INT. ME - ALWAYS - UP UNTIL NOW
I don’t call my mother’s father ’grandpa’. In English or Cantonese, it is a title that refuses to stay in the back of my mind, one accompanied by a feeling of wrongness. My mother’s father died when she was four. She recalls him in pieces, in glowing recollections. One of these was his fish tank situated on a creaky cabinet, flush with tropical colour. He collected exotic creatures from around the world, as he did with stamps. He hoarded an abundance of stamps, each inked and weathered with history, that I now keep tucked in a box in my closet. My favourites stuck on the pages of a square notebook with their countries inscribed below. Like him, I prefer to collect—memories of a grandfather I never knew.
INT. HER BEDROOM - KAUFU’s APARTMENT - ONE OF THOSE VISITS THAT STEEP DEEP INTO THE NIGHT
My maternal grandmother moved to Canada five years ago. She lived with my uncle, her oldest son. In Kaufu’s small apartment, my grandmother’s presence was nearly inconsequential. Upon one of the first visits to the new home, with its minute alterations, I sat on her bed, irked by the scratchy polyester topside. When she urged me to nap to relieve my headache, the discomfort was reason enough not to.
Instead, there were the pictures on the windowsill to examine. Curiosity can keep any person awake, alive and ignorant of pain. I wondered which way Paopao faced as she slept—whether it was towards the grainy pictures, or up at the blank ceiling, away from the watching eyes. Which ones did she pick up the most? Which ones did she leave to dust? There were smiling snapshots of unknown relatives or lost friends; I couldn’t tell the difference.
And there was a wedding photo—mute, devoid of colour and modern gloss. Up until five years ago, I had never seen the face of my mother’s father.
INT. RED CHAIRED DINING ROOM - THE OLD HOUSE - FAMILY GATHERING Paopao’s arrival changed things. I started to think, as I usually am in the habit of doing, and he itched at the back of my mind.
I grew up with my paternal grandparents always in tow, cracking open my bedroom door to give me soup, checking if I was warm enough at any given moment, and urging me to sleep earlier with a routine jo-tao, goodnight. My Mamaa, whose hand I love to hold, and my
Yeye, whose shoulder I love to lean upon, formed the crux of many childhood memories. Their influence in my life meant I was raised on affection, crowded with family. Along with their love, they gifted me with cousins, aunts, uncles, and those in between, with a title for each relative in the round vowels of Cantonese.
(Paopao has an accent, you see, remnants of her village dialect cling to the voice she Hong-Kong-ified for decades. She uses formal words, doesn’t understand the pieces of English I sneak into sentences when I struggle to communicate, as I do with Mamaa and Yeye. Paopao speaks like a song—I know it is Cantonese but I know nothing of its meaning.)
While my mother seamlessly fit into every reunion, the scales were tipped: I didn’t know any of her people, none of the cousins she grew up playing with, or any distant relatives that coddled her with snacks.
I could count into the fifties for all the people I knew through my father’s blood. My mother gave me scraps—‘There’s an uncle in Mississauga, the rest in Hong Kong, spread through China’.
Even my Kaufu got invited to the Chan reunions. It was like the branches of Cheung were sawed off at the shoulder, the rings of its flat stump getting smaller, smaller, further. Gone. There, but invisible, inconsequential—yet ironically, monstrous in size.
It was a hole, essentially. Where my mother’s father stood. A dark smudge of forget, forget, forget.
INT. BED - A MOMENT BETWEEN AMAA AND I - INCOMING CONSOLATION
We were already heated by something serious. I sat with my mother on the sheets, as we always do—her bed, a failsafe comforter, a life net that never breaks. Here, we have had many good moments together, laughing, crying in solidarity.
This was not a good moment. Years later, in revisiting my darkest and most emotionally vibrant moments, the only thing I tend to remember is the fatal, cutting line.
I sank against the pillow, staining it with tears.
I drew up my arms to ask for her, and my mother gave herself to me in silence that I had to accept. She held me, it was the opposite of hurt—but the hurt was still there. I only asked if I could ask Paopao about him. I just want to know. Never once in my life had I felt so desperate, so weak. Even in just asking, even before the no.
LOK KWAN: I just want to know.
You see, after my mother’s father died, leaving my grandmother with three children and a dye factory to run, there has been an unspeakable stitch of pain threaded through this family. It is a thin, fraying line, barely visible most days—but it is one that pulls. It tugs and tugs and is taut in moments like these, when his name comes up—straightening like a dog on a horizon. The healed skin tenses and there—it tears with a small rip.
