Welcome to my family stories. They were misplaced during a website migration years ago, and now I've found them. There are 22 in all and I will do my best to post one each week. If you've ever read the Author's Notes at the back of my novels, you will know that family memoirs and stories about my ancestors often make their way into the books - so if any incidents in these stories feel familiar, it's probably because they've been used in a novel. But which one?
In this story, there isn't an incident that found its way into a novel. Rather, the house on Dragon Springs Road inspired the title of my second novel.
M y parents began their married life in Taiwan. My father was a researcher at the Department of Agriculture and my mother worked in the library at the University of Taiwan. In 1947, Taiwan was an island newly-liberated from the Japanese and still mostly rural, with urban centers that barely qualified as cities. It was just after the Second World War and the province of Taiwan was considered an undesirable, backwards place to live. My parents’ intention was to return to the mainland in one or two years, for they didn’t enjoy being separated from their own families.
They had very little money, and lived in a shabby old house allotted to them by the Department of Agriculture. The house was on Longqian Jie, Dragon Springs Road. I never lived at this address, but it evokes so much family history that I used it as the title for my second novel.
When I was a child, I translated the name Longqian Jie in my mind as “Street in Front of the Farms”, because phonetically the words sounded the same and also because I knew from my brothers’ stories that the neighborhood was at the edges of Taipei, separated from rice paddies and vegetable farms only by a road and ditch.
The house was large, a rambling Japanese-style residence with tatami floors of woven straw, and a small entrance lobby with wooden cupboards built under benches, where visitors could sit while exchanging their street shoes for the cloth slippers stored in the cupboards.
The kitchen had running water, a great convenience, and a smooth concrete floor that was swept and mopped every day. The toilet was in its own room, separate from the area containing the bathtub and washbasin; it was no more than a hole in the floor and my mother said she always worried one of my brothers would lose their balance and fall in. Every month local farmers came around to ask for night soil, which they would dig out of septic tanks and carry back to their fields in panniers dangling from bamboo poles carried across their shoulders.
Inside the brick walls that surrounded the little garden out front, my mother grew banana and guava trees, and a cherished crimson peony of the same kind as the ones her mother grew in their home town of Pinghu. The kitchen door opened out to the back garden, which was huge. A low brick wall and a dirt road separated the kitchen garden from farmland.
When her second son was born, my mother gave up her job at the university to stay home with her sons. She did all the cooking and housework with a baby strapped to her back, fast asleep. They couldn’t afford a playpen, so she used an empty stoneware tub, the kind used for storing rice, and stood my oldest brother in there while she worked. I picture him standing chest-high to the tub, tiny hands holding on to its edges, watching her go about the household chores.
We were poor then, but others were even poorer and so the laundry and housecleaning was done each day by an obasan, for that is what washerwomen were called in Japanese, and the term was still used in Taiwan even after the Japanese departed.
My mother often found herself wishing that her parents hadn’t raised her to be the lady of the house, for they’d expected her to marry well. She had no housekeeping or cooking skills; she learned by reading recipes in the newspaper, asking others for advice, or through her own mistakes. My father would sometimes invite colleagues for dinner and jokingly warn them that the rice might be only half-cooked.
For my mother and father, the house on Dragon Springs Road was just a temporary residence, for in those days they still considered China home. They had no attachment to the old house, a single detached dwelling. To them a proper home meant buildings arranged in a quadrangle around a courtyard, living quarters for grandparents, parents and siblings. In a city, it might be two or three villas built upon a large property, or a block of apartments owned by one family. They couldn’t imagine their children growing up away from grandparents and cousins.
But only one year after they moved into the house on Dragon Springs Road, the Nationalist government lost the Chinese Civil War and decamped, leaving China to set up a nation in Taiwan. My parents had to accept that they might never see their own parents or siblings again. The house on Dragon Springs Road was now their home.
When my eldest brother was eight years old, my parents decided my father’s career would never advance unless he earned a doctorate in his field of soil chemistry; furthermore, to ensure his prominence in Taiwanese academic circles, he needed a PhD from a foreign university – preferably American, since the United States carried great status after the war. So my father wrote to his old mentor, Professor Jackson at the University of Wisconsin, and at the same time applied for a grant from the government of Taiwan. To my parent’s joy and relief, both applications succeeded. Father’s department gladly gave him a leave of absence and allowed my mother and brothers to remain in the big house on Dragon Springs Road while my father studied abroad.
