I’ve been holding back on this post for a few months now; partly because it’s another really long post, partly because of everything that has happened over the past few months. But mainly, I’ve been holding back given the subject matter is so personal and wanted to make sure that I worded it correctly to convey my emotions not only at the time, but since then:
So the main reason we went back to HK was for one last thing we needed to do for The Mothership after her passing away at the beginning of the year. We Chinese are very spiritual people and I’ve always maintained that although I don’t practice any religion like Buddhism or Taoism, I do believe in spirits – Especially since my parents have passed away. To that end, there was one last ceremony which needed to guide The Mothership’s Spirit back to the Ancestral Family Home as has been done for all my relatives. Of course, this would mean going back to the Ancestral Family Home which for us, is Kut-O (Kat-O) in the New Territories. There would be no denying that it would be an emotional occasion for all of us, but perhaps it would help in our grieving process and offer those of us there for the ceremony a sense of closure.
The idea was that the night before, we (as in my extended family and I) would all meet up for an early dinner – Early because most of us had a stupidly early start the following morning to get to Kut-O and a gathering because it was my niece L’s Birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t start so well as some members were late getting to the restaurant so despite planning to be done by about 8pm, we didn’t actually start ordering until about 7.30pm.. Still, it was a stellar meal complete with specialities like drunken squab (as compared to chicken), tea-smoked pigeon (which was amazingly good) and 2 types of Shanghai dumplings which were so good we asked for extra. A good time was had by all, especially the Birthday Girl who looked genuinely happy to receive the joke gift of a “Por Por (Grandma) Shirt” which was a very old-fashioned nylon shirt which you see all Chinese women all over the world aged 65+ wear. It seemed right that L should have got a Por Por Shirt, especially as we were going back for her Por Por.
I couldn’t really sleep, given the occasion, but also because we ended up going to bed much later than originally planned, though I still managed to get about 4 hours (which was OK since I discovered on this trip that I do NOT function well on 2 hours sleep!). It felt a bit odd to be showering whilst it was still dark outside and as we made our way to the bus to take us to the train station across the harbour, I couldn’t quite figure out if the shops we passed were clearing up for the night or setting up for the day. One thing is for sure though; nothing beats freshly baked goods wherever you are in the world – The fresh Chinese hot dog buns were just what we needed to eat at 5am!
It never ceases to amaze me how busy public transport is at 5am – It was standing room only on the bus to cross the harbour to Hung Hom, even on a Saturday so I dread to think what it’s like on a weekday. Once we crossed the harbour, it was onto Hung Hom train station where we got the train through Kowloon and into the New Territories to Sheung Shui. The train was busy, but we all managed to get a seat (though not seated together). I just put on my shades, slung back in my seat, put on some music and enjoyed the scenery as we travelled past. I’ve previously mentioned how the further North you go away from the modern metropolis that is HK Island, the landscape becomes more rural and sometimes I find it hard to believe that we’re still in Hong Kong. That said, you can’t stop the world modernising and even in little Sheung Shui, there is a modern shopping mall and (horror of horrors), a Burger King! Seriously, it wasn’t there 6 years ago and I liked the feeling that Sheung Shui and the New Territories are like a part of Hong Kong of yesteryear which modernisation hasn’t ruined yet. So to see a modern shopping mall similar to what you’d get in Kowloon or HK Island was a brutal reminder that you can’t stop progress and modernisation.
Once we got to Sheung Shui, we had to get a mini bus to Sha Tau Kok (STK) which is right on the border to China (and is also why you need a special permit to go there). There was a bit of tension about us all getting the mini bus as there was a large group of us (we met some cousins there, too) and we had to make sure we got to STK in time to catch the 08:30 ferry to Kut-O so when only half the group managed to get onto the first mini bus, there was a moment of tension when we didn’t know when the next mini bus would be. As it happens, it was right behind the first mini bus so crisis averted! The journey itself was quite something, even 6 years previously, there weren’t that many roads so it was a bit odd to see actual roads with the mini bus steaming along. The engines are modified so that their maximum speed is 80KPH (and the speed limit is 70KPH) but trust me, they push the engines all the way to top speed! Apart from that, the scenery was lovely as we hurtled towards STK.
