Wong Yin Sen’s story (circa 1858 – 1941)
Uncle Vivian also wrote about my great grandfather, his grandfather. This is what he said.
My grandfather Wong was a kind and loving soul; a gentle man whom I loved dearly. We called him ‘Papa’ and everybody else called him ‘Ole man’ but his real name was Wong Yin Sen. He was born in 1858 in Mexing, which lies between the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien. He was a member of the Hakka speaking community whose origins in China seem to be quite unknowns. Like the Jews they appear to have been wanderers across the land. They seem to have settled in small communities in different parts of China, speaking their own distinct brand of Chinese and exercising their mercantile skills.
He told me that his father had been a rich merchant who lived in a large home where there was a large fishpond from which they obtained fish for the table. I cannot remember too many details of the things he used to tell me about his life in China as I was only very young at the time I knew him. I did gather that he had been a young university student and his father had arranged for him to get married to a certain young lady. He had balked at the idea of the arranged marriage, having more modern ideas on this subject. However, to challenge the will of his parents was unthinkable, so at the age of 18, he had run away from home and gone to live with his uncle in Port Louis, Mauritius. There he married and had a son called Edgar. My uncle Albert at one stage kept up a correspondence with this half brother of his. My Pa’s uncle was merchant also and he set his young nephew up in business. Why or when my grandfather came to settle in Port Elizabeth I do not know.
He spoiled his son Albert (my grandfather) in every possible way. The young Albert had everything of the best as he grew up. There was nothing his doting father would deny him. When he became an adult and I was born as my grandfather’s number one grandson, this same treatment was transferred to me, together with oodles and oodles of pampering and affection. My grandfather loved to show his love of us by feeding us with all kinds of delectable tidbits.
When he became frail in his old age he used to take me, and sometimes also my younger brother, with him to the Moi Yen Chinese Institute – an exclusive Chinese club – where he met his compatriots, drank and gambled a bit. But first he would take us to a restaurant, give us a good meal, buy some food to take away and then settle us in with the other boys in the cinema which is part of this complex. Later he would collect us and we would go home. We had some strange experiences in Chinatown, where we sometimes wandered around when we did not feel inclined to watch the movie.
He did not speak English very well but, in our own way, we did fairly well in communicating with him. That he did not even teach his own son to speak Chinese still puzzles me. He was held in high esteem in the Chinese community because he was very highly educated and he was the oldest person among them at the time. I believe he was a Buddhist.
When I was only 11 years old he died of bowel cancer just one week after my mother had died in the late stages of a pregnancy. As he was so very weak at the time of my mother’s death and because he was so attached to her, he had not been told of her passing away. But just before he died he said, “I know that Queenie has died; she came to see me*”.
As Papa’s eyes were wide open in death my grandmother told me that he had not closed his eyes because he had wanted to see me first. She asked me to close them and place pennies on them. I did this for my grandfather because I loved him dearly. I remember vividly the colour of those unseeing eyes. They were a grey green – rather unusual for someone of Chinese descent, I should imagine.
He was 83 years old when he died in 1941.
* NOTE: Our family has a history of being bothered by the dead. A visiting psychic once described a little old lady sitting behind my dad that Dad reckons was Ma Lottie. Shortly before my grandmother passed away in 1994 she told me that she had seen and spoken to my grandfather (who died in 1977) in her flat. My aunt also says that Grandma paid a visit to her from her Croydon deathbed.
The psychic told Dad that Ma Lottie was particularly attached to a little souvenir cooking pot on his bedroom windowsill. Charlie now owns said pot and has not reported any visitations.
Oh yeah, the unusual grey green eyes? Mine…