This photo of my paternal grandmother was made long after she and my grandfather had fled China. Her life was long and rich. She had witnessed the fall of the Qing dynasty, the rise of Communist China and the landing of the first man on the moon.
Wong Su-ying was born in 1892 in the ancient water town of Wuzhen. She had 14 siblings, only 4 of whom survived to adulthood. Her father was a prosperous pearl merchant. He owned a chain of 10 jewelry stores in the old walled city of Shanghai.
The Wong family home backed onto a river where hawkers in rowboats would come to sell their wares. I have always imagined her home to have a long sloping lawn that ran down to meet the water’s edge. But perhaps it was more like this photo of houses crowding a canal.
A tutor would come to the house to teach the children. The two boys sat in the room with the tutor and received his instruction. The two girls sat in an adjoining room, shielded by a screen. Her sister followed the lessons but Grandma did not. She never learned to read or write her native Chinese.
an american mrs.
My grandfather was in his junior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when a family friend came to visit. The friend returned to Shanghai to whisper into my great grandfather’s ear: a rumor that Grandpa might take an American wife. Grandma was promptly bundled off to join my grandfather in Cambridge.
Life in the US must have been boring for her. Mostly, she stayed at home doing the housework. Her English would not have been sufficient to make many American friends. But as the only married couple among the Chinese students, my grandparents’ home eventually became a natural meeting place.
Later, after Grandpa graduated and took on a job in Ohio, he sent Grandma to a finishing school in Cincinnati. There, the teachers resorted to sign language in order to teach my grandmother how to read and write English.
In 1919, Grandpa and Grandma returned to Shanghai. They built a house on Avenue Haig. They owned a Model T Ford that only Grandpa was allowed to drive while Grandma used her private rickshaw to frequent the department stores on Nanjing Road: Sun Sun, Da Sun, Wing On and Sincere.
Then the war with Japan started and the family hunkered down. At first, there was only privation in the Chinese-held parts of Shanghai. The French Concession, where my grandparents lived, remained relatively safe. After Pearl Harbor, however, the Japanese soon occupied all of Shanghai.
One by one, the children left home. In 1937, my Uncle Robert, the eldest, volunteered for the Chinese Army. Between 1942 and 1945, my father and his sister, Aunt Ruth, snuck through enemy lines to attend university in Chengdu. Only my grandparents and their youngest son, Uncle Victor, remained in Shanghai, too old or too young to travel.
War with the Japanese was not a good enough reason for my grandparents to abandon Shanghai. Nor were the rampant inflation, frequent bank runs or constant labor strikes. It took the Communist Revolution to force them out of the country. By selling the jewelry my grandmother had sewn into her clothes, the family made their way to the US. Grandma arrived in 1953; Grandpa in 1957.
As a child growing up in the US, I knew nothing of this dramatic past. I was an ABC – American-born Chinese – who avoided at all costs anything smacking of the old country. Grandma was one of those things.
My brothers and I would cringe every time my grandmother went grocery shopping. She couldn’t go alone so one of us had to take her. In the store, she palpated all the fruit. She took a bite of each kind before deigning to purchase any of it. Then she’d try to haggle down the price at the check-out stand.
She loved McDonald’s fish burgers. She almost burnt down our house when she tried to stuff ham and cheese and tomato into the toaster.
Every chance she had, she would comment on us kids, our achievements or lack thereof. Any good habits we managed to exhibit, she attributed heartily to my father’s influence. All the bad habits we had, clearly came from my mother.
This may have been why, every three months, my grandmother would move. From Aunt Ruth in Pennsylvania to Uncle Robert in Wisconsin then back to us in LA.
a last look
My most vivid memory of Grandma is from when she was too old to travel anymore. She was living in a retirement home in downtown LA. I was already in college.
She and I rarely spoke. Her English was inadequate and my Chinese non-existent. We communicated in gestures and grunts, my silent suffering and her not-so-silent complaints.
We had just returned from some outing, grocery shopping or a meal. She was tired. So she sat down, took off her shoes and rubbed her feet.
I had never seen her feet before. I never knew that she stuffed her size 4 slippers with pink Kleenex tissues. Her foot barely reached halfway into the shoe. Thankfully, I did not have to witness skin or mutilated bone. All I saw was that stub of her foot, as long as the palm of my hand, thickly wrapped in ace bandages.
Splendid Slippers by Beverley Jackson is a wonderful visual account of the lotus shoes created for Chinese women with bound feet. It also contains an excruciatingly detailed description of the footbinding practice.
It was best to start when the girl was 6 years old and the foot still pliable. Custom was to begin in the autumn so that the cold of winter might help numb the feet. There were professional footbinders but, if a family were not wealthy enough, a mother might bind her daughter’s feet.
I dimly recall a story about Grandma’s feet. A story about a botched job. Or maybe what I’m remembering is the story I created for Jin in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. The story of a mother so tender-hearted, she could not bring herself to go all the way.
She was supposed to cut me, through bone and sinew and flesh. She was supposed to break my foot in two so that I would have a lily foot no more than three inches long.
My grandmother died in 1985 at the ripe old age of 93. My father often chided me, you should have asked her for her life’s story. Now I see that he was right.