Dragon Boats of Fragrant Harbor

Hong Kong: It means “Fragrant Harbor.” For Tod, it also means strange and wonderful discoveries.

Dragon Boats of Fragrant Harbor

A hundred-pound sack of rice landed on my back. If this was what Dad called “small odd jobs,” he had another letter coming from me. Tottering under the load, I almost fell over a chicken as I followed another moving rice bag. My uncle stood on a truck exuberantly shouting directions. But his sing-song Cantonese went right through me. The din of trucks, chickens, dogs, and babbling people clattered to the sky on this narrow Hong Kong street. I could make no sense of anything. All I could do was wonder why I was here when home was on the other side of the world?

“If you can’t make up your mind between going to college or finding a job,” Dad had said, “at least you can take a look at your roots.”

Roots? I had plenty of roots—all firmly implanted in American soil. After all, I was a second-generation American.

Dad had ignored my tirade. “Besides, Uncle Cheung is the only one left back in Hong Kong. Poor guy. No kids, lost his wife last year, and you could cheer him up. He probably gets awfully lonely, being retired and only doing a few jobs here and there,” Dad said.

Staggering under another rice sack, I watched a small shriveled man lithely carry his own enormous load.

“It was a very good day,” Uncle Cheung kept saying after finishing work. Were those the only English words he knew? I didn’t pay much attention to what he was saying. I was busy thinking about getting rid of this Hong Kong sweat under a cool shower.

The minute we walked into his rectangular cinder-block room, I remembered. The bunk beds were still stacked against the stark walls. The lonely white rice cooker was still on the floor in a corner, and the television stood on its rickety wooden table. But no bathroom or kitchen facilities had magically appeared.

Grumbling, I sauntered down to the common washing facilities in the middle of this huge building called an H-block because it was shaped like the letter.

I continued grumbling. “I know there’s better housing near here. It’s not that Uncle Cheung can’t afford it.”

When I returned, Uncle Cheung was in front of his door happily talking to a neighbor. I couldn’t figure out why he needed any cheering up from me.

The H-block was coming alive now. Woks sizzled outside people’s doors. Oil, fish, bean curd, vegetables, pork, and chicken created an aroma my nose had never before encountered.

Dinner was rather loud, not because of our lively conversation but because several jets at Kai Tak Airport picked that time to take off. They drowned out everything. I thought they might take our building with them. I wouldn’t have minded if they had taken me too. In between roars, I kept repeating one of the few Cantonese phrases I knew: “Hou sihk.” If my sounds and tones were right, it meant “delicious.” Uncle Cheung nodded and smiled gratefully, shoveling rice and fish into his mouth with his chopsticks. I wished I was back in America eating pizza with my friends.

Dad’s last words to me when I got on the plane were: “Re-learn the language,” and now Uncle Cheung was waving his hands and talking excitedly to me. It was time to bring out my trusty Chinese-English dictionary. What did Dad mean, “Re-learn the language”? How do you re-learn something you’ve never learned in the first place?

After a series of facial expressions, gestures, and dictionary pointing, I figured out that Uncle Cheung was going someplace after dinner and he was wondering if I wanted to come. I declined, choosing instead to stay and watch TV.

Unfortunately, the one English-speaking station was as fuzzy as the Chinese stations were unintelligible. I took out some paper.

“Dear Mom and Dad,” I wrote. “Is there any chance I could grab a plane back a few weeks early?”

The first time I saw her we were pressed almost nose to nose on the Hong Kong subway. I didn’t mean to have such a close first encounter, but I had no other choice.

“You need the day off,” my uncle had said, his eyes showing concern for my aching back and my diminishing appetite for rice and strings of greasy green vegetables. I didn’t object. I didn’t seem to be cheering him up much, and I always turned down his offers to go out with him in the evenings. Even on Sundays—my favorite day to sleep in—he was out the door long before I woke up to another day in Hong Kong.

With no work to do, I happily headed to the subway. Each train car bulged with people, with hundreds more waiting to get on. After missing several trains, I realized my only hope was to shove with the rest of them. But my technique was less than graceful, and I bumped noses with the most beautiful girl in the world. Drawing back in embarrassment, I knocked five heads behind me. Our noses remained one inch apart.

I tried not to stare at the girl’s soft dark eyes, sleek black hair, and delicately shaped face. If only I could say something to her. The Cantonese equivalent of “How are you?” (Neih hou ma?) sounded too trite. And how could I ask her if she’d eaten yet, even if it was a typical Chinese greeting. I wanted to reach for my dictionary, but my arms were straitjacketed in. Besides, how would it look for a Chinese guy to be sounding out Chinese tones in front of all these other Chinese people. No one knew I was an American.

The conductor droned out the stops in both English and Chinese. It was so muffled I couldn’t tell the difference. Suddenly, the beautiful girl was politely pushing her way out. Dumbfounded, I watched her disappear through the jostling crowd. “She’s gone forever,” I mumbled. By the time I realized Tsim Sha Tsui had also been my stop, I had missed it and was speeding under the harbor to Hong Kong Island.

When I finally made it back to Tsim Sha Tsui, I didn’t shop much. I got sidetracked at McDonald’s and a pizza place instead.

