I’m fine, really. No, I don’t need anything, so kind of you to ask. I’ve stocked up on take-out yu pin juk from Lau Fu on Lyndhurst Terrace (best congee in Central!), and that special fresh Greek yoghurt they sell in Oliver’s for way too much money. Truly, I wasn’t upset at all to have to cancel my birthday dinner and spend the whole day curled up on the couch instead. (Aside to HK blog watchers: did you know this amazing fact-let? Hemlock and I are born on the same day?!)
And while I’m waiting for the heavy drugs to take effect and kill the intruders who invaded my digestive system somewhere between Dumaguete and Sai Wan Ho, the comfort foods and medications from East and West are at my fingertips. What’s more, I have the most deadly weapon in the Hong Kong medical arsenal at my disposal:
I haven’t read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor for a long time, but I remember her line about “emigrating from the kingdom of the well to the kingdom of the ill.” She was seriously ill, and of course I’m not, but I think that any resident of Sick-o-landia will see the world from a different angle, even if only for a few days. I must say that my brief sojourn as expat in the land of gut trouble has given me a special perspective on this week in Hong Kong politics.
I’m talking about tung. No, not as in Tung Che Hwa, 董建華, he of the newly-minted honorary Chinese University doctorate. I mean tung as in 痛.
Pain. Ouch. Tung was one of the first words I learned in Cantonese that really stuck with me. Literally, that is. I remember the afternoon my friend Leslie dragged me to her Chinese medicine si fu, master. Si fu’s consultation room was on the 18th floor of a crummy 1960s high rise on Sai Yeung Choi street in Mongkok. Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job casting this guy–he was close to 80 years old, skeletal, with a pallid complexion and a thin, grey wispy beard that came to a point. I’d had acupuncture before in New York and thought I knew what to expect. But si fu jammed the needles into me like a five year old poking a sharpened pencil into the neck of the pig-tailed little girl he’s trying to impress. Aside to language fans: did you know that in Cantonese the word for needle is also jam? So I could say that my si fu jammed the jam. And then he stuck a little piece of dried herb onto the top and lit the thing on fire! Every time he repeated this action, the Chinese doctor asked the same diagnostic question beloved of doctors worldwide:
Tung ‘m tung ah? Does it hurt?
(I don’t recommend this extreme method of language acquisition, but it certainly does work.)
Back to tung. When I began to study Chinese written language, one of the first things my teacher pointed out to me is a rather unfortuate family of Chinese characters. There are dozens of them and they all share the same building block, or radical. In Cantonese it is called nik, and looks like this:
Radicals, as a lot of you certainly know already, are used to organize the words in Chinese and Chinese-English dictionaries (along with the number of strokes in a character). Opening my dictionary to the 疒 section, here’s the first few entries:
plague, sickness, jaundice, hemorrhoids, rashes, eruptions
(Ah yes. In Chinese, as in English, love can make you sick.)
Anyway, you get the idea. The radical 疒 must be the most worn-down key in every physician’s computer. I must ask Dr. Lo about this next time I see him. Which hopefully will be in social, not clinical circumstances…
Living, as I have this week, in the Land of Tung has made me more sensitive to the manifestations of tung in the world around me. And by this I don’t mean just 痛苦 tung fu, pain and suffering, but also variations
like 痛恨, tung han, to hate bitterly, and 沉痛 cham tung, bitterly resentful. Actually, cham tung is a pretty heavy number: it literally means to sink into, to become addicted to the pain of your hatred and resentment.
As I watched the Secretary of Home Affairs, Tsang Tak-sing, personally attacking newly elected legislator Anson Chan on the live TV broadcast of this Wednesday’s Legco meeting (brought to me in living color by the marvelous new NOW Direct TV–more on this later), all I could think of was cham tung.
I would argue that cham tung is the dominant emotion of the pro-Beijing DAB leadership. How else to explain them? Look at their faces, gloating and gleeful like bullies when they “won” the District Council elections last month (even though they are fighting with brass knuckles against wimpy democrats with legal degrees), twisted with hatred when they think they have lost face, as they did with Anson Chan’s decisive victory on Monday.
Tsang Tak-sing--who is the brother of Tsang Yok-sing, the former head of the DAB (Cantonese parents often name their various children in “parallel”–Tak-sing, Yok-sing) lost his cool on Wednesday when he came out and attacked Anson Chan for being a Johnny-come-lately democrat while delivering a speech as a spokesperson of the Hong Kong government. Sure, his assesment of Chan’s career twist is absolutely correct. She was one of the top bureaucrats at the table crafting and approving many of the bad policies that Hong Kong suffers under today. Still, in politics (and even more so in Cantonese culture) you figure out a way to slice someone elegantly. You don’t mix personal and professional and lose your cool in public, as Tsang did–major bad.
But cham tung is a powerful, uncontrollable force. Tsang Tak-sing, like most of his DAB senior cohorts, has been working for the Chinese Communist Party since he was a high school student in the late 60s. Back then, to be pro-left meant that you were fightin
g the British Colonial powers, which was not an unpopular or unjustified position at all. The far-leftists, however, got carried away. Some of the groups got violent. Bombs went off and innocent people died. And Tak-sing got arrested in 1967, at the height of the action, for passing out pro-Communist leaflets criticizing the British colonial education system at his school, the elite prep academy St. Paul’s College.
Convicted under the draconian sedition laws of the colony, he was sent to Stanley Prison for two years. He came out with a felony record and couldn’t apply to university. (His brother Yok-sing went on to become a graduate of Hong Kong U.) Tak-sing’s adolescent revolutionary fervor was costly to him personally.
After the handover, the DAB guys were jubilant, and figured they’d be rewarded for their unswerving loyalty to the Little Red Book. But it hasn’t quite worked out the way they imagined the Glorious Motherland would arrange it. Yeah, they got perks parceled out to them–Tak-sing, who spent years editing Ta Kung Pao, even snagged a minister’s position last year. Still, there is bitterness, tung fu, to suck down for these Mao-quoting true believers. For instance, the person occupying the Chief Executive’s mansion of Hong Kong is not a fellow traveler of the lefty Tsang brothers, but a very differnt Mr. Tsang who is not only a former bureaucrat of the British Civil Service–he even has a knighthood bestowed by the Queen!
And, bitterness of bitterness, another smiling Brit-trained bureaucrat is now sitting in Legco–in the seat that’s right next to Tak-sing’s brother, legislator Tsang Yok-sing!
My stomach cramps in distress, thinking about these layers and layers of bitterness. Is there no escape from cham tung? Is Hong Kong’s government forever at the mercy of these men and women filled with angry resentments that go back 30 and 40 years? Tsang’s dispropotionate punishment at the hands of the British sowed his heart with bitterness–a bitterness that, decades later, is causing suffering to anyone who hopes for a democratic Hong Kong. Will these ugly emotions never die? History, in this city, sometimes feels like one of those ghosts in a Hong Kong horror movie–just as you think the hero has banished it, it pops up out of the ground gloating like a victorious DAB party official, and wraps itself around your neck.
Ugh. Hou tung, indeed. Hand me the po chai yuen.