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Edition 49

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Fiction

Vigil

ON THE TWENTY-EIGHTH day of Po Lin’s vigil, her mother opened her eyes and said, ‘Don’t pour that cheap stuff on your father’s grave. Bring him his favourite every time. At least promise your mother that.’

‘Maa?’ Po Lin rose from the chair and the blood rushed to her half-awake limbs. She steadied herself on the edge of the bed.

‘Your brother will forget. Your sister-in-law would have him drinking cooking wine if she had her way. So it’s up to you, Aa Lin, to do good by your father.’ Her mother’s left eye was unfocused beneath the sagging lid, but her right eye was sharp. ‘You look tired.’

‘Maa, how are you feeling?’

‘Why do you look so tired? Too many shifts at the shop. If I had known that husband of yours was going to work you like a dog I would have never let you marry him. Chewing pork rinds all day long while you work the meat off all ten fingertips. Aa Keung should watch it, what with his high cholesterol. Men don’t listen. Your father never did.’

Po Lin hesitated. It was so good to hear Maa’s voice. This was the most coherent Maa had been for weeks, notwithstanding the fact that she had forgotten Po Lin’s husband was dead. Aa Keung had a heart attack years ago, leaving her stranded up in Dong Guan tending to the embroidery shop that kept food on the table and their son in college. It didn’t feel right to correct Maa, though. The stroke had hijacked the entire left side of her body and rendered her in and out of consciousness for the past month. After two weeks at the hospital, Po Lin’s brother Fung and his wife Ling had insisted they bring her home to the family flat in East Kowloon. Ling said it was for Maa’s comfort, but Po Lin had a feeling that the climbing hospital bills had more to do with it. Since Maa came home, Po Lin commuted to Dong Guan twice a week to check on the shop, but returned at the end of each day to curl up in the rickety cot at the foot of her mother’s bed.

‘Water, Maa?’ Po Lin propped her mother up and put the straw in the right corner of her mouth. After three long sips, Po Lin settled her onto the pillow with barely any effort; she weighed so little now. The late afternoon light from the small window behind Po Lin cast an orange glow over her mother, masking her grey pallor. Maa’s palm was cool in her own. She squeezed Po Lin’s hand and said in a soft rasp, ‘How long has Aa Keung been gone?’

‘Six years.’

‘Huh.’ Maa closed her eyes and her face transformed into a stranger’s. The left side drooped, as if a seam had come loose and was left unmended. Po Lin fought the urge to prop it up, to stitch it back into place. A tear slipped down her face and disappeared into the peony pattern on the bed sheets. She wasn’t ready for Maa to stop talking.

‘Are you hungry, Maa?’ she asked, trying to rouse her.

‘No.’ Eyes still closed, Maa added, ‘Wake me up for the news.’

‘Okay, Maa.’ Po Lin swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth.

Maa loved the evening news. She’d made it a habit every night since they got their first television when Po Lin was still in high school. But what would Maa think of the news today? A few days after her stroke, the city had become unrecognisable, erupting in response to the latest election reforms decreed by Beijing. For weeks, the images on television were straight out of a movie: protesters swarming like ants, students sleeping in the streets, tear gas streaming into the crowds. No, it wouldn’t do any good for Maa to watch the news now.

After Maa’s breathing became regular again, Po Lin folded back into the chair that had been forced between the bed, the wall and the tall cabinet at her right elbow. The room smelled of dried plums and sandalwood, even though it had been years since incense was offered daily to the gods housed in the open-shelved cabinet that was half altar, half bookcase. On the top shelf was a celadon Guan Yin perched upon a lotus and an emerald Thai Buddha with a gilt headpiece. On the bottom shelf was a wooden spirit tablet of the Earth God, whom Po Lin tried not to disturb now by keeping her feet tucked under the chair. After Baa died, Maa added a porcelain Jesus on the middle shelf. Po Lin asked about the Jesus once, and Maa had muttered, ‘You never know. Spread your bets, your father would say.’ There was even a Bible wedged among the old ledgers and photo albums behind Jesus, which Po Lin pulled out now. It was a faux-leather-bound volume, slightly larger than her hand. She peeled open the book and was surprised to see chain after chain of chicken intestines laid out in tight, ink-black rows. English. Maa didn’t read a word of it. The front door clicked, startling her. Po Lin pushed the Bible back into place and got up.

