Ethan Luk writes about disappearing phone booths, letter writing, daily assemblies, a magnolia alba tree, hotel rooms, and more.
I met an artist, M, who only paints people and objects that are gone. The jade necklace of the grandmother he never met. The window with masking tape in his childhood San Po Kong apartment. The tree on Wing Lee Street that uprooted from the worst typhoon. It was the summer of 2022 when I visited his studio in Wan Chai. That summer, people were leaving Hong Kong in droves, immigrating to various countries.
M was working on a portrait of his close friend who moved to Germany. In the painting, his friend is secluded in a PCCW phone booth, wearing nothing but a pair of navy shorts. Telephone booths are becoming extinct in Hong Kong. I learned from M that most of the remaining payphones make less than one Hong Kong dollar a day—the cost of one local call.
I imagined what it’s like to be a phone booth. To be stationed on the street just to wait for one person to enter and deliver a message. A phone booth is a space carved out of hurriedness, a box that preserves the privacy and pleasure of a conversation. A phone booth is also isolated. It does not fit in with its landscape, nor does it look like the bridge of communication one hopes it to be. The ghostliness of a phone booth at night inspires one to imagine all the different people who once found solace there when the booths were still popular. A stoic businessman who worked at HSBC. A street sweeper in a neon yellow vest. A boy in his starched uniform, running to the booth from the secondary school ten minutes away on foot. But all I could imagine were archetypes, the faint outlines of strangers. The booth must know more about these people: how they apologised for arriving late to family dinners, how they laughed, whether they cried loudly or softly.
My paintings can take anywhere between two weeks and a year, M said. I surveyed the studio and noticed all the sketches that lay around the stools, the desk, and the walls. The paint palettes and dried-up brushes left unwashed in the rusted sink. A painting is a message drafted again and again. I admired M for this—how he was not bothered by the inefficiency and inconsistency of his practice, but instead, accepted a simple truth: some things just take more time to be communicated. To M, there was no need to rush or tamper with the gradual unravelling of articulation.
What’s the title of the portrait? The one of your friend? I asked.
I Haven’t Said Farewell Yet.
My aunt has been living alone for the last twenty years. She lost her husband to brain cancer. She has since been living on the sixth floor of a Cha Kwo Ling tong lau, an apartment only accessible by a steep, tiled staircase.
The objects in her home spanned eras. She collected vintage Coca-Cola and Vitasoy bottles, tin lithograph toys, faded price lists of Sheung Wan barbershops, and a seven-foot tall weighing machine from the demolished Palace Theatre. On the wall above her desk, she hung twenty antique clocks—each of a different brand and model. One of her most prized possessions was a Seiko clock from Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station when the train line opened in 1979. The time travel that occurred in her apartment was not so much going to a specific year or location, but to a realm where time had stopped. Just look at the wall: none of the hands on the clocks moved anymore. But even though time had stopped, time was not absent. It left traces everywhere in the apartment.
The summer my aunt lost her husband, she sank into deep depression. It was 2003, the year of the SARS epidemic, and the year her favourite pop singer, Leslie Cheung, fell to his death from the Mandarin Oriental. She said that the weather was the most unbearable: how the combination of heat, humidity, air pollution, and sickness coiled around Hong Kong like a python. Sleep eluded her. Breathing became difficult because she couldn’t muster up the energy to vacuum. Summer festered and there was nothing to be done. She spent June, July, and August curled in bed, listening to old Deutsche Grammophon recordings.
One morning, my aunt stepped out onto the balcony to see the sunrise over Kai Tak. Living in Cha Kwo Ling, one of the last surviving squatter villages in Hong Kong, gave her the illusion that she was the only person alive and awake on that day. Within the stillness, my aunt realised she was breathing without difficulty. It was as if the great python had unwrapped itself around the edges of the city, giving way for air, coolness, and possibility to filter in. September had arrived. As the heat subsided throughout the month, she began to get out of bed more frequently. She started to clean.
Every day, she gave herself the task to fill a red-white-blue bag with old things she no longer needed. Mouldy comic books, yellowing music scores, unfitting clothes, and expired food. The more she emptied her apartment, the happier she became. She filled over fifteen bags. It was as if the process of reorganising her surroundings had, in turn, reorganised herself.
