Introduction of ‘A Shimmering Sea – Hong Kong Stories’

Sophie was an indigenous resident of a clan that has lived in Sheung Shui of the New Territories for 21 generations.  It is a feudalistic patriarchy where women were nameless in her ancestral halls, had no right of inheritance of land, and no political representation in village councils.  When her father did not value education for women, Sophie left Hong Kong at age 20  to pursue higher education and lived in the States for over 30 years, hardly came home until 2007.

Her book was inspired by her favorite writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, and her youngest sister, Stephanie’s active involvement in a social movement to repeal the laws relating to indigenous female residents of the New Territories by forming a coalition of over 20 organizations in Hong Kong.  The battle was won in 1991, but it hardly changed the inequality in Sophie’s family and clan. Book cover_revised

‘A Shimmering Sea – Hong Kong Stories’ is Sophie’s memoir of  life in Hong Kong and quest for home, told through a vivid and lyrical sequence of narratives from 1950’s to 2000.

After meeting with Maxine Hong Kingston at University of Minnesota where Sophie pursued her PhD degree in 1985, Sophie wrote in her diary,”  The experience made me realize that no matter how wonderful other people’s stories are, my story is uniquely my own.  My mother was unique, and like no other.  This began my desire to write my own story and to discuss who my mother really was – and how she had affected my life.  That was the beginning of this 30-year journey to write my memoir.”

Silence and breaking silence is a major theme in “The Woman Warrior”. There are 3 kinds of silence, one of which is silence as a symbol of female victimization. By writing, Kingston breaks the taboo on silence and rewrites Chinese American female subjectivity in a way that transcends Chinese patriarchal tradition.

“In my own life, I had long been aware that my mother and I had little to say to each other, except the routine words and everyday exchanges.  Being the 9th child out of 10 siblings, and a girl, I was a neglected child.     Not having attended school herself, she had no idea what we do there except to learn to read and write and get a diploma.  At home, the work of taking care of a household of a dozen people exhausted her.  How could she have the energy or desire to “communicate” anything with me? Mother-daughter talks, what other families engage in, was totally absent.”

“It was this absence that left me feeling segregated, lonely and resentful, and the resentment built up over the years until I made up my mind.  This,coupled with my mother’s “buried” traditional beliefs and the conflict turmoil and fights at home-made me want to leave home as early as possible.  So I finally did, at age 20.”

“To explore and understand this gulf of silence between my mother and me, I must begin to learn from scratch who my mother really was, as her own person.  This led to my first piece, “A Little Dot”, a record of my mother’s story telling what her early sufferings as a child bride, her curiosity and her intelligence, as well as her great determination to learn – to participate in a larger world – (even if just by adding little dots in my father’s exercise book!) was what came through at the end.  Through the story, I tried to capture the mother whom I know was unique and brave, despite her long suffering and abuse.”

“I decided to let my mother tell her own story, so her voice will come through as unmistakenly her.”

Influenced by Maxine Hong Kingston’s style of writing about the insides of her characters by writing about their dreams, Sophie wrote her book in a similar way, which is how her memoir becomes fiction in some of her stories.  For example, in her first story, “Char Hang”, (her mother’s native village) Sophie changed the story both to re-imagine her mother’s life, and to imagine herself in a different relationship to her own story. I love the opening words: “in the beginning, the very beginning of everything, there was that house.”  By way of describing her blind grandmother’s house and through her mother’s storytelling, Sophie imagines her mother as a child, “a plump, sturdy, little girl.” Here we also hear about her mother’s great regret in her own voice, ”If I could read or write, I could fly.”.

The story is a blend of memory and fiction from start to finish, but the narrator changes her place in the story – from observer to participant – “Gingerly, I left my seat and sneaked into the side room behind me.”  At the close of the story, the narrator/I joins the adults rather than timidly listening in the shadows outside.  This poignant moment shows the loneliness of this little Sophie, ever yearning for maternal love and recognition.

Her book is divided into 4 sections from 1950’s to 2000, with 20 short stories based on true characters in her life.  Her father attended prestigious King’s College as a scholarship student before becoming an interpreter and government employee at Queen Mary Hospital whereas her mother was an illiterate peasant and a young bride in a blind marriage at age 15 who raised 10 children.   Among the episodes, some tell of her growing up during the 60’s: of a grade school classmate’s tragic suicide, her father’s punishment to her mother’s desire to learn to write by adding “little dots” in his exercise book, plainclothes detectives who came to her home to solicit bribe from her father, and the arrival of a feisty domestic helper from the countryside.   Sophie tells of her mother’s long illness, of turmoil and fights among family members, her eldest sister’s compulsory marriage as an old maid, and the plight of her female relatives to cope with polygamy and divorce.   The story of “Wah Sum” was about her mother and other women in her village, slightly disguised and combined in one character.

Some twenty years later, when Sophie was a student in Minneapolis, memories of these people and places flooded back to haunt her.  Sophie eventually returned to Hong Kong in 2007, to live near her native village, to be reconnected to her roots.   She completed her book in May, 2012 in the midst of battling ovarian cancer.

According to her youngest sister, Stephanie, “ It is not just Sophie’s memoir, but a powerful statement in refuting the sexist oppression against us – as indigenous female residents of the New Territories who were deprived of land and other rights and equal opportunities for 600 years in a patriarchal Chinese society.  She translated the agony of our mother and other relatives into positive energy by reclaiming our past and breaking the silence of women in our past generations.”

It was Sophie’s wish that she dedicated her book to her mother, Mei-Choi Man, her sister, Stephanie, and women in her family.

Sophie has been awarded a posthumous PhD degree by the University of Minnesota based on the merits of her writing project ‘A Shimmering Sea – Hong Kong Stories’. Date of conferment : April 26, 2013.

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We are sad to announce that Sophronia Liu (Sophie) passed away on January 14, 2013, one day after her 60th birthday, at the Grantham Hospital in Hong Kong.  Her funeral was held on January 29, 2013.

Book cover_revised

She completed her book ‘A Shimmering Sea – Hong Kong Stories’ in May 2012 in the midst of battling ovarian cancer.  Her book was announced as Joint-winner of the International Proverse Prize 2012 on April 11, 2013, and published by Proverse HK the same day.  RIP Sophie.  Your work will survive as part of your legacy.

Ms Kitty Kong attended the Proverse Spring Reception 2013 on April 11 in Hong Kong as the author’s representative on behalf of Sophie’s younger sister Stephanie (now living in New York City) to introduce her book.  You are encouraged to buy this award-winning book consisting of 20 short stories, which is Sophie’s memoir of life in Hong Kong and quest for home, told through a vivid and lyrical sequence of narratives.

Susan's design - ReadingPostcard

To promote her book in the United States, Stephanie has organized a Book Reading at the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis on June 21, 2013 at 6.30 pm, featuring readers David Mura, Katie Hae Leo, Kim Hines and Marcus Young.  The Book Reading is free and open to public.

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QMH 1953-63

Here is an old, old piece I revised last week for my manuscript.  It is not perfect, but better than the first version which was one of my earliest attempts at writing “my story.”  Wow, must have been the early 1980′s when I was still green and young!

I had fun with this piece, given the fact that the building where I grew up no longer exists-replaced by the current Block S at QMH!   Some precious memories I’d like to savor and share with anyone who cares to know a little about my take on the 1950s!


High up on a pine tree two little girls stand, clinging onto the branches, making their perch out of the hollow between two sturdier limbs of the tree.  I on the left, my friend Ping-guo on the right.  Standing straight up, legs apart, her two arms holding onto the largest branch, Ping-guo swings her arms and body left and right, pulling and rocking the crackling branches along with her like an oarsman at the oar.  To and fro the tree swings, left and right –following the motions of her sturdy arms and strong, elastic body.  Hay ho, up and down, and away we go!  “Swish!  Swish!  Swish!”  The wind whistles in our ears, and the leaves rustle.  Up on our toes, on our favorite tree-house, we are a sailboat.  “Close your eyes!  Close your eyes!” Ping-guo, my captain, cries.  “We’re at sea!”   

            Under the sing-song melody of her magical chant, I close my eyes, holding on tightly, listening to the swishing of the pine needles and the crackling of the hard, dry, brittle bark.  The wind blows, the sun shines on my face, and my body floats; like a bird taking wings, borne on the air.  I am a bird, I am a sail; I sail across the ocean, across the blue sky.  I fly, I fly, higher and higher I fly, going wherever I want to go.  Back and forth, to and fro, we row on the waves, we sail across the sky, Apple and I.  Our two little bodies inhabit our own universe up the South China pine; we’re two birds in paradise. Together, we sail, we fly.

*                                  *                                  *

An endless expanse of ocean; the blue sky; the radiant, setting sun reflected on the scaly waves; and a view of all these from a tree-top high up on the green hills–These are all inextricable parts of my childhood memories at the Staff Quarters of Queen Mary Hospital, up the slopes of West High Hill in Hong Kong.  And of course, there are always Ping-guo’s sparkling eyes, mischievous grin, and pealing laughter that rings out around the hills.  A laughter I haven’t heard since I moved from QMH at age ten; a laughter I have missed, along with the wide grin, laughing eyes, and the endless antics, as much as the shimmering sea, the swishing pine branches, and the tinkle of ocean breeze against my face.

In the late 1920’s, my father, an ambitious and promising young man, left the Village of Sheung Shui 20 miles from the city, and got a job as an interpreter at Yaumatei Police Station in Kowloon.  After a few years, he was transferred to the Secretariat of Queen Mary Hospital across the harbor, where he worked as Clerk Third Class for thirty years, until his English boss finally promoted him to Clerk Second Class, a year before his retirement.  Ah Ba stayed at his post throughout the War and, in 1945, he moved our whole family to the Staff Quarters to be with him.  Thus the last 5 of his children, from my #6 brother to my #10 little sister, were all born at QMH.

