When my grandmother was offered a chance to leave Hong Kong by the Woodmans, she stood to leave behind a good deal more that her mother and the crippling poverty of Wan Chai. Though the Woodman family did not know it but
by the time my grandmother boarded the boat for England, she was supporting a husband and three children, one of whom would grow up to be my mother.
My long deceased grandfather was never discussed in our house. To my sisters and I he was little more that an old photograph that stood on Lilly’s dinning room. His picture was placed at the centre of a small shrine she had created to his memory on a cupboard above her dining room table. Next to the photograph was a plate of half dried up oranges, they served as a food offering and a small plant pot. A number of burnt out incense sticks were stuck in the soil, the only indication that Lilly probably still honoured her husband.
However as my grandmother grew older she began to drop little stories about him into our conversations. Just the odd line dropped into conversation here and there. These were often delivered as if he were in the next room rather than dead and in the grave for 20 years. Each nugget would tell us more about him. As always, it was odd objects would jog her memory of home and the life she had left behind.
We have a bar in Sweet Mandarin. It a cool, contemporary cocktail bar but along with fancy drinks, such as Smirnoff and Jack Daniels, we sell bottles of strong Chinese alcohol call Moutai . We have three snakes liquor, plum wine, lychee wine and rice wine all on display in colourful glass bottles marked with enticing looking labels. The bottles may look innocuous but the liquor inside them is 40% proof, strong enough to blow the head off even the most hardened drinker. We serve a snake blood cocktail at the bar, which had proved to be particularly popular on Friday nights with young men keen to prove their mettle after a few drinks. One afternoon while sitting drinking tea with Lilly at the bar the bottles caught my eye, I asked her jokingly:
“Have you ever tried snakes blood liquor, Pops?”
‘Yes, but its too strong for me,” She replied in a matter of fact manner. “It’s also more a drink to help you out…you know.” She made a gesture with her finger, imitating the male member, initially pointed it down and then letting it rise slowly up. She let out a wicked chuckle as she made eye contact with me. “At home,
men drank to improve their performance in the bedroom.” I blushed feeling a bit awkward at my grandmother’s bawdy talk, but decided to really test her.
“Ok, then. What about that one?” I asked, pointing to a dark coloured bottle that had a picture of bamboo leaves and a girl dressed in the Chinese silk dress on it. Her aced hardened.
“You can keep that one”, she said. “Men always blame the wine, or the woman but it’s not that… when men intoxicate themselves, they allow themselves to be tempted.” I had no idea what the old woman was talking about. Had I missed something? “No matter how much I hated his mistress, I could not blame her…”
My grandmother looked at me with a new seriousness. She wobbled slightly on her bar stool, as she were about to faint.
“Pop, are you all right?” I asked. Her eyelids fluttered
“Sorry Helen”, she said. After taking a deep breath, she seemed to regain her composure. Then her mood passed and she smiled again. “When you are my age, there are so many memories. And not all of them are pleasant.”
“I don’t understand, Pop”, I said.
“That bottle was the brand that your grandfather used to drink and it ended up killing him. If only it had killed him off sooner.” I was taken back by her harsh words about her husband, the man she was supposed to have loved.
She looked down at her shoes, as if ashamed of the secret that she had hidden within herself for decades.
In many such incidents was the story of our grandfather revealed to us – a cryptic, contradictory tale of the hurt one human being can inflict on another.
When my grandmother left later the afternoon she called out a final warning to me for the doorway. Pointing back at the alcohol on the shelf, she said:.
“That stuff is poison. Not just of the body but of the man himself. With your grandfather, it turned a good man bad.” I decided that I needed to find out more.
Excerpt from Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House in 33 countries. Now available to download on Kindle.