Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New Kiwi Women Write Their Stories

Earlier this year I was invited by Auckland City Council to run a writing workshop series for migrant women. We ran four workshops (Introduction; Poetry; Prose; Performance and Editing) after which we put together a small book of the group's writing and then launched it at an afternoon tea in front of family and friends. It was a marvellous experience and I'm hoping the group will continue on as a writing group, as many of the writers were talented and need to be heard.

This afternoon the workshop series was featured on Radio NZ:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Grandma's interview

My grandmother, Grace Liang, is turning 100 in a few weeks. She barely talks these days: she has advanced senile dementia. But sometimes the sight of a baby or a familiar voice will bring her back from the faraway lands briefly.

She has had an amazing life.  Born into a privileged family in China, she was sent to school, although the servants only carried her brother to school and she and her sister had to walk. Later Grace studied to be a nurse. This period of her life (1930s - she was in her 20s) intersected with the Japanese invasion of China. So, in between her peripatetic studies, my grandmother worked with the student resistance movement, traveling by herself or with friends around China. Through all this she got to know my grandfather, a young academic. As she matter-of-factly explains in the interview, eventually it just made sense to get married. Love matches were starting to be accepted among the educated elite then.

I made a cassette recording of my grandmother in 1993. I was twenty and was just starting to realise the importance of knowing my own family history. I also had a very basic tape recorder. I summoned Grace's four kids - my dad Allen, Aunties Isabella and Evelyna, and Uncle Eddie - and we all crowded into her tiny flat in Hong Kong, along with various grandkids and in-laws. Although I was the 'interviewer', my poor Cantonese meant my aunties, uncles and dad asked most of the questions - not that you could have stopped them.

The cassettes were banked in the bottom drawer of my desk. I thought about transcribing them from time to time but of course, life just rushed on and they stayed there in the dark for nearly twenty years. Something must have been niggling at me, because for a new theatre project, I've decided to work with oral histories. Recently I got my sister to transfer them into digital format (thank goodness the quality is still OK) and started listening and translating - perhaps my Cantonese has improved slightly, because I managed this reasonably OK.

This is an extract where Grace talks about how she met my grandfather. (Corrections welcomed from people more fluent in Cantonese than I!)


Recorded in 1993 when Grace Liang (G)was aged 81. Present are her children, Allen (A), Evelyna (E), Eddie (Ed) and Allen’s wife Christina (C) and her younger sister Harriet (H) as well as the interviewer, her granddaughter Renee Liang (R). Evelyna is asking a lot of the questions as Renee is not fluent in Cantonese.

This is a transcript/translation of a 21 minute extract which tells how Grace met her husband during the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s.

E: Tell us again how you came to know Dad.

G: Well, all his brothers and sisters were at Yaochai (a high school in Hong Kong).

E: What brothers and sisters?

G: His brothers and sisters. You know, (names them).

E: So how did you meet him? In Kwunming (city) or Guangzhou (city)?

G: Guangzhou. I was classmates with his siblings. And eventually I met him and his 4th brother. And then we ended up in Nanking (city). I’d passed the high school examinations, so my friend and I, the two of us, we traveled to Nanking. And on the way we passed Santou. So we stopped there to visit him.

E: What? You’re telling me Santou’s on the way to Nanking? It’s such a detour! To get to Nanking you just travel directly north right?

G: Well, we didn’t go there direct. We went to Hawnam (city) and then ended up there…from Hong Kong to Hawnam. Then Hawnam to Kwunming.

A/E: But how could you pass Santou then?

G: Well, the Japanese were coming to Hong Kong… well, I’d known your Dad for many years. So when we became refugees… we weren’t refugees at first, we were just avoiding the Japanese by moving to China for work.  So my friends and I (names them), there were four of us, we took a boat to Hawnam.

E: And then on to Santou. And from Santou to Shanghai, and from Shanghai to Nanking?

G: No….

E: Then what?

G: We just took a boat.

E: (laughs). To visit Santou!

