The Chief

Really sad news – Mr Kong next door is dying.

He’s the brother of this Mr Kong. For a short time when we moved in, we had a Kong brother on each side (as well as various Kong sons and nephews and daughters and grandchildren spread throughout the village). In fact this place is referred to sometimes as “Kong village”. The deceased Mr Kong was the father of the woman who accused me of strewing ripped-up disposable nappies about the common garden area in the village, and noted that the village used to be clean before we moved in. For the record.

For the past year, we’ve had the Kong widow on one side, and her brother- and sister-in-law, the other Mr and Mrs Kong – subject of this post and clearly the matriarch and patriarch of the clan – on the other. But it seems that soon we’ll have a Kong widow on each side.

The Mr Kong who is gravely ill right now has been a wonderful, if somewhat mysterious, incidental part of our lives here. Until he really deteriorated about two months ago, he followed a predictable routine. Despite being possessed of the fragility of most people his age, he would leave the house early each morning in one of his many bespoke three-piece suits. This is the best-dressed octogenarian you’ve ever seen. He always carried a carved, polished walking stick and you get the feeling he would have carried it even when his legs were strong, when he was an imposing village chief sorting people’s shit out, and providing for eight children.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a taxi to come up to our village, but Mr Kong could always summon one, and he’d allow you to catch a ride with him if he saw you. I’ve always been desperate to see what business he actually had to transact in Sai Kung all day, but he always alighted the taxi in the temple carpark and disappeared into the Old Town and even if I could maintain an elaborate cover, it’s not my style to follow old guys around the place. I’m just too lazy. Even if the target is topping out at a speed of 500m per hour. And also, in that part of town, far too conspicuous.

One day when I was in town with the kids we saw him at the big rotunda in the centre square that’s basically there for the old people to sit out under. There’s “exercise machines” and so on for them there, and benches and shelter, and they can watch the kids playing in the Man Yee playground and I guess incredulate at the gweilos eating SANDWICHES(!) from Classified.

I was disappointed to see him at the rotunda, I have to be honest. Joel and I had been harbouring thoughts that he possibly had Triad connections. Certainly he commands immense respect from everyone we’ve ever seen him interact with. Could it be that he simply caught a taxi to the temple car park every day, shuffled through the Old Town for an hour on a wobbly circuit back to the square, and then sat under the rotunda playing mahjong with his mates before returning home in the early evening, like a regular retired person?  It seems impossible – but could it be?

We live very close together. Only about a metre separates our houses, and we share a common front tiled area where the kids ride their bikes. Both houses have flimsy gauze curtains so we can see straight into their place as they sit down to dinner in front of their shrine, with its red light, candles and oranges. They have enlarged family photos all over their walls, and they watch Chinese game shows on TV. If they didn’t probably have cataracts, and they looked into our place, they’d see us sitting down to our dinner in front of Rufus’s artwork, and photos of our family, and sometimes we watch Disney Junior in Chinese. Our lives are so different and so the same. Also we all hang our jox out to dry on poles out the front, which necessarily creates a certain affinity.

(But as much as we ever manage to assimilate, we will never salt fish and hang it from strings for four months outside the front door. Never.)

Mr Kong often knocked on our loungeroom window when he arrived home in the evening, with a guttural call of “Boy…boy! Boy!” He loves Rufus in the way that all Chinese people of his generation (and, to be honest, more recent ones) admire a large healthy first-born son, and gave him a pat on the head and a couple of bananas from his fruit bowl after Rufus would go outside in response to his summons. He likes Zadie too, but not as much as he likes Rufus – and not as much as Mrs Kong likes Zadie, which is beautifully fair. When Zadie is playing outside, Mrs Kong trails after her mumbling “Moi moi! Moi moi ah!” (“little sister”, but kind of used for “little girl”). It’s Mrs Kong’s style to give the kids big fresh oranges, not bananas. Between the two of them, our kids have done very well in the free fruit game.

One of my biggest motivators for trying to learn as much Cantonese as I could as quickly as possible was to communicate with the Kongs. I was very proud earlier this year when I managed to tell Mr Kong that the Filipina girls running around the lower terrace of the village were the daughters of the helper from a particular house. Very proud. I’ve had less success with Mrs Kong, but I think I’m battling deafness there (beyond my extraordinarily nervous and bumbling pronunciation).

