The pace of Josie’s voice synchronized with the second hand of the clock on the wall, gently slicing through our illusions of the morning being any easier than before. One by one, she read out the names of the elderly we would be working with today. Having rooted deeply in the region, the YWCA frequently interacted with the local elderly, now accounting for more than half of the total population in Tai O. Recognizing many of them live on a shoestring, the organization would provide food for two meals per day and host regular events to relieve them of boredom. It was the first time in three days we went to the other side of Tai O, faraway from the comfort of Solo Cafe. Clenching a bucket and a pile of cleaning utensils, the three of us went to explore the unknown.
It seemed unbelievable that the poorly-maintained metal cottages crammed with tiny stores and people successfully withstood the challenges of storms and waves for over half a century. That said, these cottages leaves a lot more to be desired: as the numbers on the walls jumped from 88 then to 75 and then to 80, we soon came to the conclusion the houses we not always in chronological order, thus knowing how to count down from 100 to 70 alone would not help.
“Number 70”, etched in bright red onto the tattered walls, protruded under the sunlight. Relieved, we walked through the narrow opening, finding a long alleyway formed between the two tightly-packed houses which led to a public bathroom and an antiquated wooden door. Greeting us behind the door was Ms Leung, 86, living alone after her husband passed away in June. Once inside, a Jackie Chan poster dated 1992 immediately stood out. Glazing around, it was as if time had no effect in this cottage: neither were there traces of modern technology, nor were there contemporary furniture, only a red radio and photos of her with her deceased husband hanging from the walls. Witnessing such a scene before my eyes brought about another level of amazement and thrill. In no way could similar settings in movies or dramas gave me that genuine enlightenment as the cottage did.
Admittedly, Ms Leung was past her best days. Age and diseases have taken a toll on her hearing and body movement. Albeit the ground was a bit dusty, the house in general was maintained very well. The remaining dust and hairs on the ground posed little challenge to our partnership and teamwork nurtured over the course of the past 2 days.
We finished our duties perhaps a bit too quickly. Yet, our brief time in this ageless house has already fueled a lot of questions. Sitting down, our minds collided with the life story of the old lady as she opened up on her past. Originally from Cheung Chau, she moved over to Tai O at 16 when she married with a local. Her recollection did not seem to be marred by the years a bit when it came to family. Her emotions would flourish whenever she’s talking about her three children and countless grandkids. In spite of that, the joy would fluctuate as she expounds how her they live afar and their visits were few and far between.
Brainstorming all the possible questions that could keep her upbeat, we tried to avoid bringing up her husband; but it wasn’t viable to circumvent such an important figure spending the past 70 years with her. The inevitable eventually did happen, and in a split second the invisible wall which barely contained her sadness gave in completely. Dumbfounded, we stared blankly at each other, being at a loss as she flooded her eyes with exasperation and wistfulness. We slowly waited for her to settle before requesting her to recall some of the positive moments they shared. The question led the discussion back on track, as she entrusted us with some of her intimate secrets of her husbands. We all shared a laugh when she bemoaned how poor her husbands’ cooking skills were.
“Did you guys lose track of the time?” We received a call from Josie. Looking at my watch, I was shocked time has gone by so soon that we were already 15 minutes behind schedule! Still engrossed by her storytelling, we bid her goodbye unwillingly after taking a picture at her cottage.
Our destination lies at the the opposite end of Tai O. Once again, the inconsistent street numbers made finding the address a nearly impossible feat. This time around, we bumped into another old lady sitting by the roadside, “Who are you guys looking for?” She seemed entertained at our puzzled faces.
Informing her we’re looking for the Lam family, her glowing memory had no difficulty recognizing who we’re referring to. Without even awaiting our response, her shadows disappeared in a disproportionately rapid pace, leaving us behind in disbelief that a lady her age could be such agile.
“Follow me!” She led us to the family, who have been chatting happily for a while with Josie. The energetic old couple, standing near the water, were fortunate to have their son alongside them today. When we introduced our selves to them, the fact that they were more than 90 years “young” really took us aback. Are all Tai O people blessed with immortality?
The owner of the house, Mr. Lam, led us around the spacious mansion. Each part of it, from the 80-year-old wooden floor to the precious portraits and paintings, was home to several decades of history. With pride, his long-buried memories were excavated one by one with his resounding voice. From being the first batch of educated students, to how his dad prohibited him from learning how to swim, the pride and adoration of being a Tai O resident oozed off of his words even at 92.
As he pointed out of the house towards the river, his eyes glittered with nostalgia. Once upon a time, the now empty waters used to be occupied by fishermen celebrating their day of catch from the ocean. Fondly, he recalled how he used to take the children on a tour to the nearby mountains through their boat, which they regretfully sold after retiring from their hectic life as a fisherman.
Having spent an enjoyable morning, it was time for the visit to come to an end. As they escorted us out, Mr Lam handed us each a special gift: a photobook from a local photographer. The cover was coincidentally a photo of the loving old couple. Unaware of the lens pointing at them afar, each of them stood at a corner of the wooden fences beside the river, as if recalling the glorious days they spent in the sea by glaring at the water flowing gently beneath them– the photographer has truly done a wonderful job capturing the essence of Tai O in a single image.