Perhaps it was a time travel passage like those in the cheesy TV dramas, emanating smells of mystery and inscrutability in puffs of smoke echoed with the menacing fragments of dimness and dampness here and there. At one or two stories of the tong lau on both sides stuck out some rusty bars entangled with broken wires and chains which advertisements were used to being hung on but were now drenched in droplets leaking from the air-conditioners above. Still, at some other levels, half-veiled in the surging haze, some ramshackle billboards in fading colors loosely dangled outside the flaky walls and stained windows. The back alley was haunted in time and space.
Old Ping wondered if there were some young fellows leading her through the alley today. Just like those young men on a sampan 60 years ago, relentlessly rowing and oaring to the future, leaving Chungshan to Hong Kong. She, a 16-year-old farm girl, was in the boat with another village girl bucketing out the raging splashes of the waves. She still remembered the light of the moon and stars shimmered in the sea like the gold nuggets. They said Hong Kong was paved with gold. Soon she would see the real gold. She believed. She could bring it to her parents with the same bucket she was using now. Her parents would stare into her eyes, pat her head, say how proud they were in a trembling voice of regretting closing their mosquito net, showing their backs and continuing their slumber when she bid a farewell to them. Then she and her other sisters could go back to school.
A young boy passed by. Old Ping paused her steps and squinted her eyes to look at him. He was in his school uniform, a secondary 5 or 6 student like those her daughter taught at school. How lucky he was to know how to write and read! Would he come to lead her through the passage? Mixtures of fluorescent green, blue, and yellow eerily reflected on his face. He did not see her, fixating his eyes on the smartphone in his hands with his fingers fervently moving on the tiny screen. He would not! There had always been someone clutching her arm to accompany her through the misty alley since her old man had traveled to the heaven. Yes, the heaven. It was for the ordinary people, her daughter said, and she firmly believed.
Of course, Ping had no trouble to walk the way. Absolutely no. She could lean on her cane, stagger forward and reach home. She was a highly adaptable Chinese woman, the true and loyal manifest of her name, Ping, the duckweed, floating across the sea to make a strange place home. It was just she loved to chat with someone, a stranger at best, to accentuate her existence in this day and age.
“Hey Old Ping, what is fresh in the market today?” asked Old Wong, squatting to wash dishes at the back entrance of an old-style teahouse which would shut down next month and be replaced with a chain fast food restaurant.
A new blast of smoke and heat permeated with a mixed pungent flavor of chili, garlic, onion, and pepper from its kitchen stung Old Ping’s nostrils. She was choked a little. She sneaked a quick peek of the kitchen where different masters busily prepared dishes behind piles of plates and bowls and in front of the steamy stoves, stirring, scooping and sprinkling. The back of one of them was quite familiar to her, like the younger version of her man. She could not help catching a few more glimpses, following the master’s swift movements.
“Ping!” Not having heard of her answer, Old Wong called her name again.
“Oh. Not much. Just got a pomfret and some tung choi. What is the special today? It smells pretty good,” Old Ping awoke, turned her gaze to Wong and swung her plastic bags to show her trophies.
“Oh, the fried prawns. The masters said they are pretty fresh and they got a lot from the fish market today. I’ll buy one dish too after my morning shift. My son loves seafood. Do you want me to buy it for you?”
“No thanks. My daughter has the skin allergy again. She has to stay away from shrimps and crabs. The stress symptom is back. The start of a school term.”
“Oh, being a teacher is not easy. Ping, what happens to your leg? Why use a walking stick?” Old Wong ceased her wash with questions in her guileless eyes.
“Old bones, old flesh. A small accident. I tripped over in the market last week. I was lucky that I only strained my ankle.”
“You should have asked your daughter to hire a helper.”
“It costs a fortune. I can still do the housework. Why bother? She did make the same suggestion, but I turned her down. It’s not easy to earn a dollar. You know it.”
“Yes,” Old Wong sighed. “I wash and wash to earn more. My children keep persuading me to quit the job. But they do not even earn as much as your daughter does. I just wonder when they can have their own flats and settle down.”
“The good days will come, Wong,” Ping comforted her.
Old Wong smiled, soaked her gloved hands in the plastic basin and resumed her work. “Right, good days will come. They have come to my sisters. They will come to me. They will come to you.”
