I used to believe it was a serendipitous encounter between a man from China and a woman native to Taiwan.
But as I later realized, the picture wasn’t so simple. The matrilineal tendrils of my family tree are like strings floating in the wind, holding to no visible sources.
My mother was adopted. Her adoptive mother was also adopted. When my mother talked about my granny’s lineage, they seemed to have different ancestors. At one point, I was eager to trace the regions crossed by my granny’s forebears over time, but she turned out to know little. (According to her fragmented reminiscences, she had lived behind Yanping Elementary School until she and my grandpa bought, for 15 Taiwan Dollars, a 250-square-foot home on an alley behind Baoan Temple in Dalongdong. Where did she live as a girl? Where did her birth mother or adoptive mother live? I was completely disoriented as I tried to locate the vast “bamboo forest,” the “graveyard,” and the “riverbank” in her description.)
There appeared a process followed by my granny or the adopted daughters before her, generation by generation, a process of constant exchange and gifting that created a nomadic tribe of “adopted daughters.” They called themselves mothers and daughters, preserving a heritage without blood ties.
On the edge of the Han-Chinese settlements, at a time when the Han-Chinese cleared the basin that was Taipei and sailed up Tamsui River, the adopted daughters kept their ancestral incense burning in a peculiar way.
I can’t help but imagine my maternal ancestors’ travels, knowing full well that my roots were already lost in their erratic routes. I realized any clues about their relocation would look just like the places where they might have been: the crisscross of river valleys as intricate as an ill-fated woman’s palm lines, the flash floods of shallow rivers in a rainstorm or typhoon. I once read an exquisite essay (Was it “Traveling on the Northwestern Coast” by George Leslie Mackay and B. W. Bax?) about a late-nineteenth-century excursion from Tamsui along the Mt. Guanyin coastal area, traversing Zhongli Plateau…. I pictured my maternal ancestors seeing the same scenes on their journey (Mackay describes, “The scenery was charming. Here and there were groves of fir, and around an occasional farm-house waved the tall bamboo. It was early spring, and the grassy sward was decked with innumerable dandelions, violets, and other wild flowers. The air was vocal with the sweet song of the sky-lark singing clear up against the blue…”).* They forged ahead on the coastal plains to which an invisible border attached like a shadow: on one side of the border, sandbanks were strewn with docking junks; settlements built by Han-Chinese soldiers clustered. On the other side, a stand of camphor trees grew in a gorgeous forest. Troops of wailing baboons somersaulted past mountain ridges, their trek parallel to my maternal forebears’ hasty footsteps. Deep in the forest, the silhouette of a vigilant mountain aborigine flew by every so often…. Head-hunting tales and mysterious diseases brought by the Han-Chinese prowled in darkness…. Startled sambar deer took flight…. The afternoon cloudbursts spared no shelter….
(You conjured up a hazy picture of a maternal ancestor with a tattooed face.)
Or, once my father revealed to me, “Your grandpa and granny weren’t legally married. They were paramours!” On another occasion, he said, “Your granny used to be an immoral woman. I saw her pictures when she was young. Her makeup was so heavy she must have been a hostess….” Afterwards, I chanced on some anecdotes about yidan, Taiwanese female entertainers similar to geisha. Apparently, it was a popular practice among yidan to adopt daughters (or child protégés) in the prime of their career. The most acclaimed yidan would often adopt thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girls when they were only in their early twenties. The adoptive mothers of these young adoptive mothers, the older yidan who were considered faded and finished in their early thirties, matronized as grandmothers.
Like an assortment of overexposed slides, ambivalent childhood memories came to my mind. I had this impression somehow: my granny’s small figure holding my hand, meandering through the alleys at the intersection of Yanping North Road and Dihua Street near the elementary school and the market. I remembered a series of Minnan style verandas in that antiquated, time-suspended world. Decorative stones embellished the verandas’ eaves. Roots and stems sprawled on their brick exterior. Small trees grew out of their broken lattice windows. Later on, roaming that area again, I found everything looking the same as it did when I was a little boy by my granny’s side. Even the commercial signage remained unchanged—“Ah Xing Western Music Club: Assemblies and Festivities,” “Pawn,” “Graceful Orchid Tailoring”….
