My mother earned top-billing as one of the most requested courtesans in Hong Kong. In 1953, Mom met Dad for the first time at a glamorous dance hall on the island. I imagine them doing the tango, flirting, laughing and drinking cocktails. Her beauty took Dad’s breath away: radiant complexion, large expressive eyes, sensuous lips and a curvaceous body. She wore a fuchsia silk Chinese qipao with butterfly knotted buttons on the front. High slits on both sides revealed her shapely legs. When she caressed her thigh against his, was she merely doing her job? Did she just want to earn a generous tip? Or was she actually attracted to this reserved man exuding wisdom and worldliness, qualities she considered herself to be lacking?
My mother rarely recounted Dad’s courtship or stories of her past. As a child, I once overheard Mom boasting to her mahjong friends on how Dad wooed her with expensive gifts and was at her beck and call. Was it the truth or wishful thinking? Most courtesans ended up becoming mistresses of married men or dispensable sex babes of philanderers. Children of unmarried courtesans were scorned as “sampan kids”, the pejorative slang for bastard children of women floating from man to man. Unmarried, educated and employed, Dad was a rare find. Did Mom actually fall in love with him? Or did this man eighteen years her senior offer the paternal stability that she had lost and craved?
My mother, Ana Chan Wu, had to leave school in sixth grade when the Japanese occupied Guangdong Province in China in 1938. To support her single mother and younger brother, she peddled snacks on the street. A few years later, the three of them escaped to Macau, a neutral territory somewhat protected from the barbarity of the Japanese. She joined a convent, as it was the only safe haven for an adolescent girl. When WWII finally ended, she left the convent to break free from a tyrannical Mother Superior. She and her family then made their way to Hong Kong. Mom loved jewelry, fur coats, mahjong, gossip and dancing.
My father, Fok Yuen Wu was born in China in 1910 and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown starting at age two. His parents owned a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. My grandfather constantly beat Dad for focusing on school instead of learning the restaurant business, a stable source of livelihood for Chinese immigrants. Defying his parents, Dad excelled in school. Before pursuing his PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan, he returned to his homeland to study for a semester. Little did he foresee the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II and being trapped in China for over a decade. Despite holding a prestigious government post in agricultural reform, he left China for the British colony of Hong Kong in 1952, to escape Chairman Mao’s oppressive autocracy. He worked as a film engineer by day and ran his own film editing business by night. He loved books, poetry, global affairs and Tai Chi.
Every morning before work, Dad practiced Tai Chi. To make room, he shoved the two sofas, the dining table and chairs to one corner of the living-dining room of our flat about the size of a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S. When I was growing up, I loved watching Dad’s ballet of strength, propelled not by brute force, but by inner qi. In silence, every fluid movement evoked a story. “Part horse’s mane,” “carry tiger to mountain,” “white stork spreading wings to reach the cloud-piercing peak.” One day, I wanted to become a Tai Chi master, just like my father.
Privately to her friends, Mom criticized Tai Chi as dull and stodgy. Instead, she adored western style dances. Several afternoons a week, while Dad was at work, Mom danced to the latest, hottest music on the radio. She reveled in the jitterbug, boogie-woogie, the Charleston and the twist. I sat at the dining room table, pretending to concentrate on my schoolwork, but was secretly watching her. I was enchanted by the fancy footwork of her Jit, balancing on one foot, and raising the other limb at the knee, twisting back and forth. She kicked her legs high with abandon and swiveled low and sensually. Did she yearn to dance with Dad? Who was she seducing in her heart and dreams? I had never witnessed physical intimacy between my parents. Not a kiss, a caress, nor a dance. How I wished Mom would teach me how to dance, so that I, too, could be beautiful and graceful. But why should she bother since she criticized me for being chubby and uncoordinated?
One evening, when I was seven, Dad returned home from work. As usual, he barely acknowledged Mom when she served him hot tea and gave him his slippers. He rushed over, hugged me and asked me about school. Like clockwork, Mom prepared his bath in the single washroom. Like other lower-middle class Chinese families, we had no running hot water, so every bath was a production. She heated the water almost to boiling in three giant metal pails two feet in height and diameter. They took up three of four stove-top burners. One by one, she hauled them to the bathroom and ladled the hot water into the tub. She then ran cold water to get just the right temperature. Dad luxuriated in his bath for twenty minutes, during which time Mom rushed to finish dinner preparation.
