Lovers, Dogs, Etc. (Cheung Shue Tan Village 樟樹灘鄉)

● If you’ve ever liked any of the poetry I’ve posted on this site, you have Hong Kong to thank. It was my first trip there in 1998 that really got me writing again after a bit of a lull. What do I remember about Cheung Shue Tan? There was an old woman who made wonderful scarecrows out of modern-looking dolls with very Western faces: well, they certainly scared me! And there was the crab that stayed up one night to greet me in the moonlight after another hard day at the office at nearby CUHK. It had one big, white-tipped claw that shone at me through the dark. And of course there was Mr Yeung’s sandalwood incense, burnt at dawn and dusk to appease the ancestors and, in the process, bringing a hint of true fragrance into my life . . .

Oh, and before I forget, there was the huge python that crossed the road as a file of us were making our down from the bus stop. You know that feeling: human beings standing very still, hardly daring to move, while waiting for danger to take our breath away.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Love walks the lovers down the hill with practised elegance until —
aaai! it looks like an insect got her right in the eye
(they’ve got me too this way and no doubt you as well . . .).
There’s, she’s fixed. They walk off again down the asphalt road,
the dark patch there banana trees actually by daylight
still busy with small fruit this time of year (autumn).
I say hello to “my” dogs like signposts along the way:
the timid one that lies in front of careless traffic —
canine death-wish (I think to myself) — home-life must be bad,
and the wicky black one with the black tongue to match
his friendly bad manners.
I’m always moved by the endurance of these creatures, their doggedness
(sorry . . .),
patient through endless rounds of gates, locks and fences,
all the human words for NO! banging in dog-ears.
(Oh, the lovers have just turned off. Why do I always
take my eyes off the lovers?)
Here’s the giant grape-fruit tree (the tree itself largish)
on the corner that smells of shit worse somehow after dark.
I say a few soothing words to the mutt in the Plexiglas kennel,
the one that gives me that gitouttahere growl every time
(I’d give me that growl too cooped up in such “space”)
and there looms home unlit on the first floor
above Mr Yeung’s flat with the two glaring door-gods
pasted squarely before me on his glass sliding-doors
to ward off evil.


Photograph: Tai Po Cheung Shue Tan Heung

《新心界》: 第六章

•  「心界」

阿綠約咗陳之一喺上晝十一點見面。東鐵嘅粉嶺站俾人嘅印象係比較平易近人,香港大部份嘅車站都好似迷宮咁,繁忙時間特別容易令人攪錯:蕩失路、喪失方向感、揾唔到想揾嘅出口等等。粉嶺就零捨唔同,上樓梯行到車站大堂,就可以一目瞭然,睇清楚整體佈局。因此,阿綠即刻見到 A1 出口嘅位置,再行近啲就見到一早就喺度等緊佢嘅高瘦外國人。唔識阿一嘅人會以為佢喺度進行緊一次獨白式嘅演講。

四月份嘅天空雖然比較陰暗,但並冇落雨嘅先兆,所以佢哋決定慢慢行到聯和墟。出站後,繞過左邊嘅小巴站,呢度成日會有的士、小型貨車來來回回咁上貨、落貨,相信同呢一帶聚集嘅小販有關。阿綠同陳之一經過時,見到唔少人打開紙皮箱,討論入面嘅商品,阿一又見到佢地更為其中一樣物品嘈起上嚟(其實,陳之一喺呢度攪錯咗:佢哋只不過係討價還價啫,平時好少會嗌交)。另外又有一班好似已經做完生意嘅人,匿埋喺某個角落裏面玩啤牌、吹吹水。穿過停車場,行上天橋,佢哋由高處俯瞰下面,見到粉嶺遊樂場上打波嘅年輕人,又遠望向靈山方向嘅人間景致:建築物、街道、車輛。橋上兩邊欄杆上有時會掛著唔同政黨嘅宣傳横額,橫額上有立法會議員嘅臉龐,笑眯眯又充滿期待咁望住途人,其中有一兩幅已經遭到破壞,雙眼被人無情咁割爛,嘴巴又被鎅成一條狹窄嘅裂縫。不過,呢啲事主並未因此放棄,佢哋仍然盼望得到市民嘅認同。

天橋嘅另一邊就係沙頭角公路,離擁用高高紅色風琴閘門嘅消防局好近,阿綠同陳之一都小心翼翼咁橫過斑馬線(外國男人早就知道香港嘅司機唔會因設有斑馬線而讓路)。鏡頭真係超級有趣:一隻帶有黑色條紋嘅白馬同另一隻具白色條紋嘅黑馬,同時踏上斑馬線!但係好可惜,嗰陣時咁啱連一架車都冇,所以冇人目睹呢次罕見嘅奇觀。斑馬線另一頭就係祥華邨。佢哋沿住一條石屎路進入呢個屋邨,穿過邨內商場嘅時候,陳之一就特別注意到嗰度有間基督教香港迦南堂,每次瞥到「迦南」呢兩個字就會回憶自己童年時被父母送到主日學嘅事。或者缺乏生父嘅人比較容易接受天父為自己嘅救世主?﹗「你們要遵照上主的命令消滅所有的赫人、亞摩利人、迦南人、比利洗人、希未人、耶布斯人」。不過,佢始終都無法明白上帝點解命令以色列人咁樣對待名字好好聽嘅迦南人?

跟著,佢哋就落斜入行人隧道,去到浸信會路段,道路旁邊種有幾樖巨大嘅白千層,見到呢啲原產澳洲嘅「紙皮樹」(澳洲人用澳式英文對呢種樹嘅稱呼),陳之一再次諗起同澳洲有關嘅回憶。然後,兩人轉左,沿住聯益街行到聯和道,經過街市嘅原址之後,就喺聯興交通燈等緊過馬路。面對對面呢隻擘大嘅紅色眼珠時,佢哋後面突然響起音量尖厲嘅流行歌聲,阿綠回頭見到一個中年男人,頸上掛著一部中型收音機,啱啱步入等緊過馬路嘅人群中。阿綠覺得呢個人顯得可憐,佢只能靠音樂營造自己嘅個性,先至有勇氣行出嚟。不過,陳之一就好反感,覺得佢呢啲行為極度自私,認為係侵略他人嘅內心世界,令外國男人甚為不滿。

交通燈變成綠色之後,唔使三分鐘佢哋就去到聯和墟二樓嘅熟食中心。正值中午時份,顧客一啲都唔少。佢哋好好彩,好快喺入口旁嘅「添仔蝦餃」揾到位,啱啱有一張空檯。食肆嘅設備份外簡樸,一啲奢侈嘅架子都冇,呢點係陳之一特別愛戴。坐好咗,服務姐姐就馬上送上一隻注滿熱水嘅大碗,方便外國人將筷子、塑膠碗仔等好好淥洗一番。與此同時,阿綠就嗌嘢食:兩碗粥、一份蘿蔔糕、一份鮮蝦腸粉,同埋其中最不能缺少嘅添仔蝦餃,一叫就叫咗三籠蝦餃。攪掂後,兩個人就可以開心咁傾返兩回計。

