Push! And a door will open. Push is a special charm to Linda Lai, a magic word she has used for several of her artworks. “Push” is the sound she heard whenever she’s about to give up on something. … Push – scary stories is her linkage to childhood and Grandma who departed in 1989. 「推」,推開了神秘的門,領進魔幻之地。《推:怕怕故事》推開了作者童年時候床頭說書的外婆伴著編織的想像世界。這門,不過是眾多要推開的門的一道。

 

那時候我還是小女孩。睡前枕邊有外婆呼吸著的起承轉合峰迴路轉大口氣小微聲吹進我的耳蝸裡然後我呼呼入睡。東莞縣濕漉漉的黑夜狼婆婆在找哭著不聽話的小女孩 — 是女的不是男的。shh…! 「別讓牠發現你…! 」為何女孩都哭著?外婆沒說啊。但躲在門後的我,清楚聽到被發現而我看不見的女孩們,手指頭給狼婆婆吃著時囉咯哇咯的清脆。…

(1)

When I was a little girl, it was my maternal grandmother who told all my bedtime stories.

Big cities in the evening are full of exuberant Cantonese opera performances with a steamy audience and fruit hawkers swarming around to feed them. But in small villages in the Southern part of China, it seems only two kinds of living beings are watching the night: an old female wolf and little children who are bad because they are crying too much. Adults, parents, relatives and friends are often either asleep or they are simply not there. As my mind’s eye recalls, streets humid and windy cut through these little villages, and I only see them in dim, white moonlight. It is not unlikely that adults partake of the day, whereas children and wolf alone dwell the night. I can easily tell you what it is like for a place to have children only in the dark for that is the story I listened to every other evening. But what is a place like without children and with adults only playing and working in broad daylight? And as far as I remember it, most of the children crying are girls. In fact, I don’t recall any boys — or my eyes are just not made to see them.

Don’t ask me why little girls cry all the time. My Grandma never told me and I never asked. For I’m far more interested in questions of another sort. What is the transition like between day and night? What happens when the sun sets and when, or right before, the moon rises? What happens if the sun suddenly drops in a moonless starry night? What was the moment like when adults fade out and children and wolves fade in? Is there such a flip of a second in which all parties see each other face to face? Would they have the chance to chat, even for a few seconds, eyeball to eyeball? What would they have talked about? Are they looking forward to this diurnal rendezvous-separation? What colours do I see? Are there thunders, lightning, laser lights, burst of a rainbow, or a sudden furious whirlpool of muddled hues and shades?  …  If you ask me, I would tell you I prefer to see the busy activities of the village slide into slow motion without anyone’s notice. Then at a random moment in the thickest of dusk, everything comes to a standstill. Clothes and skin shed from the adults’ bodies like a shell shatters. Children of the night they all are! A dazzling glaze beams up the place like over-exposed photographs, or like negative images but with lots of white and faded lavender brims. A flush of butterflies sweeps by. A fragment or two of a Cantonese opera cracks open and drops like the end of a noon shower then – a direct cut to a humid village at night with children all in bed hiding under their blankets, as if the place and children have always been there like that.

As a matter of fact, the village in the evening is not terribly miserable. You don’t find the place filled with choruses of crying. It was quite the opposite and thanks to the wolves. In order to stay safe, most children, as much as they could, would hold their cries except, of course, every now and then, a tear or two can’t help but leak out from the corner of their eyes, or they will burst into a rush of sobs which subsides in no time at the thought of the wolves coming.

At this point, Grandma would plant herself right into the middle of the story world in the form of an anonymous wolf-ish voice admonishing the children of the village, “Be quiet, Granny Wolf is coming to the village to find all the children who are crying.  Ssshhh … can you hear her? Listen!  Listen to her footsteps. She’s coming!”

This was often followed by a long and winding description of Granny Wolf’s rags and bags, which I’ll skip here: for it never really interested me too much as it’s no more than a good combination of details from Little Red Riding Hood and other stories with a witch in the guise of an innocent individual.

Punchie moonie rookie ru ru.  Tummie lunchie pookie su su. So Granny Wolf makes her way through the empty streets.

