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Ghosts of Wan Chai

Even in despair, the need to buy something, to own something, is powerful.

Some things are severed slowly over the course of days, weeks, months and years.  There is nothing dramatic, no identifiable turning point that you can point to and say “There. That’s where everything went wrong”.  Instead, there is this terrible dawning of insight, a dim epiphany that things are no longer as they were; that the person who you once cared for and believed cared for you no longer feels the same way; that everything that was once certain and true and irrefutable is now impossibly grey and has the consistency of smoke – as if everything that mattered was gathered surreptitiously, bit by bit so no one notices, then set fire to, and all you can see are the ashes in the air.  You subject yourself to a barrage of questions beginning with: “Was it me?” and “What did I do or not do?”  And of course there are no answers.  Those who leave take the answers with them, packed in their suitcases, carryalls and branded shopping bags.

In Hong Kong, some of those who are left behind wear grey.  When they begin to suspect that a leave-taking has taken place without consultation, explanation or rationale, they come to Tien Lo’s shop hidden behind an old bar perpetually marked for demotion off Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai, where everything for sale is grey.  There they buy an article of clothing from the old man—a shawl, a sash, a hat, a blouse, a shirt, a tie, a pair of socks.  The store always has customers, locals and expats and visitors both legal and illicit, shuffling around, picking things up, trying them on, looking in the full length mirror at themselves from head to toe, seeing if grey suits them, which it invariably does.  Even in despair, the need to buy something, to own something, is powerful.

Others left behind take to wearing beaded bracelets, thin and fine black leather straps with a small single object strung through.  They buy the strings at Shakespeare Ng’s embroidery store near Spring Garden Lane where sixty years ago a notorious Communist underground cell network hoped to provoke change.  They provide their own personal item of memory.  Some carry miniaturized picture frames with blurry snapshots; some use pendants invested with sentiment—Filipino seamen landing at Fenwick Pier are especially guilty; others have metal dog tags etched with the name of the one who left them.

And there are those who eschew grey attire or bracelets and walk the streets of Wan Chai like ghosts, unable or unwilling to sublimate the pain of the long goodbyes in any other form.  They can be seen on any given day, tracing the paths they once walked with friends and lovers, tourists for a weekend or residents for life, counting each step in silence, their lips forming the shape of silent numbers. They are convinced that when they reach a certain digit they will at last understand exactly why they were left behind and perhaps finally come to accept their solitude.

One of the most mysterious ghosts in Wan Chai is a Filipino domestic helper’s daughter.  Everyday she describes the perimeter of her neighborhood with her feet, beginning just before dawn at the gates of her house, down to the Southorn Playground where she goes in circles, ignoring and mostly ignored by the laborers who rose with the sun, waiting for work; then down south to St. Francis School along Kennedy Road which she haunts in a perfect square pattern, stopping only when the distant cannon of Jardine Matheson marks the middle of the day. That is when she unfolds the napkin that contains her lunch, a thin mayonnaise sandwich or a bit of dried fish with rice, there on the balding grass next to the wire fence.  Afterwards, she stands up to continue her routine, walking down the busy streets, oblivious to the delighted tourists who take digital pictures of her, with her, next to her.  They smile and pose beside her as she walks, matching her footsteps, while one of their companions hurries to take the photograph.  Her final stop, where she spends the rest of the day, is an alleyway next to the police headquarters along Arsenal Street in the west.  There, excepting only the inconvenience of black rain, she stands until the sun goes down, counting numbers over and over again quietly.

In the shadow of the famous rock reputed to grant happy marriages, Noel de Mesa recites his sad and strange experience to anyone who cares to listen.

Equally mystifying is Dr. R. of Jaffe Road, claimed by some to be the result of an amorous indiscretion of a certain visiting Philippine national hero years before his martyrdom.  On the balcony of his apartment above a cha chan teng restaurant he sits in a sculpted metal chair, oblivious to the tumultuous orders of milk tea and dim sum below.  The chair is shaped like a hand and he rests quietly in the hollow of its palm, an unlit cigarette between his quivering lips.  His brown suit is always immaculate, pale yellow tie in place and a like-colored pocket square smarty tucked in.  In his hands he holds a photograph, creased and worn by endless folding and unfolding, the image long since faded.  The loss of the actual picture does not matter; he has long since committed it to memory.  Flipiniana scholars who seek him out and try to talk to him leave with their curiosity unsated.  Dr. R. never responds to queries.

