If the world operated on mute, my ma would seem to you like any other Chinese lady -- on the short side of average, small-boned, but obnoxiously dressed. Think rhinestones everywhere, and if not rhinestones then sequins, and if not sequins then feathers. Sometimes all of it at the same time. Her favourite outfit is a denim suit, with rhinestone encrusted patches on the back and up and down the leg. She purposefully wears it with the collar turned up. Like the irresistibly catchy hook in the worst song you’ve ever heard, she finishes her China Woman Elvis ensemble off with a pair of gold and silver Coach runners. If I’m really lucky that day, it’ll be sunny out when we go for dimsum. And she’ll keep her shades on as she walks into the restaurant, her entire head hidden underneath one of those massive sun visors regularly seen on Asians. People will wonder: is it a movie star or a bag lady who’s pillaged a donations bin in Vegas? The face that appears when she finally removes the sunglasses and the hat is so pretty it’s almost ornamental. In other words, by appearance only, ma seems harmless.
Turn up the volume and everything changes. As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her. It’s the voice, a voice that earned her the nickname “Tsiahng Gai”, Squawking Chicken, when she was growing up in Hong Kong. The volume is jarring, yes. You can’t imagine that something so loud can come out so effortlessly, and without warning. The Squawking Chicken doesn’t give you time to acclimate to her levels. It’s one level, and it’s all-out assault. But it’s also the tone -- sharp, edged, and quick, not so much a booming roar that leaves silence after it lands but a wailing siren that invades your mind, kind of like acid on the brain that results in permanent scarring.