I was born in January, 1953.  Being the ninth child, and a girl, I was a neglected child.  Even with my 3 oldest brothers grown up and gone, my mother still had her hands full with household chores for 10 people, including 3 rambunctious teenage boys (my 6th, 7th and 8th brothers).  After the three full meals a day, starting at 7 in the morning, and all the laundry to be done by hand, and daily grocery shopping, and ironing, and cleaning, she was constantly left exhausted.  There was barely time to take an afternoon nap, not to mention the extra chores of taking care of my demanding little sister and answering the neighbors’ complaints when my brothers were up to their mischief again.  Thus I was left alone, going to school in the morning, coming home to eat and do homework in the afternoon, and then I had to find ways to entertain myself.

I don’t remember when I first met Ping-guo, or Apple (for her brawny, flushed apple cheeks).  It seems to me we were always friends as far back as I could remember.  Ping-guo was my best friend and my greatest escape from the boredom or, at other times, the fights and turmoil at home.  Her family, being squatters up the hillside, had taken over an abandoned bunker that was a cavern built into the side of a cliff, with a commanding view of the West Lamma Channel, one of the best scenic spots in Hong Kong.  This was Ping-guo’s “castle,” and my favorite haunt.

Inside the rustic cave-dwelling, it was always cool and dim.  A secret chamber of moss green and shadowy nooks, under a low roof covered by climbing vines and vegetation.  A bare sliver of sunlight glimmered through a tiny hole in the wall; mottled reflections from the overhanging leaves matted the mossy walls.   The smell of damp earth, vegetation and age was everywhere.  But all the same, it was a cosy, homey haven to us.

Side by side, we whiled away our days with fun-filled, imaginative pastimes.  Besides climbing pine trees and fantasy sailing, we built rabbit holes with weeds and grass under the trees and played house with pine cones and pine needles as our make-believe meals; or else we played by the gurgling rock pool which collected water from the hillside. Tiny fishes and tadpoles swam around our bare feet; and we giggled and laughed as we splashed icy stream water all over our heads.  Dripping wet and happy, we’d dry ourselves by lying on a high rock, soaking in the summer sun.  Sometimes Ping-guo’s father, an orderly at the hospital, would bring home melted ice-cream cones from the kitchen, and crunchy, broken shards of cones that we could share.  Sugar and snacks being a precious commodity, and a eagerly-awaited treat—consumed with equal fervor and glee.  When their chickens were laying eggs, Ping-guo’s mother would make us steamed custard with a dozen eggs, evaporated milk, and lots of sugar.  To this day, that is still the best custard I have ever tasted–My mouth waters just thinking of it.  However, the downside to all this was the 30 to 40 dogs of all sizes that Ping-guo’s father kept for trade.  And none of them was your cute little Chihuahua or Pekingese; they were fierce, strong, Chinese guard dogs who would swamp over any stranger with their yellow, white and black bodies, and growl and snarl at you in a pack.  Just the sight of them swarming down the stone steps leading to the “castle” was enough to cause me nightmares!

Every time when we neared her cavern-home, Ping-guo would get me a big, fat stick from the dried up branches by the side of the path.  “Here’s your magic wand, your dog-beating

cane.  Onward to adventure—I’ll be your scout!”

She led the way; I followed, with my heart in my mouth.  Yet, time and again, I’d seek her out, and brave the snarling, vicious dogs to get to our playground on the rocks.

*                                  *                                  *

The Staff Quarters was a 3-storied structure of two conjoined dormitories, perched on a slope a little above the public road—Pokfulam Road.  Behind, further up the slope, loomed an 8-storied office building with spacious balconies and annexes built on either side.  This was the renowned Queen Mary Hospital, and my father’s workplace, which was the oldest—and until the 1960’s, the largest–government hospital in Hong Kong.   A long, wide, winding stair-case twisted and turned up the hill, connecting our compound—living quarters for male and female workers—to the hospital 105 steps high above.  Halfway up these stairs, a foot-path paved with big slaps of chiseled granite snaked through the belly of the green hillside.  You could always hear the sounds of gurgling water underneath, as the path covered an underground channel dispersing run-off waters from the Pokfulam Reservoir a couple of miles down the road.

This was home sweet home to me, for the first ten years of my life.

Life at the Staff Quarters was eventful and noisy, with ten families occupying two-to four-room units on the top two floors of the women’s dormitory, in the western wing of the compound.  Each family had an assigned kitchen along the north and east sides of the building.  Bathrooms and toilets were communal.  The men’s dormitory in the adjacent building was for single male staff, mostly orderlies, coolies and “boys”–a singularly British term for janitors and their likes.  There were constant brawls and gambling going on in the men’s dormitory next door, while the families in our building had to deal with fights among the families and the kids, as well as squabbles over the mahjong tables in the open courtyard below, where the amahs (female attendants) relaxed, ate their meals, and entertained themselves.  Indeed, mahjong was a favorite pastime for all, including some of the kids who had little else to do.

One time, our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Suen, sitting at the same mahjong game, got so upset with the other players that Mr. Suen, huffing and puffing, threw the whole table over.  Wosh!  Crash!   Wa-la-la, la-la!  Clack-Clack-Clack!  One hundred and forty-four ivory tiles clattered and clanged, like a cascading waterfall, all over the cement floor.  Everyone within earshot rushed toward the corridor, to watch the drama being played out in the center courtyard down below.

“I’ll never sit next to the likes of you again!  You filthy cheats!”  Roared pock-marked Mr. Suen—notorious for his drunken escapades, and his fiery temper.  Kicking his chair over, he stomped off.

Yet life went on.  Sure enough, he and his wife were back at the same table the following Sunday, while their hungry, snotty-nosed kids carried on as usual at a game of their own in their dirty, dingy apartment.

“Those poor kids,…just like orphans!” My mother shook her head, “Sweet custard buns for dinner—Never a proper meal!  That’s what you get when Ma and Ba love mahjong better than their lives!”

With limited bathroom facilities and small, congested kitchens, conflicts were frequent and inevitable.  At the times when water was rationed–due to the shortage in rainfall–everyone fought and screamed over access to the tabs and space to store their water tanks along the open corridors.  Angry women’s voices could be heard shouting down the corridor to their neighbors, “Turn off your tab!  We need water up here!”  Harried mothers screamed at their kids, “Hurry up and take your bath!   You’ll turn into a dry, salted fish once the tabs are closed!”

Day in, day out, the oblong compound was an open stage, especially in the summer.   Every door and window was open; kids ran in and out from door to door, chasing each other; radios blasted away in a dozen frequencies and tones; mothers shouted at the errant kid to come home for dinner and to wash themselves.  (Among all the women’s voices, my mother’s peasant voice rang out the loudest and the farthest, sometimes all the way up the hill to Ping-guo’s cavern-home.)  Mahjong slabs splatter from various corners of the building, while the amahs downstairs laughed and joked, or fought and fretted their way through another long summer’s evening in the crowded communal quarters far away from their families and homes.  Late into the evening, in the open sky above, the new moon rose slowly and glimmered across the shadowy center courtyard where a few women were left behind, fanning themselves.  Once in a while, the static from a radio pierced through the darkness, and the shrill soprano voice of a Cantonese opera star sighed away at another libretto.

Lying in bed in our little corner bedroom, I would try to count the stars, peering through the tiny window, which opened up to the public corridor and a sliver of the dark sky above.

Ra-ooo!  Ra-ooo!” An unknown wild animal howled somewhere in the hills, causing the hair on my arms to raise and my blood curdle.  Was it a ghost or was it a beast, out on its nightly foray for a feast?  I didn’t know and didn’t care to know.

I threw my thread-bare blanket over my head, and willed myself to fall asleep.

*                                  *                                  *

When it was really hot, young and old alike went out to the open space in the back alley and along the front of the building facing the public road.  And we sat and chatted and talked stories through the night, lined up in clusters along the black, metal railing that separated our compound from the road below.  Children chased each other all along the alley, playing hide-and-seek or catch-a-shadow.  Illuminated by the ghostly streetlights shining eerily behind them, their intermingled bodies cast dancing shadows on the dark, concrete walls.

“Hahaha!  Try and catch me!”   “Hehehe!  You’re too slow!” They teased and taunted each other.

When my older brothers were still home, my third brother would hide in his grape-arbor built with bamboo stilts and start a fire to make Chinese sweet soups for dessert, with red beans and lots of sugar, or green beans and sea weeds.  In cooler seasons, we might be treated to a delicious pot of “bird meat porridge,” with boiled swallows and rice–my brothers being expert marksmen with a sling. In the morning, you would hear a hysterical woman’s voice from downstairs crying, “Aiya!  Who has boiled my pot charcoal black?!”  And someone else would fuss over the lost fire wood from her wood pile.  Eventually, half grumbling, half hissing, they would reach the inevitable conclusion:  Those mischievous big boys from Mrs. Liu’s household!  And everyone would shake their head and say, “How did such a nice lady ever get such incorrigible sons!”

My brothers were indeed the boxing champions of the whole compound, since they practiced martial arts, or Kung-fu.  And my family beat every other in our tiny neighborhood for having the fiercest, and the loudest fights, punctuated by my mother’s hysterical screams and heart-rending wails.  “No more!  No more!  Fight no more!”  She’d plead and cry, locking my little sister and me outside our somber, solid wood door.  Out of harm’s way.

To this day, I still remember standing outside the door, clutching my four-year-old little sister Ah Jun’s trembling fingers in mine.  The neighbors poked their heads out of their windows and doors—”Ah, another fight?!” They commented nonchalantly–while my family tore at each other behind that closed, wooden door.

I don’t see them; I don’t hear them.  I’m not here!  Silently, I’d repeat to myself, like a mantra to drive away the howling beasts.

