Justine Chan


Justine Chan is a Chinese American writer and singer-songwriter from Chicago. She holds an MFA in Prose from the University of Washington in Seattle. She earned her BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in English and Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Beecher’s, Booth, Poetry on Buses, Sun Star, and Midwestern Gothic among others.


To the Howling and Back

The night the boy and his mother waited—and waited—and waited for his father to come home was boiling. An August night in Hong Kong. The month of ghosts. The room seared, hazy with steam. The wallpaper rasped and curled at the edges. The boy was in his undershirt, having taken off his nice clothes, the blue cotton shirt and thick tweed trousers, and his mother was in just a slip. They stayed at the kitchen table. The boy played with a little lizard, trapping it under his hands, while his mother slowly waved a paper fan.

At 11:00, his mother slammed down the fan. Fuck this, she said. Enough. She pulled a dress over her head and grabbed the boy’s hand. They went downstairs and down the blazing dark streets to the little store. It was closed, the ridged tin door all the way down. But they grabbed some sticks from the ground and banged on the door rat-tat-tat-TAT-rat-TAT-tat-tat-rat! like it was a battle drum, echoing hollow metal through the night against the dead heat. Until the door rolled up partway and the old man shopkeeper crouched and poked his head out. Jok sei! What do you want for nothing! And the boy’s mother shouted, We want ice cream! And the boy jumped and cheered, We want ice cream! We want ice cream! We want ice cream! Until the old man sighed, shaking his head, and turned on the lights and rolled the door all the way up. They took their time picking, the cold of the freezer glass nice against their elbows and arms. They even bought a popsicle for the old man, but he shook his head and smiled, tired. I can’t have sugar. Diabetes. They took their ice cream and their sticks and ate sitting on a curb. Several blocks away, small crowds gathered on the corners around their coffee cans, burning hell money in scattered fistfuls for the ghosts. The fires roared tall, wisps licking at the falling paper. Thrown coins clinked on the cement. The faint smell of rotten fruit rose thick. The night air warped, unsteady and hot and dark. The boy’s mother wrapped her arm around the boy’s sticky shoulder and pulled him close.

When they got back to their apartment, the boy’s father still had not arrived. Instead, there was a chill in the room, unfurled blue. A ghost. The boy yelled.

There were many possible excuses why the boy’s father could not be there: his first wife threatened to murder him in his sleep, three of his other six or seven children had a hacking cough, his bus in the Mainland broke down, he tried to take a picture of something but a goat knocked him down and broke his nose, he got food poisoning from lunch in Macau, he lost all his money in an intense game of mahjong, he missed the ferry to Hong Kong or it broke down and sank right in the middle of the ocean, the junk of the fisherman who saved him ran into another junk and sank, he loved his first wife and their six or seven children more and would not dream of leaving them, it was too hot, the communist police would not let him cross the border, his large bribes did not work this time, he did not have the correct paperwork, he did not love her and their boy enough, their marriage was not even legal, the bus to Kowloon broke down, the taxi cab he tried to take drove him in circles, all the colors of Choi Hung Chim made him fall down in a hallucinogenic fit, it was too dark, he got lost and wandered into a brothel, it was too late, he simply forgot, or he fell in love with another young woman and followed her home to meet her parents and ask for her hand. The boy’s mother would not call the first wife to ask.

But there was only one excuse why there would be a ghost. What did you do? the boy’s mother said, turning to the boy, pulling him back behind her. She could not see the ghost, but she could feel it towering, empty and hungry, shifting its feet, in the middle of the room. She shivered. The air was cool now, the door behind her dewy. It could not be the ghost of their ancestor—this was not their land. The boy stared, but in a discerning way, feet to torso to face. Do you see it? She crouched down to his height. Yeah, the boy said. He pulled out the tiny lizard from his pocket. Well, what do you see? The lizard drooped in his palm. It did not lift its head anymore. Some guy. And what does he look like? —Tall. In white clothes. —Young or some gung gung? —Uh, a grown-up? —Long hair over his face? Short hair? The boy laughed. Short hair, duh! —And does he look hungry or sad or angry?