AMAA: You can’t do this. Don’t bring up things that could make her sad. I was twelve. But it happened again and again within the confines of my mind. The hollowing no with its eternal, trembling echo. Soaked in tears and tears, this no was something I learned to handle carefully, like a hot stone at the beach that I knew I had to take home.
So I dropped this no into my plastic bucket of cold sorrows, salty water, slippery kelp; rough with the sandy coarseness of Chinese confidentiality. And like a child, I constantly carried it with me, swinging the miniature ocean back and forth, shaking the foundation of its long-untouched, unexplored depths.
ACT II The moments in which he makes sudden, brief appearances: faux-resuscitations.
INT. CORNER - PARENTS’ BEDROOM - A DARK BUT WARM MOMENT
A gift came for me. Indirectly from the donor. A jade necklace, heart-shaped, topped with a coronet clasp and chain. White gold. Heavy with expense. I liked my Paopao a lot, but we didn’t have much to say to each other, so this was communication enough.
My mother handed the necklace to me, the open drawer of her old, dark cherry desk pressed to her gut.
AMAA: Here. PaoPao wanted to give this to you. I have one too.
She did. She never wore it, but it’s not like I do either. I used to. I wore it every day for three years. I wore it like a sigil.
I had never gotten anything like this before, that’s why. I’m not sure if that reason was strengthened after I was told its history: upon my mother’s near arrival, my grandfather went to the betting tables and was perfectly lucky.
Two authentic jade necklaces for his first daughter and his wife. Both rounded to a point so they looked like hearts.
This is the closest thing I have to physical proof of him, even if it was just once an object he had touched. To think that PaoPao, my mother, her siblings, were living, moving surfaces he had touched too.
INT. WINDOW BOOTH - RESTAURANT - LATE AFTERNOON WITH WHITE SUN One afternoon, we sat eating at a Malaysian restaurant. We were speaking of something, something lost to insignificance compared to what came next, when my mother suddenly popped up with realization, remembrance.
AMAA: Your Paopao told me my father was born in Venezuela! He had a Venezuelan mother!
My father was surprised. In all the years of their marriage, her father rarely came up in conversation. I—well, I was also surprised.
Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I told a few people; it became my new ‘so-this-happened-a-while-ago’. Still—I couldn’t shake the question directed towards my mother: how could you fail to mention something like this? She barely spoke about her father, information came like a backed-up fountain that babbled once a year, and not for long. You could tug at its spout, kick at
the base—it would answer once it remembered it could—but whenever I asked my mother for more, she’d shrug and say—
AMAA: What? There’s nothing else.
After, the Venezuelan thing began to matter more. My mother’s face would change, grow a bit sheepish, wide-eyed, childish in her musings. It was like she dug out a long-lost favourite book, only the pages were unstuck from the spine, messy in order and faded ink.
AMAA: What do you think of me doing a DNA test? There’s one on sale now, I could do it! Though it is still expensive. Ah, I don’t know.
She never did get that test.
AMAA: Paopao told me he wasn’t happy when he came to Hong Kong. He couldn’t speak the language and knew no one.
His father had immigrated to Venezuela for work. He found a woman, had a few children, ones that looked white—mother said so, their noses said so. She too, with her light eyes and bumped bridge—that quarter of her shone like moonlight, setting her apart from the rest of our family. When death left my mother’s great-grandfather without sons in Hong Kong, he asked to be sent a replacement, a boy to raise once more in a mix of mourning and healing.
His eldest grandson—my mother’s father—would do.
When I opened my mouth to ask my mother how her parents met, how long it would’ve been after her father arrived in Hong Kong, I remembered her no. I closed my mouth around a spoonful of curry, and listened to the din of the restaurant instead.
INT. AUDITORIUM 10 - THEATRE - A CHORUS OF CHINESE VOICES OR LAUGHTER
I watched The Farewell alone. I sat in the middle row, to the left, right by the dark alley of the walkway. The blue glow of the screen flashed like pre-dawn. I don’t watch movies alone very often, but I love to. I expected good things from Lulu Wang and her autobiographical treatise on grief.
Then the scene came on: dim red light, open window. Billi imagines her dead grandfather clouded in a plume of smoke.
A death, in that moment, was dragged through the decades and into my chest. I started crying. I think I was the only one. Everyone else was done with their sobbing, Billi had just
finished her teary monologue a few minutes ago, about how ravaging it was to be confined by stifling no she had in her own life.
