July 2020 Unicorn Of The Month: Kwong Kwok Wai

Another wonderful soul I met in Vermont was Kwong aka Walter. I was sitting at the airport waiting for the shuttle to arrive and whisk me away into the Vermont wilderness when Walter sat down near me. By the hairstyles and the fashionable clothing, I was able to gather that most of the people in my area were artists and I assumed since Walter was sitting in the area he was an artist as well. I asked if he was waiting for the shuttle he said yes, then I introduced myself. He did the same and the conversation quickly turned to our disciplines and where we were from. When he said he was from Hong Kong, I immediately felt a surge of energy flow through me. When I informed him that I lived in the city of Foshan for a few years and frequented HK, he seemed to reciprocate my enthusiasm and we instantly bonded about the Guangdong region. 

During the course of the residency, to the astonishment of others, Walter and I sometimes spoke Mandarin. Or rather, I tried to remember my Mandarin and Walter was gracious enough to tolerate it. We laughed a lot during meals, an often conversed about politics in Southern Asian, in particular, democracy in Hong Kong, which at this present moment seems to be on its last legs. I miss the friends I made in Vermont, but I especially miss Walter. 

During our first night of presentations, Walter read this essay below. I feel it speaks to some of the sentiments that many Hong Kong people feel about their current lives; anxiety an uncertainty. As the mainland plays a bigger role in the lives of Hong Kong people, is their culture being replaced? Are they becoming more Chinese at the lose of their own, distinct HK identity? 

Blue-and-White Porcelain Bowl

Translated by Rachel Ng

Tao Tie (2019), 120 X 100 cm, oil on canvas

Maan, One
To construct, bowl by bowl, a city of one’s mind. Recalling Ah Yau’s words at the dai pai dong, images of blue and white florals, with their understated cerulean hue, began to slowly surface. Before this, my mind had been porcelain-white and void of thought. Painted in strokes alternately realistic and abstract, the florals depicted a metaphysical world. I remember sitting on the only bench at the dai pai dong, observing the blue and white designs from memory—simple and elegant; familiar but distant. I didn’t know how many years it’d been since I’ve last used this kind of bowl; the moment was stirring up in me faraway reveries, reveries about cultural artefacts. 

The blue and white florals were jagged, irregular—what must have held the brush wouldn’t have been a hand, but a tousled, determined mind, bursting to say something, to say it quickly, to paint it out before the thought slipped away from you, to record a time long-gone and the kind of life gone with it.

A flower blew in from the window, what a wonderful smell! A flower that was alive, one that could decay, a real flower. But wait, it couldn’t be real; no bloom could really be that fragrant. So fragrant, in fact, that it made the day seem so vibrant and beautiful, not unlike the feeling of falling head over heels in love. I tied my long hair in a ponytail, put on my backpack, and started hiking up the hill. The so-called flower—did I leave it in the house? Or was I just overthinking things? There were no flowers along the way, but the intoxicating smell permeated through the air, as though the fragrance of the bloom had stuck to my hand. The backpack was filled with his things: soap, change of clothes...it was breaking my back! I also had a small floral-patterned bowl inside—thinking about it, maybe in the rush of things, the bumpy hike had shattered it and released the scent within?

I took out a triangular piece of broken ceramic, which fit perfectly between my thumb and index finger. Being a fragment, only half of the blue-glazed flower was visible, but its bud was intact. The flat piece was wedged between my two digits, as though webbing had grown in-between. I brought it closer to my nose, sniffed it carefully, and sniffed again.

Yau, One

I was shrouded in darkness, the only audible sounds being a series of clinks, like porcelain pieces knocking against each other. Siu Maan used to say that she came often to this part of the hill when she was a child. The water mortars didn’t look like water mortars; there were only holes of sand. If she hadn’t repeatedly told me, it’d have been impossible to believe that this was once a watermill. Squatting down on the slope and staring aimlessly at this mountainous waste land, I didn’t have a single thought in my mind. Yet I was unable to find any peace. I’d left a message for the National Party last month but they never responded, not even a short message. But with how things had transpired, I didn’t know whether or not to hope for a response.