The good days did come to her sisters too, Old Ping thought. What would have happened if she had not boarded the sampan 60 years ago? Would she be like her sisters in the mainland now? Living in big villas and often traveling in groups? These questions knocked at her brain intermittently while she was doing the chores. She was skeptical. Was it a mistake? Of course, when she landed here, she did not think it was a gold city as those people said. She was uneducated, but she was not naïve. She just thought it was full of opportunities. Opportunities were gold, right? It was easy to get money. It was simple to be rich. Yet, the duckweed, forever ordinary and insignificant, would never be associated with fame and fortune. She worked with a sewing machine day in and day out, quietly and insistently awaiting a chance to descend. Perhaps without much knowledge, it had not come to her.
The sisters came to visit Old Ping when her old man passed away some years ago. They scrutinized the 300-foot place she lived in with her daughter and talked to her sympathetically. “Old Ping, come back more often. Stay with us. We have plenty of space. You can stay on the whole floor. We’ll cook you a big meal to fatten you up. Look at you. You are too skinny.”
Her daughter Ming brewed some tea, poured it cautiously for her four aunties, and interrupted their conversation. “Aunties, what would you like to eat? I can go down and bring some takeaways up here. There are a few Chinese teahouses around.”
Apparently, what Ming said pulled at their heartstrings. They directed their concerned gaze to Ming and lamented, “Ming, when will you get a man to help? How many degrees do you want to get? Be practical. You need a man.”
Ming could not stifle a laugh, “Aunties, it isn’t that I don’t want a man. It’s that they don’t come and get me. What can I do? Shall I grab my mic and go out in the street and shout for one?”
Proud of her daughter, Old Ping loved her wittiness and toughness. Ping echoed, “The daughters of my neighbor, Old Wong, still did not get married either. Many Hong Kong’s women are like that now. They stay single until they can find the right one. She is an adult now. You can’t control her but let her have her way. I guess she knows.”
Her smallest sister shook her head, first looked at Ming, and then at Old Ping. “You intellectuals are hard to understand. Old Ping, don’t you want to have some kids around? I just love to play with my grandsons. They are adorable.” The other sisters smiled and started to tell those funny anecdotes of their grandkids while sipping their tea. The flat was then full of laughter. Ming and Old Ping joined the laughs, but at a point or two, both of them felt they were excluded, feeling the loneliness of being the only outsiders. It was just two of them now.
Old Ping was not sure. Perhaps they were having the good days. Indeed, what could she really complain about? It was far better than the days when Ming was small, she sewed clothes, and her husband worked in a Chinese teahouse. She remembered how she scolded harshly at the seven-year-old Ming for having spent 50 dollars on a two-pound cake to celebrate Mother’s Day. Then she dabbed at Ming’s teary eyes with her blood-spotted handkerchief stained by her bleeding nose because of three consecutive overnight shifts of sewing clothes for the factory to earn an extra 10 dollars. She remembered how worried and exhausted she was when her husband broke his arm accidentally and could no longer work in the restaurant, and she then had to work extra hard to take care of her husband and daughter. Those days had long been over.
Ming did not fail them, having graduated with flying colors and landed a stable teaching job. She took both of them to different places once a year though Ming hated traveling and most of the time, she complained it tired her out more than her work did. In fact, Old Ping didn’t enjoy the travel either because of the long commute time. They knew they needed a break from the place and its people and thus they floated, no, they flew to a strange place together. They could go out to dine more often. They could have time to shop around though it was not the brand products. Who cared? They did not need them. Did she want to go back? Would it have been even better? What would her parents think about her life if they were still here? Would they be proud of her? Would they regret not holding her hands and saying goodbye to her?
Old Ping almost reached the end of the alley. She would then turn right and welcome more sunlight to take her out of the dreamy and puzzling place. She would continue to totter forward ten more minutes and reach her home. She thought of how she should cook the fish and vegetables. What style did her daughter prefer to? Did she like a steamed fish with garlic and black beans or a fried one? Oh, the answer was quite certain. She just developed some rash on her arm. It had better be steam than fry. Then should boil the tung choi with garlic. But she would complain that it would be too bland. Would she? She loved to eat tung choi, the special flavor it had regardless of the way it was cooked. Ah! To cheer her up a bit, might fry some bean curds with the spicy sauce. It was Friday, the happiest day in a week. No school days tomorrow. Who did really care the rash? Her daughter must say it. But there were no bean curds in the fridge. Okay, back to the market. It was still early, some hours before the noon. She returned to the alley again. Did Old Wong finish her washing? Any other specialties in the teahouse beside the fried prawns?
She turned around slowly, wearing a smile on her face and ready to enter, to float back into the dim and damp time travel passage again with her special walking cane bought by her daughter as her buoy.