Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, February 20, 2015

Big questions from Uncle Georgie

So we are sitting in the kitchen talking about old times. Isn't that what you do when you haven't connected with someone in donkey years? And the burning question turns out to be, "why did the old man choose Trinidad?"

The "old man" is his father, my paternal grandfather, who - we think - first left China in the late twenties (1929?). What was he looking for when he made that trip - by boat across the Pacific, by train across Canada, and by boat heading south in the Atlantic - to Trinidad? When he returned to China in the early thirties, the Sino-Japanese war was heating up. He would bring his family (wife, three sons and a daughter) out of China to Trinidad by the end of the thirties, just as World War II was starting.

What were the choices for Chinese leaving China in the thirties? The west coast of North America - Vancouver, San Francisco - may have been too cold. He was from Guangzhou in (then) Canton province, sub-tropical, and a busy sea port. Panama may have been too hot. But Trinidad in the south Caribbean might have felt like home.

Uncle Georgie (as we always called him) was the first of the Tai Yow's children to be born in Trinidad, in March 1940. Since that first trip in the late twenties, it seems the old man had already started another family in Trinidad, in Belmont: Gladys's children - Leslie, Moy, Buck and Kenneth - were growing up "in parallel" with the newcomers from China.

He remembers the shop on St Francois Valley Road. His mother ran the shop - with dawn to dusk work and little or no English - and anchored the family. Two younger sisters were born here. He remembers the cooking-living area behind the shop, the one bedroom with its bunk beds and roll-out cot, the basic sanitation. His real boy days were outside on the streets where he joined friends - Telemaque, Matura, among others - to do what teen boys do: fish in the St Ann's river, catch birds, go to the movies, and form a panside. They were the original All Stars steelband. Georgie - "I couldn't carry a tune" - played the bass. Towards the end of the fifties, a meeting over "some drinks" with jefes resulted in a splinter group from Invaders taking over the All Stars name and band.

By the time George Michael Wong Chong graduated from St Mary's College, his brother my father Cecil was moving to Santa Cruz to be a poultry farmer. Uncle Georgie came to live with him and to help out on the farm. It was during that time that an expedition to Matura for leatherback turtle ended in disaster. My father had to hustle to the site of the accident that left three or four of the "hunters" scarred for life. "Caldong" became the byword for something to be survived, illicit, dangerous and a warning.

When he lived with us on the farm, Uncle Georgie occupied the top bunk in the second bedroom of the small refurbished farm house; I was on the bottom, my sisters on the double bed.
Yvonne, my mother and Georgie in the mid-sixties (?)

Uncle Georgie and my mother used to laugh a lot!

Some fifty years later, he reflects, "What models did I have? My father with his two families, walking distance apart, in Belmont. Two older brothers with failed marriages, and children that Amo (mother) raised. And your father (the third brother) who had quarrelled with the old man. Your parents were the best model that I had." And so, Uncle Georgie went off to university in Canada, where he met and married Mari-Lou Santiago from the Philipines, and with will and determination, made it through graduate school, and a life far from Belmont.

They were living in Dayton Ohio when I went to university in Virginia. In December 1970, I travelled by train from Roanoke to Cincinatti. We met in the dreary station, me with eyes blue-black from a car crash a few weeks before, Mari-Lou heavily pregnant. Their first daughter Micheline was born a few months later. That Christmas, it snowed in Dayton. Mari-Lou made avocado ice cream. And I returned to Virginia and mid-winter snows, a little warmed.

The next forty years were punctuated by cataclysmic and minor family events: deaths, marriages, births and careers. Georgie spent most of his life as an environmental engineer, designing and retro-designing industrial waste systems, living in Pennsylvania, travelling to many places including a stint in China. Recently, he and Mari-Lou moved to a retirement/ resort on the coast of North Carolina, where he is a master gardener, a teacher and a volunteer. Alexine and her family live in New Jersey. Micheline is the lawyer in Seattle Washington.

The whole family came to Trinidad for Carnival in the early 1990s. George and Mari-Lou renewed their vows for their 25th wedding anniversary, in the chapel of St Mary's College, where Fr Lai Fook officiated. Fortunately for so many of us, it was school that saved us and prepared us for lives beyond the immigrant experience.

This weekend (Carnival 2015) George renewed ties with his older brother Henry; and friendships with siblings of the other mother, Kenneth, Yolande and Carol. It was a time to settle the issues left by the old man; to assuage some of the pain inflicted as he made his way in the world, an adventurer, a charmer, an opportunist, a procurer, a "smartman," a smoker (harsh Anchor cigarettes) and a drinker.  We believed he died of tuberculosis, but it turns out, stomach cancer did him in.

So many questions remain. What was his occupation in China when he met and married Young Tai Yow, just 17 or 18 and a rice field worker? Why did he come to Trinidad?

George and Mari-Lou
Carnival Monday 2015: Maracas

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The shopkeeper's daughters

Before I was a farmer's daughter, I was a shopkeeper's daughter. My father was given a shop to run by his father whose first shop was in Belmont. In my father's shop in Laventille, I was about a year old, in a toilet paper box as my playpen. My sister was born a year after me so I am assuming he shared the child minding by taking me to the shop. And then he graduated to the shop in Woodbrook.

