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May 13, 2024

Old Sugar 8

By Barbara Rendall


The next morning, the morning of lazy New Year's Day, with the traditional misty skies and the quiet streets thickly strewn with red firecracker papers, Grandma insisted on helping him move his things over to "Old China." He had told Aunt Cookie he didn't want to take up room in her house, especially with people dropping in over the holiday, but actually he was dying for a hot shower. The Sugarmans' ample guest bathroom loomed large in his mind. Also, his supply of clean clothes had run out, and he'd noticed a clothes washer and a dryer in the back of their kitchen. So he loaded his suitcase and several shopping bags filled with parcels from Cookie for Nancy and Morrie onto Granny's cart. When he started to push it, Granny brushed his hands away from the big metal bar, insisting she would "drive."

Trevor was afraid of what the neighbors might think, seeing him walking along as she pushed, but Cookie laughed.

"Don't worry. Everyone in the village knows how Granny loves her cart!"

Trevor asked Granny if she knew the Sugarmans' place. "Old China!" she grumbled as they made their way down the narrow alley toward the riverside road. "Old China -- with a fancy American stove and a refrigerator as big as a truck!"

Granny had been happy when she heard he had a job with the Sugarmans and would be staying in the village for a while, but she seemed to be wary of the Americans themselves. Last night when Nancy had come to dinner, she'd brought with her what she guessed was a small antique kitchen tool that had been in an old cupboard she and Morrie had bought, and she wanted to ask Granny what it might be. But instead of being pleased, or at least intrigued, to see some relic of the days of her youth, Granny had just stared stonily at the wood and metal gadget, then brushed it aside with a few abrupt words.

"What did she say?" Nancy asked, puzzled, slowly returning the offending object to her large brocade bag.

"Er -- " Trevor had replied, searching for an English equivalent that wouldn't be quite so rude. "Basically something like, 'Don't put that in my face.'"

Reactions like that often made him wonder exactly what his grandmother's girlhood had been like. Maybe she'd had to spend too much time in kitchens. She had shared with her grandchildren one story about "the old times" that made him understand why she might be a little suspicious of foreigners. She'd told them how after all the wars and destruction, the Americans had sent crates of relief supplies to Chinese villages where the Japanese had left them with nothing.

"Nothing!" she told them. "When I say nothing, I mean nothing. You don't even know what nothing means!"

Packed in along with the rice and tinned food there had been hard yellow blocks of something the villagers had assumed was soap, but when they tried to wash their clothes with it, the results were disastrous. Only later did they find out it was a disgusting sort of food that foreigners call "cheese."

"Rotten stuff!" Granny had called it. "How could they do that to us?"

Trevor figured she must be thinking of that every time she saw Nancy and Morrie.

"They're good people, Old Sugar and his wife," Trevor said to her now. "They love Macao, and their shop is good for the village. It brings in lots of customers."

"Customers" had always been a sacred word to Granny when she'd run her shop.

"They're all right," she agreed, leaning into the cart with her tiny frame, pushing it slowly but steadily over the slightly uneven paving stones of the alley. "But they're gweilos. They come too close. And they're soft, and they make you soft. You -- " She looked sideways at him and poked him in the middle of his chest with one of her crooked little fingers -- "You need to be hard to succeed. What did I always tell you?"

His mind went over the endless things she had told him all his life: Wash your face or people will think you're a beggar. Comb your hair or they'll lock you up like a crazy person. Don't look across the water or you'll be shot. "What, Granny?"

"Remember? Hard candy! Hard candy lasts longer! And now you're finding that's true, right?"

"Er -- I guess so."

She gave him a little sideways grin, with a glint of gold. Then she banged his shoulder with one small fist as she kept on pushing her cart with the other hand.

While most people in the village slept off their late night of eating and setting off fireworks, Trevor settled his few things in his new room and shared a lunch of Cookie's leftover dumplings with Nancy and Morrie. But it was agreed he would usually eat his main meal at Cookie's and he was going to pay her. He had decided to maintain a certain amount of independence from both his employers and his family. He felt Granny would approve.

After lunch, Starry and Kuan Kuan came by. It seemed a walk had been arranged by Nancy, and his cousins were looking for relief from the holiday boredom that seemed to be setting in already. The Sugarmans wanted to visit the little Kun Iam temple down the shore from the village. It had recently been restored. They paid close attention to all such projects in Macao and seemed to know more about them than most local people.