Silence usually prevailed at the dinner table, except when Dad quizzed me about new books I had read or made me recite a classic Chinese poem. Mom pretended to pay attention, but I could tell that she was bored. From time to time, she interjected with gossip about a friend or neighbor. Normally, when Dad ignored her, Mom would stop. But tonight, Mom refused to be silenced.
Dad locked eyes with Mom and chastised her, “If you’d read more books, your conversations would be more enlightened.”
Mom plonked down her bowl, pointed the sharp end of the chopsticks at Dad, “Fok Yeun, my father was murdered by a robber when I was just four. My mother was impoverished but she always encouraged education. Mind you, I was not only top of the class, but also, a talented dancer and singer. I always starred in lead roles in my school’s musical productions. When the Japs invaded, I was forced to quit school. To support my mother and younger brother, I had to peddle food and trinkets on the street. I smeared mud and dung all over my face and body to avoid being raped by the Japs. I did not have the good fortune to be educated, but I had dignity. Don’t you dare insult me!”
Dad banged his fist on the table. “I work long and hard every day struggling to make ends meet. What do you do? Play mahjong. Go shopping. Can’t I even eat in peace? Diu nei lo mo, chau hai!”
Throughout my growing up years, I only remembered Dad constantly castigating Mom, sometimes in the presence of family and friends. He called her chau hai and spewed expletives like “diu nei lo mo”. Words that I did not comprehend but knew were intended to eviscerate her heart and soul. Most of the time, Mom bowed her head, remained quiet or locked herself in the bedroom. Tonight, rage and bitterness broke through the protective crust of stoic acceptance. Mom clenched her fists in front of her chest and howled with anguish. Dad left the flat and did not return until the following evening.
As the years passed, I became more and more my father’s daughter and my mother’s affliction. I was top of class and the favorite of teachers and other parents. Yet Mom scorned me, and constantly made me feel inferior to other kids. Not pretty. Not smart. Not sensible. In my teens, I learned that Dad’s insult to her “chau hai” meant “stinky cunt.” I despised her weakness for not fighting back against Dad’s derision and verbal abuse. I loathed her duplicity of feigning love for me to please Dad, but reproaching me behind his back.
In 1972, our family emigrated to Anchorage, Alaska, to rebuild our life after Dad’s business partner embezzled their company’s money and it went bankrupt. Five years prior, my younger brother Wei Da was born, further burdening our family’s finances. Dad’s older brother was one of the first Chinese to emigrate to Alaska and he inspired us with stories of the state’s economic boom from the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Dad left for Alaska first. After toiling three years selling furniture by day and working as a bartender by night, Dad finally saved enough money to buy a roadhouse Chinese restaurant and brought us to join him.
On our first New Year’s Eve in Alaska, I overheard Mom’s phone call to her brother in Hong Kong. She sobbed, “I miss you, my nieces and my friends. I miss Hong Kong so much; the light, the heat, the vitality and the dancing. I am only forty-four. Why did God expel me to this bleak, frigid place where the sun never rises?” After the call, she removed from the closet half a dozen Chinese qipao dresseswhich were hand-made by her favorite tailor in Hong Kong. She placed them on the bed, ran her hand up and down the soft smooth silk, and wept. One qipao had pink cherry blossoms hand-embroidered on shimmery silver silk. Another was jade green with gold brocade and ornate pankou knots adorning its Mandarin collar. She took down an empty suitcase from the closet’s top shelf. She wistfully folded the qipao one by one and packed them away. These form-fitting dresses with high slits on both sides to accentuate the sensuality and elegance of Chinese women had no use in the desolate arctic. To survive this forsaken land cloaked with white snow and pitch-dark sky, she had to obscure her seductive body in bulky parkas, formless flannel shirts and crude sweatpants. There would be no dance parties, celebrations or mahjong games. There would only be long hours of waitressing, busing tables and kitchen work, seven days a week, in our hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. There would not be shopping for the latest fashions, or dining in fancy restaurants, as every dollar of tips would be saved for the college fund for Wei Da and me, and for supporting her brother in Hong Kong.
