Barbara's mother (Cheung Ming Yee, 张明如) was born on January 7, 1926, in the city of Wuhu, in the province Anhui in China. She had no siblings (7). Her aunts and uncles lived nearby. She kept in touch with her cousins and their children until her death in 2017.
She spend her whole childhood life in Wuhu. Barbara told me that her mother was very pretty when she was young (3).
In Wuhu she experienced the Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945 and immediately afterwards the Chinese civil war, which started up again after the Japanese war. During this civil war she often had to take cover in air raid shelters and she made sure that her nieces and nephews were also safe. It was during one of these bombings that her hearing was damaged through which she has always been slightly deaf(8).
In 1948 or 1949 she fled to Hong Kong because of the war violence in her hometown (8). She returned several times to visit her family. In 1980 she took Barbara with her. Barbara was overwhelmed by the hospitable of her family. But she was shocked by the poverty she witnessed and the state of the sanitary facilities. For example, that human feces were used directly as manure to fertilize the acres. She left most of her clothes she had brought along behind for her family. (3).
In 1982 Barbara's mother went back to her homeland, her niece described this visit:
“My great-aunt traveled to mainland China in 1982. She came by car from Nanjing to her hometown in Wuhu Province. At that time, her old home was still there. The police station helped her to get in touch with our uncle who was still living in there. My mother and aunts all with her. They cried and held on to each other. It was exciting and moving.” (8.1).
She kept in touch with her family through letters. Her niece remembers this
“Later we often had contact with each other by letters. My Great-aunt told me once that her daughter was Barbara Yung and that she was a star at the TVB. Our whole family was proud when Legends of Condor Heroes was shown in mainland China. Great-aunt said in her letter that she would show Barbara around her hometown. Unfortunately, we soon heard the news that Barbara passed away. “ (8.1)
She last returned to Wuhu in 1997. Her birthplace and the neighborhood where she grew up had been demolished and high-rise apartment buildings were built there. She was very sorrowful about it. Her niece writes about it
“I remember that you went back to your hometown at the end of 1997. You went to the lake in the city center in order to take a photo in the alley near your old house. But the house was destructed, and skyscrapers were being build.. You were disappointed, but still took a picture with my mom by the tree near your old house. That was the place where you were born and where you grew up, and the cradle of your stories about the past. You also visited the dock yards by the bank of the Yangtze River and were impressed by our country’s fast developing pace. You said that if in good health, you would come and visit again. You could not forget the delicious food and the beautiful spring by the Lake Jinghu. (10,1). “
Not much is known about how Barbara's mothers lived in Hong Kong during the 1950s, only that she worked in one of the many textile factories (7). Given the situation in Hong Kong during that period, it can be assumed that she had a hard time.
The civil war in China and the resulting takeover of power by the communist party created a large stream of refugees to Hong Kong. More than two million refugees came to Hong Kong between 1945 and 1955. They were poor and rich refugees. The refugees brought money and cheap labor. Hong Kong, still rebuilding and recovering from the Japanese war, turned into a gigantic manufacturing city powered by both local and foreign companies. In the beginning there were mainly textile and clothing companies. In these factories the women worked 12-hour shifts and seven days a week with two days off in a month (9).
The refugees received little support from the government, they had to figure it out for themselves. With so many new residents and no decent housing the refugees built themselves places to sleep. They slept in porches and built hovels from all kinds of available materials. It was not until 1953 that the government became more involved in caring for refugees and their housing (9).
It is hard to imagine what it was like for Barbara's mother during this period. A young single woman, who only spoke the local dialect of Wuhu (7), with a hearing problem, working long hours for little money in a textile factory, no decent payable housing available, in a city and where confrontations between Communists and Nationalists caused more and more unrest.
Not much is known about Barbara's father. He had already left Barbara's mother before Barbara was born. He went to Paris without knowing that Barbara’s mother was pregnant. He was a sailor (11). Barbara told me that she had foreign genes. She said that this explained her large eyes and thicker lips. Her family contradicts this and say that she made this up. They are certain that her father was Chinese (11).
(Note: with foreign Barbara means white, it was her habit to call all white people foreigners(3)).
Despite that her parents were not married, Barbara was given the surname Yung. At that time it was common for single women to name their children after their father (6). When Barbara returned to Hong Kong in 1982 she tried to find her father. But there was little data available. She could not find him or discover any information about him (11).
In Mandarin speaking areas Barbara is known as Weng Mei Ling and in the Cantonese regions as Yung Mei Ling (翁 is pronounced Weng in Mandarin and Yung in Cantonese)(6) . As the main dialect in Hong Kong is Cantonese, Yung is used for her English surname. Her first name Mei Ling (美玲) is a common Chinese name that also means beautiful (delicate and exquisite) (1).
It is unclear when Barbara started using her English name. She told me that she chose her first name as she liked the sound of it so much (3). I wonder if that is completely true. She attended Rosaryhill Primary School at the age of seven. Looking at the captions underneath the class photos, English first names were already used then (4). It seems to me that Barbara was still too young to choose her English name herself. Perhaps her stepfather had helped her with this.
At home, her family called her Niu Niu (Cantonese) “Little girl” (囡囡). Its a common nickname for a daughter (6).
The name Barbara is originally a Greek name meanings "foreign", "non-Greek", (5) or outsider. Coincidence or not, but if you summarize Barbara's life in three words, the combination of her Chinese and English first names (delicate exquisite outsider) is very striking.