To be honest, I am not really sure what my earliest memory of my Grandmother was. To my sister, Stephanie, and I, she was “Po Po”, meaning “maternal grandmother” in Chinese. She, and our Grandfather (known as “Gung Gung” – maternal grandfather) used to babysit us before or after school, depending on what grades we were in, until our parents got home from work.
They were the typical grandparents – they spoilt us and they indulged us, or rather, I should say, mostly me, in my bad behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, I was not a bad child, just naughty. I will be the first to admit I was one of those naughty children who liked to push the boundaries of tolerance to see how much I could get away with. Everyone knows that my sister, just over 2 yrs my senior, was the poster child but as they say, if the first-born was a nightmare, there would never be a second one!
I remember vividly spending many weekends during our childhood at our grandparents’ place, a tiny little flat on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Our Great-Grandmother, “Tai Po”, was still alive and living with them at the time. Thinking back now, I cannot even remember where Stef and I used to sleep considering it was a two-bedroom flat and our Tai Po slept in one room while Gung Gung and Po Po slept in the other.
I was famous for my tantrums. When I threw one of my temper tantrums, I would stomp into either of the bedrooms, and slam the door as hard as I could which, for a 6 or 7 year-old child, was no doubt hard enough. It was a wonder the doors did not come off their hinges. And as if that was not bad enough, if I felt my actions were not noticed, I would then open the door and slam it once again for good measure. See, I told you I was naughty! Even as I write, I cannot believe what a holy terror I was but it makes me smile just a little. I was that child that only a grandmother could love! She never let me forget that either and would often recount the number of fights Stef and I used to have when we stayed over, surely they were mostly my fault. But as I like to remind my mother every now and then, I may have been a little terror but I grew up a decent human being, at least I would like to think so!
Po Po used to love listening to late night ghost stories on the radio back in those days. Stef and I used to listen to them as well with her. To this day, I still remember one very scary one about some people who had been murdered and their skins had been made into lanterns. Yep, I told you it was a scary ghost story!
Of course, she also told us funny stories too. There was one in particular she told about three beautiful sisters who had very heavy ethnic accents. They could not find husbands despite their beauty because the moment prospective husbands heard them speak, they would run away. So when they were matched with some suitors, their mother warned them not to open their mouths until after the wedding. However, at the wedding banquet, one of the sisters saw a rat running around. Horrified, they could not help but speak. They yelled out, in their heavy accents:
“There’s a rat running around!” said one sister.
“Mother told you not to speak but yet you open your mouth!” said another.
And I can’t remember the translation of the third one…but you get the picture. The punchlines are funnier with the accents…you will just have to take my word for it.
Tai Po and Po Po used to love origami. They used to teach us to fold all sorts of things, though now I wished I could still remember them. We did lots of things together but I cannot remember them all now. I do remember very particularly going to the public library once – Po Po was taking us there because Stef needed to go for some reason. I don’t know why I had never been before. Mum used to reward us with a new book every month that she would buy from the bookshop before our piano lessons. I still have some of them to this day but they are timeless classics: O. Henry’s Short Stories, King Arthur, and something by Walter De La Mare, to name a few. I read a lot of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and of course there was Nancy Drew as well but I think those came later, after we came to Australia. Of course, once we came to Australia I fell in love with our local library.
Coming to Australia was a big sacrifice for my parents. Apart from leaving their jobs and their friends, it also meant leaving behind my grandparents and Tai Po. I will never forget the day we said goodbye to them at the airport. Gung Gung was a hard man, a stubborn man, but he loved us dearly and was a big softie when it came to my sister and I, his only grandchildren. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. Sadly, my Tai Po passed away a few years later and we never saw her again.
Despite its popularity as a major tourist attraction, Hong Kong is not one of my favourite places to visit. To me, it is polluted, noisy, crowded, and exhausting. It is not a shopping mecca – it is a place where you find yourself haggling with someone over 20 cents. It is a city where everyone loves designer brands but mostly carry fakes. If New York City is the city that never sleeps, then Hong Kong is the city that goes to bed after midnight and then sleeps till 10 or 11 am (shopping hours).
