My Por Por is now 87, and she’s lived quite the life. A successful woman who didn’t even complete high school, she fled the Japanese and then the communists, raised a family in Sandakan in Borneo, then gave it up to restart in Hong Kong in the 1970s as an amateur stock trader.
I knew bits and pieces of her story, but never from her directly. In Hong Kong I got the chance to interview her to put the full picture together.
She was born in 1927 in Seklong – a city in Guandong, China. It was a difficult time to be born Chinese. The Japanese invaded when she was eight years old, and her family had to flee into the countryside to avoid the conflict. They stayed there for a while, but returned only to find the Japanese sill in control. Her half-sister was raped by the invaders. Like many of their generation, both of my grandmas maintain a distrust of Japanese people – an opinion borne from a difficult period in Chinese history.
The Japanese stayed around for almost a decade and throughout WWII. No sooner had the Japanese left however, the Communists arrived. Her father had some business interests through Asia, and managed to buy a lot of property. Back in those days, deeds were bought Monopoly style – one purchased the whole street! My great grandfather had more than 100 houses, and was well educated. Not exactly a great profile to have during the Communist uprising.
The family fled to Hong Kong in 1949 and up until that time my Por Por had spent half of her life under threat. She told me that it was a very scary experience. That said, elements of her time in China were not all bad. She loved going to school. She started quite late, around the age of 10, because one of her mothers (her father practised polygamy as was the custom at the time, and had two wives) did not think school was for girls.
But when she was finally allowed in she excelled. She skipped grades. Her favourite subject was history. Most kids (including myself when I was younger) take school for granted. For my Por Por, school was a luxury – something she had to fight for – and you could tell in her voice, even after all these years, that she loved being in class.
“If you liked school so much, why didn’t you go to university?” I asked.
“Because I got married!”. She met my grandfather in China, and they were married when she was 21. That was the end of all possibility of further education.
There is a fascinating story about their meeting. My grandparents’ mums (my great grandmothers) were sisters but they were born into a poor family and were given up for adoption after birth. They didn’t see each again, indeed didn’t even know they were sisters, until they became adults. When they were finally reunited, this was a obviously a really joyous occasion for both of them. In the end this was how my grandparents met – so technically they were cousins.
I asked my Por Por whether she liked Seklong and she told me simply: “Yes, it was where I grew up. It’s my home”.
When they got to Hong Kong, a year after they married, my grandparents had nothing to do. She told me that they spent all their days going to movies to pass the time – sometimes watching three movies a day! It’s a sweet, romantic picture I have in my mind of my grandparents – two newlyweds idling away the days in a post-war Hong Kong, before kids, before responsibility and before their marriage stopped working.
My family bought a farm up in Yuenlong, in the new territories of Hong Kong. They started farming on it. The thought of my rather bourgeoise grandparents working the land is amusing, bordering on hilarious. No one in my family even closely resembles a farmer – and the lack of practical skills is a trait that has been passed down to me. My Por Por told me her favourite part of the farm was playing with the chicks, holding them in her hand and weighing them.
My great grandfather, my Por Por’s father-in-law, was one of the first Chinese to settle in Malaysia in the 19th century. With his brothers, they started a massive business conglomerate – originally a series of timber plantations, it sprung up to include palm oil, shipping, hotels and banking. My grandfather was called to continue the family business in 1953. He didn’t really want to do it, but my Por Por enjoyed it – and didn’t mind because the Hong Kong farm was struggling.
They lived in Sandakan on the east cost of Sabah. The photos from this era evoke such a special, frontier-like wildness. It must have been such a fascinating time to be in Borneo. Soon after, Malaysia and the rest of the tiger economies began their rapid industrialisation – for better or worse, they were never the same again.
In the space of six years she had five children – my mum and my aunts and uncles. They lived a very comfortable and privileged life on account of the success of my great-grandfather’s business. Besides taking care of the children, my Por Por spent her time playing Mahjong and swimming. Our family owned the only swimming pool in Sandakan. It was on a rubber plantation.
My grandparents did not enjoy a happy marriage. By all accounts they argued a lot – mostly about money, which is a shame considering how well-off they were. However, the only time I saw my Por Por cry was at my grandfather’s funeral more than thirty years after they separated.
In 1975, at the age of 48, my Por Por moved to Hong Kong to start a new life. It was the age of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the world was deregulating one industry at a time. Everyday she would go to the stock market (back then one could not buy and sell from the comfort of an internet cafe) and trade. I asked her how she learned and she said she just spoke to people around her, gleaning bits of trading advice and stock tips.
Within one month she had quadrupled her small piece of capital. I think this is pretty remarkable for a woman who did not complete the full complement of high school, and spent almost all of her adult life as a housewife. She got so successful that soon people came to her for advice. I don’t know whether she was truly good at trading, or was just caught up in the rising tide of rapidly expanding global economy, but the fact remains she did it.
She has stayed in Hong Kong ever since. Now retired, she spends her time playing mahjong with her friends. Family visits often and that gives her a lot of joy. When I asked her what makes her happy she said that she likes watching TV, playing mahjong and buying diamonds: a weird mix of the quotidian and the hedonistic. She is extremely generous with her family and I suspect that’s the cause of her deepest fulfilment.