That lingering scent of white face powder, anyone familiar with an older generation of Chinese women would be acquainted with this scent. I used to watch my grandmother dress everyday, her modest sense of dressing and always wore very little jewellery. She wore a simple gold ring to work and splashed on a little perfumed water. These mundane details are forever woven into my memory, the scent of familiarity floods one’s heart with nostalgia.
My grandmother was born in 1921 on Hainan Island, China, she responded to a marriage proposal in a newspaper advertisement put up a Hainanese man in Singapore. She left her village in her twenties to be with a man she hardly knew. We speak nothing of the war, though I heard her once cry out in her sleep. All I recalled were repeating the words ‘Japanese!’ I shook her to wake her up.
My grandparents resided along Tembeling road in Katong where they raised my mother and uncle. My grandfather took on many odd jobs and for a long was also a baker at the Red House Bakery along Katong road. My mother used to bring me there while I was a child; the smell of freshly baked bread will always be a greeting of familiarity and recognition. I still hold memories, albeit slightly hazy, of those floral tiles and Swiss rolls. Another friend of the family owned the Chin Mee Chin confectionery down the road, their business today is still active today.
My grandmother was my comfort in my youth. Running after me with my dinner in hand, washing me in a red plastic baby bathtub with a bar of Lux soap, sitting me on her green vintage washing machine whilst drying my hair, cooking my favorite broccoli and lean meat congee whenever I demanded it. She had a gentle but strong demeanor. She chided my mother for rebuking me though I acted like a brat for most of the time. Her love for me was unmistakable, we communicated through her dialect, as she spoke no other language. Now, time has made my command of the dialect hazy, but memories are woven deeply into the fibers of one’s being, especially with one who was such a crucial presence in one’s formative years. Reminiscing on the years Ah Ma spent raising me, sitting on her rattan chair and rocking me to sleep, brings tears to my eyes knowing that I now live far away from her, she is 92 and has severe dementia, the only possessions I have with me to remind me of her is her ring and this picture. Certain foods, language, smells stop me and I am transported to my childhood- the most impressionable years of one’s life and my grandmother, her solid unwavering nature. She has come a long way from a farming village in China, to raise a girl of British and Chinese descent, to teach her the values of loyalty and love. She could have packed it in and left when it was rough yet she never did. She overcame every obstacle to raise my disabled uncle, my mother and then me. The gems of society within those colonial times were the women; then again there is so much of a woman’s work at present that goes unseen. The accomplishments that we take for granted, I’m ashamed that I cannot remember when it was that I last thanked her for everything she has done. But I will end on a quote from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (though the cultural references are far spread, the notion of women’s strength is universal)
‘All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility. And men’s task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible. African men are just as good at this task as others. But after a close look at African women I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the men.’
Stephanie Jane Burt is an artist based in Glasgow. Her mother is Singaporean Chinese and her father is British, born and bred in Manchester, they live in Singapore. Visit her artist page here.