Rushing to make the subway before rush hour, I took one of the last places on the long silver benches lining each side of the car. I was still thinking about that girl when she suddenly appeared. “Is this seat taken?” she was asking me. At least I assumed that’s what she was saying. I smiled, motioning nonchalantly for her to sit down.

I looked at her, disappointed she didn’t recognize me. I ruffled through my dictionary, hoping no one would notice. What could I say to her?

Suddenly, I had something to say as the train jolted forward and I slid into her.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out in English.

She looked up, smiling. “No problem.”

“You speak English too!” I gasped.

She giggled. “At least I like to practice English.”

She looked at me quizzically. “You must be from America.”

“How did you know?”

“Your English doesn’t sound so British,” she said.

“You speak English very well,” I said.

She smiled demurely. “Oh, not so well. My brother and I like to speak English together.”

“Do you ever practice English with anyone else?” I asked.

“Well, yes …” she said.

The train screeched to a stop. I skidded into her again. “This is my stop,” she said, leaping up.

“It’s mine too,” I said.

“It is?” she said with surprise. “I thought you’d be staying in a hotel.”

“No, I’m staying with my uncle in the H-blocks,” I said.

“We live there too,” she replied.

“Really?” I exclaimed, not expecting such a beautiful girl to live in a plain, rectangular room.

It was time to go our separate ways. I hadn’t mustered enough courage to ask her name, and now she was leaving.

Then she called back. “I’m sure my brother would like to talk to you about America. He wants to go there.”

Here was my chance. I stuttered, “My name is Tod. Do you have a name too?”

“Yes. It’s Ling Fa. My brother is Lai Jan. Maybe we could all get together at the park tonight and talk English.” Yes! We had made a connection.

I almost ran over my uncle as he tromped up the stairs loaded with vegetables and fruit. I hugged him, watermelon and all.

“You had a good day?” he asked with a grin.

“It’s been a great day.”

I met Ling Fa and her brother that night, and quickly became fast friends with them. We did a lot together, including going to a dragon boat race practice a few days later. Lai Jan was one of the boatmen in the race held each year during the Dragon Boat Festival, a Hong Kong celebration.

“Maybe you could help us out today,” Lai Jan said to me, as we headed to a small inlet on the harbor. “One of the guys in the other boat said he couldn’t make it today.”

“Who me?” I laughed. “Never seen a dragon boat in my life.”

Then a sleek dragon boat splashed into view. It looked like the longest canoe in the world, except its sides were painted with green dragon scales and a ferocious dragon head stuck out the front with a green tail flowing out the back. Forty paddling boatmen were almost lost in the spray. A drummer stood in the middle beating a large drum in a steady cadence.

“I’m just sure I can do that,” I joked. “But I don’t even speak Chinese.”

“No need to speak Chinese,” Ling Fa answered. “Just paddle with the beat of the drum.”

After being introduced, I stepped gingerly into the boat. I had never seen so many people in such a narrow boat. Gripping my paddle, I nodded to the guy next to me.

“Good luck,” shouted Lai Jan from the boat next to mine. I realized we would be racing each other.

Soon, we were gliding over the water. I concentrated on paddling to the beat of the drum. I was actually getting the hang of it. The faster the drum beat, the faster we paddled. On my right, I could see the menacing dragon head of Lai Jan’s boat. Lai Jan grinned at me.

When our drummer beat faster, my paddle responded. I wanted to win this race. We pulled ahead of Lai Jan’s boat, which began lagging way behind.

My strength melted the minute we rounded the buoy and headed toward shore. I knew something was wrong. It looked as if there had been a big traffic accident in the middle of the water. A limp body was being pulled into a boat. It was Lai Jan.

When I stepped to shore, Ling Fa ran to me sobbing, “Please, please. I don’t want it to be true.”

When I asked what had happened, Ling Fa said, “It was so strange. Suddenly he was spilling out of the boat when another boat hit him.”

Soon sirens were crying, and Lai Jan was loaded into an ambulance. He briefly opened his eyes and said something to Ling Fa.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He said he wanted a blessing from his home teacher.”

“Home teacher?” I said, perplexed.

“It’s someone in my brother’s church,” she answered, as she got in the ambulance with her brother. I ran to catch a bus that would take me to the hospital.

When I arrived at the hospital, I looked for Ling Fa’s beautiful face. But it wasn’t her I noticed first. Startled, I saw Uncle Cheung talking to Ling Fa.

“This is Lai Jan’s home teacher,” she said.

Home teacher? My uncle was a teacher in a church?

“He’s going to give my brother a blessing now.”

I watched in awe as my uncle placed his wrinkled hands on Lai Jan’s head. As I listened, I wish I could explain what happened to me. But I doubt even my best buddy back home could know what I felt. I understood everything. Not just individual words, but the meaning of all Uncle Cheung was saying. There was no need to speak English or Chinese. There was a calmness and peace like nothing I’d ever felt before. I knew some power beyond me—the power of God—would heal Lai Jan.

When I lifted my eyes, Ling Fa was quietly crying. I wondered if she understood how I felt.

Lai Jan’s eyes blinked open, focusing on Uncle Cheung. “I knew you would come.”

Ling Fa gently placed her small hand on my uncle’s arm. “My brother says you help everyone.”

Uncle Cheung shook his head modestly. But his eyes smiled. “I just love everyone.”

I wasn’t supposed to understand, but I did.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Douglas M. Fryer