Mom, as a newborn, was found in a pile of rubbish by a Hong Kong street-sweeper. I learned of this news as a twenty-something army medic traveling by train back to my duty station in Germany. After learning of that news, we wondered about Mom’s background for many years. She’s definitely Asian but what else, we’d wonder. We understood that we had no idea what the situation was and I think she never felt ill-will coming up as she was and is loved.
Last December, my sister called asking me to check email. She forwarded a message that Mom received through her DNA contacts. Definitely intrigued, I read the message as soon as I got off the phone. The writer mentioned a man that lived in Hong Kong, Macau, and Shanghai; an Italian “creator.” (He would be my mother’s father.) I immediately thought there might be a chance to learn about BOTH of her parents but not the case here.
I replied for Mom but never heard back. I searched and found descendants of my grandfather and contacted one guy, Giulio, who looked like my eldest brother. He replied back with photos similar to ones I sent him. It was surreal. I could see myself in him. We video-messaged not long after. And that’s when the journey started.
It turns out Mom has fifteen brothers and sisters by her father but they were birthed by two different mothers—neither of which were my grandmother. Mom is the fourth of my grandfather’s children. A couple have passed on.
I’m still blown-away by that news.
A few months later, Mom asked me to go with her to Hong Kong in September. I can’t afford such a trip so she covered everything; she just wanted help getting around. Plus, she wanted to meet whoever would be there.
Mom and I talked many times between December and the trip and we both wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing as we’ve experienced a negative result in a previous family reunion a decade ago. We both agreed we wanted to make sure there were no ill-feelings for Mom’s adoption and that we wanted them to know we wanted and expected nothing beyond a little knowledge and fellowship.
This was my sixth or seventh trip but it’d been thirteen years since I was there last. So much has changed but there were some things still reminiscent of the Hong Kong I was introduced to back on my first trip in 1983.
Our hotel was closer to the busier part of Kowloon, next to Kowloon Park (and a few blocks from where we usually stay so almost twice as much per night).
We met Giulio and another one of Mom’s new siblings, Arnaldo, at his place. We chatted for a few hours before dinner, everyone getting to know each other and marveling at the similarities in our lives and mannerisms. Arnaldo, who, of course, speaks beautiful Italian, also speaks impeccable Cantonese. He made pasta and a Tuscan chicken dish. Wow. “We are Tuscan!”
Giulio and his twin brother, Dino (who we’ll meet in a bit), are rock stars in China. Literally. (They both speak eight or ten languages, beautifully.) After dinner and dropping off Mom, Giulio and I, walked around Kowloon for a few hours catching up. All along our walk, people whispered or outright stopped us to say hello to Giulio or snap a photo. Slightly surreal. We talked about music and life and what it was like growing up where we did. The Twins are a bit younger than me but we still had similar childhoods.
A couple of days later I told Mom I wanted to see the “old place,” where she used to live before moving to America, the first place I stayed, and, the place my grandparents (Mom’s adoptive parents) held onto until 2002, when it was left for Mom. She sold it a few years later but I remember staying there a few times. It was the Hong Kong I knew and I wanted to see it again. We rode the old trolley from Central to North Point.
I remember seeing a building in photos and in movies that I could swear was my where my grandparents lived but thought it must be some other building just like it. When we arrived at the old building and walked out back, I realized the photos I saw were the same building. It has a hashtag: #monstermansion. I saw people taking photos with the building as their background. I had a couple of models flake on me but had a fortuitous meeting with a young attractive lady who gave me a name I doubt is real but we’ll call her Chika anyway. Also surreal.
Anthony Bourdain went to Hong Kong last season so I wanted to see a spot he visited and I hadn’t: Tai O, a fishing village on the west side of Lantau Island.
It was a two-hour trip by bus. I didn’t encounter any Western people the whole day. I also didn’t stop to eat as I was on a mission: photograph everything.
I said hello to everyone (who probably thought I was a little crazy). I didn’t care. I tried to interact with as many people as I could. It seemed everyone had a dog which automatically made me love that little town. I talked to a fisherman who spoke of Hong Kong pre-1997. I could tell he longed for a Hong Kong we will never see again.
I have a love affair with one of Hong Kong’s oldest transport companies: Star Ferry. If you’re in a hurry to cross the harbor, the ferry is not your option. It is cheap, though. And oh so romantic.
Aunty Wong’s Salt Pepper Shrimp!
Our second week started with a typhoon. I wasn’t going to stay in the hotel if I could help it. I went out three times to walk around the neighborhood surrounding the hotel. I’ve experience some strong wind but that was vicious.
As is always the case, Mom vows this will be her last trip. This admission came just a couple of days after the typhoon. I hope it isn’t but I vowed that I’d go back without her though admitted it would not be the same.
Mom invited the new relatives to have dinner with us and her best friend’s [Aunty Wong’s] family. This is when we met Dino, who flew in the night before. After dinner, we dropped off Mom and Arnaldo, and did another walk similar to the one Giulio and I took the week before. This was even more surreal because the “Twins” as they’re known locally were together now.
The Twins had a show that weekend and I asked if I could sit in on their rehearsal. I got to hear stuff they weren’t planning on playing live in a couple of days. They, along with their drummer, Dave (who owned the studio space), are amazing musicians.
After rehearsal, and a light dinner for them, we walked over to the TurboJet pier to obtain a ticket for me to meet them in Macau for their show the next night. That experience was so surreal and I can’t express what it felt like to be a part of their “entourage” and catch a small glimpse of a side of life not many get to see. (You can see the shit-eating grin I have in the shot of us before they went on stage.) So grateful.
There were a few after-parties they were invited to but they decided to skip all of them when I decided I didn’t need to sleep. We ended up at a friend’s bar where a few of their closest friends met up with us. It was nice to see them drop their guard. We managed to squeeze in the landmark that brought us together, a mural my grandfather created years before I was born but was still barely standing. It was an article I found about Giulio and Arnaldo’s fight to save the mural that led me to Giulio.
Mom may never find out who her mother is but we both agree it’s “cool” to have so many new people who we can call family. For me, I feel like I know more about me and why I do and enjoy the creative things I enjoy. Hopefully, we get to know them all much better and travel back to Hong Kong and, especially, Macau, where my Grandfather was a much-admired man. I’m looking forward to that.
I posted a gallery of images from the trip:
And a video to YouTube: