My grandfather, was called Kwok Chan. He was born in 1914, four years before my grandmother. Though no one had seen or spoken to him for many years previously, we know that he died in 1961, a year after he arrived in England.
Kwok Chan followed my grandmother to England in 1960. He is buried on English soil and every year, my grandmother visits his grave and places a wreath on his gravestone before lighting the traditional three joss sticks. One of the sticks was placed behind the stone, the other in front of the stone and one of them was placed to point East. When I joined my mother and grandmother at his grave, I was also given three joss sticks and I too performed this simple ceremony of respect for the dead. Despite the many harsh words my grandmother had expressed about him and his conduct over the years, it was obvious that she still held some affection for him deep inside her.
As children, my grandmother gave us strict instructions never to touch the shrine to her husband in the dining room. I must have been about nine years old when my natural curiosity first got the better of me. My grandmother had stepped out to buy milk and bread from the corner shop and left me alone in her house. I used this precious opportunity to inspect the image of my grandfather for the first time.
I had to climb on a chair and reach precariously across the dinning table to get to it. The rim of the photo frame was dusty. I was eager to leave no evidence of my actions so I brushed off all the accumulated dust with hem of my blouse to remove any fingerprints. The photo was a head shot of my grandfather taken in black and white. He had close cropped hair, high cheekbones and the kind of eyes which shone with life even in a dull old photograph. His lips were full and he had girlish good looks. In his eyes there was a certain sadness. He bore an uncanny resemblance to my mother. Unlike my grandmother, my mother spoke fondly of him but she also confessed that she did not know him at all. None the less, she felt it right to give him the respect a father deserves from his daughter.
The photo was a snapshot of another time. The man in it was youthful and at the peak of his powers. In later life he would become corrupted by the darker side of Hong Kong but when that image was captured he and my grandmother were at the beginning of their genuine and passionate love story. Their love was unusual for the time, a marriage not arranged by relatives or village elders but by fate itself. I suppose that was how she chose to remember him.
Excerpt from Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House in 33 countries. Now available to download on Kindle.