My Great Grandmother’s Story

Growing up, I always found my great grandmother to be a little strange and fascinating. She looked displaced in time, always wore a dark embroidered vest, with a dark embroidered headpiece and her white hair in a neat little bun. Even in her 90’s, she moved swiftly on her tiny feet (later I realized she had bound feet, read about it on Wikipedia here), and she always knew what everyone was doing.

Even though she acted as an evil Mother-in-law to my mother, my mom used to say half in awe and half sarcastic: “your Ah mah would have done great things if she were born today.”

I, as the great grandchild, was quite adored on the other hand. I called my great grandmother “Ah Mah”, we had a secret knock for the door between our rooms, and I adored her.

Ah Mah outlived both her children. She lived through 3 centuries. She was born at the very end of the 19th century, live through the turmoil of the 20th century China and passed away at age 104 in the 21th century.

These were some tough times. I found a pretty good timeline of the 20th century China here: (

This is the century that saw the fall of the last dynasty, Japanese invasion during WW2, the civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These large-scale destruction and war ravaged through the country for most of the century. Millions of civilians died. Countless families ripped apart – never to be reunited.

My hometown was a southern fishing village/town back in the day, and its location spared it from much of the war compared to the country’s northern territories. I’m no historian, but I know enough to never wish it on anyone.

As I write this, I wish I had asked Ah Mah more questions about her life in my childhood years, she must’ve been through more than I can possibly imagine.

Funnily, the older generations in my family didn’t really talk about the past. I don’t know if it is because they like to pretend those times didn’t exist, or they simply prefer to look forward to the future. Though often, they will say us young ones have it easy.

Both my great grandparents came from local gentry families. My great grandfather was a Xiucai, a member of the scholar literati, which I believe is comparable to a gentleman in British History.

Polygamy was legal then, so great grandfather had a wife – my Ah Mah and at least one concubine. The descendants of the concubine spoke highly of Ah Mah. When we have family reunions, these great aunts and uncles would tell us little ones about her kindness, and how she raised them as children.

It’s hard to imagine Ah Mah as a young woman. Did she had difficulty walking around with her feet bound? Was she unhappy about the other women in her husband’s life? Was she always resourceful, or was it developed to deal with life’s hardships? Did the War worry her? Did anyone she knew run off to join the army?

All these are questions I’ll never get an answer to.

Though they might have been mostly spared by the wars; when the Cultural Revolution started in China, their elite background made them prime targets. Again, these times were almost never spoken of. From what I can piece together, all their money and assets were taken away. There was forced labour and public humiliation for those targeted.

So maybe it was with kindness that they spared us kids stories of past, for I shudder to think what could’ve taken place. Ah Mah‘s only son, my great uncle, escaped to Hong Kong during those times. she wouldn’t hear from him for years, instead Ah Mah had to rely on hope and faith that he made it alive.

After all this, the Ah Mah I knew was a spirited woman. Full of energy and very sharp for a little old lady. She picked on my mother a lot. Maybe that was the way MIL and DIL were in the old times, and that was her way.

Ah Mah used to say that she has experienced life of an emperor in the modern times. She has tried delicacies like abalone and bird’s nests that used to be for royalty.

I’ll always remember her spirit, and that good times will come for those who outlast the bad times.