Ghost Month Focus: Remembering Puoh Puoh and Old Canton

It’s currently Zhong Yuan, or Ghost Month, when it is traditionally believed that spirits of deceased visit their loved ones in the world of the living for a brief sojourn before returning to the underworld. In the old days, people placed offerings of fruits, meats and other treats on their household shrines or on the roadside to welcome “hungry ghosts” home, burning paper money so the spirits may take it with them to use in the other world. Nowadays, you can transfer over just about any object that can be made out of paper.

In my household, it’s become a Ghost Month tradition to remember one person in particular. She was an important part of my early life and inseparable from a certain way of life. We were unable to say a proper goodbye to each other. So I think of her this time every year. This year, I’m finally going to take the plunge and share those precious memories with you. She is my “Puoh Puoh” (Cantonese for grandma), whom I refer to in English as my Cantonese Grandma.

I was born in the city of Guangzhou. During my early years, we still lived with my grandfather in the winding alleyways among the old part of the city. The main streets in the old town were lined with banyan trees and arcades that sheltered pedestrians from the sub-troical sun. But once you dived into these labyrinthine constructions, there were literally worlds within, utility shops, cobblers, god shops, tailors, hairdressers, food stalls, street markets, toy shops, snack shops with public phones, even schools and nurseries. The difference is that as a local, you were acquainted with the people who ran these places.

Those were still the days of the Danwei community in China, and my grandfather, a civil servant, was placed in a tenement where he lived next door to a journalist. My father, in the business of exports, was away for most of the year, stationed in other cities, and later, transferred to London. My mother, a young bride who had come all the way from Jilin in the North-East, worked evenings and weekends in addition to her days at the provincial bureau. She went straight back to work after I was born. Whether out of generosity or want for a moment of peace, it wasn’t long before the old lady next door came over to offer her aid.

Her name was Chan Siu Zun (in Cantonese), Siu Zun meaning “cherish youth”. She came from Shun De in the region of Fo Shan, in central Guangdong. When her husband was still alive, she worked as an administrator at his office. After he died of illness and left her with four young children, she raised them pretty much single-handedly. When I met her she was already in her late fifties. She was petite and only about five feet tall, I often wondered how she could have carried the weight a large child on her boney and bending back, or lift the weight of groceries for the whole family. But she did, and more.

Puoh Puoh looked in many ways, like a typical little old Cantonese lady. She always wore loose trousers and a patterned cotton or gauze shirt. Paisley was a favourite. Her short grey hair, was always impeccably permed into a Marcel Wave. She always wore her jade bracelet, which she believed to be a talisman. She had an identical twin who lived in Hong Kong and occasionally visited, but I could always tell Po Po apart by her slightness and the pair of beauty moles just next to her left eye. She looked perfectly in place among the traditional carved wooden furniture, or sitting at her round marble table.

None of Siu Zun’s grown-up children had yet had offspring of their own when she took charge of me, many years later they still joked that I was the family’s first grandchild and still refer to me as “Mui Mui”, a familial term similar to “little one” for girls. Siu Zun’s eldest son, uncle Cheung Zai, liked to peel melon seeds for me, when he sometimes visited his mother during his lunch hours (days begin early in China and lunch hours are longer with enough time for a nap, or a short trip), and her youngest daughter, Aunty Yun Fong, told me bedtime stories until she couldn’t keep her own eyes open. Not longer after, the first Chen baby, Ah Zee, came along, and I took him under my wing, like a younger brother.

Shun De is considered the home of Cantonese cuisine and one of the renown gourmet regions in China. Puoh Puoh didn’t have much in her tiny, dimly lit kitchen besides a coal-heated stove, one of several tiny kitchens that belonged to each household. The kitchen complex was T-shaped with a wall along one side of the T, where everyone hung their woks. She would wash, peel and chop all her cooking ingredients with her baskets, cleaver and thick chopping board in the communal courtyard. She made the most delicious dishes. My favourite were her casseroles with Mei Cai pickles, steamed frogs legs and ribs with chili and black beans. Her slow-cooked soups of pork bones, gourds and hers were well known throughout the tenement. It was no wonder that Uncle Piggy, her youngest son, choose a path that eventually lead him to become a national chef.

