Kayo Chang Black is a Taiwanese Canadian writer who explores hybrid identities, global citizenship, and the intersection of cultures. Her career as an academic librarian brought her to the UAE, Bahrain, and Hong Kong. After an eight-year stint in Hong Kong, she packed up her books and cat and moved to Colombo, Sri Lanka. You can read her work in The Normal School, Sunspot Literary Journal, and others.
“Art was what was truly permanent therefore what truly mattered. The rest was ‘but a spume of things / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.’” Wendell Berry, What Are People For?
Wendell Berry’s lamentation is more poignant since the COVID-19 virus forced us into stultifying solitude. Confined to our homes, art viewing in galleries seem like a distant memory. Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo, Sri Lanka, fills this artless void with Art in Curfew. For their inaugural show, the gallery invited four Sri Lanka-based artists, Hashan Cooray, Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah, Fabienne Francotte, and Firi Rahman to create or curate a collection of work as a response to the forced hermitry. To enrich this virtual art experience, an open studio session on Instagram Live took place each Saturday, enabling the viewer a glimpse into each artist’s space, practice, and current projects.
It was through one of these open studio sessions that I discovered Firi Rahman. When I tuned into the Live session, Buddy, one of Firi’s parrots, greeted me with a loud squawk followed a succession of trills. During Firi’s walkthrough of his humble one-room abode that also dubs as his studio, we met the other creatures that live in his space. Besides Buddy, Firi is currently looking after other less vocal birds as well as a squirrel. Then Firi sat down and started to draw, using a Rotring pen with slow, circular motions to create the pattern of the dotted coat of a leopard. It’s a painstaking process, but the results are mesmerizing.
In 2018, Firi made a series of pen-on-paper drawings depicting animals in urban settings. He was initially inspired by the four pet macaws that had fled their gilded cage inside the palace of the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. These bright, long-tailed birds are not native to Sri Lanka, and the elites had kept them as status symbols. On the other hand, Firi, a bird lover his whole life, has only kept birds to help them. He would free them as soon as they’re well or old enough to be on their own. The only ones he would keep are the ones that are born in captivity and would not survive independently in the wild. When he heard about the escaped macaws, he wondered where these birds would go in Colombo. As he started to imagine wild animals and what they would do in urban settings, he made a series of drawings. There is one of a hornbill sitting in a hefty, colonial-style wooden chair with its beak tilting in the air. He looks like a king summoning his subject for an announcement. Another drawing consists of two lemurs perched on the tiled roof of a house made of wood and corrugated iron. My favourite is the drawing of a cougar crouching on top of a dolly cart, looking down as if it regretted jumping onto the unstable surface in the first place.
The cougar drawing reminded me of the puma that has been visiting the near-empty streets of the Chilean capital of Santiago. Since late March, the wild feline has been prowling the central district, looking disoriented and confused. It roamed through several private gardens and a school before it was tranquilized and sent to the wildlife officials. This adventurous puma is not the only animal venturing out of their homes. Since the advent of the COVID-19 virus, many creatures are found cruising the newly deserted cities around the world. In Paris, two bucks strolled down an empty road next to park cars. In Istanbul, dolphins frolicked in the Bosporus Strait that has recently become free of tankers, cargo ships, and tourist boats. In Adelaide, a kangaroo hopped around the heart of downtown in full strides.
I am envious that the animals are out and about in the world. Even the crows perched on the trees in my neighbrouhood are cawing to flaunt their freedom. It’s poetic justice—as the humans are under curfews or lockdown around the world, the wildlife is enjoying a quieter and cleaner world, reclaiming habitats that we once took away from them.
Before the pandemic, humans as a species devoured resources like bottomless pits. Our consumer society insisted that we needed more to be fitter, happier, and more productive. When I was having a bad day, I ate and drank my feelings while shopped online to buy joy. When the curfew started suddenly in Sri Lanka, I became trapped inside my home in a new country with no access to Amazon, Book Depository, or Etsy. I soon ran out of snacks and booze and no means of getting more. Then, I realized that the post services stopped, and I couldn’t order anything online. The first couple of weeks were miserable. But slowly and grudgingly, I realized that I don’t need nearly as much as I consumed.
