“It looks good, we’re on target”; these were the reassuring words spoken by my doctor that Tuesday morning in small a nondescript consultation room in the Department of Surgery of Hong Kong's Queen Mary Hospital on one of my weekly check-ups following my six-week stay and operation for heart disease in the Sun Yat-Sen Cardiovascular Hospital located in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen to the north of the Hong Kong territory. The statement referred to the result of a blood test taken earlier that morning, and specifically to the index for blood coagulation. Ever since my operation one month previously I had been dutifully ingesting a dose of small blood-thinning tablets to secure a smooth, un-clotted flow of blood through the brand new mechanical heart valves that had been installed in my operation. I could now look forward to taking these pills till the end of my days.
Looking back, indications that something was wrong began to occur about seven months before this Tuesday morning, when I started to experience unusual fatigue, a loss of appetite, and a consequent plummeting of my weight which meant I lost about one fourth of my body mass. Also I had developed fever in the evening tide as well as frequent night sweats, which were hard to account for as we were going through the coolest months in the year, and this year they were unusually cold.This situation worsened progressively as I went for months happily, and stupidly, ignoring these alarming symptoms. That is until one day, at the end of April, when I was invited up to Shenzhen to work as a judge in an English speech contest. My wife had chosen to accompany me that day, and at the end of the event, during which I had struggled to sit erect and keep my focus through 21 well-crafted but hardly inspired speeches, and everyone I knew had exclaimed ‘Wow! You’re so thin!’, she pushed me into a taxi and demanded to be taken to the Shenzhen branch of the Hong Kong University Hospital to learn the reason for my manifest, and now very public, demise.
In the hospital I was admitted into the respiratory department, and the following morning we knew exactly what the problem was. A blood culture had shown a systemic infection with bacteria in my bloodstream. The culprit, it was determined, was the bacterium gram positive, a rod-shaped bacterium that appears, strikingly and unmistakably, purple-coloured when observed through a microscope; The bacterium was named after the Danish bacteriologist Hans Christian Joachim Gram (1853-1938), a professor of medicine at the University of Copenhagen, who as several biographers have pointed out was an exceptionally modest man (he opened his initial publication with the words “I have published the method, although I am aware that as yet it is very defective and imperfect; but it is hoped that also in the hands of other investigators it will turn out to be useful.”), and who proceeded by examinations so detailed and meticulous that they caused his students and assistants to lose patience with him, though they all had nothing but the highest respect for his principle of thorough clinical grounding. Professor Gram pioneered a now standard method for staining and classifying types of bacteria, and as the crown of his illustrious medical career he had this tiny bacterium named after him that was now rushing through my veins. A subsequent ultrasound scan revealed that the gram bacteria had settled as an accretion of bacterial matter on the inner surface of the heart, where it had already wreaked an inordinate amount of damage to the heart valves. I recall looking, shocked and incredulous, at the doctor’s ultrasound recording, that showed the growth, what the doctor termed a vegetation, which most resembled a broccoli with an elongated stem, being tossed hither and thither as the diligent heart valve dutifully went about its work of enabling the flow of blood through the heart and preventing backflow, seemingly oblivious of the alien growth that had planted itself on top of it. As I sat looking at the ominous black and white recording of the dancing vegetation I was amazed that it could stay attached, and I was at least open to the argument, put forward by several doctors in the days that followed, that it might not for much longer, and that to have it enter the bloodstream and very possibly block the aorta or lodge in the brain could prove enormously counterproductive.
I remember returning from the ultrasound department to my room in the respiratory ward when a young female doctor met for the first time approached me and, completely unbidden and without introducing herself first, had the audacity to utter the words, which of course turned out to be entirely accurate, but which nonetheless sent a chill down my spine, that my heart was badly damaged and I would probably need heart surgery. At that moment, the statement seemed to me frivolous, unnecessarily theatrical, and quite frankly in poor taste. Who was this individual to blatantly convey to me such a dismal message and with what authority? I was still naively hopeful that a treatment – a major bombardment – with antibiotics might eradicate the bacterial growth. Well, naïve perhaps, but dreams cost nothing. I was immediately transferred to the cardiac department of the Hong Kong Hospital, conveniently located on the floor above respiratory, where the doctor said they would recommend surgery but also that I transfer to the Sun Yat-Sen Cardiovascular Hospital in Nanshan district where they had better expertise to perform the heart surgery required.
That same evening, having been transferred by ambulance to the Sun Yat-Sen hospital and admitted into my room and duly changed into the blue-striped hospital clothes that are an almost exact replica of the garments worn by the inmates of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp during the Holocaust, clearly a timeless design, I found myself in a new bed, looking up at a team of doctors, led by doctors Wei and Wang with their junior following. On the side of my bed stood my wife and now also my sister, who without a moment’s hesitation and on the advice of her doctor friend (“you need to pack your suitcase now! Your brother needs you.”) had booked a flight ticket the previous day from Copenhagen to Hong Kong. The message from the team was clear and unmistakable. First, that they had studied the result of ultrasound examination and MRI scans and concluded that an operation was not just absolutely necessary but also urgent. Second, that my condition is known as infective endocarditis, and that it came with a 25% risk of death, which increased to a full 100% if left untreated. And, third, that I would have to decide if I wanted organic or mechanical heart valves inserted. Infective endocarditis… infective endocarditis… Dr Wei pronounced the term with such breath-taking rapidity it suggested to me it was a term of medical jargon they threw about every day. When I tried to pronounce it with my untrained tongue, it would never come out right. Naturally we were taken aback by these announcements. For one thing, I had a deficit of trust in Chinese hospitals; up to this point I had generally found that it’s easier to be prejudiced against Chinese doctors because it saves you the trouble of having to make up your mind each time you meet one. Open heart surgery conducted in a Chinese hospital was not high up on my wish list; in fact, it was not even on it at all. And how could we possibly make a qualified decision on the matter of mechanical heart valves versus organic ones, which I assumed would be taken from pigs. What further complicated this last question was that I, admittedly a person of very few principles, had at least two principles that I had managed to stick to with some consistency up to this moment, and these now caused me some perplexity. The first was to have as few metal objects as possible absorbed into my body, and the second was to cut down on my consumption of meat, notably pork. But on the other hand, my odds if I decided not to undergo treatment seemed decidedly unattractive. Both my wife and my sister, the latter jetlagged and entirely out of her comfort zone, managed to keep a calm head and consulted their contacts in the medical world; the message received from Denmark corroborated what was already said by the Chinese doctors; heart surgery was indeed necessary and it would probably be smartest to have it done in China (‘actually in China they have gotten quite good at these sort of things.’). At hourly intervals the doctors returned to my room to ask if I had made up my mind; pressure was on! My first inclination was to return to my home country to have the operation done, close to my family, in a place with noted excellence in heart surgery and where communication with hospital staff would be easy and uncomplicated, but this possibility was dismissed by doctors Wei and Wang with a synchronised shaking of their heads and overbearing smiles: A 10-12 hour long-haul flight inside a pressurised cabin was not what I needed at this stage, they would simply not allow it. Suddenly one image which I must have kept in some compartment of my memory flashed by; as a young boy I once travelled in a holiday with my parents to London and I took a sip of my bottled water at cruising altitude, then put the cap back on and sealed the plastic bottle; it had crushed and crumbled on descent as our aeroplane approached sea level. Figuring that the same principles of reduced atmospheric pressure might apply to my own body at some level, so to speak, I was prepared to accept the position that flying was a bad idea. The doctors also ruled out, gently but firmly and, this time the entire team of doctors with the same synchronised shaking of the head, the possibility that the antibiotic treatment I had already started in Hong Kong University Hospital might successfully work to eradicate the bacterial growth. So, the decision was made to have the procedure done, the requisite consent forms were completed with a request for mechanical heart valves, which the doctors ensured me would be good for the next approximately fifty years of my life, as opposed to the fifteen years of the organic valves. The nurse who instructed us in this stage of the procedure noted my obvious apprehension and remarked ‘Don’t worry. The doctors do this all the time’, a remark which, when viewed in a certain light was a positive statement, and one obviously intended to calm my nerves, which it did. The operation was scheduled for 8 am the following day, a Monday morning.
Thus for the first time in my life I felt that I had been visited by my own mortality. According to the leading Dr Wei my case of infective endocarditis was categorised as a heart failure, which of course sounded alarming enough, though I had to assume that, as a diagnostic term, ‘heart failure’ comprised a scale, at the end stage of which would be a failed heard, i.e. a heart that had stopped pumping blood, which clearly and demonstrably was not the point we were at. “you may die from this”, was the matter-of-fact statement which made complete sense to my objective understanding: I could study the results of my various examinations and note that objectively things looked awry, I could fact-check my condition online, read about the mortality rate and the surgical procedure that awaited me. But this objective or theoretical understanding was not where I resided. To my subjective awareness, however, the doctors’ worrying pronouncements were unnecessarily alarmist and really rather bothersome. Above all, they seemed to me irrelevant for I still could not feel I was in any imminent danger. The communications from doctors to me and wife and sister were understood but they continued to feel like they didn't relate to me directly. Whatever Latin jargon was served up by the doctors was all taken cum grano salis. My heart pumped strongly, I had seen it, in fact I had found the sight quite touching of my own dear heart valves diligently carrying out their work, while providing a platform for a surreal dancing vegetation. The heart is a resilient muscular organ; it gets on with it! One cannot feel a vulgar and nonsentient bacterial growth upon the heart. Even if my life was in some degree of danger, I certainly could not feel it. I lived entirely in this subjective space of understanding, or more accurately of disbelief.
I speculated that even if the clump of bacteria had suddenly detached itself from the heart and was being rushed around the cardiovascular system I probably would not have felt anything, and death might have been sudden and painless. Perhaps. And perhaps it would not be the worst way to go; similar maybe to a person dying from a stroke or a pulmonary embolism while enjoying a comedy on TV, while bending over to collect droppings from one’s dog while out for a walk, or while sitting down to organise a stamp collection. Or similar, I thought, to a life being extinguished suddenly by a lightning that strikes from above. Much later, as I was flipping through old newspapers, I discovered that this was precisely what happened to a young man who died in Hong Kong the very same Monday that I was operated on in Shenzhen, a rainy and dismal day. At 12.45 pm, about an hour after my operation was completed, and at the moment when I was transported from the operating theatre to the intensive care unit of the Sun Yat-Sen Hospital where I was slowly regaining my senses as I emerged from general anesthesia, an 18-year-old recent graduate from the South Island School in Aberdeen on Hong Kong Island, while hiking with six friends along a section of the MacLehose Trail in the beautiful Ma On Shan Country Park, was struck by an enormous electric current from one of the 568 lightning strikes that were reported between noon and 1 pm in a thunderstorm over the eastern New Territories. Unconscious and not breathing, he was flown by helicopter to the Pamela Youde Hospital, where attempts to resuscitate him failed and he was declared dead at 2.15 pm, while I was asleep. Did this man, I wondered, have a premonition of his own death? Was he somehow aware that the ground beneath his feet was about to split open as he sat down that morning, an entirely ordinary morning and ate an entirely ordinary breakfast? Death, I understand, can sometimes give advance warning of its arrival, and so maybe he knew or sensed that his brief light was almost spent, this young individual released into history for all too brief a spell.
