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August 2008

 
Contributors
 

Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
David Dabydeen
Alice Fulton
Richard McKane
Jonathan Morley
Michael Schmidt
Tuğrul Tanyol
Alan Wall
Marina Warner
Edwin Williamson
Xu Xi
Gao Xingjian

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 4 Guest Artist: Arturo Di Stefano

 
Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Excerpt from “Habit of A Foreign Sky” by Xu Xi  

The novel manuscript, yet to be published, was short listed for the 2007 inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize.

Early 1998, in the midst of the Asian economic crisis. Gail Szeto, a divorced, forty-something, Eurasian investment banker from Hong Kong, learns from her Filipino domestic helper Conchita, of her son’s (Chak Gu Kwun) and mother’s (Mrs. Szeto) fatal accident while on a business trip in New York.  Gail’s ex-husband is Hong Kong Chinese, Jason Chak; her father is an American, Mark Ashberry, long deceased; her parents never married. 

These two excerpts are from Chapters 2 & 3.


The Kowloon public mortuary — an air conditioned stone shack, its entrance tucked away on a side street in Hung Hom — was furnished like some civil service outpost.  Ancient wooden benches and counters, chipped at the edges, were enclosed by dirty walls.  Temporary, handwritten signs that directed visitors or proclaimed regulations all awaited permanent replacements.

Gail gulped down an awful nausea.  Upon stating her business, a clerk yelled out to the back, “You know, the real banged up lo por and kid.” 

The workers who wheeled them out wore filthy, blood-stained aprons and wooden clogs, like butchers at the market.

The corpses lay on rusty metal beds.  Both bore witness to their violent end.  Gu Kwun’s face, especially, was battered and barely recognizable.  Mrs. Szeto’s body had been badly crushed, but her face emerged with only a few bruises and scratches.  Even in death, vanity prevailed, as it had in life.

One worker commented,  “They can fix them up, especially the faces, real good you can hardly tell.”  All Gail could think of was that moment of impact when her son flew, “like an aeroplane” she could hear him shout, the way he would when they ran along the beach, and she turned away from the scarred and crumpled faces, hiding her own in her hands.  Someone said, “Chanyan, right?”

Gail confirmed Conchita’s previous identification.  Jason had told the police it would be better if they waited for her to return, and declined to come in.  Such cowardice, especially for a medical doctor . . . but the moment overwhelmed her indignation.  In the jumble of feelings, she caught herself thinking, wasn’t it presumptuous of her maid to identify . . . but conceded, albeit unwillingly, no, it was courageous of Conchita to have faced, alone, this unkind bureaucracy, one that would have treated the Filipino, the foreigner, with disdain.

Interminable paperwork followed, slowed by the minimal staff during this post-celebratory period, as if the government did not expect death during public holidays.  Gail experienced, once again, the quizzical surprise of local bureaucrats when she, the chanyan, the relative, the “intimate person,” gave her name — she had no official Chinese language name — while her son and mother only had Chinese names and no English ones.  Jaap jung, she could hear them think, as they noted her Eurasian face.  “Mixed species,” a pejorative silenced only by her native speaker’s fluency in Cantonese.

Gail asked about funeral arrangements and was directed to Universal Funeral Parlor, “conveniently” located next door in a macabre monopoly.  The funeral director sized her up — classy, moneyed — and after a few phone calls, advised that the crematorium could slot her in almost immediately because their expeditor was there on the spot the minute the new openings and times were announced, thanks to numerous years of dealing with that government office.  Otherwise, it might be several more days before she could get an opening.  He nodded obsequiously, murmuring, Ms. Szeto understands about these things, doesn’t she, the expectation of a large tip abundantly clear.

The whole process disgusted Gail.

