In the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in one of the upstairs galleries, is a very small sculpture mounted on a pedestal and enclosed in plexiglass. It measures 63.5 x 71.8 x 40 cm. Alberto Giacometti executed it in 1932, after a short, mysterious love affair. The main body of the sculpture is several sticks of wood put together horizontally and vertically on a wooden base that somehow suggests a structure. But not a complete structure; rather it is a fragment of a structure. On the upper right, hanging from the horizontal piece, is a carved wood prehistorical bird. Again, it’s not a complete bird, but rather a fragment of a bird. Below it and also hanging from the horizontal piece, is a pale, carved wood, spine-like object that suggests a skeletal fragment of an animal. At the back of the structure, a wood carving suggests the shape of a clothed woman, standing in front of three panels, and they appear to indicate the woman is in a fragmented room. All the items composed in this small sculpture are fragments of something. It is called “The Palace at 4 A.M.” The sculpture represents memory’s fragments. Memories are buried in the rooms of the palace.
A trigger awakens memory, and then the memory fragments appear. The trigger could be a black-and-white photograph, a piece of music, a perfume, a snatch of conversation, or a French madeleine dipped in tea. The trigger could be any image or sensory human experience. Any memory was created within a specific context of time, place, concepts, and activity. The context is only really understood later, when it is history. The newly awakened fragments often are no longer connected to the original context, but are floating as independent entities, and as such they have ceased to have their original meaning.
TV detective dramas often feature a skull fragment that the investigating officer puzzles over and takes to forensic anthropologists who create a comprehensive image out of the bone. They use data, imagination, and creativity. From pins and layers of clay an image appears. This is recollection. Recollection is more than reconstruction; it is re-collection and re-ordering of the fragments in a carefully fabricated context that is supplied for them.
Recently my wife and I went with our friend V. to see a Hollywood musical film. It showed a tap-dancing sequence that triggered a memory for me from long ago. Writing it down involves the small fragments of memory and some re-collection as I try to compose a comprehensive image.
In the 1930s my family—my parents, my older sister and brother, and I—were living in Wuhan, China, a port city along the Yangtze River. We lived in an area that resembled an English compound, called Jardine Village after the Scottish founder of the large British trading company, Jardine Matheson. Our house was large and comfortable in the style of an English stately country home. It had been built about 1910 for a director of the Jardine Matheson trading company. From 1910 to 1930, the Chinese intelligentsia were keen to be modernised. A quantity of literature from England and other European countries was translated. My mother never had much formal education, but she became an avid consumer of these translated works, and especially 19th century English novels, to which she was partial. The family was anglophile for another reason also: my grandfather—a geographer, cartographer and geodetic surveyor—had been sent to Britain by the Qing Emperor to study and do research. He brought home trunks full of instruments, books, maps, whiskey, china, and a taste for kippers.
Early in the summer of 1937, my elder sister who was 10, my brother two years younger, and I, who was 5, were preparing to enjoy ourselves. We foresaw long leisurely days playing in the garden. My friend—who lived next door—and I planned to share toys in our second-floor nursery. Summer joy appeared endless.
My mother was in charge of our education, and she always had some edifying project or scheme we had to endure. So it was, that one Sunday morning at breakfast my mother announced that we should have an English governess. My father quite happily consented to this project, because he knew full well that in the 1930s, in the middle of China, it would be virtually impossible to find such a person. He was highly amused at mother’s literature-inspired idea. Her knowledge of English governesses was probably limited to the pages of English novels from the previous century, but her conviction about the value of such a household member was unshakeable. And one could never underestimate my mother’s social network of connections to institutes and organisations and individuals.
A week later we were summoned to the formal salon where we were presented with Miss Harcastle, our English governess. Right away, I absolutely adored her. I focused all my attention on her. She was very composed, sitting there smiling—I loved her smile. She had porcelain-like skin, a high forehead, large blue eyes, full lips, and a rounded chin. I perceived from first sight that she was both kind and pleasant. She wore a frock of a vivid blue. Miss Harcastle was the daughter of missionaries with the Inland China Mission from London. They had been working in Shandong, but because of recent disturbances from the Japanese they had come to Wuhan to await a further assignment in inland China. Miss Harcastle was quite willing to take on the job of governess of three Chinese children. My mother arranged that she would come to our house twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 10am to noon, after which we would have lunch together. Since Miss Harcastle and her parents were living in the church house, about a 15-minute bicycle ride away, it was convenient for her to come to our house. Instruction would take place in the upstairs nursery room. Having announced these arrangements, my mother then left the room.
We carried on a conversation with Miss Harcastle in Chinese. She spoke fluently but in a very interesting way. She asked us a few questions; we politely answered. We showed her the room in which we would learn from her, and she seemed satisfied. Then she said goodbye and said that she would see us the coming Tuesday at 10 in the morning. We were greatly relieved. Only two hours per day, two days a week under this English governess promised to be quite bearable.
Tuesday morning came. My sister, brother and I were assembled in the nursery. I was in a white sailor top and shorts, dressed and combed by my nanny. A servant ushered Miss Harcastle into the room. Because of her missionary life, to begin the session we were instructed to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Chinese. At this point, I would like to pause and explain Miss Harcastle’s Chinese speaking style. The Chinese language is a tonal language of four tones. Each character, which often is a word, has one of the four tones. Chinese has many, many homonyms; changing the tone produces a different word of a different meaning. Also, each character is independent and has its own space in speech just as in writing. This means each character needs to be spoken distinctly, not run together with another character. Good speakers emphasise the distinct separation of sounds that are characters/words. Miss Harcastle, however, was apparently not aware of this characteristic of Chinese speech. She often joined sounds together, and she oddly exaggerated the tones. The result sounded like an obscure religious chant. My sister and brother did not seem troubled by this speaking style. I, on the other hand, was totally engrossed by it. I thought this must be the way to speak Modern Chinese. After lessons with Miss Harcastle, I would go back to my room and practice perfecting this style of speaking. In fact, I could carry on all my conversations in this sing-song, chanting, melodic style of speaking Chinese.
