Old Hong Kong, New China

Originally published in Consequence Volume 15.2 (November 2023).

I couldn’t stop consuming news about Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. It was political theatre: Beijing threatened Taiwan with sanctions and military action; Washington maintained its commitment to the One China Policy while celebrating Taiwan’s democracy. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, people ate their braised pork over rice at local diners, and the TV showed news clips of Pelosi shaking hands with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen.

After Pelosi’s departure, the Chinese military shot missiles into the Taiwan Strait. Some landed twenty kilometers (12.4 miles) off the coast of Taiwan. When reporters interviewed Taiwanese residents about the military exercises in the southern city of Kaohsiung, they shrugged. Some said they went to work, and others claimed they took the ferry for their weekend getaway to Luiqui, the idyllic island known for its sea turtles.

I want to think I’m just as carefree about the impending invasion, but the truth is I’m panicking—as a Taiwanese Canadian woman married to an American who lived in Hong Kong for eight years, I have reasons for concern. The Taiwanese had indeed lived with the constant threat of Chinese aggression since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and the then-ruling party of Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. In Chiang’s lifetime, he vowed to take back the motherland from the “communist thugs” while ruling Taiwan with an iron fist. However, towards the end of the twentieth century, many countries began to recognize the Communist Party of China (CPC) as the legitimate ruler of China, and therefore, the United Nations suggested dual representation—allowing both Taiwan and China to be a part of the UN. However, Chiang withdrew from the intergovernmental organization, effectively removing Taiwan’s participation in global affairs. Thus, 1971 was the year China joined the UN, and Taiwan lost its status as a country.

The cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan have always been contentious, and they escalated under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Xi declared that “reunification” between Taiwan and China must be fulfilled and that Beijing may use force if necessary. However, many of us in Taiwan, myself included, have no desire to be ruled by a government with a dismal human rights record, known for imprisoning Muslim minorities and crushing a democratic movement in Hong Kong.

In 2019, while most Taiwanese watched the news in horror as militarized police brutalized young Hong Kong protestors, I lived in the midst of it.


I attended the Tiananmen Square vigil on June 4, 2019—the only annual event commemorating the 1989 massacre in Chinese territory—not knowing it would be my last one. After the serene candle-lit ceremony to remember the democracy-seeking Chinese students who died at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, people began walking from Victoria Park through Wan Chai. They ended up at the Legislative Council Complex, about four kilometers (2.5 miles) away. This was the start of the 2019 protest movement—almost every week from then on, a protest happened every weekend. I could see the procession from the window of the Wan Chai apartment I shared with my husband, Derek. One day, we decided to join them. We donned black t-shirts and marched the streets with Hong Kongers—young and old, students and professionals, the elderly with their canes, and parents with their toddlers in strollers. Shoulder to shoulder with millions of Hong Kong residents, we shouted: “Reclaim Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times!”—a common slogan that appeared everywhere in 2019. It reflected Hong Kongers’ desire to shelve the extradition bill—proposed by Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Lam used a murder case involving Hong Kong citizens in Taiwan as a pretext to propose extradition agreements with Taiwan, Macau, and China. Lam said the bill would prevent lawbreakers from committing crimes in one region and fleeing to another. The reality was that the bill would let the Beijing government arrest people the CPC deemed unsavory—activists, journalists, and even business executives, and subject them to its justice system with a 99 percent conviction rate. Naturally, Hong Kongers didn’t want this extradition bill—they feared getting caught up in the unjust Chinese legal system and rotting in a Mainland prison.

That summer, I observed the gathering each weekend and watched the number of protestors swell. In June, one million people were on the streets. By the first weekend of July, two million people marched and chanted through the major roads of Wan Chai. The government, however, ignored people’s demands and cracked down on peaceful protests. Soon, there were allegations that police officers beat commuters on the MTR, Hong Kong’s subway system, and some had died at Prince Edward Station, a station I passed through every day to and from work. No one knew what happened—according to the news media, the security footage disappeared, and there were speculations that the government destroyed evidence to conceal their atrocities. As a result, many young people in Hong Kong felt pacifism was futile and resorted to violence. Believing that the MTR was colluding with the police to harm them, they trashed subway stations. Furthermore, they also vandalized businesses—belonging to those aggravated by the protests that disrupted their livelihood—and branded them pro-Beijing. The police ramped up their presence around the city to maintain order and protect property. As Derek and I walked home with our groceries one day, we bumped heads with a group of militarized police. We dropped our shopping bags and raised our arms as they sped past us, chasing black-clad protestors.

Bearing witness to the atrocities in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but think about my ancestral homeland of Taiwan, which made me root for Hong Kong even more. However, after six months of constant turmoil, the political situation drained and depressed me. Despite myself, I was also resentful: I had already fled political unrest in Bahrain ten years ago—how did I get thrust into another? Friends called me after hearing about the situation in Hong Kong. “It seems like revolutions follow you wherever you go!” they teased.

I chuckled along, but the city’s ordeal was no laughing matter. People were hurt; lives were upended. Life in Hong Kong would never be the same again.

In 2012, I moved to Hong Kong not knowing a soul. I had just separated from my first husband and escaped the Arab Spring and Bahrain’s sectarian conflict—where burning tires blocked highways, and the smell of tear gas lingered in my neighbourhood—and landed in a maze of disorientating skyscrapers in the metropolis of “Fragrant Harbour.” Worn down by my failed marriage and driven by my desire to gain more professional experience, I moved to Hong Kong for a librarian position at a local university.

At this time, I was more concerned about establishing myself and finding love in my new city than worrying about the CPC’s growing power. So, I immersed myself in online dating. Many potential matches were excited that I lived in Wan Chai, famous for bars lit by neon lights that promised dancing girls and two-for-one drinks. “Shall we meet in your ‘hood for happy hour drinks?” They texted with the winking emoji.

I soon learned to steer clear of men who spent their weekends getting drunk in the red-light district of Wan Chai. On its main drag of Lockhart Road, the domineering, grandmother-aged madams congregated in front of bars shrouded by black draperies, tugging at men’s sleeves as they staggered by. When someone paused, smiled, or showed interest, a troop of young Southeast Asian women in cakey make-up and miniskirts swooped in and led him into their curtained establishments for a good time.

Back then, as a young Taiwanese Canadian expat in Hong Kong, the only thing that made me think about the other side of the border was who could be there. One day, I went to Shenzhen to meet a man I matched online. I gripped my Canadian passport with my single-entry visa at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. I was worried that a customs agent would see my face and demand that I produce some other kind of identification that showed that I was “Chinese.” Since my place of birth was Japan, I could pass for a non-Chinese person, but my Taiwanese surname might have given me away. I was wracking my brain with scenarios where I got into trouble as a foreigner imposter, but to my relief, the agent barely looked at me as I crossed the border.

My date met me at the train station. He was an American English teacher working on his first novel and not nearly as cute or cool as his profile suggested. However, since I had paid for the visa and gone through the two-hour ordeal of coming to Shenzhen, I let him play tour guide for the day. We walked through a shopping district and visited some tourist sights, but I couldn’t recall anything noteworthy—except that we walked by a Walmart. While having a mediocre meal, I complained about the lack of decent cocktails. After spending a day in Shenzhen, I deemed it unruly and unsophisticated, a stick in the mud in the backwaters of China.

By early 2014, I was bored with my job and the glitzy city that offered endless shopping expeditions and boozy weekend brunches. I was also frustrated by my lack of romantic prospects and the city’s noncommittal Romeos—the bankers, teachers, or journalists who wanted to get drunk and hook up. I didn’t feel connected to Hong Kong and found nothing and no one to keep me there. Therefore, I plotted my escape—instead of finding a professional librarian position in Canada when I finished my contract, I would move to the Philippines and become a dive instructor.

My plans fizzled when Derek entered my life. He was a typeface designer, a professor, and a “gentleman redneck” who hailed from the Indiana side of the Ohio River. He didn’t just want to get drunk and hook up. Instead, we went to a David Sedaris performance and a music festival. After that, we spent almost every waking moment together and texted each other nonstop when we were apart. Then, two weeks after we officially started dating, he told me he loved me and asked me what kind of engagement ring I wanted. Within four weeks, we flew to Taipei so he could ask my father for my hand in marriage. Ten months later, we were wed in Hong Kong, surrounded by family and friends.

After Derek and I married, he moved into my apartment in Wan Chai. We decided to make the Fragrant Harbour our permanent home, and I grew to love my neighborhood, which was more than a depraved watering hole. It existed at the intersection of contradictions—the seedy bars near a high-end shopping centre and a historic temple sandwiched between skyscrapers on Queen’s Road East, a major thoroughfare built on reclaimed land where the harbor used to open up to the South China Sea. On my way home from work, I stopped by my favorite stall in the Wan Chia market to buy Korean-imported socks in the narrow streets filled with kiosks selling tchotchkes, from the tacky “beckoning cat” lucky charms to counterfeit Calvin Klein underwear. I shopped for fresh vegetables and freshly butchered chicken on the weekends while hopping over puddles in front of live seafood tanks and snake soup stalls. In the bustling centre of Wan Chai was a ballpark with bleacher seating that separated the seedy part of the district from the rest, where people of all ages gathered to play sports and have picnics.

Hong Kong seemed to fall under Chinese rule overnight—I barely had time to catch my breath. Less than a year before the 2019 protests, the new high-speed rail service commenced between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. At that time, my wariness of the CPC had faded enough that I was tempted to visit when my friends boasted about inexpensive massages and spa treatments on the other side of the border. The pampering appealed to me, so I convinced Derek to join me for a leisurely weekend in Shenzhen.

Months before the trip, my mother convinced me it would be more economical and convenient to enter China with the “Taiwanese Compatriot Permit.” It is a travel document for Taiwanese citizens to enter China since the Chinese authorities don’t recognize the Taiwanese passport as a legitimate travel document. I agreed to let my mother apply because I otherwise would have had to pay for a non-transferable ten-year tourist visa on my Canadian passport, which was expiring in less than two years.

On a Saturday morning in late September 2018, Derek and I arrived at the newly built Hong Kong West Kowloon train station. We went through security and stopped at a well-stocked duty-free shop. Recalling my annoyance about the lack of quality alcohol in Shenzhen six years ago, I picked up a bottle of Roku, a Japanese gin, before going toward the passport control area. A thick black line with a thinner yellow line was in the middle outside the duty-free shop. In both Chinese and English, it said, on one side, “Hong Kong Port Area,” and on the other, “Mainland Port Area.” Once we crossed the threshold, all the signs changed from traditional to simplified Chinese. This jarring shift in the writing system indicated that I was entering the realm of the authoritarian CPC.

