By Wena Poon
Mrs Chan says she will not be working on New Year’s Day.
She will not be vacuuming the floor. Chain links of cat hair will build up along the corners and crevices, sifting through the air like ghosts whenever a door is opened. She will not be doing the laundry, and the dryer will tumble round and round, making its groan only known to itself in the long, cool hours of the day when nobody is at home. She will not be emptying the dehumidifiers, whose steady drip dripping will move with the hands of the clock, and she will not be shaking the blankets (the thin one for summer, the thick down duvet for winter).
Mrs Chan tells me, “I was just going to give you a call! My daughter is getting married this Saturday.”
She will not be coming to clean this New Year’s day, and she comes today only in a special capacity to treat us to “eat biscuits”. She is bringing wedding cakes round, I tell my husband. She is doing the rounds! It is an old Chinese custom, I say. Instantly, I am transported back to the ninety-seventies in Singapore. Before Tower Records and MTV. Before automatic toll gates and parents volunteering at elite schools so that their kids could have a place. I am in pre-school, the age of perennially living in my pajamas in my Grandmother’s flat.
Hong Kong preserves Chinese traditions that died out in Singapore shortly after I started going to school. When children go to school, they lose touch with small things. The tactile world is usurped by the intellectual world, the communing of the self swallowed by the communication with others. Even as we learn words and thoughts, we lose the immediate reality evident to the child. Yet we have pre-school memories, buried deep and luscious and rare inside the earth, only their tips showing, like white asparagus.
Every now and then, in a fold of life in Hong Kong, I will remember things in Singapore that I forgot to miss, because I didn’t even know they were gone. Paper bags with hexagonal bottoms with red-and-white twisty string ties and red Chinese characters on the side. Cork-popping toy guns made of tin, and red-and-green painted porcelain “Chicken” bowls. A certain shade of jade green tile, and crazy peach-pink porcelain sinks. The thin brown paper that goes around a fresh Chinese fritter. Congee, made in individual batches in small battered aluminum pots over portable stoves. The sharp scent of a Chinese herbal shop. And bringing cakes round to friends and relatives during a wedding. You excavate these memories, amazed that they are seeing the light of day.
“I am treating you to eat Chinese biscuits, and Western biscuits,” says Mrs Chan, her hair permed like never before, beaming like a new mother. In Cantonese, there are only two diametrically opposed styles: zhong (Chinese), and sai (Western). Do you want a Chinese meal or a Western meal. Do you want a Chinese dress or a Western dress. Do you want Middle? Or Western? There is no East in the Middle Kingdom, no North. A different compass governs. I, even I in my J. Crew sweater and polarfleece socks, am a zhong gok yan, and my husband, a sai yan. By a turn of phrase, we are back in the days of Magellan, of red-haired devils sailing into our precious Middle Earth. But, even though we are zhong gok yan, we no longer bring cakes personally in the Internet age; we bring red envelopes in gold print, with vouchers so that you can redeem the cakes yourself.
Still, I remember those hot afternoons, in Grandmother’s dim kitchen, when Great Aunt so-and-so (also with a fresh perm for the occasion) brought over a box of assorted Western cakes, or a thick paper roll of Chinese biscuits that came apart in your hands, and how they would gossip and laugh and congratulate each other, and talk about their children (every one of them in their turn, from oldest to youngest), while my younger cousin and I would peak into the cake box and secretly make up our minds which ones to eat once the guest had gone.
“I get the one with the cherry,” I say when we retire to the bedroom, away from the grown-ups, to begin our usual consultation.
“Which one?” asks Winnie nervously, clasping her hands. “I saw two with cherries.”
“The red cherry, not the green cherry.”
“But you always get the red cherry!”
“Ok, ok!” I shout in alarm as she threatens to bawl. I make her a generous offer, “You can have the red cherry. I’ll take the one with the chocolate rice all over on top. The all-chocolate jelly roll.”
Youth is always unfair. “But I want that one!”
“Why do you always want the one I want?” I shout. “I thought you want the red cherry one!”
Winnie is confused, and tries to cry again. I deliberate between locking her in the bedroom and going out to play by myself, or feigning indifference to every cake in the box, a ploy which usually works. I choose the latter, and we slide outside to be among the grown-ups again, each mentally running through the colorful possibilities in the big square cardboard box with the shiny thin grosgrain ribbon that is impossibly knotted at top speed by the lady behind the counter into a perfect bow. The square one in bright lizard green (kaya cake), the bright yellow mango roll, the silent mauve one with blueberry on top, the virgin snow white rectangle with coconut. The egg pillowy roll with an irregular pattern burnt on its smooth outside that the Chinese bakers call “tiger skin”. The dark, exotic smell of cocoa from the chocolate roll, and – the ones that kids don’t like because there is no cream on them – the chiffony pandan cake and orange bundt cake.
Mrs Chan’s Chinese cakes are moon cakes with papery skins that – as is the custom – come apart in your hands. I redeemed the voucher after we finally found the Chinese cake shop (“Wing Wah – 1950”) in an old Chaozhou quarter of the western district of Hong Kong. The cakes came individually wrapped in modern plastic, with its own silica gel sachet to keep fresh, indefinitely. The Western cakes were redeemed at Maxim’s “Western Biscuits” (i.e. Cake Shop) – twelve pieces of assorted cakes, in different shapes and sizes.
“Which ones would you like?” asked the pregnant, busy and beaming lady behind the glass refrigerated counter.
I was a child again. “All the ones with the jam tops. This one, and this jelly roll. More of the orange jam tops.”
It was a work day; I was no longer a child. All day, the box of cakes sat waiting, hidden in my office pantry, deep in the humming refrigerator behind the cans of Coke. As was office custom, there was the obligatory warning Post-It: “Wena Poon’s – Do Not Remove!” (i.e. stay away from my goods, you bastards). All day I rehearsed the sight of the gleaming patchwork tops of the cakes, glowing underneath the cardboard.
Where are those cakes of my childhood? Where was Winnie? And Great Aunts and Great Uncles? And their sons and daughters? Where are those marriages now, to whose health and happiness, to whose fecundity and longevity we toasted long ago, by eating sweet cream cakes?
“I wish you could come to the wedding banquet,” says Mrs Chan. “You are very naughty indeed not to come, to have to go to another wedding banquet that day.” It was a popular date on the Chinese calendar for marriage, the first weekend of the new year. She holds my hand, as if I was a little child, and swings it to and fro, reluctant to leave. Her hair was ruddy with hair dye, and her muddy grey eyes, flecked with age spots on the whites, looked happy with expectation. She says her daughter is my age, and that there will be thirty tables at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant.
“I won’t be cleaning this week, so you guys will have to do this all yourself!” she waves a hand over my kitchen counter, and tells me that we are very obedient kids. My husband, who cannot understand much of the half hour conversation in Cantonese that we just had, strays uncertainly by the door. I laughed, she laughed, and I congratulated her again.
“We forgot to offer her tea,” he said, when she left.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002