The frightening matter was not that there was a ghost, but that the boy could see the ghost. He was not the same as he was before, five months ago. She saw the whole thing happen across the square, the firecracker that had blown up right next to his head, but she was too far. She chased away the other boys, cursing and whacking them with a stick, but her own boy was on the ground curled up with his hands over his ears. When she picked him up, brushing away dust, he had a wounded, wild, distant look in his eye. She took him to the doctor, and the doctor shined a flashlight into the boy’s ears. Partial deafness. Trauma. His hearing may get better when he gets older, you never know. And she did not know. Sometimes he seemed normal, and he could hear her over the buzzer when she cut his hair. But sometimes she had to yell so loud. And sometimes he seemed to hear things she couldn’t, and sometimes he couldn’t hear her at all: Don’t you dare pick up the ghost money unless you want one to follow you home—

The boy put the lizard back into his pocket. Sad, right? he nodded to the ghost. The ghost nodded back and shrugged his shoulders. He was very solid. His white pajamas were like hand-me-downs from a giant fat man. He looked older, as old as the boy’s mother, but there was something in his face, as if he looked exactly the same as he did when he was little. The ghost had deep, sad eyes. He gave the boy a wan smile, and sort of rocked to himself, as if embarrassed to be there. But he kept glancing at the clock, like he was waiting. Maybe they were both waiting for the boy’s father, and there would be gifts for all of them.

You took his money, didn’t you? The coins on the ground, right? Earlier today? the boy’s mother asked, smoothing down the boy’s hair. They were tired. The ghost must have been tired and too polite to take a seat without their leave. In the direction of the ghost, she said, We’re very sorry for disturbing you. He’ll give it all back. And to the boy, Do you remember where you put the money? Let’s go get it. The boy ran ahead of her, but she did not quite know where to step, so she gingerly inched around the edges of the small room, touching all the solid things, as if blind or weak. Sit! Sit! She pointed at the sewing machine chair and the stools at the kitchen table.

She found the boy on the top bunk, at his treasure shelf. He showed her two dull coins. Queen Elizabeth the Second. Come on already, she said. With the coins in hand, the boy’s mother regained her composure. She scraped out the old rice from the pan into a bowl, opened a tin of lo pau biscuits, and lit three sticks of incense and waved the scent around the apartment. She set everything with some chopsticks on the table. The boy brought out the jar of orange sugar and a spoon as well as a couple of lychees. She made the boy and herself stand in front of the ghost with their hands pressed together, bai-sun style, slightly bowed. Please eat your fill, brother. You may stay as long as you need to. The boy nodded. He’s happy, Ma.

And with that, they went to bed, closing the door behind them. Before the boy’s mother turned off the light, the two of them stayed sitting in their own bunks, the curtains drawn, looking at their treasure shelves. The boy took the lizard from his pocket and laid it next to his little boat, and for the first time, his mother took off the jade bracelet her husband had given her and rubbed her freed wrist. And for once during that summer they slept well, in the air cooled by the ghost.


The next morning, though, the ghost was still there. The boy’s father was not there, not waiting at the kitchen table with the best gifts for them—a color TV, sweets, pretty dresses for his second wife, a new toy boat and dragon kite for the boy. If the father had been there, he would apologize profusely and elegantly, and embrace them, and sweep them out of the door to eat dim sum. He would take the boy’s hand and weave through the tables to each of the carts pushed by the old women who yelled, ha gau! siu mai! cha siu bao! as if those dishes were the most important news of the day. The boy’s father would have the old women lift up the lids on all the steamers so the boy could have a look and pick which ones he wanted. Then the boy’s mother would look up to see them carrying the dishes to the table triumphantly—the boy with the steamers high above his head, cheering, Look what we found! And she would smile and clasp her hands together. After dim sum, they might have gone to the beach so the boy could go swimming or on a walk around the island where the rich gwai lo lived, looking at all the big pretty houses. Or they might have ridden a rickety little bus up one of the mountains to look down at Kowloon and point at where they lived—the Technicolor buildings down there, tiny and neat—and eat dou fu fa with lots of sugar. Or they really did not have to go anywhere at all. The boy would be happy with a sheet of little egg pastry, fresh off the press, in a crinkly brown paper bag. And his mother would be happy walking around, snapping pictures with her husband’s camera.

Instead, there was the ghost hovering in the bathroom. It was drizzling outside and much cooler. The rice had gone stale and sour, and the incense had burnt itself to an ashy sweet lingering. The boy and his mother rubbed their eyes and sighed a little, but they would not be impolite. It was not the first time the boy’s father deserted them, but it was the first time they had a ghost. One had to take care of ghosts; any one could be an ancestor—they were all related somehow. The only thing they asked of the ghost was to please leave the bathroom when they had to go, and they asked if it needed anything. But it did not nod or shake its head, only drifted through the walls between the rooms. And still, the boy set out another towel for the ghost as well as a new toothbrush, the red one, while the boy’s mother unrolled a bamboo mat on the floor of the bedroom and set up a blanket and pillow. And for breakfast, the boy’s mother scooped out another bowl of congee and the boy gave the ghost his congee spoon, the one with a little train on it, and slurped from a plain grown-up spoon. Well, we have errands to run today, so you can join us, or stay here and rest. Whatever you like, the mother explained to the ghost, but half-watching the boy. The boy looked at the ghost and nodded and beamed. He wants to come. —Did he say so? Or, I mean, does he talk? The boy looked at the ghost again. No, he doesn’t talk. He just points. —Well, does he have shoes? —No, but we can buy him some, right? The boy looked so hopeful she could not say no.

