After a walkabout in Kinmen’s scorching summer sun we were grateful to enter the air-conditioned cocoon of Yuan’s taxi.
Still recovering from the glare, we asked our quiet driver to decide what he thought might be of meaning & interest to us. He knew we were there to listen & learn.
And he surprised us by taking us to the film set of “Paradise in Service,” (军中乐园). The film was shot in 2015 in Kinmen.
At its premier screening, soldiers who fought in their youth and now grandfathers were invited to watch the film with their loved ones. When the film ended, the whole theatre was filled with tears of old men and their grandkids.
We sat in reverential silence as our taxi cruised along the street flanked by flags on either side of the deserted film set, while Wang Jie’s (王杰), “An episode of game and an episode of dream,” (一场游戏，一场梦) played softly in the background.
Indeed whatever happens in our lives, and however intensely we might have felt our emotions, seen in the context of time, history and human affairs, they may well have been just games and dreams to others.
The owner of the cafe tucked in the alley behind the military headquarters(总兵署) was very detailed in giving us directions to Wu Miao (武庙), the temple that we needed to locate in order to be at Houpu Teahouse (后浦泡茶间).
He taught us two routes to our destination: one for the local people and the other for visitors like us. And he was fairly insistent that we took the latter because he didn’t think we could read the landmarks meant for the locals.
We took his advice & had a great time.
The next day El suggested that we took our dinner at the cafe as a gesture of gratitude for the owner’s kindness.
When we arrived, the local patrons chatting with the cafe owner immediately offered us their table in the courtyard because they believed their position was the coolest and nicest part of the cafe on a hot summer day.
The cafe owner’s wife gave us our evening meal of cooked rice, slowly braised dishes, lightly fried cabbage & pickled vegetables.
When we complimented the wife for her amazing food, she smiled & told us her secret ingredient was time.
She said what we just had were ordinary produce braised in soya sauce with a bit of sugar over slow fire for 3 hours. Some dishes were cooled and then chilled in the refrigerator in order for the flavours to gather & settle.
And so what we ate was essentially Time, as she revealed with glowing pride.
It was late afternoon after we checked into Number Nine B&B in Jincheng, Kinmen.
As we were taking pictures of our surroundings a man on a motor bike slowed down and asked if we wanted bread.
He ran a nearby bakery with his wife. The B&B units around us in Houpu were his regular customers and he had just completed his distribution rounds with a bag of fresh left-overs.
As we had missed lunch & were hungry from all that travelling I was fairly focused on getting ourselves a dinner where I could have some rice. Freshly baked bread was the last thing on my mind.
But the Baker was very proud of his bread.
As we looked on, he continued in his childlike chatter, to offer information on his bread and his life.
When I listened more carefully, I realised his stories were about working and caring for his elderly mother. But the way he narrated his difficulties & disappointments with such gaiety intrigued me greatly. His tone didn’t seem to match his content.
I was even more amused when he pointed to a posh looking apartment behind us and said without a trace of envy but with a bright smile, “那栋房子很贵。我们买不起囖!”
(transl: that apartment is very expensive. We cannot afford it.”)
When we finally decided to buy his bread and asked how much they cost, the tall man with a shaven head & special story telling techniques announced with heartfelt glee, “不用钱的啊！是要给你们的!”
(transl: no money required. I’m giving them to you.)
He would later ride back to his shop, rummage through his cupboard and return with our very first souvenirs, to welcome us to Kinmen.
In the Baker’s non-grudging attitude towards suffering and scarcity, he shows me that abundance is not about having a life of ease & plenty, but it is about approaching all difficulties with an attitude of ease.
Meeting him on my first trip to Kinmen feels as though Avalokithesvara, the Buddha of Heavenly Ease was already there waiting for me.
And my daily remembrance of the Lord’s Prayer, beseeching Him to give me my daily bread, takes on a greater potency as the life of this Bread Man has shown me.
I love “Mee Sua”. But I could never fully explain why till this recent trip.
Pronounced as “Mee Sua” in Minan or “Mian Xian” in Chinese, both meaning threads of noodles to reflect their fine texture and the way they can be manipulated and kept when dried, these noodles were a huge part of my childhood.
Also known as “Sho Mian” or longevity noodles, they are often coiled into figures of 8 to perhaps symbolise infinity.
The “Mee Sua” is thus the most important guest of honour in a traditional Chinese birthday celebration whether your party is held in the corridors of public housing or in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton.
One of my former students from Peru, South America, the beautiful Janina, once told me that the “Mee Sua” is her favourite Chinese food in Singapore. And she often ate it at Causeway Point, Woodlands. She said it in 2010 but I can never forget a “Mee Sua” compliment.