The passport control area has two sections: “Chinese Nationals” and “Foreigners.” Derek made his way to the 

“Foreigner” section. In the past, I entered China as a Canadian, a foreigner. But this time, by showing up with my “Compatriot Permit,” I was no longer Canadian—as far as the border customs agent was concerned, I was Chinese.

I sighed. “Hey, sweetie,” I said, turning to Derek. “I think I should probably go to the other line.”

We kissed each other goodbye, and I made my way to the other side, hating every minute. In my head, I was screaming: “I’M NOT CHINESE! I’M TAIWANESE!” But, I barely felt Taiwanese—I wasn’t even born there and had only lived there for four years as a child. Even though I grew up in Canada and spent most of my adult life in the Middle East and Hong Kong, in the eye of Chinese border control, I looked the part, and with my travel document, I was definitely a “Chinese National.” At this moment, I wondered if the money I had saved and the convenience my mother had touted were worth this identity crisis.

The line moved faster than I expected. Within ten minutes, I was through. After my weekend bag went through another security check, I was surrounded by thousands of people in the terminal. Derek was nowhere to be seen.

Where are you? I texted.

Still in line. Derek texted back. It barely moved since you left.

I found our gate and texted Derek again. Hey, the train is going to leave in twenty minutes. Are you almost through?

I hope so. He texted. 

I groaned. I distracted myself with Instagram, calming my nerves with luncheon spreads, beach vacations, and cat portraits.

Then, five minutes before the train was supposed to depart, I called Derek, “The train is leaving soon. Are you going to make it?”

“I am running toward you,” he yelled into the phone. Then, I spotted him scrambling to gather his bag at the security checkpoint and making a beeline toward me. Together, we sprinted to our gate. We made it on the train seconds before the doors closed.

Once we got off the train, we found ourselves in a spacious, spotless train station and followed the sign to an orderly taxi stand. In the cab, I told the driver the name of our hotel in Mandarin. Unlike some taxis in Hong Kong, this one was clean, free of stale cigarette smoke stench. The driver was courteous, and his driving etiquette was impeccable, unlike the cabbies in Hong Kong who crisscrossed the city in jerky, vomit-inducing brakes and cussed loudly when stuck in traffic. To my delight, I felt a breeze on my face—in Hong Kong, if the cab window were open even a crack, we would have been suffocated by exhaust fumes or deafened by the incessant honking. However, public vehicles and taxis in Shenzhen were electric, making the air cleaner. On the fourteen-lane highway, there was enough room for everyone, reducing the need for honking. There were even bike lanes.

We explored Shenzhen via the MRT, the public railway system. First, we had a relaxing massage and ate delicious and cheap spicy mudbugs—Derek’s favorite. Then, we went to the Overseas Chinese Town at night, famous for hip bars and restaurants, not unlike those in Wan Chai. We saw paintbrushes in a jar poking out of a window as we walked around.

“Look, they have studios here,” Derek said, pointing toward an old industrial building. “I bet you can rent a space here cheap.”

“Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a studio?” I sighed as my head filled with visions of life economically unattainable in Hong Kong.

On our final morning, we visited the Dafen Oil Painting Village, famous for oil paintings dedicated to the reproductions of masterworks, from Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Starry Nights to Monet’s Lily Pond. This village supplied the world’s doctor’s offices and gift shops with the most realistic-looking fakes.

In a taxi to Dafen, we drove by massive housing complexes still under construction.

“I wonder how big those flats are.” Derek mused, “I bet we could get more space for our buck out here.”

Shenzhen seduced me. Not knowing what would happen to Hong Kong within the year, modern China almost convinced me that it was more advanced than Hong Kong, with abundant housing, electric cars, and bike lanes.

When we arrived in Dafen, it was drizzling. Easels were set up before every storefront, where artists demonstrated their painting techniques, copying the masterpieces from photographs. Even up close, the fakes were impressive—serious training went into creating them. But after we got over the initial marvel, we realized that the whole village was the same thing on repeat. I was wet and bored and demanded we leave.

“But isn’t it ironic that while China is trying to demonstrate progress and innovation, it has a whole village dedicated to copying masterpieces from the West?” Derek chuckled as we stepped out of Dafen.

We stood by the main road but couldn’t find a taxi. So, we searched for a subway station. This was an older part of town, rowdier and dirtier. The electric vehicles were gone; the clogged roads were filled with exhaust-spewing cars—this was China that matched the image in my mind. Then, we stumbled upon a Walmart. It wasn’t the same one I saw on my first trip to Shenzhen, but I convinced Derek to go in with me. Unlike the North American megastores, this one had no spacious aisles and logical signages. Instead, salespeople hollered at the top of their lungs, and shoppers elbowed each other through the crowded space. The scent of death clung to the air as we walked near butcher stalls.

“Ugh, even the Walmart is a rip-off,” I moaned.

Derek pointed to something behind me on the jam-packed train on our way back to the hotel. Our train accelerated through a three-block-wide housing estate. They were about fifteen stories each and no older than thirty years. Some buildings remained intact among the imposing cranes and menacing bulldozers, while others were half torn down. Most of their windows had been knocked out, revealing dark, empty interiors, and the cityscape of Shenzhen poked out of the jagged concrete structures. The view was fleeting but made an impression—it was the first of many we witnessed—remnants of homes torn down to pave the way for the newer, shinier Shenzhen.

Spending a weekend in Shenzhen gave me a glimpse into Hong Kong’s future. I couldn’t help but wonder: In the eyes of new China, how much of old Hong Kong would survive? Reflecting on the smog-free fourteen-lane highway, the trendy artist district alongside the copycat painting village, and the half-torn-down housing estates, I was disheartened to imagine Hong Kong’s future devoid of its contradictory charms: The upscale French restaurant in the puddle-filled street market, the prurient, neon-lit Lockhart Road next to a basketball court where children play, and the tiny temple dwarfed by glass skyscrapers. I love Hong Kong because it was a haven where quirks and weirdness were allowed to exist, a city that had room for resistance and diversity instead of snuffing them out. 


Derek and I left Hong Kong in December 2019 after witnessing months of crackdowns. Militarized police patrolled Wan Chai daily. Public transportation and businesses halted operations anticipating new clashes between the protestors and the police. Like in Bahrain, I was again subjected to unpredictable road closures and tear gas thrown around my neighborhood. International companies shuttered their Hong Kong offices, and our friends left in droves. As a Taiwanese woman, I felt unsafe in Hong Kong, even with my Canadian citizenship. When Derek got a job in Sri Lanka as a dean at a design university, we packed up our Wan Chai apartment and bid our Fragrant Harbour goodbye.

Two years later, after shuffling around Sri Lanka and the US during a global pandemic, Derek and I made Taiwan our home, despite its volatile relationship with China. Friends and family worried about our safety, but we reminded them that Hong Kong and Taiwan differed. The former was always going to be reunified with China according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration—but instead of maintaining Hong Kong’s capitalistic status quo until 2047, the CPC took control of the territory twenty-seven years ahead of schedule. With the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020, freedom of speech in the former British colony vanished overnight. The government banned the annual June Fourth Vigil. The popular slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times!” became illegal, and anyone uttering it or displaying it was arrested. The border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen will soon be a thing of the past—old Hong Kong will be integrated into new China—the carefree, freewheeling city-state will solely exist in the collective memory of those who called it home.

On the other hand, in Beijing’s eyes, Taiwan became a renegade province when the rebel Kuomintang fled to the island in 1949. Chiang Kai-shek established his government in Taiwan and always planned to retake mainland China. He never succeeded. During his reign, he imposed martial law to squash dissidents and created an environment of terror until his death. In 1987, his son Chiang Ching-guo lifted martial law, and Taiwan had its first election in 1996. Slowly but surely, Taiwan shed its brutal authoritarian past and emerged as a beacon of democracy.

For the last decade, my feelings about CPC have oscillated from indifference and apprehension to panic—with a brief and misguided moment of enamor. As CPC under Xi’s rule becomes more powerful, Taiwan’s future is uncertain. Beijing’s track records in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are not reassuring, and I worry about what will happen to Taiwan if the CPC takes it by force. Yet, Derek and I love this island my Chinese ancestors made home over three hundred years ago—with its modern convenience, superb healthcare, and proximity to the rest of Asia, we can’t imagine living elsewhere. Therefore, I have to learn to channel the carefree attitude of my fellow Taiwanese—eat braised pork over rice at my local diner, enjoy a weekend island holiday, and live one day at a time. 

About Me

Picture of Kayo Chang Black

Kayo Chang Black is a Taiwanese Canadian writer who explores hybrid identities, global citizenship, and the intersection of cultures. Her career as an academic librarian brought her to the UAE, Bahrain, and Hong Kong. After an eight-year stint in Hong Kong, she packed up her books and cat and moved to Colombo, Sri Lanka. You can read her work in The Normal SchoolSunspot Literary Journal, and others.

They Look Like Me

Baltimore Review originally published this essay for their summer 2023 issue.

I was barely awake when I read the headline that a twenty-one-year-old white man had opened fire in three Atlanta-based massage parlors. Six out of the eight victims were Asian women. They look like me, I thought to myself.

It was March 2021, and I was visiting my parents in Taipei while my husband Derek was staying with his parents in rural Indiana. After shuffling between Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and the United States for the last few years, Derek and I decided to make Taiwan our permanent home. So, I came to Taiwan at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to apply for a spouse visa for my American husband.

I scrolled through The New York Times on my phone to scour for the latest updates about the rampage while the local Taiwanese news blared in the background. Fukuhara Ai’s marital scandal took over the Taiwanese headlines that day. She is a Japanese ping pong star, married to a Taiwanese ping pong star. She left her children in Taiwan, went on a holiday in Japan, and was caught walking out of a hotel with an unknown man. Her behavior caused an uproar. The following newsworthy headline was “Salmon chaos.” A Taiwanese chain restaurant offered free, all-you-can-eat sushi to anyone with the Chinese character “Salmon” in their name. As a result, more than two hundred people legally changed their names.

I shook my head at the absurdity of it all.

I told my mother about Atlanta. “How horrible,” she said, her eyes glued to the TV. She pondered over the security footage of Ai and her alleged lover and sighed. “Her Taiwanese husband is so handsome and rich. How could she do that to him?”

Atlanta was too far and too foreign for my mother to care. It felt surreal that thousands of miles away, six women who looked like me died at the hands of a coward who blamed his heinous crime on his sex addiction.

