A few days ago, I walked into my mom's hotel room in Hong Kong, to find her gesticulating wildly and barking lots of "Ai-yahs" and "FINE, that's fine..." into the phone.
This is not an unfamiliar sight, so I sat down on her bed and farted around on my phone while I waited for her. "Okayokayokay – I gotta go, Louise is here," she said into the phone in rapid Cantonese and hung up. "Aauuugggghhh-ah!" she exhaled and plopped into a chair.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"My sister wants to get Pizza Hut tomorrow, sit by the old nullah by our childhood home, and reminisce about the good old days. LOUISE. That's where I saw the dead body. I don't want to think about the nullah baby while eating Pizza Hut."
My next question was, "What's a nullah?" And more importantly, "What's a nullah baby?"
"I didn't tell you about the nullah baby?"
"A nullah is a watercourse that allows water to flow from an upper level of a hill or mountain down to a lower level of that hill or mountain — over a series of man-made steps or channels. At the nullah near my childhood home in Wan Chai there was a pool at the top, and in the '40s and '50s kids would swim in that pool. I had to walk up and down the pedestrian steps of that nullah to get to and from school when I was young."
And the nullah baby?
"Aauuugggh-ah," she made that distinct Louise's mom sound again. It's halfway between an "ugh" and an angry cat's yowl. It's both high pitched and low at the same time, both disgusted and delighted.
"My sister remembers more than I do. She loves talking about that nullah baby! I was so scared of it when I was little. You know why?"
"BECAUSE I SAW HIM."
Tell me, please.
"OK. OK." Mom moved to the edge of her seat a bit.
"The legend and the true story are all mixed up amongst the locals, but THIS I tell you is true. I WAS THERE, MY DEAR."
Mom dropped her voice a bit. Maybe out of respect, maybe for effect.
"One year, out of nowhere, in the middle of the day, there was a flash flood. The water from the pool at the top of the nullah overflowed and a huge, violent torrent of water ran down the mountainside. It was so sad, a little boy drowned.
The street vendors said that the little boy had begged his brothers and sisters — he was just a baby, maybe three — to go swimming with him in the pool at the top of the nullah, but they wouldn't go, so he went alone.
When the flood happened, he was washed over the edge of the pool and down the nullah."
I admit at this point, I got a little knot in my throat. "Poor nullah baby," I said.
"Yes, poor nullah baby," mom agreed, and paused for a moment. "But poor nullah baby wasn't quite done yet. Shall I continue?"
"So nullah baby was washed down the nullah and drowned. His body lay at the bottom of the nullah. I saw him on my way home from school. I watched someone put a white cloth — you know, for funerals — over his body. Ai-yah, he was such a sad baby. Waterlogged, bloated."
Why didn't anybody move him?
"Oh, you can't move him! You might get in the way of his soul departing. So his poor parents wailed and screamed at his body in the nullah. Everyone stood around them. Finally, the monks came and blessed him so the morgue could take him away.
It was a different time, kid. The community mourned for the nullah baby, but also made him the stuff of legends. There were so many weird stories."
What were the stories?
"Aauuugggh-ah! The girls who looked after me and my sisters — they were just babies themselves, about 12 or 13 — said they saw the nullah baby ghost.
When they would walk to our home before dawn, up the steps of the nullah, they said they felt little hands tugging at their skirts. They saw shadows in the nullah. They'd hear a child crying, when there were no children. One girl, saw little hands in the nullah."
Mom smirked at me. "You know she was probably bullshitting me, she hated us so much, my sisters and I were little shits." But then mom paused again, turning something over in her head.
"But you know... they weren't the only ones who said they saw things. Other people saw things in the neighborhood. The street vendors would talk about seeing the nullah baby's ghost in the water, and his little ghost-body falling down the nullah again. My sister actually saw the nullah baby too."
Wait, Auntie Pizza Hut did?
"Yup. You see she has small eyes — you know how she has small eyes, right?"
"Those are 'ghost seeing eyes'. She's always seen ghosts. She's seen lots of ghosts. She saw a little ghost-boy crying in the nullah water."
"Oh yeah. I think she told her babysitter, and the poor girl made my sister take the long way home from school for a week! No nullah for them!
You see, people said that the nullah baby's spirit was not properly at rest. Something had gone wrong — maybe someone moved him before the monks got there. By grabbing at people's clothes, nullah baby was trying to crawl back up the nullah! His family lived up there, and he just wanted to go home. Poor nullah baby."
Poor nullah baby.
"But you know, nullah baby became something of an honored ghost. At the nearby temple, families would make offerings to the nullah baby when fathers would go out to sea, or if their children were going to be on a boat. Nullah baby became the 'guardian spirit' of people, particularly children, who were going to be on or around water. If you made an offering to nullah baby, he'd make sure your loved ones didn't drown. His story went from sad to kind of hopeful, right?"
It did. I couldn't help but be relieved that poor nullah baby's story didn't just spiral into horror story territory. Mom's right, it was a different time, and people handled tragedy differently.
While swapping ghost stories about a drowned child may sound distasteful now, in mid-century Hong Kong, a Hong Kong on the cusp of modernity with one foot still stubbornly planted in "history", "talking story" was how people dealt with the shock and sorrow over a death in the community. No disrespect was meant toward the nullah baby, only curiosity, concern, and perhaps a little bit of healthy fear.
Nullah baby's death rippled through my mom's community. Though not everybody personally knew the nullah baby, everyone knew someone or knew someone who knew someone who was hurting from his death. The community as a whole felt the loss of the nullah baby.
In Hong Kong, the dead do not slip quietly into obscurity. Once a person dies they are still a vital part of society, their vitality simply thrives on the breath of others instead of their own. Nullah baby may still be thriving. Nearly 60 years later, we're still talking about him.
As the nullah baby's story came to an end, I asked my mom whatever became of the nullah baby's ghost.
"Oh... you know, children grow up."
You think nullah baby grew up?
"Well," she smiled dreamily, and I caught a glimpse of the little girl afraid to walk up the nullah steps. "I'd like to think nullah baby got home, and didn't have to be the 'nullah baby' anymore. How awful right? To be a drowned baby for all eternity?
People stopped seeing him, and the ghost stories faded away. Maybe he got to be with his brothers and sisters again. Maybe they grew up and nullah baby got to grow up too; be a grown up ghost-man.
But nobody forgot nullah baby. His story just changed. Maybe people turned him into a happy ghost, you know, with their offerings and wishes for protection. Maybe he liked watching over other little children. Even ghosts need a purpose, right? Who says you can't be a happy ghost with a purpose?"
If the nullah baby's ghost could find a purpose anywhere, Hong Kong would be it.
"The barrier between the living and the dead is so thin in Hong Kong," mom mused. "Every building, every street has has some ghost hiding in its shadows. You can almost see them, don't they deserve a memory? I wonder where nullah baby is now."
I wonder too. Maybe he's reading over your shoulder. Hi, nullah baby.
Mom's phone rang again, and she rolled her eyes. "It's my sister again wanting to talk about Pizza Hut." Before answering her phone, she looked up at me, her face eager, and said, "Later, I'll have to tell you about the wailing ghost and my parents..."
And later, Creepy Corneristas, I will tell you too.