I recalled walking through the narrow verandas, my granny taking my hand. There were low thresholds to be crossed from time to time. My granny was mincing about and her pace wasn’t fast. Might she have had her bound feet released? I forgot. I remembered we finally arrived at a dim storefront (that also looked like a small living room adjoining one of the verandas). The place was filled with elders, all male, sitting, their smiling faces floating in the small tenebrous space. In my childhood memories, the men in this room smelled different from those I saw in the places my father took me to. Being too little, I was unable to retain the details of these men’s clothes or the room’s décor. Yet something did stand out (to a child of three or four): the men were quiet; huddled together, they spoke softly among themselves (unlike my father’s fellow Chinese émigrés who shouted at the top of their voices and offered cigarettes to one another at their gatherings). Some of these elders were playing old-fashioned instruments like the three-stringed lute or the pipa. Others were squatting on benches, inhaling smoke through hookah pipes….
My granny would tell me to call them Grandpa So and So. They would smile bashfully, displaying their tobacco-stained front teeth. To one of them, my granny would pay special reverence by calling him Xiansheng or Sir. She would give him some money she had wrapped in a cotton print handkerchief. Grandpa Xiansheng would protest vehemently. With gentle smiles, the other grandpas would be quick to mediate.
To be honest, I never remembered—never understood—what they talked about. Due to the circumstances I was born and raised in (shortly after my birth, my parents took us, their three children, from my granny’s home in Dalongdong to Yonghe), there wasn’t a natural environment for me to learn Minnan, the language of Taiwan’s largest ethnic group, the Hoklo. Except for the few times when I felt a fierce enmity just because I didn’t speak Minnan—the most intense instance was my engagement party at my bride’s home in Penghu; I was trapped among her many friends and relatives who talked to me in Minnan with a Penghu accent. Another time in high school, I ran away from home and met a friend’s friend in the south who agreed to watch my back, but I didn’t get a word of his thick Western Taiwan Minnan—my only regret in missing such an elegant classical language by a slim margin is my inability to understand, in those afternoons, the world of the long, dark alley that my granny took me to break into, like watching a silent movie without hearing the dialogue. It is the same regret I have for my disconnected maternal ancestry….
I recalled my granny leading me up a narrow and steep sandstone staircase, one step at a time, to the second floor. There, a vermilion-lacquered alcove bed as big as a boat commanded the space. This “bed with a roof” impressed me deeply: the bed frame was lined all around with carved panels of sika deer, lucky bats, unicorns, immortal cranes; plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemums (this formed my earliest knowledge of animals before the zoo, an appropriation of a Chinese mythological realm bordered by auspicious cloud motifs). A gossamer canopy and embroidered sword belts hung from the top. There were also paintings of court ladies in traditional dresses….
I climbed up and down the big bed, pulling out the drawers in every corner with excitement…. Oftentimes, an old woman was lying on the bed. I called her “grandaunt” at my granny’s prompting. The grandaunt reached under her pillow and took out for me a kumquat or a small piece of snow cake in a red wrapper that left stains (my fingers would turn red after tearing open the thin paper). I didn’t know whether she was unwell or smoked opium; as I remembered, the grandaunt was always reclining on the ornate bed while my granny sat on its edge to chat with her….
Of course, I understood nothing of their conversation.
Presuming that my granny was once a yidan….
Here’s some reference I read afterwards: in earlier days, the yidan in Taipei would travel to Taichung to perfect their skills in liquor pouring, singing, and composing. After accomplishing their artistry, they would return to Taipei and resume service in the hub of Dadaocheng, often becoming famous. Somehow, I fantasized that my maternal ancestors (who bonded through the secretive genealogy of matrilineal adoption) journeyed incessantly between Taipei and Taichung via a bustling yet taken-on-a-whim route (in contrast with the solemn epic migration of my patrilineage)….
