Always with God
Although my mother uttered her first words in the Philippine Ilocano language, we are a Chinese family and along with my brothers and sisters, I was born in Hong Kong. Coming into this world in 1928 as the eldest of five children, my mother was Eurasian, and my father the son of a migrant from Xiamen in the Fujian province of China, who had made a new life in the town of Apprri at the mouth of the Cagayan River in Luzon province.
Life looked good in the late 1930s when my grandfather packed up his family to return to his hometown in China intent on setting up his own business. My mother was his favorite, and he really took her under his wing, training her to run his new shop in the port city of Xiamen.
During my tender years, my mother often talked to me about that period, boasting that there were times when sailors would try to dodge the cash register by pretending they were drunk, but she would chase them and always get the money!
However, war and politics brought an end to their happy existence, and the family packed up once again to return to the Philippines. However, my mother chose to remain with her father, who was in the early stages of a fatal illness. His death left her high and dry at the young age of 17. She packed up and set out to stay with her auntie Josephine in Singapore, where she intended to wait until she could return to China to reclaim the family property. Clutching the last of her money, her first step was to Hong Kong, but her way to Xiamen was blocked, as the Communist army had closed shipping access.
Hong Kong has always been a land of opportunity, and a guardian angel in the form of a cousin working in the then-British colony encouraged her not to return to Singapore. Unwittingly, he opened the way to a fairytale romance with my father, who was a subscript writer at a local cinema where my mother just happened to fill her vacant hours.
The handsome subscript writer was in college in Canton when the Communist forces arrived. His father had encouraged him to flee to Hong Kong, but his romance with my mother ensured that they both remained. I was born around three years into what turned out to be only just 10 years of a happy marriage.
We were living in Peng Chau, a small island about one hour by ferry from the business hub of Hong Kong. I was seven on the day a teacher pulled me out of class telling me to get ready to take the afternoon ferry to Kowloon. That was the day my world fell apart. I found my usually cheerful mother in tears. I had learned to be silent at these times, but eventually she told me we were going to see my father's dead body.
During the following months my mother cried a lot. There were no more weekend trips to Kowloon, where my father had worked. As the oldest girl in the family, I had chores to do after school, while my mother was out earning our meager living.
I had learned to manage a cooking pot a friend had bought for us, but dinner was always late in the evening after my mother returned from work, as she insisted we eat as a family. She also insisted we look after each other, and I would put my younger brother on my back, walking him to and fro to keep the mosquitoes from eating him alive during the dankly humid summers.
She also insisted that we say a prayer before school and a prayer of thanksgiving before every meal, as well as one before we went to bed. The big "must" each week was family Mass on Sundays, and when the violent winds and lashing rains came during the typhoon season, we were all to pray for the safety of our fragile little hut.
Years later, my mother told me those days with her children around her were her happiest. Those days are long past now, and today my mother lives in a nursing home, unable to recognize or communicate with us. She spoke English and Mandarin well, but it was only when a friend uttered a few words of the "Our Father" prayer into her ear in Ilocano that I saw any recognition in her vacant stare. Ilocano was her first language and is now her last, just as God was her first faith and will be her last.
Dawn Rosa Chiu is the Administrative Assistant at the Columban Central Administration Office in Hong Kong.