In the outer room of the small flat, her brother Fung was sliding the security gate closed, arms laden with grocery bags.

‘Maa woke up.’

‘She did?’

‘Not for long. But she was talking.’ She took the bags from him and headed into the kitchen.

‘What did she say?’ Fung asked, slumping into the couch. He’d gained weight over the past few years.

‘Something about Aa Baa’s favourite wine. She was speaking clearly though. She said she wanted to watch the news.’

‘Could be any day now.’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘Your sister-in-law wants us to be prepared.’

Po Lin bent over to place the carton of eggs into the refrigerator. ‘Maybe we should call the doctor, see if Maa should go back.’

‘I’ll call tomorrow.’ Fung switched on the television. The camera was panning across a sidewalk strewn with broken umbrellas and yellow helmets.

‘She’s eating so little. Maybe an IV would help. I can call tomorrow.’

‘I said I’d call. Start dinner, your sister-in-law will be home soon. Is Aa Wing coming home to eat?’

‘No, he’s staying at the dorm tonight.’

‘Mm. Make sure your son stays off the streets.’ He gestured toward the television. Students were sitting in rows under a well-lit tent surrounded by hand-painted protest signs, heads bent above their textbooks. ‘Look at them. So naive.’

Po Lin looked at the faces of the young protesters, some radiant, some haggard. She would not have described them as naive. Desperate, maybe, but not naive. Maa would probably agree with Fung though. He had been saying for weeks that the protests were pointless, that the students were wasting their parents’ hard-earned money and that there was no use fighting what was already established. The city should face reality instead. Po Lin thought there was something quite noble about the protests, but Fung was probably right. There should never have been any illusion that the city would remain the same after the handover. They were part of the motherland now, just another stop on the Guangshen railway like grim and dusty Dong Guan. Po Lin went into the kitchen and turned on the faucet, drowning out the low rumble of the news.

THE NEXT MORNING, Po Lin was on the subway heading to Hung Hom Station when Wing called, his voice full of excitement.

‘Maa, I don’t want you to worry, okay?’

A pit began to form in her chest.

‘I’m at Admiralty. Actually, I’ve been coming here on and off for a while now. I didn’t mention it because I didn’t want you to worry.’

The pit expanded into a ravenous maw, threatening to swallow her, the train car and her fellow passengers whole.

‘It’s safe here. I’m with my class. Most of the time we’re studying. It’s not violent like Mong Kok.’

Wing kept talking but all Po Lin could think about was the image of a police baton caving in her son’s head.

‘Maa? Are you there?’

‘Yes, I’m here.’ She swallowed the cotton in her throat and continued, ‘Were you there when the police–’

‘No, Maa, I wasn’t. Please don’t worry, okay?’

There were a million things she wanted to say, but all she could manage was, ‘Do you have a helmet?’

‘I’ll get one.’

‘Promise me you’ll wear it.’

‘Okay, Maa. It’s fine. Really. It’s important, what’s happening here.’ The hopefulness in Wing’s voice brought tears to her eyes.

‘Just be safe.’

‘How’s Po Po?’

‘She’s about the same, but not eating as much as before.’

‘Can’t you bring her to see the doctor again?’

‘Your uncle says it’s pointless.’

‘That may be what Kaufu thinks, but what do you think?’

It took a moment for Po Lin to respond. ‘I’d like to bring her in, but I don’t know, it could be pointless just like Kaufu says.’

‘There’s hope until the last moment, Maa. Don’t worry about Kaufu and Kaumou. You have to fight for what you–’ Wing’s voice broke off suddenly and she held her breath until he came back again. ‘Sorry, Maa, I’ve got to go now. I’ll call you later.’

‘What happened? Are you okay?’

‘Yes, Maa, don’t worry. It’s just that we’re moving to the study area now, so I’ve got to pick up my stuff. I’ll message you tonight when I get back to the dorm.’

Relief washed over her. At least her son was not sleeping in the streets. She put away her mobile and sat back, hugging her handbag tight against her stomach.

