School | 3

Chiu family’s four children lived next door to us. The elder sister, Chan, was the same age as me. Her brother, with whom I got on quite well, was probably a year or two younger. Their parents wanted more boys but ended up having two more girls instead.

Chan’s father was a primary school teacher and the only one in the family who earned a stable salary. Chan’s grandma and grandad were also living with them. With a family of 8 on one small salary, times were pretty tough for the Chius.

I remember Chan’s grandma worked as a casual labourer delivering coal briquettes up and down the streets. It was a very tough job as the delivery men or women needed to physically carry the coal themselves. At the start of the delivery round, a trolley load of coal briquettes weighed half a ton or more.

Chan’s granddad could not work due to health problems but would go out picking through rubbish heaps for anything of value – in those days, all kinds of things, from old cloth to empty toothpaste tubes could be sold to the recycling stations for some money.

The Chius were a very resourceful bunch. We had food shortages back then so some of us kept a couple of chickens for eggs. The Chius, on the other hand, kept a pig! One morning, I was woken up by a very loud and high pitched howling. Later I was told that it was the pig being slaughtered. Chiu’s children must have been stunned by the slaughtering as there were no more pigs after that. Even now, many years later, I can still vividly remember that howling sound.

Chan’s grandma passed away when Chan and I were about 7 or 8. The heavy coal briquettes had taken their toll. Soon after that Chan’s grandad became mentally unstable – he started cutting up good clothes and sold them as scrap. Before long he also passed away.

After Chan’s grandma and grandad left, all four children lived in the room next door to ours. I spent many evenings there. We could do silly things without being told off by adults, as adults were seldom present there. Most of those evenings ended with a big pillow fight. Chan never joined in. She sometimes had to help out with housework and other times she sat on the upper deck of her bunk bed watching us or reading a book.

I became attracted to Chan when I began being interested in girls. I glanced over to her corner more often. Every time our eyes met, Chan would blush and quickly glance away. However, we did not spend any time alone.

When I was 11, China introduced 11+ exams. I got into a prestigious secondary school located in the “posh” part of the city, which I did not know existed up until that point. I soon got carried away with my big school and new classmates and neglected my pillow fight friends. One day, my mother told me that the Chiu’s had moved away. I hadn’t even noticed.

Over the years, I haven’t thought of Chan much, but when I do I always feel regret and shame. The memory of her face has faded away; all I remember is that she was very pretty.

Male, aged around 50, Southern China
August 2020

Secret Garden

"Secret Garden 2"