Committing to writing my memoir
So, during my self isolation/quarantine I tried to write. Bits of post it notes, random scribblings. Handwritten stuff on my Samsung Note 10, notes on the iPhone. A recipe for disaster for a would be writer. Stuff all over the place.
So, I’m going to use this blog to gather some of it together. To make a commitment to write some of the memoir every day. Not to worry if it is coherent, makes sense, is chronologically correct. Just to try and get it down.
If you’ve been reading my blog and don’t want to continue, I won’t be offended. Please don’t feel the need to comment. This is a work in progress and I’m just using the blog to publicly commit and to put my writing house in order. Thank you, she says, with a little curtsey and a bow of the head.
A Hong Kong adoptee’s story
Chinese burn (plural Chinese burns) The prank of grabbing a victim’s forearm in two hands and twisting the skin in opposite directions.
In February 1962, at the age of 15 months I was sent from Hong Kong to be adopted by a UK family, Catherine and Arthur Enock and their two birth children Christopher (6) and Ruth (4). I had spent 10 weeks with my birth Mother So Kam Lai, before she placed me in an orphanage for temporary care whilst she was hospitalised for kidney disease. But So Kam Lai didn’t get me out of the orphanage and I was made a ward of court, with the Director of Social Welfare Hong Kong acting as my guardian, until I was finally adopted in the UK in November 1963.
My adoption began to break down in my teens and from the age of 21 I was estranged from my whole family. My adoptive Mother refused any contact with me and destroyed all my adoption records, including my passport, birth certificate and birth Mother’s statement and the few items I had brought with me from Hong Kong. After years of trying to track a duplicate set of records, in February 2002, at the age of 41, I finally obtained a detailed file from Warwickshire County Council’s Fostering and Adoption Unit. They were one of many organisations that I now know were involved in my adoption. With more information to work with I continued the search for my birth family, writing first to Hong Kong Social Welfare and the Red Cross, only to be told via my solicitor, that neither organisation could help me. I continued searching on and off. But I had a young family and a career and later a messy divorce to distract me. And then, after more distractions, some delightful and some devastating, suddenly I had reached 58. I had two adult children and a new baby grand daughter and more time to spare. My daughter was keen to know more of her heritage, her Grandmother’s story and I wanted also to find my story for Phoebe, my Grand daughter, the story of her great Grandmother, should she ever want to know.
And so I restarted my search. In earnest. Applied to the TV show Long Lost Family twice. Rejected once, but success on my second application. But after a year of telling me they were ‘on my case’, out of the blue, Long Lost Family sent me an email saying they were closing my case, ending the search for my birth Mother. So I decided to give it one last shot and take matters into my own hands and try and find her myself. “Are you mad?” was one friend’s honest but less than helpful comment, on a decision that seemed to me exactly right, and quite sensible! On November 14th 2018 I flew out to Hong Kong with a return flight booked for Valentine’s Day, February 14th 2019, allowing myself 90 days for one last attempt to find my birth family. In January 2019, at the Hong Kong Red Cross offices, a few days before Chinese New Year, and in the year my birth Mother would have been 100, I was finally reunited with my eldest sister and saw a photograph of my birth Mother for the first time. Two days later, I visited my Mother’s grave and celebrated Chinese New Year with my five siblings and my nieces and nephews.
This memoir, a mix of fable, childhood memories, extracts from adoption records and the blog kept during the search will tell her story. Laura Tan. Tang Yuk Lan. The adoptee who found her happy ending against all odds. Despite always feeling she was being twisted in two directions.
Bring Her Home – The myth of the 100th birthday
On earth, in the UK, reaching 100 before dying is cause for big celebration. A letter from the Queen. A party with family and any friends who might still be alive. And if friends and family are scarce, and you’re in a nursing home, you might have a cake and candles (rarely the full 100), balloons and a birthday banner to celebrate with your fellow residents and the staff on duty at your old folks’ home. Perhaps a present or two, a new pair of velcro slippers or a big button amplified hearing mobile phone with an SOS button. Oh, the joys of reaching a century, over but not out.
But what if you die before you reach 100? What celebration might you have? My Hong Kong legend tells how in the afterlife your 100th birthday will be marked quite differently. Guanyin, or in Cantonese Kwun Yum, Goddess of Mercy and the Mother who forgives all, comes to find you in order to grant you ONE wish. Anything you want can be yours for the asking. So if you died young, sadly you have a very long wait for your heart’s desire, but for those who die at 99 and missed out on a letter from Queenie, it’s just a blink of an eye before you get your Ferrari or winning lottery ticket. Believe me, some silly ghosts still ask for such items, forgetting of course they are useless.
For my birth Mother who died of a cereberal brain haemorrhage aged 78, it was a long 22 year wait before her yearning could be voiced and fulfilled. On the morning of her 100th birthday Guan Yin appeared. It was not a surprise to my Mother. She had waited patiently and with certainty, knowing that her one wish would be fulfilled.
Of course, before the wish can be made known there is a traditional ceremony of water offering. After walking the long path to the feet of Guan Yin, carefully carrying her water in the small uneven wooden bowl, but not spilling one drop, my Mother tipped her water into the lake of infinity and then walked in circles around the Goddess, three times. She knelt at Guan Yin’s feet, fell prostrate and placed her forehead to the ground, rose up to face her and brought her hands to prayer position in front of her heart, repeating the action three times, before speaking.