Being an amateur of my own life I have always been spectacularly unreflective, unphilosophical one might say, on the subject of death. I suppose I have always believed that I would come to mortal awareness at some stage, that to do so is part of maturing, perhaps at a time when death draws nigh or when (or if) I begin to fear it, perhaps at a time when my future feels like it has been over a long time ago and it is too late to start over. Or maybe, being in the mid-40s, where I am now, is probably when you should begin to think of death, at a time when, with a tiny bit of luck, you have as much left of life as you have devoured. I have so far felt the subject’s utter irrelevance to me; that when I’m here, death isn’t, and when death is here, I’m not. In other words, that the two domains will not coincide, and have never coincided, except for the two instances in my life where I had seen, and touched, a dead person. This being said, I suppose I have had two assumptions about death, both unsurprising to most I expect, for as long back as I can recall. The first is that I will die one day and that my days are limited. I believe my own death to be statistically probable and that it will have a specific time and date. One day, a paper will exist in the world with the heading ‘Death Certificate’, it will have my name on it and it will record that specific time and date when I departed, and probably the cause. This document will be part of a standard procedure of bookkeeping, pure protocol, the absolute regularization of death. Once I had managed to get over this minor speed bump in the road, across which a doctor has written (in barely legible handwriting) the words ‘infective endocarditis’, I will once again continue along life’s highway at the astonishing speed of four thousand four hundred heart beats per hour, destined for my own finality. My other assumption is that this finality, death commonly called, will involve the most extraordinary changes to myself and to those close to me, but also that those changes will be of fundamentally different orders: for those close to me they will be in the form of the practical and emotional changes that stem from not having me around any more, and these can be said to not concern me in any direct way. For myself, on death’s receiving end, so to speak, there will occur a series of well-described physiological changes, a number of them observable, that include, for instance, paralysis, stiffness, lividity, that is the visible reddish marks as blood settles in the lover parts of the body, the absolute and irrevocable extinction of cognitive faculties, and the permanent absence of sensation and awareness. Death would entail cessation of all my pains, it would mean being rid of everything, most significantly of myself; then I and nothing will have become one. I can only hope that, at that time, death and I will have no unfinished business and that we will have arrived at an agreement that is mutually advantageous for us both. Among the facile maxims on the subject of death of which I know of no confirmation, is the postulate that we will find out what death is like eventually, or ‘soon enough’, when we cross over for good. I suspect that we will never find out because we are unlikely to possess the cognitive faculties through which to receive any such enlightenment; all we can use to understand the brain and consciousness are the brain and consciousness itself, and when these are irrevocably extinguished then what enlightenment can there possibly be? Another seemingly reliable saying that I was never able to say with any conviction though I suspect I may have reiterated it at some point, is the argument that if one is earnest in one’s fear of death, understood essentially as a fear of non-existence, one ought be equally fearful of the time that precedes one’s birth, or, to put it otherwise, that the immense prenatal void out of which one has emerged ought to provoke terror the moment one realises that one did not exist in it at all and that no one appears to mourn one’s absence. I could never grasp this postulate subjectively, and always suspected that the argument contains a fallacious reasoning of some sort which a person with greater philosophical aptitude than I would be able to demonstrate relatively effortlessly.
Oh, how we surround ourselves with statements and thoughts on the subject of death that make tremendous sense in matters of the emotions, one such being the idea that the dead are watching over the living, which I must admit I have previously found a most comforting thought and one that does not strike me at all as spooky. In reality, I cannot entertain even the most timid hope for a disembodied spiritual afterlife, and at the same time death does not, can never fill me with fear. What does fill me with absolute fear; a fear which I have recently come to suspect goes beyond that of most average people, and which has only increased as I got older, is a fear of how ageing may affect us and especially of a long drawn-out senility, which I once heard someone describe chillingly as living with a terrorist inside the brain. Senile dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, Lewy body dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Creutzfeld-Jacobs disease: these are sufferings that come to haunt me in my nightmares and together they resound as a litany of horrors, a horror of the methodically eroding identity, the horror of everyday skills slowly unlearning themselves, of motor skills gone awry, and of the loss of memory and lucidity which also betokens a loss of identity, all the while that little corner of our brain remains lucid enough to feel the appalling and acute horror of it all, feeling painfully aware that something is hopelessly, irrevocably wrong, that the progress towards disappearance for ever has begun, as it registers the sadness printed in the faces of loved ones who listen to one’s confused and demented confabulations. The highest pitch of agony and horror.
Writing and Death
If I was a praying man, I would ask God not to call me to his heavenly flock any time soon and certainly not on account of some tiny, vulgar bacteria clump. At the very least I should desire to witness the expiry of my passport and visa card, preferably in a comparatively lucid state of mind, and, ideally, also to be able to read and write a lot more than I have so far, perhaps even write another book. Do we write to defy death? Is writing a race against time? These were questions that I had pondered in the past, and never more so than these last few days after my diagnosis. A few years ago when I had published two books, specialised academic books in literary and religious studies – the sort of books that were never, could never become, a commercial success – I confess I did enjoy searching for my books in library catalogues, deriving some moderate degree of pleasure, some comfort I suppose, from locating my titles in institutional libraries such as the New York Public Library (where a part of the research for one book was carried out), the Library of Congress, Queen’s University Belfast (two copies of each book, as I recall), Göttingen University Library, the Royal Library in Copenhagen, the John Rylands Library of Manchester University, and the university libraries of fabled institutes of higher learning such as Cambridge, Harvard, and Stanford. The technical term for this sort of behaviour is ‘narcissism’, which is frowned upon in some circles and may in some cases qualify as a personality disorder, but now I wondered if it also had to do with an awareness of death, and specifically with looking for some form of consolation or redemption in the face of our impending annihilation. Books are a way of saying ‘I was here’. They are the particles, for which I was the first mover, that are now disseminated around the world, like ashes scattered to the wind. In any case, and if nothing else, my modest oeuvre takes up space – it occupies concrete, material space – in these institutions which I know and admire, institutions that are in part tasked with the safekeeping of its written materials. My thinking has, in other words, become institutionalised; to put it bluntly and less optimistically, it has been condemned to mass confinement alongside all that other stuff that gets churned out from our academic assembly lines – scholarly chaff ground out in our academic publishing factories – weighty tomes that bend down the shelves on which they stand with their heavy ballast of scholarly apparatus and references and never-ending elucidation. I can only hope that some reader in the future may browse through these humble pages of mine, and encounter ideas and phrasings thought out so long ago: the bound book is like a vault in which is preserved evidence of some degree of lucid thinking and of my interests and experiences of absorbed productivity at a certain moment in time. Yet, as I thought about this in the cardiac surgery ward, and as my mind succumbed to some negativity and discouragement at this testing moment, I also had an acute feeling of the utter insufficiency of these books, not just mine, and how precious few insights they contain that can be said to be truly luminous. Instead of luminous insights we find constant speculation and theorisation about meanings. In truth, my books, precisely like its many ‘shelfmates’ locked up in their mass confinement where they gather layers of dust and mould, are for the chief part, but to varying degrees, derivative and unconvincing. As dull and uninspired as doctoral theses, these abundant books, that we often group, tellingly, as secondary works, shrivel down to only a very few worthy ideas, a handful at best. In fact, it would really suffice to read and study those few ideas that may come in the form of a few apt and appropriate words or sentences that penetrate to the core of the subject matter. We may skip the circumlocutions and go straight to a distilled argumentative core. In its consequence this would make authors like me writers of aphorisms, what the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard disparagingly but accurately characterised as ‘calendar philosophers, practising the minor art of the intellectual asthma, whose sayings find their way onto the walls of dentist’s waiting rooms’. But we tend not to publish merely a sentence or two, although we know perfectly well that this would save precious natural resources, as well as readers an enormous amount of time that they could direct towards more worthwhile endeavours. Publishers, and their customers, expect books to be book-length; this means more often than not, I thought, that the writer has to allude to theory, that he needs to position himself (and does so often routinely and unenthusiastically) in relation to other studies in the field or to reigning theoretical paradigms. A writer is encouraged to extrapolate as much and as far as possible from a very tiny arsenal of ideas. Just as a book is wrapped in protective hard covers, so once we open that book we find that the few ideas contained within it that can be said to be truly useful are wrapped in layers of repellent and redundant verbiage. It is futile to expect great effects from tiny ideas. And whatever useful ideas are there, it struck me, are far more likely to be misunderstood – or to be ignored and unappreciated – than they are likely to be understood correctly.
One of my books, I now recalled, was reviewed by a British historian in the Times Literary Supplement and the review was lukewarm and unimpressed; justifiably, and predictably, the review was, while not negative as such, definitely lukewarm and unimpressed. In the same way, most of the studies that engage past thinking and our past cultural heritage and its productions which sprout forth from our academic publishing factories that are found in every major city throughout the world, ought to receive a lukewarm and unimpressed reception. I said the words ‘publishing factories’ out loud and heard myself laugh. Of course my learned reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wanted to know about the broader narrative of the material under consideration, wanted to know about the broader historical backcloth and the representative nature of my material. But I could not extrapolate more than my material permitted me; it was not my job. I always knew that I had to show restraint and that I could never, would never allow myself to conclude beyond what my very specific and highly eccentric material enabled me to conclude. I had no doubt that a literary scholar, or a religious historian, or a close family member would have proved more sympathetic to my study, and reviewed it more favourably in the Times Literary Supplement. At this thought I smiled: Yes my dear sister who now sat next to me, academically astute as I know her to be, and who had immediately, and without a moment’s hesitation flown all the way from Denmark to sit by my bedside next to my wife as I was facing heart surgery in China, would have been the ideal enthusiastic reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. In any case, we may perhaps have to conclude that misunderstanding is the norm rather than the exception. Similarly, and to my surprise (though, on reflection there is really nothing surprising about it) the few scholarly studies that I found to cite my work do so with reference to points that I regard as marginal or tangential to my main insights – things of secondary or minor importance, as it were, in relation to my few useful aphorisms. As regards one’s written legacy, so I thought, we are in error if we expect great effects from tiny ideas, and one can only hope to not be warped, to not have one’s words twisted, beyond all common sense and decency; finally there is little we can do, except to keep on writing, weigh down those shelves, and seek to make a tiny imprint on the world in that all too brief intermission when we have been permitted to inhabit time and space; an intermission squeezed in between two domains of perpetual silence.
This undisciplined flow of reminiscences and poorly thought through reflections on mortality and human legacy was what rushed through my mind on the evening before my scheduled operation the next morning, as I sat on the toilet in my small bathroom and confronted a secular problem of an entirely different order. A nurse had previously subjected me to a comprehensive hair removal ritual shaving off any hairs that may interfere with the procedure; gone were hairs on the chest and tummy region, which of course was understandable; I was far less sure what possible scenarios they had in mind when all pubic hairs were removed and half an hour was spent shaving my armpits with the utmost scrupulosity. Now this same nurse had given me two plastic injectors filled with lubricating jelly with instructions to empty the contents into my dear old so-and-so, wait patiently for five to ten minutes around which time my bowels ought to vacate themselves quite emphatically. I assume that as I sat there, alone and with my pants around my ankles, and looked at my reflection in the mirror opposite me holding the injector in my right hand, I had in a sense already made up my mind that this was one part of the operation I would have to forgo if I was to maintain a modicum of dignity and ever be able to look myself in the mirror again. I guess that in case I were to wreak some havoc on the operating table, the doctors would also have to acknowledge that as a patient one has many ways of showing that one is still alive.
The following morning, at precisely 8 am I was fitted in my green operation dress, transferred to a gurney on wheels with raised sidebars and supportive pillows on either side of my body that made it almost impossible for me to turn to observe the crowd of nurses, anaesthesiologists, and hospital porters that had gathered round me. The unrelenting chatter in Chinese became muddled and indistinct as I lay on my back and focused on the lights in the ceiling, then I was brought into the elevator, a sister and a wife in either hand, comforting words were spoken, and we got to the fourth floor where the operating theatres were located. During what seemed like a long journey to get to where I was meant to go, I looked at the many signs that hung from the ceiling and pointed to the various hospital departments: Ultrasound Department, Radiology, Nuclear Medicine, Surgical Equipment Room, Intensive Care Unit, and, right before the large automatic doors leading into the operating section, Forensic Pathology. I had to look again in disbelief, and my head gave a little shake before it was in control again. ‘Forensic Pathology’, that was indeed what it said. This was the department they took deceased patients to in order to determine the cause of death. Behind those doors autopsies, post mortems, were conducted. My first thought was that to have forensic pathology located right next to the operating theatres, and to signpost it so clearly, was utterly inappropriate, a bizarre memento mori, although I immediately acknowledged the practical nature of the location. It seemed a taunting reminder to patients already frightened en route to operation, that there is always a statistical possibility of complications during your surgery, in which case this is where your relatives may find you. Equally shocking to me, upon reflection, was that I knew only of a society in which the dead were cleared out of our way as quickly and as comprehensively as possible. Our society undoubtedly seeks to obliterate death, it is a blinkered culture with regard to death one might say; it keeps it off the agenda (or it relegates a surplus of graphic death to mass commercial entertainment such as computer gaming or movies). The actual dead remain the waste matter in the world of the living, which ought to be removed with haste, so we seem to believe, from human society, to be disposed of underground and out of sight. I was only able to think of institutions in which the dead are kept at ground level, or, more commonly, in morgues located in hospital basements, that is before the time when we sink the dead person or that person’s ashes into the ground. To conduct work on the dead on a fourth floor, that is, comparatively high up in the building, seemed to me shocking and practically inconceivable.
