When I was a small kid, my dad liked to take me everywhere, from Shum Shui Po to Yau Tsim Mong, and wandering without particular purpose. We strolled along the streets and talked about the things we saw or heard on the way, such as the history of a shop, or the hearsay of a family. But later I found out that most of the stories were totally made up. Well, I didn’t mind, as listening to stories was fun enough. Sometimes, we wandered until it got dark and the neon lights started shinning. The neon lights became signposts that guide our way home.
I still remember some of the neon signs that we saw on the way. One of them was “Single-eyed Herbal Tea” in Yau Ma Tei. I remember it very well because my dad always said “Never drink this herbal tea, otherwise, you would become single-eyed too!” – how ridiculous was that idea! Another sign in my memory is “Great Wall Book Store” near Boundary Street. It had a huge classical sailboat model at the window display and I loved to linger around the store. The last one I still recall is “Kowloon Watch Company”. The strong impression of the sign comes from how adults would always encourage kids by saying “be diligent and when you come first in the class, I will take you to the Kowloon Watch Company and buy you a watch.” – well, whether it would actually happen was another matter. Wandering around the street, that was how life was like for us.
One day around 5pm, dad and I strolled to the little open space in the junction of Kansu Street and Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei. We went to have a casual chat with my dad’s friend Uncle Wun. He was visually impaired and he made a living by singing on the street or at tea houses. Later on when I was a bit more grown-up, I learned that he sometimes sang in the red-light district too. My dad was a Cantonese Opera actor, he liked Uncle Wun’s Guzheng performance and his singing of Naamyam (a unique Cantonese narrative singing tradition) very much. Many times, when they were chatting, they would start humming some familiar tunes that I once heard from the radio. However, sometimes they would sing other songs that I did not recognise. I got to know later, that these were sonorous improvision that were snapshots in their life-long reminiscence; songs that were about their childhood, how they grew up, how they were bullied and other happy memories of theirs. Now that I have grown up, I come to understand that is the vicissitude of life.
On that evening, they were singing and chatting away when the sun started to set. The neon lights began to brighten up common people’s bustling nightlife. It was in the early 1960s, when neon lights were starting to be popular within the city and I was only 6 or 7 years old. Dad took my little hand and we walked under the shinning lights, a sense of heartwarming feeling surged within me. Uncle Wun had to go to work and therefore we got up and left with him. He pointed to the direction of Temple Street and said he would sing for young ladies such as Chun Fa and An Lau as well as their clients. I followed the direction his guiding stick was pointing to, only neon signs of mahjong school came into my sight. I asked dad why I couldn’t see Chun Fa and An Lau, and my dad just smiled without saying a word.
We could have actually walked directly through the open area in front of the Tin HauTemple, but Uncle Wun took a more devious route. I didn’t mind as I found it much more interesting to walk along Shanghai Street – there were numerous hawker stalls displaying their goods on the ground. I couldn’t recall what the goods were, but I remember one toy stall that sold this tin toy that looked like a budding flower. The hawker would click the switch and the petals would open one by one, up came a dancing girl. It was a magical sight for a little boy at my age. We couldn’t afford it, but watching the hawker’s demonstration was fun enough. After twenty years or so, on a small street in Budapest, Hungary, I saw a restaurant’s neon sign with a dancing girl that looked exactly the same as that tin toy. It felt like bumping into an old friend in a distant land, I stopped there and gazed for quite a while. The name of that restaurant was Dancing Girl.
We carried on walking to Public Square Street, the neon sign of Mido Café was waving to us, but we always turned a blind eye to it as we could never afford dining there. We went from Public Square Street turning to Temple Street, heading towards where the mahjong school neon sign was. As I came closer to the mahjong school, I started feeling uneasy because dad liked playing mahjong. You might wonder, he wouldn’t take his son into a mahjong school with him, would he? In fact, he would, despite my unwillingness. When I raised my eyes, I saw dad’s face lightened up by the color of the neon lights, a face I couldn’t quite comprehend. He then handed me to Uncle Wun, noting he’d be right back after four rounds of game. Dad patted my head and told me not to be afraid as Uncle Wun, auntie Chun Fa and An Lau were just next door. After saying a few words to auntie Chun Fa and An Lau, Uncle Wun passed me to them. He asked me to wait there for my dad, and then went upstairs to work. Auntie Chun Fa and An Lau settled me down by giving me some food and drink, and then they went on about with their business, soliciting the men passing by. It was entertaining to watch at first, but I soon started to feel bored.
As a street boy, of course I had the impulse to venture onto the street. I remembered dad once brought me to a store that sold tailor-made wooden clogs. The old craftsman kept murmuring melodically whilst working, as if once he stopped humming, clogs would not be made. I loved watching him making clogs, so I decided to pay him a visit. Another thing being a street boy was that I was good at recognising the way around. So I glanced up at the mahjong school’s neon sign, the only word I knew was “Fat” (meaning “fortune” in Chinese). I knew as long as I saw this sign, I would know my way back, so I started heading out and looked back from time to time to check on the sign.
