I met Charles Ng Cheng Hin after giving a talk at the Heen Foh Association in Port Louis. The audience had taken the discussion into their own hands as they took turns with the microphone, sharing their own views, wondering where the Hakka diaspora goes from here, how to keep the Hakka language alive. Interspersed among these were people who stood up simply to tell me their stories, introduce themselves, show off their Hakka language skills and even perform songs.
Among these folks was Mr. Ng who later emailed me, eager to meet up and share all of his reflections about his mother and her contributions to the family. Mr. Ng and I met up in a small “snack” nestled in Port Louis’ Chinatown. It led to a series of meetings and a broad array of conversation topics, ranging from his grandfather’s establishment of the Chinese Middle School to experiencing joblessness to voting for Mauritius’ independence in 1968.
But besides our love for sharing stories and queries about identity and culture, there was another interesting factor that seemed to unite us. Mr. Ng’s grandfather was from Calcutta, India. Just like my grandmother of the same surname ‘Ng.’
Fun fact: I do have family in Mauritius. When people ask me how I knew about Mauritius in the first place, I can thank my Ahpo (definitely NOT US schools’ geography education). Ahpo and my mom explained to me that they had a relative from India who went onward to a small island near Africa. They lost contact though after so many years, not really sure of what was happening across the Indian Ocean.
Ahpo doesn’t remember her relative’s full name, which is why I never tried to find their descendants. Perhaps I am related to Mr. Ng. Perhaps I’m not. In any case, his friendship is one that transcends our different nationalities and age gap. And so we found ourselves meeting up many times at Ollier Plaza with a spread of dishes and orange Fantas.
This video was my last meeting with Mr. Ng before he left for some traveling. Having showed me his poem, he asked if I could find a way to share it somewhere. “Mother Never Dies” was written in 1995, and it took Mr. Ng a total of five years to write, revise and edit it. I hope this is a good start to bringing it to light. What I love most about this poem though is the gesture itself. Mr. Ng is among the Hakka men I’ve met and interviewed who seek to better recognize the efforts of Hakka women.
Life for a Hakka woman in Mauritius was not easy (was it ever though?). The first and second generations of Hakka women spent their lives shop-keeping and doing domestic work–neither of which sound too terrible, right? However, the shop-keeper lifestyle was laborious.
At its economically most vulnerable, the Mauritian government enforced fixed prices on products. A product that cost 5 rupees was therefore only sold for 6 rupees in the shop, leaving the profit margin at one single rupee for the shop-keeper families. The only way for families to prosper from this was to buy everything in wholesale, meaning they had to understand their local market and remain dependent on their family network.
Regardless of location, shops were kept open at long and, often times, odd hours to accommodate the schedules of their clientele–but even closed doors didn’t keep a few customers from pounding at shopkeepers’ doors in the middle of the night during emergencies or for a late-night alcohol run.
Women performed a lot of tasks that nonetheless kept shops operating. They produced hundreds of cornets (cones made of paper and glue), assisted customers, cooked vindaye and achards to sell for lunch, managed books and more. That was in addition to their household work, which had no neat division from their shop work. Families tended to be larger two generations ago; it is no longer a surprise for me to run into people who grew up with 12 siblings. Feeding, clothing and educating that many children was endless work for Hakka mothers. As one woman laughed, “It was like a factory.” She remembers her mother lining her and her siblings up to search their hair for lice, wipe them down and inspect their health.
But aside from the daily tasks that women performed, there were extraordinary measures, too. In another story, a woman recounted her grandmother saving their home. A cyclone had nearly torn the tin roof from their house. In the eye of the cyclone, her grandmother quickly climbed a ladder to secure the roof on her own, after her husband had refused to take the risk of falling.
But as Mr. Ng and others have testified, perhaps the most valued work that Hakka mothers performed were assuaging relationships in the family, especially for their sons. The relationship between father and son wasn’t always an easy one during financially difficult times, demanding work and troublesome customers. And it was often during these stressful situations that masculinity and saving face could drive a wedge between a father, the head of the business, and his son, eager but still trivialized as an unwitting child.
In spite of what Hakka mothers do though, how often is their work fully appreciated within their lifetime though? Moreover, how often is the work of sisters, wives, aunties and pohpohs acknowledged in the present instead of in retrospect or nostalgia? A common theme I’ve noticed among people’s description of Hakka womanhood is “sacrifice.” A woman is not considered a real Hakka woman unless she has toiled, worked hard and selflessly given all she had for the success of her family. While sacrifice is noble, is it fair to always expect that from the women in our lives? Moreover, is that a realistic expectation to have for young Hakka women today who certainly have their own challenges, but are often trivialized because they are anachronistically and nostalgically compared to women of a bygone past?
Regardless of where that conversation is headed, for now, here’s to remembering and recognizing Hakka mothers of the past.