Creative non-fiction / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

The Coffee Bath

by Ting J. Yu

When you're like me—born in a place where you don't know the history, and no one tells you the history, and the history, in fact, doesn't exist, or in fact exists only in documents—when you are born like that, you have to learn about where you came from … You can't simply write about the world as though it is all there, all granted to you. If you are a French or an English writer, you are born to a great knowledge of your origins and your culture. When you are born like me, in an agricultural colony far away, you have to learn everything. The writing has been a process of inquiry and learning for me.

 –V. S. Naipaul, The Paris Review, 1998


Despite her passing, she is everywhere. The same objects stand guard, waiting for Grandma's return. Her old clothes reincarnated into cleaning rags. The stool she propped me on, helping me brush my teeth after meals of steamed fish. The water pot painted with songbirds filled with bitter brews made with twigs, roots and insects from the pharmacist. "It cures everything from fever to asthma," she would insist, coaxing an entire ocean of liquid into my throat.

"I'll throw out the TV if you don't drink it all," she would threaten. Another bowl would appear after the cartoons—"The whole thing and we'll go to the turtle pond later." She liked to involve the gods, invoking their names like they were her personal friends. "I've asked Kwan Goong to come tonight! Do you want him to beat you and cut your hair and take away your toys?"

I used to believe everything Grandma told me. That spirits latched onto the eaves of roofs waiting to devour naughty children. That walnuts made you smarter because they were shaped like brains. That Chinese medicine would make me strong, "Just like Monkey King."

"As strong as the yellow Power Ranger?"

"Maybe," she said, "but Monkey King is even better. He can travel ten thousand miles on his cloud-riding boots. He is smart. He is fast. He is Gwun Yum's favourite. Don't you want to be Gwun Yum's favourite, too?"

I nodded and swallowed without breathing, cramming chunks of apple in my mouth, crunching furiously to get rid of the taste.

Most of the time though, I dreaded the sloshing bitterness that later ballooned my stomach, and I would hide under the table, pressed against the floor. At those times, she didn't need the gods and would drag me out, administering the beatings herself.


Grandma hated letting my parents do as they pleased. I was not a science experiment to be pumped full of antibiotics the colour of bad wall paint. "Stupid Western doctors and even stupider parents! Don't be afraid," she assured me, "a coffee bath will fix everything."

I was in no position to disagree. Strapped to her back in the old style, my toddler limbs were concealed under fabric embroidered with magenta peonies; four straps crisscrossed over her breasts and were knotted into a bow over her stomach.

I slept like this most of the day, head resting against her spine, feeling every rise and fall of her breath. Inhaling the acidic scent of mothballs in her clothes, the menthol oil for her increasing headaches. Swaying along with her uneven arthritic gait from years hunched over flooded rice fields. Grandma puttered around like that, muttering about children who ignored her advice, while gathering the enormous kettle and her metal tin of powdered Nescafé.


I'm staying with Grandpa while I'm in Hong Kong. His bed is already empty; I heard the gate slide shut just after his morning calisthenics. In his late eighties, he still practices his own brand of kung fu drills; bare feet sliding over floor, palms slapping skin to increase circulation, arms swinging overhead. He tried teaching me when Grandma was still alive, but like so many things, it never stuck.

I have no idea where he goes in the mornings. We're not close, so it's a relief when he leaves the apartment. No need to worry about invading his newfound space. Space defined by her absence.

They cremated Grandma two years ago.

I live on the opposite end of the Pacific Ocean. It's far. Nine thousand four hundred and sixteen kilometres of far. I couldn't fly back for her funeral. At least that's the excuse I repeat to myself. Where was the Monkey King and his cloud-riding boots when you needed him the most?

Without Grandpa watching, I'm free to roam the apartment. Examine objects of my childhood like a memory game. Touch the things she touched. I stretch in the same bed where I used to listen to trucks conducting midnight duels across the six-laned highway.

I run palms over the rattan mat, same scratchy discomfort on humid nights when the windows were left open, and her sticky body tossed and turned beside me.

