stop sucking my thumb after that first day at school. My mother and Leung-por are glad that something has finally cured me of the habit, but I never tell them how I suffered that day. They never ask.

The teasing continues. A boy with a girl’s name who doesn’t know anything about his own father? What a joke! They never again call me ‘bastard’ to my face, but one student tells me that others often say the word behind my back.

It would be many years before I understood the meaning, and longer still before I truly understood that I wasn’t one, and why I had no father.





School days in Primary One are predictable. After my first two weeks, Leung-por no longer walks to school with me. She cautions me not to loiter, but I have a little welcome freedom at the start and end of each school day.

We practice writing on a slate with a slate pencil, pushing a damp cloth up and down to clean it. The slate dries quickly, and we can practice some more.

For homework, we write in an exercise book with a lead pencil. The book has large squares in which to write Chinese characters. It is hard to keep my characters within the boundaries of these squares. We do sums in an exercise book with small squares. Near the end of my first year of school, there is an exciting event: Coronation Day.

2nd June, 1953



Today Father, Princess Elizabeth officially became the Queen of England. Before classes began, the whole school went to assembly and the principal addressed us. He told us we are to address the Princess as ‘Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.’ Every classroom has a picture of her high up on one wall.

All the students received a gift from the newly crowned Queen, in commemoration of the special occasion. We queued up, and we had to behave ourselves while waiting to collect our gift.

It was exciting. Students were guessing what the gift might be. I have never had anything of value. A gift from the Queen! It was unbelievable.


I received an aluminum mug with the Queen’s profile engraved. It was inscribed on one side: Queen Elizabeth II Coronation 1953. I have something of value now, far more valuable than my collection of bottle tops and ice-block sticks. I couldn’t wait for school to finish so I could proudly show my mother my new and most valuable worldly possession.

When I need a drink, I climb up on the big concrete water tank in the kitchen and balance on my stomach on the edge to scoop water out with my mug.

I go to sleep with my mug, and I take it with me to school. Some of my fellow students reckon that I’m crazy to carry it around. There must be hundreds of thousands of them around. Every Government school student has one. But I don’t care that they think it cheap and worthless.

To me, my mug is priceless.




three





I’m Yang Fire Dog, But Not a Leader





It’s the first week of my school holidays, Leung-por calls, “Loo Shang, what are you doing?”

“Playing with my toy fire-engine.” My fire engine is my pride and joy. It’s the only toy I have ever bought for myself. It cost thirty cents, and I treasure it.

“You’d better pack up and get ready. I’m taking you with me to do some shopping at the departmental store in the Central District. It’s nine o’clock now. We’ll be leaving in five minutes.”

“Yippee!” I’m getting out of the house. At age seven, this is a rare treat. “Can we ride on the upper level of the double-decker tram?”

“Only if you are careful when you walk up the stairs.”

It’s a twenty-minute ride to the Central District, but the wait at the tram stop seems interminable. When the tram finally arrives and the door slides open, I rush up the stairs and drop onto a double seat next to a window. Waving at my grandmother, I call, “Hurry up,” concerned that another passenger might take the empty seat beside me.

“Sit still!” Leung-por cautions.

“I can’t see very much while sitting down. Is it okay for me to kneel on the seat?”

“All right then. Kneel on the seat. But don’t put your head or hands outside the window.”

Now, the whole world is passing by underneath me.

The tram stops right outside the six-level Wing On Department Store. It is the sister company of Wing On Textile in Shanghai, where my great-grandfather worked as the treasurer.

“You go up to the toy section and entertain yourself for a few hours,” Leung-por says. “I’ll come and get you later this afternoon… about two o’clock. Here’s fifty cents for you to get some lunch at the canteen on the ground floor. Don’t break anything.”

I carefully put the fifty cents in my pocket, and run off towards the lift, managing to squeeze myself into it just before the door closes. How should I spend the money? There are so many choices.

“Fifth floor,” I say to the lift operator. I’ve been to the store before, and I know where to find the toys.

When the lift door opens, I rush out. The lift door closes behind me. To my horror, the toy section has disappeared. I run around frantically, searching for it, but there is no sign of it.


I’m supposed to wait for Leung-por in the toy section, Father. I don’t know where she is spending the day. I can’t do anything wrong, or Leung-por won’t bring me ever again.


Walking back to the lift, I blink seeing a huge number ‘4’ on the wall.

