Helena Wong (1919-2011)

i like paupau’s home
but i don’t like paupau.
there are cars in big boxes in paupau’s home.
i can drive them very fast.
i go inside paupau’s room, go to the end,
and race out to the door.
i raced with my brother, Kiki.
paupau’s home had bars,
i pull myself with the bars,
i was very fast.
paupau is noisy. she talks loud,
she tells me to eat veggies, she tells Kiki and me to be quiet.
paupau walks very slowly.
she always sits in her chair.

One day, the cardboard boxes with the cars in paupau’s home were gone.
I was very sad because I liked the cars, a lot.
I whined to my mom. She said I had to grow up
so I did.
There were books in Paupau’s home, from cousin Kimberly.
Paupau told me to read them.
I wanted to show her I was really smart so I tried to read all of them every time I went.
But I never finished.
One day, the books were gone too.
When I went to Paupau’s home after exams, Kiki and I would bring our report cards.
We would go to her room with Mom.
She told us to close the door.
She had a key for her locked drawer.
Paupau would give me money for every grade on my report card.
If I got A, it was a hundred dollars, B was fifty. C was less.
We had to first write on a piece of paper how much money we should get.
I tried to get as many A’s as possible.
It was a game, I wanted to win as much money from her as possible.
I heard stories of Paupau from mom.
Paupau made Cha siu buns with German sourdough.
Paupau made really weird dresses.
Paupau made my uncles did difficult things before they could marry my aunts.

Sometimes when we had dinner, the doctor would give us flu injections.
I always cried but Paupau always told me not to cry.
She would tell me to be a man.
So I tried not to cry.
At dinner, we always tried not to sit next to Paupau because she would talk to us for the whole night.
One night, my mom told me to sit beside her. I whined but she gave me the eyes.
So I sat. I asked Paupau if she wanted fresh orange juice. I gave her food.
She did not yell at me.

After church every Sunday, we would go to Paupau’s home in Taikoo Shing.
We would buy food in the food plaza downstairs.
My favorite was cha siu rice.
We would go to the building and tell the man sitting at the table “14C, last name Leung”
and he would nod and smile.
When manang Angie opened the door, Paupau would be there sitting in her seat, with the light on, scissors or pen in her hand, working hard.
We would eat lunch and paupau would look at us eat lunch.
We would ask her if she finished lunch yet, and she would say yes.
Sometimes, we would give her one small piece to try.
She would always tell mom to eat more but mom always said she was really full.
After lunch, I would play with Kiki.
We would bring out the toys, the toys that could transform from numbers to fighters.
We tried to make a story with the toys.
Usually, I would split the ten numbers with my brother and we would fight.
I usually won because I wanted to.
Sometimes, my mom would tell me to preform Taekwondo for Paupau.
I always I told her I didn’t want to but she forced me.
I changed into my Taekwondo uniform and preformed her.
Paupau always clapped. She liked me doing Taekwondo. She said I was good.
Sometimes, mom would make me preform Bruce Lee, Jackie Chen, Jet Li impersonations for Paupau.
Paupau clapped as well but she told me not to smile or laugh when I did it.
When we left Paupau’s home, I would always kiss her cheek.
Even though she was old, her skin was very soft.

Paupau always called home. She would call almost everyday, looking for mom. At first, I listend and gave the phone to mom but mom always looked frustrated. Mom said she was tired so I learnt how to lie. When paupau called, mom was in the toilet or in the shower. Instead, Paupau talked to me. She would ask me about school, would ask about Kiki, would tell me to brush my teeth, would tell me the three things I needed to be successful at school: highlighter, rubber bands and ruler. She would call me just to remind me that it was going to be cold tonight after hearing the weather forecast on the radio. If I sneezed while she talked to me, she would yell at me and tell me to put on a jacket and rub some Vics on my nose. She would tell me about everyone else, about all my cousins, uncles and aunties. She never stopped talking. Therefore, I had to tell her that I had dinner and I had to hang up. After she hung up, I could imagine Paupau sitting in her seat, which we now referred to as the royal seat, holding that big telephone with the antena sticking out and her cardboard of telephone numbers. She would control the world from that little seat of hers with her telephone. Me guesses that if she were born in a time before telephones, she would have had her own postman.