In What are People For?, Berry quotes William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.” Berry responds with a quote of his own: “Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.”
These quotes reminded me of the differences between humans and animals. The escaped macaws freed themselves with their bodily strength. On the other hand, humans have insatiable desires beyond our physical needs, and we haven’t had the opportunity to contemplate our limits until we are cooped up inside with nothing but our thoughts. Many of us didn’t want to face this reality–but the pandemic has certainly forced it upon me. For me (as a privileged person who was able to work from home), I feel like this pandemic has given me a clean slate because it drove me to confront the way I worked, played, and consumed. Now that we are slowly emerging from a strict curfew, I feel like I have become more resilient both in body and in mind. I am ready to tackle this new normal while feeling fitter, happier, and more productive–this time, without succumbing to the endless distractions and the unquenchable desire to consume.
It turns out that the little scratchy throat The Woman has been experiencing is nothing more than a case of cabin fever. The Woman sleeps off her minor illness but she’s got a more persistent problem: she is constipated. I know this is private information and The Woman is probably going to be mad at me for sharing this, but it’s true. It must be reported. Since the curfew started, she’s been so stressed that her body is revolting by clenching everything in. The doctor on the oDoc app says that she will be more regular if she eats more fresh vegetables and fruits. So, she has made it her quest to order as many vegetables and fruits as she possibly can. However, something as simple as going to the grocery store is no longer an option during the COVID-19 curfew in Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka.
The first thing she did was make a post on a Facebook group called “Expats in Colombo” asking fellow members for tips on where to get vegetables and fruits. She was given several phone numbers from the group but learned that many of the vegetable vendors are not reliable. The Woman watches her vegetable stock dwindling in despair.
Just when they are down to a couple of cobs of corn, her friend, Conrad, texted in the group chat to let them know that a vegetable truck has arrived at their building.
“Can you ask them to come to our place?” The Man texted.
“No, no,” The Woman says in a panic, “What if they don’t speak English? We have to go there!”
The Man disagrees. “We can’t go there during curfew!”
“It’s only a block down the street,” The Woman says with desperation, “I am sure it will be fine!”
The Woman grabs a few cloth shopping bags and walks out the door. The Man follows her out angrily. “If we get caught by the police, you are paying the fine!” He shouts.
About 30 minutes later, they returned, hauling in an abundance of veggies. The Woman is smiling as they unload their bounty. I have never seen this many veggies in my life. This should last them a while–good thing I don’t need to eat!
“So, to get veggies these days,” The Woman announces. “We need to be there when the truck comes by our neighbourhood. I think we’re going to starve.”
“Oh, quit being a drama queen, Punk Bunny. We will be fine.” The Man says.
A few days later, The Woman even manages to find a box of Mandarin oranges. When the delivery man calls, The Woman has no idea who it is, only that someone is probably trying to deliver something.
The Woman: “Hello?” Pause. “Are you delivering something?” Pause. “I am sorry, I don’t understand.” Pause. “Sorry, I still don’t understand.”
When the phone rings again, she answers with trepidation. “Hi, here’s a man downstairs bringing you some fruit.” The male voice on the phone says.
It turns out that the English-speaker is one of her upstairs neighbours. Moments later, I see him standing outside of our door–he has helped The Woman carry the box of Mandarin oranges. “Thank you so much, Tim,” The Woman says.”Here, take some oranges for your wife. There is no way we can eat 150 oranges between the two of us.”
Now, in addition to all the veggies, The Man and The Woman also have a fridge full of Mandarin oranges. The Man uses a part of it to make wine. Don’t worry–there will be a future report dedicated to The Man’s COVID-19 Tropical Brew.
A few days have passed. Someone is knocking on the door. When The Man opens the door, Tim is standing outside with two loaves of bread. “Hey, do you guys want some bread?”
“Yeah, absolutely,” The Man says.
They give Tim a watermelon in exchange. They chatted for a few minutes–I watched closely to make sure that Tim stands at least 6 feet away from our door. After he leaves, The Woman closes the door. “Isn’t it funny that we are living under a barter system now?” She asks.
