The Boy From Po Toi

Echoes of a ghost?  Of the future?  Of the past?

There is a feeling of perplexity.  I’m no longer standing in the conference room on the top floor of a skyscraper.  There are no floor-to-ceiling windows with Hong Kong harbor far below.  And my Armani suit?  Transformed into what appears to be rags.     

There is panic, but also familiarity.  I look down at my hands holding huge buckets of supplies, filled to the brim; shocked to learn I can hold so much.  My first instinct is to drop the buckets, must be too heavy but the weight is electric. My arms and shoulders are full of life.

I let out a lighthearted sigh. I’m not sure what I am doing but it feels right.

Beside me, the sea glimmers with life while the sun prepares for another colorful dive to end the day. I’d like nothing better than to sit peacefully and watch her.  How is it I am here?

I recognize this world.  This body.  My blood, powered by a slow heartbeat flowing briskly with purpose.  I lift a bucket up towards my face without effort, ignoring the pungent fish odor.  The power of my arms makes me smile.  Damn, I feel good.   Am I dreaming?

The smell of the sea vanishes, replaced by the scent of the exotic. My heart races.  Ms. Laura walks my way, pausing as she looks at my hands ~ ha, perhaps it’s my powerful arms?  She blushes, smiles, and quickly looks away.

Her dress, beautiful and modest, does not belong here. We are a fishing village; well-worn clothes are all we own.  It finally dawns on me.  This is no dream.  I am a man of the sea, she is not.  I speak the Hakka dialect, a little Cantonese, and zero English.

“Did you enjoy class today?”  Ms. Laura asks very slowly, enunciating every syllable, her British accent snaps me to attention.

My mind spins with answers.  I understand her English words but my voice cannot be found. With a red face, I spew out a reply in my unintelligible Hakka dialect.

She laughs. “You need to study harder, or could it be you need a different teacher?!?”  I look at her in fear, a little slow getting her joke before she reassures me and puts her hand on my shoulder, resting it longer than one would consider normal.  I relax. Her touch transports me to another world.

A world where we are together, she’s my wife in total happiness. Quickly the dream fades with the chuckle from my fishing partner, Xiao Gao.  He grabs a bucket and loads it onto our skiff and without skipping a beat says, in a rough Hakka tone, “Rui-de, you’ve attended her class all year, yet you cannot speak one word of English,”  his infectious laughter inspires others to join in.

“She is so perfect…” my face still burning, I let my words trail.

Sometimes I’d like to just fly away, I think to myself. Escape into my dreams and chase the world. But then all I have to do is look around.  Everything I want is here.

My mind begins doing battle with my memory.  Somewhere, I know her.  I’ve talked with her.  I’ve been with her.  But I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection on the water and I laugh a bit at the thought.

Me.  A simple Po Toi Island boy.

The blast of the horn signals the departure of the Po Toi ferry back to Hong Kong Island and the wealthy Stanley village. We are cut off again from the outside world until its return.

Three times a week this picturesque lady arrives in Po Toi to teach English to our dwindling population. Most of my friends have already left to seek a better life.  For me, though, Po Toi is my home.

Well, the sea is my home, Po Toi the place where I have the greatest access.

Another great ending to the day.  Ms. Laura takes her position alone at the stern of the ferry and our eyes lock, my favorite part of her visits.

With the sun gently reflecting off her golden hair, framing the picture of perfection, she looks over her shoulder to see if anyone is watching and then turns back and brings her fingers to her lips and waves me goodbye.

It is a goodbye with hope.  Recognition of yuan-fen (缘分).  The moment in time where our destinies align and we become what we are meant to be.

The changing reality of what “can be” sends my heart pounding to the beat of the surf.  The world once again has meaning.  I step onto the skiff and head out to the deeper waters to chase my living.  Chase my dream.

The sea knows my soul. The sea is my soul. Nevertheless, it is possible there is something else out there for me as well. My mind and memory once again run wild to find her, to find our future.

The Ghosts of Tai O

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-1

Stepping out onto the verandah, a strong feeling of déjà vu sweeps over me. I breathe in the early morning air of the sleepy fishing village of Tai O, the sound of the water inviting me out to explore.

The purity of silence only a pre-dawn sky can provide, accompanies me as I walk down a path toward the shore of the South China Sea.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-2

A restless purr of a yellow cat holding sentry duty catches my attention, she gives me a quick look-over before closing her eyes and nodding approval to pass.

Clearing the path, I continue down along the shore of the Tai O Heritage Hotel.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-3

Sleep last night was worthless. The building kept whispering stories and secrets to me from a century long ago.  Words with a personal ring, the whispers of long-lost friends.

My mind races at the possibilities, whether I am a dreamer caught up in a turn-of-the-century drama, or whether the history of this place holds a reality I am now just becoming aware.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-4

Standing on the shore, I expected to see a fleet of Chinese junks flying the flag of a renegade pirate; a flag supposedly designed by myself. To my relief the shore is empty and I chuckle at the thought of what I would have done if it wasn’t.