「阿翠嗰晚掟酒杯,打爛咗你媽媽嘅畫,肯定會令到你好傷心。其實,你知唔知佢點解要咁做?有冇咩嘢特別嘅原因」陳之一好關心咁問阿綠。

「其實,我一直以為佢屬於嗰種好有自信心嘅人,人又靚,讀書又叻。不過自從佢今次返香港以嚟,佢好似發生咗一啲根本變化:神經變得越嚟越緊張,可能揾唔到嘢做啦,連自信都開始動搖起嚟。唉,我真係估唔到佢會借酒消愁!可能係我同佢呢排關係唔係太好,又冇咩機會見面。不過,佢而家好返少少,早排清明節時,我哋一齊去咗半春園掃墓,祭拜我媽媽,期間都有機會傾吓計,我哋兩個嘅距離拉近返少少。」阿綠慢慢解釋佢知。

「依我睇,不如諗辦法俾機會佢多多接觸香港嘅大自然。佢需要嘅恰恰係森林,大自然會令佢放鬆啲,減少內心積累嘅壓力。呢排天氣已經開始轉好,加上展覽都已經圓滿結束,你哋應該去離島行吓,散散心。」陳之一當然諗起靳孚翠總會隨身攜帶一盒火柴。

講到呢度,啲點心、粥品都送到檯上,兩人之間突然出現一股白白嘅蒸氣。呢一刻,陳之一可以聞到竹籠滲透出淡淡嘅竹香。喺呢一片輕微嘅薄霧之中,阿綠聽到陳之一問服務員「唔該姐姐,有冇喼汁呀?」

服務員默默咁指向隔離嘅一張長檯,長檯堆滿餐具、豉油樽、雜物等,外國人跟著企起身,行過去攞佢想要嘅調味汁。

阿綠以一種略帶驚奇嘅眼神,望住手持膠樽嘅陳之一:「攞喼汁嚟做乜?」

外國人簡單咁解釋:「嚟呢度食蝦餃我總愛加上喼汁,酸味味,甜甜哋,都唔知幾過癮!不如你都試吓啦!」

阿綠隨即搖搖頭,繼續喺匙羹上小心翼翼咁呷粥。兩人津津有味咁食晏。不過,食完兩籠蝦餃之後,阿綠忽然諗起一個好重要嘅問題:

「對唔住,請杯仙嗰晚,因為心情太過複雜嘅關係,我唔記得俾機會你向杯仙提問。其實,你原先打算問乜?」

陳之一慢慢將二月份去過西貢天后廟時,將問杯嘅事向阿綠一一講解,認為嗰日收到嘅答覆好似暗示其父親已經離世。之後,遇到請杯仙嘅機會,佢真係忍唔住想再問問呢件事,但最後又揸唔定主意,覺得如果真係確定父親嘅死亡會太難接受。

阿綠好有耐心聽聽陳之一嘅呢番說話,不過等阿一講完之後佢就開始用力搖頭:

「你睇,問杯嘅結果會唔會有第二種解釋:或者你父親正正因為已經收到你寫嘅其中一封信,所以天后叫你唔使再寫信俾佢啦。答案唔一定係負面嘅,有可能係正面樂觀㗎!」

外國人一開始好似唔想接受阿綠嘅睇法,但係佢臉上嘅臉色逐漸發生變化,表情慢慢變得明亮,最後更可以睇出佢有幾份豁然開朗嘅感覺。此刻,阿綠嘅手機低聲響起嚟。陳之一聽佢嘅語氣就估到一定有急事,因而放低筷子,仔細觀察呢位朋友嘅神情變化。收線後,阿綠連忙執好自己嘅嘢,明顯係準備離開。

「阿一,對唔住!剛才裱畫公司話遇到嚴重問題,佢話我阿媽嗰幅自畫像嘅背面貼有一堆廢紙,唔知點樣處理先至妥當,因此就無法繼續裱畫工作。我答應佢返翻大埔幫佢睇吓,以免呢幅自畫像無意中遭受破壞。至於你演講嗰件事,你有問題就再同我聯絡,唔使同我客氣!好啦,我走啦!你今次埋單有冇問題?」

「冇問題!」陳之一立刻回答。不過呢刻阿綠嘅背影好快喺往下嘅扶手電梯上消失,好似未曾出現過。

* * *

新界對於陳之一嚟講就好似磁石咁,絶對冇法抗拒,但佢又冇法向其他人解釋呢種力量嘅所在。儘管呢個問題佢都諗咗好耐,只能得出唯一但仍然模糊嘅結論:内部光」。

離開聯和墟後,佢就一直往粉嶺東邊麻笏河行過去。經過安全街嘅時候,佢出於好奇心,不自覺停下腳步,睇睇一架好大好長嘅貨車,向某間公司嘅入口慢慢倒車入去,而為咗幫助司機順利倒車,司機嘅友人用一條鐵通用力敲打路旁嘅欄杆,透過打擊嘅節奏、聲音傳達相當有用嘅信息俾司機,令佢能夠順利泊好貨車。不過,呢種洪亮嘅金屬撞擊嘈音,就一直停留喺陳之一嘅雙耳中,嗡嗡作響。

好可惜,麻笏河早被香港嘅城市規劃師「規劃」了,牢牢困於大量石屎之中,樣貌同明渠差唔多,同樣係雨後會流動著混濁嘅污水,已經喪失河流應有嘅活力同埋自發性。為此,外國人低聲毒罵上古治水嘅大禹,因爲由大禹開始,華夏文明就特別重視治水嘅技巧,去到二十世紀下半葉,隨著現代科技嘅昌明,「蕞爾小島」之居民對於淹沒嘅憂慮得到充分嘅表現。想必過去香港人係飽受水浸帶嚟痛苦,因此而家嘅防洪熱情,真係做得太過火,所謂嘅建設,其實正正糟蹋、蹂躪緊大自然啦!不過,諗到呢度一點,陳之一見到兩隻小白鷺,非常悠閑咁飛過嚟,其後喺有垃圾但冇青草嘅假「河畔」上,充滿氣質又優雅地尋覓食物。

麻笏河另一邊係粉嶺,過河後就踏入龍躍頭一帶,市區由此驟然退去,跟住可以察覺到新界原有嘅田園風情。喺崇謙堂附近,外國男人不慌不忙咁行過一大笪荒廢嘅土地,因為早就冇人耕種,所以已經被各種雜草徹底侵佔,包括假向日葵、黃色野菊、同埋馨氣撲鼻嘅薑花。另外偶爾又可以見到一簇一簇生長出嚟但一啲都唔搶眼嘅矮細野草,譬如狸尾豆、黃毛苦草、梵天花同埋史氏千里光等等。呢一片雜草王國對途人展現出,自然界連最微不足道嘅地方都有充裕嚟創造力:縱然其外貌顯得十分混亂,表面上缺乏秩序,但其中仍然存著一種强烈嘅美感,令到陳之一暫時忘記鄰近市鎮入面嘅高樓大廈,同時忍唔住思考一下,點解人爲嘅紊亂難以保存嗰種内在美?注意到四月份薄弱嘅陽光投射到植物嘅葉面上時,陳之一特別欣賞類彌漫活力嗰嬌嫩光芒。

到達麻笏圍鄉村,佢又一次中途停低,目的係睇吓十八世紀興建嘅門樓同埋門楣上嘅紅砂岩石匾。呢嚿石額刻有「欝葱」二字,照指示牌為遊客提供嘅簡略解釋,「欝(同『鬱』)葱」即係寓意草木茂盛之地。陳之一特別鍾意呢塊紅砂岩嘅顔色,唔係紅色,又唔算係淺啡色,而係一種落日般嘅橙黃色,呢隻顔色將石頭嘅光輝同光亮擁有嘅石質融爲一體,效果真係非常之優美、溫柔。

