The last time I saw my father, he seemed all right — really, he did. He was his old self: a tiny, quail-like man with the gleaming eyes of a guy half his age. We were headed to the bank, the sky white and misty, the tropical air touched by a slight chill that people on this side of the world consider freezing; Ba was walking even faster than usual. The sole of his shoe came loose and slapped against the sidewalk like an old flip-flop, while he just continued on, navigating his way through the crowd of pinstripes. “Ba, let’s get you some new shoes.” I tried to pull him into Marks & Spencer, but he shucked off my hand with a fidgety shake of the shoulder.
I followed him beneath the billboards of enigmatically shaped handbags, past the shops on Queen’s Road, a sea of diamonds and metallic objects glinting and floating by on the edge of our vision. A watery reflection came into focus and I barely had time to recognize myself before the crowd jostled me forward. The side- walk seemed to be shuddering, everyone elbowing past, barking into phones. But my wily father had no trouble weaving his way through it all as I struggled to catch up.
After cutting across Grand Millennium Plaza — space opening up enough to breathe, around the ornate fountain — we made our way along Des Voeux into Sheung Wan. Although the neighbourhood had gentrified in patches, it still had the old money exchanges and remittance shops with faded red signs and tarnished gold currency symbols. Dry goods stores here and there, big bins of dehydrated mushrooms, scallops, and shark fins before the open windows. “Where are you going, Ba?” Grabbing his arm, I gestured at a storefront with rows of bright runners and plastic sandals awash in fluorescent light.
Ignoring me, he kept right on walking. We wended our way into the narrow side streets, past the herbal medicine shops.
Once when I was a kid and had a bad cough that wouldn’t go away, even after antibiotics, Ba had taken me to one of these places. We sat at the time-worn redwood counter, the walls decorated with bright paper fans and posters of ox bones and folk legends. After taking my pulse, an old man, who looked like a gravedigger, served me a cup of tea the colour of sewer water and not much better tasting. But my cough had cleared up.
“C’mon, Ba, let’s just get you some shoes. I don’t have all day here.”
His hand slipped into his pocket, fingering the wad of cash always there. Not because he was on the verge of buying anything, not because he was afraid of being pickpocketed. Ba has simply always liked the tactility of money. It’s like satin to his fingertips.
We weren’t far from his old office, so he ought to have known the area well, yet he seemed puzzled, disoriented.
“It’s right around here — I know it is. ”
Probably, the store was long gone. It was a different, older city he was always seeking, remembering.
Finally, we ended up at Wing On department store, where I encouraged him to try on a pair of black Rockports, but they were too expensive, in his view. He picked up a pair of electric-blue sneakers with three gold stripes along each side, similar to the ones my high school boyfriend used to wear, twenty years back.
They were on sale — hallelujah — this being the real reason they’d caught Ba’s eye. And they were comfortable, he claimed. Not that he’s ever put much stock in comfort. His own or others’.
I remember thinking that at least in sneakers, he’d be unlikely to slip.
Or maybe it’s just easier for me to remember things that way. Me, the sweet, caring daughter, patiently cajoling the old guy, impossible as ever, yet strangely endearing in his stubbornness. Electric-blue sneakers and all.
In reality, on that day, I probably saw him as nothing close to endearing. The self-entitled frugality, the insistence on his way or the highway, the past he’s always seeking to resurrect and wear like a badge of honour — all these things would have driven me crazy, his small, inescapable presence casting shadows over my mood.
But in seeing us in a soft, forgiving light, in telling myself these tales that make us seem more like a normal family, I’m doing what my sister’s long accused me of doing. I’m like a child seeking enchantment in repeated stories that take on the weight of truth only through an act of imagination.