Xu Xi and David Clarke
Ninth Letter is pleased to feature “Visitor,” a further example of the extended literary and photographic duet created by writer Xu Xi and photographer David Clarke (in 2012 we previously published on our website their collaboration, “Fear Itself”). In this dialogue across genres, David Clarke offers a photo from his oeuvre, Xu Xi then writes an essay in response to it, and this inspires which photo Clarke will then choose to spark the next essay by Xu Xi, and so on. A beautiful duet indeed, with ambiguity and revelation passing back and forth in unpredictable ways.
David Clarke Schoolgirl, Hanoi, Vietnam, 28 December 2008
I have to tell you about Asahan, even though it was a long time ago. Even though I did nothing terribly wrong. Even though I was only a schoolgirl, just gone puberty, and could not be expected to understand the turmoil I felt. It was an innocent act, I’ve always maintained, not mine but his. Was I innocent? I have to tell you because that is the only way I’ll know.
Asahan was Daddy’s friend, one of his strays. Daddy brought home strays. During his business trips o Indonesia and Japan, he would say to assorted relatives, friends and strangers, visit me in Hong Kong. They took him at his word, and hordes of visitors came to our home, visitors that my little sister learned to deplore, that my second sister merely rolled her eyes at, as if to say, not again. I, however, anticipated each visitor with eager curiosity. Perhaps this one, or that one, him or her, would be the answer to the mystery of the world beyond home. The home that I, even as a child, couldn’t wait to leave. These travelers en route to Europe or America or elsewhere in Asia had arrived and would leave by air. I only flew twice by air before leaving home. The first time was in a small plane, on a flight around our city, a brief ride so that my second sister and I would know the experience of flying. We were very young, perhaps four and five at most, and it was winter because we wore our duffel coats. But I’m not really sure and there is no one to confirm because neither she nor I can recall exactly the details of this grand adventure, except to marvel at how expensive this must have been, how unusual a treat for children, how wealthy Daddy really must have been then. It was not entirely thrilling because I threw up when we landed. It would be impossible today to fly a small plane in the middle of the city, other than helicopters. Cost aside, there is too much air traffic, and even though an aviation club exists at the old Kai Tak airport, which is where our childhood flight probably took off from, there are likely strict limits imposed by the civil aviation department. My second flight was a trip to Singapore and Malaysia by B.O.A.C., the now defunct British Overseas Airways Corporation, to visit our cousins. That was memorable and wonderful and we three sisters felt completely privileged, which we were, because it was just before Christmas and we got to miss a few days of school, even if B.O.A.C. was known by the alternative slogan, “better on a camel.”
But I was telling you about Daddy’s strays.
A young American college student visited us once. Daddy picked him up hitchhiking in Indonesia. He was nice enough, although I was disappointed, because he was no one to even have a crush on. Later, he returned to Hong Kong as a married man with a job at an American bank, and became my then-boyfriend’s boss. We were less impressed by his wife, who struck us as snobbish, and my boyfriend was not especially impressed with him as a boss. You can never tell with strays. They eventually become whatever they will.
A girl visited with her parents. She played on the swings with my little sister, or so she said many years later when she contacted my sister through Facebook. We do not remember her, do not think she is a relative (although she might have been because we had so many relatives; both our parents came from small villages in Central Java where, among the wah kiu, marriage among cousins was common). We do not know what she wants, why she tries to stay in touch, because my sister keeps hearing from her and she asks to meet. Another young woman contacted me once around twenty years ago. She was at school in upstate New York and I was living in the city. I did not recognize her name. She did not seem to want anything, only to say, hello. Perhaps she was the child of a stray my father collected and hosted. His hospitality was memorable, since all of us, all Daddy’s children, have heard from strangers all our lives who once visited our home. When Daddy died, sister number two took over his Christmas card list. Fifteen years later, she has more or less identified all the strangers and visitors who crossed Daddy’s path and with whom he maintained contact. Yet the odd card or message still filters through occasionally and surprises.
But I was telling you about Asahan.
Even now, I can see his face, the one on the man, not the photograph in the news clipping he gave me. Dark, very dark, his skin looked rough and tanned beyond its natural pigmentation. He was always in the sun, on board the vessels he sailed. He was the only visitor who never arrived by air, who landed on our shores when his ship docked in Hong Kong.
I never saw the ships he came on. These were not the fancy passenger liners that docked at the Ocean Terminal, like the one Auntie Julianna sailed away on after her wedding. She was not really a relative, just a Portuguese family friend, but hers was the grandest church wedding I attended as a child, and afterwards, whenever I played with our jigsaw puzzles, the one named “Military Wedding”—an English bride and groom frozen under two rows of guards of honor with swords raised—recalled that wedding.
Asahan’s vessel would likely have been much further away from our home in Tsimshatsui, at one of the container terminals in Kwun Tong or Kwai Chung. He crewed on cargo ships and traveled on many different lines for work.