“Keoi faan uk kei” (CHECK CANTONESE TRANSLATION)
“Bring her home”. These were her three words.
Unlike the gender loving French, Cantonese language makes no distinction between he and she, or him and her, but relies on context for the accurate meaning to be understood. So for a moment Guan Yin was confused and asked my Mother “You want me to bring your son home?” Guan Yin knew a little of my Mother’s story, that of the nine children she had given birth to, five were still living in Hong Kong. She had thought that my Mother might ask to see her first born son who had died in infancy when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong when my Mother was 19, or the return to life of her second child who had also died during the Japanese occupation. Or that she might, and this might have presented more of a challenge, ask to be reunited with her twin sons that had been born prematurely and died after a few hours, when So Kam Lai was in her mid forties and well past safe childbearing age. My Mother had risked her life to conceive and try to bear a son for Old man Li. Mr Li had desperately wanted a male heir. It had been Mr Li, my Mother’s second husband, who had saved her and three of her children’s lives when she had been starving and destitute and on the brink of killing herself and those children. She had borne him a daughter, but failed to give him the heir he needed. In the New Territories region of Hong Kong, those old patriarchal laws still prevail today. Only a male child can inherit an estate, the house the land. No wonder so many baby girls were abandoned in those post Mao years, when refugees flooded into Hong Kong from communist China.
But Guan Yin had misunderstood my Mother’s heart’s desire. Her hundredth birthday wish did not concern any of the nine children known to Guan Yin. The four who had died, nor the five who were still alive in Hong Kong. My Mother gently corrected her. “Yuk Lan” said. “My unknown baby daughter. Please bring her home”
In the beginning. DOCUMENT A.
My birth Mother hands over custody and control of me, TANG Yuk Lan, the ‘said infant’ to the Director of Social Welfare, and gives him permission to hand over the custody and control to whomsoever he considers suitable.
Statutory Declaration made by my birth Mother LAI, So-kam, no signature, cross mark and left thumb print as she was illiterate.
Declared and signed at the Social Welfare Department, Hong Kong on 2nd May 1961 before A T R Jackson Justice of the Peace.
English document signed by Social Welfare Officer LO Shu-Wing who acted as interpreter.
I, LO Shu-wing, do solemnly and sincerely declare that I well understand the English and Chinese languages and I have truly, distinctly and audibly interpreted the contents of this document to the declarant, LAI So-kam.
I, LAI So-Kam (Chinese characters for her name), Identity Card No. 147628, residing at an unnumbered hut inside the Melon Garden, Kam Shan Village, Tai Po, New Territories (Chinese characters for address), do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare as follows.
- I am a widow (my late husband WONG Kam-kee’s death certificate No. 37/58 Tai Po refers).
- After my husband’s death on 17.3.58, I co-habited with one WONG Tin (Chinese characters for name) whose wife was then in Mainland China. When I was about to give birth to an infant, the wife of WONG Tin came to Hong Kong with their children and I had to stay away from him. Owing to financial difficulties, I again cohabited with another man TANG Kam-wah (Chinese characters for name) otherwise known as TANG Tin (Chinese characters for name) on the very day of the infant’s birth.
- On the 20th day of October, 1960, I gave birth to a female infant TANG Yuk-Lan (Chinese characters for name) at the home of TANG Tin at hut, Hung Shui Kiu, New Territories. The birth of the said female infant was registered at the Births & Deaths Registry on the 21st day of February 1961 (Birth Certificate No. 48 P.R. Pin Shan). Since I had already left the natural father, WONG Tin, I put the name TANG Kam-wah in the birth certificate as the father of the said infant. I refer to a copy of the said Birth Certificate upon which marked with a letter “A”, I have endorsed my name prior to completing this declaration.
- In December 1960, I was suffering from kidney disease (Nephrosis) and was sent to Pok Oi Hospital, Un Long (Chinese characters for hospital) for medical treatment. At the same time, the said infant was recommended to enter Po Leung Kuk for temporary care by the District Officer, Un Long on 31st December, 1960.
- TANG Kam-wah left me after my hospitalisation and I have to take care of my four children single-handed. Since I am really not in a position to look after the said infant, TANG Yuk-Lan, who is still in Po Leung Kuk, I have agreed to part with and have parted with the custody of the said infant to the Director of Social Welfare, Causeway Bay Magistracy Building, Hong Kong, to the intent that the Director of Social Welfare may retain the custody and control of the said infant. And that he may hand over the custody and control of the said infant to whomsoever he considers suitable and may permit the said infant to be removed from the Colony, or that when an application for an adoption order is made in respect of the said infant, this may service as my consent.
- I understand that the nature and effect of the handing over of the said infant to the Director of Social Welfare or of an adoption order is to deprive a parent or guardian of all parental rights in respect of the maintenance and upbringing of the said infant, and I hereby renounce forever all claims on the said infant.
- I have neither given nor received nor been promised any financial or other consideration to or by or on behalf of the Director of Social Welfare with relation to the handing over of the care and custody of the said infant to him.