So, the ghost followed them to the gai si, right in the middle of the mid-day rush. The ghost was less substantial in the daylight, just a sliver of outline, almost a blue white, the color of the ocean on a cloudy day. The boy did not like the gai si in the rain, especially how the green tarps all dripped, how the melting ice under the glittering fish dripped, how the blood dripped from the butcher stands, how the fruit was all wet, how all the people were wet and pushier than usual with their elbows and bristling umbrellas, how everything was louder, the merchants shouting over the rain, mai lei tai, mai lei gaan! He was not tall enough yet. He held his mother’s hand and the ghost’s, so the ghost would not get lost. The boy’s mother bought choi sum, radishes, longon, some pork shoulder, sausages, bean vine, eggs, tomatoes, and a big fish, and tucked them into her food cart. She could almost not afford it all, but when the boy’s father did not come, this is what she had to do: cook a feast for them all. That way, the boy would never feel poor.

Before dropping everything off at home, they went to the kerosene man who refilled their stove canister. And then they went to the tiny alleyway shop that sold children’s black school shoes. The shopkeeper had the boy put his socked foot against a flat metal board to measure his feet. So, is our friend still around? the boy’s mother asked. Yeah, he’s here, the boy said. We can buy him those brown work shoes. The shopkeeper looked around for another pair of feet to measure but saw nothing. He tried not to assume anything, but with shoes, he liked to explain, one had to try them on beforehand and take a few steps. But the mother said, No, we will get him something even better, something that will last him back at home. And she did mean well—at the end of the lunar month, the ghost would return to hell, with all the rest of the ghosts, and the gates would close. She would buy him a house there, maybe a car, and send a lot of money. It was the best thing she could do.

But if anyone else in the city actually saw the ghost, they did not say so to the boy and his mother. They did not matter to most folks, but the ones who knew of them, the old ladies always in the square cackling and peeling oranges, were always surprised to see them, especially the mother. It was not that they did not like her—they liked talking about her. She was just not a proper lady, always walking around with branches in her hand and banging on things, a mad drummer woman. Her husband was never around, but she was pretty and quite young and careless. And she must do something extra if she was to raise that boy all by herself, maybe in the Walled City. And the more they talked about her, the more they just wondered about the Walled City itself: Was it really so dangerous, scandalous, thrilling, so wonderful? Were there really old cannons and lawless butchers and brothels and opium dens and dank, dripping, and narrow alleyways pitch black in the day and this desperate need to crawl and climb up to the roof to reach for sun?

The boy’s mother took the boy and the ghost to the coffin district, in an even older part of the city, where they had never gone before. The sky was overcast, dark and rumbling. She did not want her son there, but she needed him to tell her what the ghost wanted in his next life. They jumped over puddles. All the fronts of the coffin shops seemed alive, rustling with enormous bouquets, red ribbons, paper mansions, paper life-sized servants, paper watches, paper televisions, paper bicycles, paper diamonds, paper Cadillacs. The coffins slunk quietly, like small, dark submarines, in the back behind all the colorful paper life.

Can you ask our friend what he wants here? the mother said, but her son hid himself, burying his face in her back. Come on now, she said. But he was no help. The ghost was no help. The rain started to pour. She said, Fuck this, and bought a packet of hell money, a paper toolkit, and a small paper house. Practical things for a ghost. Everything came folded tightly and wrapped in plastic already, but she made the shopkeeper give her a big plastic bag for everything. Then at home, she cooked them a feast. She set up the ancestor altar with oranges and rice wine and incense, like at New Year's. For nights, she joined the folks outside at their sidewalk fires with all the paper things folded and big in her arms. She threw everything into the flames. She threw coins into the street. She left oranges in bunches of three. She muttered every blessing she could think of.

