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  • James Tam

My Hundred-Year-Old Neighbour Mr. Chan

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

I’ve lived in the same building for more than half a century now. Standing twelve storeys high, it was the tallest structure on Robinson Road in 1958, if not all of Mid-Levels. We were surrounded by colonial style mansions and low-rise apartments. Until the mid-sixties, we could pick wax apples just across the street. The neighbourhood, like everything else in Hong Kong, had since changed beyond recognition. The panoramic view of Victoria Harbour has long disappeared, replaced by a barricade of oppressively tall buildings, spotted with industrial-standard windows that never open.

The condo was reincarnated from the family mansion of pharmaceutical tycoon Mr. Wai Shao Bo, his four wives, and twenty odd children. After Mr. Wai passed away, it was redeveloped into the present apartment block — an innovative idea to keep the huge family together, yet giving each unit its own legal division and physical compartment. Unlike rich and incestuously litigious Hong Kong families these days, the Wais were highly educated and disciplined (the kids were dressed in family uniform to avoid fashion competitions), and evidently understood the toxic vulgarity of having too much.

Thanks to the Wai’s controlling ownership and restrained preferences, our building had remained largely unchanged for a long time. The circular dials showing the elevators’ whereabouts were retrofitted with digital displays only in the 1990s. The lobby was substantially renovated for the first time around its fiftieth birthday.

Back then, our modern building still had the ambience of a rural village. Everyone knew each other. Kids played in the corridors and communal courtyards, screaming when tagged; no one would call the police. In the summer, it was common to keep the front doors open (every household had an open-grille folding gate) to invite a breeze. Passing neighbours might stop to chat, and peek at what’s on the dinner table. They’d be invited to join, but never did. I watched TV at old Prime Mrs Wai’s humble flat when my mum let me, sitting on a tiny wooden stool. Old Mrs. Wai and her amah Gum Jie were like grandmothers to me, and sisters to each other.

All that, like past lives, had long been forgotten. Meanwhile, I had lived abroad for more than ten years. When I returned, many of the flats had changed owners, or the second generation had taken over. Nowadays, in the elevator, we swipe smart phones to avoid greeting stupid neighbours.

A few weeks ago, in a bout of nostalgia, I wanted to interview old people to find out what life in Hong Kong was like in the earlier half of the last century. My wife suggested a bearded old man who had announced exuberantly to her in the lobby that he was turning 100 on the Seventh Moon this year. Through the building guard’s introduction, we visited Mr. Chan and his 96-year-old wife. She turned out to be the daughter of Old Mrs. Wai, and remembered me watching TV at her mum’s home. I was in pre-school. She was in her early forties. I had no recollection of her.

Mr. Chan used to manage his father-in-law’s Tai Wo Hospital. He learned Qi Gong from a Tibetan lama for years, and was once a dedicated yogi. He recounted how his Ren and Du meridians came unblocked for the first time when practising in the Cricket Club lawn, and was eager to demonstrate his third-eye chakra (between the brows) pulsating to focused breathing. Coming from a centenarian practitioner, the story was doubly enchanting.

Old Mr. Chan walked without a cane, though he stumbled slightly with nonchalant confidence. It worried his wife who had to rely on a walking aid. His bookshelf was full of hand-copied (with a traditional Chinese brush) Buddhist sutras which he generously said I could borrow. I would have loved to; but they were simply too precious, and incomprehensible to me in their ancient prose. Having put a hand to them was enough magic to me.

After three quarters of a century, every moment is precious

Hand-copied Buddhist sutras and Qi Gong manuals

All the kids have retired from a successful career

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