I remember there were a few embroidery shops beside the clogs store. These shops had no neon signs, but still they were conspicuous because the shinny red and gold color of wedding gowns brightened up the shops. I walked and kept looking back to locate the mahjong school’s neon sign to make sure I knew the way back. When I found the clog store, no one was there, but those beautiful clogs were lined up in array like soldiers. Some clogs were for butchers, which looked plain and dull with only the original wood color. The painted clogs looked much nicer with floral and bird patterns, and I loved those coated leather ones the most as they were vibrant and colorful. I preferred purple ones. I squatted down in front of the store looking at the clogs, and they seemed to be looking at me too. I said, “let’s go and play”, and it seemed that they replied, “yes, let’s go and play”. All of a sudden, the clogs started dancing and tapping, much like the tap dancing that I watched years later when I grew up. They seemed to be having so much fun, so I put on a pair of purple-coated clogs and danced with them along the rhythm! I danced down the street cheerfully while all other clogs followed, people on the street seemed to be affected by the joyful troop as well. The street was my stage and the neon lights were the spotlights. I got more and more excited as I danced down the street, I enjoyed it so much, and got so carried away that I forgot to look back at the neon sign of the mahjong school with the word “Fat” on it.
As I got exhausted, the clogs on my feet disappeared; the array of clogs following me was gone, too. I was so scared to find that I was alone and lost. I couldn’t locate the mahjong school’s neon light with the word “Fat” on it and I started crying and calling out for Uncle Wun and dad. I was tired, frightened and in tear when a man came out from a store and asked me, “Are you looking for Uncle Wun? You know that blind man who sings?” I nodded and he led me to a shop, saying that Uncle Wun was still working and he would ask somebody to inform him later to pick me up. So I followed him into the store. It was only after I got in there and I realised that it was a coffin shop, which made me even more frightened. But I was too tired to care and fell asleep, in a daze I felt someone carrying me and putting me in bed.
A couple of weeks ago, I followed the footprints in my childhood once again. The streets and shops looked different from the good old days. Many neon signs were gone. For those still hanging there, only the dusty tubes remained, with no chance of shining again. From Temple Street walking along, I came upon the neon sign of Tai Heng Lei Mahjong School, and next to it, Dun Wong Sauna. Walking to the end of Temple Street, where it crossed with Man Ming Lane, there was a little park. I sat in the park, looking out to Temple Street where the sign of Kai Kee Mahjong School was hung right in front of me. Under the flickering neon light, was the bustling crowd from all walks of life; there were those who would sell and those who would buy; some would shout and some walked by quietly. That was a trail of physical pleasures for the mortal souls, and this was where my father would take me while I was young.
Looking around, on my left hand side was Portland Street where there were a few coffin shops, a place that I was very afraid of as a child. Now that I am old and have experienced several deaths of friends and relatives, I realise there is nothing to be afraid of anymore. I had a sudden urge to walk towards the coffin shops, to pay respect to the deceased and to my friends who are now gone; and furthermore, to say farewell to my childhood fear. So I started heading towards the coffin shops around Portland Street. Among the three funeral shops, only Wing Fook Funeral Home was open. As I was testing out my fear by walking closer to the coffins, I was startled by a little boy rising from one of the coffins! Taken aback by the surprise, I gathered myself and looked clearly to make sure that he was a living person.
He seems to be at a loss and was looking for someone. There was no one in the shop. As he saw me, he came to me and said, “Sir, would you help me find Uncle Wun and my dad? My dad was in a mahjong club with the word “Fat” in its name and Uncle Wun went to auntie Chun Fa and An Lau...” The boy sobbed as he explained. Since, in some unexplainable fate, that he decided to seek my help, I decided to walk with him and take him to his father. So I took his hand and started walking.
As we walked along, a tune started ringing in my head:
…… Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you
We walked to the little park that I took a rest a while ago, in front of us was Kai Kee. The boy shook his head and said, “no, no, it should be Fat something Mahjong”. I told him there was another one ahead, so I led him through the crowd. When we walked near Tai Heng Lei, he began shaking his head again and said, “next to the mahjong club there should be a group of aunties called Chun Fa and An Lau, not some shops with a name of Sauna.” I thought there should be many aunties like Chun Fa and An Lau at Dun Wong Sauna as well. So I said to the boy, “Well, why don’t you go ahead and take a look anyway? I’ll stay here and wait for you, in case that is not the place...” The boy looked up dubiously and walked ahead, and I slowly let go of his hand.
As I let go of the man’s hand and walked away, I found the mahjong school quite familiar and I realised it might be the one I was looking for. I recognised the pattern and color on the wall, the door, and also the noises and smelly cigarette smokes coming from inside. I peeped through the crack of the door when people were coming in and out, and saw that dad was still playing mahjong. This must be “Fat something” mahjong school. And then I heard the voice of auntie Chun Fa and An Lau, “Hey kid, where have you been? Weren’t you supposed to be waiting for your dad here?” The Dun something Sauna next door vanished, and I thought of that man who took me here. I looked back, but I could only see the crowd and couldn’t find him anymore.
As I saw the boy was able to find his dad, I walked away. I left and walked from Man Ming Lane back to Shanghai Street. It’s about time, as I was heading to meet an old fortune-teller, not for the sake of fortune telling though. My aim was to take back an umbrella that I left behind in my last visit. He was a master in fortune telling, living right above where the Wai Yuan Tong’s sign was. Having lived in Yau Ma Tei for several decades, he has got a lot of stories to tell. In my last visit, as he was telling me his compelling life stories, I asked for my fortune telling. Yet he remarked seriously, “If nothing is going wrong in your life, don’t ask for fortune telling carelessly.” Why? I didn’t have the time to ask. Then, I left behind my umbrella, perhaps it was not an accident. Perhaps I wanted to find out, as a fortune teller who told stories of others to the owners, why would he ask people not to do fortune telling?
I walked slowly toward where the fortune-teller was. A group of people where preaching across the street, singing:
Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
Maybe everything that dies someday comes back……