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.