I get out of bed. Walk into the silent living room. The altar is still here, self-satisfied, omnipotent, reminding me that the ancestors are always watching. Is she watching though? I brush the dark wood and a coat of dust films my fingers. I thought Grandpa had hired someone to do the cleaning.

I walk into the kitchen. No signs of cooking, though the kettle is warm. Grandpa can still manage tea. How many years has it been since coffee was brewed? Eighteen? Twenty. I cradle a hand against the bulged side of the kettle. Its surface is a lunarscape of pockmarks and craters after decades of use. It's the kind made aluminium. I'm sure it's responsible for the family's collective amnesia when I ask, "Why did she really forge those signatures?" or "What happened to the contents of her locked drawer?"


Japan ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1945. Refugees fleeing China's civil war flooded the island. You were granted citizenship if you reached British soil, so the borders were patrolled with barking German shepherds and Chinese soldiers instructed to shoot on sight. Grandma snuck across with only the clothes on her back and her two eldest children. Grandpa was already in Hong Kong.

That's what they told me at least. The snippets heard here and there. Sometimes from her mouth, sometimes from others who fill in the gaps.

The family lived first in internment camps, then squatter shacks with corrugated iron roofs, weighed down with bricks to stop typhoons from ripping them off. Between 1947 and 1949, the city's population swelled to two million. The surge of immigrants created a sprawl of shanties; three hundred thousand refugees crammed into wooden shacks radiating across the hills.

My father was their first child born in Hong Kong. Grandma would strap him to her back and walk the five-hour round trip to the rations centre where they gave away bags of rice and salt to the refugees. If he cried, she would beg a dab of sugar from a corner store, rubbing it on to his gums to keep him quiet.

They ate watery congee mixed with soy sauce and scrounged money to buy fistfuls of pork to be cooked over makeshift stoves on special occasions. They bathed at the community waterspout where Grandma would fill buckets slung across her shoulders with a bamboo pole. There were no latrines and men travelled house to house at dawn, clacking wooden blocks to announce the daily collection of night soil.

On Christmas Day 1953, cooking fuel ignited a blaze that burned for six hours. The Shek Kip Mei Fire ate through the flimsy shelters, like some starving creature, it fed off walls and devoured doors like dry kindling. Fifty-three thousand people homeless.

The government was forced to launch a public resettlement housing scheme. Hong Kong's metamorphosis from fishing village to economic powerhouse had begun.

My grandparents moved to the tenements of Wong Tai Sin. They had running water, a private kitchen and a toilet. Grandpa's sewing machine took centre stage in the forty-eight-square-metre room that was thirty per cent living space, seventy per cent superstition, dust and hoarding.

Bolts of fabric jostled for space with eight skinny offspring. They survived hand to mouth, Grandpa sewing by day, my aunts and uncles attaching "Made in HK" labels to garments by night. Grandma joined crowds of women collecting plastic flowers from factories in Kowloon; she sat with her children in the dim evening light, hand-threading them one by one.

Poverty mixed with the smell of fabric glue and working-class sweat earned the British colony HKD 823 million. All on the back of polyester carnations.


We're meeting the others at twelve for dim sum, but I'm already hungry. I should make breakfast, but I feel like a cartoon giantess in the kitchen. I loom over the sink, I turn and my hip grazes the stove. I am all limbs and no grace, clumsy in a way that Grandma never was.

She churned out dozens of dishes for family feasts, chopping, stirring and plating in that tiny space. I open the fridge. There's nothing but a lone stalk of spring onion, the green parts wilted and yellowed. Grandpa must eat out all the time now. Like a bachelor. My appetite disappears.

Things have changed so much yet not at all. Her prickly ash broom is still here. It swished over the linoleum floors sending hair strands dancing from one end of the room to the other, and Grandma would call out "You better be asleep when I'm done."

I grew up when Hong Kong had shed its corrugated-iron shelters and communal long drops, proclaiming permanence with skyscrapers, neon and gadgets galore. When it turned playground for the Rolex rich, with whiskey-lubed lunches where million-dollar real estate deals were closed thirty-eight floors above Victoria Harbour. How can this be both home and not home? Both familiar and completely alien?