My granny told me about an incident that had happened in my mother’s childhood: my granny said that one day, she was betting on a card game with some neighbors by the back door (my grandpa was a catering chef before he died; other than cooking for temple banquets in mid-year worship gatherings all around Taipei, he was jobless throughout the year. My mother said once my grandpa went to work, my granny would play cards with the neighbors. Curiously enough, she seldom lost, and her winnings were subsidies for family expenses. However, before the moment when my grandpa set foot in the house, my mother had to summon my granny back.) In the middle of the game, she heard a shout out front, “A kid is drowning….”
My granny said she dropped her cards in a pang of fear, rushed out the front door—opening to a big ditch—and searched with her eyes. Wasn’t the one struggling in the rushing stream my mother? Jumping into the water at once, my granny managed to pull her up. By then, the whites of my mother’s eyes were showing and her belly was swollen.
My granny teared up as she recounted the accident. What happened, she continued, was that some older children wanted to pick a flower by the ditch. All the children formed a chain holding hands and made their way to the ditch’s bank. My mother was four years old (“Oh my goodness!”). Her body was the smallest so she was placed at the front. A bigger kid at the back stumbled, tripping up the whole chain. Only my mother fell into the water.
This was one of the rare anecdotes my granny told me involving both her and my mother.
(My maternal descent that has lost its sense of time and ability to narrate.)
There was another incident. My granny said that when my mother was little, she took her to visit her biological family (please excuse my imprecise recording of my granny’s words about which bamboo grove they walked into, which graveyard they passed through, which fields they crossed…on the remote, random map from the house of my mother’s adoptive mother to that of her biological mother). My granny said that my mother, a gritty girl, had lived with her birth family until she was adopted at three. Naturally, she remembered her biological mother and would be difficult to raise as an adopted child. On their way, my granny had two worries: that my mother would cry, meaning she felt unwelcome in her adoptive home; and that her birth family would feed her something tasty and she would show her craving. Either scenario would be a disgrace and evidence of maltreatment…. After they arrived at the birth family, my granny couldn’t bear to watch. She made an excuse to go home, telling my mother to behave herself. My granny said instead of leaving, she hid behind some bamboo across the river to observe the little girl surrounded by her flesh and blood. My granny saw my mother’s older sister give her a big bowl of steamed rice covered with fatty pork. Emotionless, my mother neither said a word nor touched her chopsticks.
My granny said that all the while she was peering from the bamboo grove, no tears came down my mother’s face.
I once asked my mother why her birth mother let “this granny” adopt her. Couldn’t her birth mother afford to raise her? From what I heard, my grandparents seemed to be poorer than her birth parents. My mother was the tenth and youngest daughter in her biological family. Her birth mother was already fifty when she was pregnant with her. I remembered when my mother took us to visit her birth kin at the back of Datong Theater, my oldest uncle and aunt were ancient. I recalled a cousin of mine older than my mother. He peddled ice cream on a three-wheel cart that went “honk, honk” with its air horn. I remembered he taught me to fix pins on a pinball table with a hammer.
Why would they be willing to give up their youngest for adoption, the one they were supposed to hold dear? (Besides, my granny was notoriously formidable at that time.)
After considerable brooding, my mother said, “I don’t know.”
A near disappearance into the ditch water. Tears withheld in front of her birth family. Together with the mystery of sending her away for adoption, these seemed to be mildly puzzling threads that nobody cared to investigate. Could this be how time left its mark on the bewildering heritage of adoptive girls through grafting, in the way my mother was grafted onto my granny?
When my granny told me these two incidents, she was already an itty-bitty old lady in her nineties. Once, I went with her to a temple. I saw a woman holding a toddler’s hand. After a while, the woman let the child walk by himself. When he tottered toward my granny, I was shocked that they were almost the same height. I felt so ashamed I grasped my granny’s hand and headed to the exit.