G: Well we were on our way to Kwunming… fleeing the trouble. So the four of us – I’d had to leave (my job at) Sa Ming hospital in Hong Kong – we went to Kwunming.

E: Kwunming. Not Santou.

G: No, not Santou. Santou…. (laughs). Well I’d passed the exams, the second round, and my friend has passed in the first round. So I wanted to go study in Nanking but your grandma wouldn’t let me. There was no chaperone you see. So I waited until the third round and my cousin passed, so I said now tmy cousin can come with me. So we went to Nanking via Shanghai, and on the way we passed Santou, so we stopped to stay with a family friend. But we didn’t see your Dad… only his brother was there. But seeing he was there we decided to stay for a night. We stayed there eating lychees. And several of our other friends were there, so we had a good party. And then we went to Nanking to study nursing.

After we finished our nursing studies, we had to run from the Japanese. It was before we’d finished our final exams.  But I’d already scored highly enough for further studies in Beijing. If you scored over 98 marks you could go. And I achieved this, but hadn’t done everything to graduate. And then the Japanese came and there was a great hurry to leave.

We immediately boarded a boat to Shanghai, then from Shanghai… we returned to Hong Kong. And then I took a job back at my old hospital, Sa Ming. And my friend, she stayed in Shanghai… she completed the nursing diploma. And then she went…. I don’t know where she ended up. I never finished the diploma. I came home. But on the boat home I got to know several airline pilots. And we had a good time together. And when we finished partying…back then it was really complicated.

We were still fleeing from the Japanese. And when our boat got to Shanghai there was a big rush to get on the ferry (to Hong Kong). So many people, we all crowded onto deck, people were sleeping in a big pile of bodies, all the students and so on. And so we all got to know one another, and when we got to Hong Kong, we partied together. Some had returned from America, they were the airline pilots.

E: So who did you like?

G: I didn’t like anyone. We just partied together.


G: It was just our group… and there was (name), he was a doctor, and others… I’d started work at Sa Ming…

E: And you worked there for, was it three years?

G: Sa Ming? Two years. And by then the Japanese were already approaching Guangzhou, so Sa Ming started to look after Allied soldiers. American soldiers, they always brought us good things to eat. Every Saturday they invited us out to eat with them. Myself and another Chinese nurse. And another nurse from Queen Mary (hospital). There were three Chinese, the rest of the staff were Westerners, our hospital was for expats. The whole hospital – 12 patients. It was a posh hospital, fees were very expensive there.

E: So how did you end up in Kwunming?

G: Well after Guangzhou was occupied by the Japanese, things got increasingly tense. The Japanese started demanding more and more territory… so we decided to leave for Kwunming. We went via Hawnam.. from Hawnam to Kwunming.

E: You took the train?

G: No, a boat.

E: So you got off at Hoisuk and transferred to go to Yutlam.

G: Yes, via Yutlan to Kwunming. And at Kwunming there was a doctor…a classmate’s friend, he knew me also, we’d studied together. He was from Kwunming. He was a consultant at the local hospital… so he gave me a job there, I taught the students. And another friend went to another city to work, and my girlfriend was preparing for her wedding. So she traveled to Namking, and our friends were there working too. And back then your Dad was in Sainam lecturing (at university). And his sisters were nearby. One of them came to stay with me – I had a spare room. So every Saturday, we went out as a group. And that’s how I got to know him.

E: (quotes a line of classical poetry).

G: What?

A: She doesn’t know what you’re talking about!

E: You know…(requites the line). The boys were always buying you things? Good things to eat?

G: (laughs) Well, they knew I liked eating a certain delicacy, so they always bought it for me…

A: The Wongs and the Liangs, they liked to hang out together.. they already liked one another…

G: (laughs) .. so we got to know one another. Every Saturday we went out. A group of four… three girls..,

E: .. and one guy.

G: There was another guy too who sometimes came. He was a driver, he had his own van. And so we had transport, every Saturday. The driver had a lot of money, freighting all kinds of stuff… he was always shouting us dinner.

A: And back then Dad was pretty charismatic?

