It was 1994. I was 12-years-old and my parents were on the brink of divorce. Clearly, we needed a holiday, and the obvious destination was Hong Kong. For my mum, it had been years since she’d seen her Hong Kong-based family and her widowed mother, and she wanted to pay her respects to her late brother and father. For the kids, we saw an important opportunity to spend obscene wads of our father’s cash on pirated Nintendo games and to eat yum cha every day of the week. We all had our reasons for going.
When you have five kids, though, “holiday” is probably the wrong word to use for expeditions like this. For my mother, “hideous mission” or “anxiety- fuelled itinerary” would have been more accurate. After waving goodbye to our dad, Mum herded us into a Cathay Pacific jumbo jet like difficult cattle. It wasn’t long before all the kids were bouncing off the plane walls from excitement. It was our first overseas trip together, and bovine level doses of Ritalin wouldn’t have been able to calm us down. Exhausted, my mother just wanted to sleep.
At the airport, a guide picked us up in a minivan to drive us to our hotel. Because us kids spoke perfect English and almost no Cantonese, we mocked his accent for the entire ride. The guide, John, was a sweet-natured man without a mean bone in his body. For some reason, that made it even more fun to laugh at him. “Actuar-ry,” John said, “you’ll find that Sha Tin is a very nice part of Hong Kong. It’s actuar-ry very developed.” Giggling behind our hands, we wanted to see how many times he’d say it and asked him more questions. “Actuar-ry, yes!” he’d respond.
“As you’ll actuar-ry see on your left … ”
Keeled over in pain, we kept cackling behind our hands before my mother hissed at us to shut the hell up.
The big surprise came when we visited our cousins, who had the nerve to laugh at us. “Why is your Cantonese so bad?” they said, both amused and repulsed. My Cantonese-speaking mother blushed from shame. Defensive and insulted, I felt I had something to prove. “Well, we can’t speak Cantonese because we’re Australian. I mean, how good is your English?” As it turned out, their English was actuar-ry quite good.
Later, when we went to shops and restaurants with our limited Cantonese, people stared at us: five Chinese-looking kids who were well-dressed, but also either mute or brain-damaged.
Out of all of our Hong Kong relatives – the uncle who never stopped touching his hair; the Cantopop star cousin; the passive-aggressive aunt – we all liked my grandmother the best. Within the first few minutes of us meeting her, we hugged her on the hotel mattress. Then we heard a loud whooping noise – an unmistakable combination of flesh and gas. “Poh-Poh fong pae,” she said matter-of- factly. (“Grandma farted.”) Even when I think of her now, this is my fondest memory.
Poh-Poh would buy fresh bread for us every morning and wait for us in the hotel lobby before sunrise. Thinking she was homeless or senile, the hotel staff would try to shoo her out of the building.
There were fun times during that trip. We had a ball at Ocean Park (“Come for the dolphins; stay for the world’s largest escalator!”), but it wasn’t long before disaster struck. In Kowloon, gangs of violent macaque monkeys attacked my sister. Another day, at the Science Museum, we lost four-year-old Michelle in a thick crowd and spent half an hour in dead fright before we heard a loudspeaker announcement and retrieved her.
“You’re lucky,” our uncle said afterwards, as we calmed each other down and wiped Michelle’s tears. “People could have taken her back to mainland China, chopped off her limbs and forced her to beg for them.” We scowled at him and he shrugged defensively. “What?” he said. “It happens.”
By the end of the trip, we were as exhausted as my mother. The novelty of daily yum cha had worn off, and by the time we got on the plane, we were embarrassed by all of our bags of purchases. Did we really need those giant plush Japanese cartoon characters? Had my brother and I really watched so much hotel porn that it warranted us paying for it?
Part of me suspected our cousins were right: we were possibly stupid, and definitely spoilt. But nowadays, I see that trip as the precise moment before my family combusted, when we were still pretty happy. All things considered, things were actuar-ry all right.