Soon I was on the operating table underneath a myriad of softly shining lamps, around me were numerous masked people, everybody looking alike, but each clearly with a specific task to perform. Time seemed to slow down as I lay for what felt like an eternity, listening, hyper-alert, to Chinese conversation and to the sound of countless plastic bags being opened. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the artificial heart valves that were to be implanted were being unpacked from their sterile bags. Amid the buzz of activity and dampened voices I recognised the voices of Dr Wang and Dr Wei, my valve mechanics, and I felt a nurse’s warm hand on my shoulder. Looking back on the experience, jotting down these notes in recollection, it felt like the fundamental qualities of time and space were being reconceived at that moment. Two score and five years ago, when light was first lit in me, I lay, much like now, naked, hairless, and extremely vulnerable, being utterly dependent on others for my survival. In my infant pre-enlightenment, I was as yet unaware of time, and the physical and material world had just begun to open up for me; I was a consciousness that had not yet differentiated itself from the people and things around me. I took in nourishment from my dear mother’s breast but considered that breast as part of myself, being as yet unable to perceive it as anything external to or other than me. Now, as a doctor was about to put his hand on my heart, I felt, for the briefest of moments, a warm sensation of wholeness; all of the masked, anonymous individuals in the room, once infants like I was, had congregated at this specific moment and location, doctors had trained abroad and had come here to join efforts, and right outside sat two anxious ladies holding hands and waiting, all this to ensure the well-being of one gravely endangered patient, an insignificant mammal on a disappearingly small planet in an unfathomably large universe. Lying in the warm glow of the operation lamp, being filled with a marvellous surety, and thinking that all will be well, that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well was my last recollection before the lights went out.
If we permit ourselves, at least momentarily, to relax our stringent logical standards and to take some liberties by means of lexical ambiguity, we might refer to general anaesthesia as a kind of minor death, or to trespass into the domain of the paradoxical, perhaps as a provisional death in life. Perhaps we may regard death as a kind of residing in a permanent state of general anaesthesia. Certainly the two categories of death and anaesthesia have in common certain features, such as paralysis, amnesia, analgesia, that is numbness from pain through the suppression of the central nervous system (Greek anaisthēsia; ‘without sensation’). I think of both categories as processes of quiet extinction. General anaesthesia means an absence of mind and awareness that can, naturally, never be directly experienced by us. In this state we have no mind activity; no thinking, no imagining, no sensing, and no perceiving; we have zero perception of the passage of time and, as far as I know, though I feel less sure of this, no dreams. I have yet to hear of a person just woken up from general anaesthesia who is eager to share a vivid dream they have just experienced. Even to describe the absence of cognitive functions of the brain during anaesthesia as a black void, or a blank nothingness, feels like taking liberties with language, it feels like bestowing on the experience of it some random though minimal conceptual and cognitive content, for who am I to say that my experience of being anaesthetized was an experience of blackness (as opposed to any other colour) or of blankness? No, anaesthesia cannot be a recollection per se, it cannot be an experience for consciousness, it is nothing but a concept of the mind, and anything we say about being anaesthetized, any term we invoke to describe it, reveals much about our capacity for imaginative thinking. The mind abhors a vacuum, it has been said, and when memory is blindfolded it is in our human nature to superimpose qualities, such as blankness and duration, calm or comfort, and we do this solely from the point of view of our awake and conscious state. I imagine that I didn’t feel bored during the four and a half hours that my operation lasted; I have no recollection of feeling impatient for the doctors to finish up soon. I imagine I had no awareness of duration, of four hours and thirty minutes elapsing or of a specific order of events, with the perception of an order of events being essential to our understanding of duration. Until further evidence is presented to me, I take death to mean the irreversible shutting down of our systems, including brain activity and consciousness. Anaesthesia, on the other hand, has the great thing going for it that it is reversible, following a period of mental confusion as the brain reboots itself. General anaesthesia means the use of reversible brain suppressants to produce temporary unconsciousness and it allows for the subsequent reconfiguration of our mind, the absolute re-formation of our mind, memories and self-awareness; in short, the re-formation of our character. And it is this last quality that makes general anaesthesia a hugely attractive option to the person eager to get on with life in a state of normality.
This is not the place to abandon ourselves to further meditation on this subject, which I must say has always fascinated me, but which also takes us into a dizzying terrain of inscrutable epistemological mysteries about death and consciousness. My first recollection, as I was emerging from my sleep was of an eerie temporal and spatial confusion, I raised my head, as far as was possible with the pain in my chest, to look round the room in the intensive care unit but saw only rows of empty beds. On the wall was a clock that showed seven o’clock, evening or morning I did not know. Then I felt the far end of my bed being weighed down, and a hand, warm and bony, sliding into mine, and through a half-haze I perceived a figure whom I recognised as Dr Wang, my valve mechanic, smiling. “Good morning Allan, the operation went very well. How are you feeling now?” I’m not sure if I ever answered the question for I was too busy trying to find out how many cables and wires were attached to my body and what they were. To my chest area were attached electrodes connected via an array of wires to a monitor recording vital signs. A catheter appeared to enter my chest under the bandages and when I reached down to check on my reproductive organ, an act which I was once told all guys do first thing when they emerge from an operation, I noted that a thin plastic tube had been inserted deep into my urethra. I imagine that some junior doctor would have been tasked with inserting the tube as soon as I succumbed to the anaesthesia. Right there and then I made a solemn pact with myself that this was one procedure, an operation within the operation as it were, the details of which I would never again contemplate for one single instant of what remained of my earthly existence.
In the weeks that followed I was sucked into the standard quotidian hospital practices that take place in a cardiac surgery ward. These included three hours of intravenous antibiotic treatment in the mornings that kept me chained to my drip bag and to bed, and one hour in the evening, as well as endless row of blood drawings, frequent ultrasound scans, MRI scans and X-rays. I now think of the time as an enforced retreat spent in my room; on the face of it, and to look at it in a positive light, a time of what the ancient Romans called ‘otium’, as opposed to ‘negotium’, the tawdry world of business and of time-consuming and personally sapping labour. I confess that I have always considered true release from work a fundamental good, and I have never really bought into what seems to be a prevailing outlook in our culture, certainly one perpetuated by our ruling managerial classes, that humans are particularly impressive when they are useful, and that the short, licensed vacation reaffirms the value of work and recreates energy for it. Yet, here I was, with an abundance of precious thinking time on hand, an opportunity to abandon myself to the most serious meditation and productivity, but found that I was incapable of thinking a single useful thought, let alone concentrate on my reading and writing. I had a throng of disjointed thoughts, and my soul and mind were capable of sweeping across a million leagues in a single instant, yet my senses were no longer transmitting any useful or coherent ideas to my brain. One needs tremendous discipline to get any work done in a hospital environment, where simplicity and common sense mixed with a good appetite and sound sleep are worth infinitely more than astuteness of mind. I stubbornly refused to abandon myself to the vacuous and stupefying trivialities of Chinese day-time TV shows that were so eagerly but passively gulped up by my caregiver, Madam Lee, who occupied the other bed in my room. Lying in bed, feeling the full force of an inexplicable and irrational melancholy crisis, I saw my online activities drift progressively in the direction of the morbid and misanthropic. I came to embody one of the central paradoxes of our digital age, namely that a great portion of what we do online actually has the effect of making us feel uncomfortable or agitated. It seems we are prone to read about things we loathe, especially so in my case, feeling that melancholy had cast its dark veil upon me. Thus, for instance, I began to study minute details of my ailment, studied pictures of mechanical heart valves and of surgical bone saws, similar to the one that would have been used to cut vertically through the middle of my sternum to allow access to my heart. Online I found easy and oddly gratifying indignation as I indulged myself in the endless toxic spin and propaganda of Chinese state-controlled news outlets, tragically the main fare and chief source of news for such a large part of the planet’s population, and I spent more time than I ever had scrolling through my contacts’ updates on social media sites, in essence a massive onslaught of stupidity and banality, with people broadcasting themselves endlessly, transmitting their small, carefully filtered lives, by uploading an archive of the self, in the form of daily news, images, and updates on meals consumed. It struck me more forcefully than ever before that this absurd theatre of proliferating digitised narcissism was little more than a social media footprint we leave for future generations; that our obsessive self-broadcasting, it being spectacularly inconsequential and insignificant in the here and now, is ultimately us writing our own comprehensive obituary for when we are no longer here, or have been upgraded by biotechnology and AI into something different.
Well, in my case, discomfort and irritation were clearly on the rise and the mind, if it is so disposed, can find causes of sadness and agitation everywhere, as it floods with dark ideas and tragic images. Thoughts do not just leave when we ask them to, we cannot just usher them out. Thoughts can take root and produce irritation. A thousand prejudices besiege us, and in vain I tried to drive them away, but they kept coming back, albeit in smaller and smaller magnitude, so I finally had only very slight worries about my ability to reintegrate into society after the about six weeks the doctors said were necessary for the antibiotic treatment to drive out my dismal bacterial infection. The nurses helped me shake off boredom and lethargy. On their daily inspection round they swarmed into my room early in the mornings, a host of heavenly cherubs perceived by me in a haze of half-sleep, in a group of about eight of them, led by the chief administrative nurse, but as there was usually very little to report or to say they usually just smiled, said ‘good morning’ and then exited my room. In the group was Lele, a junior nurse of twenty-four years of age, of a very distinct beauty with flaming cheeks and an alabaster neck, who smelled ever so faintly of sandalwood soap. She was the only person on the team to speak impeccable English, and she also showed an appreciation for irony rather rare in these parts of the world, and across language barriers. What was interesting about Lele was that she espoused a highly peculiar, and, I dare say, idiosyncratic set of aesthetic principles, using words such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘wonderful’ to describe my long, vertical operation scar, which for a long while after the operation, in fact right up till now when I am making a record of these memories, I lacked the inclination to look at directly. When asked how my scar was healing up, as she came in to clean and disinfect it, she would utter something like ‘It looks beautiful, unbelievable’ or ‘it’s wonderful, perfect, absolutely…’, while she shook her head slowly, but not in negation of what had been said, more as if in disbelief at what she saw.
Cheekily, I greeted the chief administrative nurse in the cardiac surgery ward, whose name I never knew, as Nurse Ratched, confident in the knowledge she would never get the reference to the steely, passive-aggressive tyrant nurse from Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had a rather austere disposition, a sturdy build, rough features, though not unkind eyes, and graying hair. When she entered my room to take my blood, usually about 6.30 in the mornings, she had a peculiar habit of advancing into the middle of my room followed by a group of trainee nurses, and she would stand right there, her arms folded, surveying the room, expressionless and without movement. Then I would stick my arm out, like an obedient child. She was a somewhat rough-mannered phlebotomist, it has to be said, completely disregarding the reputation I had acquired among the nurses as being unusually sensitive to pain and uneasy with needles. She was not rude, just perfunctory, but she always tightened the rubber tourniquet forcefully around my upper arm to look for an accessible vein, and always pulled hairs from my arms while ignoring my moans. At such moments I felt some agitation in the noblest part of myself. It never came to altercation between us. When I did appear brusque, she would invariably take the first step towards reconciliation, giving me a smile that spread to her eyes or briefly caressing my hand, and this would cause me to fill with warmth instantly and to feel some strange intimate bond between us. As a nurse she was superlatively skilled. She was the only nurse to insert a hypodermic needle into my arm so I never felt a thing. As I lay on my back and looked into the ceiling uneasily awaiting the needle prick in my arm she would suddenly tear off the tourniquet, stand up abruptly, put the two filled blood test tubes on her little steel medical trolley and pronounce the only English word I ever heard her use: ‘Finish!”, before she rolled her trolley out of the room.
