|Illustration by Do Dung
by Don Thi Tao
A New Century
This is a story about my mother and her family. It begins a long time ago in the 1890s, in a small town in An Duong District.
The governor of the district was a man named Ca. He lived with a concubine, and together they had three children, all of them daughters. The women worked in the village, planting mulberry trees and rearing silkworms. It was an idyllic life, until one day, the woman discovered that Ca had been unfaithful to her. The same day she took her three children and took them to Ven Village in Hai Phong, where she had some friends.
Her daughters were named Mai, Cuc and Truc. As they grew older, they developed into beautiful young women and started drawing attention from a lot of suitors in their village and beyond. The eldest daughter Mai was the first to fall in love. She married a carpenter from Nam Dinh and together they had one boy and one girl in three years.
Cuc was married shortly after to a man named Su, the son of one of the village's most wealthy residents, the owner of a vast mulberry field. Cuc and her new husband had four children, a son called Dai and three daughters; Chi, Phu and Yeng.
Miss Truc, the youngest daughter, was much loved by mother and her sisters. They were very protective and were cautious every time a male suitor would declare his love for her, which was very often. One day a silk trader from the capital Thang Long travelled to Hai Phong on market day and became acquainted with the family. Like so many before him, he fell in love as soon as he set his eyes on Truc. She too felt an attraction. Her mother despaired, as she did not want to marry her to a man from a far away land. But it was too late. Truc had fallen in love, and swore that if she could not marry the trader, she would live a life of seclusion in Ngoc Son Pagoda. Reluctantly, her mother accepted and Trucù departed Ven Village for a new life. In the following years the happy couple had five children, and rarely had time to visit her mother and sisters back home.
And so the years passed, and Hai Phong began to change. The port became the hub of the city, and labourers from far and wide came to work there. Ships began to swarm into the harbour. Warehouses were built, roads appeared, bridges cropped up. Shops owned by Chinese, Indian and French businessmen opened. The river was filled in to create Cau Dat Street and work was soon underway on a municipal theatre, a post office, a power plant, a bank, a cinema, and a market. The new century had arrived.
The Cinderella of Ven Village
Ven village too was changing. There were fewer rice fields so the residents had to work tirelessly to farm enough rice to live. By now Mai had abandoned sericulture and instead began selling things at Cot Den Market. It was during those years that Mai gave birth to my mother, Tinh. When she was six years old Tinh was already working, spinning silkworm cocoons for her uncle Su and aunt Cuc, who were both still in that business. My mother often sat with her aunt learning, working and, more often than not, falling asleep by the loom.
When Tinh was about 12 years of age, she was very thin and lanky. She worked long hours as a mason's assistant, earning only a third of an adult's wage. The coarse silk skirt she wore was tattered and smeared with mud. She spent one dime per day for food and she brought two dimes home to support her family. It was a busy time for the industry, as villages were appearing all across the district and the demand for stone was high. When Dinh was old and strong enough, my grandmother asked him to take over Tinh's role so that she could sell areca nuts instead in the market.
And what of Cuc's family at this time? She and Su had inherited his father's farm and they invested their time and energy in making it successful. Dai was the only son in the family, and was given a good education. He was a bright boy and soon mastered arithmetic and reading and writing.
When he was old enough he began to take charge of the business. He decided to partner with traders from Do Son, Hai Duong and Ha Noi, with great success. Soon he was a wealthy man living a life of luxury. His sister, my mother's cousin Yeng was also pampered by her parents. However, unlike Dai, she was a melancholy child uninterested in the family business. She grew up into a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice. Dai loved his sister very much and taught her how to read and write, which she mastered quickly, developing a love of literature. He found her a job at the Van Minh singing club where she would roll her hair, wear ao dai and a pair of velvet boots and sing in that sweet voice of hers. She began reading romance books avidly. She became obsessed with one in particular. It was called A Pine Hill with Two Graves about a woman destined not to find her love. Yeng became convinced she was following the same path as the narrator, Quach My Dung. Her family could not understand her gloomy moods and sense of hopelessness. It was lovesickness, they later realised, that killed her at the age of just 19. Her body was found in a pool of blood from a self-inflicted cut to the throat. She was dressed in her finest clothes, lying on her bed with flowers across her body and one hand rested over her heart.