After laboring for twenty years in the grueling restaurant business, my parents finally saved up a small nest egg to retire. By that time, I had long left Alaska, earned my bachelor’s degree and Wharton MBA thanks to scholarships. I had fought my way to the executive suites of global corporations, lived and worked in four continents, gotten married to a world-renowned violinist and settled in Connecticut. Wei Dai started a career in hotel management in San Francisco. I limited visits to Alaska primarily in the summer to celebrate my parents’ birthdays. On the daily phone calls, I sought Dad’s advice on how to navigate corporate politics. He always fueled my spirit with encouragement and compliments. Mom only pressured me on my shrinking biological clock to have a baby, and nagged me to support Wei Da financially. In her world, the son with the teapot spout always took priority in the family hierarchy.
A couple of years after retirement when Dad was eighty-three, he almost died from a botched surgery. Then several strokes robbed him of his ambulatory skills. Not wanting to care for a wheelchair-bound invalid, Mom wanted to commit her husband to a nursing home in Anchorage. I flew to Alaska for an assessment. The minute I entered the lobby, the putrid odor of decay and death suffocated me. Everywhere I turned, I felt trapped by cadaverous men and women, strapped to wheelchairs. Heads cocked limply to one side, they gazed lifelessly at me. One rolled her wheelchair towards me and gripped my hand, “Get me out of here,” she gasped. I would never imprison my father in this living hell.
That evening, I announced my decision to relocate my parents from Anchorage to San Francisco, so they would be close to Wei Da. Dad would be cared for at home by Mom and health aides. “I trust that you will not abandon your husband of so many years,” I said, preempting my mother’s objection by manipulating her guilt and sense of obligation. Mom teared up but acquiesced in silence. I knew that she would never forgive me for imposing a life sentence of caring for an invalid.
In 1996, I moved my parents to a modest apartment in San Francisco, set up Dad’s bedroom with hospital-grade equipment and hired two health aides. Afflicted by recurring strokes and pneumonia, Dad soon lost all cognitive abilities to read, write and communicate.
Ironically, the more Dad disintegrated, the more Mom regenerated. For the first time since emigrating to America, she studied English at a community college, learned how to write checks, made doctors’ appointments and took public transportation. She joined a local Catholic church and headed the social committee. With the help of the parish priest, she even renewed the marriage vow with Dad after forty years of union. Given his vegetative state, was Dad a willing and knowing participant in the ritual? But did it matter, since Mom was honor-bound to be his caregiver for life?
In March 2001, Dad was rushed into the ICU again with severe pneumonia and was kept alive on a ventilator. For eleven nights, Mom, Wei Da and I slept in the hospital. We kept vigil, helplessly watching Dad struggle in agony. On the twelfth night, when the head nurse caught me weeping in the hallway, she put her arms around me and comforted, “It is okay to let your father go if this is what your family wants.” Even though Dad chose me as his health care representative, I asked Mom to make that decision, to honor her years of being the principal caretaker. She said softly but without hesitation, “Fok Yuen is fighting to stay alive just for us. He has already suffered enough.” When the ventilator was being removed, I held Mom’s chafed, cold hands, with fingers gnarled from arthritis. I knew it was the right decision.
Shortly after Dad’s death, Mom immersed herself in ballroom dancing lessons with Tuan, a handsome Vietnamese man half her age. He was notorious for preying on lonely, single women. Smitten, Mom took daily lessons and spoiled him with expensive gifts. He regularly visited her apartment. Like many immigrants, Mom mistrusted banks. Instead of a safe deposit box, she hid cash and jewelry in plastic bags and stuffed them in the bottom of drawers. I worried about Tuan stealing from her.
I resented my mother’s shameless frivolity and pursuit of attention when she, like me, should be in mourning. Yet I reluctantly funded her lessons, lavish presents and exorbitant purchases of dancewear. I was worn out by her recurring gripes of loneliness and neglect by her children. I was trying to bribe her silence.
My visits to Mom in San Francisco usually ended in anger and hurt. During one trip, Mom goaded me over dinner, “Do you remember Catherine, your friend from Hong Kong? She married a wealthy doctor and has a son. So lucky, not like us. I knew you would be childless when you married that wretched old man. But why doesn’t Wei Da have any kids? What’s wrong with his wife Laura?”
“From the doctor’s assessment, it is your precious son, not Laura, who’s infertile. Don’t you remember?”
She cast her eyes down and ate the rest of the meal in silence. My retort was intended to avenge her disdain for me and affection for Wei Da. By this time, I had been tormented for almost two decades in a marriage with a narcissistic man who abused me physically and emotionally. He cruelly flaunted his infidelity and invited his paramour to my home while I was away on business. To repay the debts accumulated from years of expensive home health care for my father and fund Mom’s lifestyle, I had to keep surviving in the corporate world with its cutthroat politics and discrimination. Never once had my mother inquired about my married and professional lives, nor shown any appreciation for the checks that I kept dispensing.