“Well, that’s how civilization has always worked,” The Man says, “Maybe this COVID-19 is a good reset for the world.”
Now, The Man and The Woman have all the vegetables and fruit they will ever need. They even have bread. However, The Woman still isn’t feeling well; she is still constipated. She is desperate to fill her prescription for a laxative, which she received from the doctor she spoke to on oDoc. She’s had a prescription for over a week and no matter how many pharmacies she has called or messaged, no one can seem to fill it. Finally, she decides to take the matter into her own hands.
“Conrad said that he called the tourist hotline and the person informed him that people could leave their home for absolute necessities, such as going to the ATM or picking up medicine,” The Woman says. “He said he’s going to the ATM today and I think I am going with him and we can head to the pharmacy.”
The Woman puts on a cloth mask, rubbed some sunscreen on her face, and donned a big straw hat. “Now, I am ready for the outside world,” she says.
The Man and The Woman are a bit giddy–it’s been so long since they stepped out of their building! It’s almost like they are going on an adventure, even if it was just walking down to the pharmacy.
They come back an hour later drenched in sweat. The Woman has her laxatives. They have also managed to pick up other things, like zinc pills and hand sanitizer. They are hoping to find some soap–since they have run out of both dish soap and their regular bar of soap for hand-washing is disappearing fast. Through their conversation, I learn that the two pharmacies they visited have sold out of soap.
When I was 18, I crashed my car for the third time. My mother shook her head and said, “I should have listened to the fortune teller. He did tell me not to let you drive.”
My mother’s words echoed in my mind at the 2018 Microwave International New Media Art Festival in Hong Kong. I was standing before “RuShi” (2018), created by Hong Kong-based artist John Wong. It is an immersive installation that applied the algorithm of Bazi, the eight characters assigned to the birth year, month, day, and hour in Chinese fortune-telling. After entering my name, the date, and the hour of my birth on an iPad that was part of the installation, I walked into a dark room surrounded by curtains. I studied a projection consisting of eight squares, all flashing with horizontal and vertical threads of electrical lines in different colors. They appeared from different sides of each square, and as they moved across the projection, they gradually intersected. The result was a mesmerizing neo-noir tartan pattern that was supposed to represent my Bazi. I squinted my eyes and stared at the projection, hoping to glean some meaning from it. I could not.
Where were the prophetic narratives that were supposed to guide my future? When I was young, the westernized and feminist in me scoffed when my mother mentioned anything the fortune teller had said, especially the fortunes about me. Like many Asian-Canadians growing up in suburbia of the Greater Vancouver area in the 1990s, I tried to blend into my Anglo-Canadian surroundings. Mama’s nonsensical reasoning to take away driving and the freedom that came with it was unimaginable to my teenage brain. Ironically, I did give up driving—not because of what the fortune teller had said, but mainly because my insurance had become unaffordable after so many car crashes. I moved to the city where I could access public transportation to attend university.
“RuShi” is the first of Wong’s Immersion/Decentralisation (迷/信) series. In his artist statement, he claims that Bazi, often used by the Chinese to predict the future and help navigate life, is a form of big data. Therefore, he says, big data could potentially become the religion of the age of new media. The starting point of “RuShi” is Bazi, which is a familiar concept to me— like ziweidoushu, an astronomy-based system of fortune-telling— Bazi is a common form of Chinese superstition. These practices provide believers with a narrative of their past and prophesize the direction of their lives. My mother has been a believer in these practices for as long as I can remember. In Wong’s work, however, I did not see any narratives or anything familiar. By digitizing the ancient algorithm and turning it into an unrecognizable form, Wong erased the cultural references associated with Bazi and left me with a void filled with meaningless lines.
The artwork made an impact on me. I thought about it for many days as I started to question my own confused reaction to the work. As a Taiwanese Canadian, I was raised with the belief that mainland China (中國), or the “Middle Kingdom,” cannot be trusted. Its ruling party, the Communist Party of China (CPC), has always viewed Taiwan as one of its wayward provinces, a thorn in its ‘One China’ doctrine. It has been trying to claim Taiwan since the CPC defeated the Nationalists, the Kuomintang, in 1949. When I was a child, I often overheard the grown-ups lamenting that the communists would eventually destroy Taiwan’s independence. My experience with “RuShi” somehow indirectly reinforced my sense of impending doom, but it took me almost a year to confront and analyze my fears.