The shooting—and its representation in American media—reflect how Asian women have been caught at the intersection of racism and sexism in America. Initially, there was little information about the victims except for the two customers. Delania Ashley Yaun, a newlywed mother of two, and Paul Andre Michels, a businessman and an army veteran. We knew nothing about the other dead women except that they were Asian. The FBI director claimed that the shooting “[did] not appear” racially motivated, backing up the hypothesis of the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County that the crime was driven by the shooter’s sex addiction.

Six Asian women are dead. If this was not a racially motivated killing, what is?

The Atlanta rampage has triggered Kyoko Takenaka’s decision to release their film to a broader audience. Takenaka is a Japanese American, gender nonconforming filmmaker, model, musician, and performance artist. Growing up in Newton, MA, Takenaka’s family was the only Asian American family in white suburbia. Their short film, Home, a “sonic portrait of belonging and memory in four chapters,” documents the alienation and trauma they experienced. Initially only available through local screenings and film festivals, Takenaka made the film freely available on their website after the massacre at the massage parlors. The film opens with Takenaka taking a sledgehammer to their childhood home before demolition. It ends with recordings of drunk men who approached them at bars. The slurred ramblings Takenaka recorded sound familiar—men’s racial fetishism masked under a “compliment.”

“You know, your face is very beautiful, and it’s very oriental. It’s Asiatic. I don’t know anybody who is American who is born as an Occidental . . .”

“Sushi. I take you for sushi. If you like sushi?”

“Asians, altogether, they are very humble people, and I find them to have a superior beauty . . .”

I watched the film repeatedly on my computer, feeling seen and validated. I remembered all the times I endured white men talking at me or about me. As an Asian Canadian woman living in Vancouver, men messaged me on online dating sites and told me they loved “hot Asian chicks.” I had a boyfriend who sheepishly admitted that he suffered from “yellow fever” while we were with his friends. When I was younger, I didn’t know if I should feel flattered, scared, or angry when I heard statements or questions directed at my Asian-ness. Now I realize that my experiences and those of many Asian women have been non-consensual. Things are said and done to us that we do not consent to, yet we can’t stop them. As women, many of us are subjected to catcalls and other unpleasant sexual advances. For Asian women, however, there’s an extra layer of cultural fetishism—we are not just seen for our sex but also for our skin color and what that implies. Asian women are so much more than submissive sexual beings, yet it’s an uphill battle to fight against cultural stereotypes forced upon us.

In their interview with LA Times, Takenaka says about their film: “I felt very empowered to make productive use of that non-consensual way of speaking and way of fetishizing our culture, fetishizing me as a human, dehumanizing us. And recording was the only way for me to be able to translate this exact experience because so often Asian Americans are gaslit about their own experiences.”

Takenaka crystallized and distilled our existence in North America with one word: gaslit. When the FBI director and the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County said that the Atlanta shooting “[did] not appear” racially motivated, they gaslit my experience as an Asian woman. The six dead women could have been my mother, grandmother, and sister. They could have been me. When a white man targeted places where most workers were Asian women and shot them dead, it was a racially motivated killing. I defy the authorities who try to change the narrative of this horrendous crime and dismiss it as a man’s quest to eliminate what he perceived as temptations.


The history of fetishizing Asian women in the United States has deep roots. The Page Act of 1875 explicitly banned immigrants from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” from entering the United States and prohibited bringing in women for “lewd and immoral purposes.” There was an implicit assumption that Asian women came to the US to engage in prostitution instead of seeking better opportunities or joining their husbands, many of whom had crossed the ocean to build the railroad.

During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army captured many women in Japanese-occupied territories, such as China, Taiwan, and Korea, and forced them into prostitution. They became known as “comfort women,” though they had never consented to comfort anyone. As Americans began to occupy various parts of Asia in the twentieth century, fetishism against Asian women grew momentum. Many GIs were encouraged to visit local brothels from Vietnam to the Philippines and Korea to Taiwan to “improve morale.” During their R&R, they frequented the red-light districts in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Their limited experiences with Asian women had been sexual ones within the four walls of the brothels.

The idea of Asian women as sex objects has spilled into popular culture. In Madame Butterfly, Cio Cio San is a Japanese woman who dies waiting for her American husband’s return. In The World of Suzie Wong, the title character is a super-sexualized yet child-like Chinese prostitute with a heart of gold. Finally, there’s the Vietnamese girl from the film Full Metal Jacket with the line, “Me so horny; me love you a long time.” These portrayals and many others have reduced Asian women to stereotypes—seductive yet submissive; we are sources of exotic, erotic temptations, our purpose to satisfy white men’s sexual appetite.

The Asian women who died in Atlanta are not stereotypes. They are daughters, mothers, and wives. Like the thousands of comfort women, I don’t want them to disappear into the peripherals. They, too, were daughters, mothers, and wives, going about their day until their tragic fate as sex slaves took them away from their families. When they died, their families didn’t know what had happened to them or where to find their bodies. I don’t want the women in Atlanta to end up like the comfort women who died nameless and faceless.


When I first moved to Hong Kong in 2012, I lived a few blocks from a former comfort station. Nam Koo Terrace was a dilapidated mansion tucked away on the hillside at the end of the trendy Ship Street, a short distance from a pizzeria, a tapa house, and a speakeasy. The multi-story colonial-style brick structure was built around 1920 and embraced the styles of Classical Revival, Italian Renaissance, and traditional Chinese motifs. The red-bricked outer wall of the building and its rusticated quoins, molded cornices, and voussoir arches over the windows added to its uniqueness and beauty. The intricate ironwork for the window grilles, the balconies, and the entrance gate, reflected the taste of its previous owner, a prominent businessman, To Chun-man. It was a handsome house, but all the windows were boarded up, and the walls were scrawled with graffiti.

During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army evicted the To family and turned Nam Koo Terrace into a military brothel to house the countless comfort women they’d captured. The women might have been sold by their families to pay debts, tricked into sexual slavery with the prospect of a better job, or abducted off the street. They faced multiple rapes daily, and their lives often ended in murders or suicides.

When I first learned about Nam Koo Terrace in 2012, I found it so morbid and fascinating that I took a man there on a first date. The building was off-limits, so we climbed the steep, shrub-covered hill behind it. We kissed, overlooking the hollowed-out estate with its eerie courtyard guarded by security cameras and barbed-wire fence. Even though the courtyard and the mansion were brightly lit, there was still a sense of foreboding darkness. Local lore warned of unholy spirits living in the mansion that harmed the living. Years ago, some schoolchildren attempted to spend a night at the estate to catch the ghosts. The following day, the adults found the children extremely disturbed, with three girls needing psychiatric help. God knows what possessed me to bring a date to such a place— was it a tactic to impress him, to show him that I was different from the local Hong Kong girls who would be too scared to go to a haunted house?

My fascination was rooted in the unspeakable suffering that hit close to home. I imagined a Taiwanese woman, not so different from myself, who was going about her day picking up groceries when Japanese soldiers stormed out of their trucks and snatched her off the street. How she struggled and kicked her legs as the green onion and radishes she carried were strewn across the ground. How the other women fled from the vicinity after witnessing Japanese soldiers grabbing random women. How the soldiers forced her onto a boat to Hong Kong, away from everything and everyone she knew. The Nam Koo Mansion became her hell. I could almost hear her agonized wail and feel her sense of powerlessness. Hopelessness. No one knows precisely how many women died in Nam Koo Terrace or how many were forced into sexual slavery and killed during World War II. My proximity to the mansion made my imagination run wild. Had I lived in a different time and place, could I have ended up as a comfort woman in a place like Nam Koo Terrace?


Several days after the shooting in Atlanta, the media released the identities of the dead Asian women. I studied their names—all Korean or Chinese. Soon C. Park, 74, and Sun cha Kim, 69, worked at Gold Spa. And Daoyou Feng, 44, only started working at Young’s Asian Massage several months before. Hyun J. Grant, 51, was a single mother who worked at Gold Spa to pay for her sons’ college tuition and rent. Yong A. Yue, 63, who worked at Aromatherapy Spa, moved to the US from South Korea in the 1970s with a husband stationed in the army. And then there was Xiaojie Tan, 49, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage. Customers said Tan made her patrons feel at home and treated her friends like family.

Perhaps it was intentional that the media released so little information about the dead women in Atlanta—there has always been a taboo about women working in massage parlors. Although not all women working in massage parlors are sex workers, many are subjected to sex work. Hyun J. Grant’s son, Randy Park, spoke out after her death. During an interview with a reporter, Park says his mother, who died at Gold Spa, worked long hours. “She spent her whole life just existing for my brother and I [sic]. She never had time to travel,” Park said in an interview with NBC News. “She would only be home a certain amount of days every few weeks.” He described his mother as “a big kid” who loved to dance to Tiësto. Before she immigrated to the US, Grant was an elementary school teacher in South Korea. Park didn’t describe the circumstances that led his mother to work in a massage parlor. I could only guess that American schools didn’t recognize her Korean teaching credentials, and mainstream society didn’t take her seriously due to her accent.

Though he didn’t have to endure sexual violence, my Taiwanese father also faced prejudices while looking for work shortly after we immigrated to Canada. He had a graduate degree in pharmacy from a Japanese university and had worked professionally for years. However, with his non-accredited degree and unstandardized accent, he couldn’t secure a professional position in Canada. He worked as a lab assistant and tour guide in Vancouver before finding a better-paying job in Taiwan. Like Park and his brother, my younger brother and I went for long periods without a guardian because my mother split her time between Taiwan and Canada. When I started university, and my brother was still a junior in high school, my mother joined my father permanently in Taiwan.

For Grant, an Asian woman, there were even fewer options for her. She had to do whatever she could to raise her sons. Deep down, the single mother of two may have been ashamed of where she worked as she asked her sons to tell people that she worked at a make-up counter. As a fellow Asian woman, I felt guilty. My parents had the means to ensure that I grew up with an acceptable accent and received educational credentials recognized by every country so I wouldn’t be subjected to a fate like Grant’s. It depresses me to think that some of us are just luckier than others.


Even though I’ve been lucky, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been subjected to racial fetishism. In the early 2000s, I was an undergraduate student working part-time at Chapters, a big-box bookstore in downtown Vancouver. I imagined how people saw me in the store: a petite Asian woman with a childish round face and impossibly long, ebony hair sweeping down her back. I dressed in black head to toe: a short-sleeved buttoned shirt, a skirt two inches above my knees, knee-high socks, and chunky Mary Janes. My presence in the store stirred male customers’ fantasies—I became the Asian version of the title character from Lolita. Multiple men asked if they could touch my hair. Older men loved to ask me if I had read Memoir of a Geisha—a novel about a geisha-in-training as she navigated her wealthy patrons’ sexual desires —written by a white man.