Once we reached STK, Border Control are there to check our passes. I say Border Control, but it’s pretty much like a sheltered bus stop for the Border Control Police to take cover. Again, we had a momentary panic when my cousin struggled to find his permit but he found it eventually and we were all on our merry way again.
We got to Sha Tau Kok with plenty of time to spare before the first ferry, so we headed to the food court of the local market and ordered way too much food for a quick breakfast stop before making our way to the ferry. It wasn’t anything special, but it was sufficient enough to fuel us up knowing that we had a long day still.
It was on the walk to the pier that my emotions started stirring; The area across the border in mainland China was really developed now, but STK was even more of a ghost town then before. I can remember the first time I went back in the 1980s and the main street was still quite busy but when I was last there 6 years ago, most of the shops had closed and it wasn’t much better now. However, despite the mass development in China, there is still a peaceful tranquility in STK. Granted, there was a greater presence of the Border Police which wasn’t there 6 years ago, but at the end of the pier was the unmistakable sight of the local ferry ready to take us all to Kut O.
My shades were kept firmly on my face as I tried to cover up the fact that I was crying so much; I always knew it was going to be emotional going back for the first time without either parent but I did as I as instructed by my Cousin and spoke to the Mothership as if she were there with me to let her know what was happening (“We’re going to Singapore now” “We’ve arrived at Hong Kong now” “we’re setting off for Kut-O now”). Obviously there weren’t as many people on the island as there were last time I was there (which was part of a large festival which occurs every 10 years), but it was still something to see the ancestral family home – And opposite the Ancestral Family temple, which is a new building but housed all the names (and spirits) of my ancestors. For many of us, this was the first time we saw the building and of course, I burst into tears when I saw my Dad’s plaque, but conversely, I felt a strong sense of peace and calm knowing that I was standing in front of all my family and ancestors.
As everyone got set up ready for the ceremony, I made myself look busy so that it wasn’t immediately obvious to everyone else that I was crying. I wasn’t too sure exactly why I was crying, but thinking about it now, I think it was just the culmination of everything that had led to that day – And that realisation that this day (date) we had spent so long building up to was finally here, and we could finally bring the Mothership’s spirit home to be with my ancestors. There was another brief moment of even more tears when we presented a cousin of mine (whom had always been particularly good to the Mothership) with one of her bracelets to keep as a memento of her, but it wasn’t too long before all the family members were summoned to gather together because the ceremony was due to begin;
In front of the temple, we were all instructed to kneel whilst the spirit guide summoned the Mothership’s spirit to join us and then we all waited until her spirit was with us. One of my cousins was saying that she’s seen cases where it’s taken hours, sometimes days for the spirit to arrive – And the family have to remain knelt down at all times. However, the spirit guide looked up and immediately said: “She’s here” and whilst there was a part of me that was slightly freaked out by the fact that my Mother’s spirit was there with us all right at that moment, I strangely felt relief and calm at the same time. My cousin remarked that it was almost as if Mum’s spirit was waiting to be summoned, then told me I’d done a good job keeping her Spirit with me all the way from the family home in Birmingham. Well, you can imagine how I reacted to hearing that (yes, more tears).
