And your special today is what? Pig lung soup? Okay, we’ll have that, very good for the respiratory system, so important in this cold weather.
What else? Siu mai, crystal dumplings, of course—one basket each. Then turnip paste, phoenix claws—let me see the menu again. Also this, and this, and this. Is that too much food? Mui Foong, how hungry are you?
Never mind, she’s sulking. Just bring that for now. Oh, and egg tarts. Mui Foong, I’ve ordered a lot, I hope you’ve worked up an appetite. You’re so skinny these days, I’m going to feed you up.
Are you going to be like this all afternoon? It’s not very polite. Come on, can’t you find a little smile for your poor old auntie? I was looking forward to some quality time with you. Not much quality, just me jabbering away to myself.
This dim sum restaurant is where your dad proposed to your mom, you know. Did they tell you that? Oh, I told you? That’s what happens when you get to my age, always recycling the same old stories. It’s because nothing new seems to happen to us.
Look, Mui Foong, I hope we’ll be able to talk like grown-ups. Your mom asked me to have this chat because you won’t even look at her. Is that true? You’re, what, almost fifteen? It’s time you learnt about being an adult—it isn’t always easy. So you don’t want to leave? None of us do. We all like it here. But it’s not worth taking the risk.
You’ll miss your friends? They’ll be gone too, soon enough. You’ll see. 1997 is just around the corner—the British will leave, and China will take us back. See how many people are left in Hong Kong then. I tell you, everyone will be running when they wake up to the danger. We’ll just be the first wave. Always shaking your head. You think you know better? I was born on the Mainland, you know, like your mom. We know what goes on there. What—you think I was only seven when I left, so I’ve forgotten? I remember. You have no idea how much I remember.
If your mom’s family hadn’t brought me along when they came to Hong Kong, I would be dead. No exaggeration. I was the poor country cousin—they lived in town, so they missed the worst of it. Even so, they knew they had to get out.
Sure, I bet you’ve studied the Great Leap Forward at school, but do you really know what starvation is? Maybe you once forgot your wallet and had to skip lunch. But what if there was no food in the whole school, the whole city? What would you have to do to survive? It’s impossible to imagine, I know. You’ve always had everything you needed—I didn’t say everything you wanted, that’s different. Not just you, this whole place. Even when the famine was at its worst, Chou En-lai made sure fresh meat and eggs were delivered to Hong Kong every day. This was the shop window. No one could see into China, so what happened to us didn’t matter. But here? It had to look good.
This place. If I think too much it makes me sick. This restaurant, these people—so happy on a Saturday morning, laughing as they gobble down crab fritters. Sometimes I imagine the Red Guards swarming in, loudly denouncing all this decadence, snatching away plates and kicking everyone to the floor, stomping down on their soft, frightened faces—
Don’t call me paranoid. Things were bad when I left, and they never got much better. We avoided the Cultural Revolution by going when we did, but even so—the year we went was the most terrible. No food. Nothing could be worse than no food. In our village, that winter, people were eating tree bark and roots—
Oh good, here’s the soup. I love how it looks, so milky from the almonds, but you can reach in and scoop out a grey chunk of lung—what? Don’t wrinkle your nose like that. It’s delicious. Oh, I know, you young people would rather eat hamburgers, so bland you have to smear ketchup all over to make it taste of anything. So you’ll like London. You can eat all the tasteless hamburgers you want when we get there.
Do you even know how lucky we are that your father has a good enough job to get us all visas to Britain? Yes, me too, I count as a dependent. So many people are stuck here. Probably don’t even speak English. We have the chance to get out.
Fine, I’m not going to argue with you. Your parents say you’re going, so you’ll go. You can come back when you’re twenty-one, if that’s what you want. Of course, that will be after 1997. Let’s see what kind of hellfire pit this place has turned into by then. How many people are falling in the streets, tortured by Party devils. How many corpses you’ll see in the gutter.
Mui Foong, no need to look at me like that. Did I scare you? I shouldn’t let myself get so worked up. I understand, change is frightening. It’s difficult to leave familiar things behind. But sometimes, they leave you. Don’t you think I miss the village I was born in? It’s gone. So many buildings were torn down because the bricks were clay and they could use the rubble as fertiliser.
That worked, all the techniques worked, but only in the first few weeks. And even when we did produce more crops, everything was taken away. They claimed it was surplus. Then they smashed our pots and pans, and said we had to eat from the communal kitchens. This was happening all over the place, in every rural province.
The man in charge of our canteen was the size of a barrel. Imagine being fat, at a time like that! Once he overheard me calling him a hog, and that was it, I was on half rations for the next week. Less than half. He’d dip his ladle in the rice and flick a few grains into my bowl. What could I do? There was no one to complain to.
It didn’t matter. After a few months, there was really nothing left, and the communal kitchen shut its doors. We started gathering elm leaves to eat. You mashed them with a bit of water.
Ah, is that ours? Wonderful, I’m starving. The dumplings, the beef tripe—good, all here. Waiter, some chili oil, please?
Mui Foong, have one of the yam puffs, they’re your favourite. And a phoenix claw—that always makes me laugh, such a grand name for chicken feet. Look at them, shrivelled little things. Sometimes I think I only order them for the comic effect.