One day, I was tidying a display at the front of the store when an older man approached me. He was average-looking, with greying hair in a low ponytail and lazy blue eyes. “What have you got there?” he asked in a titled accent.

I told him it was Noam Chomsky’s new book. I was a communication major and felt like I knew Chomsky—though if someone had asked me to outline his basic argument from Manufacturing Consent, I would have balked.

The man told me he was German but had lived in Canada for a long time. After chatting with me for several minutes, he drifted away.

I only thought of the man again when he returned to the store a few days later. After that, he tracked me down every time I worked, even though I was only at the store two or three days a week. He lingered in the aisles when I shelved books. When I was helping customers, he stood aside and waited; when I was finished, he came right back. He was in the store so often that the undercover security guard, Rudy, grew concerned.

“Is that guy bothering you?” Rudy asked as I smoked a cigarette on break.

“Nah, he’s harmless,” I said. “He’s just an old man with no one to talk to.”

A few months later, the man came in with another man. When he saw me, he pointed and said to his friend, “That’s the comfort woman I was telling you about.”

For a second, I thought I had misheard him. But I knew what I heard when I saw how he and his buddy gawked at me with a smirk. I paged Rudy.

“He’s bothering me now.”

I never saw the German man or his buddy again.

I’ve wondered why I had allowed the older man to stalk me for as long as he did. Besides the first conversation about Noam Chomsky and that he was from Germany, I have no recollection of anything we discussed. It was a rude awakening when I realized what he genuinely thought of me—a comfort woman, a faceless, nameless sex object.


A few weeks after the Atlanta shooting, I finished all the appropriate paperwork to apply for Derek’s visa to Taiwan. Finally, it was time to leave Taiwan and join my husband in the United States. We planned to spend the spring of 2021 with his family and move to Taiwan in the summer. The night before my departure, my mother and I shared a bottle of Malbec.

“Are you done packing?” she asked.

I nodded.

She stared at the TV as the news anchor described the increasing number of COVID hospitalization and death in the US. “I understand you need to go back, but the COVID situation there is terrible,” she said as she smoothed the wrinkles in my dress as we sat on the sofa. “Have you packed the masks?” she asked.

“Yes, Mama,” I said, looking at my bulging suitcases, one of which was filled with two hundred medical masks. I stopped trying to convince my mother that the masks in the US were just as good.

“Don’t go out at night, okay?” my mother said before sipping her glass. “And don’t forget to wear your mask!”

I patted her hand. “I will be back in Taiwan soon.”

“I know,” my mother was almost in tears. “But I’m so worried! Promise me you won’t go out without Derek, especially at night.”

“Okay, Mama.”

My mother took my hand in hers. “Be careful,” she said.

“I will,” I said.


It’s been two decades since I was the naïve girl working in a bookstore. My university education didn’t include the treatment of Asians in American history. I couldn’t fully comprehend the damaging portrayal of Asian women in popular culture and how it shaped my experience. Since then, I’ve been reading, analyzing, and feeling outraged. After each violent incident involving an Asian American, we’ve been gaslit to believe that all the harm done to us is coincidental or accidental. However, according to Stop AAPI Hate, 10,905 hate incidents against AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) persons were reported from 2020 to 2021. Verbal harassment makes up 63% of reported incidents, followed by physical assault (16.2%) and the deliberate avoidance of AAPIs (16.1%). Almost half (48.7%) of the incidents occurred in public places—on the street, in transit, or in a park. The fear we feel in the United States is factual—every day, we are verbally and physically assaulted or ignored and dismissed. The numbers only reflect the reported incidents—thousands or millions of aggressions went unreported. Knowing what I know, I reject the claim made by the FBI director and the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County that the Atlanta rampage was triggered by the shooter’s sex addiction. I refuse to be gaslit from the true narrative of the incident: A racially-motivated massacre.

The Hand-painted Signs of Jaffna

Jaggery Lit originally published this essay in the fall of 2022.

A hand-painted sign in Jaffna.

It was a balmy December evening in 2019 when my husband Derek and I arrived in Sri Lanka. After picking up our luggage and cat at the airport, we headed to our new home in Mount Lavinia, a beachy suburb south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Even in December, it was t-shirt weather in the subcontinent. The night air in Colombo was denser and more humid than we were used to in Hong Kong, where we had lived for seven years. Though we could barely make out Colombo as we drove through the dimly-lit city, we were excited about discovering a new country.

Sri Lanka is a small, tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, south of India. It’s dubbed the “tear-drop of India” due to its shape and proximity to its much bigger neighbour. It’s a famous travel destination known for its world-class beach resorts and ancient mountains, an abundance of blue sapphires and cinnamon, and a rich history as a trading post dating back to the 16th century.

We moved to Sri Lanka from Hong Kong because Derek was offered a job as a dean at a design university in Colombo. We were exhausted from the fast-paced life of Hong Kong. The political situation also drained us— the ongoing conflicts between the government and the protestors who demanded the scrapping of a controversial extradition bill and the preservation of the city’s autonomy. By the time we departed Hong Kong, antagonism between the militarized police and the young demonstrators turned our neighbourhood into a battleground of road closures, violent clashes, and tear gas. We wanted a slower and more peaceful life and snatched up the opportunity Sri Lanka offered us. The university also gave me a teaching position where I guided students in completing their undergraduate research projects.

Each morning, we rode a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride from Mount Lavinia to Colombo for work. Our driver darted through heavy traffic in the congested capital as we sat in the covered back section of the wagon. To have a conversation, we shouted at each other due to the incessant honking and the roaring of ancient engines surrounding us. After work, we rode home chasing the sunset as the packed local trains passed us by, overflowing with passengers. Each car had several men hanging off its doorway, sharing a single hang bar. As soon as we got home, we changed into our flip-flops and wandered to the beach, less than five minutes from our apartment. We parked ourselves at our favourite beach bar, Jojo’s, to have a sundowner with our friends, who also lived in Mount Lavinia. Then, we had a candle-lit dinner at Sugar Beach, devouring deviled chickpeas or black curry over rice. If we were in the mood for western food, we ordered burgers with fries or fish and chips. After filling our stomachs, we strolled home hand-in-hand under the moonlight, listening to the soft murmur of the waves crashing against the beach.

Three months after our arrival, Sri Lanka went into a strict COVID-19 lockdown. What started as a weekend curfew extended to a 10-week house arrest for the whole country. Derek and I couldn’t leave our home as Sinhalese-speaking soldiers armed with AKs patrolled the area, ready to arrest anyone who broke curfew. We navigated grocery shopping through Facebook groups and relied on Netflix for our entertainment. Each day at sunset, we climbed three stories to our rooftop to watch the orange disc of the sun fall into the horizon. The blue-turquoise water was so close we could see the foamy waves rolling onto the beach, yet we weren’t allowed to dip our toes into it.

In mid-May 2020, the government finally lifted the curfew, and we decided to go as far away from Mount Lavinia as possible. Our first Sri Lankan getaway was to Trincomalee—a city on the northeast coast, about 275 km (170 miles) from Mount Lavinia. It took us eight hours to get there by car on two-lane local roads with heavy traffic. It was there, in Trincomalee, where Derek and I had our first taste of Hindu culture in Sri Lanka. Unlike the middle and southern parts of the country where many Buddhist Sinhalese lived, Trincomalee has a large Tamil Hindu population with a distinct culture and cuisine. We stayed in a gorgeous resort and visited the Koneswaram Temple, an ancient Shiva temple located on the awe-inspiring cliff facing the aquamarine sea. Unlike the serene Buddhist temples in our neighbourhood, where a giant, white Buddha statue greeted worshippers, Hindu temples were brightly painted with red, blue, green, and yellow with intricate sculptures of various gods and motifs jutting out of gigantic complexes. We were in love. We wanted more. We decided to visit the heartland of Hindu and Tamil culture in Sri Lanka for our next trip: Jaffna.

Jaffna is the northernmost city in Sri Lanka, about 350 km from the capital. It’s geographically and culturally close to India—only about 220 km to Tamil Nadu, the most southern Indian state. Jaffna was a vibrant Hindu city that became the flash point of the civil war. In 1948, Sri Lanka became independent from British colonial rule but there were sporadic conflicts between the Sinhalese government and the members of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant separatist group fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamils in northeastern Sri Lanka. The clash between the two group escalated on July 23, 1983 when a Sinhalese mob attacked their Tamil neighbours to avenge the thirteen soldiers killed at the hands of the LTTE. The mob looted and torched Tamil homes and businesses in Colombo, and the chaos eventually spread throughout the country. A week later, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people had been brutally murdered, thousands more displaced. It was this massacre in the Sri Lankan capital that ignited the bloody twenty-six-year civil war.

As a result of the massacre and the subsequent civil war, many fled Sri Lanka to the UK, Canada, Singapore, and Australia, creating Tamil diaspora communities worldwide. Many Tamils, however, couldn’t relocate and stayed in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, effectively creating enclaves. Throughout the war, Jaffna was inaccessible as the military guarded it with multiple checkpoints. Physical separation further divided the ethnic groups.

When we told Sinhalese friends our intention to visit Jaffna, some shook their heads. “Don’t go,” a friend said, “Jaffna is very dangerous.”

However, others were curious and wanted to come along. “Is it strange that we want to go to Jaffna with foreigners?” another friend asked, “if I were to go there with other Sinhalese, something bad might happen.”

None of our Sinhalese friends joined us.

In July 2021, Derek and I took the train to the Tamil capital. However, unable to read the schedule correctly, we accidentally booked the slow, local train. Also, instead of opting for air-conditioned first-class, we booked second-class because we loved the idea of opening a window, sticking our heads out of it, and snapping a picture (we saw travel influencers doing this). At first, the breeze through the open window made the ride comfortable. From time-to-time hawkers entered the car to offer snacks, from bags of peanuts to deep-fried doughy snacks filled with meat to wash down with sweet milk tea. However, 100 km before reaching Jaffna, the train broke down. The unbearable, stuffy air in the car mocked the ceiling fan’s feeble efforts to bring us relief. So we got off and watched a handful of workers repairing the engine.  Two hours later, the train shunted forward.

As we neared Jaffna, we noticed the shifting landscape. Thick, mountainous jungle with lush vegetation gave way to sparse, brownish fields, broken up by estuaries where flamingos perched. Another distinct feature was the palmyra trees dotting the barren environment—a type of palm tree specific to the region. The Tamils dry palmyra leaves and weave them into baskets and mats, turning their sap into sugar or arrack, a type of liquor.

