On the Peak, the Number 1 ball was raised on the pole. The typhoon was coming. The sky was getting dark. The time was 1950. The place, Hong Kong and Kowloon.
Just about a year before, my parents and I had escaped the Civil War in China. We had hastily left Wuhan, the central city on the banks of the Yangzi River, with a few suitcases and some small belongings by the last train leaving for Hong Kong. We settled in Kowloon, in a very small apartment building. At the time, Hong Kong and Kowloon were swollen with refugees like us from all over China, and housing was scarce. This far-flung outpost of the British Empire, on the small peninsula plus an even smaller island, teemed with people. We encountered the hostile local Cantonese, Indians, Portuguese, a few British civil servants, and a huge influx of Chinese exiles.
Among them were the exiles who really didn’t know who they were any more. Refugees who at one time had enjoyed wealth and status, like my parents, now were ordinary émigrés like everyone else. The ones who had been loyal to Chiang Kai-shek were already in Taiwan. If I were to describe their situation more fully, I would say my parents belonged to a small group of émigrés who found themselves caught between the Communists and the National government. Their circle consisted mostly of literati, academics, and old high-status families now declared worthless in the New China. They not only had lost their property and position, they also had lost their identity. Without any plan, forced to leave in order to survive, they simply had to face and deal with a new set of unknown circumstances. They experienced the anguish of having no clear prospect for the future. Because of the uncertainty in their outlook, they turned to primitive shaman-like sources: astrologists, palm-readers, fortune-tellers and cult figures for the comfort of knowing what the future held.
In the meantime, my parents and their friends tried very hard to maintain the façade of the old days. We still had dinner parties, mid-afternoon teas for ladies to gossip, visits for social events in formal dress. Our servants were reduced from ten to one, much like the other households in our group, but insofar as we could, we all kept up appearances.
This was the second time I had lived in Hong Kong with my family. We were here first during the war with Japan and the Pacific War, when Japan invaded Hong Kong. We experienced the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong and eventually escaped to inland China. Although I was a child, I had come to know Hong Kong fairly well during that first stay. I spoke Cantonese, and in 1950 I still had connections with former classmates and old friends.
Now I was 17 and a sort-of student. During the day, through some family connections, I was a runner for a small trading house. The trading house specialized in scientific instruments. I had some basic high-school scientific knowledge, so I became a runner, a person who was not in an official position, but was informally engaged to find buyers and sellers. In the morning I would go to the trading house in central Hong Kong and write down the items they wanted to sell or buy. Then I would run around to various trading houses to locate the buyers and sellers, put them together, and make the deals. In return, I received a small commission. At the time, the United States had an embargo against China, and the Chinese government set up various trading agents in Hong Kong to buy various goods including the scientific instruments they desperately needed. All the goods were transferred on the high seas. I never saw and never took possession of the traded goods.
In the afternoon, after I had finished my work, I often went to visit Old Mr. Wu. Old Wu was a third-generation antique dealer. When we were first in Hong Kong, my father had taken me several times to see him. He seemed to enjoy my company, and I enjoyed his interesting collection of antiques. His shop was a haven for me. I could immerse myself in the beautiful objects that were the portals to the past.
At night, I was a student. Several family friends were academics, educated in the West, and they set up lectures for young people. I was welcome among them. One reason they were fond of me was that on my wanders around the city, I could often pick up items for them: a cheap set of drawers, a leg of ham, and so forth. I always took something when I went to the lectures. The subjects of the seminars ranged from mathematics to literature to philosophy to Chinese classics. I was curious and trying to get the best of those lectures.
At this time in my life, I felt I was flotsam in the stream, soaking up as much as I could as I passed through.
As I roamed the city, I always carried a shoulder bag, which was quite well-made, canvas with leather trim. In it I kept all my valued possessions. If any disaster were to happen, I knew I would have everything I cherished with me. In the bag were a commemorative pocket-knife made by Omega for some forgotten event, a Mont Blanc Meisterstück fountain pen, an American-made railroad pocket watch, a rosewood carving of a sleeping Buddha no bigger than a walnut, a notebook and a sketchbook, and a book that I was currently reading. It also contained a pebble, given to me by my aunt—a long-term Communist party member—at the Wuhan railroad station where she had come to say goodbye. The book I was then reading, Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, gave me the rather romantic idea I was a fellow exile of the protagonist in the novel. He also had no clear view of the future.
My dear mother was both a very observant and rather shrewd person. She devised a scheme for me by which she would gain a fair amount of gratitude from her friends and build up her credits among them. I was instructed to do small errands for her friends, such as finding second-hand furniture for Mrs. Lee, locating a presentable suit for a well-known 1930s film actor for his auditions, and, most memorably, to visit Mrs. Fong.
Mrs. Fong was from a very wealthy and well-known Shanghai family. She was living in the Peninsula Hotel at that time, waiting for her visa to the United States. Mother said I should go see her to help her out with “some small matters.” She wouldn’t tell me what exactly those small matters were. So I went to the Reception desk at the Peninsula Hotel and asked to be admitted to her room.
