05. April 2013 · Comments Off on Can’t Help Singing · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

In our family, we often gather in large groups, and almost every child is expected to sing, dance, tell jokes, pantomime or entertain in some way.  We rip off comedians.   We steal songs and acts from Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, and just about anyone who shows up on the big screen.  We love our stars.  We don’t really try to be original.

We put on variety shows, dividing the walkway with sheet curtains.  Our grandmother sits in the best seat, the other grown-ups surrounding her.  Applause, bravos, encores, these are sure things.  We never see a flop.

That summer after our mother died, my brother and I work up a little song and dance routine we mostly steal from the Andrews Sisters.  The song is In Apple Blossom Time.   It is very popular, and it becomes our signature act.

BrotherAnd me copyb

 My brother and me

04. April 2013 · Comments Off on New Normal · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

My brother has gone.  He went to our father in Hong Kong.  I don’t expect to hear from him either.

My sister goes to a new school where she will learn stenography and office work.   She is the same age as our cousin Pat, who goes to Sacred Heart, but they hang out with each other.

I am the only one who goes to Santa Rosa.  Most of my friends there have gone back to Hong Kong.  I have to start all over making friends.

I sit in the garden and count my losses.   An old ditty rings in my ear:

Everybody hates me,

Nobody loves me,

I think I’ll go to the garden and eat worms.

This is so ridiculous that I laugh out loud.   Stupid song.  What am I thinking!

The startled rabbits go back to munching.

The hibiscus by the gate is still blooming.   The scrumptious custard apples are still my favorite.

I know my brother will think of me too.

We will be fine.




Custard Apples by Edith Jorge DeMartini


Flower girls at my cousin Nena’s wedding


Party at Didi’s house

03. April 2013 · Comments Off on Layering Music · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

The music in my grandmother’s home is all classical.  I don’t even know where it originates.  I think it’s piped into our house by something called Redifusion.  Titi or someone turns it on, somewhere, and it fills the air, softly, in the background.  Usually the music plays at tiffin (what we call lunch), or on Sundays, when it sometimes dominates the living areas.  Or maybe I think that because those are the times when I am at home.

I don’t know the names or titles of what I hear, but the music accretes somewhere in me, forming archeological layers through the years.

There is a program on the radio where you can request popular songs.  On the nights when it’s on, our cousins next door (on the other side, not the empty, decaying house where Tio Jose used to live) turn up the volume on their radio in their upstairs sitting room.

Because our properties are built on slopes, their upstairs rooms are level with the walkway outside our dining room.   My cousins and some of the amahs gather to listen.  I sit on the front steps.

Dinah Shore fills the night air.

I walk alone

Because to tell you the truth I’ll be lonely

I don’t mind being lonely ‘cause my heart tells me you are lonely too

Please walk alone

Send me your love and your kisses to guide me

Till you’re walking beside me, I walk alone

It becomes my favorite song, but they play it only once in a blue moon.

Girlingarden (2) copy

Suddenly there is something I like to do.  I know that no one will understand because I don’t understand either.

I take a book that’s not poems.  I hold it in one hand and I start singing the text.  The music just comes to me, and it has nothing to do with the text.  It is strangely satisfying.

I do this on the terrace, in the back near the section that joins the terrace to the steps leading down to the kitchen.   I don’t think anyone pays attention to me there.

One day, while I am singing, I feel someone’s gaze.    I turn and see Titi watching me from my cousin Pat’s bathroom window.   She says nothing and turns away.   She is not in the habit of using Pat’s bathroom.  I know someone has finally noticed my strange ritual.

I stop singing texts.

01. April 2013 · Comments Off on Closed Doors · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years, Out of the Blue

My grandmother’s bedroom door is rarely closed.

I walk into her sitting room and see that not only is her bedroom door closed, but my grandmother has pulled her rattan armchair up to the closed door and is straining to hear every word.

I can hear Titi shouting inside.  My sister is in there with her.  She is crying, but then she is shouting back.

I leave quietly before my grandmother notices me.

Some news travels faster than a B52 bomber.

News bullet points:

A fortune has been discovered.

Stacks and stacks of large bills from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.   When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong nobody trusted this paper money.   But now it is just as valuable as before the war.

The money is in the sofa from our old house.  The sofa is not with the rest of our discarded furniture in the garage’s attic.  It is in the servants’ house, where Titi put it for the servants to use.

There is a rumor around town that our mother left us a fortune.  The rumor was traced back to Lieutenant Anjo.

When interrogated my sister admits that she knew where the money was and did not tell anyone for more than two years.

Why?  She said because it isn’t ours.  My sister insists that our mother told her that the money belongs to Uncle Pedro.

