Posted on April 27, 2018
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.
Posted on April 26, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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?
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.
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.
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 strong smell of shrimp paste, dried fish and scallops fill the air and tell me a story I cannot quite remember.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Posted on October 5, 2014
Upon first glance, the sight of demonstrations in Hong Kong is enough to take the breath away: another crystallizing moment in the territory’s rich history. It is a beautiful thing to see; young and old united for a cause…especially one important as democracy and freedom.
Yet like Hong Kong history, the protests are just one of many layers of complexity.
There is a very symbiotic relationship between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong is, and will continue to be, the Jewel of China. Both sides have prospered and both sides have benefitted, at times, in spite of each other.
With passions riding high in the territory, both sides can ill afford to miscalculate. Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung and the Chief of Police found that out early Monday morning (29-Sep), with their infamous use of tear gas.
Hong Kong has never had a true democracy. Under British rule, Hong Kong was far away from a democracy.
One of the lesser-known stories about the handover is that the Chinese government were the ones to initially introduced the idea of democracy to Hong Kong. This is where the complexities arise.
In 1990 when democracy became part of the Basic Law (The HK Constitution), spelling out that the Chief Executive would be elected by universal suffrage – it also contained the slightly ambiguous statement “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
There is a very fine line being walked on both sides right now.
The issue in Hong Kong is that as China’s power and wealth has grown; there is this slight feeling that Hong Kong’s freedoms and liberties are slowly being compromised. This is a major concern. Yes, the strings being pulled originates from Beijing, but is this why Hong Kong should be worried?
Beijing is not the enemy; the enemies are the Hong Kong leaders who are willing sell out the soul of the city for the right price, forgetting their roots.
C.Y. Leung this is on you and your team.
Amid the passion and fear within the protest, it is possible for Hong Kong and China to have a tenuous but harmonious relationship. Basically the same one it has had for almost two centuries.
But to have this, Hong Kong needs true leaders. In the hearts of the majority in Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung has done irreparable damage and can no longer lead effectively.
It is also time for Hong Kong leaders to look in the mirror. Do you see in yourself the disgrace of the Chief of Police who reverted to the use of tear gas and riot police on that fateful Sunday night on 28-Sep? The night that tore at the hearts of the people of Hong Kong? If so, please leave.
For the people who built Hong Kong and through their sweat, tears and toil to make it into the greatest city in the WORLD, they deserve better.
People like C.Y. Leung and business leaders who are pro-Beijing for the sole/soul purpose of making obscene profits are our real enemy. I use the word “our” with pride, as a decade ago when I collected my Permanent Resident HK ID Card it was an amazing feeling; a feeling similar with the pride I feel today wearing my black shirt and yellow ribbon signifying voices need to be heard.
PEACE is the word. It is what the protesters want, it is what the people want.
To the student leader, Joshua Wong: from all accounts, you are brave and brilliant as a co-leader of this movement. It is important to listen to all voices in Hong Kong. Change needs to happen in peace.
You showed your age of seventeen when suggesting breaking into and occupying the Government Offices. I am grateful you stopped, listened to those with experience.
My hope is the people around C.Y. Leung can talk similar sense into him, and he will be a true leader and listen…and understand he needs to bravely vanquish his office.
World governments will continue their politics as usual, with satirist Stephen Colbert of the USA perhaps making the most astute political comment about the protests:“Think hard, China. You can either crush these protesters under your heel, or you can give them the rights you promised them, because whichever choice you make, America will still do business with you.” ~ Stephen Colbert
This is the harsh reality, even with the people of the world taking heart in the message, the spirit and voices of Hong Kong.
In the end, the outcome is up to the people of this territory. It is up to the leaders of Hong Kong to find their courage, to be the True Patriots they signed up to be. It is up to the protesters on the streets, and the people who are shaken by what is developing here.
For the leaders of Hong Kong, it is time to be the brave heroes that you can be. To follow your Hong Kong ancestors: be authentic like your Hong Kong sons/brothers & daughters/sisters who look to you for guidance.Hong Kong is united, The People’s voice has spoken… Voices will be heard, Their hearts remain unbroken.
For all leaders of Hong Kong, it should not be a secret now: Hong Kong needs democratic realists not dreamers. Leaders who understand the situation, and not those who spew rhetoric. Extremists on both sides do nothing but hurt Hong Kong.