其後,陳之一就繼續前往老圍(「門高迎紫氣,圍老得淳風」)隔離嘅龍躍頭天后宮,接近廟宇嗰一刻,就聽到近處有人攞著掃把,好從容咁掃地嘅聲音:一次又一次喺鋪滿瀝青嘅前院上面掃過去,就好似南丫島東澳灣嘅海浪,不停向平滑嘅沙灘上拍打過嚟,沙沙作響,產生一種類似催眠曲嘅效果,好容易讓人掃回一童年時代嘅回憶。到埗寺廟嘅時候,佢就發現掃地嘅係一個年輕女人,而其揮舞嘅大掃把同人差唔多一樣高!同女清潔工人寒暄幾句之後,陳之一就心懷期望邁過天后宮嘅門檻。

此刻,廟門内嗰種獨特嘅寧靜係可以觸摸得到嘅,依外國人睇,呢一種充滿和諧嘅謐靜唔單止係所謂聲學上嘅現象,而更加係可以用肉體感覺到嘅一種感受。因此,雖然前院掃地刷刷嘅摩擦聲一路尾隨進入廟中,但係呢類輕微嘅嘈音根本無法破壞廟内嘅强烈謐靜。呢間廟宇屋頂設有天井,所以裏面嘅光缐都比較明亮。不過當陳之一行到廟堂深處嘅時候,亮度就變得較為幽暗,令到祭壇上紅色電燈泡發射出嘅光芒就更加耀眼。燈泡側邊擺放著幾個豐滿甜橙作為祭品,佢就好似落山嘅太陽咁略略發出幾綫暗光。陳之一抬頭望望一刻,就見到上面掛著一個個螺旋式向下垂嘅塔型盤香,好像一排排由煙霧鑄成嘅無聲鬼鐘般,若隱若現,在濃厚煙霧之間,半透明左右搖曳。

不過,今次吸引陳之一目光嘅唔係天后元君,而係左邊嘅嗰幅青磚墻。佢讀書時得知,香港常見嘅青磚頭係同稻田有奇妙關連:厡來稻田中慢慢淤積嘅青色黏土,就係製造青磚嘅基本原料,用呢種咁有生命力嘅泥土嚟興建寺廟、寓所等建築物,真係係一種順天而行嘅行為﹗另外,因爲呢間廟宇左側屋頂鑿有天井,所以天晴有陽光嘅時間,廟内呢一幅青磚墻就間唔中被太陽曬到。奇怪嘅係,廟内真係有一種植物能夠喺青磚墻上繁盛咁生長出嚟,品種好似屬於蕨類,而且生長得尤其茂盛,彷如過去稻田肥沃嘅淤泥,到而家都仲保留本有嘅養份,完全概括「欝葱」嘅意義。除咗陳之一外,佢就係天后宮中唯一賦有活力嘅生物。呢一個事實令到當時醉於遐想嘅葉公,面容上露出一絲笑意。

挨晚行返麻笏河嗰一刻,外國人路過一座供奉土地公嘅神壇,座神壇恰好都係用磚頭砌成嘅,後面又種植唔少樹木,話唔定係麻笏圍過去擁有一片風水林嘅殘跡。雖然外貌極爲樸素,但係祭壇上面擺放著一個做得零舍精緻嘅土地公雕塑。經過歲月嘅流逝,土地公身穿嘅紅色長袍已經褪色,但頂帽條邊就保存部分原有嘅天藍色,不過土地公面上嘅臉色一啲都變,表情非常之安詳,凡人都會覺得土地公相當平易近人。

太陽經已落山,樹林隨之不斷傳嚟幽幽嘅蜥蟀鳴叫聲,同陳之一略微憂傷嘅心情完全相符,而西邊嘅晚霞將祭壇中每一塊磚頭隱藏嘅火焰都充分釋放出嚟,致使陳之一眼前都係一片濃艷嘅粉紅色,亮刺刺嘅光令到男人根本睜不開雙眼。

* * *

阿綠順利埗到大埔嘉福裱畫公司,喺出面嘅櫃檯前等待老細匡囗全由後面嘅工作車間出嚟。櫃枱同其周圍環境嘅一切裝修得又現代又開揚,照明亦都非常之亮,將雪白墻上嘅幾幅畫照得特別刺眼。阿綠唔能唔注意到匡老闆使用嘅所有畫框都係超級豪華,但係被鑲嵌嘅「藝術品」真係極度平庸嘅。當諗到呢一點之際,左邊嘅側門突然打開,隨後匡囗全便向一面揮揮手,一面同綠頭髮嘅發暗家打招呼。阿綠即刻尾隨老細進入后邊嘅車間,到此光綫缐忽然暗淡落去,跟住成個氣氛亦都好似由當代立刻退返得好犀利,工坊條件又亂又雜又殘舊,空氣裏面可以聞到嘅氣味主要係由膠水同木屑構成嘅,令到阿綠瞬時無法適應。

行到一張大工作枱前,匡老闆就伸手吓開關,頭上嘅大燈隨住就投下光缐將面嘅物件照亮:左邊放著原有嘅舊畫框,個樣顯得零舍赤裸,一絲不挂咁,而右邊脫框嘅負面自畫像令到阿綠一旦到一眼就覺得好唔舒服。幅畫背面貼有一大塊發黃嘅報紙,其上面都係以好多膠紙,貼得非常之老實,而報紙中間擳出嚟嘅部分十分凸出,正如紙下面藏有一小堆嘢般,好明顯有人喺裏邊曾經將一樣蓄意插入去。

去到呢個時候,匡老闆就向阿綠解釋佢工作上嘅困難:「你睇,呢邊嘅廢紙已經同你幅畫貼成一團,如果用刀切開,要準備面對破壞呢幅畫本身嘅可能性。不過,返過嚟講,假如唔同意除開,成幅畫就將來容易變形。你睇,點算?」

阿綠到呢嘅時間猶豫不決一陣,因爲正係進退兩難,冇法即刻回答匡師傅嘅。處於呢種情況底下,佢只好呆咁望住嗰塊顛倒嘅舊報紙,莫名其妙咁白日發夢。

突然間,女人大聲講出一聲「甴!」。

「咩話,你?」嘉福裱畫公司嘅老細全然無知咁喺度擘大個嘴[口擘擘]。

「呢度呀!你睇先,老闆!」阿綠用手指向報紙上指一指,喺兩行黑麻麻嘅字體之間,果真有人係用鉛筆寫低兩個暗淡嘅“甴”字,差唔多法睇出。匡老細對眼瞄準之後,阿綠又向佢進一步補充解釋道:「呢啲字係我阿媽親手寫嘅!我細細個唔知點解成日會將“曱甴”話成“甴甴”,攪到收尾成個屋企人都照樣叫我做“甴甴”,不過外人都唔會咁樣稱呼。另外,為咗鼓勵我認字讀書,我媽鍾意由報紙、雜志撕下一篇短文,叫我用紅筆喺自己已經學識嘅字打個圈,通常佢亦都會用鉛筆字寫低一啲嘅幽默話,透過呢種辦法增加我讀書嘅樂趣。噉我阿媽樣做係有目的:報紙下面一定藏有佢留低我嘅嘢。匡師傅,你一定要鎅開呢幅畫上面嘅紙。」

聽到阿綠咁樣堅定嘅語氣,匡囗全便特登去攞返一把特用嘅刀,刀刃既長又銳, 樣子同醫生使用嘅解剖刀十分似樣。匡老闆警告阿綠要企后啲先,俾多啲空間佢呢次重任。稍後,佢就極爲小心咁開始喺報紙鼓隆處下刀。喺成個過程當中,阿綠心急得好難呼吸,雖然呢次「手術」并未涉及到任何人體嘅部位,但係自己個心為早就離世嘅母親悄悄一滴一滴咁喺度流緊鮮血。媽!