During the time my father lived in Wisconsin, my mother never wrote asking him for money; she didn’t want to cause him any distress or distractions from his studies. Instead, she took advantage of the large house and found boarders. She put up notices at churches to advertise rooms for single ladies. Two sisters answered the advertisement and for three hard years this pittance of an income was all she had to feed and clothe my brothers.
My mother said that my brothers were always dressed in much-mended, home-made clothing, but they were so beautiful and healthy that strangers on the street exclaimed over them and pinched their chubby cheeks. She said also that despite living in poverty, those difficult years without my father were some of the happiest times of her life. She was in her early thirties, still young and strong, and full of optimism. She felt lucky because all around her were people whose lives had been decimated by the war, with no ability to start over again, while she was making sacrifices that would contribute to a better future for her family.
When I picture my mother during those years, she is riding a black second-hand bicycle to the market, with one boy seated behind her, holding on tight and the other, still a toddler, strapped to her front. She wears a dark dress in a small floral print and her bobbed hair is swept off her face by the breeze as she rides. She is smiling.
There was an incident that ranked among the happiest events of my mother’s life during those three years. She was on the bus going into town and my brothers were with her. The bus was nearly empty, so my brothers entertained themselves by taking turns sliding in and out of all the seats. A petite woman at the other end of the bus had been staring at my mother, and when the boys reached her, she spoke to my eldest brother.
“Is your mother named Mao Lei?”
He nodded, and the woman immediately sprang up and ran to my mother, without regard for the lurching motion of the bus, or the astonishment of its few passengers.
“Mao Lei-lei, it is I, your friend Yi Xiangyun!”
They fell into each other’s arms, laughing and talking, and thus my mother was reunited with her old friend, the woman we call Auntie Yi. They hadn’t seen each other since Pinghu, when they had been a pair of giggling schoolgirls in pigtails. To this day Auntie Yi takes great pleasure in telling this story, for she claims that she recognized my mother solely by her eyes.
“To be honest I didn’t remember her face very clearly because we were just children. But I remembered her eyes, so large and beautiful.”
The house on Dragon Springs Road was a popular gathering place for friends and our few relatives from Pinghu, for the ties of clan never run as deep as when the clan is in exile. My father’s youngest sister, my aunt who we called Niang-Niang, her children and husbands were frequent visitors. Niang-niang’s husband had a widowed sister, whose children were as close to us as our own first cousins.
My mother enlisted all but the most tenuous of relationships to build a semblance of the extended families that once surrounded her life. She lavished on these friends the same unconditional affection she would have given to her own siblings and their children and they became our honorary aunts, uncles and cousins.
Many of my father’s former classmates also became close friends. The single women and married couples knew enough to bring gifts of pastries, fruit or vegetables when invited to supper. The bachelor men would simply turn up at dinner time and expect to be fed.
Best of all was when Uncle Zhu the chicken farmer came to visit, for he always brought us eggs or a plucked chicken. Zhu’s family had been servants to the Changs of Pinghu for generations. When Zhu first came to Taiwan his first task was to look up my father. There was always an air of deference about him, no matter how much my parents tried to put him at ease, treating him as their social equal – for what did their former difference in status matter now in this new era?
If Zhu brought eggs, my mother would be extravagant and make a dozen tea eggs for dinner the next day, eggs hard-boiled, then cooked again with their shells delicately cracked, in a mixture of water, soy sauce, tea leaves and some star anise. The entire house would be fragrant with that smell and the eggs themselves were beautiful to look at, their cracked shells staining through to reveal batik-like designs when peeled.
For my brothers, their favourite feature of the house was the gap in the fence between our property and the neighbors next door, the Chens. Mr. and Mrs. Chen had one son, Qiao-Qiao, and since the three boys were close in age, they always played together. They never bothered going by the front gates, but slipped through the fence.
Mrs. Chen was a very strict and exacting parent; if my brothers ever stayed too long, she would usually interrupt their games by declaring that it was time for Qiao-Qiao’s piano practice. The three boys preferred to romp at our house because my mother was far more easy-going and allowed them to run about the garden, catching mud eels in the ditch or climbing her guava trees. The gap in the fence grew increasingly wider with use, for Qiao-Qiao slipped through as often as possible to play at our house. The three boys were the best of friends and even today Qiao-Qiao refers to my mother as his second mother, and calls me his little sister.