I saw my own no reflected through the screen. It echoed in every image: the wistful smoke, the bloody neon light, the shadowed face I could not see.
It was him. I knew it was. He died the same way. Cancer took him, coaxed him away with cigarette after cigarette.
I thought to myself, How could empty space feel so suffocating? This was not the first time I cried because of him, but it was the first I cried for him.
Someone stolen by grief. What greater crime is there than that?
EXT. THE STREETS - KOWLOON - HONG KONG - A MOMENT IN HISTORY A scuffle. A glistening knife. No—perhaps a rusted, dull blade. Money. Lost. Pick an amount, choose the range of valuable items. The facts are not clear. But without a doubt—two men crowd another in a Hong Kong robbery in an exchange of violence.
He went home to his wife, cradling a bloodied hand.
PAOPAO: What happened?
HIM: It’s fine.
She wrapped up his hand, staining white linen with red. A story to tell for the ages, blooming through bandages. A scar that will form and stay forever imprinted on this Earth, in its record of happenings.
POLICE: What did those men look like?
I like to think that he smiled in that moment. A grinning man still smattered with blood and bruises.
HIM: I’ll draw them.
There is a fifty-fifty chance here that his drawing hand is cut and the wound strains with each stroke he puts on paper. Whichever one it was, it was a hand that created two sentences.
They caught the robbers with that sketch. When my mother tells me this story, I look at all the drawings I have churned out, embellished with the praises my parents gave me when they came into my room and saw me drawing.
ABAA: Did Ms. Lau teach you how to draw like this?
I didn’t, I never drew like this under guidance. I am older now, or something sprung out of me one day.
My secret inheritance.
INT. A FACE WITHIN - A FACE WITHIN - A FACE
It wasn’t just me that had pieces of him hidden within. It took me forever to see it. It should have been obvious. Trespassing into my parents’ bedroom, receiving no answer when I called for my mother, I stopped by her collection of memories.
In the right corner, atop the drawer surface, encased in a thick red wood frame, he stood there. Holding his wife in white.
A second look was all I needed. Another hard stare at a wedding picture I didn’t even realize occupied a place in my home. One more glance to tell me I should’ve noticed it earlier, any time before now.
My mother opened her washroom door, brushing past me to leave the room.
LOK KWAN: Mom?
She stopped in place.
LOK KWAN: Nothing.
She turned her face from mine and started down the stairs. The face I had loved this entire time, the first face I must’ve seen, moments after being born, the face I’ve always wanted to see, superimposed on mine in any reflection.
It was his. My mother, his mirror image.
He has been with me this entire time.
INT. ON THE SCREEN - AT THE COMPUTER - INTO THE BUCKET I told my mother—
LOK KWAN: I’m going to write a story about him.
AMAA: But there’s barely anything we know about him.
LOK KWAN: Well—I mean. Me. It’s about me. Then him.
What I have created of him. All these thoughts. And to think that this is all I have of him; two thousand and seven hundred words, enough to fit on twelve pages.
I don’t think of him as mine. I know there is much more to him, secrets hidden under my grandmother’s tongue, hazy with disuse.
AMAA: Why don’t you write about Paopao? She’s lived such an interesting life. I think you’d have more to say.
She’s right. Sometimes I look at my grandmother and she feels all too far away. As if he is pulling her a step back each time I come near.
I don’t blame anyone. After all, you can’t convict ghosts of meddling. But it feels like mine, my fault, because guilt slops down on my head like a reverse anointing. I look at her and make her nothing more than a remnant of him. Despite everything and the longing, I do not think I love him as much or at all, in comparison to Paopao. I do not need to.
The end. The now.
EXT. GARDEN - THE SETTLED WATERS
In some small, thin moments of my time, very infrequently, very quickly—I allow myself a dream. Not one that comes in my sleep, but one I choose to have. In this dream, I sit beside him and we talk. Everything is perfect here, so I understand him—I can speak perfect Cantonese. I know every little thing about him, but that is not what we discuss. What we speak of is everything we share in luck, in love, in life. Here, we are friends, here, we are so similar it makes my Paopao laugh and my brothers jealous. In this dream, he tells me he loves me. I look at him and see my grandfather. My Gunggung.
But dreams are only dreams. You let go.
A word from the author: UNTITLED is a personal essay written half as a script, half as the broody monologue an acquaintance trauma dumps onto you during your second meeting. It is a deeply personal rationalization on how grief can become an inheritance, and how the cultural notions of mourning can suffocate a childhood in the most quiet of ways.