A short street only a couple of blocks from the harbor, Dad's family's flat was on the third floor of a long, low building. The building was mostly homes, but the ground level was full of small shops selling food, goods, and treats. Across the street was the Star Theatre, where my dad would go on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons with my grandfather.
In 1950s Hong Kong, Peking Road was fairly crowded but was still in the process of crossing the bridge between local Hong Konger neighborhood and neon-lit tourist trap. I still find an appeal to this pocket of the Tsim Sha Tsui area, with excellent Indian food nearby in Chungking Mansions, some cozy bars on Ashley Road, and the enduring YMCA on Salisbury Road, where my aunt has gotten her hair cut for decades; you can still catch glimpses of old Hong Kong in the cracks. You have to squint past The Spaghetti House and the luxury boutiques to see the remnants of the past, but in old facades and the awkward curve of the street, they're still there. (Here's a picture of 1960s Peking Road that I don't have the rights to. I'm nearly positive you're looking at my dad's childhood home.)
However, this isn't my dad's Peking Road.
On my dad's Peking Road, it wouldn't have been unusual to see my curly-haired dad, only around 8 years old, running up the street to get cakes for my grandmother. On my dad's Peking Road, the streets bustled with servant girls, hurrying along to fetch the groceries for dinner. On that Peking Road, my dad and his sister eagerly waited for the Hungry Ghost Festival every year so they could gaze like gargoyles from their flat at the people on the street below burning incense and fires in honor of the dead. "It was so spooky, you know? Sometimes we thought we saw spirits!" my dad tells me.
Ghosts still visited that Peking Road.
While my dad was still just a baby, my Mar Mar, his mother, hired a young girl to help out in the house. She was to be the helper to the head housekeeper, Bo Por (spelling is phonetic). Bo Por was the most motherly woman I've ever met; I spent some time with her when I was very young. Her smile still warms me almost 30 years later. Bo Por was as close to being a part of my dad's family as a "domestic helper" (Hong Kong terminology) could get. She loved my dad's family FIERCELY.
The new little girl would help Bo Por and the other more senior help staff like the cook and the driver. When she first arrived at the home, it was her job to run errands outside the house every day; she was not yet trusted to clean the family's bedrooms and private living areas.
Every day the girl would leave the flat and scurry around Hong Kong. And every day she'd come home and ask Bo Por who the man on the stairs was.
"He's there when I leave, and he's there when I come home. He looks like Mr. James [referring to my dad's much older brother, not his real name]; he looks at me but never smiles. Why is he so sad?" she'd ask Bo Por.
Bo Por didn't know what she was talking about. My uncle was always at work, and as far as anyone could see there was never anybody just sitting around on the steps all day (Bo Por wouldn't have stood for that). Everyone assumed that the girl was confused, mistaken, seeing things. Bo Por worried that she was not well, worried how it would affect the family. But she kept a close eye on the girl and let her keep working.
So this went on for some time. The girl would run her errands every day and politely pass the unsmiling man on the stairs. Nobody else ever saw the man, and the girl could not convince anybody to leave the flat with her.
Then one day, Bo Por took ill. Unable to clean the family's bedrooms, she instructed the young girl exactly how to do so. Going from bedroom to bedroom, she carefully made the beds, put clothes away, dusted. When she got to my Mar Mar's bedroom, she cried out.
Bo Por hurried into the room, afraid the girl had broken something. When she arrived, she found everything as it should be, but the girl wore a look of surprise.
Pointing to a framed picture by Mar Mar's bedside, the girl said, "That's him! That's the man on the stairs!"
Bo Por looked shook her head, "It can't be. That's Mrs. Hung's first husband, William [not his real name], Mr. James' father. He died years ago."
"But it is!" insisted the girl. "It's him; he looks right at me, so sad. I see this man every day!"
The girl was positive, and Bo Por listened this time. Mar Mar and her first husband had been deeply in love, and Bo Por and the family (her second husband included) always respected that. Though nobody ever doubted her devotion to her second husband, it was always understood that she missed her first husband all the time.
When Bo Por brought the girl's story to Mar Mar and her children, they agreed that William was wishing Mar Mar farewell before he left for good. Soon after the household figured out who the "mystery man" was, the girl stopped seeing him on the stairs.
Mar Mar said that the reason he never appeared in the flat or any subsequent home of hers was because he did not want to disrespect her second husband or upset her in her new, happy life. While other people saw William occasionally, Mar Mar never did. They would not be reunited until after her death, when she was buried next to him.
My dad's old home on Peking Road is now a very tall apartment building with a posh, high-end watch shop on the street level. While the street still twists just so, gone are the little food shops and the Star Theatre.
But every time I walked this street while I was in Hong Kong, I myself hurrying home from the grocery store or meeting some friends for dinner, I'd pause and look up at where my dad's home once was. A gentle chill would roll up my spine knowing that more than 60 years ago, only a short distance from where I stood on the sidewalk, a little boy looked down at the street, counting fires and looking for ghosts.
I'd like to think William no longer sits on the stairs. That instead he and Mar Mar are together again, hand in hand, strolling down the road, and laughing about his ghost story from so long ago.