letter #4

My dear friend,

How is life? It might sound less than sincere to ask that when knowing there’s no way I could get a timely, substantial reply. But I guess every letter has to start somewhere, and I wish to not start from rambling about my own life, which, as you might already know, is what the rest of this letter will be about.

I took a whole week off at the beginning of April, of which, four days were spent screen-free. It could be seen as a latest, renewed attempt to replicate my experience of a short stay at a silent retreat two years ago – the previous of such attempt was documented here – but I guess this time, I see it less as a “challenge”, but a “self-indulgence”.

I wish I could relay in a precise way what I had gone through in the four days. But I don’t have that level of confidence in my writing, at this moment, as those days seem so distant already, even though they were only two weeks ago. So I think I will share some (selected) texts I’ve journaled out as I was in it. Although they might read dull and messy, they should at least offer some irreplaceable authenticity.

I’d try not to change/rewrite anything in this process of transcription/quick translation, if I could help it. I might, however, make some minor edits where I find it necessary, to facilitate understanding by an external reader.


April 2, 2021 (Day 2)

I didn't realize I've reached the end of this notebook when I was looking for some notebook to journal with and found this. I also didn't realize it's until April that I think of journaling for the first time this year. The first 3 months of 2021 happened like an eye blink. Yesterday I thought of the last time I met with xx (a female friend), which felt like an event just happened not long ago, but at a detailed reflection it was actually end of last year. 

The distorted sense of time and the increasingly blurred memories, even of something relatively recent, reminds me of the importance of journaling. Even though, at the end, it might as well just be another attempt in vain to grasp anything at all. It is, at most, a conscious effort to offset, or to counter-balance, to sustain, the transitory nature of everything. 

Who would read all my journals? Sometimes I'd think about it - probably not even myself. But I can't deny there's some comfort in doing it. And there's an intrinsic urgency/obligation to do it that I can't be blind to. It shows a genuine effort of being true to one's self. I hope. 

It's been two years since I started with this notebook. I have a special fondness for this notebook, particularly becoz of the situation of the first time I wrote on it. It was such a precious and beautiful moment, alone, that I always feel a warmth every time I think of it. Oh, the magical power of Paris. 

I'm on another isolated break at home now. Today is the second day. I realize I've never really figured out a proper term to name these breaks, that I've been doing several times already. Though to be fair, I also keep changing the rules. This time, it's four completely screen-free days. No cell phone. No TV. No laptop. The biggest inconveniences are, in order: not being able to meditate with my app; not being able to listen to podcasts; not being able to check words on the phone when reading; no being able to use Spotify for music; not being able to set alarm. But all these inconveniences adding up, I still find the eagerness to do this outweighs them all. So this is it. 

I realize I'm not doing this to challenge myself (anymore), coz after the previous experiences, I know perfectly I'm able to do it without any suffering. I'm really doing it becoz I have a longing for it. My mind is calling for it so much that I have no choice but to clear all the obstacles and yield to it - a yearning for this quiet inner life - however brief I can afford at this moment. I guess if I have to give it a proper name, retreat is definitely one word I'd have in it. Becoz it is a sort of retreat - from the chaos and distractions that we're so deeply and mechanically involved with. But it's not a retreat becoz one is pushed to do so, like moving back one's bishop when it's pressured by a pawn. It's an active, conscious, calculated and planned retreat, to create a vacuumed state of perfect stillness, among which one can undisturbedly observe, and live the essence/core truth of one's own being, which is exactly the passing of it. 

The retreat is really not to grab anything, but to be as just as possible, as conscious as possible, and as reflective as possible, to the minutes of life that one ultimately has no hold of. 

There's nothing we can really grasp in life, but it's also a great blissed liberty to choose the particular way of not grasping. 

10pm:  I went out after dinner (cabonara) to look for moon, but she was nowhere to be found. 

   

April 3, 2021 (Day 3)
7:30am:
这几天似乎每天都被过于情节化的梦占据睡眠,早上醒来,需要好些时候去消化。回忆前晚的梦,它们大多荒诞,令我羞愧,但我也难免相信,它们或多或少代表了一些真实的欲望和纠结。而那些现实中彻底失去联系的人,也只能在梦中再见。昨晚我梦到自己拯救了一个已死的孕妇生的第二个女儿,并打算领养她。
--------------------
公园里睡觉的那个女人不见了,可能是今天我来晚了点,而她并没有赖床的习惯。毕竟现在这个天气,早上9点不到就热得人汗流浃背。但她的床——纸皮箱——折叠放在附近的草丛中,我想她或许是这公园的常客,再遇到也是有可能的。

刚才走路时我突然想到,何不将每个星期日都设为screen-free day呢?这个想法令我激动不已,由此我又想起在很多年前阳朔的day trip大巴上遇到的那个一个人背包旅行的澳洲小伙子,Marcus。那是2010年,他一个人在中国旅行,却没有一台手机。那时智能手机尚未成为主流,不知道今天的他是否还会一个人旅行,又是否仍旧坚持不用手机?

7:30am:
In the past few days, it seems that my sleep has been occupied by dreams that are too plot-heavy every day. I wake up in the morning and take a long time to digest. Recalling the dreams the night before, they are mostly absurd, which makes me ashamed. Still I can't help but believe that they more or less represent some hidden desires or unresolved issues. It's only in these dreams, that I get to meet again the people who I have completely lost contact with in reality. Last night I dreamed that I saved the second daughter of a woman who died during labor, and planned to adopt her.
--------------------
The homeless woman who slept in the park wasn't there today. It may be that I came a bit later today, and she has no habit of sleeping in. After all, in this weather, one can get pretty sweaty even before 9 o'clock in the morning. But her bed - the cardboard box - was folded and placed in the grass nearby. I think she may be a frequent sleeper in this park, and it is possible to see her again.

When I was walking just now, I suddenly thought, why not set every Sunday as a screen-free day? I was very excited by this idea, along which I randomly think of a young Australian lad named Marcus, someone I met a long time ago on a day-trip bus in Yangshuo. It was 2010. He was backpacking alone in China, but insist on not having a mobile phone. Back then, smart phones weren't the dominating mainstream yet. I wonder if he still travels alone today, and if he still insists on not using a mobile phone on the road?

April 4: 8:10am in the park

I think I'd better start with a new notebook, leave a few blank pages for the previous one to breathe. 

This morning I started early (relatively) from home. I left at 7:30 and walked fast so I can arrive earlier at the park to take a good spot to read. I realized I must look as if I was in a hurry of some sort. But that thought is funny. I was in a hurry, if any, to hear a louder concert of birds. I noticed I was early for real when I saw even the pier wasn't occupied by the usual group of elderly dancing women yet. And the old guy who always read newspaper (or just sit idly) on the same bench near the pier also wasn't there yet. I felt a pride for overtopping them. The promenade was quieter, but you still see some scattered old people, diligently patting at their limps when raising one leg up against some rail at an impressive angle, with an enviable indifference to the external world that's unique to people of that age. 

When I walked through the spacious, wide passage by the mall to cut from the waterfront to the park area, which was usually empty and offered nothing interesting to observe, today there was a group of elderly people practising (huge) swords there. They were not just doing some slow movement with the sword, they were really studying moves to spar with each other. It's such an intriguing and refreshing activity to watch. I wanted to take a photo for them. I have my film camera with me (dear analog life), but I was too shy as usual. I just fixated my gaze on them as I slowly walked by, until my head was tilted at an impossible angle that I had to restore its direction. 