Titi hit my sister so hard that her face is swollen on one side.  My cousins don’t believe that it is just about money.  Or even family loyalty.  It must be about the scandal in Titi’s past, that everyone knows and takes for granted but no one speaks about openly.

Maybe it is about betrayal.  My mother entrusted Titi, her unmarried sister, with the care of her children, and yet she did not tell her about the money.  Worst of all, she revealed Titi’s secret to a child, to be thrown back in her face as something sordid and shameful.  Her sister, of all people, should have known that it is not something shameful, but the love of her whole life and what she lives for.

All this explodes like a megabomb.


$100 5-3-2013 12-18-58 PM


31. March 2013 · Comments Off on Collateral Damage · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

We are on the boat to Hong Kong.   My sister gives me Irene to carry.  I guess she thinks she is too old to carry around a Shirley Temple doll.

A British officer gives each of us a paper to fill out.  The officer comes back.  He is laughing.  In the space where it asks for my condition, I had written Very good.   My sister explains that I should have written Single because I am not Married.

Nobody calls me stupid.   Instead, people are spreading the story around and looking over at me, smiling.  I feel what they are thinking.  I am aware that I am holding Irene and I am feeling cute too.

Suddenly, I am not anxious about going to our father.  I am going to have a wonderful new life.  By the time we reach the pier I am singing California here I come.  Even my sister is smiling.

I see immediately that my father is not the daddy I knew.  He is the man who sent us back in the rickshaw.  He can’t call the sailors and say take them back.  He acknowledges us by placing his arms briefly around our shoulders.  Then he directs a porter to put our things in the back of a pick-up truck.   There are a few boxes, but Titi put most of our things into a dresser with a rope tying the drawers back.

He gets in the front with the driver, and we ride in the back.  We go through crowded streets, hot air and dust blowing in our faces.   We go up a slope with apartment houses and stores on both sides.  The truck has to crawl very slowly, honking and nudging people out of the way.  At the top, we turn.

We are on a quiet little street.  On one side there are many small wooden houses, all bunched together.  The truck turns towards the houses and stops in front of a house in the middle of the row.

The door is open.  It is so small inside that I can see the whole house.   It is a square room with a partition in the middle that is like an upside down T that divides it into two bedrooms in the back.

The partition does not go all the way up to the ceiling or all the way down to the floor – otherwise there would be very little air or light in the two small rooms.  There are no windows back there.  The flimsy partition is on legs that are bolted to the concrete floor.

I can see little slivers of light coming through the thin slats of wood that form the outer walls.  The only windows are two small ones on either side of the front door.

There is a three quarters bed in one room.  The other room has only one small cot in it.

In the front room a few boards are stacked against the side wall.  Benches and stools are in front of the boards.

My father tells the driver and another man to put the dresser in the room with the larger bed.  Then he says he has to get back to work, and he leaves with the driver.

Ferry old copy

30. March 2013 · Comments Off on Accommodations · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

The house is getting as crowded as the street outside.   Mostly it’s children who come in.  The girls fight one another to hold Irene.  Eventually, I do what my sister says.  I take the doll and put her in the dresser.  That is the last time I see her.

The crowd in our house thins out.  New people come in.  They carry in a round table top.  A base comes out from the stack of boards leaning on the sidewall.

All this time, Linda, my father’s “common law wife,” is giving the caterers a stream of instructions.  They set the table with cups, bowls, dishes, ceramic spoons and chopsticks.

They bring in pots of hot water, basins, towels and everything for washing up, including chamber pots with lids.  They set this up in the bedroom with the small cot.

My father comes home and disappears into the washing up room.  When he comes out, still in his suit, we are told to wash up.  The caterers return and replace everything in the washing up room.

Then the Chinese food comes in, all steaming hot.  The caterers set everything on the table, including pots of hot water for tea, and they leave.  The food is delicious, and there is more than enough for all of us.

There are eight of us.  Linda has three children.  Her boys are around my brother’s age, and her daughter is about seven.

After dinner, the caterers return.  They carry out everything including the leftovers.

In the washing up room, they replace everything.  They also bring in clean chamber pots with lids.  They put one in my father and Linda’s room.  My father and Linda have gone out after dinner.

As it gets dark, a single, smoky kerosene lamp is lit.  It sits in the front room on a little square table.   The caterers brought that too.

Several men come with five canvas fold-up beds.  They set them up on the street right outside the front door.

My brother explains that because we came here so suddenly, our father did not have time to buy a bed.  So, just for tonight, our sister will sleep indoors on Ah Nui’s cot.   Ah Nui and I will sleep on canvas beds on the street outside. The three boys, who usually sleep in the front room, will also sleep outside so that they can make sure nobody bothers us.

