My paternal grandmother passed away 13 years ago at the age of 100. I was blessed to have spent a fair bit of my childhood in her company, where she’d regale me with fabulous tales of China, my grandfather whom I never met, of how my father was when he was a child like me, and how all that mattered was that you were Hainanese because every other dialect/ethnic group in China were barbarians.
When she visited us from Seremban in the 70s, she’d take me (her favourite grandchild) on trishaw rides to across town, which in those days were divided by the Singapore River into what the Chinese called “Big ‘Pore” and “Small ‘Pore” – with Big ‘Pore on the west of the river, and Small ‘Pore on the east.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, because she was the most ‘western educated’ of anyone in our family, Ah Por would buy me treats from Hainanese streetside vendors and get me Chinese bowl haircuts from Hainanese streetside barbers. I later learned that these were in Little Hainan, the few blocks beginning from Seah Street next to the Raffles Hotel.
It was only after her passing that my father told me how the family had settled in Malaya. Some time around the early 1930s, my grandfather was apparently a communist who had been arrested and jailed on account of being accused of arson and destruction of property in Hainan, then part of Canton. Ah Por, who was then his mistress/2nd wife, managed to bribe officials into securing his release and departure from China – he fled to and settled in Port Dickson with my father’s older brother, where he took on another wife, unleashed his inner capitalist and started buying and selling goods and foodstuff.
Ah Por and my father would have been out of sight and out of mind, but for Ah Por’s steely determination – she sent word that she’d send my father, then six years old, on a boat to Singapore for Grandpa to pick up, and that with the remainder of her resources, would travel overland to Port Dickson to meet them later.
It still gives me goosebumps thinking about their epic adventure settling here. I’ll write more about this in due time, but if you’ve got a grandmother’s tale to share, there’s this event coming up soon called “The Grandest Story Ever Told” – where if you’re able to bring your grandparents, or a photo of them and a story to tell, you’ll get a free coffee at Chye Seng Huat Hardware Coffee House on Tyrwhitt Road.
Come and contribute, and listen to other people’s grandmother’s tales.