I'm after all not sitting at where I wanted to sit now. The hill top garden of this park is, in my view, the most exquisite part and I've been reading there in the past few days. But there was always something not ideal. Either the shaded bench would be all taken, or some guy with a blue backpack would start playing radio out loud - either him or some dancing women. It's a shame people in this park have the publicly consented habit of playing whatever they want on their phones, out loud, overshadowing the natural soundtracks quietly flowing in the background. But I find it hard to be really angry with them. (I'm deeply annoyed though.) Becoz after all, I feel if there's any level of ownership of this park, it would probably be with them instead of me, who's really just an irregular intruder. 

As I'm writing now, on a bench by the lake, the odd man with blue backpack just arrived at the park and stopped in front of where I'm sitting at, facing the lake, with his radio playing out loud. After a while he marched on (and I know exactly where he's going). There's something that makes me feel sorry for this man. I can't tell why. He seems like someone who's hardly accepted by the world outside this park and can only find his peace here. Am I sounding too patronising? And if I'm honest with myself, isn't that also a description that quite fit myself?

Today is the last full day of my screen-free retreat. It's hard to tell my feeling comprehensively. On one hand, I've been making a mental list of things I wanna do when I regain access to internet. On another hand, I'm dreading the end of this quietness, as I always do, and dreading the rush-in of distractions upon my return to civilisation. I can't tell whether I'm really forcing myself to face my personal reality, or just desperately running away from a public reality. Overall, I didn't do much, and although that was the plan, I still can't help feeling a little guilty. 

I was thinking about going for a swim today. But my calf still hurts from the muay thai training several days ago. I finished reading <The portrait of a lady> last night. The level of details of this journal may be considered as a tribute to Henry James.
  

9pm: If there's any major thing I've done in the past few days, it'd be decluttering my apartment. I've taken all the time I could to go through if not all, at least 70% of things I own, and made decisions about their fate. It's a time-consuming but important process that people don't do very often. Therefore, we constantly forget how much we own and have the delusion of needing more. I'm ashamed by how much I own, how much I've bought and how much I've wasted. It's painful to be reminded of that. 

It started with a little home decor project - the most natural thing to do when you're home all day and NOT spending time on any screens. So I thought I'd drill more holes and put up the little photo shelf that I bought from IKEA 4 years ago, in the study room. I did. I placed some books up there, to give my study room a little class and character. My poor study room, started as a minimal existence when I designed it about 2 years ago, has become a storage room throughout the pandemic year. It's time to do it justice. After I was done with study room, I started re-arranging my main bookshelf in the living room. That's a much bigger project and it took me half day. Again, I'm ashamed of how little I read the books on my shelf, even though I didn't own too many to start with. 

Slowly I moved on to clear all the drawers. It's a total chaos. It's a rabbit hole. All the objects that you don't remember having could easily drag you down the memory lane a long way. I have MANY paper goods everywhere in my apartment - magazines, little artsy cards, postcards, notebooks...I need to decide where they go, and that means opening my mail box - a box containing all the letters, cards, any written stuff on paper that I ever received from people I was once close with. It's always sweet and sad seeing those memories. I also re-organized my travel fragments folder, which was just a huge yellow envelop full of all the stuff (paper goods) that I kept from many of my trips. They are mostly ticket stubs, museum and tourism site pamphlets, small handwritten notes from strangers (eg, a taipei taxi driver who wanna introduce his son to me), printed research material and travel planning emails......I went through each of them, categorised them by countries, and put them into different envelopes, before they all went into one. Again, it's a somewhat silly and time-consuming process, coz it almost always takes me a while to look at something and try to remember where/how it came from. But god, it's such a great feeling when I do, coz it feels like I can instantly regain the joy from that trip. When I went through these pointless little pieces of papers, I couldn't help asking myself what exactly do I keep these for? I guess I'd just keep them for when I'm 80 years old I'd have some obsolete things to go through and smile at. 
 
I did throw away many things, things that survived several times of moving all these years, but eventually didn't make it this time. I've always had this fetish of things that I feel every single thing has its emotional value, and that makes it so hard to throw any of them away. So I've been hoarding everything and eventually it surpassed a threshold of practicality. This time, I decided it's not only the things that I need to say goodbye to, but also the sentimental value I attached to them. Maybe I've held on to them long enough that it's time to let them go. 
 
There are still things I can't bring myself to throw away. I have this white cotton backpack that I wore in many of my early trips when I started travelling around. It's been with me to many places. It's even got my blood stain on it coz I was wearing that when I had the motorbike accident. (I tried very hard to bleach it but the blood is stubborn.) When I found it at the back of the bedroom sideboard this time, I'm very sure I'd never use it again, but something told me I can't just discard it, my longest companion in my young travel life. So she stays. She's NOT going anywhere. 

This afternoon I examined my camera box and checked each of the film cameras (amazingly I don't have one digital camera in this apartment), two of them are completely and officially DEAD. I'm keeping their corpses. Throwing cameras away - I just can't do that. I salvaged one little film camera that I was intimate with at one point. I took him out at dusk time and filmed a roll of expired black and white downstairs. I remember doing something similar once with this same camera in my childhood estate when I was back in Shenzhen for a weekend some years ago, not long after I just bought it. I took some random photos that afternoon,  mostly just trying to connect with this "new" second-hand camera. But it turned out to be one of the few pure and precious memories I have of my photography passion. How I once loved photography. I don't have much expectation of this roll I took today. It was a dreary afternoon. But I loved briefly being that girl with a camera at hand again. Always carefully observing, always eagerly capturing. 
 

April 5, 8am at the park

It was way too dark when I woke up at 6:30 this morning. Another gloomy cloudy day. It took me a while to decide to get up officially. From my bed, I can see the athletic field of TY sports center and I can always see people running on the track, no matter how early it is. So seeing them is one way to motivate me to get up - all I need to do is open the curtain. The track always reminds me of the high school years, when we had to train early every day and run two lapses. Not exactly happy days, but those "bitterness" before I was 18, embodies a pureness and innocence that is deeply missed. 

In my plan, this morning is still mine, where I have no obligation to switch on or be connected. I have a lunch at 12:30 and I plan to switch on at 11:30, when I need to leave home. I already know what I wanna wear today - a vintage pair of overalls that I got in Taipei 3 years ago, also a piece I'm struggling whether I should keep or not. I have a trick (?) of deciding about these struggles - I'd simply wear them one more time and see how I feel about my outfit that day, whether I can still feel connected with it or not. So this is the day for this pair of overall - the day that'd make its fate. 

As I was preoccupied by the outfit thoughts, the alarm in my phone went off. At first I thought it was my neighbours' alarm. It took me a few seconds to realize it's my own. I have a weekly Monday morning 7am alarm! And just like that, my phone switched itself on, like it just can't wait anymore, against my plan and my will. I took a quick scan at it. As expected, I wasn't missed much by the world. Those who might would have been briefed, and there are only a handful of them. There's not much surprise except for one. A text I wouldn't even expect in normal times, came in at midnight last night. 

I left the apartment quickly after that, refusing to let that text disturb me more than it should. The text reads, I don'd know why I never find closure with you. If there's anything I've learned from my past relationships, it's that no one owes anyone any closure. Closures isn't something you can be specific with the way you want it, and it has to be found from within. 

I left the apartment as a gesture of leaving the unwanted trouble behind. I have a more urgent eagerness to be outside -- at the waterfront, in the park, breathing the air together with the early risers and the birds. That's where I wanna be!