In the summer of 2022, she was going through another period of purging. She was too weak to complete the task on her own because she recently fell on the steep staircase. I helped her go through her belongings, asking her to classify each item according to three categories: keep, throw away, and unsure. She had trouble determining which item belonged to which category.
By the end, we filled eight bags.
Do you feel better now? I asked her.
No. Everything seems to have meaning to me now.
Something has to disappear in order for a city to be a city. Something has to be discarded in order for a home to be a home. Something has to pass in order for time to be time. Why are there still painters, phone booth users, antique collectors, and letter writers? What makes them engage with deliberate slowness, when vanishings happen at paces that elude touch?
Three years ago, I started writing letters to my friends. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and many of my friends found new homes across the world. Y was in Istanbul; N was in Michigan; P was in Connecticut; and D was waiting for a flight home from Italy. I made a list of ten friends who meant the most to me. I decided to write a letter to each of them. I would only receive two replies.
P was one of the two people who sent me a reply. I am often too embarrassed to sit down and re-read their letter, because it reminds me so vividly of a past self that I am not brave enough to claim or even recognise:
I know you are hiding. Hiding behind other names, characters, stories, and expectations. I just want you to know that I see it. I also want you to know I constantly think about you. I hope that one day you can be the man you want to be. To be the man/men you write about in your fantasies. I hope you find more memories that make you feel risky and reckless.
After receiving P’s letter, I decided not to write letters anymore. Reading their letter was like staring into the sun for too long. I was left feeling both warmth and intrusion. The letter left considerable residue—I couldn’t stop thinking about these questions for days: Have I grown? Have I become riskier and more reckless? Am I still hiding?
The night before P was put on academic probation, we went on a long drive. We both understood the uncertainty that lay ahead. They would have to go back home to their father who interrogated their desires: why they wanted to pursue film, why they liked girls, why they dyed their hair in that colour, and why their eyes were always drawn to somewhere beyond Connecticut. I would lose a cherished presence at school. The friendships I treasured the most were the ones that relied on unspoken codes. At the time, P was one of the few people in my life who understood I could be queer without coming out. They were not pushed away by my hiding, but instead, embraced it without judgment. Outside the car window, the interstate revealed itself like a sentence that never ends. How I wanted that sentence to stretch on to infinity. How I wanted to be as bold as the interstate, to unfurl across the invisible and unknowable with such straightforward ease. How I wanted us to believe that we could be as bold as the interstate.
A letter has distinct coordinates. It departs from one location and arrives at another. It leaves the hands of one person and lands in the hands of another. We trust that during the journey between coordinates, an intermediary—be it a ship, a plane, or a postman—would see a letter to its end. I do not think friendships are so clear-cut. I do not remember when or why P and I became friends. I do not remember when or why we lost touch. A letter provides a rare, false clarity. A letter is a map for land that knows no borders, no geography.
What makes things worth keeping? Why are some things more disposable than others? How does attachment bud and grow?
In my childhood bedroom, there was a drawer in which I stored all the items another person would throw away. I kept receipts from the revolving sushi restaurant in Admiralty, a folded note a girl handed to me after orchestra practice in primary school, numbered stickers from failed auditions, and tickets of any kind. But among the pile of objects, there was one thing I had wanted to find for years but couldn’t.
The last time I saw T was in Mong Kok station. We were fourteen. It was the summer of 2016—a week before I left Hong Kong for the USA. The train doors closed. As T went up the escalator, I hoped he would turn his head to look at me through the window. He didn’t. The train chugged into the tunnel that would take me across the harbour. His last words landed in my mind as soft echoes. He said goodbye with such nonchalance. There was no hugging. He didn’t slip a note into my pocket. I checked. Did he even care? Then, I remembered that I played it down as well. Did I show that I cared? There were many things I could have said that night, but I held myself back. We both clung to opposite shores for safety, unable to dive towards the depths where we thought isolation resided. But it was, in fact, the meeting point where we would find and console each other.
