The September heat in Hong Kong is stifling. As Ah Ying walks on the streets teeming with impatient pedestrians, she begins to feel foolish for saying yes to the family dinner tonight. It never ends without some kind of drama. Last year, the dinner took place not long after Ah Ying’s grandfather passed away, and Second Uncle and Third Uncle had a row about the will. Her grandfather was by no means a rich man, but for some reason, his meagre earthly possessions, namely a stainless-steel cooking pot older than herself and a kitschy ceramic vase, became highly sought-after in that family dinner. Finally, the vase was claimed by Second Uncle since he was ‘the oldest rightful heir now’, and the cooking pot by Third Uncle—there was nothing else left so he ‘might as well take it’—then taking the lead, he stormed out of the restaurant with his wife and three sons in tow. Ah Ying’s mother, the youngest and the only female among the four children of the Lo Family, simply looked on in silent resignation.
This year, Uncle Three has declared in their family’s Whatsapp group with a curt ‘we will be busy’, so the five of them will not be joining the Lo Family’s annual Mid-Autumn dinner. Nobody has bothered to ask what keeps them busy and the subject has been quickly buried by an oncoming tidal of messages— Second Uncle has the habit of forwarding them tonnes of typo-infested messages ranging from ‘Alert!
Eating abaleon will cause cancer’ to ‘Make quick money while sitting at home in you’re coach’. He claimed they were ‘extremely important’ when Ah Ying’s father asked him to stop spamming their Whatsapp group with junk.
A large bead of sweat is rolling down Ah Ying’s face. She wipes it with the back of her hand, and her elbow accidentally hits somebody from behind. ‘What the—out of my way!’ The man curses aloud while impatiently manoeuvring his huge cart of mooncakes amidst the sea of pedestrians, all seeming to be moving forward with a sense of purpose. Perhaps they all have a family gathering to attend on this Mid-Autumn night. Perhaps half of them are unwilling and yet, using up their excuses, are obliged make their presence known. ‘Go with us this year again,’ Ah Ying’s mother had urged some weeks ago. ‘Your grandmother will be happy to see you. She doesn’t have much time left.’ That left little room for argument.
Ah Ying’s grandmother lives in a nursing home, but truth be told, it is her own little world that she lives in. Ever since her first stroke when Ah Ying was studying in secondary school, her physical condition has been deteriorating year after year. Now the ghost of a formerly fiery matriarch of the family, she sleeps, eats, stares into nothingness, and repeats the same process the next day.
Even when her sons were fighting each other over her husband’s will in last year’s dinner (as in the previous ones), she remained like a goldfish, her eyes unblinking, foamy spittle gathering at the corner of her droopy mouth. That night, while studying her wheelchair-bound grandmother, an idea struck Ah Ying: it wasn’t so bad to be her grandmother, after all. In that dinner, she helped herself to glass after glass of the cheap house wine—was it to celebrate her discovery of an inconvenient truth? Was it to hide herself from the family drama behind the wine glass? She could not say for sure.
Smiling wryly at the memory, Ah Ying thinks to herself: what drama will unfold this time? She takes a look at her watch: 6:08pm. Picking up her pace, she walks briskly to a mooncake shop; now the eldest among all grandchildren attending this year’s family gathering, she has been tasked with buying the mooncakes they always share at the end of the dinner as a ritual. Squeezing herself into the crowded shop, she snatches a box she manages to reach, pays, and leaves.
The restaurant looks like it is about to collapse as mobs of families swamp the place. There is a long queue already when Ah Ying reaches the restaurant; meanwhile, those who have come early enough to secure a table frown at the slow waiters and the slow waiters agilely tiptoe around demanding patrons’ profanities. Gathering at this old Chinese restaurant has been a family tradition the Lo Family have kept for many years, so even with the deteriorating food quality and the unpleasant service, no one has ever suggested a change of place.
Nor have they bothered to. Over the years, they have been too busy bickering with each other to notice the suckling pig shrinking miserably in size, the lotus seed bun becoming soggier, and Grannie Lo growing bonier. Last year, the tension hanging over the dinner table was thicker than the runny shark fin soup and Ah Ying stopped eating the remaining five courses entirely.
Weaving her way through the crowd, Ah Ying soon spots her family huddling at a small table for seven among the larger ones in its vicinity. Great, her parents have not arrived yet. One hand still clutching the box of mooncakes, she fixes her hair as best as she can, runs through possible small talk openers, and rehearses answers for the imminent interrogation about—
‘—Ah Ying!’ Hollers Second Uncle in his booming voice. His teenage son grimaces next to him. ‘Look at you, girl! So skinny, tsk tsk, starving yourself to fit in that wedding dress, eh?’