At family dinners, Paupau was always the first one there.
She was always sitting in her royal seat in 5 e ma’s living room.
We now referred to her as our queen and we would greet her like subjects in Qing dynasty television dramas.
She always told me to sit beside her to talk to her.
She would ask me about school. She would make me read the newspaper clippings she had brought with her.
I obliged.
At dinner, I would sit next to her and look after her. Her favorite food was Sea cucumber because it had zero calories.
It tasted like plastic but I learnt to like it.
Even though she was eighty something years old, she was still on a diet.
When we took group photos, she always slightly propped her head to one side and put her finger underneath her cheek, to be cute.
We laughed, asked her to stop, but she always refused.

As I grew older, and school became more demanding, I went less to Paupau’s home. She still always called and I always listened and talked to her patiently. She would often ask me when I would go visit her. Manang would joke and say that even my girlfriend wouldn’t call as regularly as Paupau, which was true. When I did visit Paupau though, mom would make me preform for her. Since I had stopped Taekwondo, I started performing other things, mostly dancing and instruments. I have performed ballet, ballroom, cha cha for her. Growing older also gave me more opportunities to understand Paupau’s past and her as a person. I did an interview with her on her experience of escaping from Hong Kong to Chong Qing during World War II. After being home-bound for so many years, she made a public appearance to receive the certificate. Armed with charisma, paupau, even though thirty years his senior, managed to capture the full attention of the HKU Professor for the entire duration of the cocktail after the ceremony. I was embarrassed but felt proud for giving grandma the recognition she deserved.

As I grew older, Paupau also grew older.
But her spirit never diminished. She still worked feverishly at her desk until her first hospitalization this year.
Her mind was always alert. She knew what was happening around her, who was doing what and most importantly, who hadn’t visited her in how long.
Mom always told me that Paupau was going to die soon. I didn’t believe her, and Paupau always told us that her doctor said she would live until 105 but I also saw the signs.
From being able to walk slowly, to being able to only walk a bit, to being wheel-chair bound, Paupau became progressively weaker.

Then, I went to university.
I was thousands of miles away but I still tried to call her every other week. Sometimes, I got lazy and I forgot.
She went into the hospital in December but somehow survived.
She survived throughout my time spring semester. I would call her and she would remind me of the three things that I needed to be successful at school. She would teach me the only mandarin phrase she knew every time I called.
When I was back in Hong Kong in May, I preformed for her one last time at her home. Flamenco this time. Like all the previous times, she clapped for me.

Then, she went to the hospital.
I saw her a few times but it was painful to watch to see her suffering, retching as she tried to cough up the phlegm in her lungs.
Then, she passed away while I was in Beijing.
That I wasn’t by her bed when she died does not upset me.
I knew that my last memory of my Paupau would be the one where she was smiling and clapping for me.

I want to thank Manang Angie especially for being there all these years for Paupau, satisfying her every demand, her every request.
I want to thank everyone who made a difference in her life, including all of my greater family.
We can’t choose our parents, nor our grandparents. But God gave me the opportunity to be close with my grandma. I would like to thank him for that.

I will never forget that sight when we enter her royal private chambers. Still too stingy to open the air-con in her room unless it’s unbearable. The radio is on and some chinese man is talking about the weather. Paupau’s legs are crooked. Holding a straw fan in one hand, she slowly sweeps it.

I will never forget that sight of Paupau sitting in her standard seat in 5 e ma’s
living room. Her feet in those black shoes with flowers on top propped up on a little box. Her feet had shrunk in size since the shoes were first bought. The back end of the shoes were re-sowed to fit her small feet. Her bright red Chinese jacket glittering under the light. Her huge glasses on her eyes. Her black wig. Her commitment to beauty and looking good.

I will never forget that sight after Manang Angie opens the door of 14C. On the chair beside her is a whole stack of newspapers that she cut out. I see Paupau’s silver white hair reflecting against her old-school yellow floor lamp. She has a board on her lap, scissor/pen in one hand, cutting or underlining a piece of newspaper. Behind her huge eyeglasses, she is focusing single-mindedly on the task at hand. Then, she lifts her head and says, “Who’s there?”

Even if I forget all these memories, I wish to remember a few of Paupau’s staples.
She never cried, never complained about the pain, about her suffering, about her past.
She was always fearless, courageous in the face of every hardship.
She always smiled, until the very last minute.
She never asked for more. She stayed humble until the last minute.
She loved every one of us.

She was my biggest fan and loved me unconditionally.
I love you too, Paupau.

 

 

 

This is my grandma. She is a huge part of me, and is part of the reason why I am the way I am today. She isn’t a famous lady but she’s a great lady. she passed away and i wanted to tell her story.

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2 thoughts on “Helena Wong (1919-2011)

  1. This is amazing Jas. You know her so well and described her perfectly. Thanks for sharing her story with everyone, she’s one of a kind ❤

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