“Silly me. I’m on the wrong floor,” I whisper.

I hop back into the lift and repeat, “fifth floor.” This time there’s no mistake. The toy section is still on the fifth floor, and I gasp with delight entering this magical space.


Half the floor space is filled with toys, Father.


I hardly know where to begin, so I set out to explore what is new since my last visit, a few months ago. I play with toys. For a while, I stand watching model trains going around and around the miniature countryside. Then I put on a fireman’s hat and ride on my beloved paddle fire engine.

At about one o’clock, I decide to have lunch. Checking that the fifty cents is still inside my pocket, I go down to the canteen and queue up to be served. I would have loved a roast pork bun, can of soft drink, ice cream and some chocolate, but with only fifty cents I can only have two of my favorite foods. I buy a bun and a drink.

After lunch, I go back to the fifth floor to wait for my grandmother to catch the tram back home. It was a wonderful day out. The tram ride was fun.




In my second year at school, in Primary Two, students are selected to put on a show for parents in the evening.


I am to take part in a play called The Three Little Pigs, Father. It is a popular fairy tale about three little pigs who are old enough to leave home to live on their own. Mother Pig warns them about the big bad wolf. The first little pig, being lazy, decides to build his house with straw, because it is easy to build and won’t take long. The second little pig decides to build a stronger house with sticks thinking it will be harder for the big bad wolf to push over. The third little pig, being the wisest, decides to build his house with bricks. It is hard work, but he builds a house that the big bad wolf will not be able to push over.


A girl and I play the part of the brick walls. We stand a pace apart, facing each other, holding each other’s hands. Our bodies will be covered with a cape and hood painted like a brick wall. The boy who plays the third pig stands inside, between our hands, as if he is living inside the brick house. We have to stand still while the wolf pushes against the wall.


We rehearsed the play a number of times, Father. It’s easy for the children representing the straw and stick houses, because they are to fall down when the big bad wolf pushes them. A couple of times, we fell down accidentally during rehearsals, because the boy playing the wolf pushed us too hard.



On the night of the play, the assembly hall fills with parents waiting anxiously to see their sons and daughters perform. While the straw and the stick house are walking up the stage, my brick wall partner points out where her parents are sitting. I crane my head to see if my mother or Leung-por have come. I can’t see either of them.

There is lots of laughter from the audience. They must have enjoyed our performance. The applause, when the curtains closed, was deafening. Our teacher is proud of our effort. She congratulates us. But neither my mother nor Leung-por came.


Nobody came to share my moment of glory, Father. Would you have come if you were here?


June 1954



Ah-por has gone to Australia. I wonder when she will send for me?

For many days, after her departure, I am distracted by excitement and secret plans. I dream about meeting my father. But as the days pass, I realize that it will be some time before Ah-por can send for me. I fall back into a dull and frustrating routine.

Near the end of my second school year, when everyone is looking forward to the long summer break, our Primary Two teacher announces that the class will spend the second-last day of school at the Botanical Gardens.


I’m so excited, Father. There will be lots of interesting things to see.


My excitement quells when the teacher announces that each child must be accompanied by a parent. My mother will be at work and won’t be able to go. My hopes are dashed. I am unable to hide my disappointment.

“Kwok Loo Shang,” my teacher says, noticing my sadness. “You can come along, and your mother doesn’t have to accompany you. I’ll look after you during the day.”


Students, parents and teachers left the school this morning. It took thirty minutes for the two buses to reach the entrance to the Gardens, Father. Students were talking over one another, many yelling excitedly. Nobody seemed concerned about the noise. Parents and teachers carried on with their own conversations.


The Gardens are beautiful and peaceful. The central attraction is a fountain with water jets that shoot high up into the air. Lots of people are taking photographs in front of the fountain. A military band plays popular British military tunes. They also play popular tunes, and encourage spectators to sing and clap along. The band is barricaded in a circle. Adults and students stand five-deep outside the barricade, listening.

At lunch time, everyone is given a brown paper bag containing a roast pork bun, a coconut bun, a small cake and sweets. Some parents give their children money to buy a small bucket of ice-cream from a street vendor riding a bicycle.





I was too young at that time, to appreciate the many different species of plants in the garden. I spent my time running around and playing hide and seek in the bamboo garden with other students. Lunch was a wonderful treat. Such delicacies were rarely available in our household. I envied the other children their ice-cream, but it was an unforgettable day.





I conversed with my father often. Unlike my mother, he was always — in my imaginary world — available. To speak with my mother, I had to time my approach precisely. Her day began at nine-thirty in the morning. She spent half an hour bathing, making coffee, dressing, and putting on make-up. Then she went to work until eleven at night. The only opportunity to talk to her was while she was having coffee. It took her only five minutes to drink it, so my conversation had to be quick and concise.

Looking back, it seems the only time my mother took much interest in me was when I presented her with my school report card. I was a poor scholar — performing well below average. I never had much confidence in my ability, and for the first few years, I was close to the bottom of my class. My nickname was ‘useless’. I could never do anything right.

At times, I wished I could prove to other students that I was good at something, but my school results were always poor. My mother yelled as she signed my report card. “You could have done better! You’re just lazy, lazy, lazy. What is the point of sending you to school? What a waste of money. After you have completed primary school, see if anyone will take you on as an apprentice. If you can’t study, you might as well go and get a job to earn some money.”

The first few times, this reprimand upset me greatly. Later, I became immune to her criticism; it didn’t bother me a bit.


September 1954



Leung-por lets me leave for school earlier now that I am eight and in Primary Three. I can escape the confinement of our small apartment and run around the school yard before class starts.

I cross two roads on my way to school : Lockhart and Hennessy. I try to get there by one o’clock — half an hour before class starts — to seek out whoever will accept me into their games. I am a small and skinny kid. Unlike most kids, I don’t have a special friend. I merely tag along with anyone who’ll accept me. I try to fit in, but the group always rejects me.

Today, a group is kicking around a small plastic ball in the school yard. Pang Kwok Choy, the leader of the pack, suggests, “Let’s play a game of soccer for half an hour before the class starts,” he said. “There are twelve of us here, so six to a team. I’ll pick five and Chen Lou, you pick five.”

I know Chen Lou is a good friend of Pang Kwok Choy. Both are much older than me — probably by three to four years. I know I’ll be last to be picked. I wait patiently.

“Kwok Loo Shang is the only one left. You have to take him,” says Pang Kwok Choy.

“No, I’ll take Wong Ti Sun. You take Kwok Loo Shang.”

“No, I don’t want to take him.” says Pang Kwok, pointing at me.

“Why did you have to pick first? If I had picked first, Kwok Loo Shang would have ended up in your team,” says Chen Lou.

“Okay, let’s settle this. Next time you pick first.”

“He’s no good in any ball game. He’s useless. It’s not fair. I don’t want him on my team. He can’t stop a ball with his feet. He misses kicking it most of the time. It’s better not to have him at all,” Chen Lou cries.

I look from Pang Kwok Choy to Chen Lou, wondering who will relent.

“No, I’m not going to have him. We’ll play with five instead of six,” Chen Lou says.

I can’t believe this is happening. I am blocked out of a game again.

“You can’t do that,” Pang Kwok Choy protests. “If you lose the game, you’ll say you only had five, not six, in your team.”

“Okay then. I’ll have him but we won’t pass the ball to him and we’ll make sure he doesn’t touch the ball at all,” Chen Lou says.


Chen Lou is right, Father. I’m hopeless in any type of ball game. Why am I so clumsy? I’m not a sporty type. I don’t mind being picked last, as long as I eventually belong to a team and get to have a bit of fun.


But no one will pass the ball to me. Maybe they think I’m odd because I only have a mother and don’t know who my father is. I can’t understand why I need to have a father when I am living with my mother, grandparents and all her seven siblings.



November, 1954



There’s a small red-purple patch on the skin on the inside of my right calf. It’s been there as long as I can remember. I must have been born with it. Its shape resembles a Chinese junk in full sail.

“What’s this?” asks one of the students, pointing.

“I don’t know. It’s a red patch, but I can do magic on it,” I reply.

“Don’t believe you.”

“If you press hard on it and let go, the red patch will turn to skin color and gradually will turn back to red.”

“Can I try?”

It’s true. It happens.

“Let me tell the other students so that they can all have a go,” says the student.

Before long, there are students surrounding me taking turn to press my red patch. I now have something that no other student has — a magic red-purple patch. While I enjoy being the center of attention, an older student comes along.

“Don’t go near him!” he warns. “Only bad people have marks on their bodies. It is a sign to warn others not to associate with that person. Don’t touch it! How do you know it’s not contagious? You might end up getting one. Then you’ll be branded as a bad person.”

All the students surrounding me start to disperse. My five minutes of fame has vaporized. I’m sure it’s not contagious, because it doesn’t cause me any pain and hasn’t spread to any other part of my body. But who am I to argue? No one in the class has ever taken any notice of me.

Later in life, I learn this deep red-purple patch is called a birthmark. According to some myths, birthmarks are caused when an expectant mother experiences a sudden fear. Perhaps my mother was afraid when my father disappeared?

Although this permanent birthmark poses no long-term health problems, having it affects me emotionally. It’s yet more fuel for primary school students who want to tease me.

As well as a birthmark, I have a scar between my groin and the bend of my upper left thigh. When I was eighteen months old, there was a growth there. It grew to the size of a quail egg. I had an operation at one of the hospitals in Skak-Kee. The operation was successful. The growth was not cancerous. My mother apparently considered the operation minor. She never spoke to me about it. It was my grandmother who told me about the operation.

Leung-por told me that, as a baby, I was often sick. My mother never produced enough breast milk to feed me. Women from poor backgrounds who are capable of producing milk often sell their milk to feed wealthy families’ babies. These women, known as nai-mah (milk-mothers), are very close to the children they feed. Often, children have better relationships with their nai-mah than with their own biological mothers.

I didn’t need a nai-mah because, back then, my family could afford to give me powdered or condensed milk. It seems that when I was a baby, we were wealthy enough to afford such luxuries. I asked Leung-por what had happened to make our family poor. She told me our fortunes changed when our family fled China for Hong Kong. I was three years old at that time. She told me some of China’s and our family’s history.

16th December, Mintkuo 35th year, was the day of my birth. According to the Western calendar, it’s 7th January 1947. Mintkuo 1st year was established in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, who ignited a revolution in October 1911. His political party, the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek after Sun’s death. Early in 1912, the last Emperor abdicated, bringing the Manchu dynasty to an end, after 267 years of rule from 1644 to 1911.

Before he abdicated, the Emperor appointed an army general, Yuan Shih-kai, to be commander-in-chief. Yuan controlled the north from the capital Peking; Sun, in Nanking, controlled the center and south. Sun feared that a terrible civil war would break out, so he unselfishly resigned, making Yuan the President of a United Chinese Republic. In 1916, Yuan died suddenly, leaving China in as uncertain a state as it had been back in 1911.

After Yuan’s death, regional military commanders and other local strongmen set up autonomous regimes, and the period 1916 to 1927 was the period of the warlords. To make matters worse, with Western powers occupying during World War I (1914-1918), Japan seized the opportunity to invade China. Their attempt was unsuccessful, because the United States intervened.

The Chinese people’s hopes for a better life after the revolution disappeared as China entered a period of chaos. They continued to endure hardship, due to the ruthless regimes of the warlords. In these unstable times, the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Tse-tung, emerged in 1921.

The second revolution, from 1916 to 1927, witnessed a power struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. In 1937, Japan invaded China again. The Kuomintang and the Communists temporarily put aside their differences and partially cooperated to resist Japanese aggression. Meanwhile, Europe and elsewhere was embroiled in World War II. The war was brought to a sudden end by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

In 1946, fruitless negotiations between Communists and Nationalists merely gave the Communists more time to consolidate their position. It was a year of great unrest, and it was to be followed, in 1947, by the outbreak of another civil war.

The 16th December, Mintkuo 35th year is also the Year of the Dog in the Chinese calendar. My birth was two weeks before the Chinese New Year.

I was born into one of the wealthiest families in the village of Jyuk-Sou-Yuen (Bamboo Garden) in the District of Skak-Kee, County of Chung-Shan, Province of Canton, in China. It was also the birth-place of Sun Yat-sen.

Because there was no hospital in the village, children of the village were born in the traditional way — at home, delivered by a midwife. Hours before my birth, the midwife was already at our house, on stand-by for my arrival. The village midwife had no formal medical training, but having witnessed and assisted in a number of deliveries, she was considered competent. It was due more to good fortune than to her midwifery skills that her previous deliveries were without complications.