For years, I deceived myself. I labelled what happened between me and T as nothing but a close friendship. It took me much longer to admit that it was more. I do not blame myself for the delusion. I do not blame T either. We were too young, too “boyish,” too shy, and yet, too brusque. The casualness of that goodbye avoided unnecessary melodrama. No one cried. No one was heartbroken. Perhaps it was better that way—to move on first, and let the wound surface later. I still wonder if we were to meet each other again, would we finally be able to ask all the questions we didn’t know how to articulate back then? Would time be able to sharpen language, to guide truths to emerge from the depths, and grant us a chance at clarity? To build upon what was undeniably there but simply unsaid?
T and I went to a school famous for its magnolia alba tree. The tree’s canopy towered over five stories of red bricks. Its fragrance was dulled by the idling of minibuses outside of the school gate. We crumpled test papers and cried under it. Teachers disciplined students under it. Janitors took smoke breaks under it. The tree was older than the school itself. It is said that the architect of the school decided to build the bricks around the tree back in 1923, stunned by its fortress-like solemnity.
Every school morning began with an assembly. The head of discipline, Mr Cheng, planted himself centre stage of the auditorium as the clocks struck eight fifteen. We filed into the hall in ironed button-up shirts, white socks not exceeding ankle length, and polished black leather loafers. The rubber soles were weathered from recess games in primary school—the games we suddenly deemed too immature for secondary school. Our class teachers shepherded us to our assigned rows. We sat down and opened a book of prayers and hymns in our laps, flipping through the pages with one hand, wiping away bits of leftover sleep crumbs with the other. The more rebellious ones would chat discreetly, maybe even pass notes under the chairs. If Mr Cheng heard as much as a rustle among us, he raised his arm to calm the commotion. Such a gesture was enough to send a quiver through the hall.
When the boy at the piano landed his hands on the last chord of a cantata, we rose up. Mr Cheng left the stage. We opened our mouths to sing to God.
The rituals of my childhood represented an unquestionable faith. A purity that held itself together through structure, rigour, and repetition. In my later years, that faith broke apart. I came across people without gods, people who wore t-shirts scrawled with obscenities to school, people who survived without consigned regularity. Back then, the most thrill a boy could experience was the sound of the lunch bell. The classroom door flings open. The boy runs down the cobblestone steps of Cather Path to buy the first batch of curry beef brisket, steaming in a styrofoam box, handed to him from the owner who believes in a different kind of salvation. The boy tracks the incense smoke from the Buddhist shrine, interlacing with the steam from the rice cooker. You ask him what he sees. He says he sees beauty.
T was not a boy who chatted discreetly during assembly. He was the boy who hummed hymns to himself even on the minibus to the MTR station and the forty-minute train ride home. His music rotation consisted solely of choral music and Cantopop. I never noticed him before we officially met. He bowed his head before others did. He greeted teachers with the same trademark, Christian smile. Not out of cheerfulness, but out of a willingness to please. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice him at first. His character was camouflaged by a sheen of goodness.
The item I was trying to find in the drawer was T’s school badge. I had never stolen anything before, nor have I ever stolen anything since. But that day in the classroom, when I saw his school badge lying on his desk, I couldn’t resist it. T was never a careless person. This moment would not come again, I thought. I could grasp it or let it go. I had to keep some evidence, an object that would verify that what I experienced was real. Not only would the badge be a reminder of T, but of the scent of the magnolia alba tree, the discipline of daily assemblies, the golden stains from curry beef brisket. It was childish of me to expect a badge to carry that much responsibility, to be a stand-in for a unit of time. But nonetheless, I acted upon the desire before I could rationalise it. For days, I thought I had committed the worst crime. I thought that I would be expelled, or worse, be estranged from T if he ever found out.
With each futile search, I began to accept that I lost the badge. I don’t think it’s useful to attribute the badge as the origin of my collecting. I cannot make sense of where or when the habit started—the urge to keep whatever I can. If people cannot stay, let me have my small island of treasures, my small drawer underneath the bed. One day, it may come to me that those are the only things of meaning I own. Not because a movie ticket or a badge is meaningful in itself, but because each object belongs to a greater project: an index of all the sincere efforts to hold and to memorialise.