I used to torture myself, imagining dim sum like this, just one little shrimp parcel. This was the winter of ’sixty-one, when we really had nothing. What I wouldn’t have given for the tiniest scrap of cartilage on this phoenix claw.
Yes, you’re right, this isn’t really mealtime conversation. Here, can you reach the chili squid? Maybe I over-ordered. Never mind, we have all afternoon, we can take our time getting through this. And you really are too skinny. All your silly diets. Boys don’t like scrawny girls. Stop picking at that phoenix claw, just pop the whole thing in your mouth and spit out the bones. More tea?
You know, what makes me really angry is the Chairman. Mao. All his big talk, Great Leap Forward this, Great Leap Forward that, as if he could make it true by saying it enough times. As if our agricultural yields really were going up as much as those numbers he farted out. Early on, he even announced we were growing so much food, we’d need to eat five meals a day to use it all up. Spouting such nonsense with that smile, trying to look wise. And we listened. He never apologized. He self-criticized afterwards, but just for show. The Party called the whole disaster three parts natural and seven parts man-made. No! It was one hundred per cent man-made. Made by one man.
What do you mean, get over it? How do you think I can ever forgive? It’s not like your computer, just press one button and things disappear. Not at all like that. Fifty million people died. I suppose that’s just me being melodramatic?
We did it to ourselves. My parents—they were in it too, moving crops to the roadside so the harvest would look better when Mao’s cavalcade drove past. Of course, when you transplant like that, everything dies a few days later. Didn’t matter as long as they looked lush and thick when he saw them. The whole country was putting on a show, and he was the only audience. We should all have got Oscars.
Yes, my parents were farmers. Everyone in that village worked on the land, one way or another. They’d all have been forced into the madness, planting seedlings too close together, tilling less deep for increased efficiency. They all knew none of this could end well—at most, it would be a short-term boost—but they did it. Anyone who protested was labelled a rightist and hauled away.
I don’t have any pictures of them. There weren’t any cameras in farming villages back then. I wish—
They went in the first month of ‘sixty-one. After all the food was gone, and it was still weeks until the Spring Festival. Their arms and legs had shrunk to sticks. Even if it hadn’t been winter, they’d have been too weak to farm. My mother sent a message to her sister—your grandmother—up in the town, begging for help. We waited for a response, but there was nothing, and then my mother simply didn’t wake up one day. My father said the ground was too hard to bury her, we’d have to wait, but the next day he was dead too.
I was six but I’m sure I looked younger, from malnutrition. I just sat there the first two days, hoping someone would come. It was viciously cold. Finally I put on my coat and walked out. There was so much snow, no one had cleared a path. My shoes were too thin to walk far. I knocked on our neighbours’ doors—no answer. Maybe they’d all fled, or were hiding. No one needed another hungry child. The village hadn’t been a friendly place for a long time—people accusing each other of stealing food or hoarding. As I walked back, I noticed all the tree trunks had been scraped completely smooth, all the bark gone.
Back home, I just wanted my parents to wake up, or to go to sleep myself. I was more tired than I’d ever been. There was nothing in the house at all, we’d turned our furniture into firewood weeks ago. I lay down next to my mother, but her body was stone cold. Just the three of us, flat on the dirt floor. I was as still as them.
I imagined my mother singing to me, but the words kept slipping out of my head. Every time I opened my eyes again, the light was doing something different. Sunrise. Moon. I kept drifting in and out. Then finally the cold and the pain in my stomach were so strong they kept me awake, but without the energy to move. I just lay there, watching the shadows cross the floor.
If only my mother had been able to soothe me. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, she sometimes let me suck on her fingers. Very slowly, an inch at a time, I turned myself around so I could take her thumb in my mouth. It felt so good holding it there. After a while, I bit.
I don’t like to think about this. The liquid flowed into my mouth, making me feel stronger. It was wonderful having something to chew again, the sensation of my teeth coming back to life. She was so stiff, but I licked and nibbled tenderly, like a little cat. It was gentle, just my mother nurturing me. I don’t know how many days this lasted. By the time my uncle came from town, he found me lying there unconscious. He screamed when he saw what had happened, he said, but I didn’t come round. Both my mother’s arms were bare of flesh, all the way to the elbow.
He brought me away as quickly as he could, not even stopping to deal with the bodies. I was sick for a long time after that. All that uncooked meat. But I was alive. And I couldn’t stop thinking—even after I was healthy again, it stayed with me—of scraping my teeth against her long arm bone, trying to get the last shreds of flesh. They tasted so very good.
Do you understand why your mom and I never talk about that time? Why we can’t go back? So that’s why we’re leaving, all of us. If Hong Kong is returning to China, then we’ll find somewhere else to live. I can’t be in China again. We ran away once, and we will run again. There’s no shame in escape. We have to do what we can, to preserve ourselves.
You’ll stop being troublesome, Mui Foong? You’ll be sensible, and come to London, and keep living well?
Good. I knew you’d see sense. Your mom will be so pleased.
Why have you stopped? So much food left. Come on, eat, eat some more! So skinny, you are. We need to put some meat on those bones.
Originally printed in The Brooklyn Rail, September 2015