Life Writing is History Making: Amy Lau’s “Memories of Old Macau: The Story of My Childhood,” translated from Chinese by Gigi Lam and Dr. Wai Man Chan

By Leilei Chen / 莫译

Memories of Old Macau, translated from Chinese by Gigi Lam and Dr. Wai Man Chan, captures a bygone way of life in postcolonial Macau in southern China, where the author, Amy Lau, spent her childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. This memoir narrates the cultural history of the Portuguese colony before global capitalism changed the place. The city’s dazzling diversity and the cultural connectivity Lau’s writing conjures up make Memories of Old Macau both entertaining and enlightening.

The nuanced descriptions reconstruct Macau’s cityscape and social life that barely exist today. Following the writer’s recollections, readers travel back in time and find themselves riding in a green-roofed pedicab or cycle rickshaw looking at the Little Bookstore, the pawnshop, St. Anthony’s church, or Tak Ming Tea Restaurant that lined Macau’s streets. They see Macau’s tenements unequipped with flush toilets, the Pacapio Store that sold tickets for gambling, the floating casino, and the temporary theatre built from bamboo scaffolding for the performance of Cantonese opera. The book’s documentary value is enhanced by the paratexts which include a list of “The Portuguese Chinese Place Names,” a map of the “Neighbourhood Where the Author Spent Her Childhood,” illustrations of the city’s architectures and life scenes created by Macau’s local artist Chan Iu-Pui, footnotes, and an index. The book’s well-documented past reminds us of the importance of recording our daily lives.

In 1958 the writer moved from Canton to Macau when she was three years old and spent eight years there before moving to Hong Kong and eventually to Canada. Macau’s diversity emerges clearly from her story – a place where Confucian values met Catholic forms, Cantonese dim sum was consumed in western-style restaurants, and Chinese ways of life swung vividly in the grid of streets with Portuguese names. She remembers Wong Mei Chun, a Chinese Peruvian who came to Macau to study Chinese, the principle of Escola Canossa Pui Ching who was “a mixed-race Chinese Mexican” and “spoke fluent Chinese, English and Spanish,” and a Russian “speaking Cantonese with a Western accent.” The rich mixture of disparate cultural elements proves an eye-opener that unsettles familiar views of China; it loosens the tie between race and place.

The book is structured in seventy vignettes, each standing on its own but connecting with the others to form a unified whole piece. Such an arrangement may seem choppy, and the readers may encounter an occasional repetition of some details, yet the minute record of memories narrated in a leisurely, lullaby-like pace make the book a charming and relaxing read. One may even consider reading some chapters as bedtime stories to kids.  

The child’s joy of growing up in a love-filled family and living a colourful communal life go hand in hand with the harsh reality of following her parents around who ran a stall business in the street. The bittersweet experiences, the fun, the pain, the fear, the longing, the disappointment, and the hope Lau recollects elicit readers’ empathy, and allow them to see human connections across historical and cultural boundaries. The specificity of the book’s content is also where the reader sees universality and connectivity.

The gentleness and warmth of Lau’s nostalgic account invite a critical consideration of global capitalism and many of its ills. The fond memories suggest that, despite the many benefits technological and economic development have created for humanity, such advancement has also been destroying the planet’s ecological balance. “At the time, we did not use the term ‘environmental protection’, but we were practising it all the time” (142), the writer observes, and continues:

When we bought meat and vegetables at the wet market, we used salt water grass to tie them for dangling along. There were no plastic bags back then. We paid a twenty-cent deposit for each bottle of soda and got it back when we returned the bottle, so no bottle would be discarded. When we bought salt, sugar, oil, vinegar and the like, we brought our own bottles and containers. We used a half coconut shell for scooping water. [. . .] Clothing donation bins did not exist, so worn out clothes would be used as rags for wiping the floor. (142)

Or, as Lau concludes, “Happiness was so simple when I was a child!” (81). The text then also exposes the violence that consumerism inflicts upon our environmental and social wellbeing.

Along with her previous three books written in Chinese – Chinese-Canadians: Thirty-Three Stories (1994), Looking Back: My Seven Years in Edmonton (2008), and My Childhood in Canton (2017), Lau’s life writing offers a delightful pigment to the colourful tapestry of Chinese diaspora literature. The Mandarin original of the reviewed book – published in traditional Chinese – was a four-time #1 bestseller in Macau. A Chinese Canadian writer who writes in her heritage language, Lau expands our horizon of Chinese Canadian literature.

The translation is the result of the collaborative effort of Gigi Lam and Dr. Wai Man Chan. Lam is a translator based in Macau while Dr. Wai Man Chan is a physician, columnist, and the author of Reading Chinese Poems with Bi-literacy & Tri-lingualism 《兩文三語讀古詩》– a book that helps overseas Chinese learn Putonghua and Cantonese through reading classical Chinese poetry. Their English translation is faithful to the original in that it captures the light-hearted rhythm of the narrative which accentuates the childhood innocence and the pleasure of reminiscence. Readers who can read both the original and the translated versions may find themselves chuckling at the same scene.

The vicissitudes of Lau’s memorable life experience rendered in English through the joint work of Lam and Chan form an essential part of Macau’s history. The book’s special rootedness in time and place allows readers to question familiar racial and cultural stereotypes. As it represents the early part of the author’s lifelong journey of migration, the memoir also asks readers to imagine the possibility of negotiating difference towards a productive cultural understanding.

Lau, Amy. Memories of Old Macau: The Story of My Childhood, Translated by Gigi Lam and Wai Man Chan. Hong Kong: Red Corporation Limited, 2022.

Leilei Chen / 莫译 is a literary translator, bilingual writer, and scholar. She published the Mandarin version of Steven Grosby’s Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) with Nanjing’s Yilin Press in 2017 and Hong Kong’s Oxford University Press in 2020. She is the author of Re-orienting China: Travel Writing and Cross-cultural Understanding (University of Regina Press, 2016). Her poetry and prose translations, and poetry and personal essays appear in literary anthologies such as Home: Stories Connecting Us All (Embracing Multicultural Community Development, 2017), Looking Back, Moving Forward (Mawenzi House, 2019), Beyond the Food Court: An Anthology of Literary Cuisines (Laberinto Press, 2020); as well as in journals and magazines in Canada and beyond. She teaches at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Alberta and serves as Vice President of Canada-China Friendship Society of Edmonton and Vice President (West Canada) of the Literary Translators Association of Canada.

One comment

  1. Ephrem Cheng · · Reply

    Wonderful work – well deserved recognition ! Ephrem

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