I took the same route to see whether I can still find the sword practising group again. And there they were. I took a closer look today. There are ten of them, nine men, one woman. One/two of them still have black hair, but who knows if that's natural or not. And one younger guy was just there to film, not practise. They are such an interesting and vibrant group of elderlies, and I feel they are like acquittances already today. I figure, since I now know about their venue and schedule, I'd never lose them again. I can always reunite with them whenever I want.  

 

There was more I wrote in the evening on the last day, to process how I felt about the text I mentioned. But I guess that can be left out as it’s drifting away from the original intention of sharing these journals – to lend you a first-row “live” view of those unplugged days, instead of a delayed recollection.

It takes longer than I thought to just transcribe, but by doing that, it feels as if I’ve fast-forwardly lived those days again, something I can’t say I have had enough of. I could only hope that through the tediousness of my texts, I’ve managed to convey an air of tranquility, that is essentially what I wanted to share with you.

You might be wondering about the inconvenience that I have short-listed, on which, indeed I might have something more practical to share. I’ve decided it’s ok to be not guided for my meditation for a few days and instead of the app, I’d put on a vinyl disc of ambient music as a timer. (I have the live album of “Two”, performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto , which works perfectly as a 20-min timer.) I resolved to the dusted English-Chinese Longman dictionary for unfamiliar words encountered during reading, which I must say, made me feel very nostalgic. I have owned this dictionary since I was in high school and brought it with me when I arrived in Hong Kong 16 years ago. The ludicrousness is I probably used it less in the past 16 years than in those 4 days. I’d play some vinyls when I miss music. Bob Dylan, Teresa Teng, Cat Power, Beatles. I only have a tiny collection of vinyls so I’d just have to settle with whatever I got. The conclusion is, despite some obvious limitations, I’m luckily quite self-sufficient to live an analog life.

Before I end this note, I wanna return to the topic of music a bit. When I do my long walks, I used to usually listen to either podcasts or Spotify playlists. During those days, as the usual options were not available anymore, I’d instead turn to pay closer attention to the sound of nature – birds conversing, kids screaming, train roaring, runners panting, wind flowing. But during this shift of auditory focus, something else was revealed to me. I realized that without music, or the effect of it, I was compelled to walk with my own bare mood, one that is not intervened by any manufactured sentimentality, amplified joy, or condensed intake of information. When walking without music in my ears, I was almost startled at how disconnected I had been with this organic state of mind, as if I’ve been wearing make up on her so habitually that I forgot what she really looks like.

And yet what precisely is this organic state of mind? I’d venture to say it is a very lack of obvious drama, a sense of restraint, and a vast lake of calmness. With that, one would be able to see the greatness underneath the most ordinary and unnoticed existences, and one would be grateful to be fully there with them, for them.

Until the next time.

Ellen


I planted a little story in this piece. There are always people we cross paths with in the least expected way. They are precious, unique, and transitory. This story is on all these endearing passers-by in life.

letter #3

My dear friend,

I haven’t been writing lately. Things with writing haven’t improved much since the last time I wrote to you. I try not to let the anxiety get the better of me. Deep down, I hope this is just another rough patch that we’re going through. Writing to you, luckily or not, has become the last connection with it that I’m insisting on. I shall always write to you, whether the days are good or not. Because the condition of days is irrelevant to my reaching out to you. You never ask for it – it’s simply a promise I make to myself.

When I’m not writing, or contemplating about writing, I’m either walking or reading, two things that I think resemble writing the most. After all, what’s the essence of writing? Isn’t it just a process of channelling out one’s most urgent and genuine emotions, through words that one organises at his/her best capacity? To do that, you’d need a sheer clarity with your mind, and an extreme sensitivity and proficiency with language, be it your own or a borrowed one. For me, walking helps with the former, and reading the latter – at least that’s what I hope.

I’ve been doing the long walks for a few months now. I started it during the most rigid lockdown last year and relied on it to keep myself afloat over a delicate reality. But I’d admit, I was suspicious whether it was just a personal fad that’d pass like many things in life. But it sticks around, as of now, and I should guess walking to me has outlast sourdough to many. It’s probably nothing worth bragging after all, for I truly enjoy almost every moment of my walks, even when I struggle to find some interesting podcasts to put to my ears, and even when my route is 90% repetitive everyday.

You should know I’m very lucky to be living close to the water, and there’s a long waterfront promenade right downstairs of my building. I usually walk along the promenade to the very other end of it, overlooking the neighbourhood on the other side, the boats in the water, the outstretched bridges, the sun, the moon. It takes 30 mins one way. Sometimes I’d sit by the water or on a bench when I reached the end and read a few pages. Sometimes I’d take a detour on my way back to stroll around in the park. I adore the park in my neighbourhood – small but exquisite – and I love to be there when I’m listening to one of my favourite podcasts <modern love>. In fact, listening to <modern love> in the park is usually an intentional evening treat that I give to myself, when I’m in the mood. In the morning, I’d pick up a cup of coffee or a sandwich from the bakery in the mall before I go home.

I like to make inquisitive observations of the people I pass by on the walk, as if wearing a mask makes me invisible. My neighbours are the most idyllic and self-enjoying group of people in this hustling city I must say. Half naked man swinging arms in every possible directions as some form of exercise, grandmas dancing collectively to vulgar music, uniformed elderly playing tai chi or sword in groups. I often see one old man playing some unnamed tunes on his harmonica as he walks by the water, enviably unaware of the world around him. Every time I ran into him, I’d slow down my pace to enjoy this unintended performance for a few more seconds, and that’d be the highlight of my walk of that day. Generally, most of the people that interest me are older in their age. There’s a mix of humour and authenticity in elderly’s behaviours, and I say that with honour.

I hope I’ve managed to portray to the slightest degree why I’ve taken to these daily walks of mine. There’s a calming power in it, quietly generated from every pace walked, every inch of space glanced at, and every person passed by. I enjoy so much glimpsing at a frame of my stranger neighbours’ lives. So am I frequently moved by the proximity and irrelevance that co-exist in the time and space, a symbolic revelation in the context of our lifelong encounters.

I wonder if by reading this you’d think, what an awfully lonely woman she seems. I wish it doesn’t concern you, or anyone, because it concerns me very little. You might already know solitude is one of my favourite subject. I should warn you this won’t be the last time I speak of it, either. And I will never stop thinking about it, for solitude is not a math problem – once you find the solution it’s solved once and for all – but more like a never-ending literature with numerous layers, every time you flip through it you find some new truth (or myth) in it.

Sometimes I do wonder what do I look like when I’m walking in my trainer, my statement-agnostic clothes, with my hair unwashed and face masked – how do my neighbours read of me? I think about it out of sheer curiosity, not that it’s any of my concern.

I am indeed on my own, increasingly so. And I’m determined to make the most out of it. This is a commitment I make to myself. But when I think about it, even though I’ve been more or less in the same status in the past two years, I can remember the nuanced evolution of my solitude. And I will try to relay it in the least self-fulfilling way.

I will start with one simple truth, that I’m not born this way. I’ve merely learned to incline to this solitary state along the way. In the first 30 years of my life, I spent most of my time and energy questing for companionship, intimacy, deep connections, love, and I have experienced many. The quest of a harmonious solitude was never a priority, but at most a passive and temporary fix, in the intermissions between different people episodes. It was until the recent two years that I started to take my solitude gravely, first out of the rarity of it, for I felt I had so little control over if/when there’d be people coming in and out of my life, then, gradually, out of the gravity of solitude itself. For it comes to my understanding that a woman’s ability to contain her solitude is the ultimate talent she could have acquired.

