The Void

The Memory of Chi Tong

  • TypeText
  • Time2021
  • SourceChi Tang
  • VenueShenyang (China)
  • CopyrightChi Tang

I began to be aware of this unusual history after returning home from school the other day.

In 2018, our family gradually became wealthier, we started to realise that four people couldn't fit in a 38-square-meter one-bedroom apartment. By then, my dad returned from Macau, and I was about to take the National College Entrance Examination. Everyone was very busy, and time was running tight. so we ended up renting a spacious three-bedroom apartment on Cao Cang Road. We were all very happy, except for Grandma.

I didn't understand why she wasn't happy. From then on, she became inconsiderate, offensive, became a hindrance and felt superfluous to her.

From that moment, my parents began to emphasise every day that my grandmother had three daughters and two sons, therefore, our family should be fully responsible for taking care of her in old age. How unfair it was. I thought it might be related to money or that something unusual had happened in the family, but in fact, it hadn't, none of these conflicts could be smoothed over with money.

Once, when I returned home from school, Grandma's room was emptied. I did not have any emotions, and didn't ponder why. I simply felt happy, a sense of liberation.

No one said anything, and I didn't ask any questions. After dinner, my mum came into my room.

"You have no idea how much she made me feel so heartbreaking," my mother sat by my bed, sighed deeply, and began to share her grievances with me. Grandmother had contacted my eldest aunt a while ago, her oldest daughter, who lived upstairs in that 38-square-meter small apartment. We used to be neighbours, and everything was alright. My grandma contacted my aunt and complained that living in that apartment made her suffer, we did not care about her, and she was cold and hungry every day, begging my eldest aunt to take her back home.

This is completely untrue. Despite our family's dislike of her and we yell at each other every day, we still respected her, took care of her, prepared meals, fulfilled her material needs, and helped her take bath.

‘If she wants to go back, let her go. You don't need to take care of her anymore. I think it's fine,’ This is what I advised my mother, and I really hope it will come true.

We continued to live peacefully, freely, and happily for a while. Then, something happened. My eldest aunt kicked my grandmother out of her house, literally.

During this time, my grandmother's children suddenly became united, ethical, and kinder. They brought her to an elderly residential care home. However, my grandmother refused, and she subsequently rented an extremely dilapidated house in a very strange location. To this day, I am still shocked at why such a house would still exist in Shenyang in 2018, with even the windows could not stay open without the extra metal wire support.

This incident also made me become more compassionate.

I went to my grandmother's house and bought her favourite laba congee and fried flour. Her house was cold and stank, and so did she.

She shouted loudly, probably asking how I was doing and criticising my clothes, just like she usually did. She walked uneasily in the house, making exaggerated movements. She had a peculiar way of walking, leaning left and right, with wide swings. Her legs did not bend when walking, and she was pretty tall, about 1.7 meters. Her walking was odd but exceptionally fast. It was because of her feet; she was among the last group of foot-binding women. In Dongbei, we call it ‘liberated feet’. When I was a child, I often applied foot ointment to her feet, a peculiar and terrifying sight. Her feet looked like a cone; the big toe was wrapped by all other four toes, but her feet were not small—around size 37. Perhaps they grew larger after unbinding the foot wraps. Her feet were always cracked, inflammed, itchy, and smelly, much like the tradition of foot binding.

I cautiously followed her, circling around a couple of times when she tried to tidy up the house. Until she had nothing to pack, she sat down and began to cry.

'I don't want to go to the elderly home," her crying was extremely unsettling, terrifying, and I just stood there beside her, not knowing what to do.

"They don't offer any meal, and people die every day. When I was there, I saw them pushing someone out, wrapped in white cloth. People die every day," she said, gripping my hand, squeezing it so hard that her dark, bony hand visibly turned pale.

"They're just sending me there to let me die there. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go."

"Yangfan (I don't really want to write my real name, so I want to use this pseudonym instead)..." Grandma kept calling my name repeatedly, saying, "Take care of me, please take care of me. Just give me some food to eat; they don't want me anymore."

She called my name, and all I wanted to do was escape until her grip gradually weakened. I then mentioned something like going home for dinner and left. Fear was the only thing on my mind.

Various emotions surged within me, and gradually, I felt angry and wronged. I rushed to my eldest aunt's apartment, and pounded on her door. When she opened it, I began to scold her loudly.

It wasn't until both my eldest aunt and I had calmed down that she began to tell what happened after Grandma came to her apartment.

