In Ghost Forest’s Silence, We Are at Peace

by Sheung-King

Sheung-King Aaron Tang’s debut novel, You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked., is a finalist for the 2021 Canada First Novel Award, longlisted for Canada Reads 2021, and named one of the best book debuts by the Globe and Mail. Sheung-King taught creative writing at the University of Guelph and is now the creative writing coach at Avenues: The World School, Shenzhen. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph.

Ghost Forest
Pik-Shuen Fung
One World, Penguin Random House
2021, 272 pp., $26.00

 

Great Britain ends its 156-year rule over Hong Kong in 1997. Before the handover, many Hong Kongese living in the soon-to-be Chinese Special Administrative Region are concerned about the city’s future. Post-colonial Hong Kong will exist under China’s one-country-two-systems, where it will retain its capitalist economic system while still being a part of China. Hong Kong will have its own currency. It will have its own laws. It will represent itself in international settings. There might even be democracy one day. But everything expires. In 2047, all of this will end. Hong Kong will never stop changing. The West appears to be more stable. But before the handover in 1997, Great Britain makes it clear that Hong Kong citizens will not be granted British citizenship. In Pik-Shuen Fung’s debut novel, Ghost Forest, our unnamed narrator, along with her mother, leaves Hong Kong before the handover. They move to Vancouver. Our narrator’s father, worried that he will be unable to find a job in Canada, returns to his manufacturing job in Hong Kong after helping the two settle down. He is an “astronaut father—flying here, flying there.” This, in the late ’90s, is common. 

Ghost Forest is about absence. The father is absent. Because of that, communication between our narrator and her father is likewise absent. She sees her father twice a year.

My parents leave Hong Kong before the handover as well. My own father, shortly after I was born, also returns to work in Hong Kong. Us ‘astronaut children’ in Vancouver in the late ’90s spend our weekends visiting the food court at the Aberdeen Centre in Richmond. There is bubble tea and dim sum. 


Ghost Forest is about absence. The father is absent. Because of that, communication between our narrator and her father is likewise absent. She sees her father twice a year.


I am taking a break from packing. 25 years later, I read about our narrator’s experience of moving to Canada in an empty condo in downtown Toronto, alone. There is nothing in the living room but an armchair that I will be giving a friend the next day. I fly to Shanghai the day after, where I am quarantined in a hotel room for two weeks. It is the summer of 2021. Fung launches her debut novel. I accept a job offer to teach in China. Two years before, when COVID began, my already unstable career as a contract lecturer became even more precarious. I speak English but to continue to have work, I leave Canada. I think about our narrator’s father. Nothing changes, in a way. We are Chinese. I don’t have children. I am not going to Hong Kong, either. But there is a bullet train that brings me back to the Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong is only ten minutes away.

In Shanghai, in quarantine, I finish reading Ghost Forest in a very colonial hotel. There is an old chandelier in the lobby. I am jetlagged. Outside my window are buildings with pink brick exteriors. I spend most of my time in quarantine staring at my phone and my computer. At night, white and bright orange lights light up the outside of the buildings across. At night, the outside world looks like a screensaver. 

At five in the morning, the highway is empty. The sky is bright and grey, and I can see each of the red tiles that make up the rooftops of the residential buildings below. It is a little early for breakfast. I choke on a small bone from a cold bowl of tofu fish soup I ordered for dinner the night before. I cough and gag for a minute straight before the small bone leaves my throat. The soup is served in a large white plastic takeout container. 


Ghost Forest is a conventional story about love and family told in thematically connected vignettes. The book hopscotches between time and space. The perspective also changes. We learn about the narrator’s mother and grandmother’s pasts from their perspectives when our narrator’s father falls ill. Towards the end of the book, her father passes away. Our narrator gets married in New York. The prose in the book is sparse, allowing a sense of emptiness to echo throughout the narrative. White space fills each page. The narrator, in the chapter, Bamboo Groves In Mist and Rain, is in Hangzhou, not too far from where I am now. She is an art student learning about 寫(xie—to write) 意 (yi—idea/meaning). Her teacher says:

They left large areas of the paper blank because they felt empty space was as important as form, that absence was as important as presence. So what did they seek to capture instead? The artist’s spirit. The teacher looked at each of us, nodding, before dipping the brush in more ink. Then he dashed a thin black line across each node of bamboo. The black lines bled out into the damp gray stalks, alive.