Mrs. Fong was in her 40s. In the 1930s she was one of the most beautiful and sought-after young women in Shanghai. She married a wealthy son of a comprador; he died during the war leaving her with a daughter and son, both in the United States. She was gracious toward me and had an elegant manner.
After some small talk in which she asked about my work during the day—to which I made some dutiful answers—she became silent. She seemed lost. Finally, she presented to me a small box. Without a word, I placed the box in my canvas bag. Then we carried on with small talk of the same type as before, without any reference to the box. Shortly after, I left, promising to call upon her again soon. She graciously held my hand and told me to feel free to visit again.
Afterwards, I went to see Old Mr. Wu. In his shop, we opened the box. It contained the most exquisitely carved white jade bowl. We decided it must be Ming Dynasty, which was famous for carved jade treasures. I left the bowl with Old Wu. We both understood he would place it in hands of an appreciative collector.
Three days later, at four in the afternoon, I went to see Mrs. Fong again. A day before, I had bought a sandalwood carved rectangular box. I placed the proceeds from the sale by Mr. Wu in the box, and wrapped the box in silk. Mrs. Fong ordered afternoon tea, and after we finished it I carefully slid the silk-wrapped box towards Mrs. Fong. No words were exchanged. I subsequently left. I hoped the contents were sufficient to keep her afloat for some time. It was known she enjoyed ordering champagne and lobster for breakfast.
My mother next asked me to deliver an invitation to someone. Apparently, her circle of friends included a wealthy couple, rather vulgar in my opinion, who were organising a small banquet and wanted to invite someone whose location was unknown to them. In fact, that person was to be the guest of honour. In those days, telephones were not common in Hong Kong, and postal delivery would be impossible because addresses were without numbers. The only way for an invitation to be delivered would be by hand. My mother selected my hand for the task.
I left the apartment about two in the afternoon with the invitation in my faithful canvas bag. I walked up to the bus station, and saw the Number 1 ball still on the pole on the Peak. The typhoon was coming, but I thought I had plenty of time to deliver the invitation.
The address on the sealed envelope only stated the street, which was in Old Kowloon City. The street extended beyond the city wall, towards the hills, to connect it to a densely populated, self-built, slum area. A bus terminal was at the edge of this area. The buildings were all made from found materials: concrete blocks, used timber, corrugated metal sheets. The streets were narrow and winding. Smells assailed me from everywhere. I took Bus 88 knowing it would end in that terminal. I began to read my book, greatly enjoying the kinship of exiles. When I arrived at the terminal, the locals in the area all spoke in Hakka, a regional dialect. They were quite suspicious of me. I spoke to them in the same dialect, which I had learned some time earlier. I had been told the guest of honour was some kind of monk, so I spoke of him. The locals all seemed to know about him. I was pointed toward a twisted laneway, in a labyrinth. After some distance, I arrived at a very small square. On one side was a two-story shack, built of some concrete blocks and stones. I went up open concrete steps to a small landing without any railing, and a door leading to a room. The structure was no bigger than one room.
The day was hot. I could feel the sweat dripping down my back. I knocked on the door, which was not locked and not even closed. A faint murmuring sound came from within. I took it as an invitation to enter. I pushed the door, went in, and quietly closed the door. It was a totally bare room. How does one describe a bare room? A door, a window, a low bench, a stool. The floor was covered with straw mats. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I noticed bedding rolled up in the corner and a man sitting sort of cross-legged against one wall, facing me.
There was some kind of indication from him that I should sit on the stool. So I sat, facing him in his lotus position for a long, long time. I felt quite cool in that room, and very calm. I was dying to look at my railroad watch, but I thought it would be rude. A throaty murmur came from the man. His eyes were closed. I thought it must be a recitation of some kind of sutra. I really didn’t know. The stillness in the room was palpable.
Finally, he opened his eyes, and speaking in the northern dialect, seeming to be talking to himself, not me, he said with a calm voice, “When I was a young man, I went to the far north-eastern part of China. Then I crossed the border into Russia. One day, I was caught in a snowstorm. A whiteout, the locals called it. In the whiteout, one cannot see up or down, behind or in front, and time stands still. No past, present or future. I recognised it. It is the Great Void.”
Then he stopped and a long silence followed. I looked again around the room, and I said, “I have an invitation for you.” Then I took the invitation from my bag and placed it on the low bench, waiting for some signal for me to go.
Then he said, “I cannot calm the water. But I may be able to calm some people, to keep them afloat.”
Somehow, after that I felt dismissed. I stood up, and suddenly he was standing before me. I was shocked. He was built like a wrestler, with strong shoulders, short stocky legs, and a shaved head with no neck sitting on top of a very powerful torso with two ham-like arms.
He looked at me with great intensity. “You will be all right. Carve a life for yourself.”
Then he indicated I should go. Without a word, I quietly went through the door, came down and went back to the bus terminal. On the bus, I resumed my reading.
Two years later, I left Hong Kong.
I tried to carve a life for myself.
I never forgot the Great Void.
I later came to understand The Great Void is the beginning and the end.