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Po-po’s Storytelling Hands

Janet sketches herself (left), Po-po (centre) and her great-grandmother (right) for a high-school project (2012)

I have always slept in the same room as my maternal grandmother, my ‘po-po’. As a child I remember I was mesmerized at her hands, the deep crevices and all the lines down her palms, the space between her fingers as she waved them in the light reflecting from a street lamp shining through our window and on our quilt (‘mian bei’) she brought with her from China. There in the light her hands became so magical to my bright eyes, all types of animals forming, and transforming into different shapes, and landscapes. She is the best storyteller.

Her hands lead me into a familiar place. My small body peering up, only to see her hands busily making our favourite minced meat pancake (‘rou bing’), our comfort food in the winter months. I remember she took me shopping to buy ingredients for the Chinese medicine soups she makes with mum weekly. Her hands running across all the plastic pre-packed soup packages from the local Asian grocer near us. Fresh ingredients were usually rare.  It would require us to drive a long way out to reach the Chinese medicine shop and the imported ingredients were also quite expensive. But when we had the chance, I savoured the moment.

A flurry of hands, flipping filmy white sheets of Chinese medicine books, the light touching of one’s pulse, the writing of continuous characters down white butcher’s paper, the pulling of see-through drawers filled with earthly smelling ingredients, the sliding sound of beads of an abacus calculation and the almost perfect placing of ingredients at the centre, folded and enveloped into a tangible white package brought home with us.

Image (left): Po-po as a teenager with her mother, Macau 1950’s Image (right): Po-po holding Janet, Sydney, circa 1996

By following the life of my ‘Po-po’s’ hands as a Chinese-Australian, her everyday rituals, making food, rubbing Tiger Balm, and hand measuring medicinal ingredients into soups we’d make, I connected and learnt from her multi-generational female wisdom and culture.

Her hands also became a way she sought solace. Her palms where millions of ducts from teeny tiny sweat glands open up when she is nervous or feeling most vulnerable. It is where I learnt more about her religion, Chinese Buddhism and how to become guided like her in her spiritual journey. She is always the first person in our household to get up each morning, and I would watch her hands calmly counting beads, one by one, reciting the Great Compassion Dharani, her personal prayers and sometimes saying matters worrying her to our white porcelain statue of Kuanyin we keep on top of our wooden cupboard.

Hands are the universe of our life, we touch to show we care, we hold or clench when we are scared, we communicate with others with our hands. It is our contribution, and what we produce is part of our inner psychic energy, our ‘breath-movements’ (‘qi-gong’).  And Po-po’s’ hands have always been the universe of my life. Her hands, as vast as the stars.

Po-po on her 82nd birthday, Sydney 2016


Janet is a graduate from the University of Sydney with a Law and Arts degree. She also holds a Masters in Art and Archaeology of East Asia from SOAS, University of London. Janet’s area of specialisation is the study of Chinese Mahayana Buddhist mural paintings in the mid-imperial period and the trans-Asian connections in the migration of visual narratives across different mediums in the arts including theatre and the performing arts between China and India. She is currently volunteering at community legal centre specialising in immigration and refugee law in Sydney. She can be reached via email at

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