For a moment, she wondered whether or not to hold the funeral on the island, in North Point for instance, since that was closer to where her family lived on Stubbs Road.  At least, that was where Gail wanted to live when she and Jason returned to Hong Kong.  Yet Jason had gone “home” with his new wife to Kowloon where they both grew up, just as her mother wanted to return home to Kowloon City.  We belong to dai luk, the “big continent,” her mother used to say, meaning Mainland China, the tiny slice of land at its tip comprising Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories where most of Hong Kong’s population resided.  In the end, she decided it didn’t really matter – she too was from Kowloon originally even if her son wasn’t – and it was the last thing she need ever do for her mother.

That afternoon, driving home in the underwater harbor tunnel towards the island, Gail wanted, for one wild second, to crash through the curved metal wall into the sea.  All her family, gone.  There was no one, not a single person, to worry about any longer.

Daylight loomed near at the exit.  She gripped the steering wheel, willing control.


***

During the wake, every time Gail glanced at the enlarged photo of her son, she wished she had chosen a different one.  One that made his nose look less flat and his hair a little less unyielding in its straightness.  Of the teachers and students at International, only Janie and her father came to pay respects, as Conchita predicted.  This Chinese funeral might have seemed alien to some at the elite private school Gu Kwun attended, where an American curriculum was designed for Westernized locals and foreigners. 

This funeral, Gail knew, was entirely for Mom.

Around Gail, the last of her mother’s dance hall girlfriends, those perennial strangers of her childhood, wept.  Each woman separately forced upon Gail an envelope of money.  They wanted to contribute to funeral expenses for their daijeih, the oldest among them who was accorded the privileged “eldest sister” status.

Number one A-Yi prattled besides Gail.

“We were going to have a big celebration for her eightieth birthday this year,” she said.  “Did you know that, Gay-lo?”  All these women had trouble saying “Gail,” the American name her mother insisted on, forgoing a Chinese one, desperate as she had been to win her lover’s approval in the mistaken belief that this would make him leave his wife and marry her.

“No, I didn’t,” Gail replied.

“Yeah, we were planning one.  At the ‘Spring River’s Tide’ restaurant, you remember, the one near your old place?  We were going to order double boiled shark’s fin, and bird’s nest for dessert.  She loved all that stuff.”

Wouldn’t the woman shut up?  “It’s very kind of you.  I’m sure she would have appreciated it.”

“We were going to ask you to lend her to us for a day and we’d have taken care of her.  We’re just like family.  That’s why she promised to look after me, you know.”  She stopped abruptly.  She hadn’t meant to bring that up, especially here.  Luckily, Gail didn’t seem to have heard and she gushed on.  “It’s good to see you again, my daijeih’s girl!”

Number one A-Yi, who penned all the letters from her illiterate mother during the sixteen years Gail lived in the U.S., might easily have been a real aunt.  All the women were elderly, except for their outfits, the too-fancy shoes and shiny clothes.  Nightlife hovered around them like an unrelenting spirit, the way it had around Mom.  Gail observed how the funeral director greeted these women’s arrival.  So that’s what she was, his eyes sneered, for all the daughter’s respectable airs.

The mourning room was on the third floor on a side wing, larger rooms being located off the main corridor.  Set against a stage wall, the Buddhist altar was garishly red and gold, horribly loud.  Hanging in the center, framed by a border of white chrysanthemums, were the two black-and-white photographs of Mom and Gu Kwun.  Incense perfumed the air.  Two mourners wailed — the funeral director had looked askance at the paltry number — their robed bodies swaying as if buffeted by a persistent wind.

To the left of the altar was the chilled room for the bodies.  The temperature there was only slightly cooler than in the main room.  The air conditioner rattled; in summer, it would be unbearable.  Gu Kwun’s face looked almost like his photograph, although the make up couldn’t completely disguise the disfigurement.  Gail’s mother simply looked asleep.

Nothing, however, could disguise the utilitarian aspect of the place.  The room’s tiled floor and unintentional fifties-retro design presented an unclean mosaic.  Traces of the metal frame’s putrid beige paint smeared the glass, an interior glass door for light, but also for staff to peer in and keep things on schedule.  The store on the second floor sold Buddhist, Christian and Taoist funereal trappings, and the multi-purpose altar could be re-decorated, within minutes, into the stage of the required faith.

