28 October 2016
"It's my favorite place because it represents the spirit of the Tap Mun dwellers." Photo:
"It's my favorite place because it represents the spirit of the Tap Mun dwellers." Photo:

[Hong Kong's Top Story 2015] Balanced Rock

The engines sputtered and hummed as the ferry treaded the pristine waters toward Tap Mun Island. The sky was blanketed in a brilliant blue and clumps of white clouds moved over the sunbaked mountain ranges of Sai Kung. Floating fish farms made of thin planks and blue cylinders bobbed about gently as fishermen examined their catch.

I sat on the upper deck of the ferry, holding back the tears that were forcing their way out of my eyes. The strong wind was tossing strands of hair into my eyes, or perhaps the gasoline smoke was making me uncomfortable. No matter how I tried to fool myself or others, I could not escape the fact that the dust of my broken marriage had settled in some cobwebbed corner of my mind. We had been married for ten years, ten long years, and Ralph had never wanted children until he had a lover who was young enough to be his child. Last month, the signatures on the divorce papers sealed the fate of our relationship like a death sentence and I felt as if I were walking on broken glass ever since.

“First time visiting Tap Mun?” A voice roused me from my stupor. I quickly wiped my eyes and fumbled in my purse for fourteen dollars. 

“No,” I said, forcing a smile at the friendly-looking man with a straw hat and a belly that hung out from under his sleeveless top. “My grandpa lived here a long time ago so I used to visit Tap Mun a lot as a child.”

“Really? You’ll find that Tap Mun hasn’t changed much over the years.” He handed me a ticket and went over to the next passenger. The main street was almost exactly as I remembered it. Decrepit houses were propped up on stilts on the edge of the waters and the sharp scent of sea urchin fried
rice, a specialty of the island, wafted through the street. Fishermen laid out their sundried catch in baskets for sale. Bracelets and other trinkets made from seashells hung from the metal frames of street stalls. Perhaps this was why Grandpa decided to settle on this island in his old days, even as his children gradually migrated to urban Hong Kong for convenience and brighter prospects. The inhabitants of Tap Mun carried on a rustic, unadulterated way of life that had largely disappeared in other parts of Hong Kong. Here, their lives remained peaceful and untainted by the progress of civilization. 

I walked along the paved footpath which led to the four-hundred-year-old Tin Hau Temple. The ornate structures atop its pitched green roof stood in contrast to the garbage-strewn dumps and the spattering of debris along the main street. Bunches of incense sticks sprouted out of an urn in the altar of the temple, where Grandpa used to seek a blessing from the sea goddess Tin Hau to shield him from the elements on his fishing trips. The temple was my least favorite of places, as the smoke that spewed from the tips of the incense sticks made my eyes water so much that I had to bury my face in the back of Grandpa’s shirt.

I found myself standing in front of the peeling yellow walls of Grandpa’s old house, where he lived alone for many years after Grandma died of a sudden illness. The exterior was dented by long black scratches like the claw marks of a feline. It seemed that the house had been abandoned since Grandpa’s death. I peered through the wrought iron windows. The living room was empty apart from two bookcases which were steeped in dust and the once burning fireplace was eroded and layered in dirt. The sunlight searched out the mahjong table in the dining room and cast its shadow on the
opposite wall. Grandpa believed that mahjong was a game that revealed people’s personalities. He could tell the true character of his buddies based on their behavior when they had a good or bad hand. The laughter, clapping and shouting during the game brought people together like a family. As the clacking noise of mahjong tiles reverberated in my memory, it occurred to me that what I was searching for through the windowpane was the part of my childhood that I had left behind here.

* * *

We had cured the freshly caught shrimp with salt earlier and laid them out in neat rows on a fine-mesh sieve. The sun was directly overhead and its rays sprayed a golden orange hue on their pink skin. I rotated the shrimp so that they would dry on both sides.

“Grandpa, what’s your favorite place on this island?”

“Why don’t I show you now while we wait for the shrimp to dry?” He gave a wholesome, toothless smile and reached for my hand. The calluses on his palm tickled my skin as we walked up the lush green meadows carpeting the hillock which gave Tap Mun its other name — Grass Island. Grandpa stooped down and pointed to the rocks on the rugged coastline. I could see the pink scalp beneath his curly wisps of grey hair. 

“The Balanced Rock?” I asked. “It’s nothing special, just one large rock sitting on top of another.”

“Look closely, what does it resemble?” 

I squinted my eyes. The rock on top was smaller and slightly slanted to the left as if it were about to topple over, but it remained perfectly poised and anchored onto the bottom rock. A black-naped bird perched on the rocks, gazing out across the channel. I stared at Grandpa and shook my head.