呢條裂縫鎅成之後,匡老闆盯住阿綠幾秒鍾之後,就用兩隻手指慢慢捏出入便嘅藏物。又係一堆廢紙!不過,呢次嘅紙係平滑嘅,上面亦都印有一啲嘅彩色圖片,顯然係雜志入便嘅幾張頁。匡師傅頗爲隆重咁將紙堆遞交俾臉色緊張嘅阿綠,此後便好似懷有期望咁,心想睇一睇佢點一樣會將呢第二個謎團解開。

包裹接受到手上嗰一刻,阿綠心裏隱隱產生幻覺,覺得佢成個人生嘅時間流瞬瞬轉間就停止,跟住置身於呢一段時間嘅時間當中,知覺就全部集中喺手指同光滑紙張之間嘅接觸感。至於包入便儲藏嘅,佢懷疑自己有足夠嘅心裏準備去接納?經過好耐一番猶疑之後,佢就好似手喐人唔喐咁將外包一個紙層慢慢脫開。阿綠此時發現嘅,居然係一小堆嘢,而呢堆嘢係用一條綠色嘅絲帶捆埋一齊,並且條絲帶成個纈結得特別老實嘅。初睄一眼,阿綠就留意到最上面係有一信封,上面用手寫嘅係「公主收」呢五個字,下面睇嚟另放兩本筆記簿,大小唔同,厚幼又有唔同。阿綠就試圖開條纈,但係打得太死,加埋佢心情太過緊張,不過去到呢個一刻,匡師傅就十分靈巧咁用其把刀將絲帶割斷,令到佢跌落去工作枱上面。喺呢一種毫無時間嘅時間情況之下,阿綠便用好似慢鏡頭拍攝嘅速度將手上嘅嘢擺放落張枱側邊,然後再伸手揸住嗰信封。好奇怪,封蓋並未曾被封死,只不過係被人掖入咗信封之内部,用瞬刻嘅動作,信封中嘅内容就可以抽出嚟。

去到呢個時刻,阿綠面前出現咗一張黑白相,張相裏面嘅係佢年輕時代嘅母親葛艷芊,隔籬又有一個後生男人,用右手親昵咁擺喺母親一隻膊頭上面,臉上嘅表情睇嚟係非常之和諧,自在。阿綠深深咁倒吸一啖氣。好明顯,嗰個男人並唔係自己嘅爸爸。此時,匡囗全注意到阿綠對手已經開始發抖起嚟,與之同時臉色亦都變得蒼白啲。正因如此,老闆忽然用一種果斷嘅口氣勸勸阿綠唔好喺度再睇呢啲私隱嘅嘢,不如自己返屋企之後就心情冷靜啲先至繼續睇就得喇。阿綠正如一個聽話嘅細路女般即刻將張相、封信同埋其下面嗰啲嘢執好便思維混亂咁離開嘉福裱畫公司。

* * *

呢一晚,孚翠一個人蒲吧飲酒,飲到好夜先返屋企。佢好希望阿綠已經瞓著咗,如果唔係,俾佢阿媽見到自己又飲大咗兩杯,佢就會覺得無地自容。一步入住所大門呢刻,睇到成間屋内一片黑暗,孚翠嘅神態便暫時鬆弛落嚟,唔通阿媽早啲就著咗,但是稍後就聽到阿綠略略帶有醉意嘅聲音向佢叫出一聲招呼。初時,孚翠好想揾藉口直奔入自己間房匿埋,但係嗰把十分和藹嘅叫聲,對於呢排萬事失敗嘅孚翠嚟講,係冇法抗拒嘅,佢能夠由阿媽度得到一啲安慰係佢極度需要嘅嘢。因此,雖然心裏邊依然少少唔完全願意,但係佢便硬住頭皮沿住嗰把聲嘅源頭穿過黑蚊蚊嘅單位行過去。

阿綠單獨一個人坐喺客廳入便張餐枱前邊,因爲已經燃點蠟燭,所以嗰度仍有足夠嘅光芒辨認出母親臉龐上嘅神色,本來同啱啱聽到嗰把聲完全符合。孚翠感到好似其中有乜唔對路咁。不過,佢隨後注意到張枱上嘅酒杯同埋半空嘅酒瓶嘅時候,就估計自己當晚飲醉唔會引起阿綠嘅任何責備。月鬼此時正喺餐枱上面坐緊,好似駱駝般已將四肢同埋佢條尾摺喺身軀下,佢對眼嘅表情明顯十分和諧,一路咕咕咕咁叫。當佢見到阿女嘅時候,阿綠就用手勢暗示要孚翠坐喺隔籬餐櫈上邊配佢一陣。

「媽!你做乜一個人喺度傻待呢?。時間已經好夜!」孚翠出於心裏邊莫名其妙細聲問問。

「女呀!我 . . . 」阿綠情緒忽然變得好激動,講唔到落去。此刻,孚翠就開始擔心母親係咪收到啲乜嘢壞消息嗰心不期然囉囉攣起嚟。

時間去到呢一刻,阿綠正如深識讀心術嘅人士已經可以估到阿翠嘅想法,立即搖搖頭,匆忙補充一句話:「你唔使擔心啦!係好事嘅,絕對唔係壞事。你放心啦,哈!」

對於阿媽嘅呢番説話,孚翠越嚟越覺得好似有啲𤓓味,難道母親真係遭受咗一次精神上嘅打擊。

「阿翠呀:多謝你 . . . 」阿綠簡單而充滿感激咁話。

孚翠意識到母親想向自己話一次「多謝」嗰一刻,便感到更加漆黑一團。佢

只好耐心等待母親進一步向佢解釋情況嘅底細。

阿綠忽然又猶豫不決,睇嚟根本唔識得點樣去開口講嘢落去,靜咗一陣,就問孚翠係咪要多飲杯酒?當阿綠正喺準備企起身去厨房再攞翻一隻新杯嘅時候,孚翠便唔經唔覺伸出手拎起阿綠隻杯,隨後當堂飲下一啖。

「飲勝 . . . 」阿綠忍唔住開玩笑般道。

孚翠霎時間作出乜嘢反應,但係片刻之後就突然明白過嚟自己頭先犯過嘅細錯誤,接住十分和善咁向母親微笑一吓。

「阿翠,真係一件塞翁失馬嘅事!嗰陣時,當你打爛我母親幅自畫像嗰一刻,我當然深感傷心,但係裱畫公司今日突然嚟電話,話我知幅畫裏面藏有一個包裹,而包裹入便又存有我阿媽生前寫俾我一封好重要嘅信。就係話,你嘅行爲畢竟係好嘅,唔係嘅話啦,我便永遠冇係收唔到媽咪寫俾我嘅呢份遺書 . . . 」,說話講到此,阿綠啲情緒又經歷一番巨大波動。

喺冇法再開口講話嘅情況之下,阿綠只好用一手將枱面上張紙張推到孚翠面前。呢個梗係嗰封葛艷芊寫嘅信。孚翠就拎起信嚟,便開始慢慢讀聲:

我親愛嘅女:

你終於可以讀到呢封信,我心裏感到十分感激。

本來好複雜嘅一件事情我諗已經變得太過簡單:係呀,張相裏面嘅男人係我曾經最愛嘅一個,同時佢恰恰亦都係你嘅,你永遠無法認識嘅生父。我條心世上或者未有第二人可以理解,但係我仍然好希望你今後會仔細閲讀我呢兩本筆記簿,一面睇一面接近你早就離世阿媽嘅靈魂。

我可以肯定:我決定唔係一個衰人。我所作所爲嘅事情即係爲咗享受每一個女人應該能夠享受嘅一切。

你自己能夠做到呢一點,真係我最最誠摯嘅願望!