Nancy and Morrie walked ahead on the road that led out of the village, wearing their L. L. Bean walking boots and their matching sun hats, and they carried long walking sticks made of a bamboo laundry pole Morrie had sawed in two. Privately the villagers joked that they looked like two characters out of Journey to the West and amused each other suggesting which ones. Nevertheless, Starry and Kuan Kuan imitated them by carrying crooked branches of dead wood they found along the way.

"Very European!" Starry declared. "Like walking in the Alps." She had found an ancient copy of Heidi in the school library and had read it with deep fascination. "Can you yodel?" she asked Morrie as they turned onto the dirt trail that led them above the river and around the bend to the sunny side of the island, and the open view of the South China Sea.

"Well, I could try," he answered, amused. "But it might start our village dogs howling."

"The things you know about, Starry!" exclaimed Nancy. She shifted the big handle of the antique brass-bound box she was carrying from one hand to the other. Morrie wore a bulky backpack and carried a large cloth bag with what looked like squares of carpet in it.

Trevor wondered what exactly they had with them, and what lay ahead, but didn't ask. These foreigners' ways of experiencing his own country kept surprising him. In fact, he was enjoying how each day of his New Year holiday held something new, like a neatly boxed gift. It was just the way he had thought holidays should be when he'd been a kid, but they had usually taken a bad turn sometime during the day when his mother got bored or irritated. He and his brother had often been left to their own devices since it hadn't been so easy to get out to the family in the village back then.

The little temple wasn't far. They had only to follow one of the main smugglers' paths a little way toward Cheok Wan beach and then turn down a set of stone steps descending through jungly green growth toward the wide spread of water where the West River ran into the South China Sea. The day was as perfect as it could be in January, the month that, all along the South China coast, tipped back and forth between raw, damp winter and balmy spring. Today was verging on spring, which was why Nancy and Morrie had seized the opportunity for a walk, and Trevor was glad he had come.

The sky was pure blue, the temperature a perfect twenty, and the air light and breathable. Any time now the damp, cold, foggy weather of the brief winter would close in, and when the season turned again it would grow warmer and warmer with a heavy humidity that made outdoor exercise an endurance test. So good days in January were the best days of the year.

On either side of the stairway, bushes were weighted with flowers in full bloom, big red ones like trumpets, small, dense ones of different shades of pink, and there were some of those big trees that put out huge scarlet flowers as big as plates on their completely bare branches, before the green leaves even come.

What a beautiful part of the world this is, he thought for the first time in his life. And you wouldn't know anything about it if you never left the city. He wondered what his ex-girlfriend Sherrade would have thought of it, if he'd brought her here. She loved beautiful things. But there probably would have been too much dirt for her -- not to mention too much walking.

He only vaguely remembered this temple the Sugarmans wanted to visit from his childhood explorations along the shore. Because they were coming on it from above, the first thing they saw was the small, ridged, moss-covered tile roof and, just below its eaves, on the fresh white walls, the newly painted decorative borders of flowers and birds. The smell of burning incense sticks wove its way up through the leaves of the trees. As they drew closer, Trevor could see that the tiny square building was firmly supported on three sides by huge boulders, and these were thickly overgrown with the roots of the old banyan trees that surrounded it. The roots grasped the rocks like hundreds of long, thin, determined fingers, and the tops of the trees made a green roof above the temple and the little walled terrace in front of it. The whole small complex overlooked the sea. Several smaller terraces were set into the hill on both sides of the temple, each with a circular stone table and little round stools cemented to the paving stones. Everything looked fixed and rooted in this sheltered spot, as if it had grown there.

Nancy set her antique carrier down on the table with the best view and sighed with satisfaction as she looked out over the blue water, the bluer islands of China, and the soft, pale sky that stretched above it all.

"At home, these flowers would all be in pots!" she said with amazement, gesturing at the blossoming bushes that grew right up to the side of the temple. "Just one or two blooms per pot -- 'tropical plants'!" she laughed.

Trevor realized this was true. What was special and carefully cultivated in the west grew wild here, all over the fences and right up to the doors of abandoned hovels. He remembered how Mrs. Molly Morehead had a plant in the sunny window of her dining room that put out only one or two blooms every year. She got all excited when this happened and invited him in to see it, telling him it had some relation to the part of the world he came from. He hadn't paid too much attention at the time and didn't quite understand what the fuss was about.

