CREEPY CORNER: My Grandma, Her Big Dreams, and Her "Morgue Tours"

The dead gave Grandma a glimpse at a life she had the potential for.
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Publish date:
July 6, 2016
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dead people, creepy corner, women's work, Family Memories, Hong Kong

Some kids hang out in parking lots, drinking Smirnoff Ices and smoking Marlboro Lights.

Some kids sneak in to see bands at bars that they are too young to be at. (Do kids still rub the Sharpie Xs off their hands so they can get served?)

A friend of mine said that the cool kids in his hometown would park their trucks in the Walmart parking lot and talk to each other on CB radios.

My grandmother hung out at the morgue.

Well, my grandmother, and the ragtag gang of French convent school-educated girls she herded around 1930s Hong Kong and the Sai Ying Pun Mental Hospital. So says my mom.

After last week's Creepy Corner featuring the Sai Ying Pun Ghost House, my mom sent me a long email (titled "Mental Hospital!") detailing some of the hijinks my grandmother, her mother, got into back in the day. Dead bodies, creeping around hospital morgues, scaring her friends shitless — you know, your usual teenage after-school activities.

I am being completely earnest when I say that a part of me aches for never having known that woman.

By the time I was cognizant enough to converse with my mother's mother beyond, "Thank you for the chewy candy," her mind had long since glazed over. Sharpness and fearlessness was replaced with a haze of confusion tinged with... regret?

Some of you may remember my grandma from the Creepy Corner, "That Time We Lost My Grandfather's Ashes". While that story is definitely an accurate depiction of the woman my grandma became, I'm slowly learning she was was so much more.

These are some of the ways my mom described Grandma in her email:

"Brilliant."

"Unusual."

"Brave... had the makings of a doctor."

"Nothing scared her in her prime... full of drive."

"...a shame that she did not have a career of her choice."

Grandma wanted to be a woman of science. But her career aspirations were thwarted by a time and culture that only encouraged a woman like her to pursue a career in the domestic sciences. But, for a brief period of time in her youth, Grandma entertained what her life could be.

And this is why she liked the morgue so much. The dead gave Grandma a glimpse at a life she had the potential for.

So here is a piece of my grandma's story as told to me by my mom.

Grandma was born in 1915. During her childhood and teen years, they lived in Sai Ying Pun and my grandma attended a convent school run by French nuns in Causeway Bay or Wan Chai (we're not quite sure of the location anymore).

She took great pride that she, a Chinese girl, had gotten into such a prestigious school. The women in my family have a habit of being brighter than their social status deemed them.

She graduated near the top of her class, and considered continuing her education at the convent to become a nurse, or go on to university to become a doctor. Really, her dream was to be a surgeon. While her father liked the idea of his daughter becoming a doctor — and he certainly believed she had the aptitude — he was torn.

On one hand he wanted her attain the status of being a doctor. She would answer to nobody.

On the other hand, by the time she was done with her medical schooling — 10 years or so — she'd be an "old maid" and what man would want her?

After some consideration, great-grandfather rescinded his offer to put her through medical school — doctor, nurse or anything else — and Grandma agreed. This may have been her single greatest regret. Mom suspects it colored her entire outlook on life.

But while Grandma was still young, and the reality of her career hopes had not yet been dashed, Grandma took every chance to be around doctors, nurses, hospitals, and yes, morgues. Especially morgues.

Partially because she got a thrill from it, and partially because it annoyed her parents, Grandma took to sneaking groups of girlfriends into the morgue at Sai Ying Pun Mental Hospital. (I'm not sure if this was the official name, records seem to indicate the title was Old Mental Hospital.)

Creeping around behind the main building, Grandma would purposely take the girls the "long way" to the morgue. Through a quiet, winding path that snaked around the grounds, Grandma would weed out the "screaming girls" that couldn't handle their little adventure.

Once they got to the morgue, Grandma knew her way around. She was a girl on a mission. Even getting caught by a security guard once hadn't fazed her — she coaxed some scary stories of "the walking dead" out of him.

In the quiet of the morgue, Grandma and her girls would tiptoe around looking for unlocked or ajar doors. A surprising amount of the time, they found them. This is when Grandma really shone.

The girls would try to scare each other with a game where they'd throw each other's satchels under a table or gurney where a corpse lay, and a girl would have to go get it. Some girls couldn't take it, and ran away, leaving their satchels for the dead. (I wonder if the morgue attendants ever found it curious that girls' satchels kept MYSTERIOUSLY APPEARING? And after a few satchels turned up, wouldn't you think they'd tighten up on security?)

However, Grandma had no problem retrieving her satchel. In fact, she proudly held no fear of the dead. She was fascinated.

Marching over to a corpse's table, she'd peer under the sheet. She wanted to see how it may have been autopsied, observe what medical procedures the person had undergone, take note of a surgeon's handwork.

To my grandma, the bodies were not the gruesome stuff of nightmares, they were people who had been under the care of a physician. Perhaps the kind of physician she hoped she might become.

But that life did not happen.

The inquisitive, rebellious girl who lead "tours" of the morgue tamped down that dream to live for her husband and children, to meet her family's expectations. Mom believes that my uncle becoming a doctor was a fulfillment of Grandma's own dreams. She was fiercely determined to give him that education.

But I wanted to tell a bit of her story here. Her story, not how she figured into somebody else's.

It's no substitute for being a doctor, but at least a few more people can recognize how remarkable she was.