Should I hike up further? Would it give me more space and a better view? I would be able to see the lights at the edge of the city from afar, as well as the great railroads and highways stretching into the city centre. On the other side of the river would be the Mainland, with its even more extensive networks and infrastructure. All this, just to send a short message! No, I’d rather seek cover from the trees and bushes, and let the city lights get shrouded by the dark. I heard indistinct rumbling noises, perhaps musical notes left in my eardrum rather than the true rumble of a train engine. That music CD had been played so many times it was engraved in my mind. True, there shouldn’t have been a whisper of sound in an abandoned wilderness such as this. 

I needed to return to, to enter that realm of strong, spirited percussion, that realm of symbols; to leap up and ride on a musical note in flight; to escape the phenomenal world around me. Yet that hateful world kept calling me, calling me, imploring me to change it. 

How shameful.

How embarrassing.

I ran down the hill from the watermill, diving deep into the ominous darkness of the woods. Each step was taken with great force, so as to shatter that smash of ceramic tiles; with great force, so as to eliminate all traces of sound. No, not even a whisper of sound! In the darkness there seemed to be a spot of blue on a tree, while another one seemed tinged with red. As I walked deeper into the woods, the trees turned even more scarlet. This was no trompe l’oeil; but an unpeeling of the phenomenal world, an uncovering of the truth within. It had an indistinct sound of winding clockwork, a fascinating shade much like the redness underneath flesh and skin. I heard the sound of footsteps, as I turned around quickly in shock—oh!

It was Siu Maan, panting and out of breath, lying against the cow mill fence, with a backpack on her shoulders.

Maan, Two

There was a narrow gap in the wire fence that only allowed the passage of one person. I’d lived here for so many years as a child, and I’d never noticed it. Yet Ah Yau discovered it upon his first visit—it’s as though I’d been blind this whole time! In fact I don’t have much memory of this village. What left the deepest impression was hiking up the hill to scavenge for bowls. Back then there hadn’t yet been any fencing, and the entire piece of land was covered by bowls, just lying around. In my naiveté, I thought the hill magical as to grow ceramic pieces from the earth. My parents simply regarded the whole thing as a matter of course. It was many years later when I left the village that I realized this was once a place for making ceramic pottery, a kiln that had been built in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Yet, historical facts aside, I could only remember that bowl—that little rice bowl that wasn’t exactly shabby, but definitely not pretty either. Some things one only starts appreciating after its loss; I didn’t need Ah Yau to remind me. That day, when I first brought him here and told him about my story with these broken pieces, he was unexpectedly enthused by it all, nattering on about treasure-hunting.

Long-limbed and insect-thin, Ah Yau tilted slightly to the side and eased in with half his body through the gap. Where there used to be bowls and plates were now scattered broken pieces, occasionally a hand-painted flower on white, a crane’s wing still discernable, other florals, and a long-tailed bird with the shape of cursive letters. ‘Oh wow! We used these kinds of bowls at dai pai dongs back when we were children!’ Ah Yau exclaimed as he gathered his hoard—the scene still so vivid in my mind. He examined each piece closely, ventured deeper and deeper into the foot of the hill, as though he were leading some excavation mission.

The piece of land circled by the fence was grassless, and looked especially dark at night, like a bottomless pit. Ah Yau stretched his arm to full length to pluck two porcelain pieces with some fish or chrysanthemum pattern, while bending his hip at an awkward angle in order to avoid other broken shards. His pose looked so dangerous to me, as though he was about to fall into the abyss. I wanted to reach out and grab his hip, his belt, or something—but my better sense of judgement told me that this was nothing but a piece of muddy land. There should be no fear that he could fall anywhere. But I edged towards him nonetheless, not daring to hold him, but all the senses in my body alert as I looked at him—if the slightest thing happened I would put aside all my hesitations and come to his rescue.

Clink-clink-clink! For a moment I couldn’t tell whether the sound was from the ceramic pieces, of teeth clacking, or simply of someone’s too-boisterous laughter. Ah Yau handed over a fragment with half a chrysanthemum bloom. Elegantly curved, it was from the well of a bowl. Scared that it would cut my hand, I gingerly held it between my fingers, flipping it back and forth. Its arc shape looked like a sail stretched in the breeze, borne on the wind. The angle of the arc was so slight, so gentle, it hinted at the sturdiness of the sailcloth. 

