The Year of the Dragon Plant

In photographs displayed at my grandfather’s funeral last month, the plant is there: a splendid, eight-foot dracaena, holding court from the corner of the living room. Bent before it in one image is my fastidious, flannel-jacketed grandfather, just shy of 102, fussing with the lowest tier in the dracaena’s lush skirt of fronds.

We call it the mother plant, and, like my gung gung, it’s always been there.

Amid the heartbreak and the preparations for the wake and the post-funeral banquet, there is a tender, family-wide text thread about the plant.

Back in 1980, 20 years after my grandparents and their kids flew to New York City from Hong Kong and moved into a three-room apartment in Chinatown, they bought their first house in Flushing, Queens. My grandfather’s name was Suey Lin Dong; gung gung is Cantonese for maternal grandfather. As a gesture of housewarming, his own mother gave him a dracaena plant; with his attention, it bloomed, sprouted new branches, bloomed again.

In this time of grief, we piece together the story of the mother plant. Dracaena is a genus of plant that our family has always grown in the home, even back in Hong Kong, when my mom and her three sisters were little. Dracaena comes from the Greek drakaina, for dragon; in some species, cutting the bark secretes a red medicinal resin, known as dragon’s blood. As a houseplant, dracaena is known for purifying the air and providing good feng shui.

In the house in Queens, just under the flight path for LaGuardia, the dracaena did its job. From Monday to Friday, my grandparents continued to take the Q26 bus and the No. 7 subway train to the 6 train back to Canal Street in Chinatown to go to work: him at the fortune cookie factory, her at the garment factory. For decades, my grandfather carefully folded edible containers for other people’s luck. Every Sunday, we grandchildren joined the crush of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins for dinner. Year by year, we sprouted, grew bigger, thrived.

After my gung gung retired, he helped raise his two youngest grandchildren. Eventually, the whole multigenerational clan moved to suburban Long Island, and the dracaena plant moved with them.

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