Por Por means maternal grandmother in Cantonese. My Por Por left us last week, on Thursday, February 25th, 2021. It’s never easy to say goodbye to loved ones, but I’m thankful she lived a full, blessed life. She was 95.
When I think about Por Por, I think about her sweet smile, her kindness, and her generosity. But now looking back at her life, I realized there was something else about her that I had not previously thought much about: her strength and her preseverence. She was such a gentle giant.
Por Por belonged to the Tankas, or boat people, a small ethnic group from Southern China. She grew up on a boat in a fisherman family in Hong Kong. It is difficult for my generation to imagine not having the opportunity to go to school and having to spend all day every day doing physically demanding chores, on a boat no less. But just two generations ago in Hong Kong, if you were a girl, you had no option but to stay home and work, unless you’re from a wealthy family.
My sister and I used to mimic her Tanka Cantonese. In general, Tankas speak Cantonese. But there are some slight linguistic differences between Tanka Cantonese and the Cantonese we speak. For example, instead of “yu,” fish, Tankas say “yi.” For my sister and I, it was a way to make us feel more connected to Por Por, by saying things the way she did.
Life was not easy for Por Por back in the day. She was always working. When she’s not cooking, she’s cleaning; when she’s not cleaning, she’s sewing. Things eventually got better, as my aunt and my mom were able to provide for her. But she would not let herself stop.
When I was pregnant with my oldest, Por Por hand sewed three sets of traditional Chinese outfit for him. She was already in her late 70’s at the time. She could have just sit back and relax. But instead, she spent hours making those outfits for her great grandson, one stitch at a time. They’re not only the most stylish jackets you will ever find, but they’re also full of love. These jackets have become some of my most cherished treasures.
I used to spend my summers at her house — not so much a house as it was a tiny apartment in the projects. There wasn’t really much to do, but it was a special time for me to hang out with Por Por and my aunt. My aunt, who’s only five years older than me, would take me with her everywhere she went. Sometimes, we would help Por Por at her stall in the market to sell her homemade snacks. At the end of the shift, Por Por would give us some spare change and we would go get candies.
Por Por‘s specialty snack was agar agar jelly with egg drop that was made in the shape of an egg using plastic Easter egg molds. I don’t think you can find it in Hong Kong anymore, or anywhere else, for that matter. But it was a popular street food in the 1970’s. It cost close to nothing to make, and kids were happy to get a sweet treat for pennies.
The last time I saw Por Por was five years ago when I was in Hong Kong. Little did I know that would have been the last time I held her soft, wrinkly hand. Although I will never see my Por Por ever again, I know I will always have the sweet memories we shared.