You see, it’s hard for me to talk about my solitude without mentioning that I’m a woman. And I spend an awful lot of time thinking about this identity of mine, contemplating how is a woman supposed to escape from the “destiny” inflicted on her, in terms of her value, her relationship with men, her options, her experience, her “happiness”, or the absence of it.

We live in an interesting time that women seem to have a vast degree of liberty and choices of their own, and yet so much of it seem to only mask the sheer opposite of it underneath. At the center of it lies a woman’s fate in love, how feeble a voice she has in her own narrative, and how far she is from reclaiming it. Women today can be free on many accounts, but those who are substantially liberated from the perception of her “fate” is still in a pitiful scarcity.

I cannot claim I have managed to liberate myself from my own inherited perception, either. What I have is merely the determination to get myself there, however long it might take. In this process, I see that solitude is not my biggest opponent, but the one and only reality that I’m responsible for. In an effort of containing that, I learned the importance to make myself an ample and just company, and my solitary being an ample and neutral atmosphere. It takes time, as most things worthy of pursuing do, and time delivers progress.

You see, I do not wish to glorify solitude with more modernly preferred terms such as “independence”, for it’s not exactly the same thing. Independence can be an outcome, but it shouldn’t serve to mask or undermine the truth of one’s solitude. There’s sadness in a woman’s solitude, as much as there is beauty; but most importantly, there is strength in it.

I hope you wouldn’t take all these as an argument against love. And I certainly don’t think my loyalty towards my solitude is at odds with my best intention with human connections. If anything, the overweight in one’s inward relationship gives rise to a lightness in the external ones – a lightness that I didn’t have the luxury of enjoying, but with time I find is indeed instrumental.

I have let many people slip out of my life, and some of them weren’t taken lightly. I don’t just mean romantic partners, also close friends, with whom I’ve shared deeply intimate times with. I think of them constantly. I think of the weight they left in my heart, and how I must carry it with me. At times there’s a wave of sorrow washing over me. And I would try to emerge from it, like every time before. The thing is, our past is not always compatible with where we are, or where we wanna be. Yet they are so precious and so personal. Some people choose to defy it, or overwrite it, but I have the habit of filtering through it again and again in my mind. It takes time and nerve to do justice to one’s experience. And remembering them, with as much clarity as possible, seems to be the only thing left to do with what is lost to me.

It was valentine’s day not long ago. I was reminded of a photo of myself (thanks to social media) taken in my last solo trip on that day last year. In the photo I was sitting on a huge rock on the top of a mountain, overlooking another huge rock as the sun was setting. It was a stunning evening, hot and windy. Just by looking at the photo, I could unmistakably remember how much I was in love with the world at that moment, the air I was breathing, the life I was experiencing, and how much passion there was inside me that I was looking forward to share, as much as I was capable of.

As an unreligious person, this is probably the closest I’d ever get to a real confession.

I shall go for my walk now.

Ellen

Single life

I was awake at around 8. Played two games of chess on my phone and eventually got out of bed at around 9. I made a coffee and a smoothie for myself, and played the piano for about an hour to warm up my body. It’s the coldest day of the year today, and I was mostly ironing out some unsmooth bits in the tango piece I’ve been trying to graduate from (ie record a video of it) but failed two attempts thus far.

I then took a shower, moisturized my face and limbs, dried my hair, meditated with my fresh scented body for 20 minutes, and texted my friend Tom about my preference to stay in tonight. (We loosely talked about meeting tonight even though he loathed NYE and would rather hibernate through it.) I was playing chess against a bot when someone called, someone I’m casually involved with. I was remotely delighted to receive the call, but started to feel the need to hang up after 10 mins. A little over 11, I started to wash the rice. When waiting for the rice to be cooked I read my book in the living room (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robison). The music playing was Nina Simone. My lunch – braised ribs today – was prepared by my part-time cleaning lady, Lan, who comes every Saturday. Two weeks ago I asked if she could try making meals for me and she gladly jumped on the extra income. So every Saturday, she’d make the amount of food (two dishes) for about a week and I’d put them into boxes, and boxes into the freezer. For each meal I’d defrost a box and heat it up. I inherited the idea from a terminated tinder date that I went out three times with. I definitely mocked at him when he told me this was how he managed his work week meals and secretly I thought, maybe I should try that too. And I did. I have to admit it’s kinda genius.

I ate my lunch – braised pork and freshly cooked rice – with an episode of In Treatment. I cried a little bit at the end, (it was very moving), and realized it’s been a while since I last cried. After lunch, I got dressed properly and left the house for some errands. It’s the last work day of the year and I gotta go to the bank for some stupid reason. The weather was chilly and sunny, which made the walk to the mall a pleasant one. After the bank, I took a stroll to Muji and M&S and found nothing to buy. I snatched a takeaway coffee and on my way home, took a detour to the park and sit under the sun for a while, sipping my coffee. The last stop before home was the fresh market, where I bought two avocados, 3 pounds of sugar orange and two bouquets of fresh flowers, one purple-ish, one yellow-ish.

It was 4 when I was back home. I arranged the flowers into the vases and wasn’t sure what to do next. After two more games of chess, I put on some Thelonious Monk, and sat down in front of the desk for the first time of the day. The coffee was getting cold, so was the day.

I’d admit. I was contemplating writing a year-end essay all this time, as I usually do. But somehow, some part of me wasn’t convinced of the idea. Is it more of a gesture than of any actual meaning? Do I really owe myself, or anyone, such a gesture? Mostly importantly, deep down I know there’s nothing groundbreaking I could possibly write, as some kind of reflection of an unimaginable year. I’ve come across numerous “look back at 2020” kind of contents, people hastily making mental closures, plowing for the positive meanings and takeaways, and desperately wishing for a brighter, freer year. For the whole day, I was hoping these sentiments would arise so I could seize it and sugarcoat the hell out of it. But they never really came. There wasn’t a moment of epiphany. I went on with the day as how I lived most of my days in the past year, ordinary, alone, placid. I wrote it down becoz this is the only thing I could write about.

On the last day of this year, I still feel amazed at how I could live the kind of placidity that I always wished for in such a unexpected way; and how, despite my longtime yearning for the simple and solitary way of living, difficult it really is. Underneath the tranquil surface, is a delicate balance that I constantly struggle to strike. There are times I could have melt myself in the gentleness of being, and there are times I just wanna scream the solitude out of my flesh. I have briefly harboured some, mostly out of the need of companionship. Also have I remorselessly steered away from many. Ultimately, it’s a year I’ve been (voluntarily or involuntarily) more devoted to the single life than I could ever imagine. The “single” here isn’t referring to one’s relationship status, but rather an unreserved acceptance of one’s sheer existence, as imperfect as it might be, and a persistently conscious effort to be compatible with it. On this, as strange as it might sound, being through 2020 isn’t bringing me any sense of ending. It’s merely the beginning.


Last but not least, here’s a song for you, my dearest, mysterious readers. Until the next dance.

A moonless night.

