Uploading some recent rehearsal footage and discovered this from last year, which I kind of like. It’s my solo from 三千此身.
Dancing in on our kitchen countertop. This is a rehearsal for a dance project next year based on 九龍城寨 (Kowloon Walled City), and this section is inspired by small living spaces in HK…
Exercise 1: The reluctant narrator
I saw a man bludgeoned to death once. It was both faster and slower than you could ever imagine. Faster, because it was in broad daylight, just next to the newspaper stand where the main street met Dowager Street and where Shirley used to buy gum and cigarettes. It was a June afternoon, the type so hot that the public library was crowded with old men not even pretending to read but simply there for the air-conditioning. I was hurrying across on the away home with my umbrella (in this weather I always carry an umbrella for both the sun and sudden rain). My school uniform was sticking to my back as I waited for the pedestrian light to turn green when I saw a trio of men approach another man on the other side of the road. One of them was wearing black, and my first thought was: so hot, to wear black, how stupid of him. Between the traffic and the time it took for the lights to change, they closed on him purposefully, felled him and walked way. It happened that swiftly, I could couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it when the lights turned green with the clackety-clackety sound they have for the blind.
I stood there, stunned. Looked around. The newspaper stand was boarded up, as was usual during the hottest part of the day. Only the crumpled figure on the concrete on the opposite side of the road convinced me that what I had just witnessed had actually happened.
I fumbled in my schoolbag for my phone; dialed 999 with my shaking hands.
“999. Ambulance, police or fire station?”
I blinked. They must have heard me breathing down the phone, because the voice repeated herself, in a much kinder tone; adding, “Can I help you. What happened?”
“I’m on the junction of Dowager and Kai-lin street. There’s a man who was beaten. He’s not moving.” My voice sounded unnaturally loud to my ears.
The person on the other side talked to me calmly and clearly (the way you might talk to a frightened dog or horse), as she had probably been trained to do. “Please send someone.” I remember begging. I needed to sit down. The concrete was warm to touch but I needed the reassurance of the white wall behind. I felt light-headed (and in retrospect, lowering myself down to the level of car exhaust probably didn’t help); but at that moment I just needed to put my head down.
Years later, I can still replay the tape of those thirty seconds in my mind. I can tell you that between the passing of a green taxi and a grey van I heard him gasp and saw him crumble; and that the hitting was done purposefully and efficiently. A crack to the small of his back and then his neck. By the time I saw him crumble I was certain he was dead. There was a traffic island and two lines of busy traffic between us, so it’s not clear how it is actually possible I heard him gasp, but I remember his exhalation, very viscerally, and the crack.
I was wrong. I found out later that he did not die. He was an activist, someone who had been protesting against land development. You hear about these things in China all the time, but you don’t imagine it happening in such a civilized city like ours, with a proper legal system and so on.
For a while, Mr Ngai remained a turnip, and I began the habit of visiting him. I was the only person on earth who knew what had happened in those thirty seconds of how he got from point C to point Z. I had a piece of him (of that thirty second slice of time) that I needed to return, and someday, if and when he woke up I needed to say to him: I was there. I know what happened.
She would come here up to twice a week, afterschool on Tuesdays and Fridays. Even though their features were not at all similar, I thought she might be a relative. There was something about the way she held his hand. Tentatively. Tenderly. Like she knew him. Because of their age difference– she was still in school, he must be in his late twenties – I assumed they were not a couple. Though honestly these days, who can tell? There was something in the papers the other way about an eighty year old marrying a fourteen year old (with the consent of her parents).
We have four people on life-support on a permanent basis in this wing, and some more that would come and go. It is an expensive thing to hope for – that a person might come out of a coma. More often than not, most families opt for the more practical decision. It is both an emotionally and financially draining for a family to keep hoping, against all odds, for a medical miracle. And these things are unpredictable – there is neither shape nor reason for their occurrence. In my time here – and I’ve been here for five and a half years now – not a single person who has been in a coma longer than a month has recovered. But of course, there are people who have the resources to keep on hoping.
On the whole I did not mind looking after these comatose patients. They are never irritable, never complain. Their relatives are undemanding. In a regular ward everyone is panicking and wants to see the doctor, right now; or questioning what you are doing or how you are drawing their blood sample or taking their temperature because they need to feel in control. The routine of the ward was predictable, boring even (and indeed, we go through many nurses who wish to move on from working here because of the monotony of the routine). C Check the EEG, BP, ventilator. Move the patients position once every two hours to prevent bedsores. Physiotherapist comes twice a day to exercise the limbs and prevent muscle atrophy. Specialist comes once every 15 days to change the catheter. Meals are made by a blender and injected with a stomach pump (some relative read that it was better to feed natural food than commercial formula, and since it was almost as much work to make this for one as it was for all four patients in our ward, everyone got fed natural food. Carrots on Mondays, spinach on Tuesday, beetroot on Wednesdays. I’m just guessing from the colours. Not that our patients notice anyway.
Mr Lok-Tin Ngai of bed four was – as I learned – a particularly unusual case. Unlike the three other patients, who came from families rich enough to support their care, it was clear from the initial pack of friends who came to visit him that Mr Ngai was from a working class background and was much beloved. Indeed, during the first month a motley gang of musicians would come and sing and play guitar for him. I told them to hush, it was a hospital but they laughed and said: “What? You’re afraid of waking his roommates?” They even offered me some cheap wine , which I refused. After all, I was on duty.