No one’s crying, but faint muffled sobs soaked into damp darkness.

Ru-log-ru-log-ru-loglog.  Gru-log-gru-log-gru-rogrog. You hear Granny Wolf chewing up the delicious fingers of a bad girl who refuses to stop crying. And here, my dear Grandma would leave me and my little sisters with the true protagonists of the story – those other little girls who are listening intently next doors, scared, speechless, and yet excited under their sheets, waiting for Granny Wolf to finish off, fathoming where she’s heading for her next dish.

photography: Linda Lai (2020)

 

(2)

An April day 1989 in a certain suburb 45 minutes by train west of Chicago downtown –
My MA thesis was still finding its direction in the second last month before it was due.
I saw Grandma in my dream. Details all forgotten.

Mid-June, 1989, in the after shock of the June Fourth massacres –
I arrived in Hong Kong with my MA degree.
At my welcome dim-sum gathering, Mum told me Grandma had passed away, on a certain April day.

Since then, Grandma had been in my dreams once in a while, just like a piece of furniture in a scene.  Then for over a year, she had not come to my dreams.  And I thought she wouldn’t any more.                PUSH.

Some years later, I dreamed of her again… She, in the midst of a crowd, pushes her way on to a train on a platform, jammed like people rushing to leave Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. Since then, she returns to my dreamscape once in a long while, just like part of a family gathering, sitting easily among us.               PUSH.

photograph: Linda Lai 2019 | Two days in a row, this bird shows up as she was having lunch outdoor in Brisbane…

 

(3)

Grandma is an interesting character. Born 1906, she learned her first few Chinese characters from her brother.  Otherwise, she taught herself how to read and write.  My one single memory of her from my childhood is this: a profile side shot of grandma sitting on a low wooden stool in the verandah, smelling the newspaper in the daylight.  She never read gossip pages or entertainment news, but Page One where international affairs and Mainland news were surveyed.  Other times, I found her in the same place, same position, chanting to herself from thick books of rhymed lines of Chinese folk legends like Yang Jia Jiang 楊家將 (generals of the Yang family, many of them women) or The Story of the Three Kingdom 三國演義.  I didn’t know until recent years that it could have been “mu yu shu” 木魚書 (Muk’yu songbook), the lost art of Cantonese folk sounds. [1]  All I knew was: her chants were sad, subtle and moving, and are no more.

(4)

In the distancing days of COVID-19, 30 years after 1989, the story of Granny Wolf reminds me of the movie Bird Box (2018, dir. Susanne Bier, with Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich and Tom Hollander) which I accidentally watched last night on Netflix. Don’t look. No talking. Stay unseen. Monstrous threats ends as mother, boy and girl finally make their way to a refuge shelter with abundant bird sounds, which drive away demons, and a community of blind people. Naturally I thought of A Quiet Place (2018, dir. John Krasinski) whose monsters are ultra-sensitive in hearing. Not a sound could be heard!!!

I think tonight I’m going to try The Silence (dir. John R. Leonetti), also made 2018, before “advancing” backward to my favorite director Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence from 1963. The former has a 16-year-old boy whose deafness is exploited in combat against creatures that hunt by sound; Bergman’s explores emotional silence.

(… – 2020 END)

Notes

[1] 木魚歌/木魚書 Muk’yu song and songbooks: according to Soundscape: Exploring Music in a Changing World (W.W. Norton) 2nd edition, muk’yu (muyu) is a traditional southeastern genre of sound, transmitted both orally and written down in songbooks. It can be sung be men or women, and performed on a variety public and private occasions. Muyu texts form a rich archive of everyday life concerns. Muyu has a fixed written form whereas the singer is free to add vocables when performing. [See Chapter 4: Music and Migration…]

Van Gogh’s Church Pew with Worshippers on Creative Commons

/…Feature image: enlarged details of a watercolour painting, Church Pew with Worshippers (Sep-Oct 1882), an early work of Vincent Van Gogh’s, photographed by Linda Lai at Tate Britain in summer 2019. A sketch of the painting was included in a letter van Gogh sent to his brother Theo that mentions the work. Check original image on Wikipedia Commons [].