Early Education

I was six years old when I started first grade. Both of my parents worked, so I took care of one younger sister during the day. I went to night school until 4th grade. From home to school was one-third of a mile walk. I walked by myself in the first grade, the following year my sister #8 reached school age, we walked to school together.

The teachers liked me, and I liked the teachers. The best thing was that when I was in first grade, my teacher Mrs. Leung said I was bright, and that made a big impact on me. The confident in me about learning has been evident throughout the rest of my life. I am so grateful for Mrs. Leung. When I became a teacher, I naturally made positive comments to my students and encouraged them to do the best. I was keen to notice the strength of the students and praised them in the class. Many students excelled because of my encouragement.

During the first grade, we had a school field trip to Shatin to visit the rice field. My mom packed the picnic lunch for me. She warned me to be careful when walking on the mud paths. When we arrived Shatin, each class formed a line following the teacher. We walked on the soft mud path between the rice fields from one end to the other. I was overcautious because of my mom’s warning. The young growth in the rice field was waving the heads to attract my attention. My foot stepped on the soft edge of the mud path and went right into the water. My shoe got soaked wet. My mom didn’t say anything when she saw my wet shoe.

My dad wanted me to memorize certain lessons in Chinese literature. There was one week when I couldn’t recite the lesson, my dad gave me a good spanking. My mom tried to block the paddle and got one strike on her hand. When looking back, I gave credit to my dad for my good grades. He checked my homework every night and quizzed me every week. It was a blessing to have a dad who cared so much about my education.

All the subjects were taught in Chinese. English was taught as a literature subject. Hong Kong was a British Colony and English was the official language. My dad wanted me to learn English, so he sent me to English tutoring when I was in fourth grade.

I was nine years old when the ninth brother Albert was born. After my mom fed him, I carried him on my back to walk around in the neighborhood. There were no televisions, not even black and white ones. People listened to radios. Not everyone had a radio either. I carried my brother and stood outside of the store downstairs to listen to the radio. On our flat, one of the occupants had a radio placed on a little wooden shelf on the wall midway from the ceiling. I liked to listen to the news broadcast. I remembered the theme music for the noontime news. Years later, I identified it as the Overture of Bizet’s opera Carmen. The music started from the beginning of the Overture, after about thirty seconds, the music faded as a female voice came in to announce the news. I also remembered staying up until 11:00 p.m. listening to “Midnight Mysteries” which were ghost stories.

My mom gave birth to three more siblings. With so many babies and toddlers, my mom quitted working and stayed home to take care of the kid. Since my mom was home, my dad decided to send me to day school. It was in Wan Chai, half an hour tram ride from home. We had school five and a half days a week.

There were forty students in the class. At each grade level, there was a master teacher who taught Chinese literature. All the other subjects were taught by single subject teachers. There was a President for each class. When the teacher walked into the classroom, the class President called out, “Stand up.” The students arose and said, “Good morning, Teacher.” The teacher responded, “Good morning.” The class President commanded, “Sit down” to direct the class to sit.

I enjoyed the music lessons from Mrs. Cheung. I learned and memorized many songs. In 5th grade, there was a singing contest at the end of the school year. I entered the contest and won 4th place. The song I chose to sing was “What a Beautiful Waterlily.” I later recognized that the song was a tune in Puccini’s opera Turandot.

I made friend with the music teacher’s daughter, Shirley. Shirley had been taking piano lessons from her mom and practiced piano every day. I loved to visit her and listened to her piano practice. We became good friends and carried our friendship through adulthood.

She was married and moved to London. We continued to correspond throughout the years. When we traveled to London on a tour in 2006, we arrived in London prior to the tour group. Shirley and her husband took us sightseeing for five days.

 

Family Religion

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Chinese religion is not Buddhism. Instead, it’s polytheism in that they believe in multiple gods. It’s also a dualism; they believe gods and evil have equal powers. When I was a child, we lived in a flat on the third floor.  There were red wooden plaques with images or writings represented different gods displayed around the flat. A container with ashes was attached to each plaque to hold incents. Two were hung on the side of the top and bottom part of the doorway signified to protect people’s coming and going.  There was one plaque by every window to guard the evil against coming in. One plaque was in the kitchen. The kitchen god listened to people’s gossips. At the end of a year, the kitchen god would report to heaven. So before Chinese New Year, people made offering to the kitchen god to bribe him. This was my mother’s religion.

When WWII was over, we went back to Hong Kong from China. My mom gave birth to five younger siblings, and they were about eighteen months apart. My mom’s generation didn’t practice birth control! When the third sister was sick with meningitis, my mom didn’t take her to the doctor.  She went to a temple to make an offering and asked for healing of my sister.  She also hired a monk coming to our home to chant and burn incents.  He waved the smoke from the burning incents over and around her. It didn’t heal my sister.

Eventually, my mom took my sister to the hospital. She died of high fever in her brain. My mom came home crying. When I asked where my sister was, she said the doctor kept her to take care of her. It was the way she dealt with the pain. That event gave me great impressions and cast a doubt in my mind of mom’s religion.

 

Childhood Environment

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My family was poor when I was a child, but I had a lot of fond memories.   When I think of my childhood, I think of the safe environment, friendly neighborhood, a slow pace of life, creativity of making toys and games, family closeness and simple life.