Across from her in the subway car were a group of students. She noticed that each of them wore a yellow ribbon. The two young men had ribbons stitched to their caps, while the three girls had ribbons pinned to their shirts. Wing must be wearing a ribbon too, she thought. The girl directly across from Po Lin was holding a backpack in her lap that seemed to weigh more than the girl herself. A helmet and a pair of goggles were clipped onto the straps. She looked no more than fifteen.

The subway heaved to a stop and the doors opened, letting in a stream of passengers. The girl with the backpack whispered to her companions, eyeing two middle-aged men that were standing in the centre. The subway whirred into motion and the men began talking loudly. Po Lin could hear only pieces of what they were saying: ‘…ruining Hong Kong with naive notions…bellies full of education but not an ounce of responsibility…parents can’t show their faces anymore…’ The men kept glancing over at the students. Finally, the shorter of the two men turned to face them and said, ‘You are an embarrassment to your families. Hope you wake up before you flush your future into the sewer.’ Po Lin glimpsed the blue ribbon pinned to the man’s broad chest. An anti-protest protester. One student stood up and faced them. He was taller than both of the older men, but skinny like a reed. Just like Wing. Po Lin flinched, thinking that they would come to blows, but then the boy began to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in a soft voice. After a couple of verses, the short man began yelling for the boy to shut up, but the boy kept singing. Finally, the tall man pushed the boy in the shoulder. The other students stood up beside the first boy, and then all of them were singing. Both men were yelling now for them to shut up. All the other passengers in the car were deathly quiet. The subway slowed to a stop as the intercom announced Diamond Hill station. The tall man shoved the boy again, hard enough to land the boy backwards onto the seat, and then pulled the short man with him out of the subway. The students all sat down as the car swayed into motion. The girl with the backpack asked the boy if he was okay and he sat up straight, stretched his shoulders back and grinned in response.

Po Lin dug out her mobile and texted Wing: ‘When you find a helmet, let Maa know.’

THROUGHOUT HER TRIP to Dong Guan and back, Po Lin could not shake the image of Wing getting his skull crushed. His text message to her last night saying that he had a helmet didn’t make her feel any better. Wing was nineteen now. He had a mind of his own. Any pressure from her would only turn him away. But was she being neglectful by not trying to stop him? Fung would think so. To him, there was no age limit for a parent’s control over his children. The smell of burning brought her back to the present. She turned the choy sum in the wok but it was too late. She threw away the burnt leaves, arranged the rest in a platter and brought it to the table to join its compatriots: conpoy steamed egg and chicken with black mushrooms clay-pot. Ling came home just as Po Lin was ladling out the soup. She could tell that her sister-in-law was in a bad mood by the way she crammed her boots into the shoe rack.

‘How did it go,’ Fung said from the couch.

‘Awful. Causeway Bay is a mess. Don’t know if Daai Go’s store is going to make it.’

‘That bad?’

‘It’s ridiculous. No one can do business with all the roads closed. His store went from being in the best location to the worst, and it’s not like the landlord is going to give him a break on the rent.’ Ling sat down at the table and Fung and Po Lin joined her.

‘If the students keep this up,’ Ling continued, ‘all those neighbourhood stores are going to die. The big chains can wait it out, but not the small stores. Aa Lin, help me get the fujyu.’

Po Lin put down her chopsticks, glad for an excuse to duck into the kitchen. She felt guilty that her own son was out there, not necessarily in Causeway Bay but at a protest site all the same. Fung and Ling must never know about it. She should text Wing, make sure he never breathes a word to the family. She returned to the table and set the jar of fermented tofu, half-opened, in front of her sister-in-law.

‘What will your brother do?’ Fung asked.

‘Daai Go asked if we could help.’ Ling spooned a cube of tofu out of the orange brine and pressed it into her bowl of rice. She pushed the jar towards Po Lin then said to Fung, ‘I told him we have Maa to think of, but that I’d talk to you about it.’

Po Lin got up again to put the fujyu back in the refrigerator. From the kitchen, she heard Fung say quietly, ‘Let’s talk later.’ He continued at a normal volume, ‘What was the site like today?’

