My mother and my grandmother ate bitterness for my freedom and happiness. They defeated tigers and cobras for my unbound feet.
This is my grandmother's story.
Ting Ming Hui was born the only daughter to a wealthy family in Fujian. She was given the name "bright wisdom." The apple of her parents' eye, she was given the same education as her seven brothers.
Ming Hui was known particularly for the strength of her will. In other words, she was very stubborn. As a young child, she knew of her father’s tender heart for her. When the time came for her feet to be bound, she screamed night and day, begging for her feet to be freed. She became the first woman in her family to have unbound feet.
She was also the first woman in her family to choose her own husband. Instead of submitting to her parents' choice of a suitor, she persuaded them to give her hand to the man she loved, Lim Hing Yu, a son to a rich merchant in town. Their love story began triumphant and beautiful. Ming Hui bore two girls during their early years of marriage.
With the rumors of war approaching, Hing Yu and his brothers were forced by their parents to escape the draft. Hing Yu fled to Indonesia. Ming Hui and her young daughters were left behind the high walls of the Lim family, which was quickly crumbling due to the economy.
Soon after, the Lim household declared bankruptcy. Feeling as though he had lost his face, Hing Yu’s father attempted suicide — in front of his family. Ming Hui, the daughter-in-law, got on her knees and begged him to restrain himself. She also swore that she would provide for the family. Being the only woman with unbound feet, she tended the garden, sold produce on the street, and fed the mouths of her in-laws, her sisters-in-law and their children, and her own daughters. Once the precious jewel of her family, Ming Hui was now collecting dung for fertilizer with her bare hands.
In their nine years of separation, Hing Yu returned to China only once, merely for a short visit. During their temporary reunion, Ming Hui came to be with-child, a third daughter. Overseas communication was difficult; it took months for a letter to reach its recipient. Driven once more by her will, Ming Hui sought a way to leave China in search of her husband. She was only able to gather enough money for herself and her youngest daughter, who was seven. She was forced to leave her two older daughters behind in Fujian.
After a two-month journey, by foot and by boat, Ming Hui finally arrived on the island of Java, Indonesia. At her husband’s door steps, she saw sandals — a woman's sandals, and others that could only fit children's feet. Only then Hing Yu told her that he had been living with another woman, and he had two sons by her.
That was the beginning of a certain turmoil that lasted for decades. A turmoil that I can only imagine. The two women lived under the same roof. Many more children were born, my mother being one of them. Ming Hui, though claimed the status of the principle wife, had five more daughters, eight daughters all together, no son. The second wife had five sons and two daughters.
Armed with her education and wit, Ming Hui managed the household and her husband’s business. She accompanied him on all his business trips and served as the “public wife” of Lim Hing Yu.
My grandmother received no honor for birthing and raising eight daughters. She received no accolade for her fight against a treacherous cancer — that she won. When I met her, she was quiet and tired from life's battles. Her smiles and laughter were rare gems. My favorite memory of her was when she taught me to memorize a verse from the Bible: "Do not fear, only believe" (Luke 8:50).
This must have been the sword she used to slay the tigers and cobras.
The Song of Ting Ming Hui
My unbound feet served as a bondage to my oath,
Taken for granted like the sun and the moon.
At least dignity was mine when I dug through dung,
When I believed I was your one and only, your only one.
Who can understand my anger, betrayed by one I love?
My voice fled like a bird when I arrived at your new door.
Silence is my only plea, silence—my cloak and protector.
Twice exiled, my heart and of my body,
Banished from my homeland, the country of my brothers.
Like animal without affection, I abandoned my young daughters.
Roaming in my own home like a foreigner in the land,
I neither spoke nor understood your tongue.
When is love ever equal? Who says love can be shared?
If I had known, I would not have come for you.
Such as one who looked for moon in the lake,
When I jumped in, you disappeared.
My daughters suffered, singing my song of bitterness,
I was unable to love them.
Walking in constant snare and stare of the Others,
My daughters were scorned and mocked, abandoned and beaten.
My wings were not wide enough to hide them.
Strong Jade is the name of my daughter,
Though Heaven may give me no son.
My daughter bears the mark of a Dragon,
Yet she is gentle as the ocean is deep.
Victorious in battles and beautiful are the sisters,
Eight with strength like the River, ever pressing on.
Spirit has not flown from me,
Though my voice for a time might have ceased.
Though the bamboo might seem hallow,
Do not be deceived, air is not nothing.
One cannot bend me easily
Nor can one take my life,
For my roots go deep and my life is long
Striving towards the Heavens.