The Kwan Family Chronicles

A diary of old Hong Kong – translated by Rosalyn Shih


From the translator:

A few months ago, an old newspaper article about my great-grandfather resurfaced, leading to a huge family discussion. To make sure the family record wouldn’t slip from memory, my grandmother, Kwan Yuek Laan, began writing our family history at the ripe age of 93. She was born and grew up in Hong Kong but currently lives in Toronto with her daughters, who immigrated decades before Hong Kong’s handover. I’m delighted to share my grandmother’s writing with the Anthill, and here is a translated, fact-checked and edited excerpt.


Kwan Fan-faat is my father, your mother’s grandfather, and your great grandfather. His hometown is Guangdong Province, Nam Hoi County, Nine Rivers Township, Hong Sheng Village.

Szeto-chau or Szeto is my mother, your mother’s grandmother, and your great-grandmother. Her hometown is Guangdong Province, Hoi Ping Township, Chek Ham Village.

Szeto’s godfather (surnamed Chan) was friends with my father’s uncle, Poon Yik-gai. My parents first met at a match-making “blind date” in a tea-house. My mother had no idea of the arrangement; she only thought her godfather had invited everyone to yumcha or afternoon tea that day. How could she know that strangers, including my father, would be there? She was very surprised. When she noticed my father staring at her, she was very displeased and returned his gaze. Who knew that that their looks would become the red thread of Yue Lao that would tie the couple together? [RS: Yue Lao, or the Man on the Moon, was the traditional deity responsible for arranging marriages. His red silken cords are akin to cupid’s arrows.]

Uncle Poon really admired my mother. He not only could see that she was a great beauty, but he also felt that her strong personality would make her a virtuous wife. She was a good match for his distinguished godson, he felt. Only later did my mother’s godfather tell her all this, and in time she passed on the story to me.


My mother and father grew up in the “old society”, and you married early then, especially if you were a girl. If you were twenty years old and you still hadn’t married, there was a saying, “unmarried apricot without a marriage date” [嫁杏无期], which meant that you had a slim chance of finding a match.

People at the time had the habit of counting your age as one from the time of birth. During the Chinese New Year you would add another year. So even if you were born on New Year’s Eve, you would be two years old on New Year’s Day.

When father married, he was seventeen, and mother was eighteen; they were both born in the tenth month of the Lunar Calendar. To “modern” people these days, they must have seemed very young when they married.

Marriage at the time was considered your fate; it was determined by your parents and the matchmaker, considered a “blind marriage”. There was no concept of free love. People married first, and then developed feelings afterwards. As soon as mother and father married, however, they were very affectionate towards one another. They were very much in love. It was not long before they had their first son, Kwong-pui.

My father often had to go on business trips to Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province to buy tea leaves, or to Hanoi in Vietnam to inspect his business by the coastal borders. Even during his busy work, he wrote frequent letters home asking of my mother’s health.


Father placed a lot of importance on his marriage. Although they lived during what we would call the “feudal society”, he loved to read. He bought all kinds of novels, newspapers and translations of English books. He was especially curious about what Westerners thought of wedding anniversaries.

To express his devotion to the marriage, father threw a big celebration for their 30th wedding anniversary, the Coral Anniversary, in 1946, and they had their Pearl Anniversary five years later. In 1966, they held a lavish Golden Anniversary to celebrate fifty years of marriage.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, Hong Kong's economy took some time to recover. Eventually it surpassed its former glory, but I had never heard of Golden Anniversary celebrations in Hong Kong before my parents celebrated theirs. It was a huge occasion, and all the reporters in Hong Kong fought to get the story out the next day. Soon it was the talk of the town! Afterwards, some of the wealthiest families in Hong Kong thought the Golden Anniversary celebration was both meaningful and fashionable, so they followed suit.

In anticipation of the Golden Anniversary, mother, her three daughters-in-law and I had the tailor make us special dresses and matching jackets with mandarin collars. All the clothes were sewn with gold and silver thread. Father wore a traditional long blue gown with a black buttoned-down jacket, and each of his three sons wore a new Western suit. All the grandchildren had new clothes too. Mother and father also ordered commemorative golden medallions for the guests to button on their clothes.

Mother’s good friends all came to the Kwan household the morning before the banquet to offer their congratulations. They brought special gifts, including a crown made of K Gold [RS: gold alloyed with other precious metals] to celebrate my mother’s “coronation”, a sign of respect for her age. They were all younger than mother, but they admired her graciousness and poise. She was elegant and attentive, full of love and guidance for others. Her friends considered her elderly, and they respected her as their bosom friend. The difference in age did not matter.

The banquet was held on Des Voeux Road, Central, on the two floors of the Moon Villa Restaurant in the Li Po Chun Building. There were ten tables, and it was very bustling. According to hearsay, it was one of the first Golden Anniversary celebrations in Hong Kong.


It was my parents’ greatest wish to celebrate the most significant wedding anniversary according to Chinese custom, the re-unification of the flower candles [花烛重逢], which is the 60th anniversary. During a traditional ceremony, the couples would wear their wedding clothes and light double happiness candles in the bridal chamber to commemorate their union.

My parents hoped that if they were still alive sixty years after their marriage, they would invite all their relatives and friends for a lavish banquet to re-light the flower candles. Sadly, my mother passed away due to sickness before the anniversary came. Had she lived a few more years, they would have fulfilled their wish. Father was heartbroken; he was beyond consolation.

Mother passed away at home. It was Chinese tradition for the deceased to be placed in a wooden bed in a corner of the living room. Father’s bedroom was separated from mother’s bed by one wall. In the days leading up to her burial, my father would look at her in the morning and before he went to bed. He would stroke her icy hands and watch her sleeping face. Sister Feng, the servant lady who attended my father, told me that she accumulated a pile of crumpled tissues each morning after she swept my father’s room. The tissues were what he used to wipe away the shadows from the dark corners of his face.

I’ll always remember the way my mother looked during her Golden Anniversary. That night, my mother read the celebratory speeches and sang. She was dressed like royalty, and she was flawless.

Rosalyn Shih is from Hong Kong and lives in Beijing

Rosalyn's grandmother Kwan Yuek Laan as an infant in Hong Kong, with her mother Szeto-chau