First Generation

The mysteries of my grandfather, a modern man.

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New World Palace

The table was filled. Gung-gung had ordered for everyone. As the patriarch and the food enthusiast of the family, his discerning tastes were to be trusted. A tradition set down for his children and grandchildren, dinner at the local Chinese restaurant had been a weekly affair since Gung-gung’s arrival in Canada in the 1970s. Now that proper food had finally arrived in Scarborough (and with pomp!), his son-in-law no longer had to drive the entire family, kids in tow, downtown.

New World Palace had it all: elaborate chandeliers, high ceilings, and thick white tablecloths instead of layers of disposable plastic sheets. Here, guests didn’t need to shoo away flies that helicoptered over their food.

“What’s good today?” Gung-gung asked a well-trusted waiter in Cantonese.

“Fresh fish, the bass is quite nice,” the waiter replied, his name tag glinting in the light.

“Oh-kay Goh-Dun,” Gung-gung said, making sure to use Gordon’s English name. And Gordon did not disappoint. Soon the dishes were parading out, one by one, to be shared family style. The final dish was the steamed fish, swimming in a sweetened soy sauce and topped with pieces of coriander and finely julienned scallions. The bass wasn’t the saltwater seafood Gung-gung used to eat in Hong Kong, but it was close enough to feel like home.

His grandkids were prattling away in English, doodling on their white napkins and mixing strange drinks of gravy, tea, and orange soda for their uncles to drink as a dare. Saving their gum on their teacup saucers, they shovelled rice from their bowls into their mouths, stretching and reaching for the dishes in the middle, spinning the Lazy Susan like a roulette wheel. On their tongues, they rolled enticing Asian flavours and spices from chosen dishes: tangy sweet and sour pork, Chinese broccoli topped with savoury oyster sauce, braised meat still sizzling from a clay pot, and colourful seafood and vegetable stir-fries with a generous heap of garlic. They decided it was just as good if not better than burgers and pizza—approval that would be needed as defence against the sneers of their Canadian classmates the next day when they brought their lunch boxes full of leftovers.

Gung-gung’s youngest granddaughter had picked up a love for Chinese cuisine, and Gung-gung was thrilled. For her, he ordered a special bowl of barbecued duck and noodle soup. Every week, when dinner was finished, he would call her over and poke her belly to make sure that it was firm and contented. Gung-gung would not tolerate any of his progeny having half-empty stomachs after a meal at his table.

There would be no scavenging later at a fast food restaurant because dinner had not been to their liking.

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Woolco

In her old ratty armchair, Poh-poh watched James Bond movies, hooting and laughing despite her limited English. In the armchair, she read the Chinese newspaper, holding it an inch from her thick-rimmed glasses to take in the news from home.

“Back in the day, women weren’t given an education, so they couldn’t read. It was Gung-gung who taught her character by character after they got married. They were ahead of their time,” his daughters explained to the grandchildren who empathized with Poh-poh’s struggle to learn the difficult character-based Chinese language.

As they grew up, Gung-gung’s grandchildren heard other stories about the man who had steadily climbed the ranks of a bus company in Hong Kong, had spent his hard-earned money to send his three sons to Canada to study, and had moved to Toronto after retirement. In retirement, Gung-gung had a hard time staying idle. He owned and managed a local plaza, filling his office with helpful gadgets including a cheque writer that he sometimes let his grandchildren play with. Eventually his daughter helped him purchase a photocopier for his convenience, which also thrilled the grandchildren who stood riveted by the machine that flashed a green light and moved back and forth when it scanned.

“Gung-gung likes to see the latest gadgets and technology,” his daughters would say. “He is such a modern man.”

Once, on one of his regular visits to the neighbourhood Woolco (a now defunct discount retail store), Gung-gung caught his youngest granddaughter captivated by a Teddy Ruxpin, whose mechanical eyes betrayed that it was much more than a simple plush toy. Its back was equipped to play cassette tapes, which caused the bear to magically blink and turn its head while it moved its mouth and read a storybook to kids. Gung-gung was fascinated.

“Ngoh mai bay kui,” he declared to his daughter and son-in-law. He was going to buy Teddy Ruxpin for his granddaughter. Yet when they brought her over and told her of Gung-gung’s intended generosity, her eyes were red, and she was gulping down tears.

“It’s expensive,” she whispered, trembling between sobs, feeling undeserving of the attention and extravagance. But Gung-gung would not be easily swayed by a child’s momentary hesitation. He purchased the bear anyway, and Teddy Ruxpin went home with them that day. It gave him no small joy whenever he visited to watch and marvel as she poured over the adventure book next to her talking bear.

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Cottage Country

After years of living and working in the city, Gung-gung’s son, Charles, purchased an undeveloped piece of property in Lindsay, Ontario. Before construction on the house began, the extended family was given a tour, and Charles had pointed out a beaver dam. When the house was completed, Charles invited the family back to stay over. When their extended station wagon packed with fishing poles and Asian snacks finally pulled in on the gravel road, they were amazed to see the home atop a hill. One day there had been only trees; the next, a whole house.

During that visit, Gung-gung and Poh-poh learned to enjoy hours by the dock on the woven lawn chairs, holding their fishing poles and waiting for a bite. They would let the day slip away, the stillness of time disturbed only when their lines tugged and they pulled up a lively flopping pumpkinseed sunfish that got everyone to their feet.

One afternoon, the dock was especially quiet. The sun pounded down its rays while two of the grandkids went exploring the grassy fields, watching the crickets hop with their every step—they were like Godzilla running down a city. No one else was around to witness their time spent in the great expanse. Eventually they got weary of the heat and decided to climb the hill to head indoors.

When they got to the top, they saw a familiar head of wispy white hair: Gung-gung was sitting under the shade with a white bucket.

“Goh lai lah,” he beckoned. Come on over. He invited the grandkids to peer inside. Forgetting the heat, they leaned timidly on their grandfather, uncertain of what they'd find. At the bottom of the bucket were two thumb-sized frogs staring at the tall walls around them. They seemed as plastic toys save their occasional rapid blinking. Suddenly one of the frogs leaped against the sides of the bucket like corn popped in a pot. The children were captured by the frog’s daring attempts at escape but were soon even more preoccupied with their grandfather himself. In their minds, the children could not imagine Gung-gung, at his age, romping about in the grass like a school boy chasing down frogs or climbing up hills under the hot sun.

It was a mystery how Gung-gung ended up with a bucket of frogs, much like Gung-gung himself was a mystery. As his grandchildren, we were only afforded bits and pieces of our grandfather’s history, this man whose generosity bridged physical geography and spanned the gulf between generations. But of the little we did know, Gung-gung taught us to embrace the best of the new, while treasuring the traditions that tell us who we are and bind us together.

Text: Elita Fung
Artwork: Michelle Yick