Mom became increasingly forgetful. Sometimes she called me ten times within fifteen minutes. She left her apartment with the stove on. One late night, a friend found her wandering alone in Chinatown in her heels and gold and jade jewelry after a dancing lesson, because she forgot the way home. In 2008, Wei Da and I finally moved Mom to Aegis Gardens, the only Chinese-speaking assisted living community for residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Mom fought our decision fiercely. During the week of the move, I flew to San Francisco to help her pack. Mom sulked silently in her room. On the morning of the moving van’s arrival, she dumped out the contents of half the packed cartons, stomped her feet and wailed. While I scrambled to repack, Wei Da tried to calm her.
During the first few months at Aegis, Mom called my brother and I constantly, complained about staff mistreatment and even threatened suicide. Then suddenly, the calls stopped. She found herself a boyfriend! He was a fellow Aegis resident, a former Singapore Airlines captain and ballroom dancing champion. I saw them waltzing cheek to cheek at the holiday party. Clearly the belle of the ball, Mom enchanted everyone with her allure and elegance. Several months later, Mom captivated a second boyfriend, who was a former IBM computer scientist and a ballroom dancing champion as well. Mom gave each boyfriend a photo of herself as a stunning eighteen-year-old. Did they fall in love with the woman or her photo? Was Alzheimer’s the accidental matchmaker? Mom finally found the love and attention missing in her marriage. Did the truth really matter?
When I finally left my husband and filed for divorce in 2013, the legal ordeal lasted over two years. Every night, I lay awake weeping in the darkness, unable to erase the memory of that scorching summer afternoon when I came home too early and intruded onto my husband and his semi-nude paramour by the pool. On that same direful afternoon, my husband falsely charged me with domestic violence and forced me out of my home of over two decades. A home that I solely paid for.
Overwrought with the anxiety of court trials and mounting legal bills, I lost my eyelashes and part of my eyebrows. To numb my loneliness, I finally joined a local gym, worked out every day and ventured to sign up for Zumba. After years of censure by Mom, I was too ashamed of my gawky body to dance in public until the carefree Zumba enthusiasts emboldened me. They came in all ages and shapes: from twenty to eighty; overweight, slender, voluptuous, flat-chested. Bald cancer survivors. I pulsated and shimmied to reggaetón, merengue, K-pop and Bollywood music. Like Mom, I felt gorgeous, sexy and ready to take on the world.
A tall skinny woman with short, drab hair showed up at Zumba class one Saturday morning. Her flannel plaid shirt and brown corduroy pants were out of sync with the tightest, brightest Lululemon favored by Zumba aficionados. She tapped clumsily on the floor; one foot first, then the other. Suddenly, she shuffled across the crowded room and back, forcing other dancers from their spots. Irritated, I tugged her arm and complained, “Would you please stay in one place.”
She looked flustered and mumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m not good at this. I have Alzheimer’s.”
I felt like an ass. That was the first time I met Sarah, in Zumba class.
As we exited the dance room, I asked Sarah about her family. Did she have children? An expression of panic clouded her dark brown eyes as she tried to recall, “Hmm…I have two daughters…but don’t remember their names. One lives in Japan. The other lives…hmm…there are lots of young people, but it’s not New York City.”
“Brooklyn?” I guessed.
Her eyes lit up, “Yes! She never visits.”
After our first encounter, I gradually become Sarah’s informal Zumba custodian. I danced close to her. Served her water between numbers to prevent her from randomly grabbing others’ water bottles. She forgot where she left her large pink gym bag, and I often went hunting for it. When I took Sarah home after Zumba classes, we loved to sing out loud. I was amazed at how she retained the lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” and other favorites.
During our rides to her apartment, I tried to recreate Sarah’s past and present by piecing together her disjointed utterances and unfinished sentences. I learned that her husband sold their house and moved into an apartment after Alzheimer’s struck six years earlier. From an online article about her retirement as a librarian, I discovered that Sarah got her bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe and her master’s degree in Library Science from Barnard.
I seemed to know more about Sarah than my mother.
Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote that people with Alzheimer’s remember emotions. They may not remember most names, but they remember the names of people who they feel care about them. In one class, I took Sarah’s hands while she was swaying to a Bachata number.