My granny was born in the first year of the Republic of China calendar, i.e. 1912, so it was easy to remember her age. After meeting my wife, I incidentally learned that her granny was born in the same year too. But her granny died in the 86th year of the Republic of China calendar.
And my granny is still alive (we reckoned that my wife’s granny was an Aries whereas mine is a Virgo).
I remembered that a few months before my wife’s granny passed away, the doctor took her x-ray and found a big tumor in her belly that pushed her organs to the corners. Little wonder she had no appetite. By that time, she had almost stopped eating (and was holding on through an intravenous sugar solution). That year around the time of the Dragon Boat Festival, I gave my in-laws a bundle of alkaline rice dumplings made by my granny. My wife’s granny happened to be in Taipei for her doctor’s appointment. They unwrapped a dumpling for her. After a bite, so the story goes, my wife’s granny broke into tears. She said, “This is how alkaline rice dumplings tasted in the old times.”
When I was a child, my parents told me that as a young woman, my granny had been “an evil adoptive mother,” just like the stepmother of a fairy tale princess in distress (yet that stepmother is a witch by occupation whereas my granny was, in my ongoing investigation, a yidan).
My mother said she had sought protection from the Home of Adopted Daughters when she was young.
My mother said my granny had arranged a house call with a prosthodontist to replace my mother’s upper front teeth with gold teeth. My mother heard this was a sign of selling a girl to a restaurant. Later on, she insisted on marrying my father (who jibbed at my granny’s request that he give his offspring the matriname, and only agreed to let my yet-to-be-born older brother tend to her ancestors). My father was my mother’s teacher. The reason for him to marry her, according to the version I heard as a boy, was “to save her.”
When I was small, I found a yellowed news clipping in a drawer of my mother’s dressing table. It read, “At its inaugural meeting in Taipei, The Taiwan Provincial Committee on Protecting Adopted Daughters urged members of the society to support humanitarianism.” I remembered the clipping gave vivid details of adopting girls as a common practice in “the Taiwan region” and of the various kinds of abuses incurred by adopted daughters from adoptive mothers. It also reported a total of more than 125,000 adopted daughters in the region (somehow I remembered this number clearly). But I never saw the clipping again after I grew up.
My father said, your granny is a vegetarian now, but when she was younger, she ate a white-nosed civet. She killed the animal herself, making it squeal until it died. She even drank its blood, leaving disgusting red stains on her nose and mouth.
My father said that when Typhoon Gloria hit Taiwan in 1963, Taipei went completely under water (after the flood receded, Chongqing North Road was lined with bamboo mats on which corpses covered with white cloth were laid for family identification). At that time, my father lived with my mother, my granny, and my aunt in a squatter hut on Hami Street. He said that when the floodwater crossed the threshold of the house, my granny refused to leave, only scooping out the water with a ladle. When the water was up to the waist, my granny, now sobbing, moved the bodhisattva statue and ancestral tablets upward. My father said he experienced several levee breaches as a boy living in Jiangxing Island on the Yangtze River in China. With water coming down the horizon, he said, even though you had taken refuge on a big boat, you felt a vertigo as though sky and earth were swirling around. Above, the water came rolling down; below, the people had nowhere to go. At that time on Hami Street, my father said that when he saw the muddy water rise from his ankles to his waist, then to his chest, he knew it wasn’t just an overflow—it was a deluge. He was alarmed. My granny was still crying and moving things up. My father immediately waded toward her, pushing away the footstools, mesh food covers, pots, ladles…all sorts of things that were floating around. He grabbed my granny and lifted her to his shoulder. Swimming and walking at the same time, he went through the front door to find a stream that had been the alley. With my granny on his back, my father swam toward the only place in the neighborhood that had a second floor, the barber shop. My father said my granny was so hysterical her struggle was suicidal: yanking his hair, punching him on his shoulder, kicking his back with her partially bound feet…. He was pushed down under the murky water a few times….