The cause is the consequence. It is colonialism that makes up the emptiness and illogicalness in Ghost Forest. Illogicalness can also feel empty. Our narrator’s sister, when she is born, has a blood tumour on her shoulder. She has almost no platelets. Western doctors do not know how to help her. Our narrator’s mother seeks help from a mysterious Chinese doctor in Toronto, via fax. 

At the top of the form, it said that the doctor will treat good-hearted people, but will not treat bad-hearted people. It also said that the doctor never sees patients in person. All communication is through the fax machine, and payment is by donation.

The daughter is healed. 

…at the herbal shop in Chinatown, the shopkeeper looked down at the prescription, then looked up and asked, Is this from that famous doctor in Toronto? Is this for an adult? I said, Yes, it’s from that doctor in Toronto, but no, it’s for a baby. Then he told me that someone else walked in the other day with a similar prescription for an adult patient. So, I don’t understand. If an adult with a different illness was prescribed the same medicine, how did it cure your baby sister? My friend said, Maybe the doctor healed her through the fax?

We should be cautious here, should not read Fung’s words here as romanticizing or exoticizing the workings of Chinese medicine. Ghost Forest’s charm does not rely on Self-Orientalizing. It is a fact that we sometimes rely on making up stories to make sense of the workings of non-Western remedies. It is also a fact that there is insufficient funding allocated for research on non-Western medicine by medical institutions in the West. Migrants and even children of migrants make up fantastic stories to comprehend knowledge that is unrecognized by the powerful. Much like the decision to leave Hong Kong for Vancouver before the ’97 Handover, this results from colonialism. 

It is colonialism that makes up the emptiness and illogicalness in Ghost Forest.

The use of absence is, of course, prominent in contemporary Chinese literature. This is partly because of state censorship. Though she denies that there is anything political about her work, the Chinese author Can Xue’s elaborate metaphors that extend paragraphs long are often read as criticisms of sociopolitical issues. It is also no secret that she is critical of the Cultural Revolution. Mo Yen’s use of hallucinatory realism can be read in a similar vein. Dream and reality blend in his novels. It is as if the writer is saying, some of the things discussed in this book are not allowed to be presented as reality


Confucianism is silencing. Deified progenitors in the male line are worshiped. Our narrator’s father is sitting in front of the television. Our narrator is visiting him in Hong Kong. It is 2006. 

I’m coming back now, I said.

Who are you talking to?

I’m talking to you?

When I got home, he was sitting on the beige couch, staring ahead through his wire-rimmed glasses. The television was off. 

Why didn’t you address me? he said, still staring at the blank television.

What are you talking about?

When you called, why didn’t you say, Hi Dad?

Are you serious? I called to tell you I was coming back.

I lay down on the couch perpendicular to him and stared at the ceiling. 

Look at me when I’m talking to you, he said.

I counted the ridges in the pale yellow lamp above me.

 

Look at me, he said.

Why are you making such a big deal out of this? I said.

He stood up and walked out of the room, slamming the door.

They didn’t bring democracy. The Brits brought Christianity and opium when they came to Hong Kong. At some point in his life, my Confucian father became a Christian. Astronaut children visit Hong Kong in the summers. On Sunday mornings, my father knocks on my door. Continuously, he knocks on my door. I tell him to stop. I’m awake. He leaves for church without saying a word to me. On the table, there is takeout from Café de Coral, a Cantonese fast-food chain downstairs. It is humid and hot, and the takeout container is made of polystyrene foam. The container is white, and the bread inside is wet and saggy. His silence is also pressure. I must eat the food quickly. When I finish eating, I must make my way to the subway station. I must be at church.

