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"I don't believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents." – Pablo Picasso

  • D.T.

Remembering Lao Wu

Spring flowers and autumn moons;

When is it to end?

How many past events

Can one recall?

…Let me enquire:

How much sorrow?

Like a river of Spring water gushing towards the East.

- Li Yu, 937-978

{Li was King of Nan Tang 961-976. In 975 he was captured

by the King of Sung,and he wrote this poem in captivity.}

The above is my rather clumsy attempt to translate the first two lines and last two lines of the poem. It’s about memory. Memory is linked in his poem to the flowing water of Spring, which cannot possibly be cut into sections, as one does with memories. But one can scoop a cup of water from the river, augmented water mingled with emotion and imagination. My story is a small cup of augmented memory.

Lao Wu came to my family in the 1930s to do the family's laundry. We always called him Lao Wu (Old Wu) even though he came to us as a young man. Later he was our cook. For three decades he worked for us on and off. Before he came to us, he worked for the US Navy River Control. He was one of the people taking care of the Naval uniforms for the officers on the gunboat U.S.S. Panay. The reason the gunboat was in Wuhan was that under the Unequal Treaty, the American Navy was allowed to patrol the whole Yangzi River from Chongqing to Shanghai. They protected American interests, both commercial and missionary. The gunboats often engaged Chinese to wash decks, paint, do laundry. It was considered the cushiest Naval assignment in the U.S. Navy. The sailors could go onshore at Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing, and enjoy all the night entertainments.

We lived in Hangkou, one of the three cities that formed the larger city of Wuhan. Lao Wu joined us and lived in the servants’ quarters. He was a man of few words, but he possessed a variety of skills. Father referred to him as “a man of all situations.” He was a very good knitter. He knit sweaters, very smart, for all the children. I was about 4 when Lao Wu knit me a sweater and pants combo. The pants had a flap over the top of my shoes and an elastic loop over the bottom of my heel. I received so many comments about my combo, I wore it often. Vanity overcame the itchiness.

During the Sino-Japanese War, we escaped inland by way of Hong Kong. Lao Wu didn’t come with us; he went back to his old village. He married and had one son. After Hiroshima, we went back to Wuhan and attempted to reassemble our lives in pre-war style, and Lao Wu came back to us. He stayed with us again. Rumour said he couldn’t get along with his wife and they fought all the time. Lao Wu never talked about it, but he preferred to live with us. At the time, we didn’t have a cook. Somehow, during the Japanese occupation Lao Wu had learned to cook. He turned out to be a very inventive cook. He became quite well known. We all enjoyed his dishes. He prepared meals for all occasions, from banquets to parties to “little eats”.

I was 15 and going to an Anglican boarding school in Wuchang, another of the three cities that made up metropolitan Wuhan. Every second weekend I was allowed to come home. On Sunday afternoons I would linger in the kitchen before I had to go back to school by bicycle. Lao Wu would prepare a box of meat sauce to take to the school so I could eat it to supplement the school diet.

Lao Wu had a deep impact on my mental sense-making. In ancient Chinese epistemology, especially in the area of creating form, there are two distinct types of knowledge: the knowledge above form and the knowledge below form. One does not rank above the other; they are two conceptualisations, similar to Jürgen Habermas’s Critical Knowledge and Scientific Knowledge.

Years later, remembering Lao Wu’s cooking, I realised he intuitively possessed both kinds of knowledge, the knowledge above form and the knowledge below form. He would sit in a bamboo chair in the kitchen, looking like he was half-dozing, but I actually could see his hand moving, as if he were holding the knife. He was thinking and planning meals. He understood the intent of the dishes, the essence of the materials, and then he used his knowledge of the knife and his knowledge of the fire and his knowledge of balancing the spices. His movement was efficient and economic. He was precise in his placement of pots and pans and in the sequence of cooking. As I studied architectural design in university, I began to adopt Lao Wu’s method. It became my lifelong approach to design. I would think deeply about the intent of the design project, the site and its relationship to the environment, the movement of people and their activities. Then I would begin to draw. It is also true that when I was a student, I was poor, and I couldn’t afford reams of paper.

One Sunday afternoon I was in the kitchen watching Lao Wu prepare his specialty, Duck Wing Soup. We had a large kitchen, with tiled walls and a large centre table that was used for food preparation. I perched on a bamboo stool, trying to keep out of the way while I watched the activity. A big pot held the broth. It was made with an old mother hen, ham, shitake mushrooms, ginger, and scallions, and it simmered slowly on the stove. Meantime, Lao Wu was sitting at the large wood table with three or four plates in front of him. On each were beautifully cut and prepared ingredients: one plate held thick slices of prosciutto-like ham, one had a large slice of fresh bamboo, one had shitake mushrooms, and one plate held duck wings. In that sequence, Lao Wu assembled 12 bundles with portions of the ingredients, tied with long strings of salted preserved bamboo shoots.