My dreams of the night, vivid creations of the rich history of this place.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-5

Crouching down, I pick up a stone and toss it out into the water as I hear a faint foghorn of a ship out on the horizon. I have finally made it to one of the oldest and most secluded areas of Hong Kong.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong almost two decades ago I had targeted this fishing village to be one of my first adventures, but time and life got in the way.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-6

She is an old fishing village, one that has definitely seen better days.  Today Tai O is more of a hangout for older people in their 70s, desperately holding onto the good life of saltwater and the sea.

Younger souls fresh in their 20s and 30s are also around, looking lost amid a modern world that has little room for the craftsmanship of fishermen.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-7

Above me is the old police station, an outpost of the Hong Kong and British maritime police, where officers actively protected these shores from centuries of pirates and smuggling.

Stories that fueled the dreams from last night, still reverberating in my mind as I begin walking down the road ~ returning to a place I have long forgotten.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-8

Less than twelve hours ago, Tai O was just a figment of my imagination, a chaotic myth of the old days of Hong Kong. I now find myself walking effortlessly under an early morning sky as if I were born on these streets.

I walk with purpose, with an understanding of what I am looking for even though my mind is filled with confusion.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-9

The memories are fresh. The old stilt houses, the planks leading from one neighbor to another and the wild activity that made up a day.

Blurred images of friends laughing and enjoying the serene atmosphere of the night, forgetting the dangers that filled our hearts every evening as we’d head out to sea for work.

Work. Not quite the type of work that would make most families proud, but work nonetheless.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-10

The police station in Tai O is no longer here, having shut down over fifteen years ago, but the building still stands just as it did when built by the British in 1902.  Now a beautiful building, fitted out by the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation to become the Tai O Heritage Hotel.

I smile at the thought that at least I have a more comfortable bed than those who spent a night in the holding cell a century ago.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-11

The building was home to one of the territories first colonial police stations guarding the western border between Hong Kong and China, and holding pieces of history that are now all but forgotten.

Reflecting back on the dream that woke me during the night, I wonder if it is a reminder of the role I filled as a noble Hong Kong policeman serving this village more than a century ago?

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The answer to this question is obvious to me, as the sense of nostalgia tells me this definitely was not the case. I was living a darker, very different life.

I realized this the minute I arrived at the hotel. The electricity I felt as my fingers brushed over the nine bullet holes embedded into the security shutters on the main floor of the hotel, telling me this was not just a chance meeting in Tai O.

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I admire the historians and renovators who kept the original shutters, damaged and scarred but holding a place in time at the police station. Trapping the memories of those days gone by.

Years earlier, there was another piece of violence all but forgotten.  A firefight on these shores more than one hundred years ago.  Faded shots and screams still echoing in the air.  The ghosts, waiting for my return, now stand alongside me as I walk these streets. The voices of my dreams earlier tonight are with me once again.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-14

I weave through the different paths, looking around aimlessly for something I once called home.   Familiarity is all around me, but I am very out-of-place.

There is an urge for me to call out names and shout good morning in a strange Chinese dialect I have never heard before, much less spoken.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-15

  • The water.
  • The houses.
  • The sea.

The strong smell of shrimp paste, dried fish and scallops fill the air and tell me a story I cannot quite remember.

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I am trapped in a time and place, where there isn’t a clear definition between good and bad. Where answering the question of how to make a living was never considered. Just one path, one fate.

A life, where evolution of the soul and mind did not come easy, if at all, unlike the freedoms I have today.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-17

Caught up in the spirit of adventure on the South China Sea; a pirate’s life.  A fantasy of many young kids growing up in those days.  Romanticizing life in way only a child can, inevitably to be disappointed in its reality.

Decisions made from necessity, poorly thought out and running with a band of marauders between Tai O and Mainland China, a life of survival with no way out.

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The excitement of the chase, the beauty of the culture and memories of her many smiles, all combine to justify the clash between lifestyle and philosophy.  The stories and secrets whisper to me yet again.

Words that did not make much sense back then, even less so now.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-19

The ending of this dream is not a surprising one. Over a century ago on these very shores, violence ended my story. The image strong in my mind.  Of myself, a dying man.

My final thoughts questioning if somewhere, somehow in another time or place I could have travelled down another road.

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History is this great mirror able to show us a different time, different place and different potential in us all as we find our way in life.

I see a faint image of a wife and child standing alone. A twinge of sorrow fills my heart, my eyes moving to a basket of dried shrimp she’s holding, igniting another memory from so long ago.  Their whispers silently fading away as they bid me adieu.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-23

We are all more alike than we could ever understand.  Rich or poor, young or old, the vast differences we see on the surface means nothing.

Build a life worth living, so when the inevitable day of death arrives, we know our life was one fully lived ~ a life worth dying for.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-20

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