‘People just standing around like there’s nothing better to do. There was a man in a tent giving a lecture on calculating mortgages. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. What does he think he’s going to accomplish? In the meantime, shop owners like Daai Go are sitting in their storefronts calculating how long before they default on their mortgages with no customers coming through the door.’

Fung replied, ‘Occupy, occupy, occupy…as useful as a fart. The mainland doesn’t care. These students fighting for the future are not going to have any futures of their own after the police mark their IDs.’

Po Lin felt the heat rising in her face and stood up, gathering her chopsticks and half-finished bowl of rice.

‘Are you done? You didn’t eat much.’ Fung’s voice followed her to the kitchen.

‘I’m fine, just not so hungry,’ she said over her shoulder as she edged into the narrow kitchen. She ran the faucet on full over the wok in the sink but she could still hear Fung talking.

‘People flagged at the protests have already been denied entry at the mainland border. Almost every job requires trips to the mainland these days. What are they going to do when they’re denied entry
for life?’

Po Lin took the steel wire pad and began scouring the burnt leaves encrusted at the bottom of the wok. Fung kept on.

‘And who knows what else the government will do to them once they’ve got their number on file? They’ll have to emigrate to Canada or Australia to find a job when they graduate. If they graduate.’

She scrubbed harder, keeping her elbows in to avoid smacking into the tiled walls. If Fung knew Wing was in Admiralty…she didn’t even want to think what he would say. Of course she was afraid of the consequences Wing might face, but the way he’d sounded on the phone, the exhilaration, the optimism – she found herself feeling proud. She’d never had that kind of fire. But if Fung found out, there would be no room for pride. Wing would just be another naive adolescent and Po Lin an incompetent mother.

Fung called out to her, ‘Lucky that Wing has always been timid, huh? Nothing to be ashamed of now. I used to worry about him not having any guts but better gutless than jailed.’

She threw down the pad and shut off the faucet. It took only the few steps from the sink to the doorway to make up her mind. She squared her shoulders and said to Fung and Ling: ‘I’d like to bring Maa back to the hospital.’

Both of them looked at her with blank expressions.

‘I know you think it’s a waste of money but–’

‘No one said it was a waste of money,’ Ling interrupted, but Po Lin pressed on.

‘I’ve got some savings from the shop and I’d really like to take her in.’

Fung replied, ‘But the doctor already said it’s pointless at Maa’s age.’

‘We must try something, we can’t just sit here and let her
wither away.’

‘Who says we’re letting her wither away?’ Fung said, pushing his chair away from the table. ‘She hates being at the hospital. She’s much more comfortable here.’

‘She’s eating less and less.’

‘That’s what happens. She’s eighty-four and she’s had a stroke.’

‘At least at the hospital they can give her some nutrients, maybe an IV. And she’s eighty-three.’

Fung looked down at his soup, brought the bowl to his lips and drank slowly. Ling went to the couch and began cleaning her teeth with a toothpick and mirror.

Still standing at the doorway, Po Lin said, ‘I’m bringing her in tomorrow.’

Fung swallowed the last of his soup, set the bowl down and said, ‘Fine, just don’t blame anyone when she gets sick from all the germs, or when she can’t sleep because she’s surrounded by people coughing through the night.’

‘I just want the doctor to monitor her, see if there’s anything they can do.’

‘I said fine.’ Fung got up from the table and switched on the television. Po Lin’s heart pounded as she cleared the dishes from the table. Even as her mind flooded with the logistics of how to transport her mother safely, Fung’s remarks tugged at the edge of her thoughts. She must text Wing. She would feel better if he could accompany her tomorrow.

THE CANTEEN AT Haven of Hope Hospital had paltry food options, so Po Lin hiked downhill to the nearest shopping centre for lunch. It had been over a week since Maa was admitted. When she and Wing first brought Maa in, the doctors and nurses seemed confident that something could be done, but as the days passed they grew more aloof. It did not help that Maa remained unresponsive for the most part, waking intermittently but with eyes glazed over. That morning, Dr Woo stated that there was not much left to do but make her comfortable. When Po Lin reminded him that Maa had been quite coherent just eight days ago, Dr Woo said in an irritating monotone that brief periods of lucidity did not suggest that the patient was capable of recovery. False hope, he added, would do no one any good.