Fast forward one year, the Middle Kingdom has been increasingly casting its shadow over Hong Kong, the city I have called home for the last seven years. Since June of 2019, Hong Kong has become entrenched in political turmoil. The major event to ignite the recent protests is when Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, proposed the extradition bill in early 2019 as a response to a gruesome murder that took place in Taiwan. She claimed that if this bill passed, it would allow Hong Kong to extradite a murderer—a Hong Kongese man who had killed his pregnant girlfriend—to Taiwan. This bill would enable Hong Kong to surrender fugitives to be extradited to other countries it does not have agreements with, including Taiwan, Macau, and mainland China. There is no inherent problem with transferring a murderer from Hong Kong to Taiwan, as both countries have functioning courts. However, the prospect of being tried in mainland China is terrifying—its courts have a dubious track record for respecting human rights and have a conviction rate of 99.9%. In other words, this bill opens up the possibility that anyone Beijing deems unsavory, such as activists, journalists, or even business executives, could face the opaque justice system in mainland China. Therefore, Hong Kongers from all walks of life, from university students to senior citizens, civil servants to mothers, have marched against it. At first, the protests were calm and imbued with a sense of optimism. However, as the government continued to ignore their demands, the tension escalated, and violence erupted. The once orderly city has become a scene of bloodshed and in its wake, turned a bustling metropolis into a ghost town.
Back in 2018, I couldn’t have predicted the protests that would break out a year later, but I viscerally knew that “RuShi” represented more to me than what I saw. This feeling intensified in recent months as I have witnessed the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and assembly. I have also started to worry about Hong Kong’s culture as a world city and its freewheeling way of life. At first, the artwork did not sit well with me. For something that is based on Bazi, I expected the work to give me a prediction. After all, that was the point of Bazi— to reveal my destiny. However, I have recently come to understand that the artwork also represents my fears—a future devoid of freedom of expression and diversity of culture. I fear that if the CPC has its way, it will fill Hong Kong with distracting and meaningless lines, a busy illusion like in “RuShi.” The more I think about it, the more I understand what is at stake.
I have found it helpful to frame my newfound stake in Roland Barthes’ idea of punctum, which describes a “special acuity” in photography. To Barthes, the punctum is a “sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice.” A photograph’s punctum is often a result of an accident, creating details that enable the viewer to think beyond the image and to imagine the moment before or after the picture was made. What Wong’s work was missing, was the punctum of Bazi. More specifically, the work took away the superstitious elements of a cultural practice. Though I resented Taiwanese superstitions as a young person and still have my reservations about them, I do have many memories associated with them.
When I was a baby, a fortune teller told my mother that I should delay marriage, that I would not be happy if I married ‘too early.’ He did not give my mother a specific timeframe, but this may be the reason Mama never approved of any of my boyfriends. When I was 17, my Hungarian-Canadian boyfriend bought me a bouquet that contained a white carnation, among other vibrant flowers. “Is he cursing me to die?” she yelled, “tell him to never give you white flowers!”
Mama’s words illustrate how many Taiwanese people, even when they have immigrated to Canada, hold their superstitions dear. Mama did not want to see white flowers because white is the color of death. But how would an 18-year-old Canadian boy, whose family fled Communist Hungary when he was a toddler, know anything about the role of white flowers within Chinese superstition?
