Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The woman who sobbed under the Longan fruit tree

 Map of Taiwan 台湾地图

The background of the story was set at the Japanese Occupation era around 1935-1945 till right after the WWII. (Japan ruled Taiwan between 1895-1945) The location: Tainan, Taiwan. In 1995 Madam Huang Ah Ni wrote the story to pay tribute to her maternal grandmother who suffered silently most of her lifetime during those difficult years. Here goes:

Left: Chinese women during the turn of century into 1900s. 
Right: Colored picture taken in 1980s.

I did not get to see my grandmother (We called her fondly Ah Mah in our Taiwanese dialect. For mother – Ah Bu is the right word) often in my growing up years. Mother was married to Taipei, the Northern city of Taiwan some 300 over kilometers from her home town of Tainan. We got to meet Ah Mah whenever Mother visited her once in few years. I could remember that she had never come to Taipei; she loved us all the same when we surrounded her upon arrival. Ah Mah was a woman of few words, she did not talk much. She just kept herself busy cooking, doing the house chores and carried pales of well water for our baths. I remembered vividly seeing her small wrinkled hands slicing vegetables and chicken meat before cooking; she wore black dress all the while.  Her fingers were mostly deformed and bent due to rheumatoid arthritis. Mother knew well that Ah Mah was in constant pain but she had never uttered a single word to complain.

Little girl played along with Mom in a fishing village.

Just like any other city child first ventured into rural villages, I was playful and curious, running about all over the dirt roads and the rice fields, climbing trees to pilfer fruits without inhibition. Now I regretted for not building up a strong bond with my Ah Mah; by the time I was old enough to discover more things regarding Ah Mah’s past, she had since died. Ah Mah had two children, viz. my mother and her brother, our uncle. Mother seldom mentioned about her father but we did know we had a grandfather who stayed nearby Ah Mah’s house in Tainan. Mother managed to recollect that grandfather carried her once when she was very young to the seaside to see the sunset, and that was the only time she remembered being cuddled by our grandfather. She was so sad for unable to visit Ah Mah more often than she wanted as my father’s family were reluctant and recalcitrant to let her leave for her own hometown to visit her mother. She softly wept in her bedroom for hours.

A typical scene of Taiwanese agricultural harvest.
She had the baby sleeping on her back.

There was always a strange feeling when we managed to visit Ah Mah as her rather derelict home was just about 20 meters away from grandfather’s residence. The houses were separated by one tall and large longan fruit tree. My uncle and his children dwelt with Ah Mah and they were friendly and close to my sibling and my mother. Grandfather stayed at his house with his Japanese wife and his other children; the two families did not communicate with one another and were not on good terms. I only realized the intricate relationship of my grandparents when I began my secondary education. My brothers and I would then climb on the Longan tree branches to peep at grandfather’s home, trying to discover how life was going on over there. What we saw was a plain looking and old, ordinary Japanese woman in simple clothing. She tried to speak to us in her broken Taiwanese dialect when she discovered us peeping at her; she showed her friendliness by giving us some sweets and tidbits. Our happiness was short-lived as Mother was furious as she grimaced and confiscated the sweets.

Mainland Chinese tourists flocked to Taiwan to sample life of "the other side". The nation of The Republic of China - 中华民国 is an economically strong state with a 23 million hard-working population. The Taiwanese people are diligent, fun loving, vibrant and distinguished in all academic fields. They used to suffer under the draconian rule of notorious dictators Chiang Kai-Sek and his son Ching-Kuo. Followed by the demise of the two bigoted presidents the citizens were relieved to be able to live in democracy. Now they could curse, criticize, oppose, make a mockery of, and joke about what their incumbent president said or did without fearing of going through the " White Terror "era. It was a time of harsh military rule to silence any dissident critic. When detained, the political prisoner faced grossly inhuman treatment - usually it's going to the death cell in a jail, and waited to be executed. 