But I may have spoken my last “Cantonese” to Mr Kong. He was taken away by an ambulance three weeks ago, to Tseung Kwan O Hospital, and hasn’t been home since.

His family have started arriving from the mainland, and from England and Wales, to say goodbye. I’ve befriended Annie, one of the Kong grandchildren who’s about my age, and what a GIFT to be able to finally find out about their lives. Annie told me that Mr Kong was born in our village, in this now-abandoned house.

At some point he moved next door to this (also now-abandoned) house:
And then finally to the house we’ve always known him in.  The three houses he’s lived in are all side by side.  Imagine being able to walk your own chronology like that.  Each house is a preserved representation of its era.  This is living history right here. Obviously this village wasn’t always as populated as it is now, with new enclaves springing up all around the bottom of “our” hill.  The path that we walk down to Sai Kung used to be the only access for the village – I guess they didn’t build the road until the late ’70s or early ’80s?  So Mr Kong must have walked that path 50,000 times in his life (actual conservative estimation).  It’s a narrow path, only wide enough for one person, so before the road was built the villagers must have had to build all their own furniture up here.  I know they were self-sufficient because there’s vegie patches and huge fruit trees behind our house (currently occupied by screeching MONKEYS – not my children, actual primates – but that’s for another post).  And Annie tells me that, in another blow for our fantasy about Mr Kong’s imagined Triad activities, he was actually a rice farmer.  The carpark and, beyond it, the next village – a recent one, popping up in the last 20 years – used to be rice paddies.  Mr Kong grew a Japanese variety noted for its large robust grains, which he could trade in for a greater amount of the inferior smaller-grained Chinese rice.  In that way he was able to support his four sons and four daughters, and his wife, Mrs Kong, originally Miss Li of Wong Chuk Wan village a little bit up the road that winds up to the Ma On Shan peak. Apparently now Mr Kong is intubated and on a feeding tube.  He asks that his family not bring Mrs Kong in to see him very often.  She’s been in three times in the three weeks he’s been in hospital.  She spends a lot of the rest of the time wandering in front of her house and weeping.  It’s heartbreaking and I want her to be able to see him again.  The other Mrs Kong, widowed last year and the only one who can really understand what it’s like to face the loss of your love of 70 years, goes over after dinner and they play mahjong together very slowly.  Their games go well into the night.  I can see them through the curtain right now, as I sit here on the couch, and it’s 11.45pm.
I asked my Cantonese teacher what to do when Mr Kong dies.  We had just moved in when the other Mr Kong died and only met him once, and while his funeral was fascinating to us, we felt any gesture of commiseration would inevitably be contextually inappropriate.  But this Mr Kong, he’s been a friend to our children and a daily presence in our lives.  He’s the most dignified personage I’ve come across in my life.  Right up until the last time we saw him, he refused any assistance carrying shopping bags or climbing up the steps to our house.  He has been the chief of this village, he owns nearly every house in it, he doesn’t need some young gweipo upstart helping him with his bag of choy – even when he really, really does.  Annie told me the chieftainship rotates between the remaining sons now, but it’s obvious to all that Mr Kong is the real chief…and I do have a sense of losing a leader of this little community that we are trying to understand and be a part of.

The gentle kindness of Mrs Kong inspires Rufus to pick flowers for her (admittedly from her own garden), and Zadie to blow kisses to her as she babbles gently at them in a language they can’t understand.  I feel an almost grand-daughterly affection for her and a need to show her our love and respect appropriately when she’s alone for the first time in seven decades.

Catherine, my Cantonese teacher, said that when the time comes, sending white lilies is good.  And you also give $101 or $1001.  The family of the deceased then return the $1 to you in a hong bao (red envelope) that also contains a sweet.  The $1 by itself indicates that “things come in ones”.  You eat the sweet and spend the $1, and dispose of the hong bao, and then death will pass you by.  I think that’s the gist of it.  Please, potential Hong Kong readers, don’t disabuse of me this if it’s not true because I’m feeling kinda sad and the idea of that little ritual is bringing a touch of sweetness.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Rhi says:

    Aw, that’s sad.
    Wish we had neighbours like that (well, apart from the stinky fish bit).

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