My Early Education

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I started going to school when I was six and a half years old. Both of my parents worked, so I had to take care of my younger siblings during the day. I went to night school until 4th grade. I walked 500 meters or one-third of a mile to school by myself for first grade. The following year my sister reached school age, we walked to school together. I enjoyed going to school. The best thing was that when I was in first grade, my teacher said I was bright. The teachers liked me and I liked the teachers. I even had a crush on my fourth- grade teacher Mr. Wu.

All the subjects were taught in Chinese. My dad wanted me to learn English, so he sent me to English tutoring when I was in fourth grade. By this time, my mom stopped working so that she could take care of four little ones. 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. I made friend with teacher’s daughter, Shirley. We became lifelong friends.

The first-grade teacher said I was bright, and that made a big impact on me. I did well at school throughout elementary school years. Each class had about forty students. At the end of school year, the report card showed our performance in terms of their places among the forty students. Throughout elementary school years, I didn’t get the first place. I was in second to ninth places. That means I was at the top twenty-three percentile of grade points. It broke my heart when I got the ninth place that year! 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.

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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.

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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.

My Grandma’s Caretaker

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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 in the Western side of Hong Kong Island. We shared a quarter of the flat. My older sister was ten years older than I.  She worked quite far away, so she roomed with another co-worker close to work. I was about seven or eight years old, but I became the oldest child in the family.

It was not very clear when my grandma turned blind. Our quarter in that 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 my grandma’s attic.  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!

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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.

I will start with my parents.

My parents got married when my father was sixteen years old and my mother was fifteen.  My mother gave birth to thirteen children and seven of them survived. I am the seventh in the birth order, but I only have one older sister who is second in birth order. I always wanted to know what happened to my first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth siblings who were born before I, but my parents never mentioned about them. My parents went to Hong Kong from Canton, China after they got married. My older sister was born in Hong Kong.

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 for December 25, 1941, to August 15, 1945.

Japanese invaded Hong Kong – Japanese troops were in Tsim Sha Tsui

During this period, my parents moved back to China. According to my older sister, they made a living by keeping a small farm. As for my mother, she continued to make babies, but obviously, the babies couldn’t make it under those hardship or lack of proper care.

On August 15, 1945, the VJ (Victory over Japan) Day, Japanese left Hong Kong. Three months later I was born. I was the only child among all the siblings born in China. 100 days after I was born, they moved back to Hong Kong where I was raised.  There was no transportation in operation. My family – my parents, my older sister, and my grandma, who carried me on her back, went on foot, following the railroad track for more than for forty-seven miles to go back to Hong Kong. After our family settled in Hong Kong, my mother had 6 more children.  The 10th girl in birth order died of meningitis.