There is a deep wound in your body, and it’s bleeding quietly. Nothing you can do about it other than asking yourself, why, again, did you give the permission for someone to cut it open, the softest little patch in your heart. The bleeding will stop eventually, as it always does. Every open wound will find a way to seal itself. It’s only a matter of time, people say. It’s also the shape and size of the scar. You can’t remember how many times you’ve failed to make it work. The disappointment is an old news, you are shattered, not surprised. You light up a cigarette, you open a bottle, you order some chicken nuggets, you listen to sentimental songs. The first stage of a routine process. It didn’t even work that well, just the only way you know how to react. You make an attempt to cry and you did. It doesn’t last long and your eyes dry quickly. You give it another try but there comes no more. You remember now you are not 23 anymore, your sadness has lost its density and become watery. Sadness used to feel more exciting, now it just makes you impatient. You broadcast it on social media and block random people from viewing it and eventually you get bored of that too. You sit in front of the piano only to find that there’s no song you can play to your mood. You walk out of the apartment and you walk like there’s no end to the road, taken by a desperation for the mechanical movement. You wish you could go on forever, till it drains the last drop of oil in you. You think of the hairy crab you had last weekend and how much you enjoyed it and how disgusted it made someone. Their death seems more validated now that the person who belittled you for eating hairy crab is no longer a standing threat. There is always a silver lining to a shitty situation and hairy crab is yours. You defended the honour of hairy crabs against the odds of love, even though that wasn’t your intention. Or maybe it was, maybe you care about hairy crab more than you care about your most innocent fantasies about human beings. How pathetic it would be if that was the case. There are easily a dozen of discrepancies that could help you put your loss into perspective and make it seem like a bliss in disguise but really, what good is that. A loss is a loss. A hurt is a hurt. It has happened and nothing you do can undo it. You own it, bite it, shove it up your ass and keep carrying on. On your walk you saw people with their dogs, baby trolleys, big objects that occupy their attentions. In a split of second you wish there was something like that in your life, anything, that would mercilessly take your priority away from yourself. There is nothing. Nothing but your empty water bottle, your health app recording your steps and reminding you of the sex you had eight days ago, your low-battery headphones playing songs of artists you can’t care to pronounce. There is not even moon. You search every corner in the sky but there is no sight of it. You feel exhausted suddenly and can’t wait to be back to your bed, curl into a ball, make it all stop. You wish to have your eyes closed and imagine a moon behind the clouds. There must be a moon behind the clouds. There is always a moon behind the clouds. It’s just one of those nights, a moonless night.

letter #2

My dear friend,

I’ve been wanting to write to you for months. Obviously, for some reason it hasn’t happened until now. There are so many moments when I was outside, walking alone, drifting in the crowds, I found myself subconsciously drafting a letter to you. The thoughts were naturally flowing out of my mind and I had an urge to connect. But when I sat down properly, facing a blank screen and a blinking cursor, I struggled to find those words.

I recently took an 11-day break and was underwhelmed by how little I managed to do. I should be mending my last story now, or continue to squeeze something out for the new one, but instead, I am writing to you. I feel the calling of writing to you. Or maybe I just feel the calling of writing in a way that is free from any sort of anticipation. Maybe I’m writing in the hope of protecting myself from being hurt by it. I think of you every time I feel frustrated by my relationship with writing. I think you’d be able to understand, or at least, you’d care so little that it’s a comfort to me.

Generally, I believe I am taking good care of myself. I eat healthily (in my own standard). I work out as much as I can (or want?) and my weight hasn’t changed at all no matter what I do. At 33, I take that as a good sign. I meditate daily, journal frequently and masturbate rationally – a variety of attempts at keeping a self-dialog going. I go back to paper books and bought more than I can read. It serves as an effort to counter my insecurity over a gradual losing of my English. Losing here is a merely subjective feeling, it might as well be an objective revelation that I’ve never “had” it.

I start to feel I’m losing my English after my last break in July, which I used as a writing retreat. After that, not being able to keep up with that amount of writing has created an anxiety for me. I feel I’m losing my English in the same way that one is losing muscles when you don’t train them consistently. English words become grains of sand slipping through my fingers, no matter how hard I try to hold on to them, there are only so few left in my palm. I couldn’t help questioning my subconscious intention of exiling from my native language and focusing on writing in a second tongue. Is it really worth it, making so much more effort to write in a language I will never be as good as the natives, creating lesser stories and proses. I used to be proud of my Chinese, now all I have left for it is guilt. When the whole world is in a big existential crisis, I have a mini one of my own, with my languages.

As a result, I’m spending more time with music and piano playing now. And I can’t help comparing it with writing to understand what both of them mean to me. After all, these are the two things that I spend most time on out of my bill-paying job. Unlike writing, I know for sure I have not much talent in music, and that is almost a bliss. (No who am I kidding of coz I wish I was born a music genius!) With music, I’m happy enough to just reproduce; while the one and only goal of writing is always to create something original, something personal, and something good. It’s real work. It is the carbs of life, I love it as much as I dread it.

Meanwhile, music is wine. I don’t have to drink wine, but I can almost always enjoy it. The fact that I’ve embraced my mediocrity makes it a pure pleasure. The only exception is when I try to record a video of a piano piece – a self-defined graduation from a song – and could’t get an ok version after 100 takes. It was time-consuming and physically exhausting. But ultimately, it’s a satisfying process, no matter how flawed the end product is. (My neighbours might beg to differ.) I guess that’s the difference – with music, I don’t tend to beat myself up for not being good enough. There is a lightness that I don’t get to experience with writing. And that might be what has been drawing me closer to it. Would it be so condemnable if I only wanna do things that feels “easy” ? Is it a dangerous situation that I find it so easy to sit down and play some broken piano while it takes so much for me to go back to the story I’m bound to redo? These are only rhetorical questions, of coz. The answer was written in the question itself.

I was briefly back in the dating scene. It wasn’t much of a pleasure, as expected. As I was experiencing it, I was also taken aback at how the sentiment associated with dating can be so amusingly negative these days. It’s like a filthy public bathroom, you made fun of it, you hated it, you really wish you’d never have to go in there again, but for some reason you had to use it. Eventually, you convinced yourself to brave in, masked, praying it wouldn’t smell as bad as the last time. When you were in there, you were holding your breath all the time. You got out just before you could faint in there. You kept walking away wishing no one could see or smell that public toilet flavor from you. And you swore to yourself you’d never be back there, until all the above happened again.

The truth is, despite my cynicism and jadedness with the act of dating, I do not forget the reason why we do it nonetheless and I retain the most serious assumption of love, that it’s worth hoping for. Moreover, I hope for a chance of giving love, as properly as it can be given. In this latest cycle of trial and error, I see what’s really at stake isn’t that there’s no right person or that love is after all unattainable. The real peril of dating is that every setback in this process, significant or not, makes a dent in that hope — the delicate, timeless, yearning of something genuinely good. The space is eventually jammed with hopeless meat lovers, ready to settle for whatever that’s left to be taken.

If I have to choose between building a wall around myself and the ability to feel, I’d always choose the latter, even tho it means feeling hurt. The nuance lies in a balance act of allowing yourself to feel, to get frustrated, to be vulnerable, and not letting these feelings wear you off. In some way, I feel the dating episode is a testament to the fundamental core system that I spent the past two years building. In the past, when I returned to my inner space after every defeat, I was depressed by how empty and purposeless it felt. Now, when I came home to myself, the disappointment was real, the sense of loss was real, but the void was gone. There is something solid I could fall back into. It enables me to always hope for love, but never depend on it.

There are much more I’d love to mumble on, but I should probably stop now to keep this letter a pleasurable read. It’s a lovely time in Hong Kong these days. The summer heat is officially brushed off and it’s so delightful to be under the sun. In the evening, a gentle chillness breezes over your body like a stranger’s hug, ambiguous, lingering, transitory. I wish I could put a stamp on this magical Hong Kong weather and mail it to you, or someone, anyone.

It’s 10:30 in the evening and I’m going for a night stroll before bed. I’ve been taking a lot of long walks recently. There’s a satisfaction associated to it that feels both elementary and novel. And it really helps me think. I figure if people can walk and write at the same time, there must be a lot more great writers in the world. Or maybe it’s just me, going through a boring version of a pre mid-life crisis.