This thought, in turn, seemed to make the piece weightier in my hand. I began to feel less concerned about getting cut, and instead turned the shard around in my hand repeatedly, observing it from different angles and positions. It wasn’t quite crescent-shaped, it was a bit too round. I wouldn’t call it a hemisphere either, with its gracefully curved edge. The more I looked at it, the more it seemed like a real, scented flower petal.

He found another piece but smugly refused to show it to me. In retaliation I clutched my piece firmly in my fist, hiding it from him.

‘Watch out it doesn’t cut your hand!’ he said.
I responded with a smirk.

The curve of the piece was perfectly in sync with the shape of my palm, as though they were made for each other.

‘I never knew that this was meant to be a crane ...’ Ah Yau said as he observed the piece in his hand, his words tinged with nostalgia. ‘I would look at these bowls whenever I ate congee, and never once managed to guess what the pattern was supposed to be ...’

‘I thought they were just meaningless doodles.’ I was certain his piece was a crane. 

‘I think I can draw better than this!’
More broken laughter.

Two hands, both hiding razor-sharp fragments of broken ceramic. We even agreed to wear them on our necks. Back then everything just seemed like empty words—who would take such silly banter seriously?

Yau, Two

There was an abandoned public school in the village. At first I wanted to sleep there, but the woodlice made it impossible, so it was better to sleep on the hill where the water mill was. The mill was covered with sand—coarse, rough, and a dark shade of burnt yellow. As I sank into the sand, the grains stuck to my body, which was at the same time painful and almost unbearably hot. To offset the heat, I started digging my shoes into the sand, hoping that it would polish the filth off my soles. Unexpectedly, this movement brought a sense of coolness—much like the weirdly cooling effect that the hot air at the dai pai dong had. I turned over and burrowed my whole body into the sand, worming my way in over and over again. What compelled me to do this? A sweat broke out, and an uncomfortable wave of heat moved through me. I slammed my cheek and my body against the sand, as tiny pricks of pain exploded over me like fireworks. A muffled echo reverberated in the quiet day. Then I started wriggling again, desperate to rub off all the filth on my clothes, on my body.

Corrosion is a process of purification. Like the rusting of metal, the piece-by-piece erosion of the phenomenal world, the wearing away of confusion and insecurity.

A T-shaped street. At the end of the street was a dai pai dong, just round the corner from the footbridge. A plastic canvas hung between the bottom of the bridge and the shop; a couple of tables and some chairs underneath; and you have a dai pai dong. I had no opinions as to what dishes to offer our customers or what kinds of noodles to serve. My sole request was to use blue-and-white porcelain bowls—that was it, take it or leave it. None of my partners had objections, so we asked Siu Maan to hurry and try sort things out. When the first batch of bowls arrived at the stall, we unwrapped them from the paper packages, washed them, and used them to serve deep-fried breadsticks and sweet soup on the wooden tables. It was as though the past had returned before my eyes. Mum used to love buying leftover deep-fried breadsticks after picking me up from school because they were so cheap. To make sweet soup, she’d soak the breadsticks in a large blue-and-white soup bowl with crane patterns. Afterwards, she’d divvy up the soup in smaller bowls, some of which were adorned with leafy patterns, others were dotted with peach-red blossoms and had the words ‘Boundless Longevity’ at the base.

Every Sunday, the dai pai dong sold old, second-hand things. People from the neighborhood brought unwanted objects from home, cluttering the tables and chairs by the street. Trivial junk you could take away for free; some of the better-quality goods were sold for a couple of dollars. The junk piled up underneath the tent canvas like a refugee camp. Some of the people in the neighborhood said this was a shelter from typhoons and landslides, like what Mum used to say. In our banter, someone said: why don’t we just build an image of the past? Everyone laughed, and then fell silent. I looked quietly at the pile of junk on the floor—old fabric, old dresses, old textbooks—and wondered what ‘the past’ actually meant. An idea both silly and insignificant.