My parents worked Hong Kong's economic miracle of the eighties. They had no time for childcare, leaving my grandparents to raise me on a diet of folk legends and half-truths. My mother hated it. She was everything Grandma was not; young and modern with a distaste for superstition.

Grandma made a formidable mother-in-law. Surely her son wouldn't allow "that woman" to send his daughter to a nanny centre? Wasn't it better to keep her in the family home? Better to listen to his mother who, after all, had raised all eight of them. "Hasn't everyone turned out successful?"

Grandma intimidated butchers and construction workers alike, a foul-mouthed woman who could just as quickly turn on the charm if it meant she got her way. She was a matriarch of gossip, pulling strings here, making up stuff there, wedging marital disharmony among the daughters-in-law she didn't like. She elbowed other worshippers aside at the temple, so she could maintain unbroken eye contact with the enormous statue of Wong Tai Sin, delivering prayers with machine-gun accuracy as if she had a direct phone line to the gods.

She grew rounder in later years when she didn't have to survive on boiled bark, scavenged sweet potatoes and field mice. She still spoke dialect, especially when angry. When we laughed at her mangled Cantonese, she'd slap us for our cheek.

Every year on Christmas Eve, she attended midnight mass at St. Vincent's Chapel, but for the remaining 364 days was a devout Taoist, because she believed in covering her spiritual bases. She stuffed dried pomelo peels in our bags, rubbed scented oil on our temples and forced us to drink Catholic holy water sprinkled with incense ash when our parents weren't looking.

Before we moved to New Zealand, Grandma gave me a pendant of Gwun Yum. "She will look after you," she said, fastening the silver chain around my neck. "She can hear the suffering of everyone in the world."

My mother said I was "too young for something so precious," and removed the necklace, dropping it in the red pouch that came with it. "I will keep it until you're old enough," she lied. I never saw it again.

Grandma used to sneak us to hawker stalls, stuffing us with fried noodles and ten-cent sticky puddings, dirty street food my upwardly mobile parents now shunned. She bought a live chicken once, and we watched as she gripped its neck, sliced the jugular with a blunt fruit knife and drained its blood into a bowl. Her children—softened by office work, who had never planted a grain of rice in their lives—almost fell over backwards in shock. Their mother, mouth pinched and determined, had balls bigger than all five sons combined.

At weekends, my parents took me home. It always ended with a doctor's visit. "Her house is too dusty. Burning incense day and night, no wonder she never stops coughing," my mother said, pointing at me with her chin. On Sunday evenings, I was handed back to Grandma along with a bag of pastel coloured antibiotics. It was nothing more than childhood asthma, but my mother maintained it was Grandma's fault.

Coffee baths must have been her way to maintain control when her children were grown and only came home during festivals. When they would urge her to throw out junk clogging the flat, wave away incense smoke because it caused cancer and criticise her "too salty, too oily" food.

"I've always cooked like this. You never complained when I made fried chicken."

"Doctors say it causes cholesterol and hypertension."

At first, she pretended she'd forgotten my medicine, returning unopened bottles to my parents. When they asked her what else she was forgetting, she stopped, so they wouldn't put her in the old people's home.

Maybe, for her, I was a literal embodiment of Hong Kong in its dash into the future. Her battleground between East and West, tradition and progress. Or maybe Grandma just missed having her own children around.


At nine, Grandpa comes home with a woman I've never met. They carry plastic bags of river fish, scaled and cleaned, bunches of choi sum wrapped in newspaper.

"This is Leung Tai," he says, using the married form of address. "She cleans the house for me."

"Hello." I reach out, unsure whether to shake her hand. I take the bags from her instead.

Grandpa's been gone four hours. Already half a day lived, and I feel sluggish and lazy, teeth unbrushed.

"Leung Tai is joining us for dim sum."

I don't know how to respond, so I help her unload groceries into the fridge. When she hands me the vegetables, her sleeves bunch up. I see a set of bangles around her wrists, polished red onyx with streaks of cream shot through. I recognize them.


At seventeen, Grandpa crossed the border to work for a tailor in Hong Kong. He left Grandma behind and promised to send for her, but rumours floated back that he had no such plans. That he was making fancy with the local girls.

