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You wrote about your grandmother with great affection (June 18), but also the extraordinary circumstances in which she and your father were banished by your grandfather. Might you tell us more about this intriguing story?
My grandmother had a most beautiful face with a pair of almond eyes seldom seen among Chinese women. Her deep brows traced the curves of her eyelashes and the ridge of her nose was almost occidental. She had a crown of thick and wavy hair, gleamingly jet-black. In a colour photograph which I have treasured, she has faint and glowing rouge on her cheeks and vermilion lipstick on her Cupid’s bow, with her delicate philtrum finishing off the perfect portrait of a concubine, which helps me to understand why my grandfather could not resist her.
And she could do no wrong in his eyes by producing his first heir, my father. There was for a moment a picture of a blissful Chinese family prospering in colonial Hong Kong. Then fortune intervened. Soon after his birth, my father fell seriously ill and the doctor held out little hope. My grandfather was naturally extremely upset and being very superstitious, he sought solace from our unimpeachable family soothsayer, to whom he listened without reservation. This soothsayer effectively lent comfort to my grandfather by predicting that my father, while seemingly dying, would be very bad feng shui. So my grandfather affixed in his mind that this heir would not be his heir. Little wonder then that when my father miraculously recovered from his illness, my grandfather was paradoxically displeased. It was under these circumstances that my grandfather decided to act on the fortune prediction and banished my grandmother and her baby from his family home. It was this reckless act of selfish superstition that wrecked the lives of my father and grandmother.
My grandmother never saw my grandfather again in her 80 years because he never sought to see her and she was too timid to try to see him. She did once catch a glimpse of him from afar outside The Ritz in London about 40 years later when, by sheer accident, she happened to be in my car passing by on Piccadilly. I looked at her and asked how she felt. She didn’t say much. Then under her breath, sitting still, she let out only a small sigh. Yet not even then, nor at any other time in her entire life, did she let out a single word of complaint about the way my grandfather had treated her. She was a saint when it came to forgiveness. No wonder that during the years she brought up me and my brother, after my parents emigrated to England to prepare for us to move there, she was totally selfless and dedicated. She spent all of her meagre allowance from my grandfather on my brother and me. She rented our room, fed us, clothed us, paid for our school fees and looked after us in every possible way. Above all, she loved us. She was uneducated and illiterate, but she taught us to be thrifty and tolerant. I always remember her fanning us with a straw fan in the humid heat, as we sat on stools talking to pass away the time, as we never had holidays.
Her only pleasure was to play a small game of mah-jong with her distant relations and on those occasions, perhaps once or twice a week, she would signal her absence from home by leaving ajar the window of our bedroom. This would mean that when my brother and I returned from school, we would immediately know there would be no supper at home. Instead we would find in a jar two Hong Kong dollar bills — enough for us to buy a couple of bowls of noodles at the local street stall. We would then wait for our grandmother to return from her only pleasure, and would always be excited because, if she had won, she would give us each a few cents for tuck at school.
At Christmas and Chinese new year, she would take us to a restaurant for lunch, the only time we went out to eat. My grandmother knew we loved prawns and we always looked forward to having them as our main course. Yet she always had pork. I found out later in life that this was because prawns were twice as expensive as pork, and she had only saved up enough for my brother and me to eat them.
I will never forget my privileged upbringing by having a grandmother who was so silently submissive and adoringly caring.
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