Pacing up and down the corridor of the Cardiac Surgery Department were patients, all of us having just undergone heart surgery, all supported by a relative or their caregiver, and all wearing the same type of chest compression band to help us stabilize the torso and immobilize the chest wound. Here I walked, supported under my left arm by my caregiver, Madam Lee, who was also pulling the metal rollers with the intravenous drip bags swinging from hooks. In my right hand I carried my pacemaker, a small, heavy black box that monitored my heartbeat and delivered an electrical current via pacing wires put on to the heart. I found this to be a good way to travel as long as I was not in any hurry. When observed from a distance these patients promenading up and down the corridor called to mind the phantom figures in an Edvard Munch painting, melancholy characters, silent, faceless, yet each looking out directly towards us with vacuous, hollow-eyed stares, as if under hypnosis. As I sat and looked at my fellow patients it seemed to me that each walked as an isolated, detached figure, alone but next to someone. Each had their own life and story and each had been visited by their mortality in their very own way, which would have set forth a distinct and unique train of thoughts, comprehensible only to themselves. Yet when our paths intersected in the corridor I always saw their faces light up, as we nodded to each other in recognition and greeted one another with a brief “ni hao”. From my fellow patients, a mass of solitaries, all identically clad, I sensed nothing but optimism, sincerity, and cordiality
. When I lay in my bed and turned on to my right side to look out of the window, my eyes were met by the sight of one of the most remarkable phenomena of our modern era, namely that of China Rising. Enormous cubes of office space were shooting up around the hospital like bamboo after rain. The majority of these were the headquarters of publicly traded companies, mostly in the tech industry, and in fact the Sun Yat Sen Hospital is located inside what has now become the Nanshan High-Tech Industrial Park. Of course, to call it a park involves a complete negation and reversal of any dictionary definition of park as ‘an area of natural, semi-natural or planted space set aside for human enjoyment and recreation or for the protection of wildlife or natural habitats’. Everywhere in this utterly denatured land of concrete, on the ground and on top of buildings, are seen tall tower cranes, these yellow metallic megapods on which no birds choose to sit. I must have spent hours lying in bed observing these towering swinging cranes that cast vast shadows and broke up the rays of the sun falling on the surrounding buildings in a thousand different ways. I was filled with a strong desire to cut them down, as you cut down a tall tree with a sprawling crown that casts a shadow on sunlit days: The cranes irritated me and they obstructed my thinking. They mocked me, as I lay in bed, with their unrelenting industry, with their obscene yellow colour, and unnatural and effortless 360-degree rotation. I wished to cut them down with a crane axe, and neatly stack the parts up against the buildings that they helped erect: all those bland faceless structures, with reflecting facades, that confine people in cardiac surgery wards, or in immense office spaces with countless rows of cubicles in which workers toil away at their screens on their little projects; all of them buildings that every sane person would prefer be outside of, rather than inside. When evening time came I lay in bed looking at the lights that shone on top of the cranes and a few surrounding buildings, trying to predict the intervals with which the lights flashed. I would then sometimes be warmly reminded of the pleasures of contemplating the starry sky, an experience that will never lose its fascination and novelty to me. Some of my clearest childhood memories were acted out under this the greatest show on earth. As a village dweller in my younger days, I would often walk across a field at night and look at stars, or sometimes even row a boat into the middle of a lake, lie down on my back and look for shooting stars, or marvel at the hazy band of white light that is the milky way, what even the ancient Greeks looked at in awe millennia ago and called the, galaxías kýklos, ‘milky circle’; I was a tiny spectator confronting an immense and eternal spectacle, and realising that for the brief while we reside here under the heavens we may understand ourselves to be neighbours and associates of an eternity. Here in Nanshan District, where darkness has been effectively conquered, and where entire precincts are lit up at night like football stadiums, the visibility of stars is of course much reduced. The only true merit I can think of for the cranes is that they provide the towers for mounting the lights that may allow people’s minds to wander off to the galaxies and to at least begin to toy with the ideas of incommensurable remoteness and an infinity of worlds. They may remind dwellers in this metropolis where the lights never go out, of the marvels that remain out there.
One early morning as I lay in bed and was occupied with the contemplation of medicine and the progress it has made since Hippocrates, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an infinitesimally tiny figure on the long climb up the tower of a nearby crane. Once up, this crane operator went to sit in his small cabin, and almost immediately the crane swung its operating arm and parked it in the exact position that it pointed into my room, room fifteen on the eighth floor of the Sun Yat Sen Hospital. It remained in that position for a long while and provoked an irrational fear in me. Performing mental calculations, I worked out that if the crane was a cannon and it fired a cannonball, the missile would end up precisely in my bed. I signalled to Madam Lee to pull the curtains shut, making also a signal with my hand that the light from outside blinded me. She did as I requested and then I picked up a book to read. In my cunning I had managed to make Madam Lee believe that the strong sunshine from outside obstructed my reading. She never for one minute suspected, I am certain, that I had asked for the curtains to be closed because the sight of a crane had become too agitating. Had she known that she got up to do what I asked her to do because a crane was pointing directly at me, and not at all because the sunshine prevented me from reading my book and, she would most certainly have worried about my about my mental state, and very possibly have called my wife to inform her of my recent worrying development.
That very same morning when I managed to defeat the cranes, I had woken up in a state of agreeable turmoil. Four weeks had been spent in the hospital by this time, nearly all of this time in my room, except for my endless pacings up and down the corridor, and even one or two escorted strolls around the outside of the hospital building. Madam Lee had escorted me to the hospital canteen for an early lunch, but finding the food there to be consistently atrocious, and on this day exceptionally unpalatable, we looked at one another and made a signal to get out of here. Feeling a rebel spirit settling upon me, I knew I was in the mood to fling myself into the world and enter its resounding tumult. We walked to the guarded entrance of the hospital perimeter where a sceptical guard asked a few questions of my companion, but finally seemed to be satisfied to release us. Thus for the first time in a long while, I had moved across an invisible frontier, from the land of malady, where one was confronted with an abundance of frailty, into the land of the well. Here were children whose agility seemed to give them wings. We crossed clogged and anarchic roads, and walked along clogged and anarchic pavements, always with the caution of someone who had just entered the world, always turning to make sure we were not being moved down by the fast-moving and silent e-bikes used everywhere in this vast land to deliver packages and cheap, substandard meals. I had broken out of my captivity. Such a grandiose plan! Such boldness in its execution! Having finally turned my back on the bland and sterile hospital environment where no strong colours were to be found and where even the food was not allowed to have any taste, I now found nature to possess a new aura: the sun shone with a new splendour, of that I was positively certain; flowers emitted new scents; colours possessed a new radiance, new intensity. And all this seemed to go unnoticed, unappreciated by the host of indifferent people that weigh down the globe. Occasionally, in this land of the well, we would encounter other fugitive patients wearing the same blue-striped clothes, the same chest compression band, and the same macabre-looking port attached to our hands through which our recovering bodies would sap up life-giving fluids, and we would nod at each other in silent acknowledgement, as if we shared some secret understanding, or were members of the same secret society. From the hurly-burly of chaos in this land of the well, Madam Lee and I entered a street restaurant where I ordered rice with fish-fragrant eggplant, a dish traditionally associated with the cuisine of Sichuan province. The food was a revelation but the strong vinegar and pickled chilli peppers were a shock to the palate and set in motion a fit of coughing so painful I was certain my chest would burst. Also, sweat had begun to trickle from my upper body under the oppressive strain of my chest band, and I had begun to yawn. It was time to leave behind this wilderness of the world, at least for now, and to let my small, safe, air-conditioned room fold around me. In short, it was time for my afternoon nap.
When the time finally came for me to check out of the Sun Yat-Sen Hospital, about two weeks after the escapade related above, it was time to say farewell to those who had become familiar and friendly faces over the preceding weeks. Hands were shaken eagerly with Mr Hu, the patient who never wore his chest band, but who instead presented himself to the world with his shirt open and chest bared, showing off an impressive pink-coloured operation scar, like it were some trophy, or a tattoo of which he was infinitely proud. I even saw him promenade outside the hospital grounds along the row of street restaurants where Madam Lee and I would sometimes go. There he walked with his head held high and his chest puffed out, as he turned many a head from the surrounding traffic. I cannot say this turned me off. Patient Hu, like myself, would have paid a princely sum of money to have his procedure done, and it was entirely within his right to show off the surface scar. It also showed a degree of comfort with the wound which I could only admire, knowing, as I did, that it would take long before I would be comfortable showing mine off in public.
The older short and stocky man who occupied the room next to mine also came to shake my hand warmly. He was not himself a patient in the hospital but was accompanying his wife, who immediately after her heart surgery slipped into a coma that was to last nineteen days. I recall how, one morning, as I was sitting in the small communal area at the end of our long corridor, eating oranges expertly peeled and diced for me by Madam Lee, and observing, as I so often did, people coming in and out of the ward and nurses and doctors going about their work, this man man threw himself at the feet of the doctors doing their rounds and begged them, with loud sobbing and tears welling up in his eyes, to do anything in their power to save his wife. In sheer desperation he even offered to pay up any amount of money necessary to bring this about. ‘Begged’ seems such an inadequate word for how he threw himself down at the mercy of the doctors in a fabulous display of sorrow and pathos; ‘Beseech’ or ‘implore’ are the right words to describe the high level of anxiety and urgency with which he made his earnest request from a kind of subordinate position. It was an expression of heartrending helplessness and grief, but a grief that thankfully was not to last long. When I said my adieus to the gentleman in the corridor his wife had been returned from the Intensive Care and was sitting on a chair next to him outside the door to her room. This petite and frail lady, at whom death had just fired all its darts without entirely hitting, sat and looked into space with an empty distanced gaze. I greeted her also, but she remained silent and appeared to look straight through me with a look that suggested to me she had seen things that no human should ever have to see.
Now, as I look back at my six weeks spent in the Sun Yat-Sen Hospital, already more than a month in the past, I think of it as being enveloped in a dense gloomy fog, in a sort of milky melancholy in which I felt, never miserable as such, but rather numbed, disquieted, anaesthetized, and incapable of feeling passion of any kind. The days were punctuated by routine practices of blood testing, CT scans, x-rays, infusions. But most days were indistinguishable; only the days in which I received visits from friends where we chatted, played backgammon, or shared a pizza occupy any space in my memory. Other than that it was all a desert of uneventfulness. Time did not seem to move forward in a straight line, but rather to reappear in the same form. In retrospect the string of typical days shrinks to nothing precisely because of this uneventfulness. In the perspective of the past such interminable hours and days appear to have no extension, no volume, their weight in memory seems lighter than air.
