February 2, 2010

Reading "The Last Generation of Bound Feet Ladies" and remembering the Past

I am re-reading this very precious book "The Last Generation of Bound Feet Ladies" written by Hung in Chye and Koh Kee Seng . Li Nan took 24 years altogether to put together his photographs for this special book. It took me one second to decide to buy this book with my last few reminbi at the Guangzhou Airport in 2007. It is one invaluable book I do not regret buying.

And how the book (in Chinese) reminds me how little I know of my own ancestors and how much the women folk suffered if they had bound feet!

The first photo by Li Nan is so charming and amazing: reminds me of my own days laughing with my cousins and aunts in the big house on top of the hill. Great Grandma would always be so patient with us. And she used to sit by the window and tell stories. I don't think I was ever rude to her or made her run with us or teased her about her small little feet.

The second photo is on the cover of the book. The smallest of the bound feet would be about 3 inches. This led to the Chinese phrase "three inch golden lily"; Great grandmother used to make her own cloth shoes. I often watched her mend her cloth shoes. They were all black cloth ones. The colourful Nonya beaded small feet shoes are all for tourists now. In real life these ladies with small feet wore only black in the villages.

We still have  her cobbler's stand . If I was old enough then I could have asked her to teach me to make cloth shoes. Who knows I could be the Jinny Choo of Sarawak!! (Apologies to Datuk Jimmy Choo)

Recently I re-acquired a precious family photo of my great grandmother with my Aunt Pick. She was just such a lovely and soft spoken lady. She was the only bound feet lady in my family. Even though she passed away when I was quite young she had a great impact on me. She had modelled one great life lesson for me "be able to bear all with grace". My grand aunt Yu Ging Goo Poh had similar character traits like hers. She too bore great burdens with grace. They were indeed so spiritually rich!

And to Li Nan I would like to say thank you for his wonderful job! And to the authors Hung and Koh my gratitude as a reader.

On the back cover it is written :
" One thousand years of customary practices
Twenty women's lives
recorded in this book
the hardship of the last of the bound feet ladies...."

All the photographs are black and white.

And this is my own great grandmother with Aunt Pick (my father's 8th sister). My Great Grandma was the last of our Tiong family to have bound feet. She also never cut her hair and have it permed in the western style.

My great grandmother's story:

My great grand father went back to China to find a wife after his first wife passed away in Sibu leaving behind two growing sons and it was also because  he had prospered and had the means. But he was not to find a wife with a cosy or delicate background. He was to find a  good hearted wife who could manage a good family and look after her family men who were pioneers in Sibu. Tough criteria there.

In Fuzhou he met the village matchmaker who introduced to a soft spoken lady with a good heart. She had already been married to a no good man who actually wanted to let go of her for a price. She was also  a woman who would not mind going to Nanyang where there was only uncertain future . She was was able to "eat the bitter". My great grandfather decided to "buy" this lady.

In this way my great grandmother "crossed the door" (married) my great grandfather in a very simple village ceremony of drinking tea and sharing a few dishes at a small table with a small number of relatives. The whole village came to witness the new marriage which was simple because both were marrying the second time . A few days later my bound feet great grandmother left China for the first and  last time and boarded a sea worthy boat for Sarawak a name she could not even pronounce and followed my great grandfather to a tropical future. Unknown to her God blessed her with a very bright future. That was about 1908.

She often told my mother in later years (when my mother just married my father they lived with her) how happy she was to be in Sibu and not in China as life was fairly easy and comfortable. At that time my father's siblings would come over to Hua Hong Ice Factory to visit her and my mum every weekend. They would either row their own boat over or pay a Malay or Iban man to row over. No speed boat yet at that time for ladies.

One memorable episode in my great grandmother's life was the visit of her first husband to Sibu and to their home in Hua Hong not long after she arrived in Sibu. He had obviously used the "bride money" to come to Sarawak and seek his fortune too. When he arrived at my great grandfather's door step my great grandmother took a broom and whacked him calling him names " Go eat and die. You good for nothing! How dare you come here to see me after you have sold me. You have already sold me!"