Maybe it meant a period of time? Or maybe the form of a place at a given point in time? But Siu Maan said it’s but a feat of imagination. Because you are not satisfied with today, you imagine other things.

She was responsible for cooking congee on holidays. She never added any scallops; instead she used gingko nuts and a small amount of tofu skin, boiled everything to such a mushy state that it would have been impossible to tell what the ingredients were if she hadn’t told me. In the mornings when I got up, the congee would be ready already. I would scoop it out into the crane bowl, or the bat bowl, but often I would just look and not take a single sip. I disliked how insipid plain congee tasted, and when she knew she added preserved fruit peels, but I scolded her for this. It just wasn’t congee at all; it made you shudder with distaste, much like a dark spot on a white shirt.

In the warm morning sun, there were bubbles in the congee, a voice in the bowl, yet its words couldn’t make a coherent story. The whiteness of the congee made the white bowl seem even paler, so pale that there was nothing more to say. Perhaps I was hoping for a story worth telling, one with a proper beginning and end, with plot twists and a satisfying conclusion—only then, it seemed, would there be some sort of explanation at least. But what kind of sound was I looking for, really? I listened for it at the dai pai dong back then; I listened for it as I hid in the hills. I listened for it in the bowls; in the sand. I pressed my ear against the sand, almost burying it entirely in the earth, as I seemed to hear the sounds of people working, stacking up bowls, transporting them around, in a ceramic kiln of former days. 

I also heard the sounds cradled inside the bowls, all familiar sounds that I’d heard before. They were the sounds of yesterday: sounds of flurried activity, eating and drinking, shouting hawkers, dribbling basketballs, and low muttering while queueing up. But what about that loud voice, yelling and reprimanding—to whom did it belong? Burying half my face into the sand, I felt like a big rock sinking into the sea—would there be deathly silence there? Or a cacophony of sounds?

At the very bottom of the sandy earth lay also the confused sound of history. Yes, as Siu Maan said: it wasn’t just a childhood memory; but also ‘history’ that people speak of, ancient history of bygone days that many people speak of.

This was filth left behind by history. Some say that my ideas are filth, but in my view, to forbid me from thinking such thoughts was what was truly filthy. Corrosion, or the removal of such filth, was a game of shooting moving targets. Yet in this game I was no sniper, but a target; and what moved were not the targets, but the snipers. What was shot dead were parts of our own selves.

In the dried-up mortar grew a creeper plant with small, hard leaves, which icily pricked at the back of my neck. It made me think of the coolness in my head during cold winter days. This was a special kind of ‘coolness’, which seemed to clear extra space in the head for thoughts, yet nothing ever seemed to stick. It was also a ‘coolness’ which felt like a repeated corrosion of the self, to the extent that one felt completely weightless. Crawling out of the mortar, I felt at the back of my neck a lightness, a sting—a sting of both pain and pleasure!

Exactly under what circumstances did destruction not count as destruction any more? If I had in my possession one short year—one short year in one’s life—would it have deserved to be snuffed out in the long expanse of ‘history’, simply because of its brevity? Must we give up the small things for the sake of the bigger picture? Give up an individual’s subjective agency?
I thought of a video I’d watched once on the Internet; a showdown between a mantis and a rat.

If under certain pre-conditions, a result was bound to happen, can we still say that it happened without reason?

Maan, Three

It was a group of five who came together to open the dai pai dong, some of them primary schoolmates, some of them online friends. I was the odd one out. At first the partners’ wives and girlfriends tagged along, and so did I; but later they said that spouses and family members should not join for fear of complicating things. So Ah Yau said that I was not his girlfriend, and I came along.

The dai pai dong was operated in an idiosyncratic way, with a menu that made little sense: congee was offered but no rice, milk tea but no coffee, instant soup noodles but no fried noodles. I asked Ah Yau about this, but he just shrugged, and continued focusing on his beloved eating utensils. The crane and bat bowls were for plain congee; the rooster bowl was for soup noodles with spiced pork cubes—everything executed with military precision. Later on Sundays we also served lime and orange squash and 7-Up with salted lemon as drinks options.