Getting out of hospital was not an altogether simple affair and involved complicated feelings, often of a negative sort, and frequent mood swings. When frigid reason took control the reason why this was the case was easy to explain: In our normal mode of living we have a tendency to assess the quality of our lives through the positive and exciting experiences we add and by the material things we acquire. That is to say that, when we are fully in control, our lives are perceived as a form of simple addition. By contrast, in hospital, and during a long period of sickness we perceive mostly the desirable things that were once experienced but that are now absent to us; at such times the subject is confronted with mountains of subtraction. Thus, as I was lying in my hospital bed I focused on my absence of mobility, an absence of appetite. My libido felt detached, and I experienced a general lack of enthusiasm about any of the things that usually matter to me. I was a version of myself, only minus sleep, minus a job and minus money. I found myself unable to do any writing or reading – I could barely read headlines. Moreover, I discovered two basic rules that apply to this state in which life is perceived as a form of subtraction. The first one is that fear does not count as an addition, in fact, this feeling works in reverse and is actually perceived in the mind as a form of subtraction, whether this was the fear experienced prior to the operation or fear felt in the weeks after; fear of the daily needle prick, or a fear of having the metal wires from my pacemaker pulled out from my chest. The second rule is that when life is experienced as a form of subtraction, the argument of the ‘lesser evil’, the argument that there is always someone who is worse off then you, does not count for much. So, when people made quantitative comparisons (‘what about the eighteen-year-old guy in the next room, he has been staying here for two whole months’, ‘think of the lady who went into a long coma after her operation’, etc.) I found these to offer only the tritest of consolations and they did almost nothing to make me feel better. Experiencing a prolonged period of subtraction can mean dejection; it may dampen the spirit and cast a veil of gloom on us. Any abrupt reversal from a period of subtraction into a normality governed by simple addition, which means to most of us a gratifying worldly compliance with fashionable customs, takes considerable time to register as a positive development at the level of human sensitivity; it can never occur suddenly, as a change overnight.
Rambling through Kennedy Town
For convenience sake I had arranged to have my monthly check-ups done in the Queen Mary Hospital in the Pok Fu Lam area of western Hong Kong Island, in order to avoid the long journeys up to the hospital in Nanshan in Shenzhen. On the Tuesday morning over a month after my operation, when the doctor said the words “it looks good, we’re on target”, he was referring to the index for the coagulant and clotting tendencies of blood, expressed in the number known as the INR (International Normalized Ratio), which for a normal person not taking anticoagulant medicine should be around 0.8-1.0, but for a patient with mechanical heart valves is ideally between 2.0 and 2.5, which means that blood runs thin and bleedings can be very difficult to stop. The INR number is notoriously volatile and easily influenced by diet and various other factors, and on this day my INR was determined at 1.99, in other words at the lower end of the spectrum, which meant that I had to make a minute change in the dosage of my warfarin pills, specifically to increase it from 2¼ pills per day to 2½. It was an adjustment I was rather relieved to make, because it had proved very arduous to have to break the tiny blue pill into a quarter. I said good bye to the doctor, walked out of the small consultation room, and got on the small green minibus line 54M which sped from the Queen Mary Hospital down the Pok Fu Lam Road and Smithfield into Kennedy Town in the north-western part of Hong Kong Island, along a route which offered splendid views of islands and sea and the enormous Christian Pok Fu Lam Road Cemetery, whose seemingly endless rows of terraces and interconnecting staircases have rolled from the upper contours of the hill down to the lower slopes by Victoria Road since the cemetery’s establishment in 1882. As I sat in the bus and looked out over the sea, I rehearsed the conversation I just had with the doctor over and over. This was a habit I had begun while in hospital; to interpret every word and intonation, to accord significance to every gesture, every little facial expression. I reacted to friendly or worried expressions like a seismograph. I got out of the minibus outside the Kennedy Town MTR Station. It was the hour for business and other vexations, and as I began to float through the streets I abandoned myself to a torrent of people that swept me away. I had to fill the present afternoon somehow, and it was now only about one in the afternoon, so I went into a Pacific Coffee store on the corner of Belcher’s Street and Davis Street, and checked the cinema listings in a local paper to see what was playing. Mission Impossible – Fallout, the sixth instalment in the series had just opened, as had the action film Skyscraper, set in an imaginary skyscraper in Hong Kong featuring the actor Dwayne Johnson, a former professional wrestler known by his ring name The Rock, and by media proclaimed as the most ‘bankable’ actor of our era. But my mind was not ready for spectacle, fast cuts, special effects, and all life’s complexities turned into recognisable plot forms. I knew that in my current state I would fall asleep in the cinema. I knew I would not be capable of watching any of the shows through to their ends. I was happy to let the cinema go and instead I left the coffee shop and began to stroll through the streets of Kennedy Town, one of my favourite places to walk in Hong Kong. The weather was balmy, benign and beautiful as I made my way down Belcher’s Street, walking in a kind of half-dazed state, never entirely connecting with the surroundings. Everything stood out for me as foreign, as somehow inconceivable, and people, to the extent that I noticed them, seemed unnaturally small. I felt almost weightless, bodiless, and walked as if I had mastered the art of levitation. It really is possible to feel like a ghost among fellow men, like some doppelganger or revenant that walks around without at any time entirely connecting with the physical surroundings, and feeling a complete aloofness from ordinary sublunary anxieties. Surely, I thought, this state of mind in which the outside world has become unreal to one, in which the millions of stimuli that bombard the human mind are somehow not perceived as real, ought to be recognised as the innermost mystery of secular metaphysics. Lavishly funded research projects ought to be set up in which cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists join ranks with poets to get to the bottom of this very human mystery. If any thoughts impressed themselves on my mind in its present state it was in the form of memories of consultations and conversations with doctors and nurses that I had experienced over the past weeks. ”Remember, walking is healing”, Dr Wang once said to me as we were discussing life after the operation, a statement that seemed to me at that moment to contain deep wisdom, deeper perhaps than was intended. Now, as I was rambling through the streets of Kennedy Town, I thought about how a constant in my life has been my liking of solitary walks and being continually curious about what I see.
As a child, I was lucky to have parents that did not drive my sister and I around everywhere, parents who let us notice things we could never see from the interior of a car. I enjoyed walking even before I knew I had a name; walking was as natural as breathing, and was often filled with rich exploration. To this day I know of few things better than exploring a new city on foot; it is fascinating the things you see when you are on foot and bother to look around. “That far!” people often exclaim when I tell them about walks I have undertaken, a response which often surprises me because my walks rarely feel very long, and it seems quite redundant to have to point out that there is no better and cheaper way than walking to sort our thoughts and keep fit. Looking back, all the way back to the time from which memories now flood back as feelings and not as words or images, I realise that it was the act of walking that connected me with my community at a pace predictably, inescapably human. Many of my earliest childhood memories are of specific walks; frequent walks with my parents through the forests that surrounded our town, adventurous and dramatic hikes as a boy scout, often in the middle of the night, and walks from my town across the fields or through forests that seemed endless to a neighbouring town where some of my classmates lived. These long walks with childhood friends were utterly daunting at the time, and they were walks whose logistical details were planned in intricate detail long in advance; the precise route was planned using local maps, food and drinks were packed, permissions were obtained from parents, emergency phone numbers were written down (not unproblematically as this was a time before mobile telephones). Of course, today when I revisit these same places, the distances over which these mini-adventures were acted out seem laughably short, the proverbial stone’s throw away. Is it not possible, I now thought to myself, that everything happened on those walks? Is it not possible that the walks determined our future, and that nothing in later life exists apart from those early walks with our childhood friends? Those people that we looked up to, those whom we mocked, and those we had a crush on, even the very rhythm in which we spoke to each other; all was determined on our early walks. In fact all the operations of our adult intelligence were present in miniature as we walked together, as were all the sensations, perceptions, feelings, and intimations of feelings that we would later experience over and over again. When we walked through the landscape of our childhood, along the edge of a forest whose colour was ever changing, we became who we were to be, and incidents happened that would influence us for the rest of our lives.
And then of course there was the most important walk of all, the one I performed every day over years, from my primary school up the steep and prosaically named School Road to our local library, a walk often undertaken with groups of classmates through streets that now hold many memories. This was a walk to the library building that was our chief forum of entertainment, a walk to the building that belonged to all of us, the place where we devoured cartoons, listened to audiobooks, and collapsed in beanbag chairs with a favourite book in hand. It was in this place that I read books and forgot everything around me for hours on end, and was contented and really cheerful. Here I first lost myself in literature and felt entranced as a child, here I learnt how the printed word when read could summon up physical presence and engrave itself on our memory. And here I had my first memories of having leapt over the wall of self, to be in the mind someone else, to be elsewhere. In this library, in which I happily spent that precious interval between the end of school time and dinnertime with my family, were the windows through which I must have spent hours gazing in a sort of solitary reverie at views I still vividly recall, while my mind indulged in flights of fancy, thinking about what had just been read, savouring moods and impressions, and invariably seeking to postpone the inevitable calamity of coming to the end of a book that had engrossed me; of coming to that final point where I would draw a deep sigh as my relationship with a book’s characters came to an end, characters on whom I had often bestowed more attention and affection than I had on people in real life. A book would be closed and once again occupy a narrow space between other worlds in hard covers – parallel universes neatly arranged on our shelves. But the books would remain our dear friends even after they turn their backs on us. The intensity of these early reading experiences seemed irrevocably lost, or at least transformed, from my present perspective.
”Remember, walking is healing”, my valve mechanic had said to me; an astute comment to be sure. And I would add to that that reading and writing can constitute forms of healing as well. Writing is an act that allows you to understand yourself better; I for one know that there are experiences I only fully understand, or can come to accept, or am able to talk about if I have written them down first. It now struck me, as I was floating through the streets of Kennedy Town, that many of my favourite writers are also walkers, writers whose thoughts developed organically and often in direct response to what is observed during long walks. With the works of thoughtful wanderers the reader’s mind is in an ongoing dialogue with thoughts on the move. I have in mind here not only the old relic of romanticism, the philosopher’s walk (Philosophenweg), the quiet scenic walks that we find near old universities such as Heidelberg or Königsberg, for instance, where poets and philosophers like Hegel, Clemens Brentano, Søren Kierkegaard, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche used to reflect and discourse on their daily perambulations. Was it not Nietzsche, by the way, who said “Never trust a thought that occurs to you indoors”?
A book that became especially important to me in my enforced retreat of six weeks in the Sun Yat-Sen Hospital was the Journey around My Room published in 1794 by Xavier de Maistre, a French military man and aristocrat. De Maistre was confined for 42 days in his apartment in Turin (he was convicted to house arrest, as I recall, on account of some implication in a duel), and in the small apartment this most endearing of individuals – intense, romantic, thoughtful and bibliophile, walks around at all angles, his attention fixed on objects, visible surfaces, one moment making references to the life led outside the room, the next moment abandoning himself to long (and sometimes rather wearing) digressions on his dog, his girl friend, or his servant Joanetti. Always refusing to keep to a set route, always seeing the familiar with fresh eyes. "When I travel through my room," he writes, "I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado." De Maistre pioneered a new type of travel – room travel – which he recommended to those who are poor or infirm and to anyone who fears storms, high cliffs, and robbers. His is clearly a pastiche of the grand travel narrative, written in the style of a mock-epic, in which the shortest of distances inside a bedroom can seem like a perilous and uncrossable terrain. But his travelogue is also a great consolation to any person who is alone in a room. Experiencing isolation from society and a paucity of external stimuli, de Maistre uses creativity and imagination to transcend confinement. It is through recollection, imagination, storytelling, daydreaming that he is able to shake himself from his lethargy and offer imaginative musings more gripping than reality itself, and at least as exciting as exotic tales of the South Seas or heroic accounts of voyages to the Himalaya. For some, enclosure can be enabling, if, that is, they possess the right travelling mindset, an ideal ambulatory disposition we could say, with a mind perpetually inquisitive, and a predilection for following one’s ideas and train of associations wherever they lead, without sticking to a set route or the straight line.
I now thought, as I walked among people in Kennedy Town, that in solitary confinement one is increasingly thrown back upon oneself and the questions one asks oneself are likely to inject hopelessness and insignificance into the mind. De Maistre, however, felt at home in a miniature world, small and self-contained, and he showed us that walking hours are closely linked to having an active fantasy life. The writings of the dead can be our constant companions, and when my hospital room seemed most unbearable to me, most bland and claustrophobic, I read my de Maistre, which was a good distraction for me. I sometimes closed my eyes and imagined him standing next to his bed, which he describes in the greatest detail, this solitary walker who pauses momentarily to take in the surroundings, and I followed him eventually as he moved outside on the ledge and looked up to the stars, which caused him to respond: “How few people… are now enjoying with me the sublime spectacle that the heavens spread out, in vain, for drowsy men!... Those who actually are asleep are one thing; but what would it cost those who are out for a stroll, or those others emerging in crowds from the theatre, to look up for a moment and admire the brilliant constellations that are shining down on their heads from every direction?” I willingly followed de Maistre’s ever expanding musings and such flights of cosmic fancy, just as I joined him as he explored tangled and twisted paths of metaphysics, in what must be seen as his witty parody of some of the reigning philosophical discourses of his time.
