Cantonese Cowgirl and Her Water Buffalo

Tsz Kam
Size and Media
Description7” x 9” x 1 3/4”
Acrylic gouache on wood panel

Statement about Cantonese cowgirl and her water buffalo


Today has been a good day. I feel loved. “Loved” is the word I think of when I look at this water buffalo.

She’s actually from the stories my grandma told me when I was little. She told me stories of days when she used to work the fields with her family’s water buffalo as a child.

She didn’t tell me how much she loved or didn’t love the water buffalo, that’s just my imagination. All she told me about the buffalo was how much it peed.

If you didn’t know, water buffaloes are still commonly used to farm in south and southeast Asia.

The Cantonese cowgirl in the painting was created after my own image, but when I talked to my dad about how glad I was that I sold the painting not a day after I finished it, he referred to the figures as “Mah Mah and the water buffalo”. I didn’t correct him, because I guess in a sense, it was as much Mah Mah as it was me that I was painting.

Mah Mah is a remarkable woman. She never had any formal education, but she taught herself how to read by following the printed script when the opera troupe came to her village to perform.

She told me she would go watch the opera, chew on sugar canes, and teach herself how to read.

I didn’t use to think about this much. Having to learn two languages and two dialects at a very early age myself, and perhaps also inhereiting a healthy does of scornful patriachal intellectualism attitude from my grandfather, I didn’t appreciate Mah Mah’s brilliance for having accomplished the feat of teaching herself how to read without formal guidance as a teen.

Mah Mah can’t write, even now, though she reads the newspaper every day. Many in her generation are still illiterate today, in their old age. Mah Mah signs her documents with a chop seal that has her name carved in it. She was never taught how to hold a writing utensil properly. When I was a child, I always remembered how rough and knobbed her hands are. She often showed off one of her jagged forefingers to me. It was partially cut off at the very tip by one of the factory machines when she used to be one of the many factory girls during Hong Kong’s industrial age. I used to show her my right hand middle finger, which is slightly deformed from having to take so much notes and do so much homework as a student in Hong Kong.

Mah Mah was the daughter of a Cantonese merchant, but her mother was only one of many concubines, and having already had enough children in his household, my great grandfather sent Mah Mah to live with her own grandmother and to work the fields in their home village. Mah Mah told me her grandmother was very strict, and she used to hit her hands during meals with her chopsticks to correct Mah Mah’s method for holding the chopsticks. Mah Mah is one of the few people I know in person who holds chopsticks “the right way”.

I think about this now and then, I came from a woman who taught herself how to read by watching opera.

Mah Mah lived in Shanghai as a young woman for a time when it was a French concession. She taught herself a bit of Shanghainese. Then she met my grandfather, and when the Japanese invaded in WWII, they fled to British Colonial Hong Kong.

Yei Yei and Mah Mah had six children in Hong Kong. Three daughters and then three sons in that order. My dad was the youngest.

Mah Mah worked in factories, taking boxes of plastic flower parts home for my aunts to assemble with her. She also made Barbies. Though much more educated than Mah Mah, Yei Yei had a hard time bringing in income, but Mah Mah held the fort down. She was the only investor in Yei Yei’s failed neighborhood grocery store venture.

They brought up six children in their little makeshift home at the foot of Lion Rock. Always emphasizing to all their children the importance of education.

I was born as the first child by one of their three sons. I lived under my grandparents’ care since I was 45 days old until I was thirteen and left Hong Kong for Texas. I heard their stories more than anyone else, I think. Mah Mah spoke of the past, Yei Yei dreaming of a better future, for me, which was deprived from him in his youth. His cowboy Westerns always playing on his TV screen.


So there, Cantonese cowgirl and her water buffalo. They roam free in my imagination, and they have always been there to begin with, even before I got here.