The word ‘superstition’ in the Chinese language is ‘迷信’ or mixin, consisting of the characters of “lost” and “faith” or “belief.” In other words, someone who is lost in their faith or belief is superstitious. Mixin is often lumped in with the Chinese folk religion rituals, a complex combination of teachings from Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Unlike Abrahamic religions, the Chinese folk religion has no canonical text, nor is there any congregation. Each family has its own practices that take place at home altars or in temples. There are two layers of Chinese folk religion. The communal layer consists of local deities such as an earth god, a city god, and Mazu, the patron goddess of the sea. This layer also includes ancestor worship and its rituals, derived from the Confucian teachings of filial piety, the virtue of respecting one’s elders and origins. The individual layer of the Chinese folk religion consists of supernatural beliefs and practices that include a wide variety of fortune-telling practices, such as Bazi and ziweidoushu. In addition to the two layers, many Taiwanese people, my family included, also follow a school of Buddhism, worshipping deities such as the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and Guanyin, the bodhisattva, or the goddess of compassion and mercy. These mixin provide Taiwanese culture with a sense of time, a narrative, and that particular little ‘sting’ that makes me pause and think.
However, as a Canadian teenager in the 1990’s, I did not appreciate the quirkiness of my Taiwanese culture or how meaningful it was to have one outside of the dominant Anglo-Canadian ethos. Now, perhaps because I am getting older and have lived in East Asia for over seven years, I have started to develop an affection for my mother’s mixin, which to me, has become the punctum of my Taiwanese culture. When I saw “RuShi,” I could not understand or articulate my reaction, and why the technologically driven iteration of my destiny troubled me so. After months of contemplating, I have realized that despite my dismay about Chinese superstition as a young person, I still associated Bazi as a part of the Chinese folk religion, which is something sacred. To me, technology in places of worship felt unnatural. Seeing my Bazi displayed in lines on a projection is perhaps equivalent to praying before a digital recreation of Jesus on a crucifix. The digital projection did not make sense to me because, throughout my whole life, whenever my mother coerced me to, I have witnessed or partaken in the rituals of Chinese folk religion with low-tech activities, such as praying to physical pictures of statues of deities, burning incense, and physically interacting with monks, readers and fellow worshippers—not looking at a projection in a dark room by myself.
Wong’s work seems to suggest that technology can replace mixin, and more broadly, that the idea of progress can substitute for the ethos of different Chinese ethnic groups. “RuShi” indicates the disconcerting trend of CPC’s quest for ‘One China’ to eliminate ethnic identities across its vast and contested territories. In Xinjiang, the CPC has been tightening its grip through the use of sophisticated surveillance systems and the adoption of ‘re-education’ camps to force the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, to renounce their language as well as their cultural and religious identities. I shudder as I look at a photograph of rows of despondent Uyghur men sitting on the ground wearing blue prison uniforms and taqiyah, short, rounded skull caps worn by Muslims. Like the Han Chinese who only half a century ago were forced to denounce all beliefs deemed ‘traditional’ or ‘capitalistic,’ and sing songs in praise of Mao during the Cultural Revolution, these Uyghur men are subjected to similar self-criticism routines and forced to sing patriotic songs about Xi Jinping. History is repeating itself, and I dread the CPC’s attempt to eradicate cultures, languages, and identities.
Lately, I have been thinking back to the first time I saw “RuShi.” After the projection of my Bazi ended, I studied as other people viewed their eight characters on the screen. A woman stood in front of her projection, allowing the lines to fall on her face while her friend snapped a photo with her smartphone—they found joy in the seemingly meaningless lines and turned them into a photo-op. They remind me that the CPC has already effectively expunged Chinese folk religion. In a 2012 study, Fenggang Yang and Anning Hu mapped the practitioners of Chinese folk religion in mainland China and Taiwan. The percentage of people who still consider themselves practitioners of the Chinese folk religion in mainland China (11.8%) is significantly lower than in Taiwan (42.7%). While 82.5% of people in Taiwan worship local deities, only 4.1% of people in China do so.  The difference in religiosity is jarring across the different practices: ancestor worship, 87.4% to 17.5%; fortune-telling, 34.0 % to 9.8%; amulet practices, 74.4% to 30.2%. In short, the CPC has somehow succeeded significantly dilute traditional beliefs and rituals in mainland China in less than 50 years. Nowadays, Chinese people seem to be more interested in consuming the latest fashion garments and technologies, rather than worshipping their ancestors or reading life charts.