G: Oh yes, very charismatic. He never stopped. All day he’d be singing songs, planning this, doing that…

E: Singing songs! Allen…

A: What?

G: So we got to know each other. And eventually his sister went off to get married, then there were only the three of us left… so we decided eventually, let’s get married.  Our friend was keen to leave, he pushed us to leave with him. So then we went… where did we go then?

E: Did you ask for permission from Grandma?

G: Yes, we posted some photos back. And your Grandma got a fright (because Grandpa was bald). She said I was marrying an old man!


E: So you just sent a photo and that was it?

G: Well we were far away, and I was a big girl by then… so we got married where we were. We hired a church and invited our Chinese friends. Your dad had lots of friends in Kunming. Several doctors, one of the seniors stepped in for my father and gave me away. He took the role of the official matchmaker. Back then you had to go through all that hassle. And your father asked all his friends to help. Back then my mother had a friend who was traveling nearby, she was also getting married. She had a special wedding outfit which she lent to me. Back then it was extremely classy, very sophisticated, these days it’s not much.

E: It’s beautiful even now. I’ve seen the photos. But one question… did you have any other reason for staying in Kwunming at that time? Other than as a safe place from the Japanese?

G: No, just the Japanese.  Back then they hadn’t yet reached that city, the city was full of students who went door to door stirrung up resistance, giving speeches – we were courageous and brash, I don’t remember what we said –

A: The resistance grew from Guangdong.

G: Back then there were already informers. But we had enough courage –

A: (explaining, partially in English) To give a speech. Stirring up the public. Against the Japanese. If you were a student, that’s what you did.

R: Wow.

G: I even had enough courage to become a representative. We went to the churches, the small churches, gave speeches.

E: And when did you cut off your braids? Did you have to ask permission?

G: My father loved those braids. He wanted to see me, to touch those braids again…Your Aunty Harriet was denied permission when she asked. He said she was too vain –

H: - so I rang up Senior Uncle instead.

E: You had phones in those days?

C: Back in those days, if you wanted to grow your hair long or get it cut, you had to ask permission from your parents.

E: So was Aunty the first person to cut her hair into bangs?

G: No, we were first.

C: Could you have it permed at that time? Or was it straight?

G: No, we had no perms then. Aunt Harriet was the first to perm her hair. It was to goad her dad – she was very vain.


G: I was obedient. I didn’t perm my hair at first… eventually I did. But I didn’t realise how curly it would be. I came home from the hairdresser, and spent all night soaking my hair in hot water, trying to straighten it again. I wanted to wash it straight.


C: Back then perming was by using electric current, right?

G: Yes.

E: So by then Dad had visited Guangzhou?

G: Yes, he visited a friend of ours.

E: But he hadn’t met Grandma.

(a phone call interrupts).

E: So what did you like about Dad?

G: Like? Well, what did you like about Fred (your husband?)

E: I liked him because he was crazy enough.


G: Well, I liked your Dad because I got to know him…. he was part of our crowd. There wasn’t any ‘like’ about it.

A: But why did you like him over other men? 

E: What about the rich driver? How come you didn’t marry him?

G: Well at the time he had lots of cash, he was always shouting us to meals…but he was a driver.

E: Why did you like Dad and not him?

H: Why would you marry a driver? You have to choose someone with class.

A: But he was cashed-up.

G: Cashed-up, so what? He wasn’t the same class… it’s hard to explain. Back then you wouldn’t –

H: He was a driver!

E: But what good qualities did dad have? he was bald, an academic, with a bad temper –

G: He didn’t have a  bad temper in those days. Not to me. Back then he paid me a lot of attention – he used to take me out to dinner, out on dates, every time he had a break he would come. He came to see his little sisters… but then we’d all go out together.

E: Did he hold hands?

G: No, we didn’t.

E: So how did he propose? How did you date?

G: We just went out walking.

H: We weren’t allowed to stay out late then. We all went out together.

C: Not even if you were dating?

H: You had to come home early. It wasn’t like now, morning and night -

G: - and there weren’t that many places to go -