After my father’s death, I once asked my mother about Asahan. Who was he, I wanted to know, why did he visit us? Because he did so with some regularity, and we children all recognized and knew him. He never stayed to dinner or visited long. But he was a visitor. My mother couldn’t enlighten me much. He was Daddy’s friend, she said.
Where and when did my father meet him? I can recall him in our home from the time I was quite young, say around six or seven, and know that he came until I was at least thirteen or so. Then he didn’t come anymore and from time to time, someone would say, how come we haven’t seen Asahan, but the question was almost rhetorical.
After our Singapore-Malaysia trip, where we learned about the “oily man” from our cousins—a Southeast Asian term for the boogeyman, who is dark because he rises from the blackest oil—my sister and I told ourselves that Asahan was an oily man, and even my mother laughed when we said that. At our cousins’ home, with its large garden which was paradise, we ran around and played and marched and sang, Oily man, ding ding! Oily man, ding ding! Our oldest cousin Lawrence had scared us into believing that the oily man lived at the bottom of their garden, and our marching melody, complete with toy rifles and swords, was to shoo him away.
Asahan didn’t send Christmas cards. He was Burmese, although it was my second sister, the most factually accurate sibling memory, who reminded me of this, and I’m not sure I knew as a child. He had a surprisingly soft, deep voice and spoke only halting English, and I thought that he spoke to my parents in Indonesian. My mother would, from time to time, speak derisively of some of the visitors my father invited home, especially the Men! Who knows who they are and what if they come when Daddy is away then what am I supposed to do? Her indignation was the source of great amusement for us, the children. But Mum never said that about Asahan, even though he always came alone, unannounced and unexpected, even though we didn’t seem to know a great deal about him beyond the bare facts of his life. He was younger than our parents, this short, quiet, respectful man who never seemed to want anything more than to say, hello, here I am. To visit.
Asahan died. My father announced this at some point. My sister recalls that his death was dramatic, perhaps violent or as the result of some horrifying illness, although she cannot remember the specifics. What I felt was a strange sense of relief, because it meant he would not come to our home again. What I also recall was that I didn’t know why I wasn’t sad, because somehow, I thought I should be.
You take this and remember Asahan. He said this to me as he gave me the two-column news clipping. It was in English, and may have been from a Burmese paper.
Please remember Asahan, he said.
It was a hero’s story, because he had saved a man—there might have been a fire on board—and was written up in the media. The photograph was of him on deck, smiling in the sun, or at least, that is what memory serves up. I was not afraid when he told me this privately, out of earshot of my parents, but I felt uncomfortable that this responsibility had been placed upon me. Why, I wondered, should I remember him? What was he to me? He didn’t say much directly to us children, but that visit, he must have told my parents about this good deed and even though I knew I should admire him, I was afraid to do so. Was it because the oily man could only be evil? Or was it because I did not want this stranger’s life to touch mine, to make me feel that his fate was in my hands?
What I wonder now is if my parents knew what he asked of me.
Years ago, I tried to write fiction about Asahan, but the story always eluded me. Then I forgot about him for many years until her schoolgirl’s face, slightly mistrustful and uncertain, evoked him again.
Daddy’s strays. Like Daddy’s stories and Daddy’s voice, they whisper at me in the night when I cannot sleep, or out of nowhere, when I least expect it. Chut-chut, Daddy nicknamed me. Very determined, Chut-chut, he said.
Why my determination to forget Asahan?
Please remember Asahan, he said.
After Asahan left that day, I tore up and threw away the clipping. It was mean. I wasn’t a mean girl, but something made me do this, almost as if I needed to eradicate him. The next time he came he asked if I would remember Asahan, if I had his precious clipping, and I lied and said, yes. It was one of the rare times in my life that I deliberately told a lie that was not about writing fiction. And then I don’t think I ever saw him again.
Now I wonder, did Daddy tell Asahan I wrote? Because by then I had begun to publish my stories and essays and this was something my father proudly told people, or so my mother says. I do not remember ever hearing him tell anyone this until I was much older, a published author, when he proudly sent off my first book to friends and relatives (albeit with disclaimers about my “vivid imagination” so that no one would think my fiction about sex and incest between a sister and brother could possibly be about myself or our family).
Now that there is no one left to ask, I must reconstruct a truth to atone for this mean-spirited childhood act. I will not remember you. I will not remember you. That was the unmistakable reason for my act. I will not remember you because you asked me to do so. That is what I, as an older writer, have often felt about people—sometimes complete strangers—who force their stories upon me because I am a writer. Stories I never asked for. These would-be ancient mariners corner me in bars or coffee shops, at restaurants, via introductions from friends and acquaintances, under various pretenses to meet me. Some call or email. Others send their self-published work or unsolicited manuscripts. Read about me, listen to me, write my story, they plead, politely, impolitely, desperately. Remember me so that I will not completely disappear is what they’re really trying to say.