I can’t remember what the fights were about, nor could ever understand why they happened.  But when they happened, the small spats as well as the big, knock-down, drag-out kinds that involved boards, and clubs and bats, and whatever pieces of furniture available–the worst kinds were the ones done with fire-wood, because they left splinters, my older brothers assured me–I could only look for a place to hide.  If I wasn’t lucky enough to be able to sneak out to Ping-guo’s castle, I would have to hide in my bed in our corner bedroom, converted from a kitchen for the girls.  There, curled up behind the big closet that blocked the view from the outside, protected by a canopy created by the black metal chimney above my head, I could imagine I was Heidi, living happily with Grandpa up the Alps, drinking goat-milk and playing with Peter and his sheep.  Other times, I was Laura with long braids and pinafore, who played with her golden-haired sister Mary along the banks of Plum Creek.  Sunshine, gurgling brook, and a little imagination saved the day!  Years later, when I arrived in South Dakota as a student, I was astonished to discover that that was where Laura Ingall’s Plum Creek actually came from.  The names of the states in my translated children’s classics had never meant anything to this eight-year-old in faraway Hong Kong.

Ironically, it was also in the middle of the prairie in South Dakota, in 1976, when I heard daily the call of the ocean from deep inside my ears.  And I dreamed of a sea of shimmering waves in the golden sunset, while around me there was the green, green world of pine needles and rushing leaves, blowing in the wind.  Waking up in the darkness of my basement apartment, I knew it was time to go home.



            “…And the headless ghost moans, ‘Give back my head.  I want my head back…’ And she stretches out her bony, cold fingers, while her body glides in a straight line toward the scholar, asking for her head back.  There is blood dripping from the axe-wound on her neck.  The red soaks through her white robe.  ‘Give back my head.  I want my head back…’ she wails….”

As we listened for the hundredth time the story of the headless ghost, we little kids huddled together under the pale moonlight.  The storyteller, Cheung Sook (Uncle Cheung), a mild-mannered man in his forties with a square face and a twinkle in his eyes, would look around and flash his white-toothed grin at us.  With the bluish streetlight on his face, he was the embodiment of both the scholar and the avenging ghost, the exorcist in the story and the teller of the tale.  We sat open-mouthed, holding our breath, and trembling with fear.  For any time out of the mysterious darkness, a headless figure in a white robe and bloody, cold fingers would materialize and grab us. And we would have to give her head back, even if we didn’t even know where her head was.  The slightest twitch of our muscles, the faintest stir of air would cause the unthinkable to happen.  For we were under the spell of the supernatural; the dead roamed unnoticed among us, day and night.

Hot, summer nights, under the starlit sky, or when the moon was wane and pale, and even the stars were dim, this was the best time for ghost stories.  Our neighborhood ghost storyteller had only a small repertoire.  But that was enough to chill our spines and make our skin crawl even in the hottest weather.  On top of his ghost stories from the countryside and from the War, Cheung Sook also collected tales around the hospital, which abounded in ghost tales.  Patients who committed suicide; women who jumped off the 8th floor maternity ward, after their babies died; dead men and women who returned at night to ask for their bed back; orderlies who were bewitched and ate dirt–One of them, Shui Gor (Brother Shui), was a cousin from our home village.  With a half-blind eye, he was purported to have the capacity to spot ghosts and spirits, even in broad daylight.  Once in a while, he would be taken to an all-night party of the dead, and return home in the morning with dirt and grass in his pockets and mouth.  Then there were the endless tales of the mean, old, spinster British matrons on night duty, who were chased by ghosts down the deserted corridors or crushed by a heavy sitting-ghost in their sleep in the matron’s office.  The most scary ones were the ones that happened to people we knew, ambulance drivers and paramedics who stopped by the cemetery on their way back to the hospital, and picked up beautiful, long-haired women dressed in white, who later disappeared into thin air.  And then the men would go home, sick for a month in bed, until their hair fell out.  And when the weather changed, the bamboo grove by the morgue next to the football field would swish wildly in the wind, and ghosts were supposed to be holding their orgies and blood-drinking ceremonies in the shadows of the tall bamboos.  And no living soul would survive who ever dared to come near the spot.

It was in this same football field, now a playground of luxuriant green for men and kids in the day, that the Japanese had beheaded hundreds of people during the War.  And you could still hear the cries of the beheaded during the night, their headless ghosts drifting about looking for their homes or a proper burial place.  Besides, there were other forms of evil spirits roaming around up and down the hillside.  Tree spirits, fox spirits, and slimy snake spirits whose sole purpose for existence was to ensnare innocent folks into their nests and gobble them up or turn them into slaves, half-human, half-ghost, but really worse than being dead.  And for that reason, no little kid was to go out at night or walk in the dark alone, so I was told.

I never went out in the dark alone.  Even when I approached the haunted areas in the day, I would try to avert my eyes, so I would see no ghosts.  At the same time, I thought of the nuns at school telling us how God would protect all good little children.  Since I had never seen God or any of his angels, I imagined the mean-spirited ghost that was my grandmother, floating somewhere behind me, and protecting me from other spirits.  Ah Ma said that Ah M’ah was a superstitious, mean, old shrew to the day she died, which was right before my birth.  I thought she would at least protect her grandchild–even if I was only a useless girl whom she despised–because I had dutifully put incense in front of her shrine as part of my chores.  “I feed you daily, Ah M’ah.  So you better keep an eye on me.” Silently, I appealed to Ah M’ah’s ghost, as I passed the morgue, and the night watchman’s station where it was rumored that a woman had died years ago, after jumping from the third floor apartment right above ours.

The morgue was a place which inspired our endless fascination and fear.  A box-like, one-story structure with pebbled walls, it was located about 500 yards up the road from the Staff Quarters.  In between, there were the haunted football field, another small building that was the doctors’ residences–out of bounds to us–and the doctors’ tennis court.  And then behind the barricade of a line of garages for the doctors, you could see the black roof and chimneys of the morgue, nestled among a thick bamboo grove.  Daily, we would see black hearses parked in front of the morgue on the entrance from the public road below, and watch the funeral procession go off afterwards with blasting trumpets, gongs and drums down to the Chinese cemetery.  In the clearing beside the bamboo grove, monks and exorcists performed the last rites.

It so happened that the stone path linking the surrounding hills I had to take in order to go to Ping-guo’s house also curved right above the back of the morgue.  So it was easy to watch from behind the trees the ceremonies before burial: the wailing relatives, clothed in somber black or white; the yellow-robed monks swinging incense and candles; bald-headed nuns in floating black robes praying with cymbals in hand; and the brown wooden caskets being closed and carried away by four men on bamboo posts.

I had never dared to look any closer at the contents of the open caskets.  But once, on a dare from my #8 brother, I had gone with Ping-guo to hide on the roof of the doctors’ garage.  There, lying flat on our stomachs, we peeked through the open door of the morgue across at the mortician preparing a body.  It was a young boy a little older than me.  He was wearing blue striped pajamas, the kind my brothers wore, and his feet were bare.  His body was thrown across the top of the stretcher in which he was carried, and his head fell partly over the edge at the top, right in front of my eyes.  All I saw was a head of greasy, dishevelled hair; ashen grey skin; closed eyelids; and an unnaturally limp neck twisted at a funny angle.  As the mortician, Mr. Fung–a man who ate his meals with his sister living downstairs from us every evening–approached the body, I didn’t have the stomach to stay and watch him cut open the dead boy’s body and take his guts out.  I don’t know whoever gave me the idea that that was what the mortician was supposed to do.  But I had heard enough stories about the contents of the mortician’s refrigerators and freezers, and seen enough bottles of severed body parts, embryos of different sizes, and dissected human heads in the Anatomy Lab further up the hill to want to stay on and watch the operation.  In short, I fled.

I must have been about nine years old then.  For not long afterwards, I saw the first dead body of someone I knew.  It was one of my 6th grade classmates, a strong, mischievous boy called So Tsi-fai, who had committed suicide.  Failing the mid-term exam and scolded by his father, he drank a bottle of insecticide and died.  By that time, my father had retired and we had just moved to another part of the city.  But I still remember the windy, overcast day in late November when we had to go to his funeral in my old neighborhood.  The bamboos swung in the wind, swishing and twisting to and fro.  Wisps of smoke drifted upwards from the burning incense and candles, and the monk’s cymbals clanged loud and shrill as before.  Because they were Buddhists, So Tsi-fai’s parents could not view their son’s body.  “The white-heads do not watch the dark-head go,” they said.  So our classmates, in our navy and white winter uniforms, circled solemnly around the open casket.  But the purple-faced body lying strangely still inside the casket looked nothing like the So Tsi-fai we knew at school, even though like us, he had on his proper navy and white winter uniform; it just wasn’t him at all.  And nothing of that scene looked anything like what I used to see, watching from behind the clump of trees on the path above.

As I looked up, there was no little girl watching wide-eyed from behind the trees.  I was ten years old.


In the balcony of our apt at QMH, circa 1962, at age 9.

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My Friend Leela

Do-do!  Do!  The phone rings.  7:05 a.m. on the dot.

I pick up the phone.  “Good morning, Leela!”

Who else but my best friend would call me at 7 a.m.?  It’s a regular ritual, as predictable as the cock’s crow.  Better than an alarm clock.

“Hey, I’m getting my test results this afternoon,” Leela’s soft voice comes through from the other end of the line. “Want to come along to give me some moral support?”

“Sure.” I answer without thinking.  “Where do I meet you?”

“How about the Mud Pie, around 12:30 p.m? ” Leela names one of her favorite vegetarian restaurants on Lyndale.  “I’m taking the afternoon off.  I can use a cup of coffee after work, and we can sit and talk before the clinic opens.”


I hang up.  This will be my first trip to give Leela actual “moral support” for a possible abortion.  The last couple of times, I only heard about them after the fact.  Maybe the past year of daily phone calls in the morning—during her morning break—has made me her latest confidante.  We are close friends, but I know her cautious nature and jealous safeguard of her privacy to pry for more details.  Unless she offers to share, I never ask.

Lying in bed, on the verge of dozing off again, I hear Sarah, our mutual friend’s comment, “It’s not her third or fourth abortion.  She’s had at least one with each new boy friend, sometimes two even….  That’s at least once a year.  And I’ve known her for more than nine years….”

Nine abortions, or more?  The astounding figure confuses me.  Why?