After three years in the United States, my father returned home. His now-sterling credentials had Taiwan’s major universities and research institutes vying for him. Weeks before his return, university chancellors paid calls on my mother, each trying to convince her that my father would be happiest working for them. The chancellor of Taichung University actually paid for her and my brothers to take a train to the city of Taichung to show her the house where the family would live. She was very tempted.
My mother and brothers were at the wharf to welcome my father home, and so was Ma Baozhi, the Minister of Agriculture. It was an unprecedented honour for such a high-ranking official to meet a returned student and it would’ve been discourteous to refuse Ma’s offer – a research position at the Ministry of Agriculture and a professorship at the University of Taiwan. On that day, our family fortunes took a turn for the better, and the house on Dragon Springs Road began to receive a new kind of visitor: my father’s graduate students.
Many of these students were only a few years younger than my father, but Chinese tradition meant that they treated him almost as they would treat the patriarch of their family, with respect and a certain level of formality. These young men and women addressed my mother as Shih Mu, “shih” meaning teacher and “mu” meaning mother.
Some of these students became lifelong friends of the family, and some became my father’s colleagues. Yet they always thought of each other as student and professor. When my father died, a former student sent my mother a cheque for two thousand dollars; this was partly as a gesture of respect for my father, but also to let her know that he was willing to provide her with financial support should she need it. She sent back the cheque for she had no need of it, but this incident shows that even after all these years, and even after he had become more successful than my father in his own career, Dr. Puh still considered my father his teacher and mentor, and felt a filial obligation to my mother.
Our family lived in the house on Dragon Springs Road for twelve years and moved to another house the year I was born. This new house belonged to the University of Taiwan. It was smaller, but conveniently located on Keelung Road, closer to the university and the center of town. If my father lost track of time, my mother could send one of my brothers running to the campus and fetch him home for dinner. We only lived in the house on Keelung Road for four years before my father took a job with the United Nations. We moved to Manila for his first overseas assignment with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
My brothers sometimes tease me by saying that I don’t know what it’s like to be poor because I’d never lived in the house on Dragon Springs Road. The divide was clear because, as my mother put it, when I was born the family came into drastically better times. I was her lucky star.
The house on Dragon Springs Road may have represented years of struggle for my parents and an impoverished childhood for my brothers, but in my mind it acquired mythical qualities. I have never climbed the guava trees and broken my arm, nor slipped through the gap in the fence to call Qiao-Qiao out to play. I never saw my mother’s red peonies in bloom behind the house nor gone to market riding on the back of her old bicycle.
Now when I listen to my brothers tell their stories about life in the house on Dragon Springs Road, I listen as avidly as I used to listen to my father telling me about our ancestral home town of Pinghu. Although the 1950s are not that long ago, those years and that house seem a lost country to me, as far away as Pinghu and as unknowable.
A bout this story
When my parents first moved to Taiwan it was poor and rural, not at all modern and prosperous the way it is now.
In 1948, one of my mother’s classmates from Shanghai, an elegant young woman who had always intimidated my mother, visited her at the house on Dragon Springs Road. The classmate was with her father, an industrialist who was there to investigate the possibility of moving his business to Taiwan.
Looking around at my parent’s threadbare living room, the classmate said her father had decided Taiwan was too backwards a place and they could never live there. She added with a sniff that the natives were too noisy clopping around on the streets, footsteps louder than donkeys.
In those years just after the war, many Taiwanese were too poor to own leather shoes and went about in Japanese-style wooden-soled sandals. The sophisticated young lady and her father were disturbed early each morning by the clip-clop sound of those sandals. Thus they returned to China and then the Communist government took over, and moving to Taiwan was no longer an option. I met this classmate on my last trip to China. She was still very elegant and she was the one who told me how the sound of wooden sandals was the deciding factor for her father.
Another, happier note to this story has to do with tenants. My mother, never too proud to be practical, rented the spare bedrooms at the house on Dragon Springs Road. This rent was just enough to keep the household afloat. But in doing this, our family gained more than an income, for the two sisters who were her tenants also became close friends. They now live in the USA, and my brothers, who were only small boys back then, still address them as 'elder sisters' and visit whenever they can.
If you like this blog, please do me the honor of sharing on your social media. Leaving a comment is great, too! -- Janie
15 Ways to Help an Author You Like - a blog