‘Hello uncle. No, I have no such plans yet.’ As an afterthought, ‘And my appetite is thriving, thank you very much.’ She chances a glance at her cousin, who is now smirking. Unable to think of something else to say, she looks around, pretending to search for her parents. She asks no one in particular, ‘Where are my parents? They should be on their way…let me text them.’ Busying herself, she lets out the breath she has been holding and sighs in relief behind her phone.
It is half-way through their Mid-Autumn dinner and Madam Lo is trying her very best to follow what the family are talking about. Locked up in the nursing home all year round and stuck in a body well past its prime, she is no longer the matriarch who used to make most decisions for her children. Her strokes have reduced her to the shell of a body that only gurgles and drools; now, her children only talk to her in that singsong voice as if she were a toddler.
She hates that.
They think she is old and senile, and maybe she is, but her condition might be a blessing, though, when the family break into a cacophonous mess. No one expects her to step in when they are fighting over money matters, and certainly no one remembers what she used to say all the time: leave your disputes elsewhere and be thankful for the food on the dinner table. Her four children would then share the mooncakes she would buy with her small allowances from her husband.
She presently watches the soap opera unfold: her second son, as usual, is talking over the table and her only daughter, demure as ever, is deflecting the questions shooting her way with half-smiles and half- truths. Meanwhile, her granddaughter is trying to suppress a yawn.
‘Well, Ah Ying, you haven’t once brought any boyfriend home. It’s about time! Now where have you hidden him?’ Her second son probes again with a conspiratorial expression on his face. Ah Ying’s mouth opens and closes like a goldfish. Leave the poor girl alone, Madam Lo wants to interject; unfortunately, the only sound she manages to make is a small whine that instantly dissolves into the loud clattering of wine glasses—the table next to them is now occupied by a merry family of fifteen and at least half of them look inebriated.
Still, the attentive Ah Ying catches the slight contortion of her grannie’s face and swiftly comes to her side. ‘Gran, you ok? How ‘bout I get you some tea?’ Without waiting for an answer, the girl puts a silicone straw into a cup of chrysanthemum tea, her favourite, and brings it to her mouth. ‘Easy, Gran, don’t burn your tongue.’
Madam Lo takes a sip, appreciating the warmth and the aroma in her favourite tea. If only her sons were half as attentive and her daughter more assertive…Madam Lo wishes she had said something all those years ago when she was not yet paralysed, her voice still loud, her old man…where has that damn bastard gone? In her foggy memory, the family had said something about selling his things. What things? She cannot recall, but the man hangs on to his possessions like dear life and certainly he won’t let them, he couldn’t have…
‘Happy Mid-Autumn! Cheers!’ Another round of clinking of wine glasses from the family next to their little group pierces through her reverie. Madam Lo looks at the merry scene of adults flushed from drinking and the kids flushed from running around the adults, and then at the unopened box of mooncakes in the centre of the turning table: printed on box are smiling adults and children, each of them holding a mooncake that is too huge for her paralysed mouth to take in.
After ten courses, three bottles of wine and a hundred grilling questions about her love life, the dinner has finally ended. Ah Ying breathes a sigh of relief. At least no one stormed out of the restaurant mid- dinner this time, she thinks as she manoeuvres her grandmother’s wheelchair in the street. Since the night is still young and most people are still having family dinners, the streets are not as crowded as before. Her mind still reeling from the commotion in the restaurant, Ah Ying welcomes the cool night air and the silent company of her grandmother, whose head is bobbing sideways due to the bumpy road. They are trailing behind her parents and Second Uncle who, for once, is not paying her any attention.
Sometimes Ah Ying wonders what the embattled old woman is thinking: does she know her husband is gone forever? Behind her emotionless façade, does she cry about his absence in her solitary confinement in the nursing home? Did she feel an ounce of sadness at all, when her oldest son, and now her third one too, distanced themselves from the family?
The adults walking in front have stopped walking and Ah Ying follows their gaze to look at the night sky. She stoops down and speaks softly, ‘Grandma, you see? The moon tonight is so beautiful.’
Madam Lo complies and cranes her neck as best as she can. Yes, the moon is very beautiful…its calming, silvery hue softens her loud-mouthed son’s hard jawline while her daughter has a placid expression on her face. In that moment, no one in the Lo Family makes a sound, all of them captivated by the eternal beauty of the full moon.
Once again, Madam Lo is reminded of their good old days, the six of them and a few close relatives gathering in their modest little home and enjoying her signature dishes on this night every year. Her four kids would then play with the paper lanterns made by her husband well into midnight, and the rest of the family would sit in a circle to trade anecdotes until one of them yawned and called it a night…
The moon tonight is indeed the brightest, the most magnificent Madam Lo has ever seen.