Tuesday afternoon, I board the #21 bus on Lake Street and head Uptown.  It’s a cool, spring day, summer is just around the corner.  A crisp, fresh wind is blowing, and the street is bathed in a soft, spring sunshine.  This is my sixth year in Minneapolis, and I am beginning to feel at home here.  After all, my mother has already died in Hong Kong in 1983, the winter after I arrived at the University for my doctoral studies in English.  Going “home” to Hong Kong no longer feels necessary.  But if not Hong Kong, then where?  Where do I belong?

I met Leela for the first time at the U Film Society on campus.  It was a snowy, winter evening in early 1985.  They were showing a new French movie at the Science Museum.  Being a Francophile—I had a double major in English and French as an undergrad–I wouldn’t want to miss it. In the lobby, I ran into Mike Lee, a film-maker from Hong Kong I had met at a Chinese New Year party the year before.  And he said, “Hey, Sophie, let me introduce you to another Hongkonger, a fellow film-maker, Leela.”

The woman standing next to Mike turned and smiled.  Crimson lipstick, pearly white teeth. Large, dreamy, black eyes.  Though not much taller than me, Leela has a regal carriage about her, like a ballet dancer; and a cool, distant smile.  An Ice Queen.  Her kohl dark eyes, cropped hair, and exotic looks make her a standout anywhere.  She looks like a fashion model out of the pages of Vogue.

I found out later that Leela had arrived in Minneapolis a couple of years before I did, but she has dropped out of the English graduate program and gone “underground.” Somehow, she got a job as a cook at the University Hospital where she usually takes the morning shift, so she could take video-making classes and run her poetry group in the evening.  An avid film buff, she loves Eastern European movies and foreign films.  So we have a few interests in common, besides the fact that we have both “escaped” from colonial Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong was suffocating,” she confides in me, over Beef Chow Fun at the Village Wok.  “And my dad wouldn’t let me go anywhere….  I couldn’t bear watching him and my mom fight; it drove me nuts.  What was there to do but to run away from home?”

I’ve never met anyone else who’d describe their leaving Hong Kong the same way: “running away from home.”  Running away, exile, escape.  That’s exactly how I feel.

Leela’s father is half-Pakistani and half Chinese, but her mom is full-blooded Cantonese and a beauty in her day.  That was the mid 1950’s.  Her parents were high school sweet-hearts; her mother was barely sixteen, a headstrong, spoiled, rich girl.  Her family objected vehemently to her romance with a South Asian—an “Ah Char,” as dark-skinned Indians were called in Hong Kong.  Except for the very rich, merchants and diplomats, the rest were considered the “under-class”–They stink!  So Leela’s mother got pregnant and threatened suicide; and she got her way.  That makes Leela one-quarter Pakistani, although she was raised like most Hong Kong girls except for being Moslem and not eating pork.  “I’m just a mutt,” she quips, defiance flashing in her eyes.  Her father, however, sounds like a typical patriarch, dictatorial, abusive, and complete with a second wife and another set of family outside.  He forbids his wife and daughters to go out on their own.

“I had to sneak my clothes out of the house and stash them at a friend’s home piece by piece.  I only called my mom before I boarded the plane at Kai Tak Airport.  I hate saying good-bye.”

So do I.  But I did not have as dramatic an escape as Leela did.  My family didn’t care, so long as I could take care of myself.  I worked for a year and saved enough for my first semester’s school fees at a tiny Midwestern college, and took off.  It was August 1973.  And I have never looked back.

So here we are, two young Chinese women, ex-colonials, forging a new life in the American Midwest.  Foreigners, misfits.  Free at last.


When I walk into the Mud Pie, Leela is already seated at a booth, coffee mug in her hand.

“The clinic doesn’t open until one p.m.,” she says.  “We have plenty of time.  I’ve already had lunch at work.  Do you want to eat something?”

I order a vegetarian burger and a cup of hot tea.  Leela sips her coffee and watches me eat, with a faraway look in her eyes.  The test results must be weighing on her mind.

“You know, I’m not religious or anything,” she begins quietly, like talking to herself.  “But sometimes I think those babies—well, fetuses–must be waiting for me on the other side. ‘Mom!  Mom!’ They’d cry….”

“’We want our life back! Give it back to us!’” she mimics in a high-pitched, dramatic voice. “Yeah, just like ghosts in the radio drama, The Midnight Hour!”  She chuckles, although I don’t feel any real laughter in her voice.

I don’t know what to say.  I’ve never had an abortion, or anything close to it.  What can I say?

“Well, wait till you get the results,” I say tentatively.  “Don’t jump into conclusions so fast.”

“Oh, I’ve been through this before,” she shakes her head. “My period is quite regular.  So I’m 99% sure.  Just need them to confirm it…and then I can take the next step.”

Leela is unusually moody today.  Not the nonchalant, proud Ice Queen she likes to project most anywhere else.  I am left speechless.

“Actually, the procedure is not so bad,” she continues, in a quiet, measured tone. “They always give you some counseling beforehand, just in case you might want to change your mind.  I usually tell them that I can’t keep it; I have to work.  It really doesn’t matter what you say; it’s just a formality.”  Calmly, she takes another sip of her coffee.  “There’s a room where you watch a video explaining the procedure, and then they ask you to sign a form.  After that, you change into a gown and they take you into the room….  The doctor and nurses are all wearing masks.  You never see their faces….”

A short pause.  “Hm, they must be doing 20, 30 procedures a day; just herding everyone through.”

Her voice drifts off, as if she was talking in her dream.  “There’s usually some pain, like cramping.  But you’ll get over it.”  Another pause.  “Um, the needle is…this long.”  She opens her hands and indicates a span of at least a foot. “It hurts the worst when they scrape you clean, to make sure they’ve got all the tissues out.  Yeah, that really hurts.”

“Afterwards, you go and rest in a lounge with other women. Just like the sick room at school.  You can have some tea and crackers, or candies and chocolate.  They tell you to rest for a few days.  I usually just call in sick…. No sex for a couple of weeks….”

From a far distance, I recall my mother’s rare disclosure.  “There’s no denying your father.  When he wants it, he wants it….  Wait till you’re married, you’ll know.”  Leela, on the other hand, is the one who can’t wait.  When she’s “in the mood,” she wants “action,” right away.  It takes the guy too long to put on his “thing,” she complains, and inserting her diaphragm means more delay.

I wonder if she’s ever tried a better method for birth control.   But I keep my mouth shut.  Indeed, what do I know?  My almost non-existent sex life makes me the least qualified person to make any comments on such matters.

All of a sudden, Leela flashes me a big smile.  Crimson lipstick glimmers under the yellow light.  “Yeah, if it was back in China in the old days, I’d make some mother-in-law very happy,” she chuckles again.  “Such fertility!  Just like a baby-making machine!”  She laughs out loud, her laughter echoing through the empty restaurant.

“Yes, just like my mother says, ‘There’s no escaping from it.  It’s a woman’s burden, a woman’s lot.’  It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberated or not.  You’re still tied to your god-damned period, your god-damned eggs!”

She takes another sip of coffee, staring out of the window.

I can only see that foot-long needle, inserted into her womb.  The pain, the blood.  And the sounds of the doctor’s instrument, scraping her uterus lining clean.  Does that hurt more or hurt less than actually giving birth?  My mother had 10 births.  “Two basins of blood, two basins of blood!” she used to exclaim, describing the process.  It’s a woman’s burden?  A woman’s lot?

Leela lets out a deep breath, and begins again. “Hm, I’m pretty sure this one is Rob’s,” she says in a placid voice, like telling someone else’s story.  Rob is her latest boy friend—another film-maker, Italian-American, handsome, gregarious–the one she’s been thinking of marrying.  Wavering, debating with herself over the decision.  That’s why the daily phone calls at 7 a.m.

“It’s not that I don’t like him,” she complains on the phone, for the hundredth time.  “I just don’t know if I should get married, now, and to him….  You know, the government has offered an amnesty for illegal aliens who entered the country before 1982; I should qualify.  I don’t need a husband to become legit.”

There’s a gritty determination in her voice, with an undercurrent of pride, defiance and rage.  Like a raging bull in front of a matador.

“I’ve always made my own way, by hook or by crook,” she says to me. “What’s the point of adding this meaningless title, ‘a wife’?!”

Like many of my friends, foreign students, Chinese women, Hongkongers…Leela is lost in the perennial quandary.  Identity, nationality, home.  Being born Chinese, and female, already makes us “second-class citizens.” Being from Hong Kong makes things more complicated.  Our BNO won’t last forever. And we must live in the shadowland of being neither fully British, nor “bona fide” Chinese.  Yes, how many of us would willingly “return to the Motherland,” when 1997 comes along?

“I stopped seeing Pierre and Alexei at least 3 months ago, in spite of myself,” Leela confesses, wistfully, in the near-deserted Mud Pie—unusually quiet for a Tuesday afternoon.  Her pale, white face; her flaming red lips remind me of “femmes fatales” in many classic movies.  Garbo, Dietrich….  “I was really having a good time.  A French photographer, and a Russian film-maker.  What else can I ask for?”  She sighs.  “Alexei, especially, makes me wild.  Such passion in his eyes, his hands….  I want it to go on and on; I never want him to stop.  And he brings me wine and roses, and recites Pushkin….  You’d never find such finesse with these hot-blooded Yankees who only want a quick fix.”

She pauses.  “Oh, yes, I’d marry Alexei in a heart-beat.  But he already has a wife!”

I wonder if Rob knows she’s carrying his child.  Does he agree to an abortion?  Is she going to tell him?  Would she tell him after they’re married?

“Hm, it’s already 12:55; the clinic should be opened,” Leela puts down her coffee mug.  “Let me call them from the pay phone outside.”  She gets up from our booth, and heads toward the door.  Even from the back, she looks stunning.  Short, black hair; large, turquoise ear-rings; red, embroidered jacket from Guatemala.

…and those aborted fetuses waiting for her on the other side.

