A Brief Meal
By Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Today, I had an interview in Central with a man
who had survived the Great Famine. When the
famine began he was only ten, yet he remembered
a great deal: people ate things only skinny pigs
would eat; people were ‘expressionless’, in several
senses of the word; many died of hunger—still,
there wasn’t a tear shed; and many more
were stuffed with elaborate lies or
unfounded knowledge from the Party:
steel could be made by burning impure metals,
sparrows were evil, Mao Zedong was invincible.

I told all the above to my Mum when we
were walking from Central to Sheung Wan
for lunch. But she got impatient with the tide
of people, well-dressed and self-important,
appearing from a myriad of directions.
“So many people!” My Mum ejaculated.
“Were you listening to me?” I asked,
slightly hurt.

She was. She asked how I could bear
such sad stories, weighty on my heart.
I said I had nightmares: fresh,
dead babies not properly buried,
a collection of gaunt hands peeling tree bark
for a few rice-less meals; hunger
had the shape of a skeleton.
My Mum frowned. “Remember, these things
happened in the past, not the present.”

My Mum is twenty years older than me,
which makes her forty-five. She’s short.
She’s also quite white, despite working
long hours under the sun six days a week.

Her daughter—me—has not yet developed
a tolerance for the sun: beams of sharp
summer sunlight still send her
fleeing home to hibernate
until dusk: when the heavily polluted sky
turns orange, sometimes as bright as
a new garment on a Cambodian monk.

My Mum is a messenger. On the Island
she delivers documents to companies
affiliated with her own. Sometimes her footsteps,
small and urgent, also cover Kowloon,
when her illiterate counterpart there
fails to turn up to work. My Mum maps
her territory with two legs, a pair of old-school
sandals, an umbrella, and two bags filled
with papers she can’t read. “When I first
started this job fourteen years ago, there weren’t
as many people on the streets as now,”
my Mum continued.

Finally we found a restaurant with two empty
seats. For our meal, we only waited the duration of
mimosa closing its symmetrical leaves.
We ate quickly, our exit hastened by other hungry
diners lining up. They refill their stomachs, gossip,
put on more powder, pay their bills, all in an hour.

Back on the street, under the unforgiving afternoon
sun, hot air surfed through everything, noiseless. I
asked my Mum if she wanted to quit her job.
“You know, I’m only retiring at 65.” My Mum
looked at me; I saw dark half-moons
beneath her eyes. There were no wrinkles
on her forehead, but this was already a lie.

An absolute space of twenty years must intervene
between now and my Mum reaching that official,
arbitrary age. Many things were uncertain
about the next two decades: Would I give birth
to someone appreciative? Could they talk
about a starving past?

But this was certain: lunch time was almost over,
and my Mum, a small person, was determined
to find her way through the crowds, hither and thither,
like a swift swallow navigating a closing forest.
“Hong Kong is becoming saturated with people,”
my Mum commented, or complained?

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a Hong Kong-born poet. She is a founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an assistant editor of Fleeting Magazine. The autobiographical poem “A Brief Meal” was previously included in The Fifty Shrinking Years, a special issue of the Asia Pacific Writers Network.