After the Lord’s Prayer, Miss Harcastle began to describe her life growing up in Yorkshire. She was born the year her parents completed their missionary training. She was too young to accompany them on the arduous journey to China, so she was left with her mother’s parents. She loved her life in the village. When she was 10, the daughter of the Manor, of the same age as she, befriended her, so she was often invited to stay at the Manor house. She went to the local school and was a good student. When she was 15, she was able to travel with some missionaries to China to join her parents in Shandong province. She had enjoyed her life and work in China so far.
We learned a lot about her life in Yorkshire and life in the Manor house. She read children’s books in English to us, and taught us some simple English songs, such as “My Darling Clementine”. My mother had instructed the cook to prepare English lunches, so we ate some strange combinations of things. Miss Harcastle, gentle soul, never complained. At our lunch table, served in English crockery and eaten with English cutlery brought by my grandfather, she taught us English manners. We fell into a pleasant routine.
Until one Sunday morning when I was summoned into my parents’ bedroom at 10 am. Mother was still in bed. She patted the side of the bed to indicate I should sit. Then she said she had heard that I was speaking a peculiar sing-song Chinese, and that I was trying to teach the boy next door to do it, too. I quickly denied doing any such thing, and said I spoke a very correct Beijing dialect. In fact, just a day earlier, Uncle Lee had said I spoke better than Father. (Father had a very strong Hunan accent.) In the end we came to a compromise: I would not speak in my new style in public, especially not in front of Mother‘s friends, but I could practice in private and speak to the servants in my singing style. Then I was dismissed. At the door, she called out: “You promised!” “Yes, Mother,” I replied. Then I went back to my room and practiced my new-found style.
Years later, I realized Miss Harcastle was not introducing a new Modern Chinese pronunciation. I had by then encountered other missionaries and, more importantly, their children who had been born in China and spoke just like Chinese, having learned from Chinese children. Miss Harcastle’s Chinese had been learned from adult missionaries, including her parents. Therefore, she had learned the sing-song pronunciation foreign speakers often employ. But I was unaware of this at the time of her tutelage in our house.
Miss Harcastle’s visits went on for some months. One Thursday morning in our playroom, Miss Harcastle gave my life a jolt. She announced that we were going to learn tap-dancing! All three of us! What excitement!
In my view, the physical construction of the Chinese body is not remotely suited to tap-dancing. We have long torsos, short, stubby legs and arms, and some of us are actually bow-legged. Quite often we walk like ducks, with our toes pointing out. But at the time, unaware of these drawbacks, we children enthusiastically accepted the odd idea of becoming tap-dancers. Miss Harcastle produced a book showing stick figures in various poses. Before we could advance to learn the steps, however, we had to do a series of physical exercises. Some were conducted while lying on the floor, so a servant had rolled out a big carpet on the verandah for the purpose. After Miss Harcastle left, my brother—who was at the age when he knew the answers to all questions—explained to my sister and me that tap-dancing was invented in Yorkshire. He gave us a demonstration of tap-dancing. We had seen tap-dancing in Hollywood movies starring Shirley Temple, and were unconvinced by the waving of his short arms and legs.
For several weeks we continued, with instruction from Miss Harcastle followed by story-reading and the exercises on the verandah. Then one Thursday Miss Harcastle informed my mother that we would need tap-dancing shoes. In the 1930s, before globalisation, it would not have been easy to find three pairs of children’s tap shoes in the middle of China—even with my mother’s connections. This became a crisis.
Out of the blue, the crisis was resolved when, on a Tuesday morning, Miss Harcastle announced her parents had been assigned to go up the Yangzi river to Sichuan where they would form a school. A steamboat was booked for them the next week, and the coming Thursday would be her very last day with us. I felt a terrible loss. My images of a tap-dancing future dissolved. My fragment of memory does not include tears, but I surely would have shed many.
After she had gone that day, we delivered the sad message to Mother. She looked a bit relieved that her project had come to an end before the tap shoes had to be produced. Then she immediately began devising her next project: planning a farewell ceremony for Miss Harcastle. She would prepare a gift, as well as three little gifts from us children. The ceremony would begin with my sister giving a speech, then progress to my brother’s speech, and finally to my speech. Then we three would sing a song. My mother would present her gift, a big gift in a big box, and we three each would go up and present our little gifts in turn. My gift was a carved sandalwood fan with a small piece of jade attached by a tassel.
In my speech, I expressed my adoration of Miss Harcastle. She seemed to be very pleased, in her English manner. Then we had tea, and the three of us children accompanied her with her bicycle, gifts loaded into the front basket, to the garden gate. She kissed each of us on the cheek and said goodbye. She rode away.
This was the last I saw of Miss Harcastle. I was very, very sad for a long time not to have her visits to look forward to every week. In addition, my dream of becoming a tap-dancer began and ended in that month at the end of the summer. But Miss Harcastle’s legacy lives on. Decades later, I still enjoy watching tap-dancing, and I can never bring myself to cut my dinner roll with a butter knife. And in quiet afternoons I sit in my garden, with nobody around and only birds and distant traffic to listen to, and I quietly recite the Lord’s Prayer in Chinese in Miss Harcastle’s sing-song style.
Memory is triggered and recollected into an understandable form; when it is written down as a story it no longer is the same memory as was stored in the mind, in the palace.