With the threat of war looming, Grandma was not about to sit idle. To hell with five thousand years of Chinese history that denied schooling to women and demanded servitude to husbands. At least that's how I like to imagine her thought process when she instructed the scribe to write out the shame of her marriage, forging signatures and seals and letterheads.

She demanded that Hong Kong's officials reunite her with her husband. Said it would be on their heads if he divorced her. Said they would be responsible for supporting her babies. She refused to drown herself like all those stories of single women and fatherless children that our people loved so much.

The letters went unanswered and Grandma's anger turned into a kind of superhuman desperation that forced her to trek days across the hills, entering Hong Kong by moonlight.

That's what they told me at least. The snippets heard here and there. Sometimes from her mouth, sometimes from others who fill in the gaps.


Leung Tai is in the kitchen. I hover in the doorframe watching her move seamlessly about. She reaches instinctively for Grandma's knives and knows to locate the chopping board in the alcove without looking. She chops carrots, throwing lotus seeds and dried longans into a pot. "I'm making a tonic. This hot weather is too much for your Grandpa."

"Grandma uses Japanese pears."

Used to.

"Carrots are perfectly sweet and cooling," she says, not smiling.

Suddenly territorial, I reach over her into the shelves. "I need water," I say. I see nothing but unfamiliar bowls and plates.

"I moved the glasses into the living room display."

"What happened to Grandma's porcelain cups?"

"They were old and chipped. Your Grandpa picked these himself."

Grandpa, silent in the living room. I can't even look at him. I walk forcefully to the bedroom and slam the door. I open Grandma's old cabinets. Every single one is empty.


I used to sneak in here to play with her trinkets. When I used to peel away the layer of old bras, I found a world of postcards and photographs, some with anonymous heads cut out, good luck charms and dried tangerine peels, the failed appeals to the government, jade pieces and bangles she was keeping for her grandchildren and rolls of money secured with rubber bands, savings only she knew the purpose of.

Among this detritus of a life, she hid her tin of coffee. Not that Grandpa drank coffee. But that's not the point. Secrecy was essential to surviving resentment after decades of marriage. Calm days were bookended by tempestuous rages, fermenting until they spewed out as rotten ammunition aimed at the soft parts. Things like the sub-par quality of the rice he bought. Her hair clogging the drain. His farts stinking up the room before bed. Each storing a rap sheet of minor faults because their unsuitability was unthinkable after forty years of arranged marriage.


My aunt calls me, double-checking I've got directions to the restaurant.

"We're coming with a guest."

"What guest?"

"Grandpa's friend, Leung Tai."

"Put him on the line."

I feel satisfied. Smug. I give him the phone. Aunt does all the talking. He returns the phone in silence.

Leung Tai stays behind. Grandpa does not speak in the subway. I watch him, still imposing, silent against the rush of people and children freed for the holidays, licking ice blocks in colours too bright.

By the time we arrive, the breakfast machine of yum cha is already in full swing. Verb, noun, greeting, memory recall: yum cha is about taking over three tables to seat the extended family and airing personal business over steamers of dim sum, literally "dot the heart."

It was while unwrapping lotus leaf rice that it boiled over in the most public way possible. "Order more," Grandpa said, defiance in his jaw. "I will take some home so Leung Tai doesn't miss out."

Uncle slams the table. "You should've hired a hooker if sex was all you wanted!' The neighbouring table falls silent.

All of us, family I haven't seen in years, share the same look. Anger. Betrayal.


"We can go to Portland Street RIGHT now!" He pulls out his wallet, makes a show of counting out hundred dollar bills. He waves them in Grandpa's face. "I can pay for them. How many whores do you need to suck your dick?"

We finally understood that their marriage was never about love. That within three months of her death, he had given away all her jewellery and savings to a woman thirty years his junior.


Grandma instilled in us the old ways while everything around her was hurtling into the future. On the seventh month of ghosts, when the gates of hell opened and hungry spirits wandered the streets, she burnt rice paper edged with gold, creating a grey haze in the courtyard. I jumped around trying to catch the sparks. Grandma would scold me for disturbing the spirits, giving me glowing incense sticks to keep my hands still. My mother would force me into the bathroom afterwards, scrubbing furiously at the fine pollen that fell off the sticks staining everything a saffron-yellow.