The only difference between the Chinese characters 勿 (don’t) and 吻 (kiss) is that one contains the character for mouth 口, and the other one remains silent. The difference between restraint and release, then, lies in the mouth. 口 is simultaneously closed and open. 口 looks like a mouth singing, but also an enclosed space with four walls, a proscenium stage closed off to an audience.
One night in the summer of 2021, I arrived at the man’s Kowloon apartment. He opened the door and I was relieved that he looked like the pixelated image on his profile, although he was somewhat older than I had expected. He offered me a G&T. I declined. Not only because I knew better than to accept a stranger’s drink, but also I just wanted to skip the friendly overture. When I lay in his bed, I felt an emptiness growing in me. Then the lights dimmed. I was asked to open my mouth.
After it was over, we took a shower together. He gave me a clean towel to dry off. I didn’t like how I looked under the harsh bathroom light. I saw our bodies in the mirror. Mine: skinny, bony. His: muscular, toned. My height measured up to his chin. I dressed as quickly as I could, thanked him, and left. So how was it? Your first time? A friend asked me the next day. It was fine. I survived. It’s over, I replied. I didn’t have any more words in me. Where were you last night? My mom asked. Just at the movies, I said, unaware of the bruise deepening its colour on my neck.
To be a mouth agape, never arriving at the subject.
I had come to him looking for fulfilment, but there was nothing I wanted to take away from this experience. My face grew hot with shame on the ride home from his apartment, thinking about all the cautionary tales of hook-ups gone awry. I worried if I had unknowingly written myself into one of those unfortunate narratives, if I would run into consequences that I was not ready to resolve. Even now, my memory of his room remains sharp, intact. I can still see his sliding closet filled with suits all in a similar shade. His desk with a Dell PC, half-emptied vape cartridges, and loose change. Yet, I cannot fully remember his face. I don’t know if he remembers mine, and I don’t know if I want him to.
When we were fourteen, T told me about his first experience with a boy under the magnolia alba tree. He went to Latvia with his youth choir in 2015, and he shared a hotel room with another chorister on the trip. Suffice to say, there was nothing that wasn’t at least attempted in the room. As T fumbled for the right words, I felt that each time he spoke was like taking a leap from one side of a slot canyon to the other, and I was ready to catch him from under if he slipped. In school, we were never taught how, nor encouraged, to give intimacy shape and form: how two people find one another, how they close the distance between them with question and gaze, and how one should feel about the startling revelation of contact.
From T, I understood how the invitation to touch felt like a belated answer: a confirmation and consolation that his longing would not run its course as an unshared secret. He inspired me to envision and believe in a kind of fairy tale: if one spends enough time sailing towards the edge, a door would swing open, and one would find another person standing at the doorframe, waiting with equal excitement and agitation. To learn how to touch, I thought, was to encounter the possibility of reciprocity. Each instance of contact carries the potential to utter, however faintly, the statement: here is my body, here is yours, and here is our reaching.
So much of my teenage frustration came from the finitude of my words, which reflected the finitude of my education. The language of desire, then, was entirely our own invention. T gave me the privilege of witness, to observe the high-wire return to a moment of both joy and shame, the daring it took to mould language out of the once ineffable. Under the tree, T continued to linger on the fringes of his memory after he spoke. It was as if he just realised that he left something behind in that hotel room, but couldn’t remember what it was.
T didn’t apologise for sharing all of this with me. He didn’t need to, but I sensed that there was a degree of embarrassment on his part that I wished I could relieve him of. I wished I had something equally revealing to offer in return, but I was inexperienced back then. I didn’t know yet of the pleasures and costs of touch.
In his book Ghost Image, Hervé Guibert writes that by taking a picture of a hotel room in a new city, one manages to “stake out a territory...as if to mark your temporary belonging…as a testimony of your presence.” He suggests an alternative way of marking presence outside of photography: “you can occupy the room immediately by making love in it.” I had a foolish thought about the hotel in Portugal. After T and his friend left the room, would the housekeeper or the next guest notice anything different upon entering? If one paid enough attention and imagination, would they be able to detect a remnant, an odour, a souvenir from a past occupant?