"What we really like about this particular temple," Old Sugarman said, turning instructively to the three young people," is the way it just fits the hill. Do you see that?" he asked them, and Trevor, Starry, and even Kuan Kuan looked where he pointed. "It looks like it's always been right here in this spot, so you feel like you just have to believe in whatever it means."

They nodded obediently, looking with varying degrees of comprehension at the rocks and the decorated walls that hovered over them. Trevor noted that someone had even painted the jointed clay drainpipes green to resemble bamboo stalks.

"Who needs to study religion," Morrie continued, "when all you have to do is sit here for a while and simply look. Everything falls into place."

Trevor felt slightly embarrassed. No one he knew had ever asked him to think about these things before. But Starry looked alert and interested. Kuan Kuan looked restless, as if sorely regretting that Starry had made him leave his new electronic game at home.

"It's a perfect place for tea," Nancy added brightly, reading Kuan Kuan's face. "We could sit here all day at this time of year -- and sometimes we do. We bring our books and a snack and watch the sun go down behind Mountain Island."

Then she took the carpet pieces from Morrie's bag and made soft, inviting places for them all out of the cold stone stools, and Morrie pulled a big thermos of hot water out of his pack. Then Nancy opened her complicated lacquer tea basket with its brass fittings, gold designs, and neatly devised compartments for every item required for making tea, and she began to brew a pot.

Trevor watched her careful motions and began to wonder if there wasn't something odd about all this. Here were these Americans in their Chinese holiday outfits -- Nancy wore a wool jacket with red silk knotted fastenings and a longevity character embroidered on the back, and Morrie had on his old man's coat again -- hauling an antique carrier with them so they could have jasmine tea under a tree on New Year's Day. Maybe they were overdoing it a bit, as his grandmother had warned. Trying too hard, coming too close to a world that wasn't theirs.

But on the other hand, he and Starry and Kuan Kuan were wearing, respectively, a Manchester United sweatshirt, a Scottish kilt, and a Mickey Mouse zip-up jacket, and they would have actually preferred, as refreshment, a few cans of soft drinks and a bag of chips. In a way, these foreigners were more Chinese than he and his cousins were, and they had almost as much to teach his cousins and himself about their own culture as their grandmother did.

But that's the way the world is becoming now, he realized. No matter how much Granny might resist the idea, people were coming closer. And who could criticize the Sugarmans for what they did, or for what they loved? They brought business to the island, and how many people in the village ever dragged all the way out here to drink tea and enjoy the view? It wasn't like it was a bad thing to do.

For the first time in his life, Trevor felt a sense of time, of history, everything moving along, developing around him, weaving itself into a story. Suddenly, life seemed an intensely interesting process.

Nancy was setting out exquisite little artifacts of his own culture in front of him on the stone tabletop -- tiny porcelain cups of steaming tea, a woven box that held small oranges, and two other boxes of sweets: little pink glutinous rice confections in the shape of roses, and an assortment of candies. Kuan Kuan's eyes grew wide when he saw the sweets, and Starry had a look of calm, blissful satisfaction on her face, as if she were thinking, yes, this is how life should be, every day.

"There's everything," pronounced Nancy. "Drink up while it's hot." She lifted her own tea cup with the tips of the fingers of both hands and smiled around the table at them all, as if something wonderful had been achieved. "It's just like being in a Chinese landscape painting, isn't it? We're those tiny people you always see drinking tea under a tree."

Kuan Kuan reached hesitantly toward the candies but Starry checked him with something of Cookie's quickness. "Wait to be asked!"

"Take some, take some," urged Nancy, offering them around. "They're so good with tea."

Trevor's eyes focused on the bright wrappers that had been calling for his attention ever since she had opened the box: Red and white. A humpbacked bridge. Before he even reached out to take one, the taste of coconut was on his tongue.

"Where did you find these?" he asked slowly.

"These?" replied Nancy, glad to be giving pleasure, but denying any special effort -- as if what she had managed to bring about was only the slightest bit magical. "They're everywhere," she assured him.

-- Barbara Rendall

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-02-21
1 Reader Comments
09:53:29 PM
"...a sense of time, of history, everything moving along, developing around him, weaving itself into a story. Suddenly, life seemed an intensely interesting process." Yes! Grand way to put that into words!

I loved this story. It made me want to travel, to meet each character in person, to become part of the culture. Brava!
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