The Café de Coral was full of the usual lunchtime traffic. Po Lin sat down beside the takeout counter to wait for her order. Beside her was a teenage girl staring at a smartphone. The tinny ruckus from the speakers spurred Po Lin to look at the screen. It was a video of the protests, but nothing like the footage she’d seen on television. A company of protesters with umbrellas open at assorted angles faced a jagged line of policemen. There was a great shout and batons began flying down on the protesters closest to the police. Tear gas being fired into hordes scattering like ants, policemen in riot gear pushing against civilians with cardboard shields, she’d seen all this on television. But she’d only heard about the unrestrained beating of unarmed civilians. Now, watching the heads of strangers being pummelled on that tiny screen, her eyes filled with tears. Those heads, they belonged to her as well. She thought of Wing. ‘When was this?’ she asked the girl. ‘Last month,’ the girl responded. Last month, not last night. Despite her relief, tears continued to flow down her face. The video jumped to another scene: a man was sitting in the street with empty palms facing the sky, then suddenly, a miniature rocket hit him in the chest, enveloping him in a cloud of gas. The girl muttered, ‘Not much hope for Hong Kong.’ Po Lin had no response. The service bell on the counter behind her rang insistently as a server hollered her number. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, she picked up her lunch and walked out.

Twenty minutes later, her shirt was drenched in tears and sweat as she neared the hospital at the top of the hill. She could not seem to stop herself from weeping, for her mother, for her son, for the city. Her brother was right. What was the point of fighting? Her mother would end up buried beside her father within days or weeks. Her son would end up with his head beaten in and his future ruined, or at the very least, his hopefulness crushed out of him within weeks or months. And within five or ten or fifteen years, the city she called home would end up disassembled and patchworked back into the motherland’s tapestry, as if its own spirit and personality had never existed. And where would she be? Stranded in Dong Guan sewing dragons and phoenixes for bride after bride after mainland bride. She wept for all these inevitabilities, but most of all, she wept at the prospect of never hearing her mother’s voice again.

When the hospital entrance came into view, she swabbed her face and neck with her sleeve. There was a slender woman sitting at a table beside the sliding doors, smiling at her. She smiled back uncertainly and looked down, thinking what a mess she was in contrast to the neatly dressed, serene woman. As she approached, the woman picked up one of the silver crosses laid out in a velvet-lined tray and held it out to her. Po Lin shook her head, but the woman caught her hand and pressed the tiny cross into her palm. ‘For you,’ she said. The sign at the table said $100. Po Lin took out a single red bill and handed it to the woman, surprising herself. She continued into the ward, holding the cross tightly in her fist. When she was alone in the elevator, she fastened the chain around her neck. She felt both comforted and foolish.

A nurse was standing beside her mother’s bed when she entered.

‘We’ve been waiting for you,’ the nurse said, smiling. ‘Your mother’s been telling me stories.’

PO LIN DROPPED her bags on the couch and hurried to the bed. Maa’s right eye looked directly at her. The nurse left the two of 

them alone.

‘Aa Lin, do you see the size of this room? It’s the biggest room I’ve ever slept in. Look at this window!’

Po Lin laughed despite herself and took her mother’s hand. After Fung’s comments, she had decided on a private room in the hospital, which she could only afford for another week before having to dip into Wing’s tuition money. It was a suite with a large picture window, a private bathroom and a couch that doubled as a bed, though Po Lin preferred the chair at her mother’s bedside.

‘How are you feeling, Maa?’

‘Maa’s tired. You look tired, too.’

‘I’m okay. Do you want some water?’

‘Not yet.’ She squinted at Po Lin’s sternum. ‘What’s that?’

Po Lin’s hand flew up to the cross. ‘Oh, nothing,’ she mumbled. ‘Someone outside the hospital was selling them.’

‘Mm.’ Maa shifted her gaze towards the window. After a moment, she said, ‘You know what I like about that Jesus? His face. Just like Guan Yin’s. And Buddha’s. The kind of face that says everything is as it should be. Not every Jesus has that face, though…’ Maa closed her eyes. When she did not stir, Po Lin shook her shoulder gently.

