Tracing My Grandparents’ Pen

Writer & Translator
Picture of John Peter Chua

John Peter Chua

John Peter C. Chua 蔡天祥 is a filmmaker and writer who explores the often-overlooked stories of the Chinese Filipino community.

Picture of Gershom Chua

Gershom Chua

Gershom C. Chua 蔡天龍 lectures on film theory, criticism, and cinema studies at the University of the Philippines Film Institute.

John Peter Chua reconnects with his heritage via a translation of his grandparents’ work, reminding us how history will always be inside us, no matter where we go.
A collage of John Peter Chua's photos with his grandparents.

Growing up as one of the youngest among the cousins, I was never allowed to join my brother and my sister, who are eight and seven years older than me respectively, spend the summers in our ancestral home with our grandparents and cousins. My mom said I was too young and that my time would come. But when I got old enough to spend my summers there, my grandparents were then unable to accommodate my visits because of their advancing age. It was difficult to accept, because this meant missed opportunities to have personal experiences with them and learn our native tongue Hokkien from my grandparents. 

In college, I started learning filmmaking, and I hoped to create a documentary about my grandmother’s cooking as a way to get to know her better. Unfortunately, this was also the time when her illness began to worsen. It didn’t help that my grasp on our native tongue, Philippine Hokkien or Lannang-ue, wasn’t as good, so I had to rely on my brother to both speak on my behalf and learn from him the stories that my grandparents had previously shared. And so, my relationship with my grandparents was one that was always mediated by my brother and was filled with missed chances—never meeting at the right place or time. 

In 2021, my grandmother passed away. As the only photographer in the family, I was tasked to create her funeral portrait. At that moment, I realized how painful it was for me as her grandson, someone who loved her deeply, to try and memorialize her life in a single photo despite not knowing her as deeply and as intimitaly as I would have wanted. It made me feel embarrassed and powerless. It dawned on me that even before her passing, I was already grieving for the lost chances of shared experiences and forming a deeper relationship with her.

A few weeks after her passing, I was surprised by a message from my second aunt in our family group chat. It was a tribute written by Lin Binghui (林炳輝), a good friend of my grandparents and the director of the Philippine Chinese Writers Association, published in one of our local Chinese newspapers. In the tribute, he writes:

Newspaper tribute by Lin Binghui

Tiu Siok Cheng’s prose is worthy of recognition. Now that she is gone, the books she left behind are undoubtedly valuable pieces of contribution to the Filipino-Chinese literary world and are worthy of collection and study by future generations. Works by female writers are even more precious in the Philippines! 

Trapped in the mainland due to COVID-19, I was shocked to hear the tragic news about Siok Cheng’s passing. I consider her a friend in literature. Why did she leave like this? We are still waiting for the pandemic to end, so we can finally see her and her husband and get our hands on her new book!

Tiu Siok Cheng is gone, but what she has left us is how, as members of the Philippine Chinese Writers’ Association, we can contribute to the development of the association and of Filipino-Chinese literature, so that we can be worthy of being called writers!

When I read Mr. Lin’s tribute to my grandmother, it was as if I was meeting her again for the first time. Despite her not being with us anymore, she felt more alive than ever through Mr. Lin’s tribute. And for the first time, I learned that my grandparents are well-regarded writers by the Filipino-Chinese and overseas Chinese community.

Growing up, my grandparents were both active writers and would go on to publish five books of their Chinese-language essays and short stories. I never imagined myself being able to read their works because both my Chinese and Hokkien skills left a lot of room to be desired. But since reading Mr. Lin’s tribute, I realized I still have the opportunity to encounter my grandparents through their writings. 

And so, this collection, Tracing My Grandparents’ Pen, is my way of re-encountering my grandparents for the first time. 

To begin this project, I scanned the entirety of my grandparents’ last book, Light Up the Lamp in Your Heart點亮心中那盞燈, which is a compilation of their representative works. After that, I ran the entire text through Google Translate, so I could read and understand the themes and stories surrounding their writing. This process in itself was very eye-opening and informative. From the insights I gained from the entire book, I then selected key essays and stories that highlight my grandparents’ lives and rearranged them to show their journey as individuals and as a couple. Afterwards, with my brother’s lead, we translated and edited the selected essays and stories to match my grandparents’ original tone and style. Lastly, I wrote reflections that accompanied each chapter to synthesize learnings from the essays, the historical contexts of when they were written, and the conversations I had with my family about my grandparents’ lives and works.

Although this is a very personal endeavor, I hope this sparks an interest for other third-generation Chinese Filipinos like me who may be losing their sense of connection to their families’ personal histories and, by extension, to their Chinese heritage, to try and reconnect with their roots as well. 

Ultimately, this is my love letter to my grandparents. That although there are many gaps—generational, cultural and linguistic—that remain seemingly impossible to cross, we have this collection where their words and mine can interwine and, together, trace a love that once may have been faint but now made more visible and accessible through translation.

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  • Tracing My Grandparents’ Pen

    Posted by Rohin on 27 June 2024 at 6:21 pm

    John Peter Chua reconnects with his heritage via a translation of his grandparents’ work, reminding us how history will always be inside us, no matter where we go. Read more.

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Original Works by Chua Bing Ching 蔡明正 and Tiu Siok Cheng 張淑清

English Translations by Gershom Chua 蔡天龍 and John Peter Chua 蔡天祥

Curation and Reflections by John Peter Chua 蔡天祥

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