In my childhood, a bowl of “Mee Sua” with a sprinkling of chopped spring onions, a drizzle of sesame seed oil and sometimes an egg, was all I needed to settle my hunger.
And on days when any kid in our family was sick or not keen to eat, my grandma would whip up a bowl of “Mee Sua” magic to end all food dramas.
In our recent drive about Pan Shan, Kinmen, the village where people share her surname originated, we stopped at a little Mee Sua workshop.
As I watched the life saving noodles of my childhood swaying in the sun spattered Kinmen breeze I felt myself giddy with a mysterious glee.
It was no exaggeration to say that for me seeing the noodles felt like I was meeting an actual person. Weird yes? I’ve never felt such adoration for food before.
My crazed look might have scared the Mee Sua maker somewhat because he kept smiling as he went about his chores while avoiding eye contact with me.🤣
When he wheeled out a rack of freshly made Mee Sua for airing & sun drying, I had the urge to ask for his autograph. I couldn’t express enough my gratitude to craftsmen like him whose dedication to food making has kept ancestral connections alive.
So I stood star struck in the cosy sunlight of Kinmen and listened to the whispering sea winds as the aromas of flour mixed with salt & water, swirled around us.
It then dawned on me that each time I slurp a strand of the Mee Sua, I’m not just eating, but partaking in the rich blessings of the Sun & the Wind that have sustained all living things. 🙏
Tomorrow, 25 June, happens to be the birthday of the older of my two younger brothers, Terence. It gives me a special sense of gratitude to know that he’ll be having a bowl of Mee Sua right from the place where his Kinmen ancestors came from, and made in the very village of Pan Shan where his grandma’s people originated.
And by the power bestowed upon me in the light of my long standing relationship with the longevity noodles, I would like to wish my brother and all my friends a long & happy life of love, learning and reconciliation.
For many of us childhood outings with grandmas usually centered around going to school, going to the market & temple visits.
On mornings if I woke up late & missed the market outing with my grandma, I would stand by the kitchen window of our Prince Charles Square flat and watch for her return as she briskly crossed the bridge on the Alexandra Canal on her way home.
Once she had to cross the canal twice just to go to the market to make sure she got me the clay monkey figurine that I really liked. Things bought for me must not look like it was meant for my brother.
When I got older, her trips became infrequent.
As she aged and we moved to a new flat, my grandma became more housebound & more isolated.
She was always standing by the window and waiting for us to come home.
By then I was occupied with my own life & thought very little of her loneliness.
Many afternoons I saw her sitting by the stove silently, but I would never risk asking what she was thinking or feeling lest it gave her a chance to criticise my mother again. Likewise I learnt not to ask my parents what was on their mind.
That was how Silence invaded our home.
This time when I landed in Xiamen, I wanted to be able to talk freely. So I placed my grandma’s silver belt by the window sill of the hotel room facing the sea. I told her we would be making the crossing to her Kinmen Island in a few days’ time.
When I got the ferry ticket at Wutong Harbour, I told her.
As the ferry departed for Shuitou Harbour in Kinmen, I placed her possession by the window of the boat & showed her the waves that she rode on nearly 100 years ago.
A drizzle had begun when we landed on Shuitou Harbour, Kinmen Island. A harbour staff by the name of Mr Zhang Hui Ren (张惠人) quickly came to our assistance by getting us a trolley for our luggage. He showed us great Kinmen hospitality by supervising our customs clearance and looked for our B&B host who was there to pick us up.
He reminded us to let the counter staff know on our return trip that I would need help with luggage and boarding. Everyone was in a chatty mood. Even the security personnel with the cute beagle were happy to see us. I wanted to hug the dog but controlled myself.
The sun shone brilliantly the next day and the next 2 days as I walked the streets of my grandma’s hometown, Houpu & visited her ancestral shrine in Pan Shan.
On the morning before my journey to Pan Shan (15 June) I placed her silver belt on the balcony ledge of the B&B we were at.
Below my unit, mammas and pappas scooted about with kids on their vespas. Above me the sun shone brightly and the birds tweeted. The air was cool & crisp.
I felt the sun’s warmth on my face & neck as I gave thanks.
After I had told my grandma about our plan for the day, a butterfly bearing markings of brown, white and orange landed on her silver belt. I held my breath as it lingered briefly before taking off again.
The journey ahead for the rest of the day was filled with wonderful sights, heartfelt conversations and unexpected discoveries, assuring me that the longevity of Love continues outside time.