Do not fight with Beijing just because “they are Beijing.” Instead fight for the betterment of Hong Kong, this is our problem, let’s resolve it.
It is true that protesters are on edge right now. Increased skirmishes and frustrated residents along with typical political tactics on both sides will continue to test these protesters.
Have heart. We are with you.
The greatest hope for all: the only tears to be shed will be those of happiness.
Posted on September 30, 2014
There are days where no matter how I get out of bed, every side is the wrong side.
Days where the dreary drone of jumbled words fill the mind and accompanies me as I sleep walk through the day. A day, regardless of what my calendar tells me, is a week of full of Monday mornings.
Since returning to Hong Kong last week, my typical day has been where eyes half-closed and stumbling toward the bathroom, the corner of the bed is somehow sticking out a ½ inch further than it normally does…and bam.
The day has me defeated within the first minute of waking.
Of course, when such days arrive, the first thought that comes to mind is that amused one we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another: “why even venture further, just turn around and go back to bed.”
But it is always the second thought that keeps me moving: “Coffee…”
That first sip is usually what I need to get me out the door, and while I bumble and laugh myself through the day, I know such strangeness will be over when I crawl back in bed and travel to dreamland…
The minute I close my eyes, I consider it a start of a new day and there is nothing like a great dream for it to begin anew.
Now, if I had the power to control the plot of my dreams I would have to say the above quote comes pretty close to how I’d like mine to flow. A dream where I am a carefree spirit, loving the simple things and able to enjoy this realm where I can feel the pulse of life.
My dream takes me to a place in Hunan Province…among the TuJia minority, people after my own heart as their focus is on music, dancing and their wine: a culture similar in many ways to the spirit of the West. Relying on the trust and joy of friends and family, finding what is needed from the land and life so they can share their joy.
While in Hunan, I met up with a group of friends who perform shows about their TuJia minority culture. One night at dinner, among all the stories being passed around was the one where the leader of the troupe is given a hard time because he married “very late” at the age of 31 years old.
His reason was simple: “I couldn’t sing well enough…so no girl wanted me” and with his laughter he started the clashing of glasses of homemade moonshine…and looked at me smiling saying “really it is true!” beside him his wife smiling, nodded her head vigorously in agreement.
Nothing quite like Hunan spices and homemade firewater to wake-up the senses.
Waking up the senses. Feeling the Pulse of Life. The remedy for this dreary feeling I’ve had since returning to Hong Kong is one I have used before: simply sit back, become entranced and Let The Show Begin…
Watching the performance of my friends was simply mesmerizing. It is as if I stole a bit of their adrenaline in each act…and feel a bit guilty at this theft, but it is the good kind of guilt. For their gift to us all is an abundance of adrenaline and inspiration out there for all to take.
The feeling, the dream and dance, it is brilliant and a bit addicting.
There is a saying within the TuJia culture that goes something like this: “only through music and dance can one run away without leaving home.” Which perhaps explains why the people remain so close-knit, and why there is such incredible madness and passion when they perform.
Hunan, famous for their spices and hospitality, and the Tujia people whose culture encapsulates the carefree spirit of dreams and desires.
As I exit the show within my dream, the cool, crisp air of the morning greets me and gives me a deserved slap in the face. With the potential of the day ahead, and I’m ready to experience the best of Hong Kong and China.
My shorts and t-shirt once again have to be replaced with a more sensible business attire, but on the inside, the youthful spirit is back to see what else the world can bring.
Dreams are what we need to re-energize and understand that we’d be foolish not to enjoy the good things life throws our way. “Wine, women and song” is the simple thought the spirit of life brings to remind us who we are.
Here in Hong Kong, the hard work and dedication of its population to build a great life is the focus, but every now and then it is necessary to reassess where we are and pursue the freedom that life beckons. It is that jolt we sometimes need; a dream that jolts us awake as we fall, guaranteeing there will never be a dull moment.
The unconscious performer, lost in dream and taking us along for the inspirational ride.
Youthful spirits taking up a cause only their idealistic minds can fully understand… and it is more than just a performance, it is the essence of life.
Creativity is at the core of us all, and it is the mind of the young which allow us to evolve and build a better place.
Better for ourselves, for our family and for our friends.
There simply is not a better way to live than with happiness in our hearts, and when that inevitable day comes where it feels like nothing is going right, step inside a live performance and get lost.
Find again that fury which is the pulse of life.