When I asked him why, he explained that as a child, he would go to the tea restaurant at the front of his housing estate and order lime and orange squash, while his mum ordered 7-Up with salted lemon. I didn’t come to the dai pai dong every Sunday, only on holiday mornings when I had nothing else to do and when it felt right. Things were busiest just before lunchtime. We’d run out of both crane and rooster bowls, and eventually resort to using the ‘Boundless Longevity’ bowls as well. Ah Yau would do the dishes frantically at the back of the stall, but he never slacked off for the sake of his congee-holding crane bowls; nor did he ever stop insisting that instant noodles were best matched to the rooster bowls. As the busiest holiday shift drew to a close just before dusk, he’d finish washing up, stack the bowls up high, and arrange them meticulously. At this quiet hour he would tend to his bowls like a bartender with his glasses, using a white cloth to dry and polish each and every one.

‘Benches! Why don’t you have a bench around here?’ the last customer to leave before the close of day said, empty rooster bowl in hand. We all turned to look at each other, speechless. The customer realized that we had never seen any such ‘bench’, so he took a thick pack of cards from his bag, busily flipping through the deck. The pack of cards looked strange—smaller than poker playing cards, they were long and thin, so
much so they looked like Ladyfingers. Eventually he showed us one of the cards in the deck, on which was the picture of a small bench.

‘How can you have a dai pai dong without this?’

‘Hm, isn’t this what you cut wood with?’

‘Yeah, this is what carpenters and interior construction workers use!’

The old man ran his hand through the few strands of silver hair on his head, smiling kindly. Three days later, he brought us a long wooden bench and even taught us how to play with those Ladyfinger cards. It turned out that the full deck was used for a game called ‘Fifteen Wu’; half the deck for ‘Tien Gow’, and a quarter of the deck for ‘Pai Gow’, each with their own sets of rules.

The cards were given to us as a gift, and were placed in a blue-and-white bowl, like flowers in a vase. The bowl was placed on one end of the bench, with a lightbulb dangling over it―just like a piece of installation art.

Now, at the edges of this quiet, remote village, I sat with Ah Yau, perched on a stone bench outside the public school. The long, stone-made bench made me think of the old wooden bench at the dai pai dong. There hadn’t been any news the past few days, but Ah Yau didn’t dare go home, and wanted to lay low for a few more days. As he sat chewing on a bone-dry, rock-hard piece of ox-tongue pastry, there was no doubt he was complaining silently that I didn’t bring any congee to make the pastry go down a bit easier. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel apologetic about it, but the image of the bench seized my imagination and refused to let go. I fell into a dark tunnel of thoughts—what kind of world was out there on the other end? That deck of Ladyfinger cards told the story of that old man’s world, a world that us youngsters had never known, an era well before our time. Yes, indeed, everyone was simply holding one-sided conversations; describing worlds in their own words, narrating the hows, whys, and what-must-bes on their own terms.

Yau, Three

One Sunday morning, word came that someone was forming a National Party.

‘Are we a nation?’

‘That goes without saying!’

Siu Maan listened quietly as the neighborhood and the regular customers gathered together in frenzied, spirited discussion.

‘We have our own collective memories that aren’t shared by others, right?’

‘But listen: na ... tion ...! It sounds so big and important!’

‘Fine, then what’s a “nation”?’

It’s said that every common man has a duty to the matters of his country, but the most common conversation topic of the day was really buttered pineapple buns and radish with pig skin. So the subsequent Sunday, the two dishes were added to the menu, and the customers also formed a habit of coming to the dai pai dong every Sunday, for both the food and the political banter.

Actually it was unclear whose idea it was, but no matter—it didn’t matter where the idea came from as long as everyone agreed with it. We gave a new name to the buttered pineapple buns: ‘Nation Buns’. As for how to convey our messages, there was fierce but grounded debate over whether we should just carve them out on the piece of butter, or to just sandwich a Ladyfinger card in between the bun.

Anyway, I thought, at some point we would have to spread some kind of important message, and in secret too.

Evenings were a quiet time for the dai pai dong. Siu Maan sat on one end of the wooden bench, and started playing with the Ladyfinger cards distractedly. To cheer her up, I showed her some research work I’d found. She flipped through the pages, and read out the title, ‘The Song of the Yue Boatman ...’

