CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


Days of 15 Shelley Street | China Heritage Quarterly

Days of 15 Shelley Street

Anthony C. Yu 余國藩

Anthony C. Yu is Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Humanities at The University of Chicago. In his China-related work he has sought to reinterpret classical Chinese narratives and poetry in light of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. He is noted for his masterful four-volume translation of Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West and a profound study of The Story of the Stone (Shitou ji 石頭記, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, Honglou Meng 紅樓夢), Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in "Dream of the Red Chamber".

Anthony visited Canberra in February 2009 with his wife Priscilla at the invitation of The ANU China Institute and Professor John Minford. During his stay he and gave a number of public seminars, met with graduate scholars and participated in a forum on 'Sinology Old & New', as well as taking part in a public conversation with John Minford on The Story of the Stone. We are grateful that he has allowed China Heritage Quarterly to publish this memoir, one that reflects the complex interaction between the generations and the intermingling of reading, study, the modern and the classical. It is also a modest paean to the unique position of Hong Kong in modern Chinese cultural history, and its role in bringing the world of Chinese culture into contact with the international environment.—The Editor.

In the spring of 1946 after the Sino-Japanese war, my father was posted to New York City to join the first military delegation sent to the United Nations by the government of the Chinese Nationalists. I would have accompanied my parents to go abroad had not my grandfather (Yu Yun 余芸; Cantonese, Yu Wan) intervened, volunteering with my grandmother to care for me since they wished me to have the opportunity (denied by the war years) to study both English and Chinese before it was too late. Thus I came to live with my grandparents from that time until the spring of 1951, when I left with my parents to go to Taiwan so that my father could re-join the Nationalist army.

During that unusual and unusually happy period of more than six years of living with my grandparents, Saturday was always a special day. Although the British school system of Hong Kong had included classes even on Saturday mornings in its formal schedule, the rapid increase of the post-war student population in the late nineteen-forties had forced most of the schools using English as the principal medium of instruction and some of the Chinese ones as well to operate on double shifts. The morning shift ran from 8:15 to about 1:15, and the afternoon one began at 2 and terminated at 7. Saturday mornings were reserved for remedial and special classes of sundry varieties and occasional sporting events. During the time when I attended (as one of half a dozen boys granted permission to do so) the Sacred Heart Girls School 聖心女子學院 where I had my first English lessons to two years later when I enrolled in the Jesuit-run Wah Yan Boys College 華仁書院, I was always fortunate enough to be assigned to the morning shift. This meant as well that throughout the schooling of my formative years, I was already exposed to what is essentially an American luxury when compared with other school systems of the world: five days of formal classes and two consecutive holidays every week.

The reason why Saturdays were so attractive for me was not merely the extra free time that was every child's desire; the weekend also marked a period of special, heightened activities with my grandparents—especially my grandfather. Although the schedule of the senior school inspector which he had resumed after the war also stipulated working hours for Saturday morning, Grandfather, I recall, never went to his office for very long on that particular day. For more often than not, it was a day a large part of which he would spend with his eldest grandson.

The outings which soon held my keenest anticipation and--even now after more than fifty years—my fondest memory were almost invariably divided into two kinds of excursion. If it was a mid-day affair, Grandfather would telephone from his office by about ten-thirty in the morning to ask one of the servants to take me to meet him at one of the two favored theatres (for reasons of proximity and cleanliness) on Queen's Road in the Central District 中環. On occasions when he thought that his office duties would require no more than a brief stay on the premise, I would actually accompany him and sat there reading while he took care of his business. Promptly at a quarter to eleven, he would look up from his papers and said quietly, 'Let's go see the show.'

The eleven o'clock show at the King's 娛樂 or the Queen's 皇后 Theatre on Saturdays was manifestly one designed for children, for in addition to whatever film that was featured, there would be at least twenty minutes--sometimes thirty--of cartoons. Judging by the way my grandfather laughed in the theatre and talked about the episodes afterwards (his favourites included Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and Yosemite Sam), I'd say that the adult most certainly enjoyed the looney adventures of these uniquely American characters as much as the child.