My father said that after the water retreated, my granny was still grumbling about how he must have been extremely reluctant to allow his oldest son (my brother, who wasn’t born yet) to worship her forebears, the Zhangs, so he let her ancestral tablets (which, in fact, belonged to my grandpa’s ancestors), the Zhous’ tablets (of her birth mother’s ancestors), Bodhisattva Guanyin (whose statue would be enshrined in our home in Yonghe), Lord Guan (in a red-faced statue later worshipped in my aunt’s house)…drift chaotically in the dirty water.
My father said, that was a secret.
My father said he wriggled with my granny on his back until they reached the barber shop on the alley corner. On the roof of the two-story building, someone held out a pole for my granny (the rooftop was already swarming with people). Then, my father turned around and swam toward home at the end of the alley (he was out of his depth at this point). He took my aunt and headed to the barber shop again.
When he went back for my mother, she had climbed up the roof of their illegally-built hut. Only her neck and head were above the water. Her hair and face were wet, her bright eyes gazed at my father as he approached her. She looked like a drowning mouse.
My father said that as her drenched body climbed onto his shoulder, my mother whispered behind his ear, “I’m sorry.”
That year, my father was 38. My mother was 26, yet she was meager and looked like a teenager. Being an adopted daughter, she wore a black school skirt even after becoming a wife. She shuddered on my father’s back, her long skirt trailing behind, making a ripple like a duck.
My father said that those were the words he had planned to say to his first wife (i.e. my elder mother) if, one day, he went back to China and spent an intimate night with her (Was it because he had met someone else in Taiwan?). My mother, however, forestalled him.
That was a secret.
When he and my mother arrived at the barber shop (by now the water had reached the middle of its second floor), people on the rooftop pulled my mother up. But my father didn’t follow her. He flipped like a carp and slid into the surging water, disregarding the burst of concerns screamed in Mandarin and Minnan. He made his way to my granny’s house, now completely submersed in the muddy flood.
My father said he was so elated it was as though he had traveled back to his childhood, chasing the waves and diving freely in the little Yangtze on Jiangxin Island. He switched between dog paddle, breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle to show off his swimming. My father found himself floating in a turbid ocean. The only things that stood above the water, like magic, were the blue tiles of the upturned eaves at the back of Baoan Temple’s main hall, as well as the Confucius Temple on the opposite side. Farther away, two- or three-story houses scattered like outlying islands (all jam-packed with crowds of people). He was floating in what had been the sky above the congested squatter area he passed by impatiently every day, where my maternal ancestors had hidden in their perpetual moves.
He was the only one there. An occasional dog appeared, crawling hard, tongue out, brushing past him in the other direction.
In my father’s remembrances of this city that sparkled, swelled, and transformed like soft glass on a blowpipe, the flood fascinated me the most. The whole city was immersed in water while my father was swimming above. As though the city hadn’t belonged to him, as though he had been an outright intruder. Meanwhile, somewhere in the tortuous, water-filled alleys, my maternal forebears’ ghosts wept and sighed.
It seemed as if in an enigmatic moment, a group of strangers unknown to one another had turned up from different corners, bringing with them different musical instruments. They came to a park and found their seats in rows of small wooden chairs, borrowed for the occasion, on an open-air stage. After sitting down, they realized they had been thrown into an orchestra and would perform a mysterious symphony together.
For instance, when my father fled the civil war in China, he came across a derelict shrine in Huaiyin, Jiangsu Province. He prayed to the guardian god there but the minor deity turned out to be ineffectual (What else could my father pray for but to return to his hometown and reunite with my elder mother?). Nevertheless, half a century later, he married another woman (my mother), one of whose sons (me) married a girl from Penghu (my wife), whose grandpa (my wife’s maternal grandfather) sent a posthumous message through a dream, announcing his initiation into the netherworld’s officialdom with a low-ranking title, the guardian god of Huaiyin, Jiangsu Province….
