The sun shines brightly, bringing life to every grass, every flower and every branch. Clusters of white clouds are embedded in the blue sky. Cool breeze kisses everything in sight. The University of New South Wales stands haughtily on the grounds. The graduation ceremony for the medical students has just finished. A group of newly acclaimed doctors are having their photos taken.
“Mother, come, take a photo with me,” Yoke’s eldest son calls out to her. Yoke is gracefully dressed in cheung sam with a matching jacket. Today is a proud day for her. She is attending the graduation ceremony of her eldest child in Sydney. She never dreamt that she could be so fortunate—flying around the world, visiting places she never thought she could, living a comfortable life…
When it comes to Yoke’s childhood, it was never like her children’s. Yoke’s father died when she was three, leaving her mother widowed with three daughters. Poverty took away Yoke’s chance of studying, something she regretted till today.
The early years of Yoke’s life had been very difficult. At six, she already had experience working as child labour. There was a lady who loved employing her as she was hard working and almost did the same amount of work as grown ups. One Chinese New Year’s Eve, none of the family had jobs. They had finished their money and food. Yoke’s mother went out to relatives hoping to borrow some money so that they could have a meal for the night. She was not lucky and she came home empty handed. They were prepared to go hungry that night. No one complained. Nobody cried either. It was not the first time they went to bed hungry. It made no difference whether it was New Year’s Eve or any other big festival. When they were about to go to bed and tried to sleep through the hunger someone knocked on the door. It was Yoke’s employer. “Yoke Ma,” that was what she called Yoke’s mother, “I have brought you some rice and dried fish and a bottle of preserved cucumber; not much, but it is New Year and I hope you and your family will have a happy new year.” Yoke Ma and her children were thrilled. They did not have to stay hungry on New Year’s Eve. The sheer joy of this moment still hangs in Yoke’s memory.
Yoke went through the Second World War. When the Japanese declared war on China and South East Asia she was nine. They were living in Hong Kong then. Hong Kong was shattered. Buildings collapsed, sometimes leaving only the staircases. She told her children how it was when planes came bombing. “Everybody hid under the staircase where we believed it was the safest place. The noise of the planes and the noise of the bombing made me felt as if there were a million ants climbing inside my head.”
The war years were a harsh time for the people living in Hong Kong. People were starving. Yoke Ma, Yoke’s mother, decided to bring Yoke and her younger sister, Heung (as the eldest was married) back to China, to her village, hoping that they would have a better chance of survival. Yoke and Heung spent some years in the rural land. They were three years apart and Heung was always dependent on Yoke. Yoke looked after her like a mother. Despite the difficult times, they had their own kind of childhood—one filled with fun just like any other children, worth remembering.
They were left to look after themselves most of the time as Yoke Ma had to go working for a living. They had a pet—a chicken they called Chick which gave them lots of happiness. When they came home after a day in the fields Chick would come to welcome them. It then would lift up its head and they would stroke from under the fluffy neck to the beak and Chick would open its mouth waiting to be fed. They usually fed it with small fish found in the river. One day they got a small fugu, not knowing that it was a poisonous fish, they gave it to Chick. Chick rested in peace. They cried and were sad for quite a while. This was the first time they came so close to feeling the loss of something they loved so much.
One day they went to the fields as usual. They fished for grapsus, a certain kind of crabs in the river. There were plenty of them. They got carried away and did not realize that it was late and the tide was coming in. To return home they needed to cross to the other side of the bank. Carrying a heavy load of collection and dragging Heung across made it difficult to cross the river and yet Yoke did not want to abandon their gain. She decided on a plan in a split second. “I am not going to forsake our harvest, we won’t be that lucky every day and what we got would keep us going for several days and we could sell some of them,” thought Yoke. She would take a risk. She told Heung to wait for her. She then rushed to the bank with such speed and with such strength she did not know where from.
“Sister, I am scared, I can’t cross the river, help me, help me,” Heung cried.
“Stay there Heung, I will come back for you,” cried Yoke; as carrying the heavy load and dragging Heung through the water at the same time would be impossible to save them all. She reached the bank, put down the basket, dashed back to Heung and pulled her to the bank. The moment they were on dry land the water level had risen to the point that they would have been drowned even if they were a minute late. Yoke had learned a lesson of survival the dangerous way.
A week later, the neighbouring village was putting up a Chinese opera open to the public. Yoke and Heung decided to go and enjoy the night. The opera went until it was dark. When they got home the moon had already come out. As there was no light and they did not even have candles they had to grope about cooking for dinner. They were to cook some rice and served it with preserved tofu. Yoke asked Heung to put some rice into a pot and add water into it while she started a fire for the cooking. When Yoke thought it was time for the rice to be cooked she found that they did not have rice but a thin rice soup. Heung had put in too much water and there was not enough rice. They ended up drinking thin rice soup until their stomachs were filled with liquid. They went to sleep satisfied that they had seen a most wonderful opera.
They had a small sack of kumara in their little mud house to be their meals when their mother had to go to another village to work for a couple of days. One evening a robber came. He got a knife and he wanted the sack of kumara. Of course Yoke fought to keep him from taking that. He pointed the knife at the children. Heung was crying. Yoke defended her and the kumara. She stretched out her arms, crouching in front of Heung and the kumara, protecting them as if either the robber could take her life or could take the kumara. He was just a hungry man who did not really want to hurt anybody, so when Yoke compromised to give him several of the kumara, he left them in peace.
Those years in the village had given Yoke a learning platform—to be tough, to survive in difficult times and to look after those she loves.
Finally the war was over and Yoke returned to Hong Kong in search of work. When she was seventeen, a Mr. Chan asked for her hand. Well, a young girl who was poverty stricken and had a mother and sister to look after, marriage seemed to be the solution. Although her husband was not rich or even close to being that, he was able to provide for a family. Later he started his own egg business and Yoke had money to send home for Heung to study. Even though she did not have a chance to go to school she wanted Heung to be at least able to read and write. Heung was a hard working student and came first for each of the three years while she studied.
Mr. Chan’s business became better and better. He went into the restaurant business as well. When their first two eldest sons turned twelve and eleven their godfather suggested to Mr. Chan to send them to Sydney to study. Mr. Chan had only primary education; he and Yoke both knew how important education was. Also Yoke had to look after a big household, seven children who needed her to bathe, to get ready for school, to prepare for meals…the chores never stopped. She thought, “Sending two away might lessen the hard work and most importantly they would get good education.” When the boys were asked if they would like to go, they did not really know what leaving home at that age could mean—no one would cook for them, meals at the boarding school could be lousy, they had to do their own laundry and most of all they would feel homesick. But they were glad to go on just one big reason—they did not have to help their father to vacuum once every week. Off they went sailing on third class; but they came back for holidays two years later by plane.
Patrick, the eldest son, had one goal in his mind; he determined to study medicine as he was fascinated by Dr. Kildare, the antagonist in a famous television series. Today is his graduation and Yoke is here for his graduation ceremony.
“Mother, we are going to Sandra’s place for dinner tonight to celebrate,” Patrick said to Yoke. This brings Yoke back from the flood of memories.
“That’s lovely. Go buy something for Sandra.”
“I will bring her some flowers.”
Yoke’s eyes are glistening with tears. Today is the happiest day in her life.