CC Issue 28 / Reflections

Open Doors and Skinny Spaces

So Uk Chuen in Cheung Sha Wan, home to my grandmother for almost four decades and where my mother grew up.

The weather here in the Pacific Northwest is unpredictable, though people have adapted to expect any weather, any time. Except, it seems, for conditions of constant sunshine. During one doggishly hot week this summer, we had to improvise to handle the heatwave. Windows and doors wide open from dawn to 11am. Then all windows and doors shut until 1 hour after dark to keep out the endless hot puff. Fans on at will. And no–absolutely no–cooking in the apartment. On the hottest days, after setting up the charcoal grill outside and sitting down for the long wait, I thought, it would be genius if we could have an outdoor kitchen (yes, for the one week a year that it’s hot in Oregon).

Each time I dreamed up an outdoor kitchen, though, I was reminded of my grandmother’s old kitchen in Hong Kong. For several decades, she lived in a pastel orange housing estate in Cheung Sha Wan. Off of her balcony, there was a tiny kitchen just wide enough (in my memory) to fit a two burner stove. I don’t think there was a door, which might have been a practical decision for a complex built in the early 1960s, making use of the “vent” to the balcony so that the entire apartment wouldn’t swelter in the heat of those high blue gas flames required of good Cantonese cooking.

Her flat was a sliver of an apartment, just like the hundreds of others in her building which were all narrow rectangular spaces from front door to balcony. I imagine those hot, sticky Hong Kong summers–the one door of the flat wide open, though still barred by a metal gate. Cool darkness in the spare cement corridor which connected a long line of gated open doors. A squabble of radios, the drone of fans.

My grandmother’s apartment couldn’t have been more than 10 feet wide. And the entire apartment was maybe 20, 25′ long. I remember four sections: a sitting area with a sofa, a few stools, a small table, and a TV, then two green metal bunk beds that created a narrow passageway into the third area, the bathroom and the kitchen, which opened onto a tiny balcony (which always seemed full of laundry).

Incredibly, my mom grew up in that flat with six siblings. With that in mind, the green metal bunk beds always struck me the most as a child. Even in the late 80s, after my grandfather had passed and most of my aunts and my uncle had moved out, the top tiers of the green bunk beds were heaped with bags, boxes, clothes. The effect, looking up and into the dark corners, was claustrophobic. But when my mom was growing up, they slept two to a bunk (I wondered, even then, “so where did they keep their things??”). Between the head of one of the bunks and the wall, there was a tiny space that fit a desk the size of a nightstand. As a teenager, my mom would study there in the middle of the night after everyone else had gone to bed because it was the only time quiet enough to get work done. She got top grades.

I admit, my impressions of the apartment may have be colored by the fact that I only visited Hong Kong a few times as a child. I’m sure that my memories are hazed by difference, language, discomfort, wonder, and maybe the slightest touch of fear. For, though I don’t think it’s a leap my childish mind took at the time, a very narrow border separated my life and this one. My sprawlingly large childhood home in Toronto, my education, my backyard, my family roadtrips, and the freedom all these entailed–this life was adjacent to that tiny apartment in Cheung Sha Wan, separated only by a space maybe about the size of a nightstand.

I wonder about my parent’s generation, how so many of them grew up in poverty and then seized the world, in my parents’ case immigrating to Canada as young undergraduates. And I think about how millions of people in Hong Kong still live in tiny proportions. It’s a boon, really, that the layout of our apartment in Oregon resembles my grandmother’s, though much more generous in size. As I open my front door and my balcony door in our modest home, I have often thought how extravagant it is that I just let in air, not the noise of a hundred neighbors.

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