The tiny island of Peng Chau is a 45-minute ferry ride from Central district, Hong Kong. It is dangerous in its magical allure. Its men tend to be fucked up. Either they run away and keep on running, trying their damndest to be everything it’s not, like the man I used to be married to, or they stay and get stuck, never growing up, lounging around a barbecue pit with big, unrealized plans and plenty of booze and/or pot, like two of his three best friends. The third seems to have vanished, not before going off the deep end. His name has vanished too, as has the name of my ex-husband’s younger brother who killed himself on the mainland. Some relatives preferred to speculate murder.

The women seem to do better. They maintain balance. They get off the island, but keep close ties, some visiting every weekend. They gather around a take-out meal while the maid or amah cleans and fusses with the kids in the background; they chat about dieting or travel, not needing to mention their good jobs and good husbands. Sometimes they laugh about how messed–up Peng Chau boys are, maybe with some competitive relief and some survivor guilt. 

On our third trip to Hong Kong in my son’s young life, he chose Peng Chau over his father, and then was rewarded with both. On the first trip, he was six months old, a pretty easy traveler with easier dynamics involving cooing and cuddling.  I think we arrived Christmas day, and that set the tone. On the second visit, he was four. The uncle had died the previous summer. A big singing star had also just died, and all of the public, extravagant mourning gave the family an outlet for the more private and shameful grief. My ex, Ting, sat smoking (having previously promised not to show Teddy this bad habit) and when little Teddy called to him (using the Cantonese ‘Bahba’), his father pushed him away, saying “Get away. I’m not your father.” That visit didn’t end so nicely. This time, Teddy was eight. I couldn’t relax into my low expectations, because I was holding my breath for the next hurt. At this point, the ex was still okay about birthdays (after I reminded him each year). There may have been a few awkward phone conversations across an ocean of differences, including language. 

Like most islands, Peng Chau seems to keep its own time, which is slow and random. Maybe that’s why the women escape successfully and the men don’t. They’re practical and adaptable to time-tables. My son’s father, in spite of living in a different country now, still operates on Peng Chau time, at least in my presence. He is the coolest guy in the universe to my boy, yet one day when we waited for him in Kowloon, hours piling up (“where’s Bahba? When is Daddy coming? Where’s Bahba?”) I finally asked Teddy if he wanted to wait or head out to Peng Chau. He chose the latter, and finally Ting decided he’d join us there later, which he actually did. 

Did young Teddy feel the same relief most grown-ups do, as they step off the boat and breathe better? The manic rush of shoppers and traffic, neon lights, city noise, are all gone. Faan-syu, the friend with a solid tan, construction work on and off, and a love for fishing (he took a trip to Thailand just for that purpose, and instead of posing with girls, brought back brag shots of him and his huge catches) boasted that the Swine Flu never made it to Peng Chau. 

The biggest open areas are probably the ferry pier plaza and adjacent park, and the highest point is called Finger Hill. The pier plaza is a big concrete open area with the bay wrapping around in front, the park on another side, the shops and restaurants in two winding rows along the third, and a hill of residential clutter extending behind. The park side has a big “Wellcome” supermarket, which I still think of as new and intrusive, because it wasn’t there when I was a resident. In the same big structure can be found Grandma’s favorite dim sum place.

A couple of little stalls have sprung up selling snacks for the boat ride, coconut pastries or egg tarts, fresh baked bread, and additional random items like dish towels or cell phone bags with embroidered cartoon characters. Only early on weekday mornings, the little cart would set up to peddle cha siu bau, which used to be my regular breakfast.

The rest of the island is mini, compact, but not claustrophobic. Little alley-sized paved roads offer a ‘commercial district’ and walks around the island. No cars are allowed. No cars would fit. There are down-sized emergency vehicles that look like children’s toys.

For such a small island, there seem to be infinite routes in a labyrinth so intriguing and confusing that on our recent walk, my ex-husband who grew up there got lost. 

There is room for temples here and there, the biggest one at the top of the ferry plaza. That and the smaller version of it just across the ‘street’ from Teddy’s Chinese grandma’s place are mainly yellow, with plenty of red, plenty of coiled incense like some aromatic ascending snake. Other tiny structures or makeshift shrines squeeze in between buildings or up on a hillside, sometimes just a few incense sticks tucked into oranges.

