Thoughts from Jade Kirin

I had an urge to write a supplement to my year ender, and when it did not materialize, a New Year message, outlining resolutions for the year and my outlook for the year and so on. There are a number of reasons for so doing, first among which is that this year would mark a decade of retirement and hence the beginning of my next decade out of work. It would also herald my official attainment of senior citizenship when I would qualify to travel on public transport for $2 to almost anywhere within Hong Kong. I would also qualify for free admission to Ocean Park and free rides on the Star Ferry. Well, that did not materialize either. Writing is a funny thing indeed.

About ten days ago, Su and I saw a movie – One Tree Three Lives – which was only shown once a week in one cinema of a cinema circuit. Afterwards, Su wrote about the film on her Facebook blog and urged her parents to see it. It was an unusual film indeed – the audience at the showing we attended was also unusual; for example, they looked more matured than the average cinema goers and were more polite, most of them remaining in their seats applauding with spontaneity when the credits rolled out.

The film was about the novelist Hualing Nieh whose husband Paul Engle died in 1991 when they were catching a plane to receive some literary award. This 2012 film was directed by Angie Chen who was also responsible for screenplay. It is a documentary with interviews of numerous characters including the author’s closest family members and many Chinese writers, some of iconic proportion such as Pai Hsien-yung and Mo Yan. In the film, Hualing described herself as a tree with the roots in China, the trunk in Taiwan and leaves in Iowa. She first fled China where her father was executed by the Red Army and went to Taiwan, but from where she had to leave because of oppression from the White Terror, and ended up in Iowa where she met and married Paul Engle with whom they started the highly acclaimed International Writing Program (IWP) based at the University of Iowa, and for which the Engles were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

Coincidentally, I had lunch the following week with an ex-colleague who was a classmate with Angie Chen, whom she described as very tough and strong when they were at school. My friend said Chen’s parents died when she was very young. Her relatives from Taiwan came to Hong Kong and offered to collect her younger brother, making it very plain that they were not interested in keeping her though. She discussed with her brother the situation – if he went to Taiwan, he would live a comfortable life, but if he stayed in Hong Kong, life would be tough and so on – and her brother decided not to leave. Chen then had to work very hard to bring up her brother and to finish her education in Hong Kong.

Back to writing, Hualing Nieh said in the film that she could have been a successful writer after she married her writer husband Paul and settled in Iowa, but she did not feel like writing until one day she put down a few characters on paper in Chinese – Mulberry Green and Peach Pink – which took her writing career to greater heights following the publication of the book in 1976, and following the success of her earlier novel, The Lost Golden Cicada, in 1960. She also said in the film that writing is not about reporting past events, but about translating one’s life experience into words and leaving a message with the readers for posterity. She also said that an author always stays outside looking in, and takes a detached view of the world; and she likened herself to be always an outsider wherever she went.

I could have missed some vital messages in the film or could have misinterpreted what the Director wanted her audience to perceive about the life of her friend; and even as I was watching the film, I told myself that maybe I need to see the film again; or maybe I can download an internet version. But it is in the natural scheme of things that we all see things differently and at different times, just as everyone had a different view of what Hong Kong would be like in the run up to 1997, and everyone still think differently on what it would be like in 2047.

Well, 2047 may be still a bit distant now; and most people do not seem to see eye to eye even about 2017 which is now less than five years away. The only thing it seems they can agree on is that they are not happy with the current situation, which is rather sad, unfortunate and unnecessary, for the present is all we have at any one moment.

Let me share with you what prompted me to write this letter; and I would try to be brief. I called up a friend early in the year because I hoped he could help me fix up some domestic matters related to my hand phone contract. In a silly moment, I signed up for something I did not need. He was away; and when we finally made contact, we decided to meet for dinner or for a drink, with one or two more friends whom we had not met together for some 25 years. The meeting finally took place last Thursday; and there were only three of us. We met at the Yacht Club in Causeway Bay; and after dinner, this friend offered to take me home. Now, he lived rather close from me and en route, he suggested we had a nightcap – a quick one, he promised, for he had to pack for the next day, going to UK with his wife to see their daughter getting her degree.

As I entered his flat, a strong feeling of déjà vu crept up; and images of the past ran through the mind like some old movies. He assured me that I had been there before, at least once or twice and that he still kept the plants I left with him some 25 years ago, to which I still retained the visiting rights. Plants; what plants?

We went up the roof top which had plants on three sides. At one corner was a huge tree – of the ficus species – with roots growing out of a large pot, already cracked on one side. It was at least 12 feet tall and the leaves were lush green. I vaguely recall that when it left me, it was barely four or five feet. As I looked sideway, I saw the typical leaves of jade unicorn on the trunk of a plant of at least seven or eight feet tall. Jade unicorn or jade kirin, or euphorbia neriifolia var: cristata for the scientific minded, is a largely ornamental house plant, but which can grow to tree size with abundant sunshine. I recall that I had it in an ornamental rectangular pot and it was barely one and a half feet when I last saw it, about the size of another smaller plant which my friend had developed from a breakaway branch of the mother plant.

I was overwhelmed; and I demanded my drink, which I was given aplenty before I left. We discussed the past, the friends, the children and what happened in the past 25 years. I was moving out of a bigger flat into Goldwin Heights, which had less than half the floor area of the last one; and I had to find owners for my favourite plants. Friends with gardens and rooftops became rather handy at the time. My children were small, and so were his. He and his wife recall very fondly the experiences the children had in my flat and theirs. They remembered my daughter as a cute and pretty nine-year old who always smiled and responded intelligently and cheerfully to the silly remarks and questions from the uncles and aunties. Apparently, they had little recollection of my son; at least they did not talk about him that night. Memories were fading and blurred, not helped by the 18-year old Macallan.

Such is how 25 years can slip through quietly, leaving traces through things one could not hang on to and which had since been forgotten, only to be re-discovered almost by accident in different shapes and forms, almost unrecognizable, but laden with memories, some happy and some not so happy.

I hope to talk to you soon; and I wish you all out there a Happy and Mindful Year of the Snake.

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