Sophie was an indigenous resident of a clan that has lived in Sheung Shui of the New Territories for 21 generations. It is a feudalistic patriarchy where women were nameless in her ancestral halls, had no right of inheritance of land, and no political representation in village councils. When her father did not value education for women, Sophie left Hong Kong at age 20 to pursue higher education and lived in the States for over 30 years, hardly came home until 2007.
Her book was inspired by her favorite writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, and her youngest sister, Stephanie’s active involvement in a social movement to repeal the laws relating to indigenous female residents of the New Territories by forming a coalition of over 20 organizations in Hong Kong. The battle was won in 1991, but it hardly changed the inequality in Sophie’s family and clan.
‘A Shimmering Sea – Hong Kong Stories’ is Sophie’s memoir of life in Hong Kong and quest for home, told through a vivid and lyrical sequence of narratives from 1950’s to 2000.
After meeting with Maxine Hong Kingston at University of Minnesota where Sophie pursued her PhD degree in 1985, Sophie wrote in her diary,” The experience made me realize that no matter how wonderful other people’s stories are, my story is uniquely my own. My mother was unique, and like no other. This began my desire to write my own story and to discuss who my mother really was – and how she had affected my life. That was the beginning of this 30-year journey to write my memoir.”
Silence and breaking silence is a major theme in “The Woman Warrior”. There are 3 kinds of silence, one of which is silence as a symbol of female victimization. By writing, Kingston breaks the taboo on silence and rewrites Chinese American female subjectivity in a way that transcends Chinese patriarchal tradition.
“In my own life, I had long been aware that my mother and I had little to say to each other, except the routine words and everyday exchanges. Being the 9th child out of 10 siblings, and a girl, I was a neglected child. Not having attended school herself, she had no idea what we do there except to learn to read and write and get a diploma. At home, the work of taking care of a household of a dozen people exhausted her. How could she have the energy or desire to “communicate” anything with me? Mother-daughter talks, what other families engage in, was totally absent.”
“It was this absence that left me feeling segregated, lonely and resentful, and the resentment built up over the years until I made up my mind. This,coupled with my mother’s “buried” traditional beliefs and the conflict turmoil and fights at home-made me want to leave home as early as possible. So I finally did, at age 20.”
“To explore and understand this gulf of silence between my mother and me, I must begin to learn from scratch who my mother really was, as her own person. This led to my first piece, “A Little Dot”, a record of my mother’s story telling what her early sufferings as a child bride, her curiosity and her intelligence, as well as her great determination to learn – to participate in a larger world – (even if just by adding little dots in my father’s exercise book!) was what came through at the end. Through the story, I tried to capture the mother whom I know was unique and brave, despite her long suffering and abuse.”
“I decided to let my mother tell her own story, so her voice will come through as unmistakenly her.”
Influenced by Maxine Hong Kingston’s style of writing about the insides of her characters by writing about their dreams, Sophie wrote her book in a similar way, which is how her memoir becomes fiction in some of her stories. For example, in her first story, “Char Hang”, (her mother’s native village) Sophie changed the story both to re-imagine her mother’s life, and to imagine herself in a different relationship to her own story. I love the opening words: “in the beginning, the very beginning of everything, there was that house.” By way of describing her blind grandmother’s house and through her mother’s storytelling, Sophie imagines her mother as a child, “a plump, sturdy, little girl.” Here we also hear about her mother’s great regret in her own voice, ”If I could read or write, I could fly.”.
The story is a blend of memory and fiction from start to finish, but the narrator changes her place in the story – from observer to participant – “Gingerly, I left my seat and sneaked into the side room behind me.” At the close of the story, the narrator/I joins the adults rather than timidly listening in the shadows outside. This poignant moment shows the loneliness of this little Sophie, ever yearning for maternal love and recognition.
Her book is divided into 4 sections from 1950’s to 2000, with 20 short stories based on true characters in her life. Her father attended prestigious King’s College as a scholarship student before becoming an interpreter and government employee at Queen Mary Hospital whereas her mother was an illiterate peasant and a young bride in a blind marriage at age 15 who raised 10 children. Among the episodes, some tell of her growing up during the 60’s: of a grade school classmate’s tragic suicide, her father’s punishment to her mother’s desire to learn to write by adding “little dots” in his exercise book, plainclothes detectives who came to her home to solicit bribe from her father, and the arrival of a feisty domestic helper from the countryside. Sophie tells of her mother’s long illness, of turmoil and fights among family members, her eldest sister’s compulsory marriage as an old maid, and the plight of her female relatives to cope with polygamy and divorce. The story of “Wah Sum” was about her mother and other women in her village, slightly disguised and combined in one character.
Some twenty years later, when Sophie was a student in Minneapolis, memories of these people and places flooded back to haunt her. Sophie eventually returned to Hong Kong in 2007, to live near her native village, to be reconnected to her roots. She completed her book in May, 2012 in the midst of battling ovarian cancer.
According to her youngest sister, Stephanie, “ It is not just Sophie’s memoir, but a powerful statement in refuting the sexist oppression against us – as indigenous female residents of the New Territories who were deprived of land and other rights and equal opportunities for 600 years in a patriarchal Chinese society. She translated the agony of our mother and other relatives into positive energy by reclaiming our past and breaking the silence of women in our past generations.”
It was Sophie’s wish that she dedicated her book to her mother, Mei-Choi Man, her sister, Stephanie, and women in her family.
Sophie has been awarded a posthumous PhD degree by the University of Minnesota based on the merits of her writing project ‘A Shimmering Sea – Hong Kong Stories’. Date of conferment : April 26, 2013.