Category Archives: Jonathan Wu

Quo Vadis?

During World War II, my grandfather was stationed on a remote mountain in The Middle of Nowhere, China to work with a group of Chinese trainees. Being in the downtown of oblivion, the night times grew to be extremely dark, pitch black. The only source of light for the soldiers during nightfall was a small oil lamp located in the center of the group of tents that made up their base. Flashlights were out of the question since the military at the time was tight with their checkbook.

At the foot of the mountain was a grave site in which all the bones within the graves had been dug out and transferred to another area. This was done so that if anyone was to come and attack their camp upon the mountain, they would first have to go through this mass area with a myriad of six feet deep ditches. During the day, walking past this area was not too much of a hassle, maybe just a few goosebumps. But when the night steadily came, walking through the empty graves became more problematic as the darkness induced the worst from one’s imagination, there was the chance of accidentally falling in and getting injured, and did I mention it was dark?

As a young translator then, my grandfather was a man of the faith. Because of his convictions, he found it necessary for himself to join a Bible study group that met together at the foot of the mountain just someways past the graveyard. The Bible study was once a week and started when all the soldiers were finished with their responsibilities, when the sun was still out, and ended when the night had fallen. Though these studies gave my grandfather great insight and a sense of community and comfort under a tense and precarious context, it presented the conundrum of returning to camp. My grandfather had two choices, he could, with his horse drawn wagon, take an exceedingly long trek along a path that wrapped around the mountain thus returning to base overly tired and late in the night or he could take a direct route through the devilish dark graveyard turned defense mechanism. On most nights, my grandfather chose to brave through the latter.

In order to return to base via the defense mechanism, it required courage. The mind had to fight against its own imagination. One had to travel on his horse drawn wagon s-l-o-w-l-y trying, hoping to avoid falling into the ditches. But most importantly, there was the guiding light in the center of camp. You had to no matter what – wading through the darkness, running from your warring imagination, watching out for ditches – follow that light.

And now, after more than sixty years since living in that camp, my grandfather still ruminates on how he needed that dinky little oil lamp, his guiding light. How he needed to follow it carefully wit his full attention. And how he is still following it.

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What Got Us Through

The craft of street hanging is – in my humble and probably narrow opinion – a lost art. Street hanging is not equivalent to street loitering. Loitering is for lazy and feeble decision makers unwilling to settle down in a cafe or bar wandering aimlessly through the streets. Whereas the hanger intentionally wanders in the streets in a way that some would describe as “aimless,” but in reality it’s just that the hanger is making the streets his cafe, his bar, his club, his whatever he wants it to be in the deep of the night.

The art of it is to find a tenebrous hideout in which the cops won’t bother you – pointlessly asking for your IDs, padding you down head to crotch region to toes, and searching your bag. Camera. Cell Phone. Ipod. On the Road; where there will be the least amount of human traffic giving you condescending stares; and a hideout in which there’s a good spot to take a piss break when needed – a location private enough yet close enough so that you won’t have to work to go do your business. But the golden rule is, no money is spent on the place – only on your habits and the traveling.

To street hangers, 7-Eleven is heaven. A park bench is luxurious. An ex-fighter pilot coming to talk to you for a few months every time you’re at your haven, telling stories of being in the British army is interesting. The same ex-fighter pilot showing you naked pictures on his cell phone of girls he hooked up with in China over the weekend while on a “business trip” is repugnant, distasteful and calls for excommunication. Having someone unknown join the night is exasperating. The baggage of tristesse is always brought to but never brought back – at least by you. The time between late night and early morning is the functioning day and the functioning day is the night. Street lights are our suns, our stars. The security camera that scopes out the pissing area along the fence is big brother. Sleepless trains and buses are companions of comfort. Conversations are always deep and almost always forgotten. Reticence is non-existent.

The hangers are a brother and sister hood. The hanging is an immature rebellious movement, it is therapy.

It is what I believe got us through.

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What the Fork.

Above: My Grandpa, Cheung Ching.

Translations of Fictitious Journal Entries

loosely based on a true love story

Dear Work Report,

I am relieved. My work is done. After three arduous years, I believe I have finally convinced Mrs. Leung that Cheung Ching is the right man for her daughter. I think Mrs. Leung was completely sold on the idea when I told her Cheung Ching spoke English and conversed with an English man yesterday when I was spying on him at work. Well, at least I think he was having a conversation with him – I’m a matchmaker, I can’t be responsible to know such things. The foreigner said something to him and Cheung started moving his mouth quite frantically and took out every fork that was on the Sincere Department Store catalogue. At the end of his feverish oral movements, the foreigner nodded, looked at the various forks and pointed at one and walked away looking satisfied. When I summarized that to Mrs. Leung, she looked to so blissful, like some bomb filled with happy ready to explode, I knew I didn’t need to say anymore.

So now that all that’s finished. I hope they’ll get married soon. Mrs. Leung has such picky taste; I don’t want to go through the whole process of finding someone she sees “potential” in again.

– Ms. Matchmaker, July 14

*

Dear Diary,

What a wonderful day! I’ve been dreaming of Red, Red, Red! I’ve started the dowry list! I’ve gotten my calendar out to figure out that special day when all the luck, love, and prosperity will flourish! My mouth waters to taste the tea that will be given to me by my daughter and her groom! What a mystical elation my heart feels!

I had a meeting with my beautiful daughter’s matchmaker to hear of the report she had promised to give me today of Cheung Ching, the young Sincere Department Store salesman from Hong Kong, and what a report! on top of his professionalism, the matchmaker said he was charming and most impressive all – he was speaking English to a foreign customer! Imagine that, my future son-in-law can communicate with the foreign world! There’s no doubt that he’ll go far in this long and treacherous life. According to the matchmaker he was having lucid conversation with a foreigner about forks! His linguistic ability has won me over ten fold!