Despite its “flaws”, in recent years, I had returned to the country of my birth with more regularity. At the end of 2004, I suddenly asked my Mum if she would like to go to HK with me for a couple of weeks early in the new year. Soon, we had our tickets booked and we were on our way to visit my grandparents. Little did I know that that trip would be the last time we ever saw my Gung Gung again. But I think he knew. When we said goodbye, there was a sadness in his voice and his face. His time was up. Two weeks after we returned home, Po Po called Mum and told her that he had passed away in his sleep during his afternoon nap. What a perfect way to go – have a nice big lunch, lie down for a nap and die peacefully without pain and on a full stomach. So I have come to the conclusion that God had meant for us to take that trip in February 2005. We got to say goodbye, even if we did not know it at the time.
On Friday 24th September, 2010, my Mum received a phone call – Po Po had been taken to the emergency room and was in critical condition. Mum arrived in HK two days later. That was my birthday week. And on my birthday, I took a trip I will never forget. At Customs, the Customs Officer wished me a happy birthday as she took notice of the date of birth on my Passport. She had thought I was such a lucky girl to be having a holiday for my birthday, until I told her the reason for my travel. Throughout the flight, all I could pray for was that I would get to see Po Po in time, selfishly wanting the opportunity to say goodbye but knowing that, for Po Po’s sake, I should have been praying for her to have a quick end to the terrible pain she was suffering.
I had rushed straight to the hospital from the airport. But as was tradition on my birthday, it was raining heavily in HK and I was caught in traffic, sitting in the backseat of the taxi, listening to the driver tell me that he had missed seeing his grandmother before she died because he got to the hospital moments too late. Yes, true story – he was telling me the story that I dreaded could become my story if the traffic didn’t ease quickly. Thankfully, that was not the case. I made it to the hospital before visiting hours were over. Po Po was barely conscious of who was there at her bedside, but when she finally realised I had arrived, she was happy. She was not smiling but I knew she was happy to see me.
I stayed in Hong Kong for a week. My sister arrived a couple of days after me. Every night we would go to the hospital (visiting hours were only from 5 to 8pm each day). Most of the time Po Po would be in so much pain she would be really cranky in a way we had never seen before. We knew she was not herself. We took no offense as she yelled at us and told us we were no good because we would not give her what she wanted – to go home to die. We knew she was in pain and just wanted the misery to end. We watched her helplessly. She told us to go away. She did not want us there when the end came. I could barely watch but stayed nonetheless. She was angry at us but each day she grew weaker and she would try to shoo us away with less force and conviction. When I finally said goodbye to her a week later, I said it hurriedly. She was so weak she could barely stay awake most of the time. I was no good at goodbyes and I did not want her to see me cry. I kissed her, said goodbye and told her not to be so angry. I tried to rush out but turned back around for one quick look. She opened her eyes and searched for me then saw me leave. I do not know what happened after that.
On Saturday, 23rd October 2010, a little over two weeks after my sister and I returned to Sydney, our beloved Grandmother passed away. She had been in hospital for 29 days. She was, for all intents and purposes, finally at peace. There is a Chinese belief that the dead returns on the third day. My Mum tells me Po Po’s live-in-maid who had been looking after her since Gung Gung died five years ago told her she saw Po Po on that third night. She said she was beautiful, wearing her best clothes and looking healthy and chubby. And so, this is the image I want to hold on to, not the one of her looking frail and in pain, not the one of her asking to die, but rather, the one of her resplendent in her beautiful best, being the loving grandmother she had always been, the one who gave me sweets and bought me ice-cream even when I was naughty. I miss her and will miss her everyday of my life. But next time I see her, she will be telling me ghost stories – only they might not be so scary next time.