She explained that grandma would leave home every day, sometimes for a long time without returning. However, she was easy to find because she never really left the neighbourhood. She would often hang out at the small courtyard downstairs, at the granny of Zhang Wenyu's (a pseudonym) home, or the nearby market. At first, they didn't pay much attention, thinking it was good for the elderly to go for walks. It wasn't until Zhang Wenyu's grandma found my eldest aunt and questioned why our grandma wasn't given food that they learned what she was doing outside every day.

My grandma complained about my elder aunt everywhere every day, she clearly had eaten enough at home, clearly had access to a toilet and shower at her sister's house. Clearly, she behaved perfectly normally at home, yet she went around crying to the neighbours and market vendors. My eldest aunt ignored her. She claimed she would starve to death right away if not given food, begged for a mouthful to eat, and begged to use a restroom because ‘they’ wouldn't allow her to use the bathroom. She went to the pharmacy, complaining of body aches, begging the pharmacy to save her.

"She made me sounded so cold-hearted. How can I be a good person if she's like this? In that case, I'll embrace being wicked."

As I walked out of my eldest aunt's house that day, I felt like everyone on the street was watching me.

And that's how it all began.

My grandmother was born in 1930 in Linyi, Shandong. At the age of 28, she had her first son, my eldest uncle, named ‘Fu’ (literally means fortune). Following him were her eldest daughter, ‘Li’ (beauty), second daughter ‘Lin’ (jade tinkling), youngest daughter ‘Fen’ (fragrance), and then my father, the youngest son, 'Xuan’ (selection). In 1957, my grandmother came to Shenyang because Ling obtained a shop operating permit on Wuhuai Street.

When I was a child, my grandmother always told me stories of her journey of mass migration from Shandong to Shenyang. The memories are somewhat faded now. She said she encountered Japanese soldiers, and the sound of their hobnailed boots was terrifying as they marched in groups, greatly frightening everyone. She mentioned how difficult it was to beg for food while bringing my eldest uncle along on the journey. She also said that during her childhood, she didn't have a proper name. Girls from her hometown didn't have names either; they were referred to by generic terms like ‘bottle’ or ‘jar’, or simply by birth order, such as ‘second daughter’ or ‘first daughter’. She would also recount tales of supernatural beings from her hometown, like the story of a girl who was taken away by a giant black mountain eagle, and tales of ‘Xiong Xiazi’ (literally ‘Bear Blind’), a creature with thorns all over its tongue. If it licked someone, the flesh would be gone.

Until the present, my grandmother's children have come up with a plan. She now lives downstairs in the 38-square-meter apartment. My parents have moved back to live with her, and my eldest aunt lives upstairs. Her children take turns visiting her and keeping her company.

Grandma still causes a commotion every day, and she still accuses us of mistreating her. But gradually, she only says my name repeatedly, "Yangfan, Yangfan, Yangfan." Every day, she knocks on my door, on my aunt's door, saying, "Yangfan, Yangfan, I’m scared, please help me, I’m scared, there are people at my home..."

Every time I come home, I can hear her children shouting at her very clearly. "Where are you going? Tell me where you're going!!" they yelled at her. Grandma did not know how to respond.

‘Close your eyes, and you won't see those people. Where are they? There’s no one. Where are you going, wandering up and down the stairs? Ain't you feel cold?’

‘Don't ask where I am! I'm just sitting here. What are you going to do! Tell me!’

‘You just finished eating! You just took your pill. You really just took your pill!’

‘Yangfan is dead. Why are you fuking asking for her all day?’

The last time I saw Grandma, I used the key to open her door, and she was particularly scared, shouting loudly, "Who are you? Who are you? Yangfan, someone is entering the house, someone is entering the house!"

I don't know why, she remembers my name but has forgotten who I am.

Grandma would also come and knock on my door, looking for Yangfan. When she saw my father, she would cry and say, "Mom's scared, keep Mom company, Mom's scared, there are people in the house."

I don't know if Grandma can really see people. Sometimes, I even think that maybe she sees something terrifying, like the grim reapers from hell. She is truly frightened, and every time she seeks help, it's with such intensity. Her knocks on the door are forceful, making the entire door shake. When she knocks on my aunt's door upstairs, I feel like my desk is vibrating. Every word she shouts, even though there's a security door between us, feels deafening.