I plan on staying in Shenzhen on Sundays.


Later, our narrator is in Hangzhou, learning about Guan Daosheng, who is widely considered the greatest female painter in Chinese history. Guan writes in her husband’s studio, nine years before her death, this inscription for one of her paintings:

To play with brush and ink is a masculine sort of thing to do, yet I made this painting. Wouldn’t someone say that I have transgressed? How despicable, how despicable.

The painting is titled Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain. Though this is the greatest female Chinese painter in history, she has only one authenticated painting surviving today, our narrator tells us. Out of curiosity, our narrator looks up how many of Guan’s husband’s, Zhao Mengfu’s, paintings remain. She learns that his works are collected around the world.

Can there be beauty in the silence that results from violence? Do chauvinists, colonizers and men with Confucius values care for the emptiness that exists in art? Probably not. Oppressors see emptiness and silence as a kind of submission. Pik-Shuen Fung knows this as well. When our narrator’s father visits her in Hangzhou, he remarks, “I think there is something wrong with you that you’re making art like this,” when he sees Ghost Forest, the 寫意 painting she is working on.

But despite all of this, our narrator remains infinitely generous. She believes in love. On one of her visits to Hong Kong, she tells her father that she loves him. Her father eventually tells her that he loves her as well. There is also self-reflection. “Many people do whatever society tells them to do,” says our narrator’s father. “They’ve lost themselves. I grew up with Confucian values, and they are limiting. I focused only on work and making a living. But I’m old now. Remember not to lose who you are.” 


Twenty-one days after my dad died, a bird perched on the railing of my balcony. It was brown. It stayed there for a long time. Hi, Dad, I said. Thanks for checking up on me. I lay down on the couch and read some emails on my phone. When I looked up again, the bird was gone.

By the end of Ghost Forest, all that is left unsaid, all the quietness and all that is empty is filled with familial love. In Ghost Forest’s silence, we are at peace. 


By the end of Ghost Forest, all that is left unsaid, all the quietness and all that is empty is filled with familial love.


Astronaut families continue to exist. In 2021, 24 years into the 50-year plan, after two mass protests and the passing of the National Security Law, up to a million people are expected to leave the Special Administrative Region. Some even believe that it would be better if Hong Kong becomes a colony again. But wanting to re-become a colony is forgetting Britain’s violent history. It is colonial amnesia.

In Shanghai, after recovering from choking on the bone at five in the morning, I wonder if it is the right decision to return to Southern China for work. But shortly after, I stop wondering. “We are here because you were there”—this phrase is coined by A. Sivanandan to describe the phenomenon of postcolonial migration. Right and wrong have nothing to do with anything. British colonialism and Chinese authoritarian capitalism instituted political and economic systems that render life difficult for many Hong Kongers. We are people from a former colony designed for finance and trade. Taxes are low in Hong Kong. One can, in theory, make a lot of money. But what’s the point? Hong Kong remains the most unaffordable place to live on earth. It also expires. Public housing is limited. Because of all of this, those who can afford it prefer to move their children abroad. Young people born before 1997 are now moving to the UK, leaving their parents behind. Some with stable careers remain here to work while their partners and children live elsewhere. From the age of five to 15, I live in Hong Kong with my parents until I am sent to boarding school in Niagara. More than half of the students living in the dormitory are Hong Kongese.


When I finish reading Ghost Forest, it is quiet in this part of Shanghai. Somewhere far away, someone honks their horn. Downstairs from my hotel room is a gymnasium; on its roof, a couple is playing tennis.



Sheung-King Aaron Tang’s debut novel, You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked., is a finalist for the 2021 Canada First Novel Award, longlisted for Canada Reads 2021, and named one of the best book debuts by the Globe and Mail. Sheung-King taught creative writing at the University of Guelph and is now the creative writing coach at Avenues: The World School, Shenzhen. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph.

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