My parents had an arranged marriage. Father fell fervently in love with Mother at first sight.
But his love was never reciprocated.
Growing up, I watched Mother lavish most of her love on my elder brother and treated him like the man in her life. It was partly due to gender preference, but more so because of her discontent with Father.
It was her way of telling him that he could never be as close to her as their son.
Elder Sister tried to avoid the chaos of our family by staying away whenever she could.
Younger Sister was the youngest and loveliest, so she could get away with anything.
As for me, I was a shadow in front of Mother. It was as if she had to direct her antagonism – her disastrous relationship with my father, her stress at work and of raising a relatively big family – against someone. And that one had to be me. Being a dark-skinned, super sensitive and most Father-like daughter, I became her target.
One day Mother came home from work and began cooking. I was in the upper bunk bed doing my homework, directly underneath me was Brother watching TV. Mother started talking to him, “You know son, they think I’m stupid.”
I could barely hear Brother’s mumbling over the background noise of the TV. Putting down my homework, I peeked at them from my bunk.
“This morning, our assembly lead asked me if I knew how to write my name!”
She sounded like she was about to cry, then continued, “If they would only know – I was a teacher who had taught Chinese to hundreds of students!”
She was crying I knew, since the hot oil on the wok in front of her was sizzling from meeting her teardrops. This violent sizzle was followed by the guang guang noises of the spatula striking the wok.
I hurried down from my bunk and asked, “Ma, are you OK? Can I help you with anything?”
“You, go away!” she brandished the spatula and shouted. I froze.
Brother gave me a quick look and a smirk. His eyes said, “Who do you think you are?”
He walked toward the kitchen, stood on the second step and faced the side of Mother who was inside the kitchen. There was no space for him to go in. He stretched his hand, reached out to the dish on the stove, picked up a slice of pork and slid it into his mouth. I drooled.
Mother calmed herself. She turned to him and said, “Oh son, you must be very hungry now. I’ll finish cooking soon.”
Mother talked to Brother as if I were non-existent. I was hungry too, ravenous in fact. Pressing my lips together, I shut my eyes for a long minute to prevent tears from coming out. But they stung behind my eyelids and formed a hard painful lump in the back of my throat. A feeling of worthlessness gathered its power and seized my stomach. It hastened upward into my lungs and heart. And it ran further up into my brain and embedded itself there for good. I wanted to scream, but found neither strength nor voice to fight.
In 1984, my parents – a doctor Father and a teacher Mother – migrated to Hong Kong with my two elder siblings. Two years later when I was 12, the Chinese government permitted my younger sister and me to reunite with our family in Hong Kong.
My parents knew they would not obtain those same jobs in China. They were fully aware that Hong Kong was a British colony, which would not honor their professional qualifications.
But they still chose to come mostly for financial reasons. As China was going through a major economic reform, the money that my parents made with their respective government positions was much less than their friends who were entrepreneurs. And then, there was this problem that our whole family was located in the poor, mountainous prefecture of Da Tian, which literally meant “a big paddy field”. My parents feared that our hukou, “household register” would bepermanently trapped there.
Relocating to Hong Kong was our golden way out. But unlike the commercial world, once you relinquished your job with the communist government, there was no return.
As factory workers, my parents’ monthly salary was HK$1,000 each. This was 20 five times greater than their salaries as a doctor and a teacher in China. The cost of living was much higher in Hong Kong. Still, the surplus was significant. The economic gain helped my parents to compensate the loss of their high social status in this city. With the financial superiority, they could visit our hometown with sumptuous “face” that they still held the lead over their siblings and friends.
However, the meagre income that my parents made in Hong Kong meant they could only afford to rent a small place for the six of us. They found a subdivided hut in a slum. The area was ironically called Diamond Hill.
The half hut we rented had an old rusty iron gate with peeling claret paint on the ground floor for entry. Two steps led down from the gate into the only room. There were two tarnished iron bunk beds, a brown wooden closet, a gloomy looking bedside table with a mirror on top, and a weary, bulky TV set. Besides the furniture, our living and dining area had the width of about a person with open arms. We dined with a folding table and chairs, and put them away after eachmeal. We watched TV, did homework, read … in our respective beds.
Within the room, next to the gate, another set of two steps led to a dark corner. This corner was beneath a steep staircase of the other half-hut renter. The corner was our kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen had a stove and a sink next to it. The bathroom was a narrow strip with a squat toilet; we stood on its sides to take a shower.
