On 14 June 2019, 28 years after her demise, I finally arrived at Houpu (后浦), the birthplace that my grandma pined for all her life, but never got to return to.
“Gua si ongg. Gua di aw paw cu xi. Gua si kim meng lang,” my grandma would chant these 3 sentences depicting her origin in Minan language to just about anyone who would listen.
“我姓翁. 我在后浦出世. 我是金门人.” (Mandarin translation)
“My surname is Ongg. I was born in Houpu. I’m a Kinmen person.” (rough English translation)
She held on to the above 3 expressions for dear life and was able to tell us who she was right to the end, even when dementia rendered her incapable of recognising her own grandchildren.
In my primary school days, one of her favourite activities was to show me her S’pore Citizenship Card issued on pink vanguard paper. She had it bundled up with other important documents with a handkerchief which she tied the four corners together to make it into a folder of sorts.
She would unknot the handkerchief and remove her citizenship card like a cherished mandate. Then she would direct my eyes to the romanised version of her name, “Ang Gaey,” handwritten in blue ink. She would also remind me that it had been wrongly translated. The cadences in the Minan language by which she was named had no corresponding sounds in the English Language.
In my teens, instead of becoming more understanding of my grandma’s insecurity about her poorly translated name on government documents, I became annoyed with her for boring me with such dated & inconsequential details.
But now in my aging years, and as a teacher of language, it hits me extra hard that my illiterate grandma having been separated from her birth family at age 7, must have been so desperate to preserve whatever bits of information pertaining to her origin. And to have her adoptive country, Singapore, getting something as basic as her name wrong on official papers must be very unsettling indeed.
Perhaps repeating her details to me was the only way she knew how to protect her identity & stay connected to her roots.
The fear of forgetting looms in a person like some invisible illness that those with means to documentation may find it hard to empathise with.
As I strolled the streets of my forefathers, “Houpu (后浦)” is no longer a strange sounding word repeated by a neurotic old woman. And I deeply regretted the times when I was dismissive and cruel even, towards an old lady who couldn’t stop talking about her surname, her birthplace and her island.
Had I the compassion & intelligence to listen more and judge less then, I might have helped to mitigate her unspeakable sense of loss and loneliness.
On this trip, strings of red lanterns with the characters Houpu (后浦) written on them swayed lightly above me in the cool summer breeze as if saying to me & my grandma, “Yes, yes! This is Houpu! And you are home!”
As I stopped to greet the ancient Banyan tree whose branches rose to touch the window of Houpu Tea House (后浦 泡茶间) above, I felt a sense of peace & grounding even though I wasn’t born there.
After this visit, I feel that my grandma is no longer that frightened little girl who was made to sail from Kinmen to Singapore, and then spent her whole life trying to find her bearing. Far from being lost, I think my trip has helped her gain back her footing and now she has two places to call home, Houpu (后浦) and Singapore.
Thanks to her persistence in talking about Houpu (后浦) despite the sniggers she received, a whole world of new experiences has opened up for me, many years after her life had ended.
So I wish for all my friends, the tenacity of my grandma to keep talking about what we love & believe in, be it a name, or larger topics such as gender equality, animal welfare, good governance etc, even when no one seems to care. Because one day, someone is bound to pick up your message & thank you for it. 🙏
Wudao City God Temple (浯岛城隍庙) is located in Houpu (后浦）the birthplace of my grandma. “Wudao” is the old name of Kinmen Island. A “city god” in Taiost beliefs is a protector deity of the city, ensuring its environment and inhabitants live in harmony.
The temple dedicated for this purpose of peace & protection for all is more than 300 years old. In fact it just held its 339th year of celebration on 22nd April this year.
One of its recent temple celebratory activities was to organise a name conferring contest for two otter pups in order to highlight the challenges faced by the Eurasian otters that share the waterways of Kinmen Island.
Stepping into this temple was like stepping back in time. I know that the furnishings in the temple and architecture have been renovated many times, but the space where my grandma and her family members would have visited is still the same.
In the sunny afternoon with beams of light filtering in from the openings above the temple, I walked about and imagined what it might have been like a 100 years ago in that space where I was.
As I rested my tired legs, wafts of incense fragrance mixed with the familiar smells of joss paper offerings made me feel homey and at ease. When I touched her silver belt which I had kept in the pocket of my denim jeans, I connected with my grandma across time.
