After 18 years, I was back in the Far East. Hong Kong lay a thousand miles away from Shanghai, where I was born. Not close, though still overwhelming as events later proved. In 1952 Shanghai had exiled me at the age of 18. There was a symmetry in those numbers. On checking in at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong I mentioned this to Renato, my husband.
Renato had had business in the Philippines, and from there it was just a hop to Hong Kong for a week’s vacation. The place in 1970 bustled like a marketplace gone mad, nothing like it was when I first arrived there from Shanghai. Prosperity had hit hard. Women wore fashionable western clothes, accessories, and hairdos. Not a single cheongsam anywhere. I was excited about exploring the shops, this time as a visitor, not a refugee.
As soon as our luggage was settled, we went up to the rooftop restaurant for lunch, or tiffin, as I used to call it.
“Moro And His Twelve Violins?” I said to Renato. There they were, a relic of old Shanghai days, offering a swinging “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
Hong Kong was still a British enclave, I noticed. Brits sat all around us, chatting and laughing. We had been to England several times, yet this felt different to me.
A man at the next table snapped his fingers and called “Boy!” at a Chinese waiter.
I frowned at Renato. “The good old days,” I said, an edge to my tone.
“Better British than Communists.” He knew my history intimately.
That was certainly true , but I had already begun feeling alien, thrown back to ancient frictions between occupier and the occupied, although the British could not be compared to the Communists. They had been efficient administering their piece of Shanghai but so superior, reveling in their country club enclaves in China. My sister Maria had once been ordered, by a British matron, to get off the sidewalk to make room for her large family to walk through. We were Italian-Chinese Eurasians. The Eurasian children fathered by the Brits were kept under cover. In India they were simply ignored.
After lunch we strolled downtown Hong Kong. The goods offered in the stores rivaled any I had seen elsewhere. We were enjoying the sights. We came upon a Communist bookstore. Renato said, “Maybe I can get a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book,” so we went in. In the middle of all the modern luxuries flaunted outside, it was like walking into the past: the two salesgirls wore cotton Mao uniforms, butch haircuts, and cloth shoes. They looked startled to see me. Renato set to searching for the Little Red Book which was unavailable in the United States.
I wandered over to the rack of postcards. The salesgirls began whispering and giggling. Although I couldn’t understand their dialect it was clear they were making fun of me. I had had this treatment in Shanghai and sometimes acquired a train of tormentors in the streets. “Look at the funny thing you get when you cross a foreign bastard with a Chinese!” was one of the cleaner curses. My mother told me, over and over, not to turn, speak, or especially, fight. My father was ill, and would soon die.
But here, in Hong Kong, after 18 years in other countries, I was no longer so meek. A slow heat had taken hold in my chest and I stood before the postcards not seeing them while the whispering and giggling went on. I remembered my mother being forced to her knees to beg for her exit visa so she could accompany her family out of China. They derided her bound feet as symbols of a decadent history. She was useless, corrupt, better off dead. The Communist police told me the same things while threatening execution. Oh yes--and they confiscated our assets so that we did go out into the world useless and better off dead.
I grabbed a card off the rack and went over to the counter and held out a ten Hong Kong-dollar note. One of the girls picked it up, then flung it back at me with a sneer.
The heat exploded through the top of my head. I grabbed a handful of books and flung them at the two. I said things, lots of things in English, satisfying things from my congested heart as I threw whatever else I could reach. The girls had crouched down behind the counter covering their heads with their hands.
Renato reached me as I was pushing the cash register down onto them. He wrapped an arm around me and strode out of the store into the street, where I screamed and flailed and insisted he let me go back inside to kill those bitches.
There we were, on downtown Queen’s Street, the center of attraction for hundreds of people who no doubt were curious as well as entertained.
Back at the hotel, after having me drink a calming cup of tea, Renato took me back to our room.
“Better now?” he asked.
“Of course. What’s one attempt to kill somebody?” I managed a laugh.
I looked out the window. Fifteen floors below, on a lush green lawn, a cricket game was in progress.
“Look at those Brits in their sweet white cricket jerseys,” I said. The edge was back in my voice.
Never slow to see the obvious, my good husband checked us out of the hotel that day and got a flight back home.
· * * * *
I am much older now. I suppose age brings forgiveness and healing. Are the fires within extinguished? I don’t want to have to find out.