Enclosed a Dylan/Cat Power song I covered recently. I would die for the sandy smoky voice of Cat Power but this is the best I could do.

Until the next time.

Ellen

Cover of a Dylan love song and (brief) thoughts on the sincerity of music.

Think I’d share my latest cover song here with a few words.

I first wanted to do a cover of this song as early as May this year, but was stopped by the intensity of affections in the lyrics. I didn’t remotely have anyone in my mind that’d make me feel singing it is a genuine act, the cover thought was thus halted for a few months. (Although, I’m also curious how genuine Bob Dylan was when he first wrote the lyrics.)

I don’t usually ponder over this matter that much, not when I did my previous other cover pieces. I have covered songs which the story basically felt quite irrelevant, but merely out of my appreciation of the music itself (eg Hallelujah, Santa baby). I also covered some songs which I could more or less relate to but the emotion was kinda water under the bridge when I recorded it (eg Mad world, End of the world).

It’s usually easy for people to sing a song without fussing over what it means, and most of the time I enjoy the simplicity of this approach. And yet, somehow, with “Make you feel my love”, there is something in the lyrics that alarms me of the basic sincerity of music. Maybe it just steps above the comfortable level to which I’m willing to give a dramatic license for my own covers. Maybe the lack of an imagery in my mind was too much at odds with the affections in the lyrics. Or maybe, I’ve simply passed the age that one is able to sing an ordinary love song lightheartedly.

Fast-forward to 5 months later, I covered this song eventually. As vigilant as I am of how pop love songs can be self-fulfilling and shallow the realness of the subject, I do consider myself lucky that I was feeling an inch closer to the emotional state that (I think) is required to cover this beautifully composed Dylan piece.

And, for the sake of everything I just said, I added some personal footnotes for the lyrics to my own interpretation below. Consider it another laughable and serious act from me. Hope you’d enjoy the song.


Make You Feel My Love

Bob Dylan

When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer a warm embrace
To make you feel my love

(Yes, I guess I can and will do that. I don’t think I need to “offer” that – I’ll just do it.)

When evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

(A million years…I don’t know. I’d rather not put a time stamp on it.)

I know you haven’t made your mind up yet
But I would never do you wrong

(No seriously, this is something I’d rather not promise, and not be promised on. )

I’ve known it from the moment that we met
No doubt in my mind where you belong

(This sounds quite condescending and I don’t feel all comfortable with it)

I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawling down the avenue
And oh, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love

(Alarmingly dramatic.)

The storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret
The winds of change are blowing wild and free
You ain’t seen nothing like me yet

(I feel this is the part that’s most real in the whole song. And I love that it implies “I” am a flawed character but “I” am also confident that I shall be a new experience to “you”. If it only takes one line in a song to wrench a heart, “you ain’t see nothing like me yet” is this line for me. )

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true
Nothing that I wouldn’t do
Go to the ends of the earth for you
To make you feel my love

(Another dramatic verse, but I’m touched by and can relate to the intention of “make you happy and make you dreams come true”, which I believe is something shared by everyone ready to love, at the great length a poet can go.)

「Weekly Writes – Week 5」A New York story

Prompt I picked this week:

Write a piece of flash fiction about a case of mistaken identity. A stranger might be mistaken for an old friend, an outsider might be mistaken for a member of the community, or a person who has met someone a handful of times before may be confused for someone else.


I was on a trip to New York several years ago. It was for a friend’s wedding and I stayed in town for one week after that.

I had just gone through a brutal breakup right before the trip. A wedding wasn’t quite the event that’d excite me at that particular time. I tried not to make any association but still, the ceremony that officiated my friend’s love story felt like a magnifier of my own freshly failed attempt at it.

It was the first time I was in New York in summer. I didn’t know the city can be so agreeable in mid-June – sunny and fresh in the daytime, cool and breezy in the evening. Before that trip, I had only been in New York from late autumn to early spring and had known some of its worst temperament.

And there I was, after the wedding, left with my emotional jadedness in the perfect Manhattan summer. I had no plan for that week. I didn’t think I’d need one for New York. One day, I found myself wandering aimlessly in the Central Park. People looked very happy everywhere – couples having their wedding photos taken by the fountain, families boating on the lake, entertainers joggling at the center of a crowd, teenage girls in school uniforms selfie-ing in the best angles possible. I was immersed in the happiness of others. It was possible to feel happy by just witnessing happiness. Eventually, I lied down on the grass in a shaded corner, squinting at the blue cloudless sky. Everyone must have a story to tell about New York, a voice came upon me. I wondered what would be mine, if that was the case.

The next day, I woke up on the couch in my friend’s downtown apartment with a strong crave for a big meaty breakfast. My friend and her husband had left for work. I snoozed on the couch while swiping on Tinder.

In a few minutes, I matched with Andrew, a 48-year-old eye doctor on the profile. I asked if he would love to have breakfast with me.

An hour later, at an outdoor table of a restaurant near Union Square, I met Andrew. He had deep sepia eyes and a good physique. We started to exchange casual information about ourselves. I told him about the wedding, the breakup, and my sudden craving for sausages that morning. He told me he was from Boston, shared a flat in the city with his cousin, his last serious relationship was with a Korean, and anecdotes of his job as an eyeball repairman. Andrew was not a bad breakfast company.

We went out again one evening that week. It was the night of the NBA final game, Warriors vs Cavaliers. I joined him and his friends at a dive bar in the downtown. After the Cavaliers championed, we moved on with more bar-hopping and shared some edibles. The whole night we were laughing our heads off, yet most of it was a blur. It was a runway night. We opted in to an altered reality with a relative stranger just so we could opt out from our absolute reality, as far as the night could last.

When we came out of the last bar on the Lower East Side, too drunk to walk a straight line, it was a few hours until daylight. The street was dim and empty. A sense of void was taking over the hysterical joy.

We were a few steps away from a signal-controlled junction, not clear where was next. I took out the eyedrops that I carried with me and applied some to ease an acute dryness in my eyes. Andrew’s eyes lit up at the sight of that.

Is that the menthol type that gives your eyes a strong cooling sensation? He lisped.

Yeah? Aren’t all eyedrops supposed to make you feel like that? I lisped back, blinking my watery eyes. The menthol eyedrops were the only thing I ever used and they were the most popular type in the Hong Kong pharmacies.

Of course not! Only Japanese brands do that and it’s only sold in Asia! They don’t add menthol to eyedrops here.

Are you serious? I had no idea! I sounded more amazed than I intended to, like every drunk person.

I’ve always wanted to try it! Oh my god, can you give me some now? Andrew pled.

I will give this whole bottle to you as a gift. I said, amused by his exaggerated excitement.

Before I realized, Andrew already kneeled down beside me with his head tilted up, waiting for me to put in the eye drops for him. He wasn’t kidding when he said “now”. In the middle of the street, I held his forehead gently and pressed the eyedrops into his sockets. He started to make a growling sound from the minty coolness in his eyes, entertaining me with his little performance.

As we stayed in that posture, Andrew on his knees and me on my feet, facing each other, a cry broke the peace in the midnight street. “Yes! Just say Yes!”

We looked to the direction of the voice and saw this driver waiting at the junction sticking out most of his upper body and yelling at us. “Say Yes! Did you say Yes?!” Both Andrew and I halted for a moment, and burst into laughter at the same time. The driver seemed even happier as he saw us laughing hard. He held up one arm to “congratulate” us before he drove away.