Hundreds of thousands of written words later, published or not, in manuscripts saved or abandoned, hundreds of thousands of words I labor over to get a novel or story or essay just right enough to face the world, I do know which stories need to be told and which I can discard. I know which of the hundreds of people who have crossed my life need to be transformed into fiction or recalled in essays, and which may safely be relegated to mere memory, to disappear with my mortality. As a writer, I have learned to dig where my real responsibility lies.
But this suspicious girl, who was she, so hell bent on discarding her innocence? Tell me, tell me, do you know why we give up innocence? Why we abandon paradise for this mortal coil?
Do you know why I must tell about Asahan?
Asahan was an innocent. He was an ordinary man, not especially educated, whom my father once encountered somewhere. At a bar or food stall perhaps, because he frequented both in his travels. Or at the dockyards in Indonesia when he was arranging one of his shipments. One of my father’s flaws as a businessman was that he was perennially innocent. He trusted the wrong people, was swindled by con artists, and opened his wallet and home to too many who took advantage of him. My mother sometimes said he was not the best judge of character, and perhaps, in matters of business, she was right.
But my father was also generous of spirit and knew a good person when he met one. Asahan was such a man. They did not have much in common, unlike Uncle Tommy, our Chinese-Welsh auto mechanic, the non-relation who was more than merely a visitor, who helped Daddy fix all his cars and find the next second-hand vehicle when time came to retire the last, who arrived every New Year’s Eve (and on many other occasions) at our home to celebrate time’s passage, bearing gifts for the children and flowers for my mother, who was as much a part of our family as the blood relatives we truly liked. Tommy loved opera as much as my father did, and when he died, long after he retired to the UK after a life in Hong Kong, we honored and remembered him, just as his image appears throughout the years in our family’s photo albums. Whenever Tommy arrived at our home, he was more than welcome.
Yet each time Asahan arrived, my father also welcomed him grandly, as if he were a dear friend. He was a visitor to be honored as all Daddy’s visitors were, a peculiar morality I cannot shake. Yet not even my second sister, the family’s historian, has a photo of Asahan. Now, I search for some evidence of Asahan’s goodness, and all I can find is what he was not. He was not evil. He was not dangerous. My mother was not afraid of him, as she was of the pedophiles in our neighborhood, like the Englishman who came to our door once, having followed Mum, thinking her two young daughters were girls for sale. My mother was furious, highly indignant, but forever afterwards, this incident became the stuff of family mythology, one of the more hilariously memorable of Mum’s rants against Men! All they want is sex!
Asahan was not one of these Men!
Nor was he after anything else. He never tried to borrow money nor insinuate himself into my parents’ lives. He visited. He paid his respects. And then he went back to his ship and sailed away.
He never asked for anything, except that once.
For a brief moment in what might have been an ordinary seaman’s life, he was remarkable. He saved a life. He became a hero. The newspaper wrote a story about what he’d done and printed a picture of him. And then he gave that tiny piece of remembrance to me, a too-young, too-privileged, too-suspicious schoolgirl who didn’t yet know enough about what mattered, but thought she knew it all.
Si jeunesse savait, si viellese pouvait. If the young only knew; if the old only could.
All Asahan wanted was remembrance.
There. Now I’ve told you all there is to tell.
February 19, 2013
David Clarke is Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Hong Kong, where he has taught since 1986. He has written extensively on both Chinese and Western art and culture, with a primary focus on the twentieth century, and is also active as a photographer and visual artist. He has published two photo books about Hong Kong: Reclaimed Land: Hong Kong in Transition (Hong Kong University Press, 2002) and Hong Kong x 24 x 365: A Year in the Life of a City (Hong Kong University Press, 2007). Among his recent publications are Water and Art: A Cross-cultural Study of Water as Subject and Medium in Modern and Contemporary Artistic Practice (Reaktion Books, 2010) and Chinese Art and its Encounter with the World (Hong Kong University Press, 2011). His artwork has been widely exhibited in Hong Kong since the beginning of the 1990s, and has also been shown in China, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and Brazil.
Xu Xi (www.xuxiwriter.com)is the author of ten books, most recently the novels That Man In Our Lives (C&R Press, September 2016) and Habit of a Foreign Sky (Haven Books, 2010)—a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize—and the story collection Access Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Forthcoming books include a memoir Elegy for HK (Penguin China/Australia, 2017) and Insignificance: Stories of Hong Kong (Signal 8 Press, 2018). She has also edited four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English. She was on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA where she served as faculty chair, and was at City University of Hong Kong as Writer-in-Residence where she founded and directed Asia’s first low-residency MFA. She is co-founder, with author Robin Hemley, of Authors At Large, offering international writing retreats and workshops. A Chinese-Indonesian Hong Kong native and U.S. citizen, she currently lives between New York and Hong Kong.