Death rites separate us from the beasts, but this is just a baseline. I've always been fascinated by the ritual framework different cultures build around death, some to name and embrace, others to elide and avoid.
From an early age, I knew that the Hong Kong Chinese were firmly in the latter camp. We were taught to not attend any funerals unnecessarily.
"How well do you know them?" my mother would ask. "It's better to avoid places like this when possible."
And when we did go to funerals, everyone was given a dollar in an envelope afterward and admonished to buy some candy. The sweetness would cleanse you of the brush with death at the funeral.
I knew it wasn't just my family that respected the taboo. People in Chinatown are scandalized when someone speaks too lightly of death.
"大吉利是" (dai guk lai see - "Great luck and red envelopes!") is uttered in an ironic "touch wood" response. It isn't good to speak aloud of bad things.
My grandmother passed away almost two years ago. She had lived in Chinatown for the last few decades of her adult life. Born in 1923 as the youngest daughter of a family in Nijiapu village in Zhejiang, she followed my grandfather to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and then finally across the Pacific Ocean.
I actually thought of my grandmother at Mei Ling Lee's last piece. Liminal Space/Crossings brought home how often she and I would crisscross Ross Alley. I'd see her across the bustle, and her eyes would light up. She was old-fashioned, there is no dignity in hugging. I would greet her loudly, she would nod back.
The day that I came across Liminal Space/Crossings, it was lightly drizzling. Tourists were sparse, and I waited outside Golden Gate Fortune Cookie, smelling the vanilla in the air. The ocean lights played across the mist, and suddenly the clouds parted and you could smell the petrichor rise from the sidewalk.
As an immigration lawyer at Asian Law Caucus, I often meet people who have just come to Chinatown from Hong Kong or Guangzhou province. I help them get settled, fill out paperwork that will take years to go through, but the wait is all worth it for the day when their application is approved.
Clients bring us their letters as soon as they get them, each time hoping the letter that they cannot read because English is not yet familiar is the one that will mean reunion, a new beginning.
I decided to not use my flashlight. As the only person in the galleries, I took my time. My eyes adjusted, and the billowing fabric came into focus.
Then the ash outlines appeared, memories of buildings. Peranakan archways swam into view, and in the second room, a song started fitfully, murmurs that calmed you.
I later read it is Pie Jesu, a composition for erhu and cello from Gabriel Fauré’s mass Requiem, op. 48.
The lines end with a send off, dona eis requiem (may they rest in peace).
In the final room of Requiem, you're faced with the soul summoning box itself (魂想曲 - wan soeng kuk). The top is torn open, it is empty; more accurately, it was never full.
A third of the families had returned untouched boxes to Hong Kong, transporting no weight, but still helping their loved one return home.
I was born in Hong Kong and have lived in San Francisco since age 3, but Tung Wah Hospital is still a name I know. I had no idea they were involved with the repatriation of bones, much less a symbolic return if no physical remains are possible.
On a crisp Sunday in April of last year, I rode in the open back of an limousine rolling slowly down Stockton Street, holding an easel with an enormous photo of my grandmother. She was going to travel through Chinatown one last time.
We throw stacks of grainy ghost money into the wind so they can reach her, and I burn her all she'll need to be comfortable. It's a transmutation as well, physical to metaphysical.
I return the flashlight, and emerge into the sunlight. Accustomed to the still of Requiem, Chinatown's bustle washes over me as I pass back over the tiled bridge.
The click of Chinese chess pieces being placed, the smell of wok-tossed noodles.
I sit in the sun and watch the people swirl through Portsmouth.