Shrines are in every home too, and kept well-supplied in fruit and incense and fake money offerings. Large black and white full-frontal photos of the dead, like giant passport shots, are posted nearby. In my ex-mother-in-law’s home, the newest one is of her husband. The suicide is not pictured there. The little shrines exude solemnity and care, but when the ball we were tossing around hit the shrine, and I made a risky joke, — “Sorry” I said to the dead — everyone laughed. 

The tiny shops are about three closets wide, seven closets deep, stacked high with goods, including shrine and New Year paraphernalia, mainly red, stationary goods, toys, an attempt at Western-style tourist tchotchkes, with shells, beads, tie dye, some ceramic work. I think there’s an art gallery too. Of course, a bike shop, selling and renting the main means of transportation, next to or maybe surpassing feet. People weave through crowds and alleys without any collisions, a friendly bell giving warning to whomever is in front. It appears impractical and unnecessary for an island this small, yet many folks seem attached to their bikes, physically, more comfortable slowly ambling along on wheels than on feet. This bike shop brings a pang, as my ex once started up the only such business on the island. As with everything else he attempted, it failed, even though it was the most popular place for all boys under 30 to hang out. They had a monopoly, and plenty of know-how. Something went wrong with the friend who can’t be named, wounded feelings took over from smart business choices, and it just sort of limped along to a sad, unkempt end. 

Teddy too, would rather ride than walk. On a previous visit to the island, while his dad lay about reading a magazine, Auntie Fanny went around the island on bikes with her nephew (ex-nephew? For complex boundaries of family, but also not detached from Americanness as a status symbol in this ex-colony, I seem to still be a daughter-in-law, and male, ½ Chinese Teddy is most definitely still a grandson; he has cousins and I have sisters-in-law. Only my once husband and I are exes, and I’m not sure that’s even so for his mother). As much as I love this island (it used to be home), I try to keep some distance from my ex and the family, so when I bring my son for a visit, we stay elsewhere. 

Peng Chau has cafes of sorts, more like diners, with all sorts of fried foods on offer, and noodle soups with vegetables on top, a fried egg, ‘luncheon meat’, or fried chicken wings. Upon first sitting down, lukewarm very weak tea that no one drinks is served in frosted plastic glasses. Other drinks include coke, or lemon tea or milk tea (the milk is condensed), served hot or over ice. My favorite is fried pork chops on top of fried spaghetti noodles, darkened by soy sauce. My other favorite is eggs and corned beef sandwich, the meat coming out of a can. My ex is convinced they’re best on Peng Chau, and I have to agree.  These establishments tend to have small tiled walls, like in a bathroom, linoleum floors, and big glass-topped tables or wooden tables with benches for booths along the walls. A TV is mounted in a prominent spot, showing sit coms or old movies.

There are also places where alcohol can be consumed. There are ways for younger generations or those who are young at heart to party late (mainly, again at the barbecue pits) and places where older early risers can hang, including at least three options for dim sum. 

Teddy’s grandma takes him to her favorite spot, where her cronies dine every morning at 6:30am. She fusses over Teddy and he tolerates it. Before she goes out with him, she brushes his hair, and he doesn’t even cry out when she hits a tangle. She buttons a coat or straightens a shirt. She and he are almost exactly the same height. Is her curly hair permed? I don’t know how old she is. 70’s, maybe. He’s ten. She was the daughter of a concubine, and is illiterate in Chinese. She knows no English. She touches Teddy and babbles at him. He sits and smiles or offers a vaguely assenting giggle.

She shouts in Cantonese across the restaurant at anyone she knows, maybe some she doesn’t. “My American grandson” and if I’ve managed to get up so early in the morning too, “My daughter –in–law”. She shouts too at the food carriers, demanding immediately whatever spoiled Teddy suggests he might like to eat. She over-orders and doesn’t eat much herself.  (She has commented on my son being too fat, as have all of the relatives, yet also plies him with candy in between meals.) She produces a package or two of “Tempo”, the indispensable pocket-sized tissues used for napkins or toilet paper when public restroom have none, and shoves them at me, even if she’d offered a supply just the day before. She keeps pouring tea, as soon as the level in our cups goes down just a bit. I was scolded by one table-mate for letting her do that. I should have been pouring the tea for her. It was actually a relief to be told what to do. In some contexts, I feel I know how to read and follow cultural cues. In others, I feel like a novice – clumsy and ignorant. Once conversations take off with buddies, Grandma slips out of Cantonese and into her Toisan dialect that I can not follow. I smile vaguely and make guesses that we’re no longer the topic but now it’s health complaints, something she also delivers to me, on and on, and I make appropriate grunts and sympathetic comments from time to time, not able to follow even in Cantonese. 

