There was only one old Chinese man in the pop culture I consumed as a child—the owner of the pawn shop in the movie Gremlins. If you don’t recall Mr Wing, you didn’t miss much. He was a minor character. His entire screen time must have amounted to a few minutes. And yet I do remember him. Mr Wing was notable for his triangular beard and black silk pyjamas—an outfit more appropriate for an opium den than a career in retail. The old man oozed Confucian wisdom, and yet somehow, before the conclusion of the first scene, he’d been outsmarted by the unimaginative efforts of his baseball-capped grandson.
Fortunately for me, I knew another version.
My grandfather, Cheng Hoi Hing, was born in 1920, the eldest son in a family of eleven children. By the time I moved to Hong Kong in 1986, Granddad was sixty-six years old. Unlike my grandma, who couldn’t speak a word of English, Yeh Yeh—a retired policeman in British-ruled Hong Kong—was fluent in my native tongue.
Like most children, I didn’t show much enthusiasm for my granddad’s tales from the past. I was a typical self-absorbed kid. His stories struck me as irrelevant, out-of-date and boring. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised these anecdotes had, almost involuntarily, seeped into my brain. I’d heard them so many times—both directly from Granddad and later, summarised by my father—that the narratives had become as familiar to me as fairytales.
And so I knew that at age twenty, in spite of being pursued by the daughter of a rich family, Cheng Hoi Hing had fallen in love with Yu So Lin—the woman who would one day become my grandmother. And I knew that he’d sent a boy to her house with a letter, inviting her to meet him at the tram stop where he would be waiting for her, wearing a freshly pressed green suit.
He may not have known kung fu, but as a young policeman after the war, my grandfather had been the sole provider for not only his wife and children (he had five of them at the time) but his mother, sister, niece, brother and sister-in-law too—all of whom shared the tiny two-bedroom flat in the old tenement building on Hong Kong island. Not long before he died from a burst aneurysm, Yeh Yeh admitted to my dad that the burden of responsibility during those early years very nearly killed him.
He may not have quoted Confucius, but Yeh Yeh led by example. In spite of the many mouths he had to feed, he was one of the few officers in the police force who refused to accept bribes. This created a rift between him and his peers, which effectively excluded him from promotions. Before he trained and excelled as a handwriting expert, he was frequently relegated to menial jobs like arresting street hawkers—a task he found so needlessly punitive, he would often pay the hawkers’ fines for them.
He may not have had a long white beard (his chin was so smooth, I’m not sure he could’ve grown one even if he’d wanted to) but Granddad was a spiritual man. If a sparrow ever landed on his windowsill, he would talk to it, convinced it was the spirit of Hung Yuk—his eldest daughter who died from meningitis during the war—returned from the after life to visit him.
But Yeh Yeh was not perfect. The man I knew barked orders at waiters, fought loudly and often with his wife, and bragged shamelessly about the achievements of his children to anybody who would listen.
He was a fully formed, flawed and much-loved human being.
Nothing like Mr Wing from Gremlins.
When I remember Yeh Yeh now, I prefer not to recall the open casket, an air conditioner blasting icy wind across his waxy face. Instead I like to imagine him as a young man, waiting at a tram stop for the arrival of a beautiful woman, his heart fluttering like a bird beneath the lapels of his green suit.