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.

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