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.
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.