All morning long, her mother’s friends came to pay respects.  “Such a dear, sweet woman, so generous,” they murmured in turn.  “She didn’t deserve to die.”  Gail hadn’t anticipated this many people.  How had A-Yi gotten the word out so fast?  Much to the funeral director’s consternation, Gail hadn’t prepared enough money packets to give everyone and had to scramble as people left — all expected the ritual token.

Gail did not recognize most of the visitors.  These dancers, policewomen and men, waiters, cooks, bartenders, gambling and massage parlor folks, a pawnbroker — all from Kowloon City, their old neighborhood — befriended her mother after Gail left for college in the U.S.  Only her A-Yi’s were familiar, the retired “sisters” from the dance hall who had taken turns watching her on their off evenings, the nights Mom worked.  Number seven A-Yi, the youngest, was in her sixties.  Number four had died young.  An unlucky number, four, homonym for death. 

Only the A-Yi’s stayed the entire morning.

Number one A-Yi pressed a cell phone number into her hand.  “You can reach me now, anytime, even when I’m out and about.”

Gail murmured the socially acceptable response.  “You’re too good to me,” and stuck the slip of paper into her purse.

Conchita stopped in briefly, saying she would offer a mass for the dead at her church.  Gail’s office sent a wreath.  The Leyland-Tangs were Gail’s only friends who stopped by although the old girls sent two exceptionally large wreaths with traditional messages of sympathy.  Gail stared at the characters on the ribbons around these flowers, barely registering their meaning.  Barbara’s voice, at their last get-together, filtered through her memory.  Don’t talk about your job anymore.  We’re all sick of work.  Tell us about your son instead, how’s he doing at school?  Straight A’s, just like you, right?  Such a responsible boy you’re so lucky.

Janie and her father were headed towards her.  Gail stood up to say goodbye.  “Thanks for coming.”

“Janie wanted to,” the father said.  “She was very fond of him, as was I.”  The girl’s eyes were red, and, despite her father’s prodding, she refused to look up at Gail.  Janie clung to her father, and his hand continually stroked her hair as he spoke.

Gail did not know them well, although she had a good impression of Janie, who was generally a neat and well-mannered child.  Gu Kwun often went to Janie’s to play, but the reverse was not the case.  It wasn’t that she didn’t allow him to invite friends over, but somehow, it never happened.  Her acquaintance with the father was confined to small talk when he dropped her son off or she picked him up.  He was always the only parent home.  He was from Oregon, wrote for The Asian Wall Street Journal, and Gail occasionally saw his byline — E. Hammond — on the editorial pages which she glanced at but rarely read.  His wife was local Chinese and ran a leading ad agency, but Gail had never met her.

He asked, “Will you remain in Hong Kong?”

Janie’s father spoke to her as a fellow American, which Gail supposed she was, although hardly like him and his family.  No, not like them at all, whom Gu Kwun once called “a real family” which made her cross.  She retorted isn’t our own family real?  She told Janie’s father.  “Why yes, I guess.  I don’t know.”

Hammond studied her through a journalist’s eyes.  No lightweight, professionally — he was aware of her stature — but a curious woman, difficult to befriend, who usually hurried off with barely any conversation, as if wanting to remove Gu Kwun quickly.  Janie once said she was afraid of Ms. Szeto, and he told his daughter she couldn’t possibly know her well enough to feel that, although truthfully, he understood it.  “Do you have any other family?”

“No.”  It was the first time she had said it to another person.  “Not really.”

“If I can help in any way, please call.” 

“Thank you.” 

They both knew she wouldn’t.

It was shortly past noon.  Gail thought, suddenly, of last Thanksgiving, when she’d managed to take a day off because New York shut down although it was a working day in Hong Kong.  Once Gu Kwun turned six and began attending International, she celebrated, ordering a traditional meal from one of the foreign caterers since she had never roasted a turkey and had no desire to try.  But she wanted her son to learn the customs of his nationality.  Now, it all meant nothing.  He had never even been to America.  Very quietly, she began to cry.