But no matter what, the boy’s father never called to explain. And no matter what, the ghost stayed. If the ghost could talk, he would tell his story: he did not care for money or the gifts. Of course, he was hungry, like all the other ghosts, but he was different than them. He was not anyone’s ancestor—he had no children—he was young when he died—but he slipped out of the gates when they opened. He could not take the howling. He knew to come back to Kowloon, but he could not bring himself to return to the Walled City. He had been living there, working as a shopkeeper’s assistant, carrying bags of rice on his shoulders and stacking crates and taking inventory of the canned food. It was filthy, the trash and rats and urine everywhere, the people everywhere, the heat, the narrow and dark winding labyrinths that led nowhere but to more squalor. He had hated it but was too poor to leave. And in the very middle of it was the girl he loved. She looked like a movie star with her dainty cheekbones and long black hair that she curled at the ends. But she was the girlfriend of one of the triad leaders who would beat her when he got drunk. And the ghost—when he was alive—would try to convince her to leave him—run away with me—like they do in the movies. He would bring her white and yellow plumerias. But the triad boyfriend—he, too, looked like a movie star with his greased back hair and denim vests and cigarettes—caught him and dashed his head with a crowbar. The ghost died remembering the color of his own blood, the pale moon face of the girl he loved.

He could not explain to the boy and his mother that he liked them very much. And also, he was not brave enough to go back to the Walled City to see the girl he loved. It had been some time, and she was older. She might have married the triad leader and had his children. She might have been less beautiful than he remembered, but that was all right. But the most frightening thing was that he might realize he loved her less than he did before, or maybe not at all. That he wasted his life.

He did not care about vengeance—it was a good thing he had died. There was one less poor person to weigh the world down. But he could not go back to the underworld, to the howling and waiting—and waiting—and waiting.

So, he stayed. And the boy told him stories up on his top bunk with the curtains drawn around them. He told him about how the word for deaf, yi lung, meant “ear dragon,” and because he was somewhat deaf, that meant that there was a dragon living in his ear. Even tinier than the tiny lizards. And the ear dragon would crawl out one day and become a giant dragon with wings and fly up into the sky. And the boy took the ghost to school with him. And the ghost would stand up with the boy and hold his hand when he got a question wrong and had to stand there, shamed and silent. And the ghost would play with the boy at breaks when none of the other children would—because the boy was strange and half-deaf—and they would dig for seashells in the sand of the long jump pit with all the other children, and float tin toy boats in puddles, and catch tiny lizards together.

And the boy’s mother told the ghost her stories, when she stopped trying to get rid of him. She had to say, Fuck this, at her own ridiculousness. He was not like other ghosts. So she took him to the small shop where they cut out stacks of cloth that would become shirts and dresses, and took a stack—whatever they needed her to do—and wrapped it in a larger piece of cloth and tied the bundle to her back. And while she sewed the shirts and dresses at home, the ghost sat on a stool next to her and she told him about being a little girl in the village. How she had to work in the fields and feed the pigs, how she and her sisters would catch clams in the river, how New Year’s was the only time she got new shoes and clothes—they were always too big so that she could grow into them. How the Japanese soldiers invaded their village and she and her sisters had to hide and run. Sometimes the story was so brilliant, and she was so alone, she was crying. She still could not see the ghost, but she could feel him around her, strong and gentle.

The boy and his mother took the ghost to the beach to play with stray dogs in the water, to the tarped food stands for big bowls of wonton mein, to the mountainsides to hike, to Tsim Sha Tsui to ride the ferry to Hong Kong Island, the salty breeze ruffling through their hair. They took him to all these places so he would remember them, one day when they were dead and wandering and hungry and lost, for their kindness. And they took him, really, because they loved him. They would never admit it, though. One does not admit one loves a ghost.

And this is not a story about a boy and his mother. Or a story about a ghost. But a story about how the boy’s father came back one day, long after the month of ghosts, long after the gates of hell had closed and the late summer heat flared again (and the boy would disappear, wild, wandering and looking and picking up any coin in the streets), maybe in the winter when all the plumerias and red violet Hong Kong orchids are open and the air is cold, with no gifts for either of them but a long serious face at the door, and the boy and his mother took out their branches and started banging on the walls and the table and the pans and the door rat-tat-TAT-tat-RAT-tat-RAT-tat-tat-TAT-TAT—their battle cry—and chased the boy’s father away RAT-TAT-tat-tat-RAT-TAT-tat-tat—banging their sticks down the stairwell and into the square and into the city this tat-tat-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-tat-tat crazy and trying, this RAT-TAT-TAT-RAT-tat-RAT-TAT-TAT-RAT to reach the underworld, cheering and crying, We want our ghost back! We want our ghost back! We want our ghost back!

I don't remember how this story came about so much as calling up my mom and interviewing her about her childhood in Hong Kong in the 1960s. It was the most fun; there were so many details I wanted to get right. And even though I had been to Kowloon City many times on family trips, it wasn't until I did more research that I discovered the Walled City and its fascinating history in that neighborhood. I hope I was able to capture all the magic. This story is very much for my mom and her mom, whom I call Pau Pau.