A slide door. An iron slide door. The kind that may remind you of a prison gate. She opens the door, we follow her in. A tiny studio with a kitchen and a bathroom, a bed and two bunk beds that make a letter L. Packed, dingy, messy. She unstacks three stools. We sit. She offers us tea, then sits on a stool against a filthy curtain serving as a kitchen door, with lots of teddy bears, folded at the bottom.
“How did you come to Hong Kong?” we ask.
She details her life starting from her village in Hunan Province, China. “All hardships. They are my fate,” she says, in Cantonese, with a strong accent, barely understandable. She has been hardworking, despite everything – like her aching hands. She shows her hands. A peasant’s hands, injured from over-working. They are swollen and aching. She couldn’t do much now. She lives on social welfare. She did some cleaning work when they were not too bad, but she hurt them more and what she made from the job was not enough to cover the hospital fee. “I have been working so hard,” she complains, “but she (her daughter) is so lazy, always misbehaves. She doesn’t help. Doesn’t care.” She completely forgets the question. How did she end up in Hong Kong? The social worker has to remind her of the question. She has to remind her of each question we ask.
“Oh, a colleague of mine introduced him (her late husband, a Hong Kong citizen) to me when I was working in Shenzhen,” she says, “I didn’t want to marry him, but he really liked me. I didn’t want to marry him. But he really liked me. He was too old. Too old. Twenty years older than me. Too old. He really liked me.” I examine her. She looks older than her age – fifty-one, weathered, short and chubby. But she must have felt superior to her late husband. When I point to a line of photos of her hanging from one of the bunk beds, she chuckles. I hear her pride and dignity. “When I was young, I had good skin,” she is all smiles, “people even said I should be a model for skincare products. They said I was born a beauty.” She laughs more.
Those are studio photos of her dressed up and heavily made up. They are flatly lighted and over-exposed to make the skin look whiter. Dramatically whiter. Typical studio photo shots popular with women in mainland China from the 1990s till recently. In these photos, women have glaring, unreal white skin.
I wonder if her late husband admired her. He died in 2015. She took care of him. It was hard. She details how she took good care of him before he died. She forgets to tell us why she married him even though she saw him as too old to match her youth and pretty look. Again the social worker has to remind her of the question.
That was because her friend said this old man could take care of her daughter while she went to work. So she married him. That was it. He turned out to be a very poor man, one from the lower class, at the bottom of the social ladder. She worked and worked hard to support the family. He was old and sick. She took care of him. Then he died. But She got her Hong Kong ID card and her daughter got to join her in Hong Kong, finally, after living with different aunts for some years.
The daughter, a fourteen-year-old, over weighty, sleepy, her hair messy like a bird nest, keeps her head down most of the time. She sniggers when I take her photos, and from time to time snaps a few shots of me taking photos of her. She is shy but she seems flattered when I take her photos. I take quite a few photos of her. We can’t publish photos with her face identifiable, though. Nor their names. She sits at one of the bunk beds, plays her phone, buries her head in her chest as her mother complains about her, turns to the social worker when asked questions. She has a clearer mind than her mother, throwing out insightful quotes sometimes.
“Are you happy?” We ask her.
“I am happy,” she says, casually.
But she bursts into tears when the questions become specific. “I was happy when I first came to Hong Kong (five years ago). I thought I could finally live with mom,” She sobs, “Yes, I like sleeping, but I simply can’t help it. I feel tired all the time. I don’t eat out a lot. I just don’t feel like to eat sometimes…(Her mother’s biggest complaint is the daughter doesn’t eat the food she cooks. She worries about her health.) I don’t shower for an hour! That’s exaggeration. Only half an hour.”
“Even half an hour is way too long,” the mother scolds her.
It goes round and round and on and on.
“She behaves at school. She just doesn’t listen to me. Doesn’t care about a thing at home. We are not meant to be mother and daughter,”the mother sighs.
The mother and the daughter don’t get along. They fight often. Physical fights.
I imagine their fights in this tiny, dingy, messy studio. I frown. Better not imagine the fighting scenes. I turn to look at the mother again. Her lips moving. Her eyebrows knitted. It is depressing to hear her long-winded complaints about life and her daughter. She forgets what she says. She repeats herself. She is illogical. The social worker has to stop her from ranting, steer her back to the topic, then finally finishes the interview. I am sorry for her, and her daughter. I admire the social worker’s patience with them. I feel relieved when we finally stand up to leave. The mother offers us sodas as we turn to the door. They must be precious in her eyes. The sodas. We decline the precious gifts. She offers them again, and again. We say no thanks. Again and again. Finally she walks us to the lift and keeps talking till we enter the lift. She waves her hand and smiles at us when the lift door closes.
The lift door frames her as she smiles and waves us goodbye, but it is closing, like a movie screen sliding into pitch dark. End of story.
But her life continues. So does her suffering.