When I was small, we'd visit Chiu Yuen Cemetery.
Those few weeks we spent in Hong Kong each summer at my grandmother's house on La Salle Road were always punctuated with a visit to Chiu Yuen. I fondly remember our routine for visiting the cemetery.
We'd always go early in the morning to beat the sweltering, Hong Kong heat. Despite Chiu Yuen's location on a hillside, it always felt hotter than the city.
Wearing a pressed, cotton, "special" dress, I'd stand with my family on the sidewalk outside my grandmother's waiting for a taxi to drive by. Despite our early start, it would already be hot. I would get antsy, hoping the taxi would have air conditioning.
Flagging down a taxi, my dad would ask the driver if he would drive us the distance to Mount Davis, where Chiu Yuen is located.
When a taxi driver agreed, we'd pile in and set off to the cemetery. My parents would chat, making sure they had money for the cab as well as flowers and lunch afterward. I'd watch the city fly by, slowly giving way to harbor, then highways, then the winding heights of the Mount Davis area.
Sometimes my mom would ask the taxi driver to pull over briefly when she saw a roadside flower stand -- one of many that dotted the mountain road as you neared the cemetery. Other times, there would be flower sellers outside the gates of Chiu Yuen.
We'd pull up to Chiu Yuen's gates, on a narrow sloping street off Mount Davis Road, pay the taxi driver and spill out.
When I got out of the taxi, I'd be smacked in the face by the thick, fragrant humidity. My "special" dress would stick to my back.
The groundskeeper, a small, elderly man would scurry up to my father, addressing him by his surname, and thank him for coming. He'd then greet my mom and me, and take us to the main gate of the cemetery. Unlocking a heavy metal lock that looked like something an evil Victorian governess would use to lock up willful orphans, he'd swing open the iron gate. He'd lock us in.
We'd spend the rest of our time there, sometimes an hour, often more, visiting all of our family members. At each grave, my father would tell me who that person was, how I was related to them, and what they did in life. This was how I learned about my family.
Under the hot Hong Kong sun reflecting back at me from the hot stone and marble graves, I learned that my relatives weren't just faded pictures on my grandmother's mantle, but PEOPLE.
I learned that my great-grandfather, Sir Robert, was knighted by the Queen of England and that he was one of the fathers of modern Hong Kong. More than that, I learned that he loved literature, words, writing. I learned that he and my mother's grandfather, though far below him in "social status," were dear friends and would spend afternoons discussing books.
I learned that Lady Edith was more than just his wife. She valued and championed the education of women. Her nine daughters went on to be professionals, educators, strong and intelligent mothers, doctors, professors. Many grants and foundations still bear her name. As little girls, Lady Edith and I looked identical.
We'd stop at each family grave. Some modest, some enormous Chinese monuments that I could run up and down like on some solemn playground. But at each grave we paid the same respect: a flower and three bows, "Yat...yih...saam," my mom would count as we bowed.
When it was time to go, my feet pinching from climbing the rutted, decaying paths on the hill and my "special" dress damp with sweat, my dad would call to the groundskeeper and he'd let us out.
Ten days ago I repeated this visit to Chiu Yuen Cemetery. With husband in tow and after almost 20 years absence from Hong Kong.
Looking down at it from Pok Fu Lam Road, Chiu Yuen looks almost forgotten. It does not possess the sprawling, terraced grandeur that nearby Pok Fu Lam Christian Cemetery has. Instead Chiu Yuen looks hidden, gray, even crumbling at first glance.
But as soon as I saw it, an ache started to grow in my chest. It was an uncanny feeling of actually seeing a memory.
Walking down that same sloping road, despite some construction at the front gate, it was as if the years had not passed. It all looked and smelled the same; like it was waiting.
All of the gates were locked, but an enthusiastic young groundskeeper came running up to us. I had called ahead, so he had been expecting us, and promptly unlocked the gate. Same heavy metal lock I remembered from childhood.
Standing at the bottom of the hill, looking around at most of my family, I fought hard to maintain my composure. The groundskeeper asked me who I was looking for, and I explained in my terrible Cantonese which families were mine.
After some confusion, he disappeared, then reappeared with a map, and asked us to follow him to the "Hung" section of the cemetery.
Like in my memory, the ground was uneven, even treacherous. The concrete path leading around the cemetery was almost nonexistent in some parts, and it abruptly ended in steep drop-offs in others. But with every step closer to my family's section, I felt the ache in my chest grow.
When we reached my grandmother's grave, the ache became a knot in my throat. I whispered a thank you to the groundskeeper, and he respectfully retreated. The construction workers who had been lounging at the stone wall near my grandmother's grave retreated, too. I was so grateful that their chatter became silent.
Standing in front of my step-grandfather's large Chinese grave (my grandmother's first husband), my memory was again jostled. I remembered standing here when I was much smaller. The only difference was now, my grandmother, my "Mar-Mar," the woman whom I lived with from ages nine to 12, was buried in a small marble grave next to him.
And I broke.
It was such a precious feeling to cry, as I knelt by my grandmother's grave. "Hello Mar-Mar, it's nice to see you. I'm sorry it's taken so long."
It was so quiet. The moment felt foreign and familiar all at once. I thought of the smell of her sweater.
I stood up, and just like my mom did so many years ago, I counted, "Yat...yih...saam," as my husband and I bowed three times to my grandmother and my step-grandfather.
Hearing those words in my voice, instead of my mom's, was surreal.
I stayed with my Mar-Mar a while longer before standing up and deciding to find my great-grandparents' graves. Walking away from my grandmother's grave brought that ache in my chest roaring back.
We spied my great-grandparents' graves on a flat stone terrace, down a hill blocked by construction.
Knowing I couldn't leave Chiu Yuen without visiting them, I hiked up my dress, climbed over a guard rail, and slid down the rocky hill. My husband followed.
Lady Edith's and Sir Robert's graves were pristine.
Nothing is so eerie as to see something from one of your earliest memories as if no time as passed. The simple white marble and etched inscriptions on Robert and Edith's headstones looked clean and new, not nearly 80 years-old.
The feeling of being six years-old in sandals, twirling on the smooth stone by my great-grandparents graves as mosquitos bit my legs and sweat dripped down my back, felt so close.
"Yat...yih...saam," my husband and I bowed to Robert, Edith, and then my Great Uncle Cyril near them.
I should note that while we are not religious, bowing as a gesture of respect felt right, even proper.
We concluded our visit by visiting my grandfather's grave, a man named M.C. whom I never met, and all of my grandmother's sisters. Save for a gardener, and the cheery groundskeeper, my husband and I were entirely alone with the dead. I appreciated the privacy.
As we stood at Chiu Yuen's gate waiting for the groundskeeper to unlock it and let us out, I soaked up every last moment.
It's true I love cemeteries, I love places like Chiu Yuen, but this was different. Call it energy, nostalgia, or even just plain old sentimentality, I felt a near tangible draw to the cemetery. I don't say this to be morbid, but Chiu Yuen felt like home.
Leaving the quiet of Mount Davis and Chiu Yuen for Hong Kong's bustling Central District and a sweet treat (as prescribed by my mom to dispel any "sad energy" that might follow us back from the cemetery), I felt the ache in my chest subside. All I felt was calm.
There are experiences that are singed into your memory with a special vibrance and texture that only comes a few times in life. You don't have to struggle to hold onto those memories, they just are.
My visit to Chiu Yuen is one of those memories. Sweet and strong, and frankly a bit unnerving. Nonetheless, I hope I don't have to wait another 20 years to build upon it.