At Grave Sweeping in October, she instructed us to lay fresh flowers and tell old stories to the deceased, to pour rice wine on the roofs of their granite homes. We jabbed red candles into navel oranges, peeled duck eggs, leaving green-blue shells on the ground to remind the dead we hadn't forgotten them. We laid down whole boiled chickens, head pointed towards the gravestone; she'd save the winglets for the kids, which we ate with our fingers after the candles burned out.


In the afternoon, we head into the hills. Grandma's old smoked bottle containing the rice wine is missing. No one brought the red chopsticks. We use cheap disposable ones that came with the store bought chicken.

A sepia toned photograph of her looks passively at us, suspended in a stare that I have trouble recognising. In life, Grandma's face was a topography of expressions; she revealed everything to the world.

There's been a miscommunication, and there are two sets of paper effigies as if we are grave sweeping for two people. We can't take them home because that would be bad luck, so we burn them both at once, watching the thin paper curl and blacken. It is time to go, but we are all grown, and there are no children left to eat the winglets so we pack them into the polystyrene box instead.


I decline offers for dinner that night. I take a long walk, not believing that I'm back in Hong Kong, my pole star and magnetic centre, where everything and nothing makes sense because she is gone.

I navigate to the beginning when happiness was a bowl of slow cooked pork congee served roadside at a one-burner shack. Where nights were an unholy tinge of indigo, skies hazed from the cavalcade of motor cars and monstrous double-decker busses and smoke from Marlboros lit end-to-end against a backdrop of neon signs selling 18-carat lies. Where expats pick up Filipina call-girls in Lan Kwai Fong and their hopes and dreams mix, intoxicated by the scent of violet bauhinias blooming in the night.

I backtrack via legends of dead ancestors to mid-autumn nights where you could divine the future by paper lanterns, jostled against the memories of relatives, each fighting my version of history; them proclaiming that grandma cooked Hainan chicken with a village worth of curse words, I remembering only that it was fragranced with ginger peeled by me at six years old, silver shavings raining over bare feet on scuffed tiles.


Strapped to Grandma's back, I saw the world every day at this angle; when she bent down to sweep, to scrub, to fold, I would be tipped head-first against her. I watched her prepare the coffee bath, boiling water in the standing-room-only kitchen, a chaos of expired spices, cleavers hanging from rusty nails, the plaque of the kitchen spirit charred from years of incense offerings, and everywhere bags of odds and ends from a post-war hangover that meant she hoarded everything.

She unearthed the coffee from a place only logical to her, squirreled away in her underwear cabinet, so her husband couldn't find it.

She would retrieve the red plastic basin, part laundry tub, part dish receptacle, part plaything for her grandchildren: a boat to traverse the seas of linoleum floor, a cage to trap animals roaming the Kalahari, a cauldron to stir witches' potions.

She sat me in the basin and poured the warm coffee; a molasses-dark stream of liquid that waterfalled over my skin. She soaked a washcloth, sponging my back, darkness dripping in streaks. She told me it counteracted the antibiotics, drawing excess heat from my organs. She told me the smell would frighten the spirits and make me well.

In the coffee bath, she taught me never to walk between swirling leaves because those were ghosts who had no family to feed them. She taught me to "always tell the truth because Gwun Yum knows everything between heaven and hell" and would tell her if I was lying.

This is what I know. Snippets here and there. Taken like sweets from her mouth. My memory filling the gaps.


The moon is out and Grandpa is already asleep. I pull out the tin of coffee that I bought on the way home. I boil water, enough to fill a cup but not a basin. I mix the powdered granules and watch them dissolve, the creamy froth whirlpooling into infinity until that too melts into a uniform darkness.

I hold it between my hands, but I don't drink. I look into the cup, allowing the steam to close over me, breathing in so deeply that the smell becomes everything. When it grows cold, I set it back on the table and go to bed.

When I wake up, the coffee is gone. The cup has been washed, and it sits drying on the dish rack, gleaming against the morning sun.


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