‘Maa?’

It was too soon. Her throat closed up and tears welled in her eyes.

‘Maa?’ she repeated, louder this time. ‘Don’t sleep, Maa.’

Her mother’s paper-thin eyelids fluttered open. ‘What time is it?’

‘Almost 1 pm, Maa,’ she said, exhaling.

‘Oh, good.’ Maa lifted her right hand, pointing to the television hanging from a metal arm mounted to the ceiling. ‘Turn it on.’

Po Lin was surprised that Maa had noticed the television. She switched the channel to TVB, where the midday news would soon begin. The right corner of Maa’s mouth twitched when the familiar jingle came on. Coverage of the protests began almost immediately, but the scenes were mild, mainly showing protesters milling around at the sites, some wearing yellow headbands. A few students were shown sitting in the road with books in their laps; one lay prostrate with a book tented on his face to block the sun. Po Lin was thankful that no violent incidents had occurred overnight worthy of reporting. She watched as Maa followed the screen intently. What would Maa think if she knew her grandson was part of all this? She was used to telling her mother everything, but it was senseless to worry her now. When the coverage ended, Maa said, ‘Reminds me of when I was young.’

‘What, Maa?’ Po Lin asked. She lowered the volume.

‘Those people demonstrating. Reminds me of when I was young. Actually, I was not even that young. You and Fung were with me, too.’

‘What are you talking about, Maa?’

‘The five cents incident. I think you must have been four or five. We went to one of the demonstrations. Not after the riots started, of course, that would be crazy. Before the violence. It was a student demonstration. So many young people.’

‘Five cents incident?’

‘The Star Ferry increased their rates by five cents. It was a big deal then. People still lived in wooden huts. The British were fat and the Hong Kong people were hungry. It was pointless, of course. Rates increased anyway…’ Maa’s voice faded and her grip on Po Lin’s
hand weakened.

‘Do you want some water, Maa?’ Po Lin asked. Maa’s right eye wavered and refocused.

‘What are they demonstrating for?’

‘Universal suffrage.’

‘Universal suffrage,’ Maa repeated.

Po Lin could not resist the urge to tell her everything.

‘Wing is there, too, at the protests, and I can’t do anything about it.’ Her voice faltered and she could not hold back her tears. ‘I’m so sorry, Maa.’

‘Why are you sorry, silly girl?’

‘I didn’t want to tell you about Wing, I didn’t want you to worry. I shouldn’t have shown you the news either, it’s too depressing about Hong Kong. You should be resting, not worrying.’

‘Aa Lin, you worry too much. Wing’s a big boy now. It’s good to fight sometimes. And Hong Kong, it will survive as it has done many times over. Things take their natural course. You will see.’

‘Aa Go says it’s all pointless.’

‘Maybe he’s right and maybe it is, but you never know. Sometimes you have to fight, sometimes you have to let things go.’

‘How do you know the difference?’

‘You won’t until you try.’

‘I’m not ready, Maa.’

‘It’s okay, daughter. You don’t have to be.’

They were silent for a few moments. Then Po Lin whispered, her voice trembling, ‘Are you ready, Maa?’

‘Aa Lin, Maa has been ready for a long time now.’ She squeezed Po Lin’s hand and added, ‘Maybe just a little water.’

Po Lin raised the straw to Maa’s lips. After a few shallow sips, Maa closed her eyes and said, ‘Wake me for the evening news.’ She cleared her throat twice, and then she was still.

Po Lin set the cup down and laid her head on the bed, cradling her cheek in her mother’s warm palm. Alternating shadows across the faded hospital sheets mirrored the movement of unseen clouds above. Beyond the glass all she could see was a tree-covered mountainside. At first, there seemed to be nothing hidden in the thick foliage, but after her eyes adjusted, she could make out a narrow path leading upwards to a small, obscure structure. A shelter, a shrine, or just a concrete block – there was no way to know from a distance. She closed her eyes and listened to her mother’s respiration, counting each breath until finally succumbing to sleep.


From Griffith Review Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review