“The Balanced Rock looks a bit like a mun (門), doesn’t it? These rocks gave this island its name and form a door that protects our people. But it’s my favorite place because it represents the spirit of the Tap Mun dwellers. You see, making our living as fishermen is difficult, and sometimes we almost stumble and fall when the waves come crashing over us. So we fasten ourselves tightly to our boats and to each other, and learn to balance.”

* * *

Grandpa’s words had meant little to me then, yet as I searched for answers in the cracks between the dark craggy rocks, something within me opened up like a bud struggling to blossom. For years I had tried and failed to build a bridge across the chasm that lay between Ralph and I. We had perhaps desired our careers and ambitions more than each other, and even as we lay skin-to-skin, our hearts grew further apart and we fell slowly out of love. Grandpa had found his balance by holding on, but my path to inner peace required letting go of what no longer belonged to me.

On the gently sloping hill, children unraveled spools of kite string behind them, waiting for the perfect moment to toss their brightly-colored kites into the breeze. There was an earthy smell in the air. A few feral cattle chewed mouthfuls of grass, looking on with their droopy eyes and swinging their tails from side to side. I decided to pitch my tent next to a few others at a spot overlooking a canopy of trees above the pebble beach.

I lay sprawled inside my tent, listening to the sound of the wind as it swept over the valley. There were voices outside. The strumming of a guitar, or perhaps singing. I couldn’t tell but was curious to find out. I walked towards the edge of the cliff in the direction of the voices. Sure enough, there was a man with a guitar hanging over his shoulder, strumming and half-singing a song whose tune I couldn’t recognize. The man noticed my presence and turned around, his eyes studying my face with intent.

“Aren’t you… Doris?” he said, smiling and touching the stubble on his chin. 

He was a tall man with broad shoulders and a chiseled face, and wore a shortsleeve Beatles tee with “Let It Be” scrawled in blue across his chest. But it was his childish, teeth-showing smile that gave his identity away.

“Ricky, I never thought I would run into you here. It’s been so many years!”

I remembered Ricky as a pale and lanky boy with horn-rimmed glasses who often accompanied his grandfather to the weekly mahjong sessions that took place in Grandpa’s house. Grandpa had said that Ricky’s grandfather was his best mahjong buddy, always good-natured and honest regardless of whether he had a good or bad hand. Ricky and I had spent countless afternoons doing homework together while Grandpa and his friends played a noisy game of mahjong. His family decided to move off the island after he was admitted to one of Hong Kong’s top secondary schools in Kowloon. I heard that he later dropped out of that school a few months shy of graduating.

“So what do you do for a living now?” I asked. 

“I’m a record producer, but lately I’ve been dabbling in songwriting as well. I can never work in my tiny apartment with the sound of traffic and construction ringing in my ears, so I like to bring my laptop here and walk around, hoping to stumble on some inspiration. It’s the perfect place to write about nostalgia, isn’t it?” 

“Definitely,” I said. “It’s my first time back in Tap Mun in a long time and all these fragments of my childhood came flooding back. Unfortunately I’m unable to turn them into something beautiful because I’m a corporate lawyer with no artistic intuition.” 

Ricky laughed. We sat watching the ebb of the waves. The roar of the wind had abated and gave way to a quiet, crisp air. Beyond the rocky outcrops, the tops of mountains had disappeared into the clouds and the purplish grey afterglow of sunset lingered on the horizon. As the sea breeze brushed against my face, I could feel Grandpa with me in spirit, as if he had never left this place.

“So… what brings you back here?” Ricky asked, his long, pale fingers moving over the guitar strings. 

“Well… let’s just say, I lost myself somewhere and I came back to find my compass.” I paused for a moment. “I’m going through a divorce.”

I was surprised at how forthcoming I was. Something about the familiarity of his voice peeled away the walls of mistrust that I was accustomed to building around myself. 

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” Ricky sounded genuinely concerned, unlike those people who doled out their sympathies just for the sake of it. “Don’t worry, I’m learning to cope.”

“I know how that feels actually.”

Our eyes locked briefly before I forced myself to look away. His striking features stood out even in the dim light, and there was a pain in his deep-set eyes that I had never seen before. Had he also been through a heartbreak? 

“Why did you quit school?” I asked instead. 

“I fell in love with a girl who was going to study in England and I decided to go with her. We later got married and divorced.” He let out a long sigh. “We were just too young.”

I laid my hand on his arm and we sat in silence for a long time, kindred spirits looking up at a starry night. The day visitors had departed on the last ferry, leaving behind the scattered tents of the campers on the grassy hillock. Homes across the Shenzhen border glowed like fairy lights against a velvet sky.

The evening air had turned chilly and leaves rustled around us in the rising wind. 

A splash of moonlight fell onto the Balanced Rock. From where we sat huddled together, it looked like the figure of a lone man who diligently guarded the entrance to the island and watched over the flurry of activity on the sea.

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First Prize winner (Adult Category) - Hong Kong's Top Story 2015

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