One of the ghosts who will tell his story at the slightest provocation can be found near Lovers' Rock near Shiu Fai Terrace.  In the shadow of the famous rock reputed to grant happy marriages, Noel de Mesa recites his sad and strange experience to anyone who cares to listen.  In December of 1992, he and his beautiful bride Anna take a PAL flight from Manila to Hong Kong just hours after becoming man and wife, a growing tradition among middle class Filipinos for whom the temptation of honeymooning in the shopping capital of Asia—less than two hours away—is a formidable force.  Finding their initial hotel of choice overbooked upon arrival, the slightly distressed but still happy couple eventually secure lodgings at a small three-star along Tai Yuen Street, amid the hustle and bustle of huckster stalls selling herbal medicine, silk garments and fried food.  The concierge requests that they wait for a few hours until their room is available and the newlyweds comply.  They leave their luggage at the hotel and begin to explore the city, braving the MTR Island Line to nearby Causeway Bay, hand-in-hand.  At some point, Anna complains of a mild headache brought on by the excitement and tells Noel that she’s heading back to the hotel.  Noel offers to take her back but Anna assures him that she’s fine, that it’s only an MTR ride away, that she certainly can find her way back, and he says and she says and he says but ultimately she gets her way and Noel gives her a kiss and says he’ll follow after he checks out the comic book shop along Sugar Street, which Anna wasn’t really interested in doing in the first place.

A couple of hours later, purchases tucked under his arm, Noel returns to Tai Yuen Street, finds the hotel and waits for his turn at the front desk.  A little bit tired from walking but possessed of a newly married man’s desire to spend the evening with his new bride, he asks the man at the desk for his room key.  The hotel employee checks his register and informs Noel that he is not booked in the hotel.  Noel insists that he is, that, in fact, his wife Anna had returned to the hotel earlier, and points to the cordoned-off area in the lobby where the absence of their luggage can only mean that his wife is already in the room.  The front desk checks again and tells him that there is no such person in the hotel.  The manager gets involved as Noel makes a scene and, in both a breach of hotel protocol and in an attempt to calm him down, shows him the registry.  Noel breaks down completely and the police are summoned.  In the days and weeks of investigation that ensue, the hotel is cleared of suspicion based on the startling evidence from Immigration that Noel de Mesa arrived in Hong Kong alone.  Anna, his phantom bride, is never heard from again and Noel becomes a resident ghost in Wan Chai.

You moved on. Our last mutual act was walking away, apart, in different directions, crossing the silent gulf between dead small worlds and what you said were infinite possibilities.

But while the reasons for leave-taking are opaque to most, it is crystal clear to some, and often it is not the causes but the reality of endings that matters.  They, too, become ghosts because sorrow is a potent colonizer.

A Filipino consultant working for a medium-sized design company along Lockhart Road left a final entry on his blog before jumping from the 33rd floor, his death accidentally captured by an amateur touring videographer and subsequently immortalized on YouTube:

We read about Atlantis and Lemuria and imagined how things were in Roanoke. We watched TV specials and films on ancient civilizations: Great Zimbabwe, Egypt-under-sands, Heinrich Schliemann’s Troy, ruins of Viking colonies (marveling how some were found under houses, and some under unremarkable mounds). We mourned the End of the Second Age of Elves, gasped at the red skies that heralded the destruction of the DC multiverse, and were in attendance as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Reconquista fell upon the noble Moors.

All in the past, all imagined or real, all dwelt upon, written on, celebrated, reviled, constructed, reconstructed, critiqued, discussed, remembered.

But there are smaller lost worlds, less grand, hidden, briefly exposed, then burned, lost, obviated.

When you and I met, we created in the sphere of our new relationship such a world. We set out on voyages of discovery and then sent treasure fleets to hoard moments, stories, and fragments of memory. We built and plundered and planted and razed down and colonized each other’s space in the name of love or hope or togetherness or fate or choice or chance and it was good, this small world of ours, this small sphere that to us was immense, was the solar system, was the universe. It was all good. We defended our borders against outside incursions (real and imagined), sent the barbarians packing, so we could return to the glorious task of living and conversing and arguing and yes, yes, thinking.

Then one day, it was the end, it was over. It doesn’t matter if it was my hand or yours that thundered down the hapless glittering wonders of our world. It doesn’t matter who pushed the red button, who moved the doomsday clock to midnight, who did what when where how or why.

Our world was smaller than Mu, tinier than Atlantis. It did not inspire books or Discovery Channel or mysterious first-person 3D games, did not proffer the wisdom of the ancients (if anything, we were not wise), did not inspire others to dream or write poetry or bake pottery with achingly beautiful figures.

You moved on. Our last mutual act was walking away, apart, in different directions, crossing the silent gulf between dead small worlds and what you said were infinite possibilities.
 

First published in Connecting Flights: Nineteen Filipinos Report From Elsewhere, ed. Ruel de Vera (Anvil, Manila, 2009).

© Dean Francis Alfar

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Ghosts of Wan Chai
by Dean Francis Alfar

Ang Tagahanga ni Alice
ni Evelyn Sebastian
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