Twelve sweaty hours after leaving Colombo, the train pulled into the train station—a charming, colonial-era structure with squarish, white columns engraved with flowers and Hindu motifs. Before the civil war, the train station was one of the busiest in Sri Lanka. By 1990, train services to and from Jaffna halted, and the rail company abandoned the station. When the war ended in 2009, the station was restored to its former glory, re-welcoming passengers.

Jaffna was just as endearing as its train station—a city that stood still in time. Though many buildings were destroyed during the war, others stayed in a time capsule without outside influences. Most of the buildings were one or two stories tall; many were concrete or brick block buildings. Cows, considered sacred in Hindu culture, roamed freely within the city and grazed on whatever grass they could find. We walked around the city’s main market, where hawkers sold everything from fresh fruit to baked goods to hand-woven palmyra baskets to vibrant sarees. As Derek and I explored, I looked up and saw something spectacular. “Look, Derek!” I shouted and pointed at a coffee shop sign. “It’s hand-painted!”

It was a beige sign in dark forest green Tamil letters with mustard shadow and red English and Sinhala letters with thin blue outlines. Its simplicity and authenticity captivated me.  Unlike the digitally printed vinyl signs lit up by colourful LED lights elsewhere in Sri Lanka, the hand-painted signs in Jaffna were made decades ago with love and care and full of character and artisanal charm.

A few shops later was another hand-painted sign. “Saravandas Multi Trader,” it read. On the left-hand side of the board was a picture of Murugan, the Hindu god of war, standing in front of a peacock. Next to it was another hand-painted sign, “Rajah & Co.” The shop was closed, so I couldn’t tell what it was but based on the picture of fish caught in a net on the right-hand side, I assumed it was a bait or seafood shop.

I walked around the market, pointing out the different signs as Derek snapped photos of them. Derek, a typeface designer, design educator, and self-taught photographer, was also smitten with the hand-painted boards. Every so often, we also saw newer shop signs printed on vinyl, not so different from the ones in Colombo.

“We should capture these before they’re all gone,” Derek said as he pointed to a new advertisement. “It looks like there’s a digital revolution around here too.”

“Let’s make a book of the hand-painted signs of Jaffna!” I said.

And this was the moment The Hand-painted Signs of Jaffna came into existence. We decided to make a book with all the hand-painted signboards we could find in the city.

We visited Jaffna four times in 2020, and each time, we noticed a few missing signs. We worried that these relics from the past were disappearing. Though the horrific civil war and the blockade of Jaffna ensured their survival into the 21st century and yet, modern technologies are threatening their existence. In addition to photographing all the signs we could find in Jaffna and its surrounding villages, we geo-tagged all the handmade treasures. Even if they eventually get replaced, vintage hunters and sign enthusiasts can still see the originals and where they were located on Google Maps.

Shortly after we decided to make this book, Derek and I roamed around a different part of Jaffna, away from the main market. We stood in front of a ceramics store with a stunning illustration of a weirdly proportioned bathroom set and realistically painted tubs of adhesive cement. Our heads tilted up, eyes glazed over, and our mouths slightly ajar. As we pointed our phones toward the sign and snapped pictures, a man came to greet us.

“Hello,” the shopkeeper said with a confused look. He understood innately that we weren’t shopping for a new bathroom set.

“Hi!” Derek replied. “We love your sign!”

Apparently, “hello” was the only English word the shopkeeper knew. He didn’t understand a word Derek said, so Derek pointed at the sign, grinned, and gave the shopkeeper a thumbs-up.

The shopkeeper turned around, looked up at the thing he’d probably passed by every day for the last decade and had zero second thoughts about, then returned his gaze to Derek and me, more flummoxed than ever.

Derek pulled out his phone and typed “we love your sign” in English and translated it to Tamil. The man studied the text, still puzzled. Derek typed, “who painted it?” and showed it to him. The shopkeeper gave us another look and went back into the shop. We saw that he got on the landline and assumed he was calling someone to get the information we wanted. We waited for a while but finally realized he wasn’t coming back. He couldn’t comprehend what these strange foreigners wanted with his sign. But one thing was for damn sure— he wasn’t going to sell us a new toilet that day.

We went back to multiple shops and tried to communicate with the shopkeepers using Google Translate. However, we hit a wall every time—it seemed that no one in Jaffna had the time or patience to deal with a couple of weird foreigners who weren’t interested in buying something. After visiting several shops, Derek and I realized we needed help. Besides photographing the signs and creating geo-tags on Google Maps, we also wanted to tell the stories of the artisans that made them. So, we needed to identify the makers of the signboards and speak to them.

The next day, we talked to the manager of our hotel. He was friendly and took the time to connect us with some painters. He even came along with us to meet with the artisans to translate. However, upon meeting the artisans, we realized that they were different types of artisans—we met lorry painters and temple painters, who were fascinating in their own right. But they were not the ones who created shop signboards. The hotel manager did his best to help us, but he didn’t understand that we didn’t just want any painters— we wanted ones who specialized in the shop signboards.

After spending more time in Jaffna, we realized that the signboards were not just beautiful objects— they also told stories of the city. Therefore, we needed to enlist help from someone from the culture who also understood our intention for the book: to learn about Jaffna through the hand-painted signs. Our aim is to capture and preserve them on camera, analyze them visually, and write about them. Ideally, we needed a translator of language and culture and someone who knew the city and could drive us places. Luckily, we met Rajeevan, a Jaffna-based tour guide and driver. He was a handsome Tamil man in his late 30s who spoke fluent English and Sinhala. Towards the end of the war Raj worked for the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). He first worked as a dispatcher in Jaffna, alerting aid workers about potential bombings and other dangerous situations. Then, he moved to Colombo and worked as a data administrator. Through his work, he helped to reconnect many displaced families. After years in the capital, he returned to his home city to try his hand in tourism. Excited by our project to preserve the culture of his beloved city, he agreed to help us.

Raj told us that people were confused about our fascination with the signs because they saw little value in the objects and the people who made them. Like their Indian neighbours, Sri Lankans, both Sinhalese, and Tamils, were bound by caste systems. For Jaffna Tamils, kammalar is the term for the artisan class, which includes blacksmiths, brass workers, carpenters, sculptors, and goldsmiths. The sign-making painters are not explicitly listed in this group, but the consensus is that they were a part of this service caste who depended on the landowning and wealthy caste for their survival. Though the boundaries of the caste system have been blurring in recent years, the hierarchy still exists. Therefore, the Tamil society doesn’t value the kammalar caste even though their work is essential for a functioning society. This is reflected in how dismissive the folks we met were of the shop signs and why they couldn’t understand what Derek and I saw in them—relics from the past and a lens into Jaffna culture.

On our next trips to Jaffna, we met several sign painters. First, we met Thasan, whose work for the hardware store with the charming bathroom set we absolutely adored. When Derek took out his phone and showed a picture of the hardware shop sign, Thasan nodded, his smile shy and uncertain. He was surprised that a couple of foreigners would be interested in his handiwork. Derek and I, on the other hand, were ecstatic. It took us so much effort to find him, and it felt surreal to be face-to-face with a man whose work we admired. Thasan retired several years ago and his son-in-law, Shankar, took over the sign-painting job. However, in the last several years, fewer and fewer people are commissioning hand-painted shop signs so he supplemented his income with house painting jobs.

Bavan, a Jaffna sign painter at his home.

We also met Bavan, who painted an incredible watch for a repair shop. When we knocked on his door, he answered wearing a pale yellow button shirt, a sarong, and sleep in his eyes. When Raj told him why we were there, Bavan lit up. He buttoned up his shirt and invited us to sit on his porch. His hair was mostly grey, his teeth stained by decades of cigarette smoke and beetle nut chewing. He had steady work as a sign painter for over thirty years but has retired due to poor health. In his raspy voice, he told us of the prestigious artisan award he had won while pointed to a plaque on his wall.

Thanks to Raj, we were able to access the inner world of Tamil culture and its sign painters. We met many people of Jaffna who added a rich layer to our experience in learning about the history of the place and the hand-painted signs. Now it’s up to us to offer the rest of the world a glimpse into the colourful, complex, and resilient city of Jaffna through our book, The Hand-Painted Signs of Jaffna.

Love Wins On Puddle Street

Herstry originally published this essay on November 23, 2020.

A shirtless man hollers at the top of his lungs, creating chaos in the already jam-packed Wan Chai market. The crowd disperses to the sides, allowing him to barge through with his metal cart of carcasses. As he passes, he releases the scent of sweat, unwashed hair, and rot. 

Today, I’ve come to the market with a mission: To collect ingredients to make “three-cup chicken” for my husband, Derek. It’s a traditional Taiwanese dish cooked with copious amounts of garlic and ginger, seasoned with rice wine, soy sauce, and Chinese basil. On the phone, Mama had said to buy fresh chicken from the market with its skin and bones intact for extra savouriness. Mama’s suggestions made my heart sink—the market is grimy and filled with puddles I would rather avoid. However, since I want the best result for my hardworking husband, I make my way to the market with trepidation. 

I elbow my way through stalls of limited-edition anime figurines, imported Korean socks, tacky jade ornaments, and knock-off Calvin Klein underwear. 

“Excuse me!” I say as I bump shoulders with sheepish middle-aged American tourists who have stopped in the middle of the narrow pathway to pose for a selfie. Then, I pass some roaming Mandarin-speaking shoppers crisscrossing from one stall to the next. After avoiding several determined local grannies armed with their nylon shopping carts and stepping around a group of head-scarf clad domestic helpers carrying bags and bags of fresh produce, I turn the corner and enter an even smaller alley. The earthy aroma of fragrant herbs from the vegetable stalls does little to mask the fetid smell from the dried-fish hawker. Before I can stop to catch my breath, the pungent stench of death comes pouring out from the butcher shops—this is when I know I’ve reached Wan Chai Road, or what I call, Puddle Street. Before I married Derek, I’d have run away as fast as I could from that putrid smell. But today, I summon whatever courage I have in me to find chicken for Derek. 

On Puddle Street, it’s impossible to divorce the animals from the meat you’re eating. Carefully watching my every step, I tread by a vendor hawking fish. On a bed of ice, their black, beady eyes stare into nothingness, waiting for their moment on a dinner table. Next to the fish vendor is the chicken butcher. He hangs featherless carcasses by their feet over the counter where you can assess their freshness. Next to the counter, there are cages of live chickens fluttering their flightless wings and flicking at each other with their feisty beaks. Personally, I’d rather buy my meat from the sterile grocery store, where I don’t have to trouble myself with grim thoughts of an animal dying to nourish me. But today, I am committed to my mission. 

