It is every Chinaman's dream to fa cai - make a fortune – and Houng's grandfather succeeded. He was born into a Houng clan in the countryside near Meixian (present day Meizhou) in 1880 and grew up in a tu lou, a communal circular building shaped like an angel food cake with a hole in the middle. Each member of the eighty-strong Houng clan had a slice: ground floor for livestock and food storage, and the first floor for living. The main entrance was on the south-side; the grassy area in the centre was used as a common grazing area for cows, goats and hens. Tu lou's were built like fortresses to withstand attacks from bandits: Hakka people were not local to Kwangtung (present day Guangdong province) and had been pushed to the mountainous fringes of fertile plains to eke a living.
After consultation with a local fortune-teller, Grandfather was named Houng You Ling, alias Yong Cheng. He was a strong boy, with lips like a garoupa and Buddha ears. A joyous celebration was held one month after his birth. The villagers drank fiery rice wine and gorged on freshly roasted pig, while strings of fire-crackers punctured the chilly air to fete his parents' good fortune for having a son.
Grandfather's life ran smoothly until his sixteenth year, when it hit a rock. Two rainy spring seasons had washed away all their crops and during the autumn of the second, his father – Houng's great-grandfather - caught a mysterious illness and died. 'Ignorance is night without moon or stars,' he told his son from his death-bed. 'I could have been a fine general, a doctor or an engineer if fate had dealt a more favourable hand. I urge you to take care of your mother then leave these barren fields and seek your fortune elsewhere.'
Confucius said, 'A fool despises good counsel, but a wise man takes it to heart.' Grandfather continued working as a shoe repairer but never forgot his father's wishes, even though he felt at a loss as to how to fulfil them. He used the few coppers he earned to buy Chinese herbs for his ailing mother, whose grief was as caustic as a bitter melon. In the evenings he swept their home, chopped kindling for the charcoal stove and scallion for their supper. During windy winter nights, while combing her long black hair, he told her mythical stories of imperial dragons and magic monkeys. In humid summer afternoons he fanned her asleep with Hakka lullabies.
But time is a spark – no sooner lit than gone forever, and his mother never really recovered from her husband's untimely death. Poor harvests depressed her spirit further. When she passed away, Grandfather was nineteen years old.
He bought a plot of land for her coffin from a local landlord and arranged a simple ceremony for her burial.
A week later, he fixed a rope around a meat hook on the ceiling of his cattle shelter, stood on an iron anvil, tied the two ends of the rope around his neck, and jumped.
By chance, Uncle Suk, a cousin of a second uncle, was visiting from Thailand. He was walking past Grandfather's rice-papered window when the shadow of the swinging rope caught his attention. Barging through the wooden door, scattering a sow and her piglets, he rescued Grandfather before he breathed his last.
Chinese whispers echoed round the village, but Uncle Suk's were the loudest: 'Come and seek your fortune in Siam.'