The Nanfang / Blog


97-year-old Cantonese woman discusses her extraordinary life

Posted: 07/26/2012 7:00 am

The life journey of Zhang Yunqin, 97, has taken her from Zhongshan, to Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, according to a report in the Southern Metropolis Daily. In 2008, Zhang returned to her beloved hometown of Zhongshan, to once again be with her family. The SMD caught up with Zhang to recount some of her extraordinary life story.

Referred to as a “Spinster”, “Australian”, “English speaker and coffee lover”, Zhang remains a passionate, cheerful, vibrant, and humorous woman. Her only qualm is the occasional pain in her knees: “Perhaps Yan Wang Ye, a figure in Chinese mythology who takes away the dead, has forgotten about me!” she says. “I think it is my disciplined lifestyle and hard work that keep me healthy.”

Zhang decided at a very early age that she would be single her whole life, a decision she remains at peace with. And yet despite being separated from her family, and no shortage of adversity, when Zhang reflects upon her nearly 100 years on the planet, a child-like grin comes across her face: “I come from a big family that was very poor,” says Zhang. As a result, Zhang was forced to become financially independent at a very early age. The second of 14 children, and eldest girl, she was sent to live with her aunt in Hong Kong when she was only 4-years-old. There she worked as a live-in maid for a rich family, where life was anything but easy: “I missed home every single day”, she says. But for the sake of her brothers and sisters, she worked ever harder.

After ten years in Hong Kong, Zhang moved to Singapore, where she worked for a British serviceman’s family. Knowing no English and unable to communicate with her employer, she had to study the language in her free time. Several years later, the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japan meant Zhang once again had to move; this time to Australia. Despite the distance, Zhang thought of nothing more than her family back in Zhongshan, and continued to send nearly all of her money home to support them.

Years of living abroad have left their mark on every facet of Zhang’s life, particularly for the simple things, such as food. Even today, she enjoys bread and coffee for breakfast, serves guests salad, and criticizes the butter in China as “inauthentic”.

Early in the last century, Zhang’s home village of Xianlong, whose population was only a few hundred, had a system which saw nearly twenty single women like Zhang move abroad so they could work and provide remittance for their families. But today, there are only three women taking part in the program. Unlike the other two (one went to Singapore and the other to Malaysia), upon her return to Zhongshan, Zhang didn’t seek to regain her Chinese citizenship. She remains an Australian citizen, albeit for one very practical reason: the pension in Australia is much higher than in China.

Here’s wishing Zhang many more years of happiness, fresh bread and authentic butter.

  • dragonWave

    kudos on reporting/translating this kind of stuff. two thumbs up, nanfang!

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