Posted on November 28, 2013
For me, it is the memory of crawling out of bed for the pre-dawn hunt, returning home to the aroma of love via my mom’s baking and preparation of a meal that could last a lifetime… All together it makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday of the year.
Strange thing is, I have not had such experiences in almost two decades as work and logistics never quite synchronized, thus keeping me in Asia.
Yet, sitting here in my Hong Kong flat once again reminiscing about the Thanksgiving holiday, I could not feel any better.
The beginning of the holiday season is always accompanied with a feeling of wonder, reminding me we all have a lot to be thankful for: memories of the past, moments of the present and thoughts of the future.
While enjoying this holiday in Hong Kong, it is true that distance makes the heart grow fonder and the memories made, more sweet. While the spirit of the holiday season will always rest in the ‘Pendleton dreams’ I have, there have been enough Thanksgivings out here in HK to have their own place in my memory.
Looking around Hong Kong, I see how my years here have accumulated…and what this city means to me.
The first impressions of glistening skyscrapers, hustle and bustle of designer suits and beauty of the Hong Kong life is what initially captured my imagination. It was invigorating and I vowed to “own part of this city”; to have it become part of me.
The city did become a part of me, but not in the way I initially imagined. The outlying islands, the peaceful nature of the water and the wonderful people I have met made it home, and make me thankful.
Watching pieces of Hong Kong history mingle with the modern society that engulfs life here in the Fragrant Harbor (香港) continues to fascinate me.
The other day, I went down to the southern end of Hong Kong Island, to the Aberdeen district, a vibrant fishing village that in the 19th century was one of the pillars of the Hong Kong economy. Today Aberdeen still holds around 600 junks and boats, many still acting as homes for families who have lived there for generations.
The life of a fisherman has always been romanticized for me, from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to my adventures as a kid. This makes the walk along the boardwalk and through the Aberdeen fish market a bit surreal…
While Aberdeen is more commercial than it has been in the past, there is no denying the strong spirit of this place: a holder of secrets of fishing life & lore of the city.
While walking around, I met Mr. Lam who agreed to take me on his skiff out past the mouth of the Aberdeen Harbor so I could photograph the sunset. During the ride out, he told me how his father & grandfather spent their lives fishing and living on their boat in Aberdeen Harbor. He loves the place, and while he spent some time in this industry, he seldom goes out any more.
“In the past, my Grandparents would begin their day much earlier than we do…as we are spoiled by use of electricity and motorized boats. They had it simple back then…but I guess simple also means more difficult if you think about it in today’s terms.”
His discussion stretched over generations, and he was clearly proud of his parents and grandparents who created this iconic part of Hong Kong folklore. Reflecting on his life during the drive out, he proudly spoke of his daughter, how she attends an international school and describing her as a bridge between the old of Hong Kong and the generation of her grandparents versus the new Hong Kong and limitless opportunities waiting ahead for her.
“She is going to look back at Aberdeen her whole life and remember where we came from, and she will be proud.” He smiled.
As we headed back to Aberdeen, we talked about how quickly Hong Kong changes, a perpetual cycle of adapting to the new and modern. He added something that I think personifies the culture in large Chinese cities:
“It is a little strange, but my first real dream was to own a ‘beeper’ in the early 90’s…I figured that would mean I had made it.” He laughed loudly at that thought, and added “of course by the time I had a beeper, everyone had a mobile phone…I guess I should have dreamed bigger, huh?”
That is when I realized no matter where or who we are, people are always chasing a dream…and it isn’t the actual dream that matters, but the path taken from the moment the dream is dreamt until it is realized.
Through his words, it was clear that Mr. Lam was thankful of how his life has worked out:
While the modern skyscrapers and seductive beat of the city gives Hong Kong the aura it is famous for, it is only a slice of Hong Kong. The food stalls, life on the water, the hills and sea are the pieces of the city that hold the true spirit and culture of the locals. It has become a home. A place where many answers lie…and for that I am thankful.
Hong Kong reminds me of Pendleton, which when considering my hometown’s population is only 16,000 (on a good day), it seems silly. But in my mind it does.
I think back to the words of the fisherman about his daughter: “She is going to look back at Aberdeen her whole life and remember where she came from, and she will be proud.”
For me, those simple words sum up Thanksgiving: to be thankful for what we have, and for what is possible and to all those who have helped along the way.