Puddle Street is not only a dangerous place for animals, but it can also be life-threatening for shoppers. You must stop and look for oncoming traffic while paying attention to the ground to evade the dark puddles this street is famous for. I am not exaggerating— every pothole on this street is filled with stale, standing liquid —a rancid combination of random spills of unknown fluids, spit of thousands of people, and the water used to rinse the floors of seafood stalls and butcher shops. Every time I encounter a puddle, I fix my gaze on it and tiptoe around it, fearing that if I don’t stare it down, the dirty pool might shift, and I’d trip into it by accident. 

Yes, I’m aware that my squeamishness is silly, and the germs on Puddle Street won’t kill me. Yet, I despise them with every single fibre of my body – those very same fibres that love Derek.   

Derek is Midwestern American and loves Puddle Street. He grew up in Madison, Indiana, a quaint, little historical town by the Ohio River, with about 3,000 residents. For someone who grew up in such a rural setting, it’s incredible how he could love a place like Puddle Street. It brings him joy to shop there— even daring to go in his flip-flops. When he comes home, he takes cruel pleasure in taunting me, whispering in my ear, “I am gonna rub my feet all over you…” 

“Eww! No!” I yelp, squirming away from him as I imagine all the gross, gunky, ghastly puddles he touched with his uncovered feet.  “Go wash your feet!” I’d shout halfway across the living room.

He sometimes makes a half-hearted attempt to chase me around our tiny apartment. Most of the time, though, he looks at me adoringly despite my irrational fears of puddles. 

I often suspect we were born in the wrong bodies. My phobia would be more fitting for a Westerner or a gweilo. Meanwhile, Derek, the gweilo, would love nothing more than to fit into the Chinese culture, speaking Cantonese and haggling with the vendors on Puddle Street. Our physical characteristics often misrepresent us in Hong Kong: Derek is treated like any other gweilo, and prices go up when a vendor sees his face. On the other hand, with my Chinese face, I am often mistaken as a Hong Konger. 

I was born in Tokyo to Taiwanese parents. When we first moved to Taiwan, I threw a tantrum outside of a dirty shack in an open-air market. In my innocent, six-year-old mind, this simple, bare-boned establishment was unacceptable by my standards of cleanliness, and I refused to go anywhere near it. My favorite aunt came out of the shack, hoping to coax me into the horrible place. After a long negotiation, I finally went inside. I perched on top of a metal stool, my hands in my lap and my mouth in a pout. I refused to touch anything. Every time someone offered me a morsel of food, I shook my head vehemently. 

I was only in Taiwan for four years. Had I stayed longer, perhaps I could’ve developed immunity against all things grimy and gross. Alas, my family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada when I was ten. I grew up in a suburban house and went shopping with Mama in big box stores filled with pre-packed meats and aisles and aisles of processed food. Open-air markets soon became a distant memory in my mind—until I moved to Hong Kong. Over the years, I’ve learned to control my tantrums, but deep down, that neurotic, grime-phobic little girl still lurks. Now, she’s the grime beneath my otherwise polished, grown-up exterior. She comes out in snippets, especially on Puddle Street. 

But love wins on Puddle Street. 

Today, Derek is the only one on my mind. Without venturing too far into Puddle Street, I stop at the first chicken vendor. As I study the limp and featherless chickens hanging above the counter stall, a man in a white apron approaches me. 

“What do you need?” He asks in Cantonese. 

“I am making three-cup chicken,” I stammer in Mandarin. “Which chicken should I get?”

Instead of taking down one of the dead ones hanging over the counter, the man points to the cage before me. There are about four or five chickens inside, quietly cooing. I nod my head while contemplating my options.   

Before I say anything else, the man opens the cage from the top and grabs one of the chickens by its neck. The chicken squawks and all the other chickens start squabbling in terror. Instinctively, I hold my right hand in front of me, my palm facing the man as if begging him to stop such a blood-curdling ruckus. I spin and run away, not even caring which way I am going. In the split second before I bolt, I see a faint smile on his face from the corner of my eye. It isn’t an unkind smile, but he probably thinks I am the most ridiculous person in the market that day.  

I gather myself at the next store, focusing on a shelf filled with jars and bottles of sauces and condiments from all over Asia. My heart pounds and my mind races. I think I just killed a chicken! I take a few deep breaths. I’m pretty sure I just killed a chicken.

After a few minutes, I realize I haven’t told the butcher how I wanted my chicken chopped up. Even though I don’t want to show my face in front of the chickens after I’ve just killed their friend, I drag my feet back to the butcher shop. In a timid voice, I say, “Please chop them in pieces with the skin and bones attached.” 

The man in the apron nods with that faint smile on his face again. 

I head back to the other store to buy Taiwanese soy sauce and cooking rice wine. When I return to the chicken stall, I hear the frightening thuds of a cleaver splitting flesh on a woodblock. 

Moments later, the man hands me a plastic bag.  Surprisingly, it isn’t very heavy, maybe a couple of pounds. I pick up the rest of the ingredients and plod my way back home with the bag of chicken dangling from my hand. 

Inside my kitchen, I empty the bag into the sink to wash the chicken. I gasp as I touch it—it’s still warm. Like I said, you can’t divorce the animal from the meat you are eating, not when you buy from Puddle Street. But love wins on Puddle Street. That night, Derek devours the three-cup chicken as he marvels at my bravery in conquering all the gross, ghastly puddles on the most dreaded street in Hong Kong. 

My Sentimental Grandfather’s Love Letters From His Whirlwind World Tour

Agon, date unknown.

My grandfather, who I called Agon, was a sentimental man. When he went on a whirlwind tour around the world in 1964, he sent Ama ten letters and postcards. Even though I haven’t found all of them, I know that he’s visited Greece, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Argentina, the United States, Thailand, and Japan. He filled blue aerogram letters with his observations of the places he saw, his thoughts, and his affections for Ama and their children.

I couldn’t read the letters—Agon wrote in Japanese in his messy doctor scrawl, barely legible even to my aunt, who spent most of her adult life in Japan. I enlisted Aunt Lily’s help because she speaks and reads Japanese. Another reason I had chosen her to share my Agon’s letter is because her family came from Guangdong Province, specifically from Chaozhou— like Ama’s family. Her grandfather and father knew my Great Grandfather. When I showed her the letter, she was charmed by Agon’s long letters that travelled around the world to reach his love over half a century ago. We picked a random letter—the one from Switzerland.

Agon’s letter from Switzerland, 1964

Agon started the letter by describing his travel in the Alps as he enjoyed the views of red-roofed houses and the verdant mountains. He said he was cold—Agon left Taiwan in the summer, and by the time he arrived in the Alps in the autumn, he was still wearing a short-sleeved shirt when it was only one degree Celsius. He also mentioned leaving a book he purchased in Hong Kong in a car in Geneva. Then, he contemplated whether or not he should fly or hire a car to Frankfurt— should he get there as quickly as possible or enjoy the slow ride through the Alps? I assumed he took the car since he wrote about the scenery at the beginning of the letter. Then, he asked about my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, who had just been born before Agon’s around-the-world trip. Agon also mentioned that he felt mentally drained. He said even though it was common for westerners to take their wives on vacations, he felt ill at ease. He didn’t clearly state that he was travelling with his wife, though I assumed he was. It was an implicit way to tell Ama that he missed her.

The following letter Aunt Lily and I looked at together was from Spain. Agon said that it was hot there, like in Taiwan. “I left Taiwan for one month now. I am heading to Argentina tomorrow,” he wrote. “It’s nine p.m. here, which is the afternoon in your time zone.”

There is a mystery in the letter that Aunt Lily and I tried to figure out. Agon asked Ama to reach out to an uncle (舅舅) in Hong Kong (Aunt Lily and I assumed it was Ama’s oldest brother he was referring to since he was the only person we knew for sure that lived in Hong Kong). Agon wanted Ama to contact this uncle so he could visit Ada Ng, who was studying in California—he included Ada’s address in the letter. Agon provided explicit instructions on how to write on the envelope correctly. I don’t know who Ada Ng was, but “Ng” is the Cantonese pronunciation of “Wu” (吳), and so I assumed that it’s most likely Ama’s cousin since they share the same family name. Perhaps it’s Ama’s brother’s daughter—maybe I need to ask my father. Agon closed the letter by telling Ama about the beautiful ladies who looked oriental. “But seeing beautiful Spanish girls made me think of you,” he wrote.

Letter from Argentina

From Argentina, Agon wrote about the best steaks in the world and noted that since Ama didn’t eat beef, she probably wouldn’t be envious, but their children would be excited. He also discussed the Asian stock market and when Ama should sell her stocks. Then, he inquired about the house they were building together, which is the house I’m living in almost sixty years later. Agon said he would like to live on the second floor of the new house but deferred all other decisions to Ama. Finally, towards the end of the letter, Agon wrote about an event he was attending in which he represented the ROC—it’s unclear if it was a medical conference in Argentina or the Tokyo Winter Olympics.

In the letter from California, he talked about how the city was hot but cooler by the sea. He told Ama that he had prepared a gift for Ada—a watch purchased in Switzerland. However, he didn’t mention the visit with Ada, which I found curious. He also talked about women in this letter and said that the Californian girls were the prettiest ones in America. Agon said he would fly to Tokyo the next day to attend the Olympics and return to Taichung in late October. He asked Ama to be patient. He closed the letter by indicating that he had grown weary that airports and hotels had become his home.

Agon and Ama, date unknown.

Aunt Lily and I only looked at a few letters that day and not in chronological order. Agon was so warm and affectionate in his letters. He wanted her to see what he saw and document his thoughts. I imagine him stealing a moment away from his wife as he had a nightcap at the hotel bar, where he revealed his true feelings to Ama.

In understanding some of the content in my grandfather’s letters, I know there was genuine love between my grandparents even though they weren’t married. Even though Agon was married to another woman, and it was his wife that he took on this tour around the world, Ama had his heart. I wish I knew how Ama felt and what she thought—she was taking care of a newborn and building her new house while her man was on the other side of the planet with another woman. Why had he left Ama for so many months shortly after she gave birth to my uncle? I wonder if Ama was bitter and resentful and, at the same time, felt lonely and missed Agon desperately, even though she would never admit it to anyone, not even to herself. I suppose I may never find the answers to my questions though it’s fun and at times overwhelming to imagine the romance that took place two generations ago.

My Journey With Unreliable Yet Fascinating Old Taiwanese Records

The Chang Family cemetery.