“Turn,” she laughed and spun me around. When I stopped, the lady next to me took over. When she stopped, another woman took over. After class, Sarah hugged me and kissed me on one cheek, “Lixian, you’re my angel.”
As time passed, Sarah forgot how to access her apartment complex. When I brought her upstairs to her unit, she would stand holding the key but with no idea of what to do next. Her husband warned me to be extra vigilant since Sarah was found wandering in the high-rise apartment’s hallway. I tried to ignore that any day could be her last Zumba day.
During COVID’s surge in spring 2020, I invited Sarah to do Zumba on Zoom, but she lost interest after the first attempt. I was too overwhelmed to keep track of her. In the summer, her husband texted that with the suspension of social interactions, Sarah’s mind, body and spirit were starting to shut down. He suggested that I take Sarah out for a walk. I had every intention to do just that. But I never did.
Per the obituary, Sarah passed away quietly at home two weeks before Thanksgiving 2020. She was survived by two daughters, in Brooklyn and in Japan. Through Sarah’s death notice, I discovered pieces of her life and the names of loved ones she did not remember.
Too engrossed with my own life, I missed the last walk with Sarah. I forfeited our last conversation in delightful unfinished sentences. It is only in my memory that I could hold Sarah’s hands, spin her around, and lose ourselves in Zumba.
The night after Sarah’s Zoom memorial service, I lay awake in the dark haunted by recollection of my mother. On February 8, 2013, Mom said out of the blue on our daily call, “Leave that rotten old fool. You are smart and beautiful and deserve much more.” Surprised and moved by my mother’s rare empathy, I started weeping.
“Wei Da told me that he has abusing you and cheating on you for years. File for divorce.”
“But Mom, the Catholic church and Chinese community stigmatize divorcees.”
“Nonsense. You have suffered enough and have honored your marriage. Who cares about these bigoted idiots? God is on your side.”
The next morning, I flew to San Francisco and was looking forward to celebrating Chinese New Year’s Eve with Mom the following day. On my way from the airport to the hotel, Wei Da called me with the shocking news of her death.
Alone in her apartment at Aegis, Mom tripped over a portable clothes rack crammed with dance outfits and died from the impact of the fall. Her corpse was surrounded by many pairs of glittery stilettos and spectacular dance ensembles in lace, mesh, chiffon and sequin.
Instead of celebrating the Year of the Snake, we organized a funeral.
Throughout my adulthood, I was too resentful to show that I cared about my mother’s life. I had a tough time composing her obituary and asked the director managing Aegis Gardens for suggestions. She told me, “Your mother was beautiful inside and outside. She loved life. She loved to dance, and dancing was so good for dementia. She kept telling me how she would love to dance with you. Lixian, your mother always remembered your name.”
Two days after returning to Connecticut from the funeral, I filed for divorce. Knowing that my mother and God were on my side, I was unshackled from shame and fear. My heart had been shattered, but not my spirit. Like my mother, I knew I would survive with dignity.
Going through Mom’s possessions, I came across my parents’ marriage certificate and my Hong Kong birth certificate. For the first time, I discovered that I was born out of wedlock. Did Mom marry Dad for love? Or did she marry him to shield her baby girl from the shame of being a “sampan kid”?
My mother endured a life of adversity. Her father’s murder. The atrocities of war. Twenty-four years of exile in Alaska. A lonely marriage with a husband who became her mission of mercy. She surrendered to her fate in silence. Was silence the scalpel to remove anguish and horror from her memory? Was aphasia about people and events the prescription for surviving her present?
I wish I had had the last dance with Mom. I wish I could hold her, step, side, step and waltz across lost time and space. Just as with Sarah, I wish I could sing out loud with Mom. I wish I could unlock her voice, so she could pass on to me her thwarted dreams, unspoken truths, love and loss.
I never did.
I wish Mom had told me that she loved me.
She never did.
But does it matter? What matters is my mother always remembered my name.
Monica L. Woo is a first-generation Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong who relocated as a teenager to Anchorage, Alaska, where she had to learn English and assimilate to the American culture. With determination and hard work, she went from waiting tables at her father’s hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Alaska to the executive suites of major global corporations. With her stories, she hopes to inspire all people that life is not about survival of the fittest, but evolution to better versions of ourselves. Her creative nonfiction piece, “The Escort Nun” was featured in Rigorous, Vol. 5, Issue 1. A flash nonfiction was published by OptionB.org in June 2017.