My father’s defense mechanism was to retreat into himself. He didn’t mention anything about work. In fact he seldom spoke at home. He only shouted when he was drunk. Like a time bomb, he could go off anytime. When he came home late from overtime and ate by himself, he would sit next to the table and take a few drinks. I stayed in my upper bunk bed and suppressed my urge to go to the toilet. Visiting the toilet meant that I had to squeeze through the edge of the table where he was sitting. The attention I would attract or the trouble I might cause him terrified me. But the more I stifled the impulse, the more urgent, frequent it became. I despised myself.
During Father’s weekly day off, he would go to the cinema most of the time. He would buy a ten-dollar ticket that allowed him to watch movies all day. The movies ranged from crime to pornography, from western to eastern. It didn’t matter. So long as it could keep him away from reality – his unrequited love for my mother, his denigrating factory work, his family burdens – he devoured it. And that was what he did on his days-off, week after week, spendingall day alone inside a dark cinema watching movies.
And then one day, he discovered the exhilaration of horse racing and started to pay plenty of attention to the racing section of the newspaper. He studied the horses like he had once studied the characters in the great novels when he was young. He kept sharp pencils by the bedside table and made enthusiastic, extensive notes on the paper about the horses, their condition, winning and losing records.
Looking at his scribbles, they reminded me of some comments he wrote in his diary after he read those novels. Except now the scribbles were figures mainly.
He gave up on words, gave up on his intellectual self. He became an excessive smoker, drinker and gambler. When he gambled, he second guessed himself. He bet on many different horses in one race and often lost. And he lost big. When he won, he won small because of his thin betting. But like many gamblers, the small winning was enough to keep my father hopeful.
Father was very proud of his winnings. When he won, he would come home smiling.
Since this happened rarely, I felt awkward when he smiled. I was not sure whether I should smile with him or rather weep because finally something made Father happy. And on those special occasions, he might bring home with him a white plastic bag that had a polystyrene box with siu mei, “Cantonese barbecue meat” in it. Sometimes, if he won a bit more than usual and if it was in the right season, he might even come home with a bigger black plastic bag that had fresh Shanghai hairy crabs in it. He was very pleased with himself and liked to share with us by ga sung, “adding a dish” to our dinner.
Drama used to happen when Mother was cooking. It was an early winter evening, I was in my upper bunk bed reading or daydreaming. Brother was sitting in the living area playing Gameboy.
Guang. The rusty old gate was opened. Father sprinted down the steps and leapt into the room. In an uncharacteristically high-pitched voice, he told Mother: “Wailan, look what I’ve bought for us all. It’s sweet, tasty crab! We can all enjoy it tonight!”
Like a little boy, he raised high a bag of live crabs (I could hear the slow, vague wavering of their claws inside the bag). Father had a broad grin on his face. His eyes were twinkling, eagerly anticipating Mother’s praise.
Neither giving the slightest glimpse to him nor to the bag of crabs, she replied:
“Yeah, it’s your favorite food. You’re sure to have a fine feast.”
Her words might as well have been a bucket of ice water poured violently over him. His face turned green. He froze for a moment or two. Then he ascended a step towards the kitchen, chucked the bag of expensive crabs into the small sink next to Mother’s left elbow. He put down his other bag, took out a pack of Marlboro Red and a lighter and headed back out the gate.
Once he disappeared behind the gate, Mother gave an exaggerated, loud sigh. She then winked at Brother and signaled him to come closer to her. In a quiet and scornful voice, she said, “Oh, your father is such a cranky creature! I can’t even joke with him a little!”
Haha, she and Brother shared a short, derisive laugh.
I rushed down from my bed, pretending to search for something inside the closet. But I raised my head and gazed at the gate time and again. Father’s shoulders were heaving in anguish.
He faced a malodorous drainage ditch and dragged hard on his cigarette. He had no place to go; no friend to talk to. He didn’t drink outside because he didn’t want to get drunk and became a laughing stock to others.
Father finished his cigarette and immediately started another one. His shoulders stopped heaving. He put his left hand into his trousers’ pocket and leaned slightly on the edge of a short, cracking grey wall next to the drainage ditch. The greyness of the wall had largely turned dirty black; damp, green mold grew over its dank expanse. The height of the wall was only up to Father’s shoulders. And then it looked as though he didn’t know where to put his head or what to do with it. He tilted it to the left and then right and then left again from time to time. I wished to sit on top of that wall and let his head lay on my lap.
Instead, I turned and clambered back up to my bed.
[Top Story 2016]
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