祝你萬事如意!

葛艷芊

睇完封信之後,兩個女人粒聲都唔出,各自嘅對眼下面流緊條條閃閃發光嘅銀澤淚痕。蛾鬼同時一喐都唔喐,好似一隻獅身人面嘅斯芬克斯咁安祥望住佢哋。喺側邊幅墻上邊,喺曾經掛住葛艷芊嘅自畫像嘅位置,喺暗淡光嘅照明之下,可以辨認出一個又整齊又潔白嘅長方形,比周圍墻面嘅油漆顔色更加潔白啲,更加真實啲,好似係一個白簾拉埋嘅窗仔般,喺度面對緊一種消失嘅過去,無論如何永遠不可挽回。

The Hiker’s List by Teddy Law

● 《山友的路線名單》 / 羅榮輝著

大抵每個山友都有一份行山路線名單。這份名單,或長或短,或詳盡或簡略。
Nearly every one of my fellow mountaineers has their own wish-list of hiking destinations. This wish-list may be long or short. It may be highly detailed or little more than a sketchy outline.

最近朋友分享了她的行山名單,當中概分了遠程、短途、陰天和晴天路線。我也有類似的目的地清單,簡略分作九龍、港島、西貢、新界及大嶼山等區域,以配合行山當日的天時地利人和,從中篩選一條合適的路線:天晴時挑選風景較佳的地點,天氣不佳時則選取以歷史文化為主的行程。完成目標後,將它們從名單中逐一剔除,再不斷刪減增補。
Recently, a friend of mine shared her wish-list with me. It was roughly divided into long journeys, short trips, and routes for clear and cloudy weather. I myself have a similar list of destinations, simply drawn up in terms of the different areas of Hong Kong: Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, Sai Kung, the New Territories and Lantau Island. From this list, I choose a suitable route in order to fit in with the season, geographical position and the availability of people to accompany me. If the weather is fine, I select a location with exceptional scenery. If the weather is not particularly good, I pick a route for its history and its culture. As I complete my objectives, I tick them off my wish-list one by one, constantly crossing off and adding things as I go.

或者生活繁忙的城市人都很精於計算,每事都考慮機會成本,衡量付出與收獲。在有限的假期和時間裏,我們都偏好探索新的景點,甚至在可行的時間內多跑幾個山頭,而且從不重複,務求提升效率。此舉原也無可厚非,但與之同時,個人對達成目標的渴望,也多多少少揭露了一點功利主義。
Given their hectic lifestyles, the people of this city tend to be very adept at calculation and, in everything they do, weigh up pros and cons, as well as consider outlays and gains. Since our time in general ⸺ as well as holiday time ⸺ is limited, we tend to explore new vistas, even where feasible making our way to the top of several mountains, never going to the same place twice, to ensure that our effectiveness improves. Such behaviour cannot really be criticized but, at the same time, this individual thirst for achieving goals reveals more than a hint of utilitarian self-seeking.

山行的足跡,不過是山體形成的悠長時間裏的一個剎那的點。看着手裏的路線名單,一個個地點不期然被硬分成好幾個檔次,不禁會問:到某地急登短遊,又如何能讀懂一座山?一份名單,既是清晰目標,又是無形枷鎖。對山的體悟,不免會被名單所限,被地點所困,被數字所惑。不過,有多少人,還是執意走遍香港所有山頭,摘下台灣百岳,挑戰世界高峰。
The footprints we make walking over mountains amount to little more than a split-second in their long-drawn-out formation. With a wish-list of routes in one hand with its individual destinations rather arbitrarily divided into any number of grades, one can’t help wondering: how can we ever hope to understand a mountain in our rushed ascents and abbreviated excursions? Any list, no matter how explicit the objectives, is at the same time a set of invisible shackles. Any true personal insight into a mountain is inevitably limited by a wish-list, restricted by specific locations, confounded by numbers. But for all that, many people are still bent on walking to the top of all Hong Kong’s mountains, ascending all the well-known ranges of Taiwan and challenging tall peaks throughout the rest of the world.

愛山樂水不是難事。隨着個人的體能技巧、心理質素的提升、裝備的改良、步道的完善和資源的配合,逐步達到目標的人已不在少數。將目標一一達成,無疑能豐富一個人的閱歷,甚至能成就一名傑出的登山家,但是我相信,一個真正的岳人,不該只是一名計劃的完美執行者。他不以一張亮眼的履歷來定義自己,而是體現在對大地的感悟。他所展現的,是堅毅精神,是視野胸襟,是素養態度,重責任多於權利,尚集體利益多於個人得失。
To take delight in mountains and rivers is not difficult. With the increase in individual physical strength and skill, an enhancement of mental calibre, improvement of hiking gear, the perfection of pathways together with the coordination of resources, many people have eventually managed to reach their objectives. Undoubtedly, reaching your goals one after another enriches your experience, and might even make you into a superb mountaineer, but in my view, the true lover of mountains should be something more than a Perfect Executor of Plans. Such a person is not defined by a dazzling curriculum vitae but realized through true insight into the Earth. What such a person displays are resoluteness and spirit, vision and a broad mind, cultivation and attitude, with an emphasis on responsibility over rights, and the common good over any personal loss or gain.

他會懂得山的語言,與山對話,能夠在熟悉的環境中尋覓新鮮感,從平凡的景物中找尋趣味,在狹窄的小徑中感受大山大水。他的腳步,順心而行,他的路徑,隨心而寬。
People like this can understand the language of mountains, and so are able to converse with them, and have the ability to discover fresh new feelings in familiar surroundings, delight in mundane scenery, as well as experience mighty mountains and rivers on narrow trails. They walk where their own nature happens to lead them, and their paths grow wider along with their own hearts.

我總覺得,最難攀越的那座山岳,不載列在一紙名單上,而是懸繫在心頭。
At any rate, my feeling is that the most difficult mountain to overcome is not written down on any list but can only be found in our own minds.

Photograph: 香港西貢蚺蛇尖 Sharp Peak in Sai Kung, Hong Kong (www.oasistrek.com)

The Chinese version of this essay first appeared on Hiking Windfire.

Note: Obelisk’s Demise

IN MEMORY OF A GOLDFISH . . .