For the longest time, I considered myself a multi-generational Taiwanese person. We have a six-meter granite plaque in the Chang family cemetery that outlines how my ancestors left Fujian and crossed the strait in 1742, making me the twenty-second generation in Taiwan. My mother’s family, the Lins, have also been in Taiwan for hundreds of years. However, I learned recently that not all sides of my family have been in Taiwan for hundreds of years.

Since moving back to Taiwan in 2021, I’ve lived in my paternal grandmother’s house. She’s ninety-four years old and her house is in desperate need of repairs. While my husband Derek does the majority of the renovation, I’ve been organizing and maintaining her personal belongings and documents.

Ama’s documents are fascinating. They consist of photographs and various types of documents, which gave me clues to her early years. Ama’s passport from 1965 claimed that she was born in “Kwangtung” (廣東—more commonly spelled “Guangdong” ). Yet, her passport from 1996 claimed that she was born in Taiwan. When I asked my father, he was confident that Ama was born in Taiwan. Back then, people listed their “ancestral home” (籍貫) on their identification documents, but it wasn’t necessarily where they were born. Also, during Kuomintang (KMT) rule, Chiang Kai-shek believed that his government was China’s legitimate government, and therefore, it’s not unreasonable to list someone’s birthplace as “China.” So, with all this conflicting information, where was my paternal grandmother born?

Ama’s passport from 1965 indicates that her birthplace was “Kwangtung.”
Ama’s passport from 1996 indicates that she was born in Taiwan.
Ama’s passport from 1969 claims that she was born in China.

To learn more about Ama, I decided to dig deeper by looking into her father, Wu Fu-ke. My Granduncle, born to my Great Grandfather’s second wife, said his father was born in Guangdong province and came to Taiwan when he was about thirteen. He eventually married my Great Grandmother, who was Taiwanese. They had two sons and seven daughters. When Great Grandfather was about fifty years old, he moved his wife and some of his children to Vietnam. Granduncle gave me approximate years, which prompted me to the household registration office to locate the earliest records on my Great Grandfather to establish his timeline. 

The clerk at the office handed me two documents: one from 1914 and another from 1947. The 1914 form indicated Wu Fu-ke, approximately twenty-four at the time, was registered with a different family (due to privacy laws, the record doesn’t show who he was staying with). The document from 1947 showed that his wife (my Great Grandmother) had died in Vietnam in 1950. Furthermore, Ama also deregistered herself from her adoptive mother‘s house and into her father’s house in 1947. She would have been nineteen at the time.

My Great Grandfather’s Household Registration from 1914.
My Great Grandfather’s Household Registration from 1947. Ama was also listed in this document as an occupant of the household.

The household registration forms muddled my investigation because they didn’t match what I thought I knew about Ama or her family. What’s crazy is that my Great Grandfather’s birthdates weren’t the same in the two documents. One claimed that he was born twenty-two years before the Republic of China (ROC); the other claimed that he was born twenty-three years before the ROC. This would put my Great Grandfather’s birth year to 1889 or 1890.

I also asked for Ama’s earliest records at the Household registration office. According to the clerk, the earliest one was from 1947, when Ama was nineteen. That was roughly the time her father moved back to Taiwan from Vietnam. I was hoping to find out when she was registered at her adoptive mother’s house to ascertain when her family left for Vietnam, but I haven’t yet to find this record.

Physical records, especially ones from previous generations, are unreliable—the Household Registration clerk told me that records were created based on what people had reported. And until the last half century, most people gave birth at home, and it wasn’t common to register one’s child immediately. My mother, born in 1954, wasn’t registered until she was three months old because her family wasn’t sure if she would survive. As a result, the birthdate on her official identification differs from her actual birthdate.

Ama and her adoptive grandmother. Perhaps Ama was given away even before her family moved to Vietnam.

I may never know for sure if Ama was born in Taiwan or when she was adopted. However, based on photographs and what Granduncle told me, perhaps Ama was given away even before her birth family moved away to Vietnam—I may never know for certain. It’s unlikely that I could define the exact timeline of Ama and her family through official records. There’s a part of me that wants to solve this puzzle, but I may never know the specifics of Ama’s early years or the dates of my Great Grandfather’s migration—from China to Taiwan, then from Taiwan to Vietnam, and back to Taiwan again. I could only go by what my father, my Greatuncle, and Grandaunt, told me—the family members who have known Ama and my Great Grandfather—and create a narrative based on their reliable memories. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter when my Great Grandfather came to Taiwan or where Ama was born. It doesn’t take away who I am as a Taiwanese Canadian woman on a journey to learn more about her family and history. 

Even though my project is about my family, it is also about Taiwan, its history and politics. The idea of “Taiwanese-ness” is nuanced, and even my idea about Taiwanese identity has evolved over the years. I used to identify as Chinese ethnically but culturally and politically Taiwanese. Now, I strictly identify as Taiwanese, and yet, ironically, I found out that my Great Grandfather was born in China, and my paternal grandmother may have been born there too. However, my discovery hasn’t challenged my Taiwanese identity, but it only deepens my conviction that Taiwan and China have an intimate and intertwined history.

I love Chinese culture and China as a place—after all, my ancestors came from there. Due to escalating tensions, we often forget that Taiwan and China share so much commonality, from languages to food to customs. I’m not opposed to China, but what I reject is the Communist Party of China (CPC). I denounce the CPC’s authoritarian politics to snuff out diversity in religion, ethnicities, and languages. I condemn the Beijing government’s treatment of the ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the violent suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy movement in 2019. In China, to be patriotic is to love one’s country and its government. For many of us in Taiwan, there is a clear distinction—we could love our country but also criticize our government. We could vote and choose who governs us. However, China has not reached that point yet. There is no separation between the country and the party. Maybe one day, when they can separate the two, there will be a new China, perhaps one that Taiwan wouldn’t mind joining. Despite Xi’s one China rhetoric, I’m a firm believer that the fate of Taiwan should be decided by the Taiwanese people.

Were My Great Grandparents Bad Parents For Leaving Their Daughters Behind?

A Portrait of Ama’s adopted mother hanging in the gods’ room, by Wei-chen Li

It’s no secret that my Ama was adopted. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a black and white portrait of my adopted Great Grandmother hanging in the gods’ room. In the picture, she wore a Buddhist robe and held rosaries. Her face was kind, but her expression was stern, with a hint of a smirk like she was pretending to be serious just for the photoshoot. Though I don’t remember meeting her, her face is familiar—I’ve been looking at her portrait my whole life. Yet I know almost nothing about her, except that she was a devout Buddhist whose husband died young, she was friends with my Great Grandmother and was childless until Ama came into her life. Other than that, I learned that she was born in 1903 and that she was illiterate—information I gleaned from a 1950-era household registration within Ama’s archives.

Sometimes I feel like I recall memories that are not mine. They’re my Ama’s, so I have to imagine what she went through and try to see the events of her life from her point of view and in the context of Taiwanese history. I will probably never know precisely what happened to my grandmother and how she felt about her life, but I can use reimagined memories to try to understand my Ama as a woman of her time.

I don’t know how old Ama was when her parents gave her away. I asked my father, but he didn’t know. “Didn’t you ask Ama?” I asked.

“Of course I did!” my father said. “But she’d just yell at me and told me not to bother with the past.”

Ama (bottom row, far left) and her adopted family, 1930s. I believe her adopted mother was the first woman on the left in the second row.

I know almost nothing about Ama’s adopted family except the snippet I learned about my adopted Great Grandmother from Ama’s archives. From how fondly my father spoke of her, Ama loved her adopted mother very much. Allegedly, one of the reasons Ama chose Agon, my grandfather, was that Ama wanted to have the means to take care of her widowed adopted mother and live with her. Agon was a handsome and successful obstetrician who was thirteen years her senior and already married. Perhaps Ama believed that she couldn’t live with her adopted mother and care for her if she had married because it was standard Taiwanese practice for a wife to move into her husband’s ancestral home and care for his parents. Perhaps Ama feared that no husband would allow her to bring her adopted mother into their marital home, so she chose a married man instead.

I will never have the answer to my burning questions about her birth or adopted family and why she chose a life of a mistress instead of a wife. I wish I had asked her more questions when she could answer them. However, I am thankful that in a rare moment when Ama still had her mental faculties, she brought down her box of photographs. This is the only reason I know what Ama looked like as a child—it was the only reason I could identify her in these almost-a-century-old photos.

Ama (far right) and her siblings, 1930s. I’m unsure if this picture was taken before or after the family uprooted to Vietnam.

My Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother share seven daughters and two sons. The firstborn, a daughter, died as a child. When my Great Grandparents moved to Vietnam, they took both sons and some of the daughters, leaving behind the second sister, who was probably married off, the fourth sister, and Ama, the fifth sister. Ama’s fourth sister was two years older, and the two girls were given away to be raised by different families. I don’t know if Ama was the youngest at the time of my Great Grandparents’ departure—I don’t know if the sixth and seventh sisters were born in Taiwan or Vietnam. However, I know that the youngest two children, a son and a daughter, are born to my Great Grandfather’s second wife after my Great Grandmother’s death. They also adopted another son.

In the 1930, my Great Grandparents moved to Vietnam at the height of Japanese colonialism as it tried to expand its territories across Asia. My father guessed that her family probably left Taiwan when Ama was old enough to be out of diapers but still young enough to be moulded into someone else’s daughter. I understand why Ama’s parents took the boys—sons carry the family name in a patriarchal society. But I can only guess why they gave away the three daughters. Perhaps there were just too many children, so my Great Grandfather gave away some of his daughters to whoever would take them. Regardless of the reasons, Ama must feel abandoned or traumatized knowing that her parents didn’t want her or couldn’t take her to their new home.

Ama and her sisters as adults, 1950s. From left to right: Second Sister, Fourth Sister, Daughter of the Fourth Sister, Ama, and the Seventh Sister.

My Great Grandfather did eventually return to Taiwan in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It was a turbulent time in Taiwan. World War II ended with the Japanese surrendering, and they lost control of Taiwan and all its colonies. The United States negotiated with the Republic of China (ROC) and gave control of Taiwan to its ruling party, the Kuomingtang (KMT). My Great Grandfather and his new life moved back to Taiwan as it was going through massive changes in governance and a shift in allegiance.

As far as I could tell from Ama’s records, the only ones that returned to Taiwan with my Great Grandfather were the second and third son, the adopted son and possibly Ama’s cousin. None of the daughters came back to live in Taiwan. I also found some records that indicated that Great Grandfather came back as Ama finished nursing school and was working at a hospital where she contracted a serious illness. Great Grandfather took care of her, provided her with Chinese medicine, and nursed her to health.