Here’s something I could have said to T. It goes something like: your language is daringly, dangerously beautiful. I want to walk on the high wire with you.
My friend, W, hosted his twenty-first birthday on a tram. The tram would depart from Sheung Wan and travel all the way to Shau Kei Wan, the other side of the island. It was the summer of 2022. I was a little drunk and I waved and screamed at the pedestrians from the upper deck. I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. W’s boyfriend was there. He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He was also charming. I was very impressed.
The tall, charming lawyer asked me if I was dating anyone. No, 無你想像中咁易, I said. Why? You have so much going for you, he replied. I wanted to hide my face like a tortoise retracting into its shell. I remember blushing—it might have been the alcohol. I was surprised, even a little flattered, that it was the lawyer, out of all people, who could see some worth in me. He patted my shoulder and said, 相信吓自己啦，你得嘅。
W walked over with a half-emptied soju bottle in his hand. It was my cue to leave. The Cantopop music played on. The tram glided through the streets. The LED building displays faded one by one. A drunkard nodded off by the entrance of a 7-Eleven. Nameless stray cats disappeared into dark back alleys. Bubby, the lawyer whispered as he swung his hand around W’s waist. W might have kissed him. I might have looked away.
Is it possible to feel the residue of someone else’s happiness? As W and the lawyer screeched the lyrics to a Cantopop ballad together, I wondered if one of the greatest fortunes in life is finding someone who can sing your songs. When you sing with that person, a song about heartbreak is no longer a song about heartbreak. That particular ballad is a song I have cried to many times, but in listening to W and the lawyer, I imagined a future in which our private elegies could be transformed into shared paeans. A future in which we can give each other laughter in the face of sadness. Although I knew this vision of a hopeful future was not happiness itself, I felt a strange comfort on the periphery, cruising along the edges of an intimacy I could not yet claim for myself.
There’s a story about two living artists that I often think about.
G and R met in London. It was the summer of 2002. It was G’s last weekend in the city and he decided to test his luck at a bar. He met R, and they spent the night together at R’s council flat. They would spend the rest of the weekend together. They would not see each other again after that weekend.
Ten years later, G walked into a cinema on West Houston Street. R had made an independent film, and the film had a two-week run in a few places across New York. G bought a ticket to see the film. As the film progressed, G realised that he was seeing their fling re-enacted onscreen. In the film, two men meet at a bar in London. They spend the night together. Then the weekend. Then they leave one another behind at a train station. After the film ended, G looked up R’s name on Google. He could barely recognise R’s face.
Three years after the release of the film, G made an exhibition. The centrepiece of the exhibition was a video installation that incorporated snippets of R’s film. The exhibition also contained a series of fabric art—collages made from suits worn by important men in G’s life. G emailed R. G hoped that R would come.
I am reminded of these lyrics from a traditional Shaker song: “To turn, turn will be our delight / till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.” If I had to distil G and R’s work to an ideograph, it would be the shape of a turn: curves layered upon one another to create a helix, unexpected detours to the off-piste, familiar bends in the road that leads us back to the towns and cities we once called home. Each return to their shared history is a commitment to come ‘round right.
I also think of the work of these two artists as secret gifts left under an old tree. You go on a walk. You stumble upon an unsuspecting object with a label attached. You read the label. The gift is addressed to you. You realise the person you have been thinking about has not forgotten about you. And yet, the gift exists even if it is not received. It is in no hurry to be unwrapped. Would it matter if G never saw the film? Would it matter if R never saw the exhibition? The beauty of the gift is not just in its intimate address, but also in its humble patience, its quiet transit between one body and another.
I want to believe in this generosity. I want to believe that within every person there is a phone booth. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have any change, don’t know what number to call, or don’t know what to say. Come inside. You can take your time here.
Ethan Luk was born and raised in Hong Kong. His work has been recognised by 92Y, The Kennedy Center, One Teen Story, and The Adroit Journal among others. His play Flight of a Legless Bird was recently named a finalist at the 2023 National Playwrights Conference (Eugene O'Neill Theater Center) and the 46th Bay Area Playwrights Festival (Playwrights Foundation). He is currently an undergraduate at Princeton University.
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023