When you died a second time
and came back to life, I was worried you’d begun to make
a habit of it. You never did,
growing instead
easily to become the biggest fish in the pond
with a healthy curiosity for what lay beyond, overwater.
As a fully-grown giant,
you started fattening out sideways
and would orbit your sphere round and round the perimeter —
a trundling red planet
truly at home in your girth. I guessed
you were sick
when you took to planting yourself upside-down
in a clump of waterlilies,
poor, demented mermaid headstanding in ocean and waving her gauze
at some air-drowned mortal
like me: Farewell! Each day you waved
and each day, unfinned,
I’d wave you my dry human wave in return — Farewell!
till existence inside you shrank to a speck
and you sank
through the wreck
of your own dead weight

completely out of my depth.

Wide Awake and Dead to the World (Volcanic Glass)

Prehistorically once flung from the mouth of a volcano,
then frozen by time
into this — dark glass.
It must have been a fragment, I thought at first,
of some antique rural bottle, but
then it dawned on me
that the only thing it could be
was a whole fragment unto itself,
an entire jigsaw puzzle
consisting of only exactly one piece.
Stupidly, I wanted it
to show me another world, or at least
something astonishing hidden in the seams of visual habit —
after all, ours is an era of a myriad of transparencies —
how we long to see through
past the gloss of the surface to voluptuous promise
o so expertly packaged within,
but my toy showed me nothing —
I might as well have been looking through a carrot for the moon —
I was merely blinding myself better in the name of vision.
My friend the carpenter
goes out each day precisely to hit the nail on the head
and to saw with his ruler
down to the nearest millimetre
planks of timber beyond all our wildest dreams.
Perhaps this explained my newfound deep thirst for murk,
for that which was never meant to excite the organs of sight,
for that jagged lens
which will make absolutely no spectacle of itself
under any circumstances: optical point-blank refusal
of all acts of seeing. Geologists, I know,
have a word for it, drenched in Latin. They pronounce
rather than say it:
O-B-S-I-D-I-A-N.

Photograph: 香港東坪洲 Tung Ping Chau, Hong Kong

Hong Kong Footpath: Interview in Cantonese with Leung Wing Mo (Part 1)

Cindy Chea-Shuk-mei calls him in her introduction that “Great God of Meteorology” [天氣大神]. Professor 梁榮武 Leung Wing Mo was formerly Assistant Director of the Hong Kong Observatory and Adjunct Professor of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He now hosts a successful TV program concerned with weather issues, and is a passionate advocate for action on climate change. This edition of Hong Kong Footpath, aired on 5 January 2020, was the first of this year’s programs.

You can listen to the interview on RTHK1 here. Scroll down for a transcription of the Cantonese with vocabulary notes (so far, I’ve only done the opening five minutes).

To check anything in the transcription and for standard jyutping romanization, please refer to the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.

Note that the program proper starts at 1:55.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………

車淑梅: 新年快樂!今日呢,係2020年呢,【2:00】1月5號,亦都係我哋嘅《舊日的足跡》第一位嘉賓呢。我當然呢,希望我今年會風調雨順,國泰民安,天下太平,所以我請呢一位呢,我一見到成個人唔知點解呢,好似有一種好祥和嘅感覺。佢係我哋第一代嘅天氣先生,係我哋而家嘅天氣大神。阿武哥!梁榮武先生。

● 國泰民安 gwok3 taai3 màhn4 [ng]ōn1 = the country is prosperous and the people live in peace
● 祥和 chèuhng4 wòh4 = (?) 祥 “auspicious” + 和 “affable”

梁榮武:Ah 淑梅!

車淑梅:早晨!

梁榮武: 早晨,早晨!好榮幸呢,可以非常榮幸2020年第一個節目嘅嘉賓。(車淑梅:真係 . . . 一定要揾你壓場). . . (They both speak together)

● 榮幸 wìhng4 hahng6 = honoured
● 壓場 [ng]aat3 chèuhng4 = (?) “the show time as the key guest speaker”

車淑梅:好重要。嗱,其實,武哥啫係我哋前香港天文臺嘅助理臺長啦、 又香港氣象學家啦,香港氣象會嘅發言人啦、350 香港嘅發言人啦,亦都係呢,《武測天》嘅節目主持人,嗄,我哋嘅男神呢,嗄。有諗過自己會變成明星呢,嗄,啫,退休之後?【3:00】

● Note that with verb-object compounds such as 退休 teui3 yāu1 = “to retire”, the aspect marker jó2 can be placed between the two components, giving the sense of “having retired”.
● 男神 nàahm4 sàhn4 = male idol; prince charming; dream guy

梁榮武:想都冇想過,啫 (車淑梅:Laughs),當時退休都好惆悵(車淑梅:係咩?)因爲我都算係一個鐘意返工、鐘意做嘅人嘅。就好似百無聊賴(車淑梅:Mm mm)。噉但係好快,好快過咗好短時間,噉機會陸續喇。

● The phrase 想都冇想過 is a common pattern, and many other verbs can be substituted for 想 séung. In idiomatic English we could say “it never even occurred to me” or “the thought never occurred to me”.
● 惆悵 chàuh4 cheung3 = disconsolate; melancholy
● 百無聊賴 baak3 mòuh4 lìuh4 laaih6 = be bored stiff

車淑梅:噉第一個機會係咩嘢呢?

梁榮武:第一個機會係去 . . . 一個 um 做科教育工作機構 ah 四周圍去呢學校演講。

● 四周圍 = sei3 jāu1 wàih4 = on all sides. In the interview with Kwan Chuk-fai, the same expression is used to mean something like “all over the place”: 四周圍去食嘅喎.

車淑梅:嘩,嗄。

梁榮武:呢個都係我以前天文臺嘅時候都做開嘅嚟㗎,因爲我哋自從林超英做到臺長嘅時候呢,我哋開始關注氣候變化呢樣嘢,變咗我工作嘅延續囉。

● As an aspect marker, 開 hōi1 can be used to indicate habitual action (see Matthews and Yip, Intermediate Cantonese Unit 12). Another example of this use of 開 in the phrase 後來慢慢識佢傾開計 can be found in the podcast A Postman’s Gaze (1).
● To me, Leung Wing Mo seems to pronounce the word for “climate” as 氣候 *hei yau.
● 延續 yìhn4 juhk6 = to continue; to go on; to last

車淑梅:噉而家你就唔同呢,就唔單止係啲,啫,學校呀,社區裏邊呢,講呢,甚至乎呢, 見到你電視上邊,《武測天》咁樣樣,呵 (梁榮武:Mm mm) 呢個呢,真係, 會唔會你自己,啫係都,其實都 OK 喎 (梁榮武:Laughs ) 呢一條路?你一個幕前咁樣?【4:00】

● Here, the word 唔單止 = “not only” is paired up with 甚至乎 = “and even”, giving “you not only talk at schools and out in society [社區裏邊] but [we] even see you know on the TV”.
● According to Matthews and Yip, 呵 hó2 is used to check what is been said in the way English does with “isn’t that right?” (Intermediate Chinese, Unit 23). Sheik Cantonese defines it as “[final particle] huh – often used as a question tag to verify sth. while expecting confirmation”.
● 幕前 mohk6 chìhn4 = host (主持); literally “in front of the curtain”

梁榮武:Ah 呢樣嘢我又,啫,唔係話好「迷」,啫,唔係好嚮往,但係 eh 我自己都覺得可以勝任嘅,同埋其實都係有咁樣嘅機會呢,都係同我原本 ah 退休嘅時候嗰個 . . . 初衷都係 . . . 吻合嘅,就係希望呢,呢個氣候變化訊息上邊(車淑梅:係)播到啲種子,等多啲人關注。噉有一個咁好嘅機會咁,自然唔放過啦,就係傾計啦,學你話齋,哎,咁多主播一齊拍檔咁(unclear)得喇。