My first cry was followed by sighs of relief from all family members — my grandmother, my mother, my big aunt (older sister of my father), my little uncle (younger brother of my father) and my little aunt (younger sister of my father). My older brother, who was only two and half years old, was too young to understand.

It was not the first occasion that my family experienced a birth like mine. My little aunt was also born without knowing her father. He had died a few months before her birth.

According to Chinese astrology, I am a Yang Fire Dog. Yang represents the masculine principle and light as opposed to Yin which represents the feminine principle and darkness. Fire, metal, wood, water and earth are the five elements of the universe, and everything in the universe has a relationship with these five elements. Fire makes heat which either warms or burns. People born under the element of Fire are leaders. The Dog is one of the twelve animals that appear on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Dog people are loyal, affectionate, sincere and honest. They live righteous lives, care about disadvantaged people and fight injustice. Whether the prediction will hold true or not, in my case, only time will tell.

My birth was supposed to be a joyous occasion of double happiness — not only does the family have another male to carry the family name, but also it heralds the Chinese New Year. Yet everyone was sobbing quietly because my father was not present.

My paternal grandmother named me Loo Shang.




FOUR





Lonely and Afraid





I can’t recall what I learned in the first two years of schooling, but Primary Three school work was harder. Disinterested in school work, I often got into trouble with the teachers for not paying attention.


This year Father, we are learning to write Chinese characters with a brush. The writing pads are made of ink-absorbing paper and faintly ruled with vertical and horizontal lines forming squares which we have to write in. We all have our own brush and a small plastic circular box containing a cotton patch saturated with black ink. We dip the brush into the black ink patch and then write on our ink-absorbing paper. The teacher demonstrates, to a group of four students at a time, how to make strokes. Afterwards, she goes around to each student to ensure they are holding the brush correctly and writing characters properly. She helps me by standing behind me and holding my hand with the brush to write within each square of the paper.


I find it difficult to make the transition from writing in pencil to brush. I am unable to keep within the squares. When my characters go over into the next square, I compensate by writing the first character leaning towards the left-hand side of the square and the next towards the right. Instead of all the characters being in the center of squares and straight down in a vertical line on the page, my characters are left and right, left and right, zigzagging down. I also get into trouble for smudging the paper with black ink.

The teacher walks around the class looking at students’ calligraphy. She holds mine up in the air.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” she says. “There isn’t a single word written within the squares and also the page is smudged with black ink. This is not how you write characters with a brush.” Then, she posts my work on the wall as an example of how not to do it.

This year, we also started to learn English. We began with learning the alphabet and later we tried to pronounce simple English words. We use Chinese characters to transliterate, phonetically, the syllables of the English words. It’s sounds ridiculously ‘Chinglish’. I already have enough problems learning Chinese characters, and now I also have to deal with English words.

On Wednesday afternoons, we go to the assembly hall for cultural and physical activities. Teacher Choy is in charge. Every student participates in singing, playing in our band and physical exercises such as games and ball sports. I enjoy these activities. I sing, even though I am not good at it, but because Teacher Choy tells me to. For a while, I play the triangle in the band. I get to participate in all the games and ball sports we play because the teams are decided by Teacher Choy, not by some headstrong students who exclude me.

I’m glad not to be sitting inside the classroom. Nevertheless, Teacher Choy is my main concern. I think he dislikes me. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to stand facing the corner at the back of the hall on my own, for twenty-five minutes, for ‘misbehaving’. Although my misbehaving is generally instigated by other students, I’m the one who gets the punishment. Standing facing the corner, at the back of the hall and out of sight, is not as bad as parading in front of the whole class while holding my earlobes with my thumbs and first fingers and my head down. Having students point and laugh at me is so humiliating!

Today, I have to stand in a corner at the back of the hall again. Students are talking at the top of their voices. They sound like people bartering at a market place. Something is not right. Teacher Choy would never allow students to behave like that. I turn around to see what is going on. Teacher Choy is not in the hall. Some students are pushing and pulling one another. Some are fooling around and laughing. As soon as Teacher Choy re-enters the hall, he yells, “Be quiet everyone. Kwok Loo Shang, go and stand at the back.” I am confused. The whole class begins to laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” Teacher Choy asks.

“Kwok Loo Shang is already standing at the back,” several students answer in unison.

The whole class starts laughing again. I laugh with them.