When Saigon fell in 1975, the remaining Wu family fled Vietnam—some to France and others to the U.S. I don’t know precisely where the Third and Sixth sisters relocated to, but the Seventh sister, who moved to France, visited Taiwan regularly. Her sons, who are about my father’s age, studied in Taiwan. She was the only one of the sisters who grew up in Vietnam who showed up in Ama’s photos.

Sometimes I wonder if my great-grandparents were terrible parents for leaving their daughters behind. If they hadn’t left Ama as a child, perhaps she would have married and led a more conventional life—but I wouldn’t have existed. So the point of this exercise isn’t to judge my ancestors or scrutinize their decisions—instead, I try to see them as people through a compassionate lens—I try to see them as people from different eras and try to learn about them in the context of Taiwanese history.

The Astonishing Discovery of Chiang Kai-shek in my Family Archives

Chiang Kei-shek and his supporters. My Granduncle is on the far left.

“Hey! That’s Chiang Kai-shek!” Wei-chen exclaimed.

“You’re right!” I inspected the black and white photograph. “What the hell is he doing in my Ama’s photos?”

Wei-chen is a Taichung-based photographer who I have befriended this year. After several hang-out sessions, we figured out our families are connected by marriage, which makes us distant relatives. We were excited and started a quest to understand our families and ancestry better. Since I am living in my paternal grandmother’s house in Taichung, we began our research with Ama’s archives and belongings.

How many people have a picture of the infamous Generalissimo in their family’s archive? I had no idea why we had this picture. I showed my father the photograph and asked him why Ama had a picture of Chiang Kai-shek in her possession.

It turns out that the man on the very far left was my Granduncle, my Ama’s oldest brother. He, like his father, was also a successful Chinese medicine merchant. He was an overseas Chinese merchant in Vietnam, and I supposed he donated to the Kuomintang (KMT). I guess this is why he had the “honour” of having his picture taken with the leader of the party and the then-president of Taiwan.

I was shocked. I had no idea that we had family members who supported the KMT. Both my parents and I are supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates human rights and promotes Taiwanese nationalism and identity.

“What about Ama?” I asked.

“Ama supported the KMT,” my father said.

“Why? They killed thousands of people during the 228 Incident and tens and thousands more during the White Terror!”

“Well, your Ama thought the KMT people are decorous and cultured,” my father said.

“But they were terrorits!”

“Ama didn’t think so. She admired Soong Mei-ling,” my father said, his attention already drifted toward the television.

Soong Mei-ling was Chiang Kai-shek’s third wife. Chiang was technically still married when he pursued her. Besides partnering with a much older man who was already married, my Ama and Soong Mei-ling didn’t seem to have much in common. I looked up Soong to figure out why Ama had admired her. In the 1937, Soong and Chiang Kai-Shek shared the hounour of Time‘s Man and Woman of the Year. By 1943, Soong had appeared on the cover of Time three times, and she was the first Chinese national and the second woman to address both houses of the U.S. Congress. Perhaps Ama idolized Soong because she was elegant and eloquent, well dressed and spoke English fluently. She also helped her husband promote his image and built relationships in the U.S.

While I was wondering about why Ama was a fan of the KMT, it occurred to me that I didn’t know my grandmother at all. I didn’t know who she looked up to and why. I didn’t know which political party she supported. I didn’t even know her favourite food, colour, or books. All my life, I just knew her as my Ama, my paternal grandmother. But who was she as a woman of her time?

Ama, 1950’s

Since September 2021, I’ve moved back to Taiwan and into Ama’s house in Taichung. Ama is now ninety-four years old and in poor health; her house requires repairs. While my husband Derek began the repairs, I started organizing her belongings and archives. As a result, I’ve found a wealth of information, from black and white photographs to half a century old, onion paper thin documents.

I have so many questions. However, Ama is no longer verbal, so she can’t answer my questions. As a result, I can only make educated guesses about her life based on the information in her archive and photos. I’ve also been reaching out to relatives and associates who had known her.

Wu Qiao Qing (born 1928) was the fifth daughter of Mr. Wu Fu-ke and Mrs. Wu Zhan Zu. Ama came into the world at the height of Japanese colonialism to a Chinese father from Chaozhou, Guangdong province. He is the only one of my great grandparents who wasn’t born in Taiwan.

My Great Grandfather, date unknown.

I learned a bit about my Great Grandfather, Wu Fu-ke, from my Grandaunt, Ama’s youngest sister—she is the eighth and youngest daughter born from my Great Grandfather’s second wife. She said that my Great Grandfather came to Taiwan as a youth probably around the early 1900’s or 1910’s— I haven’t found any records about when he arrived. According to my Grandaunt, Fu-ke’s family had means but a fortune teller claimed that he would curse his parents. So, his family sent the young man away. My Great Grandfather didn’t have any means to support himself when he first came to Taiwan. One day, a cousin of his, a Chinese medicine merchant who also hailed from Chaozhou, gave him some second rate ginseng for him to sell. This was how my Great Grandfather started his career as a Chinese medicine merchant.

He eventually left Taiwan and moved to Vietnam for better opportunities. He left Ama and two other daughters in Taiwan and took his wife and the rest of the children to his new home. In Vietnam, he became prosperous.

My Great Grandfather, 1959

Fu-ke eventually returned to Taiwan sometime in the 1940s, when Japanese colonialism ended, and the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war. He eventually died in Taichung, Taiwan, before I was born.

The photographs of my Granduncle and my Great Grandfather are only the beginning of my quest to understand my Ama as a woman in the context of Taiwanese history. Through this project, I want to understand Ama as a person and, simultaneously, learn about Taiwan— my ancestral homeland that, until last year, I had only lived from the ages of six to ten.

Wei-chen and I have been uncovering her belongings and documenting them through text and photographs. We will be working together on a book. He will be in charge of the visual element of this project and creating new images to complement my family history.

This is the first post of a series called “You Can Have it When You Grow Up.” It’s where I will document my process and research in learning about my Ama, Taiwan, and myself.

Art and Animals During COVID-19

“Art was what was truly permanent therefore what truly mattered. The rest was ‘but a spume of things / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.’” Wendell Berry, What Are People For?

Wendell Berry’s lamentation is more poignant since the COVID-19 virus forced us into stultifying solitude. Confined to our homes, art viewing in galleries seem like a distant memory. Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo, Sri Lanka, fills this artless void with Art in Curfew. For their inaugural show, the gallery invited four Sri Lanka-based artists, Hashan Cooray, Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah, Fabienne Francotte, and Firi Rahman to create or curate a collection of work as a response to the forced hermitry. To enrich this virtual art experience, an open studio session on Instagram Live took place each Saturday, enabling the viewer a glimpse into each artist’s space, practice, and current projects.

It was through one of these open studio sessions that I discovered Firi Rahman. When I tuned into the Live session, Buddy, one of Firi’s parrots, greeted me with a loud squawk followed a succession of trills. During Firi’s walkthrough of his humble one-room abode that also dubs as his studio, we met the other creatures that live in his space. Besides Buddy, Firi is currently looking after other less vocal birds as well as a squirrel. Then Firi sat down and started to draw, using a Rotring pen with slow, circular motions to create the pattern of the dotted coat of a leopard. It’s a painstaking process, but the results are mesmerizing.

In 2018, Firi made a series of pen-on-paper drawings depicting animals in urban settings. He was initially inspired by the four pet macaws that had fled their gilded cage inside the palace of the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. These bright, long-tailed birds are not native to Sri Lanka, and the elites had kept them as status symbols. On the other hand, Firi, a bird lover his whole life, has only kept birds to help them. He would free them as soon as they’re well or old enough to be on their own. The only ones he would keep are the ones that are born in captivity and would not survive independently in the wild. When he heard about the escaped macaws, he wondered where these birds would go in Colombo. As he started to imagine wild animals and what they would do in urban settings, he made a series of drawings. There is one of a hornbill sitting in a hefty, colonial-style wooden chair with its beak tilting in the air. He looks like a king summoning his subject for an announcement. Another drawing consists of two lemurs perched on the tiled roof of a house made of wood and corrugated iron. My favourite is the drawing of a cougar crouching on top of a dolly cart, looking down as if it regretted jumping onto the unstable surface in the first place. 

The cougar drawing reminded me of the puma that has been visiting the near-empty streets of the Chilean capital of Santiago. Since late March, the wild feline has been prowling the central district, looking disoriented and confused. It roamed through several private gardens and a school before it was tranquilized and sent to the wildlife officials. This adventurous puma is not the only animal venturing out of their homes. Since the advent of the COVID-19 virus, many creatures are found cruising the newly deserted cities around the world. In Paris, two bucks strolled down an empty road next to park cars. In Istanbul, dolphins frolicked in the Bosporus Strait that has recently become free of tankers, cargo ships, and tourist boats. In Adelaide, a kangaroo hopped around the heart of downtown in full strides.

I am envious that the animals are out and about in the world. Even the crows perched on the trees in my neighbrouhood are cawing to flaunt their freedom. It’s poetic justice—as the humans are under curfews or lockdown around the world, the wildlife is enjoying a quieter and cleaner world, reclaiming habitats that we once took away from them.

Before the pandemic, humans as a species devoured resources like bottomless pits. Our consumer society insisted that we needed more to be fitter, happier, and more productive. When I was having a bad day, I ate and drank my feelings while shopped online to buy joy. When the curfew started suddenly in Sri Lanka, I became trapped inside my home in a new country with no access to Amazon, Book Depository, or Etsy. I soon ran out of snacks and booze and no means of getting more. Then, I realized that the post services stopped, and I couldn’t order anything online. The first couple of weeks were miserable. But slowly and grudgingly, I realized that I don’t need nearly as much as I consumed.

In What are People For?, Berry quotes William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.” Berry responds with a quote of his own: “Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.”

These quotes reminded me of the differences between humans and animals. The escaped macaws freed themselves with their bodily strength. On the other hand, humans have insatiable desires beyond our physical needs, and we haven’t had the opportunity to contemplate our limits until we are cooped up inside with nothing but our thoughts. Many of us didn’t want to face this reality–but the pandemic has certainly forced it upon me. For me (as a privileged person who was able to work from home), I feel like this pandemic has given me a clean slate because it drove me to confront the way I worked, played, and consumed. Now that we are slowly emerging from a strict curfew, I feel like I have become more resilient both in body and in mind. I am ready to tackle this new normal while feeling fitter, happier, and more productive–this time, without succumbing to the endless distractions and the unquenchable desire to consume.