I showed up to the funeral hall in a cheap tie and a dress shirt I couldn't iron because I didn't own an iron. According to my aunt, I had overdressed. She was in a T-shirt. That was the first time we spoke in two years.
To be fair, I should've known better than to move in with my aunt in the first place. When I landed in Hong Kong in 2014, I had told her I was there job-hunting. In reality, I was doing what us millennials refer to as soul-searching. My aunt was ecstatic to have me back in her life, until she realized that, after years spent studying overseas, I had grown into someone she couldn't relate to. Everything I said and did seemed to only bring about disappointment. My aunt would shake her head and glare whenever I slipped up on the many Chinese etiquette rules she had lived her life by, most of which I didn’t know existed, like how you can’t lower your hand below the dining table during meals, and that you can’t greet relatives with nods, you must say their full titles. In my aunt's eyes, I had become a gwailo – a white devil. She kicked me out within the month, and we were practically estranged after that.
Then my grandpa died.
Having never attended a Chinese funeral, I pictured one of those fancy ceremonies you'd see in triad movies, with the incense, paper money, dancing priests, and funny hats. But my grandpa had apparently converted to Christianity some time before his death, which put the funeral in this strange limbo of having both Western and traditional Chinese elements. The grieving family didn’t have to wear white robes. There was no table with offerings of fruit for the deceased. Just a large hall adorned with plastic chairs.
You'd expect my aunt to apologize and attempt to reconcile, but she didn't. Instead, she stuffed a red envelope in my hand. It couldn't have been a bribe; all it contained were a one-dollar coin, a candy, and a tissue – the hell was I supposed to do with that?
My aunt didn’t give me a chance to ask about the envelope. She dragged me over to this black and white photo of grandpa and ordered me to bow three times, then sat me down in the first seat of the front row, closest to grandpa's casket, which was kept in a backroom. Her implication was that, as the sole grandson, the figurative torch was in my hands now, along with the future of our entire lineage.
"Stay here," my aunt said. "Stand and bow to each guest as they come in. And keep away from walls and dark places.”
“There are” – she dropped to a whisper, glancing around to make sure no one overhears – “evil spirits."
The crazy kook was serious.
"So how old was he?" I asked.
My aunt thought for a moment, then turned to ask my grandma, who was further down the row and looking a lot angrier than usual.
"Who knows!" I heard my grandma yell.
I found out later that grandpa’s estate comprised of about a dozen toilet paper rolls, stolen over the years from his senior's home. I guess I'd be pissed too.
I was mostly nonchalant about the whole ordeal. I'm no psychopath, but you see, I never got to know my grandpa. It wasn't that I didn't see him often – in fact, I visited as often as I could – it's just that for most of my lucid years, grandpa had been unlucid. Ask him a question and he’s simply look at you and smile, eyes glazed. Though at one point, he was lucid enough to move himself into a senior's home, mostly just to get away from my aunt and my grandma. Whenever I visited him there, he'd recognize me as my father, and I'd nod and sneak him a Filet O' Fish, then we'd sit in silence. So really, sitting there at his funeral wasn't so different from our usual interactions.
The first guest was an elderly woman who claimed to be my childhood so-and-so, though I could swear we had never met.
With a hand on my shoulder, she said in Cantonese, "Came back just for the funeral? You're such a good boy!"
"Oh, no. I've actually been in Hong Kong for the past two years."
"Ah! You work here!"
"Kind of. Odd jobs here and there."
"You're going to school here then?"
"No. University's not really for me, you know?"
She didn't know.
"Then... what are you doing?" The woman pursed her lips.
My aunt immediately pulled me aside and gave me a lecture. Said I can't say that shit. "What’s your problem?” she asked. “Live your Western lifestyle all you want, but don't go advertising it!"
For the rest of the night, whenever someone asked if I flew in specifically for the funeral, I'd say, I just landed, still jetlagged. When they asked what school I was attending, I'd say, University of British Columbia – for business. When they asked about my career aspirations, I'd say, I want to be a freakin' CEO.
As more people arrived, I saw that I had indeed overdressed. I was the only one in a button-up. Everyone else was in casuals and bright colours, looking like they were dropping by on their way to dinner.
To make matters worse, I had a sneaking suspicion that nobody was actually there for my grandpa. Instead of sharing memories of him, each stranger instead talked about their memories of me. These people all claimed to be major formative influences on my youth. For fuck's sake, one dude said he used to be my dentist. The funeral, weirdly enough, began to feel more and more about me.
A Christian priest conducted the ceremony. Halfway through his speeches, a choir came to sing a few hymns. They tried to get us to sing-along, but as far as I could tell, no one in the audience knew the lyrics.
I didn't mind the religious angle as much as my aunt, who rolled her eyes and whenever the priest took to the microphone. My family didn't believe in that sort of stuff, and I wasn't sure if grandpa did either. I had never seen him pray or go near a bible. Unless there's a church hidden inside his usual dimsum restaurant, he certainly didn't attend service on Sunday either. My aunt believe that my grandpa was approached at the senior's home about converting, and he just went along with it, not fully aware of what he was doing.
I didn't hear him at first, but the priest asked me to address the crowd. Not my aunt, not my grandma – just me.
All eyes turned to me.
My mind was blank. I didn't know I had to prepare a speech. After thinking for a second, I stood up and just said, "Thanks for coming," and sat back down.
The room went silent. I thought I heard my aunt sigh. I don't know why, but I sort of expected a round of applause.
Grandpa's casket was rolled out for us to say our goodbyes. Some cried, or at least pretended to. My aunt simply power-walked a lap around the body without looking at it, presumably out of fear of "evil spirits".
When it came to my turn, I thought I'd feel something – anything – but I didn't. It was rather anti-climatic. As bad as this sounds, I thought that with all the makeup, grandpa looked more alive then than he ever had alive. I was actually a bit envious of him. Shit, at least he no longer had to deal with people.
I knew my aunt would take the funeral as an opportunity to talk me into leaving Hong Kong and finishing my schooling. Once the ceremony ended, I slipped away as fast as I could. But she caught me and took me by the arm to an alleyway around the building.
My aunt dug into her pockets and asked if I had any tissues.
I remembered there was one in the red envelope from earlier, so I gave her the whole thing.
My aunt freaked the fuck out.
"Oh my God! You're not supposed to keep this! You'll bring the spirits with you!" she shouted, unwrapping the candy and shoving it into my mouth. She made me promise to spend the dollar before I got home.
As for the tissue, she crumpled it, lit it on fire with her lighter, and set it down gently onto the concrete. The tiny fire flickered, struggling to stay ablaze in this dark alleyway.
"Hop over," she demanded. "Quick! Before it goes out!"
It was another crazy moment of hers, fueled by nonsensical and outdated beliefs. The fire was meant to repel any spirits that might had latched onto me in the funeral hall. But even if my aunt was right, and spirits exist, I couldn’t see the down side. It would just be grandpa’s spirit following me home, and that was fine with me.
"No," I told her. “I’m not doing this.”
So she pushed me over the fire.
Cover image by Kevin Choi