There’s no doubt in my mind, Father, that I’m the one getting all the blame. I don’t know why he dislikes me. I don’t consider myself to be so bad in the class that I warrant punishment more often than all the other students added together. It seems to me that school is a very unfriendly place.


Wanchai Market



Today is Leung-gong’s 50th birthday. Leung-por is preparing a birthday dinner for the family. She asks me to accompany her to the market to shop. She wants to use me as a carrier so her hands are free to pick and choose goods.

Wanchai Market is only a couple of minutes’ walk from where we live. As a small child, I am seldom allowed to venture outside the apartment, except when accompanied by a closely-related adult. I am always excited when an opportunity arises to escape from the apartment.

On the way to the markets, I see a boy carrying a small wooden box full of shoe polish. He isn’t much older than me. He asks people to pay him ten cents to polish their shoes. He walks along the footpath seeking customers. When he finds one, he squats down and asks his customer to put a foot on the box’s foot-shape handle. Then he starts shining one shoe at a time. Maybe, like me, he goes to school in the afternoon and has time in the morning to earn some money. It would be good if I was a shoe-shine boy. I wouldn’t have to do small household chores. I could wander about exploring the neighborhood every morning, while earning money at the same time.

While I am dreaming of freedom, Leung-por says, “See that kid over there shining shoes for people. If you don’t study hard and do well at school, you could end up like him. You’ll be poor and never able to get ahead. Do you understand?”

I nod silently. A minute before, I had been thinking that shining shoes was a dream job, but now I think differently because it seems that only poor kids do this type of work.


Is it a bad job to have to do, Father?


As we continue along Lockhart Road, a local shopkeeper tips leftover food scraps into the footpath gutter. The food scraps will smell and attract flies.

A beggar, wearing filthy, torn clothes, crawls on his knees towards the gutter to forage for food scraps. He picks up the food scraps with his fingers and puts them into his mouth. He is too weak to sit up. He just rolls over and lies on the footpath. People look at him, but without interest in his plight. Due to his body odor, they walk around him with their hands covering their noses. No one seems to have any sympathy for him. As we walk around him, Leung-por says, “If you don’t work hard and earn a good living, you’ll end up like him — eating from the gutter.”

It is awful that a person can be so hungry that he is willing to eat food scraps from the gutter. I wish I could run home to the kitchen and take whatever leftover food is there and give it to the beggar.


I hope I’m not going to end up in his situation, Father.





The Wanchai Market has three sections: vegetable, seafood and meat. All the produce is fresh. Meat, poultry and seafood are sold under cover inside a big, ugly, single level concrete building. The vegetables are sold out in the open.

Chinese people believe everything should be eaten as fresh as possible. Shoppers expect the produce to be fresh and in season. Women haggle and bargain for whatever they purchase. Bargaining is the Chinese way of doing business. A Chinese will always ask the question, “Is this fresh?” Without fail, the answer from vendors is, “Of course, it’s fresh!” Other questions and comments follow such as, “Is this in season?” or, “Too dear. It’s not worth that much” or, “Have you given me the correct weight? Is your weighing scale correct?”

The ground of the vegetable section of the market is wet because the storekeepers periodically douse water onto the vegetables to maintain freshness, and also to put a few grams of extra weight onto their goods. Because the market stalls have limited space, they can only store a limited amount of stock. One vegetable stall sells no other vegetable except various types of cabbage. Another sells root vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and carrots. Fruit stalls sell whatever is in season, but also with limited varieties.

The fish stalls are full of fish crammed into wooden water-filled tubs. It’s impossible for them to swim. They are kept alive in the water for freshness because shoppers are reluctant to buy fish that are already killed and gutted. Shoppers indicate the one they want, and the storekeeper places it flat on the stainless steel bench. The fish thrashes around.

I watch as the man takes out a razor sharp knife. Within a blink of the eye, the belly of the fish is sliced open and the fish is gutted. The fish’s mouth is still opening and closing as it gasps for oxygen. The man then pulls out the fish’s guts and tosses them into a bin. He scrapes off the scales, making them fly like a hundred pieces of scattered glass. The fish is still fighting to survive and flips while being de-scaled. When it is truly dead, a narrow strip of rattan twine is pulled through its mouth and knotted together. It is then handed over to the shopper to carry away.

Live prawns swim in aerated water tanks, and lobsters lie lazily at the bottom of the tanks. Live crabs, with their claws, crawl on top of one another inside a small wire cage. Shoppers find female crabs more desirable than male ones. Live eels are kept in separate tanks.