The funeral director came into the room.  It was time, he told her, to move on to the crematorium.  “Only family ride in the hearse.  Did you want a van for the others?”

Where was Jason?  She had told him, she knew she had.  It wasn’t something she could possibly have forgotten to do.  But no one at the wake noticed his absence, not even the Leyland-Tangs, the only Hong Kong friends of Gail’s outside of her immediate family who had ever met Jason.

Only family, the funeral director was saying, again, indicating the hearse and driver.

All the women had left except number one A-Yi, who hovered.  Daijeih was her family, she wanted to say, but hesitated, a little afraid of Gail.  Daijeih had kept all the A-Yi’s away from her daughter once Gail was in her early teens.

Gail glanced at A-Yi’s expectant face.  On an impulse, she asked.  “Will you ride with me in the hearse?”

“Of course, Gay-lo,” she replied, pleased.  “Of course I will.”

Bright afternoon rays warmed the crematorium, outlining its stark newness.  It had taken less than forty minutes to arrive; the hearse sped along empty highways towards Fanling.  The last time Gail had been out this way was as a teenager, to buy honey from one of the apiaries.  On the old road, it had taken an hour and a half by bus, more than two on holidays.  Now, the new railroad transported rapidly, and highways eased congestion.  Fanling was as urban as Kowloon, no longer a place of distant graveyards and rustic villages.

The hearse parked next to a side door where the caskets were removed.  “Not mahogany,” she had earlier heard number three A-Yi whisper to number six as she examined Daijeih’s casket.  Gail had refused to be sold anything more than the basic box, just as she had opted for stone urns, not marble.  If her mother’s friends considered her cheap, let them.  Mom herself said that what other people thought didn’t matter.

Yet watching the workers lift the boxes, first Gu Kwun’s, and then her mother’s, onto the conveyor belt that would carry them into the central oven, she regretted not honoring her mother’s memory the way her old friends wanted.  She could easily have rented a van and invited all the A-Yi’s along.  The unfamiliar arrangements, though, daunted.  On top of everything, her watch had vanished into thin air, leaving her temporally unbalanced.  So she had been clumsy, unable to think straight.  Anyone would excuse that.

“Take one last look!”  the crematorium worker intoned loudly, signaling that her mother’s casket was ready to burn.  A-Yi took her hand.  Gail placed an arm around the tiny, frail figure, and took a deep breath.  The casket disappeared into the oven.

When her son’s casket was readied, her grip on A-Yi’s hand tightened.  “Goodbye,” she whispered in English, the language he worked to perfect.  “Dream well.”  And then, just as the casket slid through the doors, fear surged and Gail began to sob uncontrollably, lurching against her A-Yi, clutching her arms.  “Cry, cry, it’s okay,” the woman whispered, stroking her bent head like a child’s.  “He knew a good life, and Daijeih a long one.”

Outside, the bright sunshine was unmarred by haze.  The two women returned to the hearse.  It was all so quick, over in half a day, the urns of ashes to be picked up later.  The sky was deceptively clear, as if the pollutants had vanished.

Returning to Hunghom in the hearse, her mother’s friend said.  “You are my family too, Gay-lo.  You can depend on me.”  She meant it wholeheartedly.  When Gail demurred, as expected, saying she wouldn’t trouble her unnecessarily, A-Yi smiled and nodded sagely, invoking her age.  “Sometimes, death can be a way of finding out who we are.  Trust me. You’re young yet.” Later, she declined Gail’s offer of a lift, saying it would be “inconvenient.”  It wasn’t inconvenient at all, but she suddenly needed to be alone.

Gail watched the seventy-five year old woman walk away, this unrelated chanyan, who was as fit and healthy as her mother had been, her mother who liked to say that she would live till she was a hundred.