*                                  *                                *

It was the spring of 1989.  The whole world was ablaze with news from Beijing, where Chinese dissidents and activist students were protesting, taking over Tiananmen Square.  Leela and I were part of a small group of students—from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a couple from the mainland—who had been studiously discussing current events and intellectual concerns in a monthly “Book Club.”  Aided by E-mails and faxes sent by Chinese students from campuses around the country—indeed, around the world–we were all infected by the fervor of the moment.  Some of us went to the newly-formed, independent Chinese Student Association, and participated in their chaotic and heated debates; some of us interviewed the main student leaders and wrote reports in the University paper; some of us went along on overnight trips to Chicago, to protest with tens of thousands of other students in front of the Chinese Embassy.  Our enthusiasm and our excitement knew no bounds.  Even after being out of Hong Kong, or China, for long periods of time—some of us for decades—we were, after all, Chinese in our heart and in our blood.  America was only our borrowed home.

On a few occasions, Leela and Rob brought their video equipment on our bus to Chicago to document the events.  They seemed to be forming a stronger bond together, and I was happy for them.

Then came the fateful events of June third and June fourth, when military tanks crushed the protesters in Tiananmen—once again reported by all the prime time channels.  I shall never forget the first Breaking News at 5 a.m., on the morning of June 4th, Peter Jennings on ABC.  Gun shots and tanks on the Square.  Injured students, crushed bodies, followed by massive arrests.  The world, as we knew it—as we dreamed it–came to a grinding halt.

The rest of the summer felt more like a Siberian winter.  We were all chilled to the bones.  Our naïve hopes were dashed.

Overnight, students from China—even those who had never participated in the democratic organizing on campus—were talking of an amnesty, and a special permit which would allow them to stay in the US indefinitely.  That would not include those of us from Hong Kong, of course, since we were “British.”  Lin Hua, one of my good friends and an English scholar from Tianjin, had emigrated to Canada with her husband and young son.  They had just crossed the Canadian border on the evening of June third.  “In the nick of time,” she would tell me later.  Others had their eyes and ears glued to the news, and the information from the US Department of State.  With the help of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and a few others, the much-anticipated bill on extension for Chinese students’ visas would soon be passed.

One fine day in late summer, I put on my pink summer dress—the one my sister had mailed me from Hong Kong—and went to Leela and Rob’s wedding at the Minneapolis City Hall.  It was a small wedding, with only a few close friends attending.  I was one of the two bridesmaids, and Mike Lee was the photographer.  As usual, Leela looked stunningly beautiful in a white, cotton summer dress, with subtle patterns woven into the fabric, and a purple, silk sash tied on her waist.  Smiling, leaning against her tall, handsome husband, she was a gorgeous bride.

I finally breathed a sigh of relief.  Hopefully, that’d be the end of those early phone calls at 7 a.m.

Apparently, Leela had called her mom, who urged her to hurry up so she could get her citizenship ASAP.  With 1997 fast approaching, and the recent crackdown in Beijing—indeed, all over China– everyone in Hong Kong was getting extremely nervous.  A foreign passport was the only security blanket.  Leela’s family needed her to rescue them.  Even her belligerent father was giving her and Rob his blessings.

“My dad says Rob looks just like a handsome Prince from North India; Caucasian good looks.  He’d be happy to receive him as a son-in-law!” she joked.

So off they went, back to Hong Kong for the happy reunion, and another Pakistani-style wedding ceremony.  The Prodigal returned, security blanket in tow.  Everyone got what they wanted, or close.

By early fall, I was offered a temporary job as a translator/interpreter in New York City, where I lived and worked for three months.  When I returned to Minneapolis, it was mid-January, with snow piled up two feet deep on the streets.

Why didn’t I stay in Manhattan, where my sister was making good money as an interpreter, and where I could get translation jobs easily? –I had no answer, except that I loved the arts too much.  A group of Asian friends were organizing the first-ever Asian American arts conference in the Upper Midwest.  They wanted me to be the coordinator.  It was an offer I could not refuse.

I’d never be able to go back to China, anyway.  Hong Kong is no longer my home.  So I only have one option left. Rightly or wrongly, that was my rationale.

Now looking back, I wonder how many foreigners, and how many Chinese students ended up with decisions like mine, sooner or later?   I had barely avoided facing the issue longer than most, hiding behind my scholarships and fellowships.  “Be realistic, Sophie,” Lin Hua urged me on the phone from Toronto.  “Only hua qiao–overseas Chinese–like you would believe in dreams of a better China,” she commented bitterly.  “We, who know better, wouldn’t waste the time.”

In a way, I was luckier than some, since I participated actively in local Asian American groups, and multi-cultural organizing.  I knew I had a community; I was not a state-less, home-less person.  Over-compensating for my Hong Kong upbringing, perhaps.  But mostly, the sounds of gun-shots and the regiments of soldiers and tanks on Tiananmen Square had been forever etched in my mind.  Clinging to the hope that I’d be “Chinese” again no longer seemed possible.  I might as well “become” an American.

I found a new apartment in St. Paul, not far from University Avenue.  I needed help moving in.  So I picked up the phone one afternoon and called Leela, who had helped me move half a dozen times.

But she wasn’t home.  Rob, who answered the phone, told me that Leela was doing overtime work to save money for a new car.  They were planning on moving to San Francisco the following summer.

“Hey, Sophie,” Rob said pleasantly, “I have a small truck.  Why don’t you let me help you move?  You’d never be able to find Leela the next couple weeks; she also has a deadline on a video project coming up.  She’s working night and day to finish it.”

“Oh, that’d be great!” I exclaimed.  “I’ll ask some of the other guys to come along to help.  They’re used to hauling my big computer desk and couch.”

So everything was set for my imminent move to St. Paul, or so I thought.

Two days later, I received an unexpected phone call from Leela.  “How dare you make a date with my husband without asking me first?” She screamed at me on the phone.  “You have no right to go over me and not ask for my permission!”

“What?” I was stunned.  “It wasn’t a date!  Rob offered to help me move because you are busy doing overtime.  He said he’s glad to help, that’s all.”

“Still, you needed to ask my permission first,” Leela’s voice was shrill and loud.  “We’ve been quarreling for two days and two nights because of YOU!”

“Hey, wait a minute, Leela.  Be reasonable,” I pleaded.  “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I didn’t ask Rob for help; he was the one who offered.  Besides, I’ve cooked dinner for both of you; I’ve participated in your wedding like your family.  I just thought….”

“Well,” she interrupted me, “You have no right to think!  You’re taking me totally for granted.  I’m your friend, Rob is my husband.  By courtesy, you should have consulted with me first.”

“But how was I going to consult with you when you weren’t at home?  Rob said you are too busy!  What’s this big deal about a ride to move some furniture?  It’s not like he’s running away with me!”

I was getting frustrated and angry too.  There’s no point in reasoning with an angry—and most probably hysterical and very jealous–wife.  But I had never foreseen it coming.  I was shocked.

“You have violated every rule in the book on friendship!” Leela yelled at me.  “You’re untrustworthy.  I’ll never trust you again!

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I answered, also huffing and puffing.  Indeed, I was incensed.  “People help other people move all the time.  You’ve helped me a number of times; so has Mike, and Charles and the others.  I don’t see why I needed your permission to arrange for a ride.  You’re just totally ridiculous.”

And so the argument went on, over the phone, for two whole hours.  It was a futile discussion.  At the end, I hung up, exhausted and hurt.  My head was buzzing with Leela’s curse words, and her angry tirades—which I couldn’t fathom, nor could I accept.  I wondered if her mother was this crazy when she fought with Leela’s father like dogs and cats.  “Looking just like a ghost,” was Leela’s description.

I really wondered where all this anger came from.  I definitely didn’t create it.  And I did not deserve such rude treatment, not even from my “best friend.”

A couple of weeks passed.  No more phone calls from Leela.  Thank goodness!  I hoped she would cool down and get over her rage.  It was rage, pure and simple—coming out of nowhere.

One Sunday morning, I was meeting some friends for Dim Sum at the Cantonese House Restaurant.  As I was being seated, there they were, Leela and Rob, already seated at the other side of the restaurant.  They must have gotten there much earlier.

The minute she saw me, Leela got up from her table and headed for the exit.  Rob stared after her.  Then he also got up, gave me a little wave, and shrugged.  They left.

I was very hurt; I couldn’t say a word.

The following week, our friends Charles and Clara had a dinner party at their apartment.  “Leela said she’d bring her latest video to show us,” Clara said nicely.  “Be sure to come early.”

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed. “She walked out on me at the Cantonese House the other day.  I am not going to go through that again!”

“But why?” Clara was surprised.  “I thought you said that she was the one who was angry.  Now she has offered to come to our dinner.  But you are the one who wants to avoid her.  That doesn’t make sense.”

“Oh well, it does, to me,” I said. “She has not even apologized to me once for chewing me out on the phone for two hours, and for NO reason at all.  And she already walked out on me, the minute she saw me arrive at a restaurant.  I’m not going to endure such rude treatment again—not even if she was my mother!”

In the end, I didn’t go to Clara and Charles’ dinner party.  I just couldn’t.

The following summer, Leela and Rob packed their belongings and drove off to San Francisco.  I heard about their new apartment above a Pizza parlor, and Rob’s new job at a local TV station.  But they never contacted me again, not even once.

Now, many years later, I wonder if I was over-reacting or too stubborn to refuse to go to that last dinner at Clara’s house.  If I had gone, maybe I’d be able to repair my relationship with Leela before she left town.  But it’s all too late now.

Friendship is like drifting clouds.  You drift together; then you drift apart.  Nothing is constant.  Like the lines in this Chinese folk-song, Ben Shi (Our Original Story): In the long tunnel of time, we are merely fallen petals, each to her own destiny.  “We don’t know how we’ve tumbled into sleep./  In our dream, how many blossoms have fallen in the wind?

Here I am, in Hong Kong, some twenty years later, thinking of my quirky, beautiful, unpredictable friend who was like a sister to me for a few years.  I wonder, is she thinking of me—maybe once in a while—in faraway San Francisco?