Little Peng Chau of humble dimensions has a few tiny farms, a promenade for bikes or dating couples that runs the length of the south shore and is the widest path of all, maybe eight feet deep. There are paths all round the island, much thinner, paved, guttered, offering views of isolated, cleaned-up beaches and across at the big island. There hover Disneyland and a golf-cart ex-pat community called “Discovery Bay” or “Disco Bay” for short. There is also still lots of untouched green. 

Peng Chau still holds outdoor Chinese opera once a year, with a huge, temporary stage constructed mainly of bamboo. The handful of foreigners soak up old-style culture with grateful awe. The locals attend public events with probably the same relaxed pragmatism of centuries ago. During an opera, they’ll munch on pumpkin seeds, chicken legs, or any other snack, listen now and again, gossip about who’s there and with whom, and speculate on those who aren’t. 

Peng Chau can trap you, confuse you, make you lose track of normal time, but it heals too. 

I remember more than once, rushing out of the tiny apartment in tears after one or another of Ting’s terrible rages or betrayals or insensitive blunders, and walking around, up to the peak, up higher, up those 500 steps of Finger Hill to the little pagoda on the top. I’d sit and cry. Then read. Or just look at the sea all around me and breathe, and feel better. 

On this third trip, ten years after our break-up, my ex-husband and I walk all around the island, pointing out sites of nostalgia. His girlfriend, in her ‘designer’ dress (his design — finally, he’s done something with his life) and ridiculous high boots has long since headed back with the two kids on bikes and the poor amah carrying everyone’s bags like a camel. That little parade I didn’t like, partly because of the domestic helper culture, and partly because here, it would not be a far-fetched story to tell of Ting and his 2 wives (in fact earlier, his mother had insisted that their little toddler call me Daih Ma, literally ‘big mother’ for first wife. Thankfully my ex reminded her that we were divorced). Now, we’re alone together, a rare occasion. We carefully don’t touch. I grind my teeth when he hands back the water bottle for me to carry. I say nothing when he lights up. He talks about how nice Pen Chau is, no wonder people want to live here. We find the place where we lived together, reminisce about our dog Buddha. How we actually put a blanket over him in the winter, and then he moved to New Hampshire and loved frolicking in the snow. My ex’s friend, Faan Syu, the fishing guy, joins us for a bit, and that’s fine too. He points out the very first place I stayed on the island. I doubt he keeps track of his own doctor’s appointments. How could he remember that? We talk about how it doesn’t get better than hearing lapping waves from your bedroom. The two tell truncated, brave stories about childhood adventures, climbing straight up this hill, jumping over that rock. The old story of Ting sitting on a centipede is brought out again. Mild stuff, nothing sad. The mood is comfortable. There is appreciation but not longing, except maybe for the island. 

Back at my friend Madeleine’s place, she asks Teddy where he’d choose to live, Oakland, CA (where we used to live), Amherst, MA (where we lived at the time of this trip number 3), Tai Hang, Hong Kong (her place) or Peng Chau. His answer is not much of a punch line, but without a moment’s pause, he declares Peng Chau the winner. 

Twelve years after visit number 3, which turned out to be the last one, communication has dwindled. My ex has shown spurts of interest followed by years of silence, each gap I fear hits my son like another abandonment. I try to ask for very little, but once in a while may reach out. Like when I had just been laid off and Teddy was about to start college. I asked for birthday money so Teddy could get himself a TV for his dorm room. We got the money, and then a few more years went by. A message from Ting on Facebook that I only noticed months after the fact announced the death of Chinese grandma. Months after that, I received another message, saying he needed me, wanted to talk. I said something vague and disinterested. Then I received this stunning suggestion: “I’m back on Peng Chau. Come back to be with me. We can live a simple life. I’ll love you till the end.” I replied no, but that I sure do miss Peng Chau.


©Sara Schupack, 2020

           Sara Schupack grew up in the Bay Area. She went East for college and then to the Far East for a teaching fellowship and many adventures, including the East Asia Writing Project in Thailand. Since then, she has taught and studied on both coasts and in the middle. She now works in Hayward, sending old-fashioned letters to her son Teddy, and cuddling with her dog Marshall.

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