● Leung Wing Mo uses 迷 màih4 here with the sense of “be crazy about; be obsessed with”.
● 嚮往 heung3 wóhng5 = to yearn for; to look forward to
● 勝任 sīng1 yahm6 = competent; qualified; equal to (the demands of a job)
● 初衷 chō1 jūng1 = original intention
● 吻合 máhn5 hahp6 = be identical; coincide; tally; be a good fit
● 等 dáng2 here means “to let; to enable; to make (sb. do sth.)” and covers the meaning expressed in standard written Chinese by 讓 yeuhng6.
● 學你話齋 hohk6 neih5 waah6 jāai1 = just like you said. According to Sheik Cantonese, 話齋 means “just as what (sb.) has said/told (indicating that what sb has said is worth noting)”, and also crops up in the phrase 俗語話齋 juhk6 yuh5 waah6 jāai1 = as the saying has it.
● 拍檔 paak3 dong3 = to cooperate; to co-star
● 主播 jyú2 bo3 = anchor; presenter (on TV)

車淑梅:所以正話影相同正武哥,有好大壓力呀!你成日隔離咁靚女咁樣。噉不過同阿武哥,啫,傾計嘅時候呢,發覺你真係充滿活力嘅喎嗱,雖然你已經退咗休,um 你11年退休喇(梁榮武:係) 8,9年咁耐啦 (梁榮武: unclear 幾多嵗 | Laughs)【5:00】實知啦,你,退休你60嵗。噉,嘩,你依然跑步上來喎, 你樂富跑步上來廣播道喎。

● 正話 jing3 waah6 = just now; a moment ago (剛剛)
● 實知 = I thinks this means “(they) definitely know”, with saht6 in this context meaning “definitely; certainly” (Sheik Cantonese). By disclosing when Leung retired, listeners will, the host seems to imply, be able to guess his age.

梁榮武:其實,唔跑嘅,行快啲啦(車淑梅:係咪吖嘛。好健康). . . 我以前返工嘅時候就唔同(車淑梅:係)。我返工嘅時候經常跑步返工放工。最,最主要就係天文臺可以有地方俾我衝涼(Laughter)。噉呢個港臺我估好似冇。

車淑梅:都有嘅,不過你唔識啫。噉,啫話,好,好開心呢,其實,繼續每一日呢,都繼續咁開心就好啦。噉最緊要我哋有好天氣呢。其實 *kei,今年2020嘅天氣呢,啫係,阿武測天,啫,睇嚟 ,啫,會唔會有個好嘅發展,今年?

梁榮武:其實,eh 係悲觀嘅(車淑梅:你擰頭喎)因爲今日1月5號呢,噉,其實,啫,天文臺會喺三月嘅時候呢(車淑梅:Laughs),會做一個,啫係,年度嘅預報。 【6:00】噉,啫,講吓我哋香港落幾多雨呀,啫係,預計落幾多雨呀,打幾多風咁樣(車淑梅:Mm mm)。噉呢個要等臺長三月嘅時候公報呢(車淑梅:係 )。噉但係 . . . 係呀 . . . 啫,講講大啲嘅赤道嘅問題,啫係話,講返氣候變化 eh 我哋舊年年尾西班牙開咗一個氣候峰會呢。噉就好可惜,大家嗰個對呢個氣候變化 . . . 嗰個力度都真係唔夠,睇上嚟我哋嗰個氣候只會係惡化落去。

● 擰頭 lihng6 tàuh4 = to shake one’s head
● 赤道 chek3 douh6 = the equator
● 舊年年尾 gauh6 nín4*2 nìhn4 méih5 = at the end of last year
● 峰會 fūng1 wúi6*2 = a summit (meeting)
● 力度 *lehk douh6 = dynamism; vigour
● 睇上嚟 tái2 seuhng6 làih4 = by the looks of it

車淑梅:真係我哋都 . . . 發覺,香港啲天氣呢,嘩,啲風真係嚟得大呢。忽然間又話俾我哋聽,長洲嗰度會有地震呢 (梁榮武:)。嘩,呢個真係 . . . 啫,以前都 . . . 好少會聽到地震呢個字同我哋香港有關嘅嘛,係咪?

● Here, in the phrase 啫,以前都, Chea-Shuk-mei seems to pronounce the dōu1 as *dyu.

梁榮武:少就少,不過係有嘅,啫,香港唔係完全冇地震,不過其實香港本土嘅地震我哋又唔擔心嘅,因爲香港本土嘅地震呢,就我哋冇呢啲活躍嘅所謂斷層呀【7:00】,活躍嘅板塊活動,啫,唔係我哋地區(車淑梅:係),但係我哋擔心嘅外嚟嘅地震呢(車淑梅:係),更多會全世界咁傳送過去。

● The opening words of this segment 少就少,不過係有嘅 can be translated as “True, there aren’t many earthquakes, but there are some”.
● 斷層 dyuhn6 chàhng4 = (geological) fault
● 板塊 báan2 faai3 = tectonic plate; continental plate

Cantonese Shamanism by Jack M. Potter (1974)

Lovers of Hong Kong may be familiar with the Heritage Trail at Ping Shan. You can wander down from the Tin Shui Wai MTR station to the three-storey Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda, move on to the charming Earth God shrine which, unusually, features a special flourish of shrine-building architecture known  as 鑊耳 or “wok ears”, take in the glowing red sandstone lintel at the main entrance to the walled village of Sheung Cheung Wai, before proceeding to the grander buildings, the Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall, the Tang Ancestral Hall and the fine study halls of Ching Shu, Kun Ting and Shut Hing. In the 1960s, an annual group seance was held somewhere nearby this cultural-ritual precinct for all local inhabitants. Potter sets the scene in the following vivid manner:

“Hong Kong” and “shamanism” are probably two ideas not many people put together, but Jack Potter does so beautifully in his long essay “Cantonese Shamanism”, published in the book Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Potter is probably best known for his book Capitalism and the Chinese Peasant, but mainly to a sober academic audience. Fortunately for me (I have a strong, almost physical, aversion to most scholarly writing), I first encountered Potter’s essay in a wonderful second-hand bookstore in Brisbane by the name of Bent Books. Having dropped in one afternoon looking for magic, I found it, in this mind-bending piece which is ⸺ literally ⸺ spell-binding.

In 1962, at the time of the Moon Cake Festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the three spirit mediums of Ping Shan held their annual free group seance open to all the villagers. At dusk the villagers, young and old, men and women, gathered on the cement rice-threshing floor in the open area west of Ping Shan’s central ancestral halls. As darkness fell and the full moon filled the sky with light almost as bright as day, the most accomplished shaman of the three, known as the Fat One, took her place on a low stool before a small, improvised altar table. As the incense sticks on the altar burned down, the Fat One, her head covered with a cloth, went into a trance. She jerked spasmodically and mumbled incoherent phrases. Then she started to sing a stylized, rhythmic chant, as her familiar spirits possessed her and led her soul upward, away from the phenomenal world into the heavens. Their destination was the Heavenly Flower Gardens.

Many of the villagers were less interested in the Fat One’s destination than in the ghosts (鬼 kwei) she met along the way. These were the souls of their deceased relatives and neighbours, who took advantage of this opportunity to communicate with the living. They asked for news, gave advice, and sometimes voiced complaints.