How did someone of Mr Ngai (or Ah Lok, as his friends called him), come to receive world-class care? From the news, I heard that he was a prominent activist – in fact, a key negotiator between the villagers and the developers when he got bludgeoned into a coma. The property developer, on hearing the news, released an official statement expressing their shock and horror but it was never really clear who was behind this act of violence and intimidation. The public outcry that followed set up a fund for Mr Wong’s medical expenses, and – Lady Daniella, one of the patrons of this medical center, seized upon this opportunity to offer a place in the center for Mr Ngai and thus galvanize funding for coma care. In the end though, the furor gradually died down. Ah Lok’s friends stopped coming, except for this tiny slip of a girl called Emily.
Meanwhile the villagers were paid off and forced off the land, and as I speak, the mega-mall-cinemaplex is nearly completed.
Exercise 8: Historical Omniscience
Our family cites Dongguan as our hometown, but that is a mere convenience. I have no idea where the hometown of my biological great grandparents came from, for they were nomadic fishermen. Dongguan is actually the hometown of my grandfather’s adopted father, Mr. Chow Kwong, who – in the days where the buying and selling of children was still acceptable – bought him from his fisher-family. The deal benefited all parties involved: my adopted grandfather, Mr Chow, had no son of his own and needed someone to carry his family name. Meanwhile, my biological great-grandparents had eleven mewing children underfoot in their fishing boat and the thought of one less mouth to feed in return for cash must have seemed like a pretty good deal.
My grandfather talks with a certain pride about the fact that he was chosen over all the other siblings. I have no idea when and how exactly this selection took place, but in my imagination my grandfather and his siblings are all lined up on the quay in order of height (like the children from “The Sound of Music”). Their hands have been scrubbed clean and hair hastily combed, but they still smell of fish. My adopted great-grandfather descends from his rickshaw, shadowed by a faithful servant (let’s call him Ah Chiu, who pretty much runs the household). Mr Chow was a landlord of some scant holdings. By no means considered rich by the social circles of Dongguan, nevertheless he was sufficiently impressive to the poor fisher family, whose to this day remains nameless to me.
What made my great grandfather pick my grandfather? He was, after all, choosing a potential son and heir. My grandfather says he was selected because of his fearlessness. While the siblings (sufficiently impressed) lowered their eyes at the approach of Mr. Chow, my grandfather stared quite frankly back at this stranger who was about to pluck him away from the lifestyle he had known.
Mr. Chow murmured something in an undertone to Ah Chiu, who nodded curtly in approval and waved for the boy to come over.
Less certain now, my grandfather nevertheless had been briefed earlier that one of them would be selected to live with this rich family and be given a chance at an education. He would have to prove himself worthy, of course, before a formal adoption, and be an obedient and hardworking boy. The last two adjectives were not qualities which – up until this point – my grandfather had not been particularly recognized for (he was known to the family to be the monkey of the bunch), but now he would have sufficient motivation to pursue.
With a certain impudence designed to mask any remaining uncertainty, my grandfather stepped forward. Some coins changed hands, and he was bundled upon the rickshaw. As the rickshaw pulled away, Mr. Chow ruffled the head of his new acquisition. He had chosen a smart one – you could tell by the way the boy shook his head impatiently and chose to peer curiously instead at the buildings speeding pass them. It was a hot afternoon, and everyone was sweating, but the brown and wiry eight year old laughed at the exhilaration of his first rickshaw ride.
A year and half later, when the family finally saw him again, my grandfather had filled out. His clothes, it goes without saying, were well tailored and there was a certain gravity to his gestures that he had adopted from his new father. Nevertheless, on seeing the siblings on the quay, he leapt out of the rickshaw in delight, landing on his feet before it had fully come to a stop. Hours of calligraphy and rote learning had not diminished his active nature.
“Monkey,” said his eldest sister.
Having dispensed all his presents, he walked with the family to the fisherboat. The first night he had slept in his new, hard bed in the mansion, he had been confused at how he could still feel the sea churning. My bed is nailed to the ground, my bedsheets are cool to touch, but my bed still rocks, like it does back in my bunk on the ship. It took him a few days before his bed became still. Seeing the boat again and smelling the salt in the air, he realized how intrinsic the sea was to him. I didn’t know how much I missed you until I saw you again, he told the bobbing boat and the lapping waves. Many years later, he would pass on this love of the sea to his children in a diluted, milder form, by taking them boating over the weekends. Perhaps because of this, my family ended up living near the sea.
“Come sit with us in the boat for a while,” urged his mother.
My grandfather hesitated. He looked at Ah Chiu, waiting by the rickshaw, whose face gave no indication as to whether it was permissible for the young master to join his former, fish-smelling fisher-family for a bit.
Grinning, my grandfather crossed the gangplank.
How to capture that moment of suspension?
The secret is to breathe together with the dancers. Just like — when you are inside, dancing, you can sense that your partner is ready to help you fly; when I am taking photos, I’m with them. So a split second before they take-off, I press the shutter. So really, when I pull out my camera, I’m dancing too.
話建個 rooftop garden 好耐啦，但未的起心肝來做。始于足下有第一棵！
I brought my camera to contact improv to work on the shutter-speed.
(What better occasion to practice than with movement?)
The trick seems to be in trying to find the balance between what you want blurred and what you want stable.
Contact improv is such a kinesethetic form (as opposed to something like ballet or Chinese dance, which is designed to be a much more visual form) that I think it’s hard to capture in photographs sometimes. Often when I look back, what looks like from the outside seems such a different experience from the inside. Still, it’s a good challenge to try to capture this intimacy.
Occasion: Kongtact Square is a Contact Improvisation group I go to that hosts bi-weekly jams in Hong Kong. Their schedule of upcoming jams can be found on their facebook page here.
The sunlight on the building reminds me of watercolour…
nah : nah-nah-nah-nah
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