This dish is really drinking food. That night my father was entertaining his old friend, the Honourable Number 8 Professor Chen. Professor Chen was the eighth son of a well-known scholarly family. The families had been friends for generations. Professor Chen was a historian and connoisseur of Chinese paintings. My father had just acquired a painting from one of the artists in a group called the Yangzhou Eight Eccentrics. The drinking party was arranged for Professor Chen and his viewing of the painting.

The duck wing package is supposed to be served after being cooked for some time in the broth. Then each rectangular package would be presented on a correspondingly rectangular porcelain plate. It would be untied to present the ham first; it was on top. Then came the shitake, then the bamboo shoots, then the duck wing. The drink of rice wine, called Bai Jiu, was served before the meal and sipped between the package layers. A few cups beforehand, a few during, and a few more after, and each guest would consume a dozen or so cups. Rice wine is actually a distilled drink like sake. Professor Chen liked drinking, and this is the best drinking food. You don’t take a swallow while you are eating—that’s not good manners. You eat a bit of ham, then sip, offer witty remarks, sip again, eat a bit of bamboo, recite poetry, sip again, and so on. The conversation flowed. The painting would be hanging in the dining room, and the Professor would expound. Then other paintings would be referenced by the several other guests, and some would be wittier than others. Some time after everyone had consumed the duck wing package and the final cups of wine, cups of clear broth would be served.

We were living in a bubble, that third year after the war. My parents re-created the pre-war style of living as best they could, entertaining old friends and family, and having outings. My brother had been studying in Hong Kong University, and was now in the U.S. My elder sister married, and her husband went to Yale to do his Ph.D.

Only a few months later, the bubble burst. We heard artillery from the north, where civil war was raging furiously. The economy collapsed: the rate of inflation was 100% a day. In the midst of near-total chaos, we managed to escape with our personal belongings. We joined other refugees in Hong Kong in late 1949. Lao Wu followed us voluntarily.

But by 1950 we couldn’t afford him any longer. Through my father’s connections, Lao Wu was offered a place in a local Hong Kong millionaire’s household. They lived in a large mansion in Repulse Bay.

On Lao Wu’s day off, I would join him in Happy Valley to watch soccer games. He was very fond of soccer and watched intently. Afterwards, we would go to the food stalls in Causeway Bay to have either a bowl of noodles or a plate of famous Hong Kong chicken-rice. I enjoyed Lao Wu’s company. We shared a mutual affection, although Lao Wu never said a word. I talked; Lao Wu listened.

In 1954, after an aimless time picking up work here and there and trying to acquire whatever formal education I could, I managed to obtain an opportunity to study at university in Canada. A friend of mine in the travel business got me the cheapest passage to Nova Scotia. I would take an Italian liner on its last trip before it's being dismantled on an Indian beach.

On the day I boarded the ship, I was standing on the dock after my parents turned to go home. At the very last minute, I saw Lao Wu. He came to say goodbye to me. For the first time ever, he addressed me by my family name: Xiao Di, Little Brother. He said, “Xiao Di, take care of yourself.” Then he disappeared. I was too moved to talk. Tears filled my eyes.

During my university years, in my letters to my parents I frequently asked for news about Lao Wu. In the 1960s, Lao Wu’s son was rising rapidly in the Communist Party. Now he was appointed Mayor of a small town in Hunan province. Filial piety still held its power after the Revolution, and the Mayor contacted the father he scarcely knew, begging him to come and live with him. His town is very close to the Heng Shan, a Daoist holy mountain in Hunan with many holy spirits. Beginning in the Han dynasty, the legend was created of the Immortals who lived deep in the Holy Mountain. Lao Wu left Hong Kong and went to join his son in Hunan province. His wife had passed away some years earlier. I thought he would have a pleasant life there.

But it didn’t last long. In the mid-1960s Mao’s Cultural Revolution whipped through the small town. Lao Wu’s association with the American Navy and my family made him a perfect target. He was labelled a “Capitalist Running Dog”. He was severely beaten and paraded through the town in humiliation. Rumour said it was that evening when he disappeared. Some said he was killed by the Red Guard. Some said he went into the Holy Mountain.

Deep in the Heng Shan range, in a rocky outcrop that formed a small plateau, in the shadow of a cassia tree near a small waterfall, is a ring of stool-like rocks. The Immortals are sitting there, and Lao Wu is among them. They are all eating a delicious dish prepared by Lao Wu: wild mushrooms cooked in morning dew and served in a cup-like lotus petal.



“It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us”

- Arthur Schopenhauer



“Chance encounters are what keep us going.”

– Haruki Murakami



"If there is no fate and our interactions depend on such a complex system of chance encounters, what potentially important connections do we fail to make? What life changing relations or passionate and lasting love affairs are lost to chance?"

– Simon Pegg


"Sweet Serendipity...that unexpected meeting that changes your life"




"Ironically, the people you meet by accident are often the ones who become an important part of your life." 

Solitary Reaper



“Important encouners are planned by the souls before the bodies see each other.”    

Paulo Coelho



"I am thankful for the serendipitous moments in my life, when things could've gone the other way"

Rick Springfield



"Synchronicity: ideas, thoughts,

occurrences that seem related, but defy conventional explanation."


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