Water sloshes all over the floor as the storekeeper uses a net to catch live prawns from tanks. The floor of the seafood section is wet and slippery, so grandmother and I have to walk slowly and carefully to avoid slipping.

The butchers’ stalls have no refrigeration. The wide range of meat cuts — mainly beef and pork, and internal organs — hang from hooks on racks. Shoppers want to buy fresh meat because they believe that refrigerated meat is not fresh enough. The tools of trade are sharp meat cleavers and bone choppers. Cattle and pigs are slaughtered in the morning, chopped and sliced into various cuts and the meat hung from hooks. The butcher slices off whatever shoppers want from the hanging meat.

Chickens and ducks, quails, pigeons and geese are sold in poultry stalls. Some shoppers prefer to purchase a live bird and keep it alive for a day or two before consuming it. The storekeeper ties the two feet together with twine for the shoppers to carry the bird upside down.

Other shoppers choose a live bird and ask for it to be killed and its feathers plucked.

Until purchased, live birds are crammed in crates made of rattan and cane, hardly able to move. The smell of the poultry section is overwhelming, particularly on hot days, when the odor of poultry faeces is intense. One wouldn’t enter the section without a firm intention to buy.

To add weight to ducks, the storekeeper force-feeds them with rice husks by pushing a funnel straight down the neck into the stomach. The purchase always includes the bird’s internal organs. The seller kills the bird by slitting its throat, tying its feet together and hanging it upside down by its feet to let the blood drain out into a bowl. After plucking feathers and cleaning the bird, it is hung by its neck on a hook ready for pick-up. The storekeeper then ties the two feet together with twine for the shoppers to carry the bird upside down.

In the middle of the walkway, in the marketplace, is a man. It isn’t the first time that I’ve seen him there. He is pale and thin, of small stature, with a slight hunch back. There are marks of tears on his cheeks. No one can tell his age. His eyes are dull, as if he has not slept for days. They look haunted and have dark rings of tiredness surrounding them. Filthy long hair frames a sickly-looking face. His feet and hands are black, as if he has been crawling on a layer of black coal. His black finger nails are filled with dirt. Clothed in filthy rags, his unbearable odor is apparent from several feet away. He crawls on the ground and pushes a small empty tin can in front of him as he moves forward.

Because his whole body is on the ground, people steer away from him as he approaches. He extends his hand out and asks for money. One can see he is struggling to even extend his hand for someone who is generous enough to give him a five or ten cent coin. He tearfully whispers, “Help me, help me.” People ignore his plight and carry on as if he is invisible, hurrying by without a backward glance. On rare occasions, someone drops a coin into his tin. Hearing the clinking sound, he raises his head to glance at the person. It is his way of showing appreciation. He is too weak to do anything else.

Leung-por turns around and stares at me walking behind her, carrying groceries, then looks at the beggar. Without her saying a word, I know what she wants me to understand.

Outside the market, street vendors sell their goods on the footpath. The street hawkers sell an amazing variety of things. They spread their goods on a cloth on the footpath. Some sell fruits, and they carry the produce in two large woven baskets attached to bamboo shoulder poles. Each vendor sells only one type of fruit, such as apples, oranges, mandarins or pomeloes. They do not sell fruits which could be bruised or damaged easily, such as bananas, custard apples or grapes. There are always a lot of browsers, but few buyers. I wonder how they can possibly make a living.

Police consider the street hawkers nuisances because they block the pedestrian traffic on the footpath. If caught, they are often closed down by the police and have their goods confiscated, and they are dragged into the police wagon and taken away. To catch illegal vendors, the police seldom put on the siren as their van comes down the road. This is to ensure they catch some of the illegal vendors without any warning.

A vendor who sells cheap imitation jewelry has his merchandise spread on a four feet square table cloth lying on the footpath. Today, while he is busy trying to complete a sale transaction, someone yells out, “Police!” Before he has a chance to pack up, the police van stops near him. He has no choice but to surrender.


I feel disturbed by what I’ve witnessed today, Father. I’ve seen a dying man so hungry he eats food scraps from the gutter; a beggar crawling and begging for money; and a street vendor whose goods have been confiscated by the police.

The world can be a very harsh place, but I don’t think that school is the answer for me. I wish you were here to give me advice.





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