Copyright © Sophronia Liu, 2012

On the 23rd Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre

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Char Hang (义坑Forked Hollow)

          Rainy Day in Hong Kong (by Stephanie Liu, poster colors, 1970)         

            In the beginning, the very beginning of everything, there was that house.  It stood by the side of Tai Po Road, leading from Tai Po Village on the way to Fan Ling.  On the other side of the road, on an embankment, the railway tracks ran parallel to the road.  The rattle of the box cars and the whistle of the daily trains to and from Kowloon could be heard throughout the valley, especially at my mother’s home in Char Hang (义坑)Village.

It was a grand old country home, the grandest in the entire Char Hang Village.  Ah G’own (亞公), my mother’s father who was a rich landowner and an herbalist, had built the house in the last century.  The house stood tall and majestic, facing south-west.  It had black tiled slanting roofs that came together at the top like the Chinese character for gold (金), and old-fashioned, sturdy, grey-bricked walls which were smooth and cool in the summer, looking like an ancient temple with its overhanging eaves and double-leafed wooden doors growing dark with age.  A pair of New Year couplets, black ink written on red and gold paper, hung by either side of the doorway all year round, although they were already worn-out and tattered, and half of the characters were gone.

And my mother, a plump, sturdy, little girl then named Man Mei-choi (文美彩) was playing with other village children in the large front yard, facing the village lane.  The family’s lotus pond stood just on the other side of the dirt lane.  In late summer, after the pink and white lotus blossoms had wilted, my mother watched her older cousins and aunts wade thigh-deep into the muddy pond to harvest the lotus tubers and the seeds.  With sickles in hand and their flat, wide-rimmed work hats on their heads fringed with a layer of black cloth like a veil, the women bent in labor among the dark green, canopy-like lotus leaves.  Plunging their arms deep into the pond, they pulled out huge sections of lotus tubers, dripping water and wet mud.  Beneath the patches of black dirt, the tubers were fat and round like a farmer’s sturdy forearms, and their nut-brown skin shone lusciously in the light.  Besides the slices of lotus tubers in the soup at the evening meal, there would have been plenty of meat left over to dry up and keep in tight-lidded tins.  At New Year’s time, the candied lotus tubers would still have been crunchy and sweet, giving out a distinct fragrance as they melted in one’s mouth.

Mid afternoon, under the lazy yellow sun, the games in the yard were the most heated.  Once in a while, Ah P’or (亞婆), my mother’s blind mother, would appear at the door of her little house, which was attached to the right side of the big house.  “You sai-mung-jai (細蚊仔 little mosquitoes), don’t make so much noise!  You are waking me from my nap!”  Ah P’or cried in dismay, her soft voice almost completely drowned by the dint of the children’s screams.  Her left hand holding onto the wooden doorpost for direction and support, Ah P’or‘s tall, dark figure, framed within the shadows of the darkened doorway, looked blurry and unreal.  Under the shade of overhanging eaves, her blind eyes were pale and lusterless, staring fixedly ahead, as if she was constantly seeking out an invisible companion who inhabited another dimension, in some other place far, far away.

As the village children grudgingly dispersed, a few churly ones kept up a jeering chant, “Sar-mung-gaiSar-mung-gai!”  (耍盲雞Catch the Blind Chicken!  Catch the Blind Chicken!)  They sing-songed as they scampered along the village lane, looking back and throwing their jeers at the blind woman standing against the doorway.

My mother, left alone in the deserted yard, was embarrassed and ashamed, both for herself and for her mother who seemed oblivious to the children’s taunting jeers.  No more games for the day.  She must steal into the main house before her mother noticed her.  But it was too late.

Ah Choi,” Ah P’or called out, her ears had picked out the shuffling feet by the door, “Go in at once and wash up.  You are too old to be playing with these children any more.  No mother-in-law would want you if she knows that you are still playing with wild children in the yard!”

“I was twelve years old,” my mother told us, as she repeated the story for the hundredth time.  “And I was already a big girl.  Your Ho Dai-yee, at sixteen, was already engaged to be married; and Kwei Dai-yee, fourteen, was about to be engaged.  There had been talk for a while about a match between me and the school master’s grandson who was about my age.  That was when I was ten years old, before Ah G’own had died.  Everyone teased and laughed at me so much that I wouldn’t dare to show up at the shu-fong (書房school-room).  Big girls in those days didn’t share the same bench with boys their age, not to mention studying in the same shu-fong; people would laugh at them.  Besides, the shu-fong wasn’t built for us girls anyway; I had been working along with my cousins and aunts in the rice fields since I was six years old.  So I never went into the shu-fong again–never learned to read and write!  Aiii!  That was what the old days was like.  Country people are very strict about keeping their blind customs; and you can never say no!”

Thus my mother, the quintessential country person in our eyes, would tell us about the injustices of “blind country customs,” and the one great regret in her life: never learning how to read and write.  “N’gan-saik-jee (唔識字not being able to recognize any words) is as good as being blind,” Ah Ma said.  The word for illiteracy in Chinese is Man-m’gan, “literate blindness.”

“But Mei-yee, your little sister, could write,” I once argued, trying to be smart.  “I’ve seen her writing out her grocery list and reading a newspaper.”

“Mei-yee was much younger, so she stayed in the school-room for six whole years,” Ah Ma answered with irritation.  “Your Kwei Dai-yee was sixteen, a lot older than the other boys, and she was already engaged, so it was all right for her to study along with them too.  Only Ho Dai-yee and I were left out.  We were shy; and we were afraid that people would say we were getting our future husbands in the shu-fong….  That was just not the thing to do….”

Unable to get any satisfaction out of this psuedo-answer which didn’t make sense to us, we went after a different target.  “Did Ah P’or know how to read and write?” We asked.

“Of course not,” Ah Ma replied.  “She was only sixteen when Ah G’own brought her home to be his concubine.  Her family in Lung-gong (龍崗Dragon Hill) were poor country people.  How would she have learned how to read?”

As Ah Ma spoke, our minds conjured up pictures of Ah P’or‘s family in Lung-gong (“Lung” was for “dragon,” and “gong” was either “river” or “hill”–we never found out which was its real name; but we knew that it was some faraway place further up Chu-gong, or Pearl River, in Guangdong Province where Ah G’own had gone occasionally on his extended medical trips.).  Did Ah P’or‘s poor parents give her away to the itinerant herbal doctor–one less mouth to feed–just like the way it happened in old Cantonese movies that Ah Ma watched daily on TV?  Or was Ah P’or orphaned at a young age like Ah Ma, and her heartless older brother had sold her in servitude to another man?  How much money had Ah G’own paid for her?  Was it enough to feed her starving family?  And did he beat her like all cruel masters (again like on TV)?   Or did he, a man in his fifties, dote on his little concubine because she managed to give him his only son, our Dai Kau (Big Uncle), and four more daughters in his old age–an entirely new set of family after his big wife had died and his four older daughters had married and left home?

Ah P’or wasn’t always blind, of course.  “She cried so much that she lost her eyesight!”  Ah Ma said.  That was after Ah G’own had died (my mother was barely ten years old) and Dai Kau, the only male heir, lost most of the family fortune at the gambling table, according to Ah Ma’s account.

“We used to own the biggest orchard in Tai Po,” Ah Ma said.  “Hill after hill of fruit trees and rice fields, and most of the shops on the main street of Tai Po Market!  But he lost it all, including the brick factory and even the Bus Company that we owned.”  The Bus Company was the Kowloon Bus Company that provided public transportation between Kowloon and the New Territories.  “For years afterwards, well until the War, I could always take the bus for free.  All the bus drivers would recognize me as Man Heen Kee’s little sister and no bus fare was necessary.”  Ah Ma reminisced with a mixture of pride and regret.

“For months Ah P’or just sat there and cried and cried.  She cried all day and all night.  Nobody could stop her.  Later, when she finally stopped, she couldn’t see any more.  She had lost her eyes!”  Ah Ma told us, as if that was the most natural outcome for a lamenting mother who had a spoiled son.

The Ah P’or I remember was a lonely figure dressed in country black, always sitting with her head slightly bent on a large, straight-backed, teak-wood chair.  Wisps of her grey hair escaped from her temples from the little bun she tied at the back of her head, country-style.  And her face was wrinkled and shriveled with age.  Her blind pupils were colorless and luster-less, an opaque bluish white film formed a cloud around them.  During the New Year’s, when we went to visit her with Ah Ma, she would extend her wrinkled hands and say, “Come over here so Ah P’or could touch you.”  I still remember the tingle of fear and embarrassment as her large, cool palms touched my forehead and cheeks while she said, “This is Ah Foon, Ah Choi’s ninth daughter,” as if she was pulling out her mental records on which my name and face were carefully filed away under the big heading, “Ah Choi‘s children.”

A musty smell came from Ah P’or’s clothes; the same faintly stale smell of stagnation and disuse permeated her dingy, dim house, like a long abandoned temple.  Outside, in the front kitchen, a square of yellowish sunlight came in from the skylight above.  The old brick-lined stove was chilly to the touch.  No one had cooked a meal here for years.  Bundles of loosely bound dry twigs, weeds, and straw were strewn all over the floor, dispersed by little great grand children in their games of hide-and-seek.  “Shh!  Don’t wake up Ah Ba’k (great-grandmother) from her afternoon nap,” The little child would warn her companion, as they sought cover behind the stove.  Two times a day, a great grand-daughter brought my grandmother her bowl of rice and food from next doors, where Dai Kau and Dai Kum (uncle and aunt) lived.  Otherwise, Ah P’or had biscuit tins by her bedside stocked up with sweet cakes and cookies which my mother and aunts would bring her during their visits.

One time Ah Ma returned from one of her visits to Char Hang, huffing and puffing with anger.  “What’s the use of having a daughter-in-law and grand daughters-in-law when an old blind woman can’t even have two decent meals?’  She said.  “No-one sweeps the floor; the sheets stay yellow and stained for months–and ants crawling all over her cake tins!”  Earlier in the day in Char Hang, Ah P’or had tried to offer Ah Ma a piece of sweet cup cake from her tins.  When she brought the cakes out, Ah Ma saw clumps of little red ants drop all over her lap and onto the floor.  “No wonder my cakes have tasted so bitter lately,” my blind grandmother had remarked good-naturedly, Ah Ma told us.  And my mother, filled with anger and shame, could only let her tears fall silently as she threw out the cake tins along with the ant-infested cakes.