The featured film was usually a western (starring such canonical icons as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, and Joe McCrea—with the old codger Gabby Hayes swiftly becoming a special favorite of Grandfather, who would chuckle hugely whenever the bearded face drawled with inimitable panache on the screen), a swashbuckling adventure (undertaken by Errol Flynn or Larry Parks), or a comedy (a Laurel-and-Hardy revival, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye). When it ended at about one in the afternoon, we would walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch, an event as eagerly awaited, as far as I was concerned, as the film itself. Before that sought after boon could be reached, however, there was always for me—impatient lad that I was—a mildly frustrating delay. Hong Kong theatres had the practice then of playing the British national anthem after the entire show was over. When 'God Save the King' blared in the house and oversized images of the Union Jack montaged with King George V filled the screen, most people would stampede toward the various exits. Grandfather, on the other hand, would stand straight up to stare reverently at the screen, his left or right hand firmly gripping a shoulder or arm to calm his fidgeting grandson. Only many years later did I begin to comprehend the significance of his behavior, for as a senior school inspector for the colonial government, Grandfather was careful to observe the ritual propriety of a civil servant.

Lunches on these occasions, as I recall, almost invariably took the form of a Western meal. Given the varieties of food already available in Hong Kong even in the late forties, it might seem odd that Grandfather was not more venturesome in his culinary excursions. He seldom took me even to a repast of 'Dim Sum,' the feast of various tea pastries that has in recent years become increasingly a rage in many cities in North America and other parts of the Western world. As far as I could tell, however, Saturday lunch for Grandfather, if taken outside the house, provided an opportunity for a change of menu from the customary Chinese meals served at home. That meant, for him, the little cafe on the mezzanine of the China Emporium中華百貨公司, a department store on Queen's Road 皇后大道 about a block west of the two theatres. The lunch he would order for the two of us often consisted of soup (a clear consommé, a mixed vegetable, or a cream of mushroom) followed by a piece of roast chicken or grilled grouper. By far the most frequent selection had to be cold roast beef (eaten medium rare with hot English mustard) accompanied by plain boiled potatoes and cabbage. The lunch would end with a hefty scoop of Dairy Farm ice cream or a tart of apple or coconut. The roast beef entree, a dish virtually devoid of any seasoning including salt, might seem excessively bland to many palates. But for Grandfather, who had told me many times as he dug happily into his plate, it was a near perfect reminder of his Oxford days that he could never have enough. After thus sharing his table for more than five years, I developed a devotion to boiled potatoes and cabbage that had remained lifelong.

I mentioned earlier that there were two kinds of outing on Saturdays. If we did not go to a film in the late morning, the trip undertaken would occur in mid to late afternoon—after Grandfather's daily nap, a habitual practice that again sorely tried a boy's patience. Shortly after he had climbed in bed, I would tip-toe in to peek at him, trying to see whether he was really asleep. While both of my grandparents were snoring resoundingly, a frantic maid would dash in (in bare feet so as to minimize any noise she might make) and whisper fiercely for me not to wake her master and mistress. I would slip out only to return again to the bedroom once the maid had left to attend to some household chore. This scenario would repeat itself several times before I was rewarded at last with Grandfather's rising and getting dressed.

Holding me with one hand and a small rattan bag with the other, Grandfather would walk down the steep slope of Upper Shelley Street 上些利街. Our destination again was Hong Kong's Central District, but our journey on foot would inevitably take us down through the meandering path of Hollywood Road 荷里活道, a street that was famous for shops selling both rare Chinese books and modern publications, stationery, brushes, ink-stands, and other accouterments of traditional Chinese literati. At the time I was a fanatical devotee of martial-arts pot-boilers, and in one of these shops I would head straight for the section holding the latest offerings. As I poured over the volumes, skimming the table of contents and the pages themselves to decide whether they should be purchased, Grandfather would stand near the shop entrance and chat amiably with a salesman or the proprietor. When I satisfied myself in that session of impromptu reading (an undertaking that could last fifteen minutes or longer) and made a selection, Grandfather would then ask me whether I needed some books for serious study as well. Frequently, therefore, what landed finally in the little rattan bag would be a set of kung-fu fiction and a volume or two of pre-modern Chinese writings—usually, selected anthologies of history, philosophy, and poetry. Proceeding down the street to the next shop, we would pause and I would start reading all over again.

By the time we reached Queen's Road Central, a journey that normally would not last more than half an hour even if one were to stroll with deliberate slowness, more than two hours would have transpired and the small bag would be filled with the day's acquisitions. As I now look back on this particular experience, what impressed me was that never once did Grandfather in any way hurry me along. He walked, he talked, and he waited—ever so patiently to indulge his grandchild's fantasies that could also be (in his judgment, I believe) a mind-stretching contact with the printed page. Once during late fall when it was quite dark outside a shop in which I read for a particularly lengthy spell, I chanced to glance up and what suddenly came into view was a set of tightly drawn iron gates firmly padlocked. Actually, the store across the street had been shuttered for the night, but my tired eyes misgauged the distance. The tale of my terrified screams for Grandfather to get me out would regale the family dinner table for days to come. Never would I have anticipated then that some twenty-five years after that incident, my own son in a Chicago bookstore would repeat his father's history.

