by Winnie Lu
Editor’s note: Kaua`i Realtor Winnie Lu reflects on her mother, Chou Chung Sing in the following article she generously shares with forkauionline.com for Mother’s Day. Her mother, age 90, lives in Northern California. Article and photos © 2012 by Winnie Lu
A well-known Chinese writer, Hualing Nieh, along with her husband, Paul Engle, started the International Writing Program (IWP) in Iowa. Nieh’s new book describes her life as rooted in China, the trunk being the years she spent in Taiwan, and the leaves being her life in America.
Nieh’s life parallels that of my mother, Chung Sing. My mother has lived in three countries in her lifetime. She is 90 years old; her life is a reflection of modern Chinese history, as is the case of millions of other Chinese in her generation.
From her father, Chou Boh Nien, my mother inherited her spirit of independence, freedom, equality and social justice. Her father took part in the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty to establish the Republic of China. This is the spirit my mother carries to this day.
Mother was born in the family compound in a small town an hour away from Shanghai. Nanxun is known as the “land of fish and rice,” and is a major silk producer and exporter to this day. There are stone canals and ancient stone arch bridges meandering through town.
When I visited there several years ago, I glimpsed the leisure and gracious lifestyle of yesteryear. A lone man sipped tea in a scenic pavilion by a lake. A grandmother sat in the shade under an old tree, her grandchild in a stroller. Friends played mahjong under the eaves of long rows of tiled roof houses stretching along the canal.
At the age of five, my mother lost her mother. When she was nine, her father died. She was raised by her paternal grandmother, who loved green tea and garlic.
Mother was an angry child who kicked over the night pot for the servants to clean up. She threw the food on the floor when lunch was delivered to her school if she didn’t like what she saw.
The extended family tolerated her behavior, knowing she had serious cause to be angry, for she had suffered so much loss. It takes a village to raise a child, but there was not one adult advocate who saw her through the anger, sadness and hurt feelings as she grew up over the years.
My Mother was an eyewitness to pillage, rape, destruction and other horrors of wars. She walked past dead bodies on her way to school during the Japanese occupation. She survived the civil war in China. She is strong willed, resilient and undeterred by life’s challenges.
She went to Shanghai to go to school. She stayed in opulent homes of affluent relatives.
In college, she studied chemistry; in her marriage, she applied it. She told us four children children that her chemistry was oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar. She was a stay-at-home mom who devoted her whole life to her family.
My mother was six years older than my father. She was born in the year of the chicken and dad was born in the year of the tiger. We were confused about her age for the longest time as she hid her age and was a little embarrassed for marrying a younger man.
They were married in 1948 and Mother was pregnant with me when the civil war in China threatened Shanghai. They planned to weather the storm in Taiwan, thinking they were leaving temporarily and would be back home in a matter of months. Mother left behind on her dresser a favored pearl phoenix pin she had worn on her wedding gown — she had intended to have some loose pearls repaired.
Upon leaving for Shanghai, my parents didn’t know much about their new home, Taiwan, except that it was a sub-tropical island. They debated whether they should bring a blanket.
As they left Shanghai In May of 1949, and their plane soared into the sky, they could see below their dear city that was home to family and friends, burning. It would be more than 30 years before they saw some of those familiar faces again.
Every year they said “We are going back to China next year.” They didn’t buy a house until I was in high school. Mother always had a dreamy, distant look in her eyes when she talked about her hometown. My parents remained in Taiwan for 40 years, until three of us immigrated to the U.S.
My mother is full of zest and passion for life. She is bright, spirited and tenacious. She was quite a beauty but didn’t fuss over her appearance much.
She is an artistic and creative person. She always stood up for the underdog. She loved to do Chinese brush painting and flower arranging. We watched her paint intently, her face serene.
But her real claim to fame is cooking. No daughter could follow in her footsteps.
Guests would show up in large numbers with short notice and bingo! she’d have a banquet on the table. We all helped when it was plum jam season. We chewed off what couldn’t be cut off from the stones of the plums and we all had purple fingers afterwards. I can’t seem to find this particular purple plum with strong flavor and brilliant color in Taiwan anymore.
To make ice cream, she would prepare the milk and cream first. Then we all piled into two pedicabs to go to the store to see the ice cream churned. Hours later, we would all return with anticipation to pick up the product. Neighborhood children waited in our yard to share the feast when we got home.
Life at our house was sometimes chaotic with four little ones. Mother would take all of us on fantastic journeys. Often on Sundays, she and dad would take us to book stores to browse and buy books to read.
In the winter we would sit in a circle by the little charcoal foot warmer. Mother taught us girls how to knit, crochet, paint and read. She helped us raise birds, cats, silk worms and fish for fun. One time we put a splint on an injured bat.
A mother always on the go, she took us places such as museums, cultural exhibits, plays, movies and on outings into the country side. I remember one time, when we were on the bus and she was wearing a skirt with an elastic waist band, the bus came to an abrupt stop and my brother, who was holding on to her skirt, almost undressed her in public.
Once, when I was in elementary school, Mother invited many of my classmates to have ice cream at our house. She prepared DDT powder and towels to get rid of the fleas in the hair on some kids so I would not get fleas. She put ointment on the cuts and bruises on all the little children. Some of my classmates had to go home to tend to water buffalos. Some had no shoes.
She would sharpen my pencils and wrap book covers with old calendars to keep my books nice. I remember how exciting it was when she gave me my first ball point pen. She was still sending me care packages when I lived abroad as a foreign student.
My mother moved to San Francisco, California in 1991; my brother and sister lived close by. In her 80s, she would take a bus and transfer to the BART to go to Chinatown in Oakland, wearing her little daypack with her wallet in it.
We often pleaded with her to please take a taxi to the BART station. She was always counting pennies and saving to give us money in a large lump sum.
One day she left home and neglected to tell anybody where she was going. We were all alarmed. My brother called to tell me mom was missing. I was ready to buy a plane ticket to go to San Francisco to find her. She turned up at the end of the day telling us what a fun day she had in Chinatown.
Today, my mother is 90 years old and has a peaceful life with her son, as the Chinese tradition would have it. She spends much of her time sitting by the window, where she can see beautiful garden of flowers, fruit trees, little dogs chasing the squirrels and humming bird sipping honey. When she doesn’t feel like walking, her caretaker pushes my mother in a wheelchair daily in a nearby park. Chou Chung Sing is still taking care of herself in her daily routine. Although her memory is failing, her spirit, curiosity and wonder are still intact.