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My father’s name was Cher Hoi Lim, and he was born in the Guangdong province of China in 1911. He left behind his wife and son in search of business opportunities and wealth to provide a decent standard of living for his family. Father made his way to Srok Khmer (the term Khmer people used to refer to Cambodia) and found that the expanding Vietnam War was making it difficult to travel. He assumed for a while that the region would return to normal, but as time passed it became increasingly plain that he would be unable to return home for some time. Months became years, but events never allowed him to leave. Eventually he accepted the inevitable and began a new life in his adopted country. Though he never spoke of his former life and never returned to his homeland, he continued to send money back to his first wife and son in China until the day he died. Most of his time in Cambodia up until the time he met my mother remains largely a mystery to my entire family.
My maternal grandfather Ou Seng Tang was also initially from China, and also left in search of wealth. He was a bachelor when he arrived in Cambodia and married my locally born grandmother, whose name was Chai Kin. They lived in Kampong Cham, the third largest city in Cambodia, and had two sons and four daughters. One of the daughters died when she was only ten years old, and none of the girls ever went to school. Grandfather held to the belief that it was an unnecessary expense to educate his daughters. It was unseemly, if not actually forbidden, for girls to attend school. He said that he did not want his daughters to be educated; they might write love letters before a suitable marriage could be arranged. One could argue that it was not a very good excuse since many wealthy families sent their daughters to school.
Grandfather supported his family by selling the sort of knick-knacks that can still be bought in Cambodia today for the equivalent of a few dollars. He was on his feet all day carrying a bamboo stick that stretched across his shoulders, with a woven prakea basket, containing his livelihood suspended at each end. Grandfather worked hard to put food on the table, mainly rice, which was the staple food and an unofficial second currency in Cambodia. A great deal of maintaining one’s status, or ‘face’, depended on providing a steady supply of this all too precious commodity. My grandparents were very poor, barely scraping through each day. My grandfather died when his wife was six months pregnant with their youngest son.
My mother’s name is Tai Keng Tang. She was seventeen at the time of her father’s death, which left the family with no financial support whatsoever. They had no savings and could not rely upon their relatives for support, because Grandfather had died owing them money. Being the eldest child, my mother became the family’s provider by making scarves, mosquito nets and robes for the many Buddhist monks in the town. She also sold sweets for cash or in exchange for rice from farmers who had extra grain to trade. After my grandmother had given birth she could again help my mother, along with her two younger sisters, who were fifteen and eleven. The other siblings were too young to be of any help in earning income.
While my mother struggled to keep her family fed, Grand-mother was busy entertaining semi-professional matchmakers in order to find a suitable husband for her daughter to marry. Love or personal preference on the part of the bride-to-be was neither here nor there; Grandmother would make the final decision. Matchmakers were usually engaged by the parents of boys, both to speed up the process and to try to ensure a compatible couple. The matchmaker was given a set of criteria and set about finding eligible women, usually beginning with some covert surveillance to find out what the potential brides were like. Once the field was narrowed, neighbours would be questioned about the girl’s reputation. Too many boyfriends, a lack of cooking skills, an unkempt house or a history of family disease would halt the process right there. Good looks only came into the equation if specifically requested, and if everything was to the matchmaker’s satisfaction, the parents of the girl were then approached.
Grandmother told the matchmakers that her daughter was hard working, frugal with money, a good cook—and just a little feisty. A tendency to speak her mind was not too great a handicap in light of my mother’s positive traits, and several proposals were made. Grandmother weighed the various offers as if the nuptials were a potential business deal, trying to ensure that the marriage would help her family get out of its dire financial situation. This was the standard practice at a time when marrying for love was seen as silly, or at least shortsighted. My mother and her husband-to-be never laid eyes on each other before their wedding day.
The time-honoured system of family sponsored courtship failed rather miserably from time to time. Mother divorced her first husband after an unhappy two years in order to escape his drinking, gambling and physically abusive behaviour. They had no children but even so, during that era divorce was a very rare phenomenon in Cambodia, regardless of how badly a husband might treat his wife. Airing one’s dirty laundry in public was not at all socially acceptable, and people openly showed their disapproval by gossiping or making snide remarks in order to demean her and the rest of the family. Some people would be nice to her face, and then whisper about her behind her back. Sympathy sometimes had an ugly face. She had to put up with the shame of leaving her husband, and both she and her family were social outcasts until she married my father three years later. It did not matter that she was the one who had been wronged; she was the wife and bore the brunt of blame from relatives and strangers alike. Women were meant to be obedient and unquestioning, which my mother was not when she felt strongly about an issue.
My father had also engaged a matchmaker to find a wife and as before, there was no introduction or consultation with the bride-to-be before the wedding day. Prior to the ceremony, Father’s main fear was that he would be presented with a girl with a scarred face. Chinese belief dictated that anyone with deformed features would quite literally be bad for business. This concern was made worse by the fact that mother actively avoided letting any potential suitors see her face. She did not want to be overly forward and sought to appear as a well-behaved girl. Mother had been told that her husband-to-be was wealthy and did not drink or gamble, so a less than perfect face would be just fine by her. Three years after his first Cambodian wife died, Father, who was then forty-five, married my twenty-five year old mother in an elaborate wedding ceremony.
The date for the celebration was chosen by a fortune teller who based her decision on the animal birth signs of the bride and groom. If the lucky day fell at an inconvenient time for those invited, this would not affect the wedding plans at all. People simply had to rearrange their affairs in order to attend. The event was a fusion of traditional Cambodian and Buddhist customs, and the symbol laden ceremonies ran more or less non-stop for three days and nights.
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Genre – Memoir
Rating – PG13
Quality Reads UK Book Club Disclosure: Author interview / guest post has been submitted by the author and previously used on other sites.