I said that I read my de Maistre, finding in his work both a source of consolation and a sense of kinship across time and space, with both of us confined in our small rooms for a period of 42 days. But I should correct myself now by saying that I read in my de Maistre. I would flip through the book and open it to read a random sentence or paragraph. What was for me a common habit of random, piecemeal reading, seemed to correspond well with de Maistre’s idea that there is no higher pleasure than to follow one’s ideas as they occur, according to no set route, no straight line. His manner of writing is one of ambulatory pursuits of chance encounters and observations. I now thought, as I strolled through the streets of Kennedy Town, how some of my favourite books, are books that are not driven forward by plot in any manifest sense, but which instead give prominence to the accidental discovery, to the process of walking, to relishing the process of images, sounds, sights, scents impacting the sensory apparatus. Books like de Maistre’s Journey around My Room and W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (an account of a walking tour of Suffolk with a string of meditations on the relations between past and present prompted by places and people encountered along the way) are books written in carefully crafted prose sentences with a very high intensity rendered so beautifully in English translation. They are full of attractive sentences – sentences that seem so beautiful and original that it is hard to imagine other authors had written comparable ones – and they suggest that the authors wrote with an infinite care, devoting full attention and precision to the task of writing much like we understand a poet to do. These are books I like to always have close to me and which I can open at any page and read a sentence or short paragraph, finding in that small unit a totality unto itself, often illuminating and cherishable. In fact, when I come to think of it on my walk through the streets of Kennedy Town, this reading process where we approach a book through random entry points, where we flip a book open at a certain page and are able to appreciate a single sentence or a short paragraph, is a skill that can be cultivated to an almost absurd degree. This reading process is quite extraordinary and I am sure it has not been at all well described. A text can be shuffled; it is like a landscape that we are free to enter at any spot. We can open a book at a random page and exclaim “that’s a great thought!”, understanding immediately that the right sentence can create a feeling similar to intoxication. We can come across a sentence that strikes us as remarkable and we can imagine (or remember) what precedes it, and then anticipate (or remind ourselves) what follows it; then we may appreciate how what appears disjointed and incoherent may actually possess immense connections. The unit of the sentence is the only essentially philosophical venue, I thought, and through it we can learn to explore and savour the world in miniature, much like de Maistre was able to do in his small room: A grand vision is founded on a very small observation, I thought to myself. The literary sentence or the short paragraph can open up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life is scarcely able to provide; it can hit you like a bolt from the blue, so that everything suddenly becomes luminous with meaning. We can wear a sentence, we can taste it, listen to it, or we can see it. A sentence can entrap you, and the moment when we exit it we may feel completely disorientated. I once learned that he origin of the word sentence is the Latin ‘sentire’, to sense or to feel; a sentence is to be felt by the reader; it is a matter, not primarily of logic, but rather of sensibility.
No one understood this meaning of the word ‘sentence’ as sensing better than one of my favourites among the English essayists, Virginia Woolf, who produced the most astounding essay ever written about walking; in fact one of the most astounding literary essays ever written, full stop. I like to think that Woolf would have read de Maistre’s Journey, but I know of no evidence that she ever did. Surely de Maistre’s room assumed the vastness and provided the imaginative opportunities which the streets of London afforded Woolf, and his little vignettes – unstructured, associative, improvisational – that constitute the never-ending drama of exploration on foot share much in common with Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, that recounts the experience of stepping outside of her London home on a quiet winter’s evening and walking through the streets on a mission to purchase a lead pencil. The walk took place at some time between the two world wars, and it was not an original thing to do. People had gone for walks before. Once upon a time, we should remind ourselves, it was beautifully common for a prose writer to write about what he or she saw on walks, about people met on the way and about their conversations. But Woolf had gone a different way; she saw what no one before her had seen. Or more correctly, she saw in a way that no one before her had seen, and she was able to express her perceptions in beautiful, simple sentences. In ‘Street Haunting’ we meet an author who has no gospel to preach, no learning to impart, and who has not searched a dictionary for polysyllables. Here is a person wading deep in life, sharing fundamental, unadorned truths about what it is like, what it can be like, to walk in a city. And we see in ‘Street Haunting’ a fierce attachment to the idea that Woolf had expressed in another essay, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight and incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” In ‘Street Haunting’ we see how the physical act of walking and the creative imagination can work together perfectly in tandem to unfold the delights of true flânerie. As the urban walker exits her house it has always seemed to me that her character in a sense splits into two. One, let us call her Ms Woolf, is content to remain at the surface, immersed in the velocity and abundance of life, making a record of her perceptions as her eye feasts on colours and the beauty of the street in winter. Her somewhat unruly, quixotic counterpart, Virginia we may call her, is prone to imaginary flights, she enters the surfaces of things, constructs stories, and demonstrates how porous the boundaries can be between individual subjectivities. For her, capricious street encounters become an opportunity to inhabit other subjectivities and to penetrate the dreams and ambitions of men: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others… And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality”. For Virginia, the true exhilaration of pedestrianism is found in the opportunity to indulge herself in the infinite creative possibilities afforded by a walk through the city, to give herself away to trains of association and imaginative exploration. Walking down Oxford Street, Virginia builds and furnishes a house in the imagination from all the luxury items spotted in shops along the way, only to dismantle all in the twinkle of an eye. Virginia steps out on a balcony overlooking sleeping Mayfair in the middle of a summer night wearing a beautiful silk robe and the jewellery from an antique jeweller she had walked past nearby.
we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colors have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June. Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?
Virginia Woolf knew better than anyone that books – being around books and opening them to read what is inside of them – are like the act of walking itself, in that both can be the source of the most ineffable, restorative energy in the world. So of course Ms Woolf, on her winter perambulation through the streets of London to buy a pencil, ends up in a second-hand bookshop. In the shop she browses through an eclectic, miscellaneous mix of books becomes as serendipitous as her manifold impressions on the walk. Books are nomadic objects, “homeless books that have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather”, and when spotting a sorry looking stray book on a top shelf in need of a loving home, Virginia immediately sets off on one of her imaginative fugues and invents a story for the book. Many times have I enjoyed her sentences that engage what is perceived with imagination and an infinite care.
There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred year ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.“
Anonymity is a fine and desirable thing”, states Ms Woolf as she sets out on her evening walk. And anonymity is the condition that allows the undisturbed surveying of a lively scene that is not so much a rational activity as it is a sensibility, a mood, a fundamental openness to whatever meets the eye. It is Ms Woolf who constantly has to reign in the frivolous Virginia from her never-ending thinking, annotating, expounding and return her reluctantly to the actualities of the promenade. These transitions are from psychic space and time into actuality. They show us that a person is never one thing only; we have instincts, desires, and imaginative leanings utterly at variance with our main identity. Finally, as the short essay comes to its close and the lead pencil has been bought, Ms Woolf and Virginia have merged to constitute a complete person, and by implication a complete writer who s free to inhabit other subjectivities, free to explore sensibilities and moods in the existential flow of life, a writer of sentences that somehow impose a logic on the world’s weirdness, sentences that are exact, truthful, imaginative. “To escape is the greatest of pleasures”, concludes this celebration of quotidian pedestrianism, this celebration of curiosity and of an ideal travelling mindset; every time I had finished reading Woolf’s ambulatory ‘Street Haunting’ in the past I had come out feeling liberated, uplifted, reminded that no perception comes amiss, because one may feel and approach with equal gravity God and Pascal, or a bacterial infection and a falling leaf. As I walked through the streets of Kennedy Town, I reminded myself of passages from Woolf’s precious essay, and of how each time I had read it I had always found new things in it, always discovered new sentences in which logic and lyric meet that alter my perceptions. This afternoon in Kennedy Town I felt revivified by my perceptions of this genuinely terra firma, and I now suddenly found myself at the junction of Rock Hill Street and the steep Tai Pak Terrace, a tributary to Belcher’s Street that offers an immediate escape route from its hustle and bustle.
Let’s be honest here: Hong Kong is not always a good place for walks, and in many places it is an absolute failure in walkability. To be true, there are pedestrian paradises outside of the densely populated areas, mostly on the islands and in the countryside. But walking in Hong Kong is overwhelmingly chaotic and exhausting on the senses, it is shoulder-to-shoulder, and one ends up bumping into every other passing person. Most worryingly, I always find myself walking along some elevated walkway where I am forced to peek into gyms full of sweating lycra-clad men on treadmills staring at their phones. Hong Kong has lost much of its character as its fate has been determined, right up to the present day, by disastrously bad bureaucrats and exceptionally greedy real estate developers – two groups which, by the way, exist in a symbiotic relationship so revolting that it will set any sane head spinning. Urban planning, in which traffic always takes priority over pedestrians, has created many disasters, and as is clear for all to see, no one can vandalise a city like engineers – the engineers who think that cars constitute the ultimate form of transport, but who are really too old (or too lazy and too obese) to remember that life happens on foot. These engineers and urban planners go about their business in the name of rationalism, but their crimes of construction actually constitute crimes against humanity. Look around and one sees how much education man needs to be truly a creature of reason! However, walking in Kennedy Town conveys one important lesson, namely that if one cares to delve below the surface, and to veer of the main road, one has little difficulty in finding peace, discovering old ghosts, and seeing Chinese folk culture and customs still practised. It took all my shattered strength to walk up the stairs to Tai Pak Terrace, which runs at a steep gradient and at a considerable elevation, but still far beneath the Peak that rises up behind it. Tai Pak Terrace is one of the several short and quiet terrace streets on the hillside above Belcher’s Street that have changed very little over the years. On either side are rows of Chinese tenement houses most of them five storeys high and with balconies with iron railings, and the entire lane gives a good idea of what housing here would have looked like around the middle of the twentieth century. Up here, although it is only a short walk from the busy main road, one is in a sudden, massive quiet, far from traffic and the din of crowded assemblies. Up here, people look at you with curiosity, and some occasionally greet you. Bird song becomes notable on a background of the soft, steady droning of air condition units. A large withered and dried-out leaf fell to the ground with a loud rustle, enough to catch my attention and make me turn.
Lo Pan, God of Carpenters
Coming toward me was a dog walker, a young lady in her mid-twenties, probably of Indian extraction, who was walking six large dogs, each one about the same size as herself. I spotted among her canine retinue a poodle of stately proportions, a Labrador retriever, two German shepherd dogs, and a Rottweiler. I observed this group and marvelled at how well organised the party was. Each dog was panting with its mouth open and tongue out to cool down, but none were pulling their leash or attempting to drag the walker, whom I took to be a professional dog walker. In the Middle of Tai Pak Terrace she stopped, knelt down and poured water from a plastic bottle into a small, shiny metal bowl, and the dogs began to drink, but each after the other, one dog patiently waiting for the next one to finish before it would drink. Each dog displayed exemplary collegiality and as much gravity as their human supervisor, who waited patiently as they assuaged themselves. They took their time drinking, one of the German Shepherds snapped in vain at a passing butterfly. I sat down on a wooden bench to observe the disciplined operation, with each dog queuing up to drink from the bowl. The Indian girl was deeply focused on the activity and did not know that I sat a few paces away and observed her. At no time did she turn around to look at anything else than her dogs, in which case she would have seen me sitting alone on the wooden bench with nothing much to do except observe her feeding water to her dogs. I looked at the Rottweiler, which I have always found to be a most irritating dog. Its hind feet are slightly longer than its front feet, which makes it look laughable. This dog has always looked to me exceedingly primitive with its heavy, broad and muscular jaw and drooping eyelids half-covering tiny, piercing eyes, eyes evidently unlit by any spark of intelligence. Yet it always seems to carry itself with an air of importance and self-assured aloofness. A hideous, cretinous creation. But this particular Rottweiler that walked with its associates in Kennedy Town this afternoon looked attentively up at the walker, its head slightly tilted, and it waited patiently to be allowed to the water. This particular dog showed itself to be placid in basic disposition, even obedient, like it somehow knew its place. It was a most agreeable sight.