At that moment, it occurred to me this was my New York story. It wasn’t quite what I would imagine for myself. But I enjoyed it all the same.

「Weekly Writes – Week 4」Home out of home

Prompt I picked this week:

Research an occupation that takes place in an unusual or interesting environment that many readers are unlikely to know much about. Then, write a character profile of a person who works in this place.


It’s Nicole’s most delicate enjoyment and sensitivity to be sitting in the treatment room. 15 years she’s been practising as a psychotherapist, she stills feels a subtle pressure at the very back of her chest when sitting opposite a patient. She can’t easily explain that, not to her colleagues, not to her friends. But deep down she knows it’s what attracted her to this line of work in the first place. The hurtful interests in humanity. The prospect of nudity between people’s minds.

She rents half a floor in an unimpressive commercial building in the downtown with some other therapists. The six of them share four therapy rooms. There’s a small reception desk where people enter, but no receptionist. Cards of different therapists quietly serve themselves on the desk. It’s part-time work for most of them there, same for Nicole. One of her own painting is hanging up in the hallway, where patients sit and wait. It’s a big oil painting of a Japanese vase she did many years go. It’s a painting in yellow color tone and she likes to think it brightens up the hallway a bit as people wait there. Nicole hasn’t painted anything for a long time. She is in a constant struggle of time in the past few years, ever since she became a mother.

She is seeing less than 10 groups of patients every week. She used to receive more patients when it was still just herself. It’s her most profitable job and she could use the ease with finance. But there is a fine-line to be kept as she tries to maintain a balance among different roles now. In her early 50s, Nicole is a psychotherapist, a university instructor, a volunteer psychologist with autistic children, and a single mother to a 7-year-old boy she adopted 5 years ago. Her therapy approach wouldn’t allow her to have too many regular patients. There are only so much space one can spare to take in the heaviness from other people’s lives and still keep themselves intact. As a mother, it’s more important now to ensure a main part of her is intact for her son.

There are different kinds of therapists in the world. Some takes it as a job that pays as if they are just dentists for people’s minds. Therapists like this can always manage to withhold themselves and keep a distinct distance between their professional lives and their personal ones. Nothing could possibly go wrong because they are barely truly interested in their patients. There’s another kind that are truly interested in their patients, but profoundly through an academic lens. Their minds are so centrally wired around the academic architecture of psychology that they take keen interests in every patient, not as a flesh human, but as a sample human in a lifelong experiment. Most of Nicole’s colleagues are these two types and she learned it from their weekly seminar discussions. She sometimes wishes she could go with either of them as they are easier approaches. But she can’t. Nicole takes interests in her patients in a way that she truly cares. Even when she doesn’t like some of her patients as a person, she still cares. It’s in her instinct to care. It’s something she cannot just switch off.

Nicole believes she is helping her patients. Or, it’s important for her to know she still believes that. As a therapist, she is skilled with her tools. As a person, she comes with the qualities that make a good therapist: approachable, trustworthy, empathetic, compassionate, a “healer”. Unlike some therapists, Nicole is never rushing the attribution, nor is she obsessed with the “break-throughs”. She has a way of controlling the tempo and at times she’d rather hold it when it’s obvious what is the next question to ask. Instead, she substitutes it with a short silence. A few seconds for the mind to just breathe. She does it as if she is a mechanic constantly fine-tuning the airflow in the room and most of the time, she knows she is in control.

But there are still times it would come to her sheer realisation that there’s so little she can do. She can make a husband and wife see the cause of their marital problems, she can’t salvage the wrecked ship. She can convince a young girl of her own lovability, she can’t find her a lover that she deserves. She can guide a pair of parents through their grieving, she can’t fill up the hole left by a lost child. From time to time, she is overwhelmed by the sense of helplessness that it aches.

In any case, she has deep affection for her treatment room, where stories of unrelated lives are told and unknowingly intersect with each other. She thinks of the treatment room as a “home out of home”, for herself, and everyone who ever entered it. When a session ends and the patient leaves, she lingers a little while in the treatment room, looks at the empty sofa and recalls what just happened there. She indulges herself with a moment of private softness and vulnerability. Then she knows it’s time to go home, where her beautiful boy awaits.

「Weekly Writes – Week 3」Lonely Light

Prompt I picked this week:
Using the first-person plural, “we,” write a piece of flash fiction—no more than 500 words—about a fictional city or town. This city/town might be a slightly altered version of a real place or an entirely imagined place in which magical events are possible.


We arrive at the village house in the early afternoon. It’s a very hot summer day. Both Eric and I are fairly sweaty after the little uphill walk. Before that, it took us one hour on the bus and 40 minutes more on a private speed boat to reach this deserted island, where the owner of the house picked us up.

It is a two-story house in a pretty wrecked condition, but very spacious and in a good structure. There is a backyard, with a stone table and some stone benches at the far end of it, shaded under a big tree. They look like they’ve been for forgotten by the whole world. The whole house looks like it’s been forgotten by the whole world, and in some way, that might be the intention of it. A place exists only to be forgotten.

The island we’re at is one of the few little islands around the city that are either completely abandoned or half-deserted since the 80s, due to their small sizes and tricky locations. There are less than twenty households still living on it now. All aboriginal fishermen’s families with their own boats. I only heard of it — the moonlight island — for the first time when Eric told me about the house for rent he found online two weeks ago. It’s quite a romantic name for such an unknown island, I thought.

The owner is a middle-aged local guy, who inherited the house from his late farther two years ago. He lived in the house when he was young but now lives in the city. Take your time, I will take a walk nearby, he tells us and then descends into the woods behind the house. On our short hike, he told us the house was listed online in the past two years and had only had one tenant for six months. Every now and then there came in a viewing request from people like us. He’d receive them, show them around, and eventually never hear from them again. It doesn’t seem to bother him though. He talked about it as if he’s talking about one of his friend’s business.

So? what do you think? Eric breaks the silence after we have wandered round examining the huge house for about 15 minutes.

I love it, I say. It’d definitely take some work. But I could imagine us living here.

Me too, he said. We could have our separate writing areas on the upper level and a shared lounge for hanging out in the evening. Downstairs could be our music zone. You can have your piano there and I’ll have my recording system and drums at the other side. How does that sound?

I look at this Irish man in his late 30s, talking in all seriousness, with beads of sweat still hanging on the side of his face, and start to wonder if he’s any serious at all.

It’s the second time we meet. We talked about going somewhere remote on the weekend. Eric found this place and suggested we check it out. As a game, we’re pretending to be this artistic couple looking for live-in studio space. In fact, I don’t think the owner cares at all about our story. In reality, Eric is an editor in a publishing house and I work in marketing for a company helping to make rich people richer. We both do a bit of writing in our spare time.

It sounds lovely, I smile at him. I will not be the first one to call off this game.

We walk over into the backyard. I sit on one of the stone benches in the shade. Eric is pacing around. He looks back at the door where we exit and spots two big Chinese characters on the beam carved in faded reddish paint.  

What does this say? He points to the beam.

Lonely Light. I read-translate for him.

How wonderful, one murmurs.

How wonderful, one echoes.

「Weekly Writes – Week 2」Ghetto Child

I joined a weekly writes program, from which I receive 3 writing prompts every week. I will try to write something based on one of the prompts as it lasts, and below is the “something” of this week. (well yes I got lazy in week 1.) The prompt is:

Create a portrait of an environment where you once lived or worked that is much different from your current circumstances. Include factual information and specific sensory details about this environment as well as the people who surrounded you in this place.


