I do not know when my grandmother was born, and so by extension I do not know exactly how old she was when she died. She came from a time and place where such records were not usually kept. There are many details of that nature which elude me, and which have been lost in time.

But here is what I do know of her: things that are important to know.

My grandmother was born in a tiny, impoverished rural village in the province of Shanghai, which has its own dialect (Shanghainese). A village so impoverished that they shared a single pair of oxen between them, because the individual farmers could not afford one on their own.

She had many siblings, since these were the days before the One Child Policy, but most of them died. We think she had up to thirteen, but only five survived till adulthood.

Her given name was King Far, which means Golden Flower. Peasant names are normally very simple, much more crude, but hers was elegant – even a little aristocratic. I like to think it suited her, though I always called her BouBou – the Shanhainese word for grandmother.

When she was about five or six years old, her feet were bound. Three days later, the government outlawed the practice, and her feet were promptly unbound. A near miss; her older sisters also had their feet unbound, but in their case the damage was already done.

Unusually for her time, she married in her late 30s, instead of her teens. This was because the wars had begun when she was young, and hardly any one was getting married. She moved to Hong Kong for a better life after World War 1, and because she felt it was safer to be further from Japan. Unfortunately, you cannot really move to avoid a world war. The Japanese came back to China in World War 2, but they did not stop with just the mainland: this time they went south to Hong Kong as well.

Most people know about the big atrocities of war, but Hong Kong gets glossed over often as not. It wasn’t as bad as Nanking (is anything?), but it was still bad: 10,000 women raped in just the first few days – sometimes on top of the defending soldiers’ corpses. People of all races and backgrounds, murdered in the streets, and children shot down. I do not know how much my grandmother saw or endured, because she rarely talked about it. She once said that the Japanese soldiers would make civilians crawl on hands and knees between their legs, so that the soldiers could piss on them and laugh; then she got upset and did not discuss it anymore.

Not really the Hong Kong that either me or my mother grew up and lived in: it was worlds apart from the urban, cutting edge city that my mother and I grew up in much later.

But she survived, even if others did not (and almost a million people died). Life moves on, you recover, and thus she found herself getting married at the age of 36. Her marriage was semi-arranged, to a Chinese naval chef.  He “gifted” her with a pregnancy, and then promptly shipped out to sea almost immediately. When he returned a year or so later for a few months, he stayed just long enough to make her pregnant again; and a year or so after that, she had her third and final child.

Look at this woman – this amazing woman. She became a mother to three tiny children in a foreign city where she barely spoke the language (even to the day she died, her Cantonese was poor), with no family to support her, and a husband away at sea. Functionally illiterate, to the point of being unable to write her own name – yet she raised those three children single handed, worked evenings because they needed more money, rented out their flat to sometimes 30 occupants at a time for spare cash, and managed all them efficiently.


My grandmother lived through a lot: the Cultural Revolution, and all that entailed; two World Wars; the Japanese occupation. Famine, disease, war, and heartbreak. Single parenthood (even if temporarily) with three children under 4. Her life was hard in a way I can’t imagine, grueling and unrelenting.

Still – I do not think I ever heard her complain. Even when, at the end of her life, the pain and misery of liver cancer reduced her to a shadow, she still struggled on as ever.

She had unimaginable strength and grace, and endless kindness.

And ten years ago today, she died.

Hope you finally get some peace and rest, BouBou.


10 thoughts on “BouBou

  1. my husband’s mother family comes from Shanghai, they speak Shanghainese as well, but father is from Hong Kong so Cantonese goes in the first place. your grandma’s story is really interesting. I know that at the age my MIL was young there was like 28 or something age limit to get married in China, so I’m not sure if your grandma being married in her 30s was so unusual, but it’s generation above so it might be different. I hope now she rests in peace

    • It could be – I am not sure really! But I do know that her older siblings (she was the youngest) all got married much sooner. Growing up, my mother was the same age as her nephews and nieces, and her cousins were old enough to be her parents just about. A lot of things changed in the cultural revolution though, maybe when you get married is one of them.

      • the age difference between generations is really weird to me – for example my great grandma is 96 this year, but my husband’s grandpa is 90. sounds so weird. but as I said since it’s your grandma it’s the generation above so it might be like you said, law changes 🙂

  2. There is nothing I can say to this. Has taken my breath away. Incredible. To be so steeped in history. Incredible. I’m pleased you got to know her and her story and be another part of it.

  3. What a wonderful woman and so truly inspiring. Sometimes we need only look closer to ourselves to find that awe-inspiring people are not those who are known to everyone, but those who keep it to themselves.

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