I once read in a book about Hong Kong that there used to be a Tai Pak amusement park on these hillsides above Belcher’s Street (Tai Pak Yau Lok Cheung) founded by a Chinese entrepreneur by the name Li Po Lung. Sprawling over these hills stood once a complex of magnificent but by no means grand structures, like small pagoda buildings and tea houses. I have never been able to find out much about this old recreational park, or to find any pictures of it, but I did once learn that the entrepreneur Li Po Lung honoured his namesake, the Chinese Tang dynasty poet, the shixian, the Immortal Poet, Li Po (or Li Bai) and named surrounding terrace paths – among them Hei Wong Terrace, Ching Lin Terrace, Hok Sze Terrace – after lines from Li Po’s poetry that were composed towards the middle of the eighth century. This entire area of steep backstreets between Belcher’s Street and Pok Fu Lam Road is atmospheric and unexpectedly green and tranquil, a place of little city oases passed by and preserved largely intact despite the breakneck speed of modern urban development. Poetry resounds around this hillside, and for a long time it has been one of my absolute favourite spots to walk in Hong Kong; every step feels like an arrival. I ended up sitting in the shade under a banyan tree in front of the Lo Pan Miu, a temple dedicated to Lo Pan, the God of Carpenters, in Ching Lin Terrace. Walking along Ching Lin Terrace I had passed a few other leisurely ramblers, individuals walking slowly, taking their time to look around and up, one person held a guide book in his hand, his thumb serving as bookmark, and carried a camera in a string around his neck.
In HK we are living with the gods; celestial beings appear on the pavements or lurk on street corners. From my very limited reading about the Chinese gods, I understand the pantheon of Chinese gods to be an extraordinarily colourful assemblage, richer and more creative perhaps than the ancient Greek or Roman pantheons. The gods slide between Taoist and Buddhist identities and are often made to embody Confucian precepts, and their number has developed with amiable inclusivity over the ages, to resemble a bureaucratic system, a little like an imperial court, in which gods can be promoted or demoted at any given time. Chinese gods include heavenly gods or celestial beings, the very top brass of the Chinese pantheon, then follow a large gathering of lesser gods, local and regional spirits, ancestor spirits that are of course manifestations of the dead, deified ghosts, and animal spirits. In addition to those there is a large crowd of colourful and idiosyncratic demons, which as I remember my book on Chinese ghosts and gods described memorably as ‘law enforcement agents, tasked with upholding the rules of hell’; as befits demons they stand in a tense relationship with humans, though they are not necessarily bad characters themselves.
As far as I have been able to find out, Lo Pan, whom we may regard as a type of patron saint for carpenters and people in the building industry, is not in the elite of this hierarchy of divinities; we may perhaps regard him as a type of middle management figure. Lo Pan, whose real name was Kungshu Pan, is one of those deified public heroes to whom people with time came to attribute miraculous powers and venerated in shrines. A real historical person, he was born 507 BC, that is in China’s Spring and Autumn Period, in what is now Shandong Province and he worked as a carpenter and engineer. Noted for his spirit of invention, it is said that he invented the saw as a young man after cutting his hand on a grass leaf with jagged edges. As with all bona fide Chinese gods, folk legend has accrued around him. One has it that his mother once walked to see her husband who worked as a stonecutter in a nearby quarry to deliver him lunch. As she sat down to rest on the way she dozed off and had a dream in which she saw her husband heaving a massive, glistening, semi-transparent rock from a mountain. She dreamed that she rushed toward him to help him with the rock. But then she awoke from her dream and immediately contractions began, and she gave birth to little Kungshu Pan, who soon acquired the nickname, the Rock. Another legend is that a big flock of cranes hovered above him when he was born, and for that reason he was understood immediately to be a celestial being. Apparently, birds flocked to him as they did to St Francis, who was friend with all the animals, because they recognized in him qualities that other people lacked. When I first read about this legend, it seemed to me entirely reasonable and not at all fanciful, as I have always thought that any person born with a flock of majestic birds circling above them, just like the person who understands the language of birds, ought to be recognised as a celestial being and worshipped in temples. Lo Pan’s association with birds continues for he is rumoured to have once constructed a large frame out of bamboo sticks and canvas which allowed him to take to the skies and reportedly fly for three days without landing. The authorities at the time, in what I consider as one of the major errors of judgement in the history of mankind, considered his invention rare but ultimately useless; they reprimanded him for inventing a ‘wood bird’ that so clearly served no discernable practical purpose, and ordered him instead to focus solely on developing tools for construction. I have always liked to imagine Lo Pan flying around merrily among the birds in the sky over Shandong Province for days on end. That he did so over two millennia before Leonardo da Vinci wrote his Codex on the Flight of Birds I can be sceptical about but I can never rule it out entirely.
Inside the Lo Pan Miu in Ching Lin Terrace is a large wooden statue of the carpenter God. He looks recognisably human, but also like some kind of hybrid, with something distinctly awesome and warrior-like about him. The statue is painted dark brown, and exhibits a long, full black moustache and beard that flows down over his chest. I drew up close to the statue to get a glimpse of his eyes, but it was difficult to make out details as the statue was unlit and located at the far end of the temple and out of reach for the rays of sunshine that shone in through the temple’s main entrance. But as I struggled to get closer I saw there was something vaguely kind about his face and eyes, and it struck me then that he might have a happy family and seek immortality just like the rest of us. To me the sculpture made an emphatic point about the proximity between this life and the next. Its materiality could be felt very strongly by any person who walked up close to it; it was an object that could be touched and felt, the scent of old woodwork was manifest, and a host of irreverent woodworms had drilled holes deep into the body of the figure – nature’s very own iconoclasm. I was looking at a real human whom some people in a distant past had elevated to divine status in recognition of certain powers that he had possessed; the soul of the dead had here been given an afterlife vocation. Indeed, in this realm gods, ghosts, and men are made of the same material; the partition had swung open.
The temple dedicated to Lo Pan was constructed in 1884 by the Contractors’ Guild of Hong Kong through donations from many people of Guandong Province connected with the construction industries. Occasionally people in the building industry come up the steps from Belcher’s Street to worship here and to pay homage to their industry sage. As they approach the temple from the bottom of Ching Lin Terrace they will all notice the thing that most clearly distinguishes this two-hall structure, which is its very distinct jagged roofline, an elaborate and ornamented ‘fire’ type parapet wall with a white fringe and populated by a host of clay sculptures and ceramic figures. I sat in the shade outside the temple and thought about how prone our religious creeds are to releasing richly populated tableaux on our architecture of worship. Didactic images for the masses is of course the somewhat dry, textbook way of looking at it, but it also reveals how insuppressible is our need to produce narrative and tell stories, even as we seek the pleasure of religious didacticism and dogma in the immobility of stone. When I had journeyed to some of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe many years ago I was confronted with a superhuman population, carefully sculpted and hierarchically arranged. I remember standing on a rainy and foggy day in December in Paris in front of the unforgettable tympanum of the Last judgment on the western façade of Notre Dame in Paris and here I saw sculpted biblical figures and the coterie of apostles, martyrs, and hermits arranged in orbs and circlets and with wondrous artifice. Floating around the assemblage, perceived by me through the drifting fog banks, were an army of fabulous and frightening grotesques and monsters, ominous stone guests from a mystical city. Inspection of this entire spectacle, originally intended as vivid teaching for the majority of the parishioners who were illiterate, could surely sate the soul. I was looking at strict dogma sculpted in stone, which pointed to a balance between word and image, and all elements of its iconography could be deciphered through a basic knowledge of biblical history, each individual populating the façade, apostle, saint, or martyr, could be identified through their distinguishing attire or insignia. With slight effort and study all opened up.
But finding myself now confronting the sprawling façade and gable of the Lo Pan temple in Hong Kong, I was confronted with a spectacle on a much smaller scale, but no less vivid and fantastic. On either side of main entrance were engravings of Chinese poems praising Lo Pan’s contribution to architecture and above it a frieze of black-and-white landscape paintings. A plethora of clay sculptures, paintings, and wooden carvings showed characters, plants, and animals and they populated the busy façade and rooflines. A rather large tableau that stretched along the rooftop contained brightly painted clay figures of persons, animals and fantastic creatures, ceramic figures that glistened in the sunshine. At some level, like the sculpted tympanum of a medieval church, the images give concrete form to divine truths, and so partake in the work that religions carry out all around the world. But the mural images, narrative friezes, and sculpted tableaux of this small Lo Pan temple seem particularly eclectic and playful, and not directly dogmatic as such; it was clear to me that they did more than instruct the believer what to believe. Much of it seemed to me, as I sat on a bench opposite the temple, to be various representations of literary classics and poetry, old Chinese legends and mythology, Buddhist foundation myths, and landscape paintings. Part of the charm of this very distinct iconography was that I was uncertain what category I was observing; human or literary history, legend and mythology, or spirit realm? All the fantastic creatures that sat in the sunshine and spent eternity here in Kennedy Town invite us to seek out meaning, they demand our interpretation. But they do much more than instruct a believer what to believe, and only some of it can be said to directly commemorate the god Lo Pan. To an uninitiated eye like mine all merged to form an elaborate anthology carved in stone of Chinese legend and culture and geography.
When I got up to enter the temple, it took a while for my eyes to get used to the darkness inside. There was a gentle whiff of incense from two large spiralling incense coils that hung directly above the entrance, and a low muffled sound from a transistor radio from adjacent room; I peeked into the room and saw a small elderly man asleep on a wooden couch, snoring audibly, clearly in a deep sleep as he had not responded to the sound of my steps. A thin blanket covered him and had been pulled up to rest the side of his head. He looked peaceful and I had no interest in disturbing him. I was the only visitor in the temple then and I walked up to the large table in front of the Lo Pan sculpture on which people had laid out offerings, here were pomelo, oranges, and apples, the latter with large gaping holes and inside them a colony of tiny, writhing black larvae. Small cups of tea had also been arranged on the table, together with several tiny red plastic chopsticks that looked like they had come from some child’s kitchen play set. With these plastic chopsticks it felt like we had entered some otherworldly aesthetic, an aesthetic of the afterlife, in which articles were to be understood as symbolic token articles, tiny, recognisable, but also fundamentally unusable. This was a realm that I recognised from pictures of ancient Chinese tombs in which everything recovered from there is a miniature version of real objects. Ghosts must be happy enough, I thought, with miniature surrogate objects that negate their own utility, as long as they are reminded reassuringly of common and familiar domestic household objects. I felt I understood ghosts a little bit better now. Around the walls of the two-hall temple structure were exhibited different styles of calligraphy and there were more ceramic sculpture tableaux that seemed to display self-contained narrative fragments, rich in conceited pathos.
