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《All’s Well that Ends Well》__ Henry Ku (56)

Blessed Are Those Who Suffer …

It was the most gut wrenching decision any parent had to make.  But, no alternative was available.  Uncle Him had been pacing the little space between the bed and the door to their tiny room, and Aunt Lin just sat there, looking blank, numb to everything.  They had to sell some of their children.

            Since the surrender of Hong Kong on that fateful Christmas Day, 1941, many had been forced to leave the city for their villages in nearby China.  Sadly, on arrival, most found that there was no land to farm and no relief of any kind.   They simply perished and disappeared.  Some did not even make the journey, unburied where they dropped.  

            The Japanese occupation army had just imposed new food restriction on the remaining population.  Each person would have to survive on a daily ration of 5 oz. of rice.  With no supplements, it was hardly enough to sustain a child, let alone an adult.  Charles Darwin was unmitigatedly validated: survival for the fittest.   Tough and violent men had the means.  Becoming a collaborator would also put food on the table, if you could swallow that with a good measure of shame.   Others stole or sold whatever they could find.   One of the most thriving part of the economy in the city was the trading of old clothes, belongings and furniture. 

Uncle Him was not a strong man; he was the bespectacled accountant type.   Manual work was beyond him.  Little surprise that he found it harder and harder to support the family.  They had four children, six mouths to feed.  The oldest was Lai Ha, then the two boys and the baby girl Lai Sim.   That baby Lai Sim was still surviving was already a miracle.   Something had to be done. 

            Strange times begot strange occupations.  In this case, brokerage for children.   A woman came to them and told them that a family that was leaving Hong Kong for Bangkok to join their relatives in the rice business had a proposal.   The couple was in their early sixties; their son, a heroic rifleman in the Volunteers, did not survive the hostilities in the defense of Wong Nei Chung Gap.   They were not likely to have children any more.  They hoped to set up a new life in Bangkok with ready-made progenies and were open to “adoption”.   Yes, sons.  

            Do we want to save at least two of the family, or to perish as a group of six?   With only four, the family might live until God only knew when.   Bangkok was a name hardly pronounceable. Either we never see them again or soon bury them in paper-thin boxes. In either case, they were destined not for us to hold.  Take a look at the boys, mother, for the very last time.   For the very last time!  

            The boys were old enough to know.  They had stopped crying as the older, eight now, knew he had to be brave.  How, he didn’t exactly know.   But, that was what father had said and father also said always take care of the younger brother.  He would, forever.

            Like so many others, that was how the family learned about the cruelty of war.   Not the horrific atrocities we had read about in the north of China, but this was viscerally hurtful devastation. 

The war ended eighteen months later.  Hong Kong was just as the old Cantonese movies had depicted.   It was noisy, dirty and crowded.   There were bombed out buildings on both sides of the harbor, in Yau Ma Tei and Wan Chai.  Buses were rare and full, and fights between conductors and passengers broke out every day.  Street vendors were everywhere.  The second-hand goods trade was still thriving. Schools re-opened.  Some teachers asked students to donate chairs and tables (including the one on Nelson Street, Wah Yan.)   Commerce was beginning to pick up and food rations had ended.   Uncle Him found work, not high-paying work but the family made do frugally.   Auntie Lin was the typical house wife of those days; the girls had grown, I did not know if they had any schooling.   They were slim, well-behaved, and soft-spoken. 

            I met them when we came to Hong Kong after the war.   Our families lived not too far apart and we saw each other now and then.   I heard of the stories of the boys, but it didn’t mean much to me.   My Mom had told me that Uncle Him and Auntie Lin were still pining for the boys, sorely.   Somehow, it reminded me of a story of my own family.  When we first moved back to our village, there was a matchmaker who came to ask for the hand of my cousin.  She was 14 or so, very pretty, refined and smart.   My father, on behalf of the family, said to the matchmaker that we would sooner starve to death together than trade our girls for anything.

            Then, glory be, Auntie Lin was pregnant!   And, in due course, a boy was born.  A boy!  Heaven never forgot the good! 

Everyone was happy.   My parents said they deserved it.  But, there was a tiny hitch.  The boy was born with a mole at the center of his forehead, a red mole.  The parents were nervous and asked around what it meant.  We Chinese had all sort of beliefs.   Any birthmark meant something.  A mole near your lips might mean you are blessed, destined to enjoy the life of a gourmet. What did the baby’s red mole mean?   Well, one smart aleck said it meant the boy would become an important person.  “No,” the parents said, “we just want a son; no need to be important.  We don’t want to incur the jealousy of the gods, less they vindictively take him back to heaven!”   Ah, the smart aleck said expose it, tell everybody about it and let it become “common” and unimportant.   I didn’t know what kind of logic it was.  Or, what divine revelation could have inspired such an advice.  The parents, though, believed and never let a chance go by without pointing it out to friends and strangers.  The mole, I was told, remained, but that did not affect the cuteness of the boy as he grew.

Meanwhile, the girls grew up, pretty and well-mannered; Lai Ha was the first to marry, to an adoring suitor from a good family.  Lai Sim had all the makings of beautiful girl, as well. The boy, though, had a turn of bad luck.

One day, while playing in the neighborhood park, some girl was reckless with the swing and the young boy was hit on the back by the swing.  Auntie Lin was nearby and quickly called the ambulance.  The doctors were very kind and did all they could.   Alas, although no nerves were damaged, the spine was dislocated and the doctors said, “We are very sorry but in the short term, he may be unable to stand up straight.”   What could a family with modest means do?   May be that was how the gods were exacting their toll.   Perhaps, they gave us a boy, but a boy with a hunchback.  Red mole or not!  Be content, you mortals, and do not even dare to complain, less we take the boy away altogether.

Here, one cannot help harking back to the story of 塞翁失馬. Yes, we Chinese always have a story, but stories are there only to teach us to be philosophical, hardly useful in consoling sad parents.  The boy, too young to be despondent, continued to recover. 

Some time later, the doctors contacted the parents and suggested that a trestle might help.   They surgically attached a metal ring around the boy’s hip, steel verticals and a sort of crown round his head, like a halo, all to support his spine.  A bit like a boy living in a cage. A lot of nasty operations the poor kid had to go through.  One must admire his fortitude.  Despite the suffering the good boy thrived and showed promise at school.

Uncle Him once asked if other boys would make fun of his mole.  “No,” he said “we are all friends.  But they do call me the three-eye Wah Kong.  I don’t mind; Wah Kong is a powerful god, doing the biddings of heaven, beating evil spirits and protecting the weak.”   So his passed his early years in the cage.

In time, the doctors considered his spine was strong enough for the trestle to be removed, and he came out of the cage.   Good heavens!  Like a lark, free from restraint, soaring to the clouds with its proud songs, the boy grew up strong, tall and handsome!

What was more, he was very good at school, earning all sorts of prizes and scholarships.   And, the parents were at peace, for they now considered that they were even with the gods; the boy had paid the price.  Yes, plain sailing they did have after that.   The next we heard was that the boy had won a scholarship to the medical school.  The intervening years were blissful just as the mole had promised.   He became a surgeon, totally dedicated to helping children with physical problems.

And, now they fondly called him Dr. Wah Kong in the hospital.  He was indeed important.  Heaven never forgot the good!

© Henry Ku, January 2017


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