The book-buying excursion, like our journeys to the movie theaters, also ended almost invariably in a restaurant, one that served Cantonese cuisine. There were many in the Central District, but Grandfather, as my narrative thus far might have indicated, was a creature of habit. He stuck to the few choice establishments to his liking: the one on Desveaux Road 德輔道 named 'Mountain Delicacies' 山珍酒家 (Cant., San-jun) famous for its congee (rice gruel simmered to a grit-like smoothness and consistency) and fresh ingredients, and another named 'Golden City' 金城 (Cant., Kum-sing), a five-tiered enterprise that served cuisine of various price levels on different floors. On the ground floor snugly fitted in a booth, we would be served a prix fixe dinner at HK $5.00 (equivalent in the late forties to US .90) which consisted of the day's soup and two carefully prepared and contrasting dishes (e.g., game and seafood with vegetables). On those frequent occasions when Grandmother and two of my youngest aunties still living with her parents were telephoned to come down to the restaurant to join us, other delicacies to their liking would be added.

The place to which Grandfather and I returned countless times to dine was the 'Garden of Gathering Fragrance' 聚香園 (Cant., Jui-heung-yun), an unpretentious little eatery half a block east of 'Mountain Delicacies' on Desveaux Road, directly across from Central Market 中環街市 that is no longer operational. What attracted the two of us to this restaurant were some of the freshest and crispest roasted and barbecued meats to be found anywhere--goose (when in season), duck, squab, quail, partridge, soy or broth-poached chicken, suckling pig, and ribs. Like similar shops for Cantonese cuisine in other parts of the world, such items would be hung and displayed behind a huge, glass-paneled area at the entrance, manned by two or more persons whose sole responsibility was to chop various portions of the meats to order and serve immediately to their luncheon and dinner clients. Mr. Wang, a stout and amiable cutter of this restaurant, wielded his Chinese cleaver with such dazzling virtuosity that he reminded me (when I read of this episode years later) of the butcher with flawless technique immortalized in one of the tales told by the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi. Whenever Grandfather and I entered the door, Wang would look up—his greasy hands never pausing for a moment on top of the gigantic cutting board—and greeted us loudly, 'Mr. Yu, out again with your beloved grandson! Welcome! Here's a nice duck leg for Sonny Yu.'

My tale hitherto must have made apparent that the pleasure of food was integral to the joy and privilege of life together with Grandfather. But I should emphasize that it was only a part; the gratification offered by the table became—as I think of the matter now—a setting for something else. For on those occasions when we were walking through the streets of Hong Kong or sitting down to dine, Grandfather would almost always ask me a few questions about my schoolwork or what I had covered that week with the tutor he had hired to coach me in the study of Classical Chinese. I was urged to recount some episodes of ancient history that we took up in class or some passages that I had struggled to understand and memorize from the Analects or Mencius. These he would go over with me, inviting me to repeat such lessons in my own words and tell him as well how I felt about the meaning of a certain event or the moral of a particular description of the ancient sages. Grandfather, I once queried, did Confucius really become oblivious to the taste of meat when he heard at the state of Qi 齊 certain strains of the most uplifting music? Amidst uproarious laughter, he replied that it was either bad meat in the first place or Confucius couldn't have been a very discerning philosopher!

Perhaps the most lasting influence that Grandfather had on me during those weekly excursions of leisure came from the conversations we had—in a sustained manner—on Classical Chinese poetry. Grandfather himself was a poet of considerable erudition and skill. Though he wrote only one type of pre-modern lyric, the so-called regulated verse that most frequently appeared as a quatrain or an eight-line poem with a septasyllabic line 七律, he wrote over one hundred and fifty of these. Indeed, as far back as I could remember, he was writing throughout the war years when we were traveling through several provinces in south China, often with the Japanese troops at our heels. After we returned to Hong Kong, his compositions were set down with great regularity.

These moments of intense creativity I not only witnessed, but they would also provide to this day a cherished source of wonder and learning for me. Usually after dinner, with a freshly-lit cigarette firmly tucked in his holder, its smoke mingling with the steam rising from the tea in a partially covered porcelain cup nestled in an old silver stand, Grandfather would sit before his huge wooden desk set in the ante-room of his bedroom suite. I would frequently take up a position standing behind his left shoulder so that I could peer directly at the pad on which he would scribble a few lines of almost illegible characters. (Grandfather had told me more than once that though he considered himself educated, he was embarrassed by his poor calligraphy because he never had the patience and the determination in his youth to do much practice. His confession, I should say, much comforted me because I found calligraphy, unlike reading and writing, also a painful exercise. Both of us, moreover, took comfort and delight in the fact that one of our favorite pre-modern poets, Yuan Mei 袁枚 of the Qing, also wrote in a poor hand for want of diligent practice).

