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Word From the Wise: Celebrating Lunar New Year and Long Life

New America Media, Interview, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen Posted: Jan 26, 2009

Editor's Note: Tam Kwai Lan, 92, was born in Hong Kong in 1917. She was the youngest girl in a family of six children, three boys and three girls, but all her brothers died in infancy. Before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, she would often visit her father's village near Guangzhao, China. She had four years of formal schooling, and married her husband in Hong Kong when she was 21. During the war years, she and her husband stayed with his family in the ancestral home, in the same region as her father's village in southern China. She had 12 pregnancies, but only five children survived to adulthood. She raised these children in the back streets of Hong Kong, in a one-room apartment.

Her eldest daughter immigrated to Toronto, Canada, in 1970, under the country's point system that allowed her to receive an immigrant visa based on her clerical and English skills. Three years later, her son and second-eldest daughter also immigrated to Canada under the point system, as a Hong Kong-trained firefighter and nurse. Tam Kwai Lan and her husband followed five years later with the youngest two children under the family reunification policy of the Canadian immigration system. She lived with her eldest daughter for the first four years she was in Canada, and then moved with her husband into the government-subsidized seniors residence down the street when it was built in 1981. Located on the edge of Chinatown, the majority of the residents there have always been of Chinese descent. She told her story to her granddaughter, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen, a writer with New America Media.

TORONTO, Canada When I was a little girl, wed have new clothes and new shoes on New Years. On the first day, we would eat vegetarian food. On the second day of the new year wed go visit relatives, and would go worship in front of the ancestors tablet.

Even though we would worship my fathers ancestors, my father wasnt really that into that kind of ritual, because he was a very modern man. He used to cook for Westerners who worked in Hong Kong. When my father was alive, he would take us all to visit his relatives, and we would have to kowtow to them. My father would braid my sisters and my hair himself, because he liked to make us look pretty. He would then tie them up with white ribbons. This would horrify our aunt, because white is the color of death, and she would yell at him that he should have used red.

My father always insisted that girls should be allowed to go to school. Before he died, he always told my mom that whatever happened, she should educate us. My own mother was illiterate, so she wouldnt be able to do it alone.

My father disappeared when I was 8. He was very depressed, because all three of his sons died when they were small children due to illness. Two of his sons he lost in one month. He was institutionalized in Hong Kong, for six months because of depression, and when he was in there they would give him a doll to hold. He was so heartbroken. Then, soon after he was out, he disappeared during a trip he made to mainland China to visit his mother. Before he disappeared, he managed to invest in a partnership for human waste disposal in Hong Kong. Through the money he got from that, combined with my mothers piecework, my sister and I were able to go to school for four years. Every night after school, my sister and I would help my mother sew buttons on military uniforms.

Thanks to my father, my sister and I went to four years of school, starting when I was 10 or 11. Even before that, my father would take us to visit his family in the village in China, and would bring us books to study while we were there. He would also have us sit in on the village classes, even though the tutors usually only taught boys. In the village, the schools were free for boys. But if girls wanted to attend, they had to pay, so very few girls went.

We had to memorize a page each of the classic Chinese texts. I liked it, and I did really well. But my older sister would be in tears because she couldnt memorize it.

After my father disappeared, we had no money left over after paying for school, so we never celebrated New Years. We didnt eat anything special, and our relatives stopped visiting us. We also stopped praying to the ancestors.

I got married when I was 21, and my husband was 24. My husband was mostly unemployed. He would only work occasionally as an office messenger, and after the war, he worked briefly in the customs office, but was fired because of poor vision. We did nothing for New Year's in those days. I would do piecework at home every day.

My first four children died. After my fifth child was born, the neighborhood lady took my daughter to the barber to have a ceremonial shaving of her hair. They wanted to make sure that she survived. The old lady also had one of her ears pierced, and put a red thread through it. Then after she was one month old, they put one gold earring in her year. One day when she was on my back, someone came and snatched the earring right off her ear. But the old lady told me that that was a good omen.

While my daughter was young, we started celebrating the Lunar New Year again. During the good years when we had money, we would have chicken and fish, and we would kowtow in front of my husbands ancestors shrine. But later on, when things got bad again, we barely had enough to eat, and we didnt celebrate at all.

Now, I celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year every year with the tenants in my seniors building, and with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Every Lunar New Year, I give our licee (lucky money) to everyone in my family. I used to go to the bank to get the crisp new bills, but I dont do it anymore. Its not that easy to get new bills, and its hard for me to move around. I want to pass down to my great-grandchildren the Chinese tradition of spreading wealth through lucky money. And I want to make sure the family spends time together. Im very grateful that Im still clear-headed. My mother-in-law became very silly in her 90s, and would fight for food with her great- grandchildren. I think its a blessing that I dont do that.

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