The Big Hotel

So Ma Lik is dead. He’s been sick with cancer for some years, so it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. No surprise, either, that encomiums to the “Strong Horse” (馬力) are rolling in from the least likely places. Even Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho chimes in today, praising Ma’s sense of humor, his dedication and patriotism. It doesn’t matter that Ma’s “dedication” involved blindly carrying out Beijing’s directives for decades, and that his “patriotism” involved working against universal suffrage and an independent HK judiciary. No matter that Albert Ho has put his physical body on the line struggling for pretty much every principle that Ma Lik opposed. However, Mr. Ho is a gracious man, a politician, and a Hong Kong person. In Hong Kong, speaking badly about dead people is something that you just don’t do.

In fact, it’s even better if you can avoid talking about death at all. I always thought that Americans had the monopoly on death-related phobias and quirkiness, until I came to Hong Kong. I should have paid more attention to my favorite movies–Hong Kong’s genre of ghosts and horror films was probably the juciest trove of creepiness in world cinema until the Koreans started getting into the act. Even Cantonese language tips you off that death is no laughing matter. The word for die, sei (
死 ), is commonly used as a curse or expletive. A Mercedes cuts you off in the lane: Sei la!  Die already you shithead! Meanwhile, the actual death event is couched in euphemism, just as in English. I remember an early Cantonese faux pas, in which I told my teachers that one of my fellow students had already left for home.  “Martin heui jo la!” I proclaimed, proud of myself for appending the proper (jo) past tense marker to the verb (heui) “To Go”.

When my teachers stopped chuckling, they patiently explained that I’d just said Martin had “already died.”

Last spring I went to my first Cantonese funeral–a friend’s dad had, sadly and unexpectedly, heui jo, and I wanted to pay respects. My friend didn’t know the exact address of the funeral parlor, but told me the name and said it was the largest such place in Kowloon, that I’d have no trouble finding it.

I consulted my map and found the “Kowloon Baan Yi Goon” (Kowloon Funeral House) with some difficulty–it was annotated in small Chinese characters, with no English translation. I noticed that it was located blocks and blocks away from the nearest MTR station, so I took the train to the nearest stop, then jumped into a taxi.

“M’goi, Kowloon Baan Yi Goon!” I told the driver. He zoomed off without a word.

About ten minutes later, he suddenly parked on the side of a gloomy four lane road divided by a concrete meridian. “I can’t take you into the place,” said the driver. “You have to get out here.” He pointed across the road to a dark and unmarked building that resembled a factory.

I hesitated–the street was empty, and this didn’t look at all like a funeral parlor. But I paid him anyway, and got out and crossed the street. It took me a while to figure out that the main entrance to the funeral parlor was around the back, facing a tiny lane filled with flower vendors and artisans selling the special paper articles that Chinese people burn as offerings to the dead. It took me a little longer to figure out that there was no reason–well, no earthly reason–why the taxi driver couldn’t have driven around to this little lane and let me off at the front door.

David laughed when I told him about it afterwards. “You shouldn’t have told the driver to go to Kowloon Baan Yi Goon. Better to tell him you are going to Kowloon Daai Jau Dim 

The Big Kowloon Hotel.

The hotel where you can be sure that even your enemies will find nice things to say about you.

The irony of Ma Lik is that a few months before he checked into the Big Hotel, he himself violated this basic tenet of Cantonese culture: he spoke badly of the dead. Last May, Ma Lik called a group of journalists together for an informal press conference over tea and snacks. Maybe at the time he knew this would be his last such meeting. How else do you explain his extraordinary outburst? At the meeting he began to rant about the persistance of the June 4th massacre in Hong Kong and global politics. Why did the international press–the Westerners! China haters!– continue to harp on Tienanmen Square? And the Hong Kong people, how could they possibly be entrusted with the right to vote while they still believed that Chinese tanks crushed student demonstrators like human meat buns? Such a thing couldn’t have happened. Why didn’t they try to squash a pig with a tank to see if it were possible?!

Denial, as we know, is the preferred tactic of demogogues and dictators, murderers, torturers and hate criminals all over the world, from Darfur to Austria to Washington D.C. But it is an especially loathsome act in a culture that believes that when you deny the dead, you deny their spirits peace and rest. Every year, the mothers of the students killed in Tienanmen Square petition the Chinese government to acknowledge the deaths–for without acknowledgment there can be no funerals, no ceremonies, no remembrances, no mourning. Every year, the government rejects their pleas.

Ma Lik now lives in the Big Hotel; no one will say bad things about him. But every eulogy for him, now and forever, will contain a mention of his poisonous comments. And his words of denial will dog his memory like the restless ghosts in Tienanmen Square.


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