Sunday, 11 May 2014 | MYT 12:00 AM

Listen To The Squawking Chicken

  • Author : Elaine Lui
  • Genre : Non-fiction
  • Publisher : Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam


Sweet mother of mine

A child who can make her parents happy, will be happy herself.

Let's be very, very honest.

What kind of impression would you have of your mother if she was the type to consort with the Chinese Mafia, played mahjong all day and is a veritable show off?

Elaine Lui, who has written this book in honour of her mother, puts in succinctly: She’d be nothing without her.

A prominent Toronto-based blogger, Lui captures her mother’s larger-than-life personality in this phrase, "Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Ma walks like an elephant and squawks like a chicken and, she has always taught me to do the same".

Of course, her mother is a feminist to boot. In the very first chapter, Lui recounts how an uncle who had hollered at his daughter to walk like a lady, was shot down indirectly when her mother turned to Lui and said it was OK to stomp around like an elephant. Real women don’t creep around like mice.

Unlike most sappy mother-daughter memoirs where all the salacious parts are conveniently left out, Lui spares no detail on how her mother came to be christened the "Squawking Chicken" because of a jarring voice and a reputation for delivering sharp-edged retorts.

First to find fault were Lui’s maternal grandparents, one of whom was a habitual gambler and another, an alcoholic and odd job lackey of sorts for local Hong Kong gangsters. One can sense the resentment, as Lui describes her grandparents’ unsympathetic reaction when mum is raped – believe it or not, so they didn’t have to waste money on medical expenses and to save face. Just to be fair to everyone, even her fathers (meaning Lui’s biological father and stepfather) are not spared, as she exposes their inadequacies and infidelities.

As Lui puts it, she did not have it easy being her mother’s daughter.

For all her shortcomings, the Squawking Chicken sounds like an answer to the "strawberry generation", the Chinese neologism for those born into economic prosperity and so used to being overprotected by their parents that they have actually come to believe the world owes them a living. Assuredly, Lui is fortunate to have escaped this brand of delusion-causing upbringing.

If you were Squawking Chicken’s daughter, whinings of having to walk in the heat instead of taking a taxi are quickly silenced. If you’re going to complain, then stay home.

To put it bluntly, the Squawking Chicken’s parenting method is the antithesis of the modern style so lauded by the West. Lui’s mother is not the type who will go easy on you, not even if it’s for the sake of sparing a child from so-called mental torture. In her book, it’s actually an effective way of nipping a problem in the bud.

In one episode, after a young Lui had unintentionally whacked her mother’s thigh with a ruler during a mahjong game, devastating all chances of a win, the Squawking Chicken promptly declared to a roomful of friends that she should have given birth to a piece of barbecued meat instead, certainly less trouble than mothering a child who gave her nothing but trouble!

What kind of mother is the Squawking Chicken? Does she not fear that the scars of humiliation will run deep and damage a fragile psyche?

Not according to Lui, who tells the story of a childhood friend who later suffered the disastrous consequences of over-lenient parenting. Lui defends her mother, insisting it is the duty of every parent to put a child in its rightful place, and not by using "reasoning", as modern parents prefer to do. Because five minutes later, the child is at it again, unrepentant.

As for fulfilling the ideal of a self-sacrificing parent, for Lui’s mother, a child should be thankful just for being a born. For receiving the gift of life, she must repay her parents her entire life, first with obedience and, when required, in the form of cash, jewellery, lavish birthday parties or leisure cruises. As it turns out, the Squawking Chicken is a stickler where the collection of such dues are concerned.

In the end, the rules of filial piety according to the Squawking Chicken simply boils down to this: A child who can make her parents happy, will be happy herself.

Related story: 

Mothers in literature

Tags / Keywords: book reviews , listen to the squawking chicken


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