The death hit the family very hard. My mother, now of a similar age to her cousin, concentrated hard on her new work as a rice famer for Su. While working she would often sing some songs that reverberated through the fields. All the farmers would stop to listen to her. "Ms Tinh, do not stop! Sing some songs to enliven our spirit now!"
A concubine again
One day, my grandfather fell ill. My grandmother Mai stopped working at the market to care for him while my mother travelled by boat selling rice. She was the main supporter of the family now. Uncle Dinh was now a dynamic young man involved with the secretive workers' union and he was rarely home. All the house chores fell to my mother.
There was a Chinese doctor living on the street. He wore a silk shirt, his hair was twisted into a bun and he walked with measured steps. He came to give treatment to grandfather every three days. In the afternoon, mother often stopped at his shop to get medicine. Mai was moved by the doctor's care. She even offered to marry her daughter to him. My mother had many admirers, and had tuned many down. She did not want to marry the doctor, despite my grandmother's insistence, because he had a wife in the countryside and was more than thirty years her senior. "I'll never be a concubine for any man!" she used to shout in their arguments on the matter.
And then my grandfather died. The doctor helped to organise the funeral. Now the family was poorer than ever and my mother had to toil all day to keep them alive. Despite her long hours of labour, she became ever more beautiful. The doctor was smitten and visited as often as he could to have dinner with the family. Mai would leave him and Tinh alone, full of hope.
The next year, the doctor rented a small house in Tam Gian Street and proposed to my mother. Eventually she agreed just to pay the debt the family still owed him. And so, despite her earlier protestations, she had become his second wife. Deep inside her heart she was full of sadness. My grandmother by this time had found success selling traditional medicines to pregnant women. She had a lot of customers. It was with this new-found income that my family managed to stay alive throughout the famine of 1945.
It was into a world of hunger and uncertainty that I was born. But eventually, the famine ended, national independence was declared and life slowly returned to normal for my family. Mai came to live with us to help care for me. She shared a happy life with us until she eventually passed away at the age of 90. My father died only half a month later. It was just me and my mother left.
My uncle's secret
And what of uncle Dinh in this time? He was forever getting into trouble, even after his marriage. He hardly ever saw his wife and he began acting more and more mysteriously.
Before her death, my grandmother was angry with her son, who she felt was lazy and following a wrong path. She accused him of roaming from place to place as if he were homeless. She would hear second-hand rumours about uncle Dinh. He was a shoe-shiner in the Ba Mau brothel area, now he was a cyclo driver near the cement plant, now he had been spotted getting drunk with the porters at the harbor. My grandmother was dismayed and even advised Dinh's wife to leave him, so that she might start a family with a reliable man.
Upon hearing this surprising advice, Dinh's wife cried her eyes out. She loved her husband very much and knew he loved her in return. He even once told her he would allow her to find love elsewhere, because death and imprisonment were always lurking around him.
And then uncle Dinh disappeared, leaving no trace. Half a year passed, and then another. His wife searched for him everywhere, but it was in vain. It was rumoured that he had gone to the south to work in the rubber plantations there while others said he had been captured by French soldiers.
My grandmother died without ever learning what had happened to her son. His wife soon followed. When my mother died many years later, she had still not heard about the fate of the brother who had vanished all those years ago.
It was only in 2005, when I was nearing the age of sixty, that I found out what had happened to my uncle. It is a very odd story. A telepathist was searching for the remains of a revolutionary in Do Son. Apparently, the ghost of the revolutionary appeared to the telepathist and told him that buried next to him was a man named Dinh from Ven Village who once had a sister called Tinh. He was indeed killed by the French. The answer we had been seeking all those years had arrived, and we were overjoyed to finally know the truth. My surviving siblings and cousins and I went to fetch the remains and bring them home. We buried him next to his wife, thinking that they would at last live happily together six feet under.
These old stories and memories came back to me today as I was watching the rain from my window. I remembered mother sitting in the same chair, mending clothes and telling fairy tales to us. It will be her death anniversary soon. That is why I have tried to collect these old stories and half-forgotten family memories. When I close my eyes and think back, I can still remember the small corner of a market street in Hai Phong in the old days. I am sure that you could be able to gather your own family stories. Over time, they change as you add embellishments and remember new information. They constantly adapt and grow, almost like mother's fairy tales once did. Through these stories we can hold on to our memories and show our gratitude to our parents.
Translated by Manh Chuong