‘It’s all gibberish to me!’ I said.

‘Yue ... as in “Cantonese”?’

I didn’t try to get the pages back, and instead motioned for her to read them through in detail. I added, ‘So it turns out that in the past, people who lived here spoke very differently from how we speak now.’

‘What do you mean by “here”?’ she asked.

‘Well, Yue used to be a very large region that stretched from the Lingnan area to Guangdong,

Guangxi, and even to Vietnam and the north of Thailand! It was a very, very vast stretch of land!’

‘Oh ...?!’

‘Yep! This was a long time ago—before the Qin dynasty! A vast kingdom!’

‘Well, I’ve heard that some Vietnamese use this as a reason to say that this is Vietnamese territory, that we’ve taken their land.’

Whether there was any malice in Siu Maan’s words, I never really understood. But this wasn’t the point; the point was that things had changed, changed irrevocably. We left a message for that National Party via Facebook, and as we waited and waited for their response, word arrived that they had been banned. This was completely news to us, but that’s what everyone in the neighborhood was gossiping about. Nothing had really happened, but all of a sudden the atmosphere had turned sour. Everyone grew nervous, and our Sunday meetings had to be cancelled. Truly, nothing at all had happened, but no one in the group wanted to talk about it any more; even the dai pai dong had to close. Often, it only takes a single loose screw to dismantle the phenomenal world. How pathetic.

Maan, Four

The deep-fried breadsticks I’d brought didn’t seem to suit Ah Yau’s taste. He took large bites but looked utterly listless. He didn’t change into the pants I’d brought him last time, nor did he change his T-shirt. And though his hair, his sleeves, and his shoes were covered in sand, he didn’t seem to have any intention of shaking any of it off.

Next to the abandoned school was a museum, which barely ever had any visitors. The guard in the front room didn’t seem to care about anything, so I sneaked in through the backdoor with some food. The museum was the only place on the hill that was air-conditioned, and I thought that it’d be more comfortable eating inside.

Ah Yau squat next to a glass display case and chowed down half a breadstick. He ripped the remaining half into small pieces and soaked them in the congee. I squat down with him, leaning against the other side of the display case, facing a small window that opened up to a view of the sky.
‘I brought you an old pair of pants this time.’
After a long silence, he said in a throaty rasp, ‘There’s really no need ...’ As he spoke he jiggled the toe of his shoe from left to right, playfully toying with the sand. Porcelain fragments, sand grains—these things seemed to have a magnetic hold over him.

‘Your shoes ... they’re broken!’

Or maybe what had a magnetic hold over him were broken things. The memory of him scavenging for ceramic pieces at the cow mill floated before my eyes. He’d examined and studied every piece, staring at each fragment with such indulgence. Perhaps he wasn’t so much looking at the pieces, but peering beyond their jagged edges, at what was invisible and unstated.

He put down the bowl, and circled the small room without saying a word. His hiking shoes had grains of sand stuck on their soles, so that each step he took made a loud crunch on the concrete, as though walking on the edge of a precipice. I listened out for the groans and grunts the sand grains were making—protesting, accusing, cursing.

Out of aggrievement or regret, I couldn’t tell, but I started cursing myself for making this mistake. If we didn’t see that blue-and-white bowl—that bowl from another world—nothing would have happened! There would have been no dai pai dong, no talk of the so-called past; his friends wouldn’t have said all those things about Hong Kong as a nation state, and those messages would have never reached him.
There was a deformedly shaped bowl in the glass case, sitting next to a plaque that read ‘Chrysanthemum Bowl’. It explained that the piece was an inferior good, damaged in the manufacturing process and thrown out by the lot. I clasped the little porcelain fragment that he’d given me, now hanging from my neck and wrapped under my top, wondering if the complete chrysanthemum pattern would look the same as the one on the deformed bowl. 

