Siu Kong Wong and Po Wong on their 1950 wedding day
Lucille Wong, Ed#461, June 2014
Lucille Wong’s grandparents seem to have the matrimonial thing down pat.
At the end of 1949, a young Chinese soldier returned home to Hong Kong after eight years of military service. He was 18 years old when he left for war. His squad was stationed in India and southwest China. Every day, he waited for the call to the front line. The call never came. Just before his 26th birthday, he was sent home.
He trekked back to Hong Kong to a family that didn’t really expect to see him. Now that he was back, his mother set out to find him a wife. Across the road was a family of a comparable social stature. The family ran a herbal medicine business and, more importantly, they had an unmarried daughter. The 22-year-old was polite and helpful, often observed doing house chores and errands for the family business.
The pair was introduced in February 1950. By November that year, they were married. Their first-born son (my dad) arrived a year later.
Over the next few decades, my granddad worked as a bus driver before joining a sanitary-ware company. As a junior salesman, he sold bathroom and kitchen fixtures. He worked there for 40 years before he finally retired as managing director. My grandmother raised four children.
The pair lived a comfortable life, an ordinary life. Towards the late 1980s, when my granddad was planning retirement, they began to consider a big change. It was an unsettling era for the people of Hong Kong. After 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong would be returned to China in 1997. Many Hong Kong families emigrated before the deadline, uncertain of what life would be like under Communist Chinese rule.
My granddad weighed up their options. They had the funds and the status (being retired) to qualify for retirement visas in a number of Western countries. This type of visa allowed you to live in the chosen country, but you couldn’t work. They considered Canada (too cold), UK (too far), New Zealand (where?) and then settled on the North Shore of Sydney. My grandmother was sold on the nice weather and the house they could have, as opposed to the pint-sized apartments of Hong Kong.
In 1988, as 67 and 62 year olds, the duo packed everything they owned and left for Australia. It was an entirely foreign land; they only knew a friend of a friend of a friend. They enrolled in English classes at the multicultural centre, where my grandma still goes to play bingo. And they bought a small house with a big garden and a swimming pool. They made some friends within the community and had lunch club every Tuesday, where they would go into Chinatown for yum cha with three other couples of a similar age from Hong Kong. Now they’re the last remaining pair.
Two of their children eventually joined them in Australia. My dad’s family moved to Melbourne after two years and my aunty moved to Sydney three years after that.
When we moved to Melbourne, I was eight years old and my sister was seven. Almost every school holiday, my parents would throw us on a jet bound for Sydney. Every time, my grandparents would be waiting at the arrival gate, with grinning faces and wide-open arms. They would take us to Manly, the fish market and the Powerhouse Museum. It was sunny all the time and we could swim in the pool. We loved it and they loved it. Life in Australia was wonderful.
In 2010, they celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. My grandma squeezed into the wedding cheongsam she’d worn 60 years before. Their four children, seven grandchildren and members of the extended family flew in from all over the world for the occasion.
On the eve of the celebration, I asked them the secrets to their marriage. My grandmother replied, “Well, I was never beaten or raped. I was never hungry and I was never homeless. I’m very happy and I feel very lucky.”
“Woah,” I said, “What about unconditional love and generosity? Supporting each other through the good times and the bad? Lifting each other up to be the best possible people you can be?” She looked at me blankly. I asked if her marriage was what she envisaged for me. “I hope so,” she said.
My granddad said I analysed everything too much. “Back then there wasn’t a lot of choice,” he mused. “People got married. Divorce was not an option, so you just had to get along.”
While their answers might seem practical and somewhat unromantic, I don’t see their marriage that way at all. I have fond memories of the Sydney trips because they were two genuinely happy people who got along. Resentment can often build up in a marriage of that culture and generation, but there is no resentment between them.
As individuals, they both show great flexibility and adaptability with a forward-looking attitude to life. They have never yearned for the days in Hong Kong. They bicker, but never for more than five minutes.
As a partnership, they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. My grandma can’t drive, so my granddad chauffeurs her around. My grandma speaks better English, so she communicates for both of them. My granddad is forgetful, while my grandma remembers everything.
And then there are the small gestures. For the past 30 years, my granddad has been making my grandma breakfast every morning: a crustless ham sandwich with a cup of tea. At 93 years old, he still does this.
Nobody ever speaks of their marriage in terms of love, at least not in the sense of a Hollywood rom-com or a Disney movie. But when I see them together; an octogenarian and a ninetysomething walking hand-in-hand through the crowded streets of Sydney, it’s hard to see anything but love.
» Lucille Wong is a Melbourne-based writer. She blogs about travel, family and travelling with her family at lucillewong.com.au.
This story appeared in Ed#461 of The Big Issue magazine.