“Why should I remarry?” Popo asks me. It’s 2011 and she is eighty now, her hair silvered and her hands crooked, a widow for nearly forty-four years.
Her response isn’t an insight but a rebuttal to my original question: “Why did you never remarry?” It’s a question I should have asked sooner, if I could have, had I ever learned Cantonese.
“I don’t know,” I laugh. “Didn’t you meet a guy or something?”
I say this to Alison, the translator whom my father has hired to help me. I’m five thousand miles away, no longer at home in Hawai‘i, in New York City—a freshman at NYU, speaking with my Popo by phone for my English oral history project. When I was given the assignment, I knew I would record Popo, because it was easier to hide my personal curiosity behind academic scholarship, which would lessen any discomforting intimacy.
“Even though he passed away, I still had my husband—and he was a very good husband,” Alison tells me, her voice hurried. I imagine Popo and Alison sitting on the brown corduroy couch, how their weight would leave faint outlines in its brown fabric. I can see Popo’s apartment, unchanged since my youth, with its white brick walls and the recessed closet on the left near her narrow kitchen. Its closet doors are pulled open to reveal inner walls covered with tinfoil and shelves lined with seven statues of varying sizes, colorful ceramic and intricate wooden Buddha and Kwan Yins, the Goddess of Compassion, as a makeshift Buddhist shrine. A small dish holds burning incense whose scented smoke spirals in the air and leaves ash in powdery clumps. By the stairs, which lead up to her and my Aunty Amy’s rooms, newspaper clippings of images—a diamond bracelet, Labrador puppies, a Christmas tree—are taped against the wall, and reach from the floor to the ceiling. As the former subject of a British colony, Popo has pasted the Royal Family in her collage, and Queen Elizabeth II smiles and waves down at us.
“We met when we were very humble, not a lot of money,” Alison continues. “We went through a lot, so I did not consider getting married again to another person.”
Then Popo shares what might be the closest thing to dating advice I’ve ever heard: “Your Gunggung had a short life, but he was a very good man. It’s not guaranteed that you will marry a good person, and so I’m lucky.”
I’m too young to learn from the wisdom in Popo’s words, to equate goodness with good fortune, but I feel buoyed by this knowledge: that she loved him, that he was good to her, that though their time together was brief, it would still last her entire lifetime.
It’s 2019, and I am twenty-seven years old when I first watch In the Mood for Love. The film, written and directed by Wong Kar Wai, has long been adored since it premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. My best friend, a formally trained actor and cultivated cinephile, tells me it’s one of her favorite films. “It’s based in Hong Kong,” she says, knowing my own family origins. I ignore her recommendation for months, until I am bored one evening at home, and finally decide to watch it. Immediately after viewing it on my laptop, I join the movie’s legion of admirers, though for reasons beyond its cinematic appeal.
The story follows Chow Mo-wan, a journalist, and a secretary named Su Li-zhen, whose spouses are having an affair. Played by Hong Kong movie stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, the jilted pair are beautiful and glamorous. Tony’s planar cheekbones cast persistent shadows down his face. Maggie’s soft, doll-like features contrast with her sharp, high-collared qipao. Because it’s impossible to see beyond their stardom to their characters, they remain Tony and Maggie to me. They’re the only Chinese people who, at least on screen, I’ve ever seen ascend beyond life’s daily toil.
It is a restless moment.
She has kept her head lowered,
to give him a chance to come closer.
But he could not, for lack of courage.
she turns and walks away.
So reads the film’s opening title cards, quoting Hong Kong novelist Liu Yichang. As the text fades, the first shot pans the interior hallway of an apartment whose walls are adorned with striped wallpaper and two portraits of a young Chinese woman. In the background, there’s the faint din of Cantonese conversation. Maggie, dressed in a sky-blue qipao patterned in blooming roses, appears on screen. She has come to this apartment, we discover, to rent a room for her and her husband. The landlady, the same woman in the portraits on the wall, agrees it’s theirs.
As Maggie leaves, Tony arrives. He’s come in hopes of letting this apartment as well. Aiyah, the landlady explains, he’s too late. As he turns to leave, she suggests that he knock next door: the owner has a remaining vacancy because his only son has married. The scene turns what might have been a classic missed connection into the reason the characters become neighbors, which eventually upends their marriages, and their lives.