*                      *                      *                      *

During New Year’s, it was customary for us to stop at Char Hang before we headed back to Sheung Shui for our family’s celebration in our own village.  The trip lasted well over two hours, by bus, ferry, and then another bus or train, or min-buses which are 14-seat vans that took passengers from the Yaumati Ferry all the way to Sheung Shui twenty miles away.  Most of the time, I would be exhausted and drowsy from the bumpy road, the gas fumes, and car-sickness.  And just when I thought I couldn’t bear the constant swaying of the tiny van for another minute, there around the bend, was the familiar railroad bridge opening up like an arched gateway, under which we passed through.  And there, on the other side farther down the road, would be Dai Kau’s house by the side of the road.

Coming in from the bright sunshine, it usually took a while to adjust to the cavernous, cool rooms under the high ceiling, full of shadowy nooks and murky recesses.  The house was all astir.  Brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins sat around in the sitting-room.  It was the middle of the day, but all the lights were turned on.  A single unadorned light bulb hung from a long black cord from the high beams.  On either sides of the wall, just above the frames packed with family pictures, fluorescent lights gave off a bluish white gleam, turning the faces of those present into a kind of still life, as if they too, had come straight out of those yellowed brown, black and white photos lining up the walls.

A large round table in the center of the room was loaded with fried and steamed New Year pastries, tangerines, oranges and apples, and trays of candied fruit, preserves, chocolate pieces wrapped in gold paper, red watermelon seeds, and dry roasted pumpkin seeds, toffee and rock candy inside multi-colored paper.  A large tangerine tree laden with succulent, golden tangerines sat in a yellow clay pot in the center of the front courtyard, facing the entrance and directly under the square of sunlight coming in from the skylight above.  Next to it was a small table with an incense holder filled with burning incense and candles.  The smell of melting wax and incense filled the air.  Another pot of tangerines sat on the left side of the long teak wood table at the far end of the sitting-room that served as the shrine.  Beside the incense holders, there were trays of food: fresh pork, roast pork, whole steamed chicken, hard-boiled eggs cut into halves, fried tofu, bowls of rice…and several metal troughs holding the steamed New Year cakes, their oily brown tops glimmering in the light.  A small tangerine with its twigs and a couple of green leaves attached to it sat in the center of each New Year Cake for good luck.  (Tangerine, or gut, stands for good luck.)  A long, black, wooden plaque with “Shrine for all the Ancestors of the Man family” inscribed in gold hung from the back wall.  Even the ancestors were grinning benevolently, as they sat in the shadows behind the wisps of smoke and the full plates of New Year offerings….

Everywhere New Year was in the air.  Firecrackers popped outside in the yards in front of the houses and along the village lanes.  Incense burning; fish and pork and chicken being steamed, fried and stewed in the kitchen; sweets and pastries and fruit all day long.  No one said a bad word; no child was scolded.  Little girls in red Chinese jackets, red ribbons and berets; boys in fresh new pants and shirts and shiny leather shoes ran in- and out-of-doors in their never-ending games of hide-and-seek.

On a low stool at the foot of the doorway leading off to a side room to the left, I sat quietly in my new red corduroy overalls and red padded jacket with red trim.  I watched and listened to the grown-ups as they greeted each other and counted packets of lai-see (lucky money) wrapped in little red envelopes for the children.  Then they sat back, drank tea, split watermelon seeds, and commenced to exchange the latest news on their relatives: Cousin Cheung’s wife, now five months into her second pregnancy, had started staying at home to avoid another miscarriage, Dai Kau said; ginseng and chicken stew was the best for stabilizing the unborn baby, Kwei Dai Yee offered; and what about consulting the herbal doctor down in Tai Po Market, the one who had helped Big Auntie in Lam Tsuen get a healthy grandson? Yue Liang, Dai Kau’s Second daughter-in-law asked.  But what was the use in seeing doctors and eating nutritious food, Dai Kum countered, when young people these days never wanted to listen to old people’s advice and insisted on running around wild, swimming and playing tennis during their pregnancies?  Even old people these days, Dai Kum added, like Ho Dai-yee, Cousin Cheung’s mother, seemed to have lost their senses and didn’t seem to know how to properly train and guide their sons and daughters-in-law.  Such unseemly behavior would never be tolerated in their (Dai Kau and Dai Kum‘s) household.

After a brief silence, Kwei Dai-yee inquired: Talking about Big Auntie, what happened to her husband in London who had lost his restaurant at the gambling table?  A chorus of questions and comments followed: Weren’t they supposed to have married their youngest daughter off to another overseas Chinese who had a restaurant in Ho-lan (Holland) and who was willing to pay off Big Auntie’s husband’s debts?  –Did the girl really refuse to go because she thought the man too old and Ho-lan too far away?  –What happened to young girls these days that they could refuse a perfectly good match and a capable man with a good business?  –Or did the real reason had to do with the fact that the girl had started working in a factory in Kowloon, buying clothes for herself, and perhaps secretly going out with men she had met at work?  May be she had already found herself a boy friend?….

The sounds of the grown-ups were merged with the continuous noise of fire-crackers setting off near and far.  How far?  On the other side of the railway tracks?  Past the orchards, and down the road toward Tai Po Market?  How near?  In the fields across from the village pond?  Up and down the village lane in the yards in front of different houses?  Behind the clump of trees in the back of Dai Kau‘s house, right next to the outhouse?  From my place in the shadowy corner by the side door, my ears picked up their sounds and my mind’s eye followed the sparkle of fire, flying bits of red paper, and clouds of sulfur smoke that accompanied each explosion.  For an instant, it was as if the smoldering smoke had entered Dai Kau‘s sitting room.  For the faces of my relatives sitting in a circle in front of me appeared clouded in smoke–like the ancestral tablets behind the incense and burning candles at the far end of the room–as they were bathed in a wash of afternoon sunlight beaming down from the skylight.

Gingerly, I left my seat and sneaked into the side room behind me.

The room was cool and dim.  A small window covered with patterned grand glass let in a pale gleam of light at the far end.  Under the fuzzy sunlight, the room was sparsely furnished.  A few wooden benches, haggard and browned with age, sat against the two side walls.  An old table, with its leaves folded down, was leaning against one wall on which some tools were hung: a hoe, a sickle, and a large black rod and round iron weight used for weighing goods and rice.  Above them, heavy, round nails the size of a finger stuck out from the wall.  Next to these, there was someone’s old outer jacket, and a woman’s work hat of pleated bamboo stilts, rounded by a black cloth fringe.  It was as if a farmer and his wife had come in from the field and hung up their clothes and tools, and there these objects had stayed for the last quarter century or half a century.  Time stood still in this little room.

The room smelled of seedlings and grain, mixed with the odor of dry earth and grass, even though it was dusted and swept clean.  Some other little girl must have painstakingly bent over the smooth cement floor recently with a short-handled brush make of dry rice stalks.  Across the room, just where the sunlight from the window began to fade, there was a slanting long ladder leading up to the loft.  The upper rungs of the ladder were hidden in shadows as it reached the board-lined ceiling and disappeared into a dark void.  This was the opening to the daughters’ sleeping quarters where my mother and aunts had slept when they were young girls.  Standing at the foot of the ladder, I could imagine the three days and three nights Ah Ma had spent on the loft singing and chanting marriage songs with her sisters, aunts, and cousins, just before she was to be married.  This was the same ladder from which she had stepped off in her red bridal gown, to be carried on the covered wedding sedan-chair to my father’s house.

The cacophony of the trumpets and gongs sounding off in the next room where the wedding procession was to begin; the noises and rushing feet of relatives, all dressed in their ceremonial gowns; and children skipping about excitedly, eager for a glimpse of the bride….  The air was pulsating with music and sounds; smoke and incense mixed with flying dust.  My heart raced with every beat, listening, hearing, sensing it all.

The bricks on the wall felt cool and smooth under my palm.  I looked up and peered into the semi-darkness at the top of the ladder.  I could picture the simple furnishings that the loft must hold.  Perhaps an old bed made of boards standing against the far wall; an old wooden bench and an old stool by the small square window, which let in a bare glimmer of light.  May be Dai Kau‘s grand-daughters, or his daughters-in-law, were the ones sleeping in the loft now.  But in my mind, the room was bare; no-one had slept in it for years after my mother and her sisters had left the house.

I turned.  My eyes fell upon two leaves of a wooden door, like those on large cupboards, hidden in a recessed corner at the far end of the room, directly across from the entrance.  Crossing the room, I stood in front of the worn-out doors and pulled open the right side.  All of a sudden, light flooded in through the half-opened doorway.  Bundles of dry rice stalks stood on the other side, leaning against a brick-lined stove.  The place looked somewhat familiar, though the angle was wrong.  I stopped for a moment and blinked: It was the kitchen in Ah P’or‘s house! But I had never seen it from behind the stove before.

Raising my legs, I stepped across the foot-high barrier at the bottom of the doorway.  And I found myself standing in the shadows by the old stove, peering straight into a path of sunlight coming in from the half-opened front doors.

Outside, children were playing and shouting at each other under the sun.  Inside Ah P’or’s house, the air was cool and dry, with the faint musty smell I remembered.  And I heard their voices: Ah Ma and her sisters had come over to see Ah P’or.  Even Ho Dai-yee, who had been kept behind by ceremonies at her own house, had finally arrived.  By the side of Ah P’or’s round table, an animated conversation was going on in semi-hushed tones.

Aiya!  Heaven knows I have tried my best to caution Ah Cheung.  But these young people never listen,” Ho Dai-yee said plaintively, her booming voice echoing through the barren house, even though she seemed to be trying to control the volume.

“Have you tried to make them sleep in separate rooms?” Mei-yee, the youngest of the four sisters, suggested gently.  “Tell them, old-fashioned or not, that’s the surest way to protect the unborn baby.”