In the mystifying moment when my solitary father roamed the floodwaters that drowned the entire city, I almost thought he would cross the border (in fact, had he kept going, he would have gone past the old city blocks and reached the inundating Tamsui River) into the crisscrossed palm lines of my maternal ancestors, into the old alleys and lanes where they had dispersed once they had hopped off the boat in the middle of their voyage, and into their infiltration of the convoluted relationships between an adopted daughter and an adoptive mother, a Chinese grandpa and an indigenous granny, a yidan and a musician, a catering chef and a tea-picking maid….
But he didn’t cross the line. He swam neither into Tamsui River nor to the ocean against the currents of time. He looked above the water and found my granny’s sunken house. After a deep breath, he dived in.
Later on, I watched some Discovery Channel documentaries on shipwreck excavations conducted by survey vessels and deep sea divers—underwater graveyards, if you will. As I remembered, this was how they described the world immersed in water, frozen in time: masts and ship railings coated with oysters, coral, and kelp. Shoals of fish lingering in the passageways on a deck. A brass compass shining brilliantly like new (after a century!), thanks to the depths of the shipwreck site where only anaerobic organisms survived. I gathered from these images that in a world completely immersed in water, distances between objects would fluctuate under the influence of undulating refraction. With this aqueous vision, I tried to visualize what my father saw when he plunged into the water and entered my granny’s house.
My father said: No, it wasn’t like the shipwreck salvage documentaries where underwater strobes illuminated a wreck’s partial outline at close range against a backdrop of complete darkness. My father said it wasn’t anything like that. The water world he rolled into gave him the closest encounter with light in all his life. He was not so much swimming in water as being buoyed by light, his arms and legs swaying in brightness….
Never before had he seen so sharply the dreary squatter alley curving down from Baoan Temple, always dark and cramped in his mind: rotting wood and shingles, low walls, power poles, an old mango tree, and even the dolly at the alley’s end…. Everything was set against a dazzle now as though a familiar street had suddenly come alive with an excited crowd.
My father said things continued to flow to the top: a battered wood door came off its frame and, with the last tenon detached, abruptly spiraled upward; a window pane shattered into pieces as if in slow motion, letting loose an array of oddities—a footstool, a wooden horse, a chopping block, a naked and bald mannequin, and a Datung baby doll, all racing toward the light source above.
My father said that amid the haze of light, in the glimmering underwater streets that looked like a work of papier mâché in silver foil, a sudden, crystal-clear understanding hit him: that he would never go back in his lifetime. What the old chief (President Chiang the Senior) had said was all a lie. My father no longer needed to worry about the words he would speak to my elder mother in case a counter-attack sent him back to Mainland China. He didn’t have to introduce my mother to my elder mother and vice versa, and ask them to respect each other….
Although I couldn’t visualize how and in what form tears would leave the eyeball when one wept under water, my father insisted that he wept at length like an orphan standing in front of my granny’s submerged home. Around him, colorful columns spouted from corner holes in the ramshackle huts like the lurid smoke of grenades. Not until much later did my father realize that those columns were the age-old feces deposited in the foul sewers of the huts.
After the long weep, he swallowed the remaining air in his mouth, pushed open the rickety door to my granny’s house, and glided in. Floating in the old house were my maternal forebears’ tablets that my father couldn’t tell apart no matter how young or old he was. He shoved away a wooden cupboard, causing its green screen door to open. The old patterned dinnerware that my granny had painstakingly saved for my mother’s dowry fell out. Emptied of its contents, the big cupboard took off, clashing into a wooden bed frame, a bodhisattva statue, ancestral tablets, wood-trimmed food covers, and a wooden table, all nudging the roof. My father swam to a metal desk he had used for writing (now overturned and sitting on the floor). Opening a drawer, he found a diary in a pile of news clippings soaked with so much water they almost got the drawer stuck. He secured the diary inside his waistband and, with all his strength, kicked his way out of the house toward the light above….
My father said that was his secret. Tucked between the diary pages were the passport photos of my paternal grandmother and my elder mother.
Later on, my father gave me the diary.
* Mackay, G.L. (1895). From Far Formosa: The Island, Its People and Missions,
p. 34. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company.