At the Protector Deity seated in the centre of the altar I gave thanks for His protection & blessings on the 7-year-old child bride who was born in Wudao in 1914, grew up to become my grandfather’s wife, became my dad’s mom, was widowed and became my grandma before passing on at 77 in 1991.
The inhabitants of Kinmen Island place stone carvings of mythological lions (风师爷 feng shi ye) at strategic locations for protection from powerful winds and other elements that are beyond human control.
Over the years, these leonine creatures acquire various types of colours, shapes and designs to reflect their relevance to the island folks.
May the full moon bless all sentient beings with the luminosity to adapt to changes, especially during dark times.
And may we share the spirit of the Kinmen folks, who over time, turn attempts to manage hardship into works of art, as the multitude of wind lion designs have shown. 😊
I first saw her picture on facebook earlier this year while researching on my trip to Kinmen Island, birthplace of my grandma.
“I hope to grow old like her,” was the first thought that hit me when I saw her picture. I then saved her pictures for future inspiration and that was it.
The old lady had offered the use of her house courtyard for a music festival organised by young artists and lovers of Kinmen culture.
This afternoon while heading back to our taxi after visiting the ancient houses of 珠山 （Zhushan Village） I was attracted to conversational voices coming from a house on my right.
An old lady and two men were chatting while seated on low stools at the doorway.
I gasped when I realised I was looking at the old lady from the facebook photos!
I spoke excitedly to our driver, Yuan, as if I had just spotted a unicorn in Kinmen.
“Are you absolutely sure?” Yuan asked, perhaps a bit amused by my giddy excitement.
“Yes! She was featured in a music festival in 2017 organised by Wang Ling & friends. She was surrounded by young people in that picture!” I gushed. Nothing is gonna come between me and my role model now.
The old lady saw me lingering some distance from her door and waved at me. She would tell me later that she did so because she wanted me to come inside her house to take a break from the afternoon heat outside.
What followed after I entered the doorway to her 400-year-old house was an afternoon of magical exchanges in a mixture of Mandarin, Minan & English.
I told her frankly that I saw her on facebook and I hope to look like her if I ever get the chance to grow old.
She laughed heartily while holding my hand firmly.
She is 84 years old this year.
Yuan explained to my Role Model that before we came to her village, I had visited my grandmother’s ancestral shrine in 半山 (Pan Shan).
My Role Model smiled at me and said benignly in the minan dialect, “I was born in Pan Shan. My surname is Weng (翁), same as your grandmother’s.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better confirmation of ancestral presence and divine guidance on this trip to Kinmen that I made on my grandma’s behalf.
My day began with catching a ride from a friend to the ICA Building on Lavender Street to collect my mom’s new passport. He had a class on in town and wanted to spare me the cab fare. Grace!
At the ICA counter, the officer attending to me wore a dark blazer and spotted a pair of gold rimmed spectacles. Her surname was “Angullia” as shown on the name plate sitting solidly on her desk.
I told her this was my very first encounter with an actual person bearing her surname. I wondered if she was one of the descendants of the builders of the Angullia Mosque in Little India (opp Mustaffa Centre)
“Yes, that’s our family mosque,” she beamed as she answered. Her ancestors were Gujarati merchants who built the mosque. I could feel her pride and happiness about her Angullia ancestry.
After she cleared the administrative protocol she handed me my mom’s new passport.
“What happened to your leg?” Mdm Angullia asked quietly. There was a look of genuine concern and interest on her solemn face.
I explained to her how I had contracted childhood polio despite having access to vaccines. But I was quick to add that I bore no resentment for what happened. Polio had already crippled one of my legs, and the last thing I needed was for it to cripple my soul as well.
On my way home on the MRT I recalled how my childhood disease had divided my family and put my mother & late grandmother on a constant blame battle & guilt trip.
When misfortune strikes, feeling bad or sorry, attributing blame and to some extent, seeking compensation or apology can trap us in a state of eternal victimhood. It is as if an invisible cord ties us to the cause of our suffering, and in my case, the disease that has brought much grief.
So while the adults were still fretting over how to disguise my limp (as if it could be done), or to protect me from comments, I actually had to face the world all on my own, on one leg. Alone.
In retrospect, this isolation has given me lots of practice to be unafraid if I don’t fit in.
But precious time had been wasted on pitying me. Precious tears were shed for not looking normal. And precious efforts were squandered on overcompensating for my disability as I lived in fear of not being good enough.
Thus forgiveness, for whatever wrong or tragedy one has endured, even without the promise of an apology or hope of justice, is really the passport to freedom.