Then came the second part of the ceremony where inside the Ancestral family temple, the Mothership’s spirit is invited to reside on a plaque, before it’s placed with the rest of my ancestors. Again, we the family had to kneel down throughout the ceremony; prayers were said, incense was burned and the Spirit guide stood at the very front conducting the whole ceremony whilst we all knelt behind him. I say we all, that is everyone except my eldest sister and myself because for whatever medical and physical reasons, we couldn’t actually kneel (or in my case I would seriously struggle to get back up afterwards). Bearing in mind that the spirit guide was at the very front and we all knelt behind him, he said the words to invite Mum’s spirit to take her place with the rest of my ancestors there, then he dropped what sounded like a bunch of keys or coins and from the way they dropped, he would be able to tell if Mum’s spirit had gone or not. However, this time he dropped the keys or whatever it was and IMMEDIATELY asked “Who’s isn’t kneeling” and turned around sharply. Well, my sister and I felt *really* shit then and it was explained why we weren’t kneeling and again, he invited Mum’s spirit to take her place with my ancestors and added that “2 of your daughters are unable to kneel, please don’t take offence at that” and dropped the keys/coins again. With a nod of approval, this time he said “She’s taken her place”. I’m not saying there was an immediate spontaneous outpouring of joy, but there was a sense of deeper calm and relief amongst us all that not only had everything in the ceremony gone through without (too much of) a hitch, but that finally, Mum was with the rest of our ancestors and though none of actually said it out loud, we knew that Mum was finally reunited with Dad.
There were a few hours to kill before lunch, so whilst the rest of my family literally went up the hill to the ancient family plot, I took the time to explore some parts of the island in its peaceful beauty; the last time I was there in 2006, the island was really busy and I never really got a chance to take a look around. There are only about 50 inhabitants left on the island so a lot of buildings have sadly fallen into a state of disrepair, but it also brought up some interesting architecture like how the trees roots have grown around some of the derelict buildings which almost make it seem like the trees are eating the building. However, the downtime also gave us all a chance to hang out with each other and catch up a bit.
As with every Chinese ceremony, there was a feast afterwards. This one took place in my late cousin’s restaurant on the island. I have very fond memories of this place because it’s pretty much the only restaurant on the whole island and my parents (Dad especially) were proud of my cousin and her family for doing so well. In recent years, as the island became a weekend tourist destination, the restaurant has been doing roaring trade with the tourists (expanding to several building spaces next door and opposite when they became available). In particular, the restaurant is the recipient of several accolades and recommendations for their steamed cuttlefish balls, so it was entirely appropriate that we should all convene there to eat;
I love going to this place because it’s a reminder of how places operate without a central gas supply or electricity. I headed through the main kitchen where one cousin was heating up the chicken, to the outside part at the back where my other cousin was busy chopping the suckling pig we had bought (treating the dogs which had gathered round to the trotters). Looking at the place, it would absolutely fail an environmental health inspection in this Country, but I loved seeing the old wood burning stoves with the giant steamers and various pots of delicious food served there, cooked just as they used to for decades – Certainly no molecular gastronomy here and they haven’t killed or poisoned anyone from their cooking yet!
The food we ate was fantastic – lots of fresh seafood, including the steamed cuttlefish balls which the restaurant is so famous for. That said, we weren’t really there for the food but the fact that we were all there together, enjoying a meal in celebration of The Mothership made it all worthwhile. We did have a bit of a giggle in that the pork and taro (kau yuk) which came out, whilst not bad in any way, wasn’t a patch on my sister M’s rendition which we enjoyed in Singapore the previous week.
I can’t quite describe fully the sense of relief and calm that’s been with me since that day; it’s like a great release, like a great weight has been lifted.. I guess that I never realised or acknowledged just how anxious or important it was for me to see Mum’s Spirit taking her rightful place by my ancestors but most of all, there has been an overwhelming sense of calm knowing that she’s with them now, watching over us. Although it was a very emotional day and ceremony for us all, I personally felt a great sense of calm and of feeling completely at peace once the ceremony was over. For the first time since she passed away, I can talk about her without bursting into tears and given how we all went back to get some sort of closure, I think we all got that. I know that The Mothership would have been thrilled at how many of us went back for her and even though some of my sisters couldn’t actually make it on the day with us back to Kut-O, I know that they were thinking of us all and if you will all indulge me, they were there in our hearts and in spirit – Which would have been enough for Mum. As we left on the last boat from the island back to STK, my brother, sisters and I all knew without saying that we felt the bond between us all to be stronger than ever and began to make plans to return in 2016 (for the big festival held every 10 years which I mentioned earlier). I’ve always maintained that my family are the most important people in my life and the whole trip has brought us all even closer together – Which I know would have thrilled The Mothership to bits.