I now noticed that another person had entered the temple behind me, and I turned around to see a young man, unusually tall, probably in his early thirties, wearing polished leather shoes, smart jeans and a white shirt. He would not look out of place in a high-end shopping mall in Central or Causeway Bay. He walked into the middle of the hall, took off his heavy backpack, opened it, and pulled out two bunches of fresh bananas. These he unwrapped from their plastic bags and arranged neatly on the table in front of the Lo Pan effigy. Next he took out a glass containing some sort of spicy sauce or other food condiment, and this he also put on the table, placing the tiny, red plastic chopsticks on either side of it. A few other items, all food or food related as far as I could tell, went up on the table. When I walked closer to get a proper look at the offerings I saw him taking out the last object which he also placed on the table, a tiny abacus, which looked like another kid’s toy. It was made of metal and looked brand new, shining like it was produced of a precious metal and the beads were fixed, unable to slide along the wires. It was another miniature object that negated its own utility. I was intrigued to see that as the young man placed the objects meticulously upon the table in front of the God of Carpenters he held up a sheet of paper with some writing on it. It looked as if he was cross-checking with a series of instructions as he placed things on the table, as if all was laid out according to some preconceived, perhaps ritualistic plan. I felt inclined to engage this person in conversation, but he seemed so completely absorbed in his work that I felt reluctant to disturb him. I went outside again into the sleepy terrace path and sat down on the bench opposite the temple. The man I had met, but who never seemed to notice me standing inside the dimly lit temple, had performed actions, rituals it looked like, the deeper meaning of which was lost on me. He had entered the temple dedicated to the god of carpentry and had somehow engaged with its mythology and recognised a transcendent aspect of existence. I speculated that the man might be employed in the Hong Kong building industry and that he might turn up here regularly to place propitiating gifts and ask for blessing before starting a new construction. Maybe the abacus was a tool used by architects and engineers in days long past and the small, token abacus he had placed was meant to invoke links with a long tradition. Or perhaps his superior had sent him to the temple with instructions for what offerings to bring to the deity and how to arrange them. The paper he checked so very carefully certainly looked like a set of instructions to be followed in the minutest details. Perhaps he represented family overseas who wished to follow a pragmatic tradition of worshipping any power that can benefit or pre-empt misfortune. In any case, that afternoon the young man had turned up in the temple in Ching Lin Terrace the same time that I had and he had done his bit to ensure a peaceful equilibrium between heaven and earth.
Well, the mysteries of religion make the universe more beautiful without entirely initiating us into them. The mysteries may resist our grasp, but with curiosity and enthusiasm alone we have the power to discover them, or so I thought as I sat on the bench under the banyan tree opposite the temple. Looking again at the front of the temple I was overcome with a feeling that all held meaning, that the entire composite of landscape murals, calligraphic carvings, and eccentric clay figures was pregnant with meaning. But it is not everything we need to understand. The incomprehensible is the miraculous; the un-understood world is the world of wonders. As I sat on my bench in Ching Lin Terrace I felt content enough to accept that. Opposite me was an assemblage of colourful gods and fantastic creatures; a small bird landed on the rooftop right on top of the sculpted ceramic head of an animal, probably a water buffalo, which was pulling a heavy carriage. I quickly ascertained that in Paris it would now be eight o’clock in the morning, the rays of the morning sun would be travelling slowly across the heavenly population depicted in the tympanum of the Last judgment on the western façade of the Notre Dame. In Hong Kong, as well as in Paris, saints were bathing in the rays of the sun; they die a little each day and wear away with time, such is their condition. A bird may land this very moment and dwell on the head of St Anne or Lo Pan, the god of carpenters, and for a minute, perhaps less, confirm the association between heaven and earth.
“Remember, Allan, that walking is healing.” Those were Dr Wang’s exact words to me, spoken in my hospital room on the eighth floor of the Sun Yat-Sen Cardiovascular Hospital on the day before I checked out after my six-week stay. It now struck me as a philosophical statement of the highest order. It was not a sentence read in a self-help book otherwise brimming with vacuous, self-evident truths, it was not spoken in a philosophy seminar, but the statement was part of an exchange between a doctor – a truly good person from both the medical and the personal point of view – and a patient who was in his care. The ‘Remember’ indicated to me that he was merely reminding me of something of which I was already aware, and that this was a statement that we both understood to be true. Both of us knew that walking and reflection on things human, all too human was one of life’s best stimulants, remedies, and palliatives. The statement seemed to me more precise than Pascal’s sentence that “our nature is motion, complete stasis is death”, a mere postulate. Dr Wang’s words, being uttered in the context of a hospital room, contained a piece of advice; it was a doctor’s order. The patient immediately recognised the words as good advice, which had to mean that the patient had within him the capacity for action.
I now thought to myself, as I sat on the bench outside the Lo Pan temple, that the best way to really know a person intimately would be to have this person offer up a glimpse into their impressions, reminiscences, spontaneous allusions, and random associations when taking a walk. The most revealing insight would not come in the form of a full record of a person’s online browsing and purchasing history, nor would it be through an understanding of an individual’s brand loyalty, now generally accepted as a synecdoche of character, thanks to an advertising industry relentlessly equating what one consumes with what one supposedly is. No, to really get up close and personal with someone then have the person share the full train of thoughts and creative and imaginative ideas or feelings when strolling casually through a landscape or a city without a clear destination. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we discover what that person is really like. Virginia Woolf knew that, I was sure, and Xavier de Maistre saw that one as well I thought.
Dr Wang had made his statement about walking at the end of my six-week long stay in the hospital in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen. At some stage the year before, a multiplication of gram bacteria had found its way into my bloodstream, a sickening little bacterium – each one a tiny nucleus wrapped in thick cell membranes that make it tough and flexible – and these bacteria had lit up like a goddamn lighthouse, or, to use an analogy that means more in HK, like a purple-coloured neon sign, to the professionals who determined my diagnosis, and by doing so were able to recommend the surgery which probably saved my life. Exactly how and when the bacteria had entered my system was a mystery; probably it was already there the previous Christmas when I travelled home, and my sister noted my lacking appetite and weight loss even before I had become aware of it myself. As I stayed in hospital after the heart surgery, I had entered my intellectual inertia and lay in bed feeling the melancholy passing of time. I became prey with increasing regularity to annoyance and irritation, but the smiles of young nurses had the power to put all sadness to flight.
Infective endocarditis. How could we talk about a beginning, does it ever begin? Where had it come from, at what point did it become perceptible, at what stage did it threaten to wipe me out? And when did it become imperceptible? Accepting that I would never know how the bacterial infection originated was not easy. To ask ourselves questions of this sort, to reflect on this and to go on worrying only aggravates our situation. As I now sat in front of the temple in Ching Lin Terrace I thought that as we go about our daily life we are at all times potentially subject to the gravest possible molestations, and we are unable to shield ourselves from these molestations. We may, as we say, look after ourselves; we habitually and inanely tell others to “take care”. We run through the rain with a hand over our head and think we are covered. We walk around in cities with severe air pollution and breathe through thin filter masks hoping it will filter out hazardous air pollutants and keep us safe. But we inevitably draw the short straw and pay the price of our common humanity. The morning when I checked out of the Sun Yat-Sen Hospital, I had gone to dr. Wang’s office to thank him and to ask if he considered it safe for me now to fly back home to see my family. “But you’re normal now!” had been his response. Now I wondered what the implications were of such a diagnosis? Of all the comments I continued to replay in my head, the one that was delivered to me as a piece of advice, that “walking is healing” was by far the most astute comment. Philosophically speaking it was by the greatest extent the right thing to say. But what does it mean to say I am normal? I now had artificial heart valves implanted, which, as doctor Wang, my valve mechanic, had assured me would set off metal detectors when I went to the airport to fly home to see my family. This did not seem normal to me, quite the contrary. How could a doctor know at any deeper level that I was now normal? Or far more disturbingly how could they know that I ever was normal? Normality, if I was to make any sense of it, must be intended with reference exclusively to the physiological state I was in at the time before my organism began harbouring a multiplication of gram-bacteria. The diagnosis of normality must refer to nothing except this previous physiological state before the bacteria began rushing philosophically through my cardiovascular system.
I knew from my school days that bacterial cells are present in every living organism and that we cannot live without them; I remember reading that bacteria were among the first life forms to appear on earth, and that they appear everywhere, thriving in the deepest depths of our oceans and in radioactive nuclear waste. Being omnipresent, once they appear inside our organism – in the wrong place inside our organism – we call them an infection; once they enter the bloodstream and create vegetations on our heart valves our experts diagnose them as a life-threatening infection. Should I understand my case of infective endocarditis as a case of matter out of place? Like sand which, once it is found by the sea we call a beach, but once it appears on our dinner table it has become dirt. Were the gram bacteria annihilated, killed off, was their growth merely inhibited, or had the bacteria been safely exorcised from my body and reintegrated into the cosmos to become once again omnipresent? These were mysteries that resisted my full grasp.
But what I did feel now, as I sat in the sunshine on a bench opposite the temple, was the presence of a new clarity; or perhaps I should go further and determine it as a new ambition, a new determination. I now felt an enormous appetite to be productive. In hospital I had all too easily succumbed to discouragement, I felt suspended in a milky melancholy, lacking vigour and determination. In my mental state of subtraction, I had slipped into a kind of apathetic coma. And I clearly let myself go; I did not feel like showering, and for the first time I went for six weeks without shaving. As I stood in my tiny bathroom I looked at myself through greasy glasses and saw a pathetic sight; the beard I had grown looked like a severe case of Dutch fur disease, a few black patches here and there intermixed with a rusty reddish colour, around my chin and neck was a proliferation of long, coarse, grey hairs, even white in many places; an appalling sight. But that was in the past. Now I had shaved and cleaned up and had a new desire to start afresh, a new intensity had made itself felt. This was not to say necessarily that a new strength had been accrued from my experience, or that I had been toughened by the encounter. I was sure this was not the cliché that I had come to a new awareness of how precious our time is and how we ought to make the most of the time we have. No, it was rather that I had become so oppressed by a gnawing sense of time wasted, by a feeling that I somehow lagged behind, or that I had some serious catching up to do. While I was in my state of intellectual inertia and of prolonged subtraction, not just in the hospital, but also in the time preceding my hospitalisation, where I had been a drastically compromised version of myself, my friends and colleagues had all achieved things at a normal rate. As I was in a time warp, a vacuum of time, their heads would have been stuffed full of all sorts of plans and future directions, and they will have had chance to realise those plans, at least in part, and to pursue those directions.
What I needed now, with my sharpened appetite for new knowledge, was to have a project to focus my mind. I desired to take the most precious thing we have, time, and honour it with choice, to place in it a blank piece of paper and a will to write, it was the choice to be productive, to defeat complacency. I needed to find out if the wheels inside my brain could still work. For the first time in six weeks, thinking outside the box now meant to think outside the narrow confines of my 10 sq m. hospital room on the eighth floor of the Sun Yat-Sen Hospital. Six weeks in hospital had been a time of absolute sluggishness, essentially an intellectual inertia, in which I often read several pages in a book without understanding a word of what I had read; but also paradoxically it had been a philosophical time. Now, with the arrival of the new ambition, my will desired nothing more urgently than to seek new knowledge, and to discover that condition in which I was best able to engage in new knowledge. I was prepared to take a deep breath and plunge with newly assembled energy into the element of knowledge and into a new writing project. An occupational therapy I would call it, or perhaps an act of repossessing my life by committing my mind to a new project. Realistically, I might not be able to produce really good writing, probably at best the overtures of a young-ish dilettante, but even so, the ambition to write would be there, and that ambition felt good and liberating now. If nothing else, I had a wish to be more compelling in my confusion or stupidity, or rather in my confusion and stupidity. I probably never thought that I would be capable of producing remarkable work. I may not have it in me, as the saying goes; actually I may never have had it in me, come to think of it. But then, there are lots of people for whom not having it in them has not stopped them from writing books. What’s more, I had an idea for something I wanted to explore and perhaps write about, and that required me to leave Kennedy Town behind, at least for now, and make my way to the old Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley. It was still afternoon and there was time enough for me to make a trip across town. I got up from my bench opposite the Lo Pan Temple in Ching Lin Terrace, and walked into the temple again to take my leave of Lo Pan himself and get another whiff of the burning incense. The young man whom I saw place the bananas and an abacus as offerings before the Lo Pan figure was still there in the middle of the total quiet looking at his sheet of paper. Again I was tempted to go and talk to him, but then I recalled the phrase from Woolf’s precious essay on street haunting that “anonymity is a fine and desirable thing”, and I let him be alone. Against the dark rear wall of the temple was the elaborate altar with the large wooden sculpture of Lo Pan, the God of Carpenters. He had not moved since I was last inside, and sat with a calm, fixed gaze directed towards the main entrance of the temple. As he sat there lounging away eternity, it seemed to me that his demeanour was less threatening, less warrior-like, than it was serene and determined; it was the gaze of a person who had dreamt life’s dream most beautifully. That this individual, at once man and celestial being, had managed to build a ‘wood bird’ that enabled him to fly high in the air with the birds for days suddenly seemed entirely credible.