In 1966, what upended Popo’s marriage and life was lung cancer. Gunggung was a merchant marine and an avid smoker. “He liked Camels,” says my father, whom I’ve asked to relay memories about Gunggung, years after my initial conversation with Popo. “Unfiltered.” He liked to strike a match on the dock, light his cigarette, then smoke as he looked out to sea.
The doctors in Hong Kong suspected that his cigarettes were the culprit, but asbestos from the ships could have been another cause. He was diagnosed three months before they were supposed to leave for Hawai‘i, where Gunggung’s oldest sister, Shin Jun, had recently immigrated. For years Shin Jun had been a Gāmsāan po, a woman whose husband lived and worked in the United States, but now, she was a working wife. In the mornings, Shin Jun would rise early. She would drive her husband, my uncle, to a Chinese diner before heading to Dole Cannery, the pineapple packaging factory where she worked. There she cut spiky pineapple into rounds and submerged them in simple syrup. In the evenings, her hands smelled sweet and ached from the acid.
After the Japanese occupation of China, Hong Kong’s population doubled. Popo, like many mainland nationals, moved to the small island nation and peninsula. Because of overcrowding, there were not enough places for everyone, so people would rent bunk beds within flats. Bodies bustled everywhere: brushing up against each other in the streets, cramming into already full buildings, sleeping side by side in small beds. Personal space was an unattainable luxury.
Popo’s older cousin, on her father’s side, told Popo to join her in Hong Kong, that she knew there was space in the apartment she was renting. Shin Jun was their landlady. In the flat, Shin Jun waited for her husband to write to her. She waited for the day she would join him. While she waited, she played mahjong with whomever she could convince to join her in the living room. Popo didn’t partake, but she agreed to keep Shin Jun company. She met Gunggung across the mahjong table. She was only seventeen.
Gunggung was handsome. He had a high forehead, broad cheekbones, and full lips. There was something sultry about his stare. Unlike other men, he was well traveled. As a merchant marine, he voyaged to places like Australia, Japan, England, Canada. He was gone for one, sometimes two years. Whenever he came back, he stayed with his sister. Reunited, the siblings would play mahjong. They competed fiercely for no reason other than pride and elevated vanity. Shin Jun would sip steaming oolong, her movements deliberate and indelicate. Gunggung would move the tiles deftly, his eyes narrowed in strategy. Popo watched them, laughing to herself, as they clacked, clacked, clacked into the night.
Despite Gunggung’s diagnosis, Popo and Gunggung uprooted, to follow Shin Jun and her husband, and two children, to the United States. They decided one night, their voices hushed but still audible to the children.
“Aiyah,” said Popo.
“We should still go,” urged Gunggung. “You’ll have family. Shin Jun will be there.”
Popo did not reply.
“Your lives will be better.”
Popo remained silent.
Gunggung borrowed money from his family for the fares—six in total. On the ship, my father’s family berthed in third class, segregated by gender. Gunggung, sick from cancer, slept most of the fourteen days, waking only for family meals. He braved a smile and tried to eat. Popo, suffering seasickness, also remained largely sequestered.
My father tells me that there seemed to be endless food on the ship. My uncle ate hungrily from the buffet, while their oldest sister, Amy, helped Popo in the laundry room. Elaine was only three, and Popo held her against her hip as they waited for the clothes to dry. My father swam for the first time in the ship’s swimming pool and almost drowned. Two weeks later, they arrived at Aloha Tower in Honolulu Harbor. Locals lined the dock, waving lei at the passengers. The latter threw money into the ocean as a gesture of generosity. Kids on shore would dive into the clear, warm water to retrieve it. The coins gleamed in their hands.
“My aunt came and picked us up, and our whole family moved into her tiny house on Frog Lane,” says my father. Shin Jun had lived in Hawai‘i for years by then. Her small, squat home was painted white and had many windows through which the trade winds would blow. True to the lane’s name, frogs would emerge from Waolani Stream, which was one street over and whose faint trickle echoed throughout the neighborhood, onto the pavement. After dusk, their croaks would shake the still night air. In the morning, my father would find them flattened by cars, their bodies gummy on the cement. Shin Jun had planted a vegetable garden and constructed a chicken coop. A huge mango tree grew outside. On hot afternoons, my father would cut their waxy skins and tender flesh. He would slurp mango juice from the crevices of his elbows and the valleys between his fingers. He was seven. I don’t believe he thought about or missed Hong Kong.