Eventually I heard an earful of stories from Mother and some relatives that our grandfather married the Japanese lady despite that he was already married to Ah Mah when he went to Japan to study and work. He hid the fact from both sides and had few children with the Japanese woman. The secret began to unfold when he returned to Taiwan with his newer wife and children as he found it hard to earn a living in Japan during those warring years in the 1940s. Since then he lived in another wooden house he built to accommodate his other family and had more children, just a short distance from Ah Mah’s run-down abode. It was a huge blow to Ah Mah when she realized all her effort in bringing up children single-handedly when her husband was away, had gone to emptiness. It was unbearable to see her husband left her to form a new family right under her nose, leaving her alone stoically to fend for her two young children. The two woman simultaneously faced the cruel fact that neither of them was the only wife to my grandfather.  

A young Japanese lady was drawn in deep thought 
as she puffed away fumes from her cigarette.

Ah Mah was most resentful to discover that the first child borne by the Japanese woman was even older than her son, my uncle. That meant her husband continued to father another child with Ah Mah, when he already had a son borne in Japan. For that matter, my uncle was brought up by Ah Mah (together with my mother) as she slogged as a single parent, and her children were fatherless. Then the worst, unimaginable thing happened that left Ah Mah in bitter despair. Following the end of WWII and the dishonorable defeat of Japanese Imperial Army, the Japanese wife of my grandfather faced the fate of being deported to her own country. Ah Mah was coaxed and coerced to agree for a divorce, so as to make way for grandfather’s legitimatizing his marriage with the Japanese woman.

An old Japanese woman in traditional Kimono dress 
took part in prayers in the temple ground.

I was told that Ah Mah was a charming pretty lady when she was young; unfortunately she did not attend schools due to her father’s stubborn, traditional male chauvinistic opinion that girls should not be literate and educated. She hailed from a middle class family. By match making, she was arranged to marry grandfather and when they wed, it was the fancy talk of the village. The same fate befallen upon my own mother that when she graduated from her senior secondary school with brilliant results, grandfather cruelly obliterated her chance of studying medicine at the prestigious University of Tokyo despite her being secured a scholarship to further her studies. For that matter Ah Mah and mother wept for a few days.

Children played and ran about on the beach without parental company? 
No fear, the father took the picture.

Later we came to know that the Japanese woman had constant quarrels with grandfather and had threatened to commit suicide several times.  She was equally dismayed to realize her husband had married in Taiwan before bringing her over. She had no friends or relatives in the neighborhood, and as Japanese, she was generally despised and cursed by the village Chinese women folks as a home wrecker, so she stayed indoor most of the time. She smoked heavily and her health was going down the hill. There were few nights in the wee hours she was seen soliloquizing in incomprehensible Japanese, sobbing, smoking and gesturing in thin air, with her hair let loose, under the pale moonlit night, sitting under the tall longan trees, casting an eerie, frightening sight.

An old lady sat quietly at one corner of the house 
to seek solace and recollection of the tough life in the past.

Ah Mah had never talked to the Japanese woman in person, and had never quarrelled with her either. They just did not interact. Ah Mah knew the importance of education and the misery of being illiterate. Therefore she made it certain to have her two children sent to school and they did not disappoint her. There were occasions when my mother woke up in the middle of the night and could not find Ah Mah when she was a little girl. After a frantic search she saw Ah Mah sitting under the longan tree sobbing, and with her hair down, just like the Japanese woman did. One day Ah Mah died suddenly and quietly. She was not that old, just in her 50s. Nobody had any memory of Ah Mah falling sick. She probably left the world due to a lifetime of wretched sadness, a perpetual feeling of injustice and misery, and had always suffered in abject poverty.  My mother cried for weeks for the immense loss.

A towering and  large longan fruit tree planted 
at the back of a residential house. 
It's a healthy tree that is yielding abundant longan fruits. 
Longan fresh fruit bunch

Eventually we heard that the Japanese woman hanged herself dead from the branch of the longan tree one night. Before that she had gone insane probably due to her constant nostalgic yearning of returning to her homeland. The tall and imposing longan tree was cut down to make way for a village road project, so did the two family houses; they were demolished. Since then we had not heard of grandfather and his other children’s whereabouts; we had never known him, and he had never accepted us. My mother’s anguish and anxiety with regards to the encounter and life of Ah Mah perished together with her to her grave when Mother passed away in her 70s.

A true story translated by
Alan CY Kok

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