The first ghost the medium encountered spoke as follows: “It was not time for me to die. My head was severed by a Japanese sword. I am angry and lost because my bones are mixed with those of other people.” (p.208)

I find it interesting that all three of the Ping Shan shamans were women. Potter makes no mention at all of male shamans. As to the question of why these women became mediums, he provides a very surprising answer. According to the villagers, the ability to go into trances and to be possessed by spirits requires the possession of 仙骨sin kwat (“fairy bones”, although perhaps “occult” might be better in this context) and a 仙路 sin lou (“a fairy road”). Apparently, all of us have sin kwat, but they are supposed to be severed when a child is born. However, if individuals grow up with one bone left intact, their spirits retain a capacity to roam the heavens, a talent that makes them vulnerable to illness and attack from malevolent ghosts (the Chinese believe in benevolent ghosts, as well).

However, there is second, quite tragic aspect to this shamanic gift: women who become shamans do so because they have had children die young. The spirits of these children then haunt their mother, often making her extremely unwell unless she consents to becoming a spirit medium or healer:

The Fat One [ . . . ] had five daughter and two sons, all of whom died very young. Soon after the death of her last child, her husband also died. Her losses left her grief-stricken, depressed, and continually ill. Every night she dreamed of visits from her dead children’s souls. They taught her to “sing” in the rhythmic fashion characteristic of all professional shamans during conversations with the spirits, and then they asked her to become a spirit medium so she could help others and also earn extra money for herself. They knew that she had fairy bones because they had seen her call up spirits during the eighth month. They told her they had connections with other spirits and deities and would use their influence to help her deal with the supernatural world. (pp.226-227)

The experience of Kao Paak-neung, the second shaman of Ping Shan, was similar. As a young woman she had three daughters and one son, but they all died while very young. A year after her third daughter died, the daughter’s soul entered Kao Paak-neung’s body and asked her to become a spirit medium. But her dead son possessed her simultaneously, insisting that she become a curing specialist under the guidance of 華佗 Wa Dho. The struggle between the two spirits made her continually ill and almost drove her mad. She wandered around the countryside worshipping at all kinds of temples and altars in an attempt to free herself from their demands. Neither she nor her husband wanted her to become a spirit medium and curer.

After a time the spirits of her daughter and son compromised, deciding that she should become both a spirit medium and a curing specialist following Wa Dho. Her husband continued his opposition to the spirits’ demands until one day her daughter’s spirit entered Kao Paak-neung’s body and took he soul up to the heavens, making her appear to die several times during one long evening. Finally, at two in the morning, the husband relented and said she could become a shaman. Kao Paak-neung went wild with joy, jumping on tables and chairs, eating silver paper, incense and candles, and singing loudly.

And so these shamans who have lost children are, in a sense, reunited with them, thereby producing a most unexpected psychic healing in the women who have suffered more than any fair share of life’s misfortunes.

Another important aspect of Cantonese shamanism explored by Potter concerns the Four Heavenly Flower Gardens, a supernatural realm “where every living person is represented by a potted flowering plant”. The is one garden for each of the main compass points: the North and West Gardens are small, containing the plants of children who have recently been conceived. The East and South Gardens are large, for it is here that the plants of all people are transplanted between the ages of twelve and sixteen. At this time too, the Hong Kong Chinese believe, people are paired with their future life’s partner, their plants being placed alongside one another. Two deities preside over the Gardens, namely 李伯 Lee Paak and 十二奶娘 Zap Yih Nae Neung, a title which roughly translates as “the woman with twelve breasts”.

Shamans seem to base their fortune-telling abilities on the ability to travel to the Four Heavenly Flower Gardens. It is the final destination reached by the Fat One at the end of the group seance. Potter describes the shaman’s procedure in some detail:

The medium journeys to the Heavenly Flower Gardens in order to inspect the villagers’ flowers. This “inspection of the flowers”, or 診花 chan fa, is a form of fortune-telling. The medium examines the condition of a person’s flower: are there yellowed leaves or spider webs on the plant, does the flower seem in poor condition? The medium examines the flower to see how many red flowers (representing daughters) or white flowers (representing sons) are in bloom; unopened buds on the plant represent future offspring. If the pot contains bamboo, a woman will be barren; if it holds tangerines, she will have many children. The condition of a villager’s flower tells the medium important things about that person’s future. (p. 214)

Potter also reveals that traditionally, a few weeks after a child was born, a fortune-teller was generally consulted by the mother at the nearest market town. These fortune-tellers could tell her the names of the child’s “flower mother” and “flower father” ⸺ parents in its previous existence ⸺ as well as which of the Heavenly Flower Gardens it had come from. Shamans also made the journey to the Gardens to recover the souls of young children that had been kidnapped for ransom by malicious ghosts in order to obtain offerings of food and gifts of paper money.

“Cantonese Shamanism” is filled with the kind of details that could only come from personal attendance at seances and extensive interviews with these extraordinary women and Potter is careful not to intrude any scepticism with regard to the supernatural practices he relates. Nevertheless, he tactfully offers some interesting conjectures about the “structural” role shamans may play in village life. The idea of 契 khay or “fictive kinship” is important here. Shamans were often engaged by villagers to provide occult protection to sickly children, a condition associated with a loss of soul; parents who had a history of losing children early would also make fictive kinship bonds with subsequent children in the hope that it would ensure their survival. More vitally, the ghosts of young unmarried women were a real anomaly for village society: they did not belong to their father’s family, and had no husband to perform the proper rituals for them. Moreover, people were reluctant to keep commemorative tablets for such women in their own homes for fear of their being haunted. For this reason, villagers often used to engage a medium to take care of the souls of such women. For example, beside the altar belonging to Kao Paak-neung, five dresses were hung for the spirits of the girls in her charge.

Although the usual word for “shaman” in Cantonese is probably 巫婆 mòuh4 pòh4, two quite unusual terms are used by Potter. The first is 問醒婆 maan seng phox, that is “old ladies who speak to spirits”, although the character 醒 séng2 can mean “to wake up” and “to give guidance”. The other term is 問米婆 maan mae phox, “ask-rice woman”, the origin of which he explains as follows:

The rice is essential for a medium’s contact with the supernatural. After the medium has gone into a trance with her head covered by a cloth, the spirit that possesses her tosses handfuls of rice around the room at any of its relatives that are present, thus helping to identify itself. (p.219)

(Incidentally, Potter also makes the intriguing point that the villagers considered incense to be “the spiritual equivalent of rice”, a kind of supernatural food.)

The appeal Potter’s essay is firstly that it transports the reader into a world where disbelief is temporarily suspended and secondly that the writer demonstrates the kind of fundamental courage Rainer Maria Rilke once called for: “to be brave in the face of the strangest, most singular and most inexplicable things that can befall us”. And as the poet goes on to say, the fact that human beings have been cowardly in this sense has done endless harm to life. Perhaps Potter can help us let go of some of this modern defensiveness and even make us a little bit bolder in accommodating the full range of human experience.

A sense of the milieu inhabited by these women is conveyed in the following short video about a Hakka-speaking female shaman.

Photograph: 香港錦田:刻有「喃嘸阿彌托」嘅石碑Stone inscribed with “Namo ⸺ Blessed Be, Glory to Amitabha” in Kam Tin, Hong Kong