Puoh Puoh kept pickled chili peppers in soy sauce for dipping fresh seafood in and brewed bitter herbal tea in her antiquated clay pot, which she made us drink every week, coaxing us with treats of preserved plums and hawthorn flakes. Some time before Spring Festival, she made big batches of various kinds of sweet dumplings and kept them in big clay vats. I had stolen quite a few red bean paste ones before they were meant to be eaten.

Often she would give me a bowl to take to the stall on the next street, which made hot, steaming breakfast cheung fun for about 30 cents a portion. While I waited for my rice rolls, I watched the nimble store keeper work by his wall of steaming trays, oiling each tray with a brush, pouring liquid rice until it covered the whole tray, sprinkling meat mince, if required, and inserting it into the wall. In the mean time, taking out trays of cooked cheung fun, deftly peeling and shaping sheets of translucent rice into tubes, before sprinkling toppings and sauces to finish.

Ah Zee and I often went with Puoh Puoh to the local fresh food market just a street away, threading through the crowd to watch the turtles and crabs in their water tanks while she haggled over the price of choi sum, gai lan and ong choi (common Cantonese vegetables). Our favourite playground was a square just by the Pearl River, and once I took Ah Zee there without Puoh Puoh, to her utter panic and alarm.

Sometimes on a hot summer afternoon, she would have a friend over, and they listened to Yue Ju (Cantonese opera) on the radio; sitting on low stools in the tenement corridor, which doubled as a junk and bicycle storage place, whilst cooling themselves with calamus fans; the music often intercepted by the sound of cicadas and the quirky cries of the local junk collector. Puoh Puoh had her assortment of household gods on one wall of the living room and a shrine dedicated to her late husband, on another. On occasions she would place wine and Siu Yok (roast pork) there and incense by the front door. My first memories of observing traditional festivals such as Qing Ming were with Puoh Puoh and her family.

When I was old enough to attend nursery, my family had moved to modern high-rises, accommodation affiliated to their own Danwei. I visited the Chens at least once a week, and spent much of my family’s longer absences with Puoh Puoh’s eldest daughter and her family. Guangzhou is famous for its clothing industries, with whole streets  in the western part of the city, solely dedicated to the sale of buttons and cloths and pretty much every district with at least one local cloth market. Aunty Pui Fong, a skilled craftswoman who managed a textiles factory, repaired all my clothes and many years later, made some of my cosplays in which I attended conventions in the UK.

A few years after Ah Zee was born, three more new members arrived in the family. Puoh Puoh had her hands full again. During the winters, gathering around the table to Da Been Loh, have Cantonese Hot Pot at the Chens, were some of the noisiest and most laughter-filled dinners I remember from that time.

After I moved to the UK, I still went to see Puoh Puoh every year in the summer holidays until we heard the news that she had developed dementia, and was now housed in a nursing home in the country. When her children finally took me there, she didn’t recognize me at first. Perhaps it was the shock of my reaction that triggered a flash of memory in her mind, her eyes widened. “Mui Mui….” she whispered. That was my final meeting with her. During the last year of my A-levels, I received news of her death.

Ghost Month is also traditionally a time when stray souls, who lost their way for whatever reason, are put to rest by being guided on their the underworld. Puoh Puoh died, unable to communicate with those around her, and alone in her head. I often wandered if her spirit was still hanging around, thinking about the state she’d left the house in, or how her children and grandchildren are doing.

Life with the Chens gave me a window into native Cantonese culture, something that none of my family, not even my Teochew father, had actively embraced. Nevertheless, it became a such key part of the Chinese side of my identity that as an adult I actively pursued, researched and widened that window. The Chen family were the first of many who showed me the openness, kindness and generosity of this city, its people sometimes mocked for their bluntness, garrulous natures and perceived lack of culture. Guangzhou was a city that nurtured me. It led me to discover the history of Guangdong, the key role of its capital city in modern national history as well as the vibrancy of Lingnan culture, later in my studies. Even though many of Guangzhou’s alleyways have completely or partially been demolished, and with this a way of life, I carry its spirit now in all my work on China.

So on Ghost Month, I light a lotus lantern and send it off along the canal, hoping it will guide Puoh Puoh’s spirit back to the underworld, where I hope she is getting plenty of rest, enjoying Cantonese opera on demand, and watching over her grandson, now with a son of his own, and her granddaughter, the straight-A student who’s flourishing at university, and her adopted one, who wrote a book for her.

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