29. March 2013 · Comments Off on Star Street · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

The wooden bars on the sides of the canvas foldup bed pinch against me.  The bed threatens to fold and swallow me up.

All I can think of is my dad, who hardly said a word at dinner.  The tears start to well up.  I squint.   I force my eyes shut to keep the tears in.  No.  No.  I will not cry.  I learned not to cry about my dad a long time ago.

I open my eyes.  The whole sky is filled with stars, brighter than I remember seeing them.  Maybe the way to see them is to lie on your back on the street.  My brother said this street is called Star Street.

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray thee lord my soul to keep

And if I die before I wake

I pray thee lord my soul to take

Sleep comes, as it always does.

Starburst copy

28. March 2013 · Comments Off on The Neighborhood · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

I am in bed but I am not dreaming.  I am still on the street.  Several children are peering at me.  I sit up and they start talking all at once.  A man tells them to get lost.  He wants my bed.

The children follow me into the house.  Linda asks them to wait outside.  After I am dressed, she hands me a warm sweet bun.  It’s just like the buns my mom took with us when we walked up to the Guia lighthouse.  There’s tea but no milk.

Everyone has gone out, including my sister.  Linda says come back at lunch time.

The girls want to be my new friends.   They will take me around the neighborhood.   I am the new fish in the bowl.

On the other end of our street is a hub of small stores selling more things than you can think of, their overflowing bins spread out beyond their open doors.  Vendors squeezed into corners sell red bean popsicles and pieces of sugar cane. Others have games that give you little prizes if you win.   This place is just like Ah Seem’s neighborhood.

Who is she?  Who is this devil-man girl?  I wish Ah Seem were here.   Now I have to answer the questions myself.  As soon as I do, they turn to my new friends, as though I am not even standing there.

Ayah!  She speaks just like you and me.   You say she is devil-man’s daughter?   She has big eyes and pak chek (white clean) moon face.   But devil-man’s daughter does not speak like you and me.  Who is she?  I tell them Ah Seem was a chatterbox and taught me everything.  She was my amah, I said.

Ahh.   Mother.  They nod.  Finally, they are satisfied.  Maybe they think I said Ah Seem was my mother.  Their word for mother is mah.  It doesn’t matter.  

I hang out with my new friends.   We go where anything looks fun.   We watch boys shoot marbles.   We follow the shouts of two women arguing about whose vegetables are taking up an unfair amount of space.  We listen to an old man who negotiates between them until the women quiet down and the crowd breaks up.

We gather around a woman on her doorstep.  She is folding gold paper into bricks of ghost money for her family’s hungry ghosts. We ask to fold ghost money too.  She hands us a stack of gold papers.

We’ve covered only a little bit of the neighborhood before we split for lunch, but there is always time later.  Nobody has other plans.neighborhood1

27. March 2013 · Comments Off on Neon Magic · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

After dinner we head down towards the big road.  Wow!  What is this?  I never saw this in the movies.

What happened to the hot dusty road we traveled on yesterday?

The tall signs with undecipherable Chinese characters clamoring for attention from every building have receded into a nightscape of lights.  Rainbow colored lights wink, circle and flash, outshining lesser lights with their unnatural glow.

Random dance music from open doors adds a beat to the street sounds.

There are just as many people milling around on the street.  But the people are different.  The energy is different.  It is palpable.  I think of it as glamorous big city night magic.

It is only vampire magic and will vanish in a poof when the sun appears.

My friends know when it’s time to head back up the slope.  The magic will come back tomorrow night, and so will we.

26. March 2013 · Comments Off on Light Years · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years

As promised, my sister and I get a bed.  It is so narrow that our shoulders cannot fit comfortably.  We sleep head to feet, and we manage to go to sleep this way.

The next day my sister takes me to an orphanage across the street from the shops where my friends and I hung out.   The nuns there are Canossians, from the same order of nuns as those at Sacred Heart.   When we were living on Green Island, we went there, where I sang and danced as a daffodil.

While my sister and the nuns talk, I go outside in the back where they have a garden that goes up the hill in levels.

My sister comes out with a nun, who tells me that the school is at the top level of the garden.  I can see it up there.  It looks small for a school.

On the way home, she says that I am going to this school the next day.  The nuns will not make our dad pay for anything.  They will even give me two uniforms.   She can’t go because she is too old for this school.

My sister does not go back to the house.  She says that she is going to Kowloon to get a job.  She found some of our dad’s relatives, even though he refuses to have anything to do with any of them.

My sister is light years ahead of me.