“They are newly weds,” offered Kwei Dai-yee with a short, bemused laugh.  “Such strict restrictions will never work out.  Besides, they will always find ways to sneak together behind your back….  They are not young children, you know.”

Hiya!” Ho Dai-yee let out a long sigh, “What can I, a widowed old woman do?  There are many things I can’t say to my son.  Or else the young couple will say behind my back that I don’t want them to be together, or I am jealous….  The other day, Ah Cheung said to me, ‘Ah Ma, even though you raised me like your own, you have never carried a baby yourself.  Don’t believe in all those backward ideas and old wife’s tale about what is good for a pregnant woman.  We are living in the twentieth century now.  Things have changed.’  Can you believe it, my own son, saying this to me?  ”

“Even if Ah Cheung won’t listen, at least Cheung S’owe would,” this was my mother’s voice.  “Talk to her.  Give her some sound mother-in-law advice.  Cheung S’owe is an educated woman, she must know that she needs to respect her elders, especially something as important as the safety and health of herself and her child….”

“Talking to her is even worse,” Ho Dai-yee complained bitterly.  “All I ever hear is how she has consulted her western doctor and read these scientific books.  She is a modern one all right; I have been told enough times that I hold backward, superstitious, country ideas; that I haven’t caught up with the times….”

The conversation droned on.  As I listened from my corner outside in the kitchen, I could imagine Ah P’or sitting on her high-backed, teak-wood chair, listening and nodding to her daughters’ complaints, while she continued to sit at the same spot all these years, her head slightly tilted to one side, listening, and nodding.  Has anyone ever come to listen to her complaints?

“Who is out there?” Ah P’ors gentle voice called out.  Her ears must have picked up the sounds of dry rice stalks crushed under my feet.

I hesitated, afraid of being scolded for eavesdropping.

Ah P’or, it’s me,” I answered timidly.   Stepping out from the shadows, I stood in the middle of the kitchen, facing the group seated in the main room.  My mother and aunts had all turned around to see who it was.  I was embarrassed.

“It’s Ah Foon, Ah Choi’s daughter,” Ah P’or said quietly, her ear cocked to one side.  Her face was illuminated by the sunlight reflected from the kitchen floor.  I could see wisps of silvery hair surrounding her broad, wrinkled face; her sightless eyes two pale shadows under the light.

“Come here, so Ah P’or can touch you,” Ah P’or said, extending her hands.

Stepping across the threshold separating the kitchen from the sitting-room,  I walked slowly toward my blind grandmother.



Revised 2012

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Spring 1979

Night after night, she’d sit in the cold living-room.  An old woman.  Waiting.  Alone.

“Near midnight already….  Why wouldn’t he come home for dinner?  Where is he?”  Softly, she mumbled to herself.  “Not even a phone call.  He must be hungry, cold….”

Her bent back; her graying hair; her incessant mumbling, talking to herself.  This was no longer the vibrant, strong mother I used to know.

A slew of emotions surged through me.  Rage.  Shame. Guilt?  “Don’t wait any more!” I wanted to scream.  “He’s not worth waiting for!”

Instead, I bit my tongue.


Spring 1979

We left St. Frances Xavier Hospital on foot.  Ah Ba said, “I’m going back to Sheung Shui for a meeting.  I’ll walk with you to the TsimShaTsui Ferry; I can take a 14-seater.”

Saturday morning, 10 a.m.  The May sun reflected off of the windows on skyscrapers and shops on both sides of the street.  A little breeze, not enough to dispel the rising heat.  We walked along Waterloo Road, down to Nathan Road, toward TsimShaTsui, the tourist hot spot.  My father, in his late 70’s, was still a healthy man, famous for his fast gait.  He’d out-beat any man half his age.  But he took his time, waiting for me.

The scene in the hospital with my ailing mother was fresh in both our minds.  “Indigestion caused her heart failure,” The Doctor said.  “Mrs. Liu has a weak heart, and her blood pressure goes off the roof.  Don’t let her overeat, or she won’t make it to the hospital next time.”  As usual, the treatment was an enema, laxatives, and oxygen.  Only IV fluids.  No food.

A month ago, my mother had another episode one night, after boiling half a dozen sweet potatoes and consuming four of them the same afternoon.  She craved sugar, even though she was borderline diabetic.  The same way she couldn’t resist salt, even though her kidneys and heart were failing.  Trying to impose a low-sodium, low-fat diet on her created constant friction between us.  So I learned to shut up.

“Ah Ma ate something wrong again?” I said to my father, who looked distinguished in his dark grey suit and red silk tie.  His patent leather shoes, Swan Brand, made in England, kept knocking on the cement pavement.

“She ordered a full platter of Braised Eel from Yuan-Yuan Restaurant and ate half of it by herself,” Ah Ba said quietly, with just a hint of a smile on his lips.  Was he smiling at the thought of Ah Ma whooping down chunks of the greasy, deep-fried eel, or was he remembering the taste of the juicy, succulent fish which he dearly loved too?

Born and bred in the countryside, Ah Ba and Ah Ma loved the same foods.  Fresh pork or fish, fried and slowly simmered with lots of black mushrooms, garlic & fat, roasted pork.  Braised eel is a delicacy in our part of the New Territories, an expensive dish which you have to special order.  Add a couple of dollars, and the restaurant will deliver to your door.

“How could you let her eat half a platter of braised eel?  Even a healthy person would get sick!”  I couldn’t contain the frustration and anger in my voice.

“I had business in the City; I couldn’t watch her like a cat!” My father said.  “Besides, your mother has her own will.  When she wants to eat, nobody can stop her.”

I didn’t say anything in reply.  I couldn’t.  Last time I tried to offer my mother steamed fish with no salt or soy sauce, she threw a fit and tossed the whole dish in the trash.  Then she took her cane and made her way to the market by herself.  Came home with a bag full of sweet cakes for lunch.  The years of living on a starvation diet in her youth had come back to haunt her in her old age.

Silently, we made our way down Nathan Road, restaurants and bakeries with gleaming windows on both sides.  The aroma of fresh baked goods, stir-fries, hot coffees and teas.   “Food is life,” Ah Ma used to say.  It is good to be alive.

“You want some ice-cream?” Ah Ba asked.  “Here’s my favorite ice-cream shop.  31 flavors!  Best in Hong Kong!” He sing-songed the familiar tune, just like the commercial on TV.  He flashed me a bright smile, looking like a 40-year-old man, or was it 14?  My father was a famous charmer.  And he had never taken me to an ice-cream shop!  Only one chance in my life, why not?

So we went into Baskin Robbins.  I had a whole scoop of Mango ice-cream, and Ah Ba ordered a double chocolate fudge for himself.  Sitting silently across from each other, we plunged into our ice-cream, mine in a dish, his in a chocolate-covered waffle cone.  Life or death, living or dying, nothing mattered at the moment.  We’d lick our way to oblivion.

“Mun- y-s’ick- wei- tien!” For the people, food is heaven, Chinese saying.

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Starving Spirits


Starving Spirits”–Paul Klee, 1934 (Pastel & Oil on Linen), the Chicago Institute of Art

Sh-i-th-th….  Sh-i-th-th….  Sh-i-th-th….

Hunger is a vicious beast.  It gnaws at my insides, it devours my being, my body and my soul.  I am emptied out.  A ghastly sheath of skin hanging over a rack of bones.  Food.  Food.  Food.  I need.  I need.  I need…. FOOD.

I drift from land to land, from dream to dream.  Searching, searching, searching.  Unfulfilled, unfed.  I’m an eternal specter, haunting you night and day, 24 hours, around the clock. I was there when your father cursed, “Not another useless girl!”; I was there when your mother, sick of waiting for “the man,” stuffed herself full of food, suffocated to death; I was there when your father, tired of wine and women, gave up eating at age 90 and expired.  I was there when his little concubine, starved to death after giving birth a third time, went to join her babies in Buddhist Hell.

I’m the mirror of your worst fears.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.   It’s true: Your days of plenitude are numbered.  Null and nil.  You can’t run from me; you can’t shut me out.  I’m in your bones, I’m in your skin.  I’m in your dreams.

You’ll bump into me, you will bump into me in the dark, you’ll bump into me in broad daylight, rain or shine–going down the street, shopping in a grocery store, downing your last beer….  There I’ll be, ready to prance on you, making you pay up….  Run all you can, I’ll follow, follow, follow you, to the ends of the earth.

Just when you ‘re least suspecting, when you’re bending over your prime rib & potatoes, your steak and fish, I’ll be there right beside you, breathing down your neck.  Gr–r–r–r!  Gr–r–r–r!  G–r–r–r!  I’ll remind you of the gaping hole inside, the bottomless pit that is your stomach, your guts, your heart….  You KNOW who I am.  You can’t pretend.  I’m your mother’s hungry ghost, starved for love and food; I’m your father’s starving spirit, lusting for fame and glory.  I’m the reincarnation of your grandmothers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, great-great grandfathers and great-great grandmothers….  All the way up your family tree.  All hungry.  All starved.  I’ve been here, starving and waiting for you, for generations and generations….

I was there at your birth, I’ll be there at your grave. I’m every iota of your unfulfilled desires.  I’m the ghost of your hungry past, present and future–The more you look inward, the more you remember your gnawing pains, the deeper you sink.  Woo-sh!  Down, down!  Deeper & deeper you will sink.  I’m the gaping hole; I will eat you up.

Gulp!  Gulp!  Gulp!  I’ll suck up every bite you eat.  I’ll make you hungrier and hungrier than before….

Fill me up please.  I’m empty inside.  Fill me up please, I’ll chew your guts out.  Fill me up please, I’ll swallow you whole, I’ll devour your heart and soul.

Is that fish and rice I smell on your breath?  Is that your mango shake and coconut ice-cream?  Is that your roast duck and BBQ pork?  Is that your favorite papaya and chicken feet soup?  I WANT SOME….  I truly, really, emphatically, categorically want some.   Give me….  Give me….  GIVE–IT–TO–MEEEE!

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