My favorite family time was Chinese New Year.  We had one week off from school and my dad had five days off from work.  On New Year’s Eve, Flower Markets took place in major parks. They were open from early evening on New Year’s Eve to 5:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day. One year, I went to the Flower Market with my older sister and her then boyfriend. We lived in Sai Wan, so we took the tram to Causeway Bay Park. By the time we were done walking through the entire market, there was no tram in operation until morning. We followed the tram track and took one hour and thirty-five minutes to walk home. I was half asleep even though my feet were moving with my sister holding my hand. My other hand was holding something my sister bought me. Since I was falling asleep, I dropped the thing on the ground. I bent down, picked it up and continued walking.

By the time we got home, my mom had made special food as part of the Chinese New Year ritual.  We ate and then went to sleep for a few hours.  On New Year’s Day, everyone put on new clothing.  Kids would say, “Gung Hei Fat Choi” (Wishing you prosperous) to the parents and adults.  Our parents and the adults in the neighborhood gave us kids Lucky Money in red envelopes.  The tradition was that the married people gave Lucky Money to the kids and unmarried adults.  We loved that because we could keep all of our Lucky Money.  The first three days of Chinese New Year, we went to our relatives to wish them Happy New Year. The kids received Lucky Money from aunts and uncles.

We had our annual three activities on the 4th day of Chinese New Year. It was something we looked forward to because we did that year after year. We went to Tiger Balm Garden which was a private estate that eventually became a museum. After Tiger Balm Garden, we went to Botanic Arboretum, and then the Governor’s Garden which was open to the public during Chinese New Year.

Grandma’s Caretaker

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It was not very clear when my grandma became blind. The quarter in our flat was too small for grandma to live with us. So she lived by herself in an attic of another house. My chore was to take dinner to her every evening.  My mom packed the dinner in a basket and covered the food with a cloth to keep it warm (It reminded me of The Little Red Riding Hood!).  It took me about 10 minutes to walk to there.  Walking to my grandma’s attic was a favorite part of my day. I still remember some of the stores and offices I passed by in those days.

The office that attracted most of my attention was an orthopedic office that had a huge aquarium in the front window. After I delivered the dinner to my grandma and helped her eat. I eagerly went home hoping to stop by the aquarium to watch the fish. They were colorful saltwater fish. Among them, there were several pink fish.  I was told that they were kissing fish.  I stood in front of the aquarium. My eyes followed the pink fish to see if they kissed.  Many times they swam toward each other, but when they got very close, one made a turn and swam the other way.  My eyes followed them again and waited curiously.

One day I stopped in front of the aquarium.  A girl came by and stood next to me.  I told her about the kissing fish.  We were watching.  Then the two pink fish swam slowly toward each other.  They were getting closer and closer.  Finally, they were facing each other, and then kissed! We looked at each other and giggled.

 

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Note: The scientific name of the Pink Kissing Gourami is Helostoma Rudolfi.  The male Gouramis don’t kiss the female Gouramis. The kissing, in fact, is fighting among the male fish.

My Family Survived WWII

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As I am recalling my journey, I am tracing my steps from the beginning of my life. I count every step as a blessing. Even though at the time it happened, it seems to be something undesirable, yet it turned out to be a blessing. They were blessings in disguise.

My parents got married when my father was sixteen years old and my mother was fifteen. They were married in Canton, China then moved and lived in Hong Kong after they got married. They maintained their living by managing a small grocery store. My mother started having babies.  Her first child didn’t make it. The second child who is my elder sister survived.

The Empire of Japan wanted to dominate Asia and was at war with China since 1937. The WWII broke out in September 1939 that involved the vast majority of the world’s countries. Life during the first few years of war was difficult. Hong Kong was a British colony before and after WWII. On December 8, (Asian time zone), Japan launched an attack on Pearl Harbor and invaded Hong Kong. Great Britain surrendered Hong Kong to Japan on December 25, 1941, on a day that the people in Hong Kong called Black Christmas. Japan occupied Hong Kong from December 25, 1941, to August 15, 1945.

My father and mother had no choice but moved back to China. They maintained a living by keeping a small farm. My sister Jan was ten years old at that time. She had a share of the family responsibility by taking care of a pig of 500 pounds. My mother had four more miscarriages from the subsequent pregnancies under the hardship or lack of proper care during the wartime.

On August 15, 1945, the VJ (Victory over Japan) Day, Japanese left Hong Kong. My mother was pregnant with me during the last year of WWII. I was born three months after the VJ Day. I was the only child among all the siblings born in China. 100 days after I was born, my family wanted to move back to Hong Kong.  There was no transportation in operation yet. My parents, my older sister, and my grandmother left China for Hong Kong. Grandmother carried me on her back, went on foot, following the railroad track for more than forty-seven miles to go back to Hong Kong.

After Japan was defeated, they retreated from Hong Kong. British Empire resumed their occupancy of Hong Kong and started rebuilding their colony. Docks were busy as shipments of goods came from other countries to supply the needs of local people. People who left Hong Kong started to return without promising of jobs. The British government gave out rice and flour to the families who were qualified.

When my parents went back to Hong Kong, they got a place shared with three other families. It was on the third floor of a long flat on the Western side of Hong Kong Island. They shared a quarter of the flat. The owner of the flat also owned the flat of the adjacent building. He had a stream of customers who came for opium consumption.

My older sister worked quite far away, so she roomed with another co-worker close to work. I was about seven years old, but I had assumed the responsibilities of the oldest child in the family.