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The Place with a Chime

10″x10″ Charcoal on paper

It’s not a very nice place.

The walls are old, bare and patchy, with cracks pasted over by yellow duct tape. There is no sofa. No tv. No radio or music. Sans an outdated handphone, there is no other digital gear of any kind, modern or otherwise. Two narrow windows bookend this tiny home – in the hall by the entrance, and in the kitchen at the other end. You can pace the entire place, window to window, in 10 steps.

Yet, the place is clean and welcoming.

You can feel it as you walk the bumpy floor, as you touch the walls and the windows. You can feel the warmth of basic humility, real and untarnished, unlike mass modernism where every single flaw must be hidden in shame.

On the living room floor was a worn, plastic desk fan, sitting just a foot from the wall. The fan was turned on, but it wasn’t blowing into the room where people may gather. Instead, it was blowing directly into the wall, for between the wall and the fan hung a pretty wind chime. The chime sang merrily and softly in the wind, and the music was as gay and beautiful as the laughter of children.

I turned the fan away from the chime, towards our now-rowdy gang of five. No need for music anymore, for we were chatting and laughing like little kids as ma and aunt told stories of the past.

They remembered how, as young seamstresses, they used to watch three movies in a row – a dollar per ticket – and couldn’t get up for work the next day.

They remembered how happy and challenging it was to live in a big family.

There was a lady they named (in Cantonese) “Saturday-longer-than-Sunday”, because she always wore her petticoat longer than her skirt.

Another who was such a lazy cook, the whole family would curse to the gods every time it was her turn in the kitchen.

Then, they started telling stories about me.

I had no idea I was so noisy and naughty as a kid.

No idea how I considered the cinema my playground, playing hide-and-seek and telling loud stories while watching Ultraman.

They called me “Lemon” because I was so loud. I still don’t get the relation. I also don’t get how I became so quiet now.

They remembered my dad. How furious he became when a lady bullied me and tried to feed me chilli. But he contained his rage, and waited. When the chance came, he avenged me by adding a handsome dose of salt into her coffee.

I laughed so hard, yet… I felt a pain which didn’t go away. I would be like him, and I wouldn’t feel different from others.

I wish he’s beside me now.

New Year gatherings… all kinds of gatherings… can feel lonelier than being alone. Canned greetings. Instant buddies. People shoving success into your faces.

But not here in this place with the plastic fan and the wind chime. Not here, where people don’t pretend, don’t compare, don’t judge. Not here, where people believe in the simple gesture of human warmth.

I wish I didn’t have to leave.

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