In the Woodbrook corner shop, great barn doors opened to Gatacre Street, and on the side, to Baden-Powell Street. When these were shut and barred with heavy two-by-fours slotted in large metal brackets, the inside of the shop was dark as a cave. I can smell the brown sugar moist in hundred pound burlap bags. I can smell the dusty corny chicken feed in printed cotton bags. I can smell the sea-salty tail ends of dried cod and the briny stink of salt beef or pigs tails. Everything had a smell when the shop was closed and cool and dark. Even the salt butter in its pan under the counter registered a rich oily aroma. As did the crisp Crix, or sweet Mopsy. There were loud smells and subtler fragrant ones like sweet salt prunes; some forgotten until somewhere in the dim reaches of Wing Sing on Charlotte street or the Central Market, some unremembered thing tickles the nose and takes me back decades to the four-year-old child hiding in the shop.

One time, my mother told us, I was standing hip high next to our helper, and made this childish blurt, "Reds, yuh panty smelling stink." It was the sweet stink of saltfish being smuggled in her drawers.

If I had remained a shopkeeper's daughter, would my life have turned out differently? Would I now be trained to the ways of commerce, versed in buying and selling, a profiteer, a member of the mercantile.

I remember the shop as the centre of a kind of street life. It seemed everyone was on familiar terms with my parents. Over the counter was not just trade, but banter and raucous laughter, news and picong. It was "macomere dis" and "compere dat." The Constantines were next door. The Lewises  down Kitchener street. And families I don't remember, my parents knew them, their parents and their children.

Here, my little sister was born on Carnival Saturday. My father put Helen and me - then almost three and four years old - in the car, and told us to stay there. We occupied ourselves tumbling from the front to the back seats, lying on the ledge at the back window to stare at the sky, hiding under the dashboard or hanging on the big steering wheel. When we were fetched - what seemed like a long time but could not have been more than an hour - we had a baby sister, Margaret. This meant tip-toeing around the one bedroom when she was asleep, but I think we spent a lot more time outside. We would be taken to the Woodbrook playground a block away; and once to the Astor cinema (to see Bridge on the river Kwai) an event that ended badly when we sat on our chewed gum. Daddy must have whispered, "Stick your gum under the seat." We heard "on."

Pre-school was owned by Teacher Ivy but left to strict and straight but kind Miss Codrington to run. Dot's Infant Private School was on Ariapita Avenue (later the Cowheel Soup Centre) before it moved to the block behind Astor cinema. When I was four (or five), Venezuelan students stopped me on Ariapita Avenue demanding a kiss for passage on the pavement. I kissed and didn't tell, so mortified, running to catch up with the older children who laughed at me.

Ariapita Avenue was big and wide as a river then, a great divide which we could only cross holding the hand of an adult. Young uncles who lived on French Street took us over to see my grandfather. He was a cheerful soul who let us bounce on his bed and gave us cookies topped with hard icing, made by an English company.

Unaccompanied on the pavement outside the shop, we were never to cross the street. Instead we roamed around the block in the band of neighbourhood children - the older ones looking out for the littler. The block - bounded by Gatacre, Kitchener, Baden-Powell and Colville streets - was our domain, and we were known to all the families.

From this pavement, we waved at Princess Margaret: the shopkeeper's and various unsorted children between and behind the coalman, the boil chataigne vendor, the black pudding vendor, the ironer.

We stayed in Woodbrook until we were in primary school. Tranquillity Girls Government School is about four blocks away to Victoria Avenue. An older girl from Buller Street would walk with Helen and me, just to take us across Tragarete road. Then we would duck under the fence where it cleared the drain on Stanmore Avenue and be in the school yard. This lunchtime, Helen was hopping up and off the big steps outside the closed shops. She fell, hitting her forehead on one of the big hinges of a shop door. She came up blubbering and bawling with blood streaming down her face that could not be stopped with a little hanky. Unable to stand the sight of blood, Mary quickly crossed us over Tragarete and set us on the way back home. Our mother said she came out to see whose child was bawling so hard.

By the year I was taking private lessons at the Phillips Street school just past the cemetery gates, Woodbrook was imprinted on me. Perhaps it was not conscious, but I'd imbibed a sense of order, expectations of decency, civility and trust in those who lived around me. Then one day, I was passing the cemetery gates just as the workers were leaving, armed with diggers and cutlasses. I think they teased me, but it was the fastest I walked home ever; and maybe that's when I learned never to dawdle on the street.

I was five when we moved to Diego Martin and started the commute between Woodbrook and Anne Avenue. We had a house! And a different set of interactions and formalities that came with it. One Sunday evening, our parents left us playing in the yard. They were going - in the car - not too far away and would soon be back. We continued to play. It started to get dark. When our parents returned, we were huddled together on the front steps crying like orphans. My mother laughed at us, the three foolish sisters she called us. We've always been the three sisters; even after my brothers came along. Anne Avenue was a street, a suburb that we barely settled into before we moved again.

By the time I turned seven, my father's dearest wish came true. He bought a farm in Santa Cruz. Everyone said we were moving to the bush. We were "behind God's back." No one would see us. We would run wild. All these things came to pass, as we settled into life on the farm.