Her family, including me, our entire building, the entire neighbourhood, and everyone in the market, have become numb to her repeated pleas. No one pities her anymore. No one believes she is genuinely scared. No one is willing to think about what she might be afraid of.

I think perhaps Grandma has already forgotten by now. Forgotten who I am, forgotten whose name ‘Yangfan’ belongs to. She might have even forgotten the past pains. These fears comes from nowhere and eventually dissipate into nothingness.

I think, at the moment she decided to move out, she was seeking a home, wanting to go back home. But she didn't know where this home was, or if it even existed. She exerted so much effort in searching for tranquillity and good health, maybe not even understanding what they truly meant.


I wanted to finish writing here when suddenly a memory of one morning flashed to mind.

That day, I woke up at eight o'clock. I only remember it was a season when many things like caterpillars would fall from the trees. I hadn't started kindergarten yet. On that day, I was wearing a little blue long-sleeved shirt. I remember this so clearly because I really liked to fiddle with the knots at the seams on the shirt. Even now, I enjoy fiddling with knots like these, and my middle finger and ring finger have callouses from it.

That morning, I hopped on the balcony of the fourth floor, watching my elder sister going to school. I told my grandma, ‘Grandma, I want to go to school too.’ She mumbled something in Shandong dialect, which I still don't understand to this day. I only recall that the Shandong dialect sounded like ‘dididadidi’. I mimicked her way of speaking, asking if ‘pancakes’ were called ‘bianbing’ and if ‘sugar’ was ‘beitang’. I even told the grandparents downstairs that this was the correct way to say it. Later, somehow, I began to understand what my grandma was saying, and I could express myself in Mandarin. It was strange, though, that I didn't know why other people couldn't understand what my grandma was saying. In my eyes, she didn't have such a heavy Shandong accent.

After my grandma finished speaking in her rhythmic manner, she came over to me and lifted me to the window, telling me that the fluffy things downstairs had fallen from the trees, which I used to love stepping on a lot when I was little. She said, "You used to step on them a lot (she said 'te bie ai pai'). After stepping on them, your shoes would be covered with these disgusting and annoying things." I felt unfairly blamed because I had no memory of ever stepping on those caterpillar-like things she mentioned, and at this moment, I had no desire to step on them.

I remember I had a pair of straw sandals that my grandma brought for me. I walked around the house wearing those big straw sandals, making a brushing sound with each step. I walked fast inside the house until I got really tired, very tired.

And then, on that same day, the day I wanted to go to school, my mother suddenly came home and eventually took me to school. She came back panting and put down a lot of stuff. Then, she lifted me up and brought me to my sister's primary school, Dadong District Fourth Primary School. My mother left  me in the first-floor hall and told me to wait for her there. She huffed and went upstairs. I stood in the spacious hall, looking up at the huge portraits of three men in front of me.

That year was probably 2003? I was about three years old, and I hadn't started kindergarten yet. Looking back, those three guys were Sun Yat-sen, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong.

Then my mother brought both me and my sister back home. She asked me to go to sleep. I remember it very clearly; it was only two o'clock in the afternoon, and I didn't want to sleep at all. However, my mother was unusually gentle. She said, "Go to sleep, Mommy will sing you a lullaby." That was the first and only time she sang a lullaby for me.


Little swallow, fly slowly, 

Come here every spring.

I asked the swallow, "Why do you come?" 

The swallow said, "The spring here is the most beautiful."

(Xiǎo yàn zhi, màn man fēi, nián nián chūntiān lái zhèlǐ,

wǒ wèn yànzi nǐ wèi shà lái, yànzi suo, zhèlǐ de chūntiān, zuì měilì.)


As she sang, she gently patted me and cried. I was very scared. I closed my eyes tightly, pretending to be asleep, while carefully fiddling with the knots on the sleeves of my clothes. I cherished my only bit of happiness. She sang louder and louder, and tears flowed onto my neck.

I don't remember if I fell asleep or not, but I heard my grandma's firm and clear words to my mother.

"Everything will be fine. Having such a good daughter-in-law like you is a blessing for the Zhang family. I will definitely bring you money; you don't need to worry about him. You now divorce him and live your own life. Take Yangfan with you. Don't be afraid; I will definitely give you money."

That day, my father was arrested by the police for wounding with intent, and he spent many years in prison. My mother and grandma never left me. My mother was always working, and my grandma accompanied me as I grew up. She was strong, independent, walked fast, and had great strength.

Even now, my grandma is the same —walking fast, and had great strength.