He might have felt it, too. As we walked down Hennessy Road, he spotted a tram station and turned to me as if by an instinct he hadn’t exercised in decades, asking, “Wanna take the trolley car? We can sit upstairs so you can see out the window.” As if he, too, misremembered his son as a wide-eyed three-year-old.
Graham Street’s name in Cantonese is Ga Hahm, which sounds a lot like “Make it saltier,” and it’s a raucous old-line street market, the pavement slick with water from the fishmongers and covered in bruised and trampled-on vegetables.
My father and I stood next to a rickety stall that looked as if it were made of magazine covers. Under them, a woman sold baskets and baskets of eggs from Thailand, Holland, America, Beijing, Germany. We watched a fishmonger across the way clean eels with a cleaver as big and thick as a novel. He pinned them down with a pair of awls at either end, and I heard the crackle of eel bones breaking as he slid his blade through. I heard the deep thud when he jammed his knife into his heavy board, standing it up at the ready for his next eel.
“Hello! Hello!” the egg lady called. “What are you doing?”
“Watching,” I said.
“Well, watch somewhere else. We’re trying to do business here.”
In the middle of the market, there is an ancient store, the Wing Woo, in a building 130 years old and looking like it. Bags of noodles hang from the ceiling, bumping into bare lightbulbs when the wind blows. Jars of herbs share space with a feather duster and tilting bags of mushrooms--it’s the kind of place where everything leans into everything else. Wooden planks identify wavy piles of rice like grave markers, and bottles of ancient Worcestershire sauce are behind glass cabinets, nearly obscured by cans of creamed corn. The owners weigh each purchase carefully in a rusty iron balance scale, their ingots strewn haphazardly across their work area.
As I walked around the market, I marveled at how something so resolutely unmodern could coexist with gleaming skyscrapers here in Central, the Wall Street of Hong Kong. Then I remembered an iconic tourist poster of those skyscrapers standing behind an ancient Chinese junk floating in the harbor: This city is a meeting place of the very old and the very new. It is so small, so packed together, that even in Central people have to live, and people have to shop for food. Beneath glass and steel, there still has to be an earthy underbelly. I held this thought for weeks, buoyed by it. Later, I would hear that the market is slated for demolition. Spectacular tensions between the old and the new tend to have a way of resolving themselves, I guess.
Maybe I was just afflicted with a bout of romantic nostalgia for a place I never really knew. But when Great-Uncle Nine led us into mainland China, even I didn’t know how to romanticize our family’s ancestral village. When my great-grandfather left to find work a century ago, it was a tiny village tilling lean soil that was never good for much more than a little bit of rice and a few sweet potatoes. It’s still an absolute nowhere, but now a nowhere that is home to over 100,000 and a shoe factory that makes its own clouds. On the way, passing through the city of Guangzhou, Great-Uncle Nine talked about being there when the Nationalist army beat a retreat from Mao’s Communists, running for their lives and threatening to gun down anyone in their way. We drove by a once grand hotel, where he had seen a piece of shrapnel the size of a man shatter the street, just a few feet from the crowded lobby. I grew solemn, imagining the terror, when he said, “And over there, there used to be this place that had the most delicious squab.”
A day later, we were in Zhishan. The sky was a stern gray. The streets felt like they were made of dust. I saw a chicken break out of its cage, running from its owner across a parking lot.
We went to the five-story lookout tower my great-grandfather helped build, with gun turrets at the corners to protect the village from bandits. The tower was to double as our family home, but he never found it in himself to move back. It has been empty, but for a few photographs on the walls, for all this time. Its caretakers greeted us with warmth and tangerines. We walked, our shoes clacking on the hard floors, echoing through the boxy rooms. A bed here, a pair of ancient ebony chairs there; a small shrine to those passed away-portraits of my great-grandfather, his wife, his concubine; a photo of my grandfather, tinier than I ever remembered.
On the roof of the tower, I looked out to the land. There were mountains, hills really, covered with abnormally ordered trees. They were stripped bare, someone told me, and replanted to prevent fires. I tried to imagine the taller buildings-apartments, factories-gone, leaving the squat clay-shingled homes. I tried to place myself here, in this village, in this house without ghosts. I couldn’t. Maybe it’s because my family doesn’t actually have people here, only a haphazard legacy of forgotten photographs. “I don’t know what to do with this,” I thought.
I do know what to do, though, with the bag of rice I brought home from there, the rice of my people. At the border, going back into Hong Kong, I was stopped by an incredulous customs officer; I guess it made for an alarming X-ray. “You’re carrying twenty-five pounds of rice?” she asked. “I went to my old village …” I began to explain. “Oh,” she said. She waved me through.