The report was told to me over tea today and just exhilarated me. So much so, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening daydreaming about the marriage that will inevitably happen now. I’m glad Cheung Ching has redeemed himself. I mean, you have to understand as being part of a family which owns one of the largest cow-bone-fertilizer companies in Macau, I had my doubts about this boy. He comes from a penurious background and spent the two years prior to his salesman job being pretty much a slave to some unknown architect. Do you know how embarrassing it was to tell people that a slave was courting my daughter? Because of Cheung Ching’s status, I was the butt of all jokes around the mah jong table. It was utterly mortifying. It had gotten to the point where I was going to either blow up in front of my friends and lose face or break that courteous boy’s heart and tell him to give up the chase and I’m quite well known to be one who often shows equanimity, so lucky for Cheung for getting that salesman job. That boy has really gotten onto his two feet.

Though I have only seen Cheung Ching alone from a distance and from his visits to our family home here in Macau, ┬áhe has made a strong impression on me. He seems to be a hard worker maybe even fit to take over our fertilizing business when my husband and I grow old! He’ll learn the trade of crushing cow bones and using the remnants of that to maker fertilizer. What peacefulness my heart feels now that such a competent suitor is courting my daughter!

– (My grandmother’s mother’s name), July 14

*

Dear Journal,

The pit of hell has broken past the mantle of the earth and is swallowing me whole. I cannot lift my face to look at myself in the mirror . I will die alone. I have brought disgrace to my family forevermore and more. I will die alone. The fates have decided. I cannot retaliate. My gaff has left me loveless. What am I to do?

Having worked at Sincere now for almost a year, of all days why did that foreigner decide to ask me something? I can’t even write down what he asked me since I have no idea what he even said to me! Those guys never come up to me. They know better than that. If you’re foreign, you always go to the manager or at least othe person who looks like he can speak English.

Worst of all, this paled skinned freak caught me by surprise. I was daydreaming about next week when I’ll be taking an overnight ferry to see the love of my life in Macau. Then all of a sudden this foreigner comes up to me asking about gods know what. I frantically mumble sounds I thought meant, “I don’t understand.” But obviously I wasn’t communicating that since he kept talking to me, so I looked around hoping to find the manager, but no one was near me! It’s gets worse. As I looked around, I was quite certain I saw a glimpse of the matchmaker hiding behind a display in the bedding department, which is right across from the cutlery department where I work.

In the rush of things, I suddenly heard the foreigner say the magic word, “fork.” The architect I used to assist from some european country, I forget, was a voracious eater and always asked me to help him get his forks for him. After hearing the foreigner say that exact same word as the architect, I went right to work taking out every single fork in the cutlery department saying, “very nice” with my thumb up to every fork I took out. I was trying my best to smile and stay composed, but any fool would have been able to tell how ridiculous I looked. Thank goodness the manager didn’t show up, he would probably killed me for taking everything out. Luckily, I guessed right, the foreigner did want forks. He eventually picked a set and said something along the lines of “geelee gooloo.” After he finished saying whatever he was saying, I bowed like a small child bowing in front of parents at a piano recital. Why did I bow?! No one bows anymore! Why did I bow?! Stupid.

Oh the dread. I’m just waiting for the poison to begin its work. For that judge to slam the hammer down and sentence me an undeserved death. What havoc and embarrassment when the matchmaker goes and reports what she saw to Mrs. Leung, god knows she already hates me. I better start making plans to do something productive next week since I doubt Mrs. Leung will want me to see her daughter ever again.

– Cheung Ching, July 14


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Ode to the Folk Song

Inspired by the scanning of the vast deserts and beautiful pasturelands of Israel. Actually putting it down from mind to pen to paper while sitting in a tent of the Bedouin desert people as couples were roaming in the outside darkness doing god knows what, while others were fast asleep and slightly snoring, and the rest in another section of the tent making a raucous while playing slap jack:

The folk song is as its name suggests – for the folk, the common man, the hustler, your everyday bob (unless you are Bob Dylan or Bob the Builder, in which case you are not very common). It is an organic entity like the organic vegetables at the supermarket, but without the smugness organic vegetables are often associated with. It is from the ground and from it springs life. It touches the soul, the mind, the body in a U2-arena-rock-moment way, but with way less volume and much more substance – most of the time. It is the song nature would produce if the mountains had lungs, the trees had mouths, the rivers had drumsticks, if the blades of grass had hands, the stones had fiddles.

Sitting on a rambling tour bus bustling through the landscapes that Israel has to offer and listening to the album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, I cannot help but think about how integral the folk song is to bringing the beauty of the landscape to places where such beauty is lacking and how integral the landscape is to the folk song. As the renown architect critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, once said:

“The nature of the land must be the generator of the architect’s work.”

In the same way, the land is the sustainer of the folk song. Because if the folk song is of the common man and woman, what would happen to it if the earth lacked its inhabitants? It would just be “song” and the purpose of this rambling on would be pointlessness (maybe it already is). The land sustains the main focus and also the inspiration of the folk song. In return, the folk song sings to you, whispering little secrets of love, life, loss – but without forgetting the grace of which it came from.

Hip Hop was birthed from the city, pop from the minds of business executives, punk from dirty sticker filled clubs, and folk was from the fields, the mountain peaks, the springs of abundance bound for glory.

No matter how high off the ground you go, people ultimately feel safer when near the ground. And it is the fact that the folk song is of the ground┬áthat it represents the core of the human spirit. Why is it that people love acoustic versions and performances of songs originally not of acoustic origins? It is a step closer to the heart of things – to what the folk song is. It is concrete, stable, and trustworthy. It is your friend, your conscience, your music.

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