My parents, sisters and brothers-in-law live in Tin Shui Wai, about an hour from Whampoa Garden, where I live alone. I prefer taking bus No. 269B to visit my family and I take the same bus back. The bus ride, in reality, always takes more than an hour because there are quite a few stops and the traffic is rarely smooth all the way. If I want to save time, I could choose the West Rail, which takes less time and is more reliable. But I dislike the West Rail (and the MTR and the LRT). I dislike with a vehement passion being forced to share a limited space with strangers who despite the obvious lack of room, especially at busy hours, still insist on fingering their smartphones and as a result accidentally brush my shoulder or the top of my head. It is as though they themselves would expire if they stopped feeding their devices with attention for sixty seconds. But more importantly, I love to read a book on the bus. When I get a seat — and I always do on 269B because I board it at the first stop (in each direction) and there aren’t many passengers (sometimes I am the only one) — it is an hour or more of pure bliss: me and a book. Perfect union. And I pray no one sits next to me or opposite me, either directly or diagonally, although I don’t mind so long as my reading is largely undisturbed by my fellow passengers’ innocent and short-lived intrusions.
One time, I was going to Tin Shui Wai from Hong Kong Baptist University for a special family gathering, and I opted for the MTR from Kowloon Tong to Hung Hom and then taking the West Rail from there, as it was the most direct route and it was not yet rush hour. Leaving my office in haste, however, I made the very, very, very grave mistake of not putting a book — any book — in my bag. Reader, I always have at least two books (sometimes as many as four) in my bag and even though my mother and my sisters repeatedly tease me for this excessiveness I continue to do things my way. After walking for about three minutes, I realised my mistake. The burden on my left shoulder didn’t seem right: it was a bit lighter than usual. Standing at a zebra crossing waiting for the red light to turn green, I opened my bag, and I screamed inside (I couldn’t afford to lose my composure when there were students around): How could I be so careless? How could I have forgotten to take a book with me? But it was too late to turn back to my office (I was already a little late at that point). I had to march on.
When I arrived at the Kowloon Tong MTR station, I located a 7-11, thinking I was so clever, and rummaged through their newspaper/magazine stand to see if I could find something — anything — suitable to read. But there was nothing, nothing at all, that interested me. Gossip magazines, bridal magazines, games magazines. My heart sickened with self-reproach, I dragged my feet to the platform.
I can no longer remember much of that short MTR ride from Kowloon Tong to Hung Hom; I was probably still reproaching myself for being bookless. But I remember taking out my phone when I was on the West Rail. I wanted to read some Guardian articles. To my dismay, the battery was running very low and I needed to conserve it so I could contact my sisters when I was about to get off the train. I used the last bit of battery to leave a voice message for my father:
‘Dad, have you left home yet? If you haven’t left home, could you please go to my room [it’s actually no longer my room as I don’t live there anymore] and on the computer desk [there’s no computer on that desk] you will see a pile of books. Please could you pick one — any one of them — and give it to me when I see you? I have forgotten to pack a book with me!’
When I finally met my family, we spent a good evening together, chatting and eating and making jokes at one another’s expense. Soon it was time for me to leave, to take the 269B back to Whampoa Garden. My father asked me, quite out of the blue at that point, ‘Must you be reading something all the time?’ And I remembered I had left him a message which to his ears must sound ridiculous. Then my mother said, ‘You said there is a pile of books on your computer desk. You have forgotten you’ve taken most books away over the years. Every time you come home you take something with you but you never leave anything there anymore.’
I felt ashamed. And also melancholy that I would not be reading anything on the bus.
Then my mother took a book out of her bag. She said, ‘This is the only book left on your desk.’ The book was Thomas C Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, published in 2003. I bought it when I was an MPhil student at the University of Hong Kong, dreaming of being a professor one day.