When I was little, we lived in Huangmugang — one of the biggest run-down areas in Shenzhen in the 90s — for three years. It was a 40-sqm studio flat with a tiny bathroom connected to an equally tiny kitchen at the entrance; at the back of it was a small balcony. We had some simple furniture, a dining table, a wardrobe, a TV cabinet with a tiny TV, and a queen-sized bed, which I shared with my parents from when I was 4 to 7.

Our flat was one of the twenty-ish on the same level. We lived in level 6 in the 7-level walk-up building. According to my father, it was officially called “the temporary unit for single-persons”. But I don’t recall ever seeing a single person living in those flats. In my memory, they were all crammed up by families similar to us, if not bigger.

It was part of the make-shift housing projects subsidised by the city government to place millions of young immigrants from inland China. My parents were one of those young immigrants, wishing to find their place in a city designated to pilot economic reform and opening-up. They made the decision to move to Shenzhen from a little-known county in Hunan province, where I was born. I was two and half when I first arrived with my mother after an overnight train ride with one seat ticket. I remember none of that, obviously. But till today, my mother still enjoys complaining about what a heavy baby I was, and I always enjoy listening to her retelling this bit of our early days.

My own memory sort of only started with the Huangmugang flat. I learned most of the basic skills in that flat. In the tiny bathroom, my mother taught me how to brush teeth on my own, how to wipe my own ass after shitting, and how to take a bath independently. As a kid, I couldn’t stand the flavour of toothpaste and for a long time, after my mother trusted me enough to let me handle teeth-brushing myself, I discreetly wiped them off from my toothbrush and spread them on the back of the bathroom door, which was filthy enough that no one would notice some extra fossilized toothpaste.

Outside the flat was the public corridor facing the outer of the building, sealed by steel bars. It was about two-meter wide and my mother taught me how to skip ropes there. It was a pretty open and harmonious vibe in the building. Men would chill out in the public corridor on hot summer days, topless. Some households would leave their doors open when they were cooking to ventilate the flat. At dinner time, the corridor was always filled with a mix of cooking fragrance. I’d run up and down the corridor sometimes to peek at other flats. I was not a shy child at all. One time, I was standing at the doorstep of a neighbour a few units from ours and watching the family having dinner, curious at something they were eating that I had never seen. The Cantonese man in the house saw me and invited me in to eat with them; I gladly joined them and tasted stir-fried clams for the first time. Soon my mother came to fetch me home and I told her the shelled meat tasted really delicious. Coming from an inland province, we weren’t in the habit of eating seafood. But since then, my mother started to buy clams in the market and it’d show up from time to time on our dinner table.

My parents were both teaching in middle schools. The school my mother worked at was very far from where we lived so she left very early in the morning to catch her bus. As a result, I had to get up very early too becoz she’d braid my hair before she took off. Afterwards my father carried me to kindergarten on his bicycle before he rode to work. The bicycle was the major transportation tool we used back then. It was a short ride, 20-minute or so. On rainy days, he wrapped me underneath this huge red rubber raincoat and I would sit at the back of the bicycle, listen to the raindrops hitting the rubber fabric and try to adapt to an altered reality of a damp reddish shade. I remember feeling extra safe under that red raincoat. Without the sight of the outside world, my father’s back was the whole world.

In the evening, my parents usually watched some domestic drama series from the bed – serving the function of a sofa – and I’d watch with them together. The series were usually portraying family ethnics in China and not meant for kids at all, but I always watched with keen pleasure and got addicted to the plots. I was not allowed to watch anymore after 9, the universal bedtime for a child. I’d sleep in the inner side of the bed facing the wall while my parents continued to watch the series. The next morning, on my way to kindergarten at the back of the bicycle, I’d request my father to fill me in with the rest of the episode that I had missed. Sometimes my father tried to skimp on it and I’d keep asking “what about that xx thread? nothing happened after xxx? what about the xxx character?” to squeeze more details out of him. As a kindergarten kid, I never felt the wish to watch any cartoons and instead, I was fascinated by those “real-life struggles” of the adult characters in those tv stories. I felt a strong wish to grow up overnight, so I could watch as much TV till as late as I could.

Occasionally, on a breezy summer evening, we’d go to the nearest department store as a “family night out”. My father would ride the bicycle with me sitting at the front on the beam and my mother at the back. On the bike they’d have a brief discussion about where we’d go for dinner – usually some earthy little place they know – and they’d inform me the decision as if it was a big thing. I was excited at whatever they told me. I remember enjoying roaming through the city in its vibrant night scene. The traffic lights looked dazzling and the air smelled sweet and hopeful, merely for the fact that we were on our way to the department store. In fact, I don’t remember of any major purchase in those trips. Maybe my parents never really bought anything. But nights of such always felt particularly satisfying, the three of us going out on one humble vehicle.

When I try to recollect the details of the years we lived there, there are very limited things I could remember and most of them are blurred. But one thing I’m sure of is, I was evidently a cheerful, outgoing and verbally expressive child. Despite the objective “bitterness” implied in the conditions, I thought of those days fondly. Every detailed scene that I managed to recall is like a dusted pearl at the bottom of a time capsule, glittering, quietly.

My parents remember those years differently, of coz. When I asked them about some details, they’d tell it as the hardest time in their lives. It was. I can’t imagine how they got through those years, with so little money, so little space, and so little visibility. As I’m at the same age as my parents were back then, I marvel at how perfectly they managed to shield me from the bitterness of their difficult times, and the endurance and strength it took to do that. They never once made me feel we were in a less than ideal situation and they raised me as a perfectly happy child as best as they could.

When I was in my second grade in primary school, my parents got the quota to buy the “welfare apartment” in a new big public estate. When they told me the news, that we were gonna move and I would soon have my own room, they were excited. I don’t remember feeling over-excited about that, and I didn’t really understand what was the excitement about. I felt fine living where we were.

Shenzhen is a different city now, every decade drastically overthrown the previous one. I belong to the generation that grew up with the city and benefited from its rapid development. I experienced its transformation without even noticing it, as I was too much a part of it, with my own life transformed in a way out of my realisation. The run-down area we lived in was gradually torn down for urban makeup since the early 2000s. I could only find the trace of it from dated news reports of the urban renewal projects. It’s one of the old pages the city has remorselessly turned in the past 30 years.

I know my parents’ decision of moving to Shenzhen has changed my life, very likely in a good way. But I don’t know if it changed their lives in a good way. My father was a young aspiring writer in his twenties with a promising prospect. But he barely wrote anything after we moved to Shenzhen, at first probably due to the condition, afterwards perhaps due to lack of motivation, or a change of heart. In the early years he was still keen to tell me stories about his writing life anecdotes, how he used to join those national pen club gatherings and how his short stories won prizes and got him a few hundreds of bookstore coupons. But he gradually stopped telling those stories. Instead, he advised me since I was in primary school that it’s not a good thing for a girl to be too absorbed in literature. He insisted on this value till I became an adult and was faced with critical choices of my own future. Looking back, I wonder if he was too wounded by his own unfulfilled talent that he tried to protect me from the same sort of letdown.

Our living condition significantly improved after those earliest years. I got my own bedroom. We started to have a telephone, air-conditioners, a real leather sofa, a piano, a car. And it seems, the complexities of life also started to emerge after that, those of my own, those of their marriage, those of us as a family and two different generations. The “hardship” of cramming in the studio flat, in retrospect, was probably a disguised bliss to us, a young family striving to take root in the big city.

It strikes me nothing really beats that after all these years, the solid sense of closeness I felt when the three of us were making our way to the department store on one bike, humbly, hoping for a better life.