After the initial jottings, Grandfather would puff on his cigarette, sometimes for quite a few minutes, before setting down more lines until a good portion of the poem or its entirety had been finished. As he stared intently at his creation, almost invariably the process of revision would begin as well—the crossing out of a word or phrase here, the substitute of a word there, whole lines cut up and re-arranged, more alternate lines or phrasings wedged between the lines and in the top or bottom margins. There were times when the page would be virtually covered by what to unfamiliar eyes had to be incomprehensible blotches and scrawls.

If he could not quite finish what he wanted to do in one evening after an hour or two of such activity, Grandfather would slide his pad carefully into the desk's top right drawer for work to be resumed a day or two later. If a poem materialized to his liking, swiftly or after days—even weeks—of unrelenting labor, he would take a fresh sheet and copy (this time in a more legible script) the finished product, often chanting the lines softly as he wrote. Knowing that I had been a constant witness of both his work and its fruition, he made them as well the subject of our conversations when we were alone together.

Did you understand why I chose that word and not the one I first set down, that rhyme and not this one, he would ask. Have you observed how I phrased an allusion, a very familiar one about the general who stood on the wall while his troops surrendered to his enemies? Can you guess why I use an inverted construction in this line? These are two strange looking words that actually mean football (soccer), a version of which the Chinese had begun to play during the eleventh century already. Isn't the term particularly appropriate for this poem about Oxford, where your Uncle Patrick is playing on the team of Merton College? Can you tell that this is an echo of Yuan Mei's line, or Li Bai's 李白 phrase in his poem that you just memorized for class?

Instead of lecturing me with abstruse theories and precepts or burdening me with daunting exercises, Grandfather, I realized years later, was teaching me how to write Chinese verse in the most indirect, intimate, and enjoyable manner possible. He was the living example which I was invited to analyze. I not only encountered his compositions, virtually all of which I have since committed to memory, but I was privileged to see and learn how he went about creating them. His discourse on poetry and poetics taught me a great deal as well about the long literary history of China and many of her canonical figures. That intellectual feast, I now must say, had been a perfect complement to our culinary ventures.

Did Grandfather plan it that way? Did he somehow expect me to take up a vocation that would in some way reflect and extend the experience of those years immediately after the war? I don't know. Soon after our separation when I left for Taiwan with my parents, I began writing the first halting lines of Classical verse of my own. Every sample I mailed to him thereafter until he was too ill to read and write in the mid-nineteen-sixties had always met in return the most generous of encouragement and praise from him. Almost five decades after this time, I now possess the last, moving sample of a hand-written note from him, dated on 24 January 1960, alongside of which he also wrote in Chinese the lunar date of 24 December and the last address of his life, 91 Robinson Road, Hong Kong. On that humble slip of notebook paper, now brown with age, is this ink-dipped message: 'My dear K.F. [my initials for Cantonese vocalization of Guofan 國藩], Received your X'mas card. Thanks. Hope you will find the attached article interesting. Wish you a very happy new year. With love, Yu Wan.' The article was a part of a longer essay torn from what was obviously a page of literary supplement from one of the Chinese newspapers he read daily, and it was a short journalistic account about the life and work of the Song poet Li Qingzhao 李清照 (ca.1084-1151). Three years thereafter, upon receipt of another letter of mine with new poems enclosed, he was too ill to respond in kind. But less than a month after I sent my mail, I received a small package air-mailed from Hong Kong to my graduate institution in the US, in which I found three anthologies of Chinese lyrics (ci 詞 poetry), one of which is now a prized volume edited by the renowned lyric specialist Hu Yunyi 胡雲翼. There was also a note written in Chinese by one of the maids, part of which message reads: 'Your Grandfather, though unable to write to you, is delighted with your recent compositions. He thinks you have improved greatly, and he wants you to study these books to write even better poems.'

I wish he could read some of what I had written since then. I wish he knew as well that I now have the opportunity to teach occasionally a class on Classical Chinese lyric and share with my students here in Chicago many of the things he once shared with me. I hope he is pleased that I have kept what he had given me—a precious part of himself.

—October 2004