These are the things I know to be true about my grandmother:
1. She is beautiful.
2. She has tattoos for eyebrows.
3. She was almost raped by a Japanese soldier during the war.
4. She lost two children. One, Hung Por, a boy, died at birth, and the other, Hung Yuk, a girl, died from meningitis at age two.
5. Her name, So Lin, means pure lotus in Cantonese.
On her beauty….
My grandmother’s beauty was never a matter for debate. It was a fact. One of those cornerstone facts upon which our family depended. As a teenager, I would look at old photographs – black and white studio portraits with a smear of red paint to the lips and cheeks – and search for some hint of me in my grandmother’s enigmatic smile, some clue to our relation in her proudly arching cheekbones. My grandmother had all the glamour of the era without the giggling-behind-the-hand silliness. She was solid, muscular, handsome, strong. Her beauty was tangible. Her resilience was real.
On her eyebrows…
Truth be told, when my family first moved to Hong Kong, I was a little bit scared of my grandmother. I had never met a woman with tattooed eyebrows before. It gave her face a frozen, perpetually bemused, quality. But it was also because – it was primarily because – we didn’t share the same language. She couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Cantonese. So while my grandfather would rattle on, in his raspy but insistent voice about his work as the last uncorrupted policeman in British-ruled Hong Kong, my grandmother would sit on the couch in her pyjamas and munch on pistachio nuts, or dried watermelon seeds, or sticky beef jerky, or anything that she could find in the cupboard that had a satisfying crunch and required a bit of effort to eat. I was intrigued by her. Because as much as my grandfather was an open book – as he got older it was not unusual for him to tell strangers how proud he was of his children and how ready he was to die – my grandmother was a mystery. Even her face, with its unmoving, tattooed eyebrows was like a mask, concealing her from me.
On the war…
When the war broke, my grandparents went back to my grandfather’s ancestral home, West Village, in southern China. It was here, in this assumed safe haven, that a soldier tried to rape my grandmother.
The story begins with a Japanese soldier taking a liking to my grandma. One day, the young recruit, keen to test his as yet untested power, ordered my grandma into one of the rooms of the house. He did not explain his order but the hunger in his eyes and the growing swell in his pants made his intention very clear. Frightened but determined not to let the soldier have his way with her, my grandmother refused to move. The soldier slapped her hard across the face. Grandma screamed. A few of her aunties, who were hiding in other rooms of the house, heard her scream but none of them came to her rescue. The soldier slapped her again, harder this time, and again, grandma refused to move. She was like an old tree whose wandering roots had become entangled with the sticky earth beneath. Embarrassed by such a blatant disregard for his authority the soldier continued to slap my grandmother’s bruised and broken face. Grandma cried. Grandma pissed her pants. But Grandma refused to budge an inch. And then a whistle blew to summon the soldier back to whatever soulless place he had come from and he was gone. Just like that.
On her children…
In my grandmother’s day, it was not unusual to lose one, even a couple, of children. The culprits were many and varied. Childbirth. Starvation. Illness. Accident. War. My grandparents didn’t question it in the same way that parents do today. They didn’t devote their entire lifetime to finding a cure for the virus that took their daughter. They didn’t create a charity in the name of their son to give his short life meaning in their eyes. For them, death was a part of life.
That is not to say that they didn’t hurt in the same way that parents hurt today. My grandfather spoke of his first daughter, Hung Yuk, right up until his dying day. According to him, every bird that came to rest on his windowsill was a physical manifestation of her youthful spirit. And my grandmother’s recounting of the passing of Hung Por, a stillborn, is all the more haunting for its austerity.
‘I gave birth to Hung Por at a midwifery clinic. It was a difficult labour. When he finally came there was no crying. The room was silent. My heart was broken that day.’
On her name….
My middle name is the same as my Chinese name, which is the same as my grandmother’s name, which is So Lin. It means pure lotus in Cantonese. Unlike most other Cantonese words it is soft, like the petals of a lotus flower. In Australia people tell me it is a beautiful name but in Hong Kong, where names have the secondary function of denoting class, So Lin is a peasant’s name.
When you are named after a living relative, you can’t help but look some similarities with your namesake, some quaint recurring trait to justify the sharing of your name. I, like my grandmother, am a small woman with strong bones and muscular hands. But I like to think that the similarities do not end there. I like to think that lying dormant within my DNA, there is some of her pigheaded stoicism, that buried somewhere deep inside me is a glimmer of her shining resilience.
In loving memory of Yu So Lin
Eve Yee Han Graham who transcribed and translated Yu So Lin’s story and without whom much of the detail of my grandmother’s early life would not have been known.
About Melanie Cheng
Melanie Cheng is a writer, general practitioner and educator. She was born in Adelaide but lived in Hong Kong from 1986 until 1998 when she returned to Australia for university. She has been shortlisted for the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award and the Ada Cambridge Biographical Prose Prize and in 2010 she was runner-up in the VWC Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers’ Competition. Her fiction has appeared in The Victorian Writer and The Medical Journal of Australia.
This piece originally appeared in Peril 16 and is re-published here as part of our D-Writers China project.