That was probably the only time she was ever angry with any one. It was all the pent up anger that she kept over the years of suffering as a down trodden Chinese woman with bound feet.

The good for nothing China man never came again and he got himself lost somewhere in Sarawak.

This event was very admirable and my great grandfather loved her even more! In fact the two were quite inseparable.

In his last days my great grandfather had the best nurse any one could have in my great grandmother even though she was bound footed. She cooked and dressed him lovingly. Three western doctors were standing by my great grandfather's death bed when he breathed his last.

She passed away in 1956 . She was born during the Ching Dynasty and grew up in Revolutionary China of Sun Yat Seng. Later as an adult she travelled to Brooke Era Sarawak. Still keeping a Brooke PR document she lived through the Japanese Occupation and then the Colonial period of Sarawak history. What were her thoughts as she underwent so many different political systems?

She was not at all hopeless as a lady of leisure with bound feet as many would imagine. She did all the household chores by herself with the help of an adopted daughter who adored her. Her own daughter my grand aunt Yuk Ging was very much like her and a person of great  Christian character. She loved all of my great grandfather's grandchildren as her own and was much loved in return. Our lives were very much enriched by her loving kindness.

I can say most of our Chinese bound feet ladies had contributed a lot to our society (both modern and old) in many different ways. They were not idle and they were not "kept in the house". Many of them ploughed the field and worked as labourers. Many were baby sitters and even cooks. When they could not carry big buckets of water they patiently carried small tubs of water and walked on their small feet until they had finished their chores.

How many bound feet ladies are still around in Sarawak? I am sure they leave behind great stories.


Ann said...

What a lovely story of your great grand ma.
1: My great grand father came to sarawak in 1907. A year before her.
2: My step grandmother was similar to her. Only her good for nothing husband died, and the family sold her to my grand dad as small wife.

when I was in primary school, I did see some small foot foochow women. Not the Hakka women, they were too poor to have bound feet. According to james Michener, My mum's female ancestors fought in the war with their counterparts.

Now I have big feet, size 8, my daughters size 10. LOL, not dainty SIEW JIE.

Ah Ngao said...

the idea of bound-feet-ladies were actually the men's idea,is it? probably to prevent the women from wandering far?

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Ann
How lovely to trade stories like this. I told this story a long time ago to my American friend who now lives in Miri. She was really impressed by the multiple facets and plot! Yes PLOT! And she said that it was good for my GGM to whack her good for nothing exhusband! Gutsy! and Spunky were her words. I love that.
Hakka women have done their part in history and Han Suyin has written a lot about them. Do you know that CCTV China has done quite a bit on documenting the Hakkas. This particular group is really the main feature in 2008 and 2009. I learned so much.

Don't worry about shoe size...big feet big supporter!! Some Siew Jie are big bold and beautiful.

Hey most Miss World are size 8 in their feet!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Ah Ngao

Yeah I heard that...But it was also the government's idea that the men could not go far if they had to bring their frail and weak women in the escape.

Also many of our ancestors found the small feet very attractive.

Many other reasons too...
Thanks for visiting.

Anonymous said...

Wow no idea we have these people in our local history..thank you.

Anonymous said...

History is really amazing!
Thanks. So sad I don't have stories about my own grandmother because she passed away too early. Too little .

Anonymous said...

I have my grandmother's photos and stories. Your blog makes me want to blog about Sabah and the history of Sabah!!

Anonymous said...

We have a class project writing mini sagas. This is good!
I will continue to think about writing well.
Nur from Sabah.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Fridolin
Thanks for visiting my blog. And yes indeed different people do make our historical heritage very rich.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Tracy
Thanks for your comments. Sad to read about grandmothers who die too young.
But keep reading and enjoy stories about family!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Madelyn
Good!! Go ahead and blog all you can about Sabah and its history...Writing a lot helps to make writing easier ...Good luck!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Nur
Writing mini sagas is very interesting.

Wishing you all the joy of writing.

Sibu Tales : Making Bah Gui from Scratch

The pioneering families of Sibu Foochows continued to practise the  adoption of girls from poor families who become their maids (slaves). ...