Alex Kuo: Bitter Melons
Trans-Pacific writer and photographer Alex Kuo’s most recent books are White Jade and Other Stories, and Panda Diaries. His Lipstick and Other Stories won the American Book Award, and recently he received received the Alumni Achievement award from Knox College.
for PK Leung
Sixty years ago this was my universe where I lived and played, mostly by myself. Now I was back as an impatient and sweaty tourist from another postcolonial country some three thousand miles away bursting in air, as if I were late for a meeting, a bumpy voice recorder hitched to my waist. Despite the massive land use alterations resulting from the political reclamation and entrepreneurial ventures, actually I knew exactly where I was, headed home by a series of diagonal crossings and trespassing shortcuts. Or more correctly, where home was, in the last apartment building on that hill, there on a short street ending at the backside of the Royal Observatory where its seasonal typhoon signals were visible to every mariner in the harbor of this crown colony under King George VII, Number Ten being the severest.
Most of the old buildings had disappeared, and the vegetation as well, including the expansive banyan trees, now replaced by an occasional bauhinia bush planted to reverse the racial and political hegemony. Though I may not have known exactly who I was at that jostled moment, I knew precisely where I was in time, and I was in a hurry. Here, the Chanticleer bakery with its fresh, creamy napoleons—across the street from the Argyll Highlanders and the most-feared Royal Gurkha Rifles garrison—next the comic book and film magazine stand, both temptations on the walk home from the Immaculate Conception elementary school where I learned to tuck slide into second base, demonstrated one recess by an eager Canadian nun in flowing white habit.
Here the trek was interrupted by a residential development of infinite small houses, each with its narrow stone steps leading to doors of equally colorless homes, except for their sky-blue trim. Several men suddenly appeared, including one who looked Indian with a full turban, even when his skin was too light. They wanted to know what I was looking for, Torpedo Alley, they called their neighborhood in Chinese without smiling. But I knew better, they were fooling me, looking at the harbor some two hundred feet in elevation below us. It was clear they did not want me there, now as well as sixty years ago. So I explained that as a writer I was not balanced, I had just lost my way to the ferry terminal. The Indian or Pakistani man said he understood, since his wife was also a writer, of novels, he said, his eyes still a patch of doubt, and pointed, downhill first, then to the right.
Clutching my recorder then, I went downhill first, but once out of their sight around the next corner, I turned onto a muddy field where several pages were missing. Gone were the small houses and concrete sidewalk. Instead, sparse vegetable plots garnished the landscape from edge to edge. Two men in their thirties came up from one of them, though I knew they were really in their eighties, because as witness I could identify them, coming around every afternoon collecting metal, glass or paper they’d sell for recycling, rain or shine.
One of them pointed down to a row of garlic stems by his feet and said it was his. He directed his finger to the next row and said these fat cabbages were his friend’s. Then he said the last row of tiny, dark green bitter melons belonged to both of them, tendered most carefully, even in the wet and windy summer typhoon season, to keep them from rotting, he added at the end as I continued downhill to the ferry terminal.
By this time the men from Torpedo Alley had caught up with me and my transformational tricks in hallucination or dream. Like their security predecessors, they scolded me and escorted me to the gate, just when I was perfectly balanced on a high banyan limb. I used to live near here, some sixty years ago, I was sure of it.
Look here, at the Star Ferry terminal then, I skipped the Morning Star and the Meridian Star and waited for the Celestial Star for the crossing. In my hands the recorder clutched the words to the missing pages that I call home.