There was also a ‘Plum Blossoms and Knotted Branches Bowl’, chipped in two places; the remaining well of a ‘Bat Bowl’; and half of a ‘Bamboo Leaves Bowl’, shaped like a water ladle. Tightly holding onto the fragment in my fist, I felt in this moment that it didn’t seem like a petal any more, but a small spade, uncovering the topmost layer of earth’s surface. Beneath our feet, underneath the shiny floorboards of this museum, and in the many layers of soil and grime, should be in-numerous blue-and-white bowls. I wondered what laid at the bottom of all these layers and sediment, beneath this deep, peaceful stupor we were in? If it took a century to collect soil sedimentation one-inch thick, then what kind of a past would we excavate after we have peeled away each layer under the bowl, next to that very first grain of sand?

He didn’t make a sound as he walked. It turned out he was looking at the giant wall display that detailed the process of pottery-making. He stared intensely at it, unconsciously grinding the sand grains under his shoes.

There was a faraway world in his eyes. Was it a world ahead of our time? Or an ancient past, as profound as the earth itself?

The more I studied him, the less I understood him. My mind all in a jumble, I didn’t bother hiding my confusion any more, blurting out, ‘If I hadn’t brought you here in the first place to see all these bowls ... I didn’t know they would mean so much to you—no idea at all ... if we hadn’t come, maybe everything would have been different?’ 
The room was silent as a grave.

‘Not really,’ he shook his head, ‘No, you shouldn’t think that ...’ Not only did he shake his head, but his whole body swayed slowly back and forth, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, much like a paddling boat rowing, rowing along the vast river that was time.

His response confused me even more. But a strange flicker of determination appeared in his eyes. He read out some of the text on the wall, describing how the pottery kiln had existed for four hundred years. These were things I’d told him before, but he kept repeating and mulling over the words, as though communicating some other meaning beyond the obvious.

‘Is 400 necessarily bigger than 1?’ he muttered absent-mindedly, ‘Is 400 seconds more significant than 1? 400 years isn’t necessarily bigger, more significant than 1 year ... but then again, 1 year isn’t bigger than 400, right?’ 
He stopped talking, half in pain and half-lucid. Was he silent for one second? Or for four hundred years? One second ago, four hundred seconds ago...history from one year ago, history from four hundred years ago...

The second that just passed by, could it invalidate the one second from yesterday? Or that one second from four hundred years ago? I sensed that this was what he was gnashing his teeth over.

Was there such a distinction in history between the ‘big’ and the ‘small’? If a longer period of history couldn’t replace a shorter one, then likewise, the more recent, intimate past couldn’t invalidate an ancient history, faraway as it may seem.

Yau, Four

In ancient China, different colours stood for the north and the south, while the east claimed ‘the origin of all colours’. The fascinating thing was that the origin of all colours was also the eternal colour. This begs the question: what colour was it that was both the origin and the eternal? The colour of grass, the colour of hair, and the colour of the sky. We call it by the same name. Or maybe it was destined to be the colour of change and volatility, ever since the dawn of time?

And if it is indeed so protean by nature, maybe we can glimpse―for one short second―its true nature?

The blue-and-white florals on porcelain ceramics first appeared over a thousand years ago in the Song dynasty. Of course, what is a thousand years compared to absolute eternity?

Yet what was truly absolute? If even my origins were a mystery, well, wasn’t that just depressing? I believed Siu Maan, too, wanted simplicity and clarity. I hauled my heavy, soaking self up the hill in the pouring rain. The sand had turned into a muddy weight that was dragging me down. There was a cacophony of noises: the pitter-pattering of raindrops, of rain pelting the trees, the creaking of the watermill as though it were back in operation.

I started laying porcelain fragments on the sodden ground. 

I gathered all the pieces I could find, transported them up the hill, and laid them down one by one. I squirmed around in the middle of the clearing like a worm, spreading the fragments in all directions and leaving a small gap between pieces. Piece by piece, I assembled a blue-and-white porcelain dish that covered the hillside. As though a brush was blurring over the edges of the pieces stroke by stroke, the delicate and the unrefined intermingled to form a patchy but dazzling picture.

I braved the rain and ran up to the peak of the other hill where the watermill was, and looked down at the big porcelain dish from above. Oh, what an amazing sight! The rain water had cleansed the pieces of their dirt, their cool shade of blue standing out starkly against the white.
Siu Maan must come see these flowers of muted blue―they were a portrait of me.

To view more of his work, both written and visual, visit his website.


Popular Posts