I do not believe that it is Wong’s agenda to represent the CPC’s point of view through “RuShi,” but his work reminds me that my cultural identity, one I did not even acknowledge as a teenager, could be annihilated by the CPC. At the same time, I realize that besides the technological and economic progress in recent years, China’s core beliefs have not changed since the Cultural Revolution. The CPC is the same iron fist that subjects its secular, authoritative power over its populace, demanding complete obedience. In fact, it has been my perception that has shifted. It is this shift that has led to my understanding of what I could lose.
I left Canada when I was 26 to pursue a career in academic librarianship, first in the United Arab Emirates and then in Bahrain. A few months before my 30th birthday, I moved to Hong Kong to be closer to my parents, who had repatriated from Canada to Taiwan. At that time, I was secretly going through a divorce with a man my family thought was my boyfriend. Two years before, we had eloped so I could sponsor his spousal visa in Bahrain. I did not tell my family because he was between jobs, and there was no way my mother would have approved the union. Perhaps the ziweidoushu reader who warned my mother about my marriage had been right.
At first, my mother was excited to have me closer to her and thrilled that I had finally broken up with my good-for-nothing ‘boyfriend.’ However, she soon began to worry about my marriage prospects. As she saw my cousins get married and start families, she grew anxious that I might never find a suitable husband—she might never have grandchildren.
In 2014, after I had lived in Hong Kong for about two years, Mama handed me a bracelet, a type of amulet, made of red threads knotted together. She said it was blessed by Mazu, the patron goddess of fishermen, and that she had asked the goddess to lead me to a good husband. This time, I did not roll my eyes and dismiss her behavior as mixin. I humored her and put on the bracelet. Whether it was the bracelet’s doing or not, by the end of the year, I started dating Derek, a colleague from the university I was working at. Early in the relationship, Mama was suspicious due to my track record of dating men she deemed not good enough. But, upon meeting the blue-eyed, well-mannered ‘gentleman redneck’ from Kentucky, Mama was smitten and accepted him.
Shortly after Derek and I got engaged, my ecstatic mother bragged about my magical amulet-bracelet and matching fiancé. Most of our family members were happy for my good fortune, except for Aunt Lily, who is a reader of ziweidoushu. She was hesitant about my engagement but would not give a reason. “Why can’t you be happy for Kayo?” Mama demanded.
After weeks of pestering, Aunt Lily relented. She told Mama that according to my life chart, my first marriage was supposed to fail. Mama, who had just learned about my first marriage, was relieved. “It’s okay,” Mama said, “She’s been married once already. This is her second marriage.”
Delighted, Aunt Lily gave Mama her blessing.
A year later, Derek and I were married. To this day, Mama is convinced that the Mazu has led Derek to me. The feminist in me would have liked to say that Mazu had led me to Derek, but Mama’s mixin is still very much entrenched in a symbolic order in which women’s sole concern has to do with finding a man, submitting to his needs, and bearing his children. When I was younger, I had nothing but disdain for these types of patriarchal mixin. Lately, I am not so sure. Can feminism co-exist with mixin? I can’t say that Mama’s mixin has not brought me fulfillment and happiness—maybe ziweidoushu does have my destiny spelled out for me in the stars. Perhaps it was Mazu who led me to my marriage. I have no concrete answers. On my wedding day, I took off my amulet-bracelet. Now, four years later, it is sitting in my jewelry box. It is faded now, but I cannot bear throwing it away. I have such affection for it—a part of me believes that it continues to bestow good luck.
The fond memories associated with fortune-telling, the Chinese gods, the amulets— the so-called superstitions, the mixin—are the punctum of my culture. In recent months, I have been thinking about all that is dear to my heart, as I watched a group of protestors wielding metal sticks and shattering the glass of the entrance of the MTR subway station in my neighborhood in Hong Kong. They were clad in black, their youthful faces concealed behind industrial gas masks. Moments later, a group of Raptors, the tactical unit of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), stormed out from their hiding places, threw tear gas canisters, and chased after the fleeing protestors. In the process, there have been many serious injuries, mostly on the part of the demonstrators. Since June until October 2019, more than 2,000 people, some as young as 12, have been arrested. 1/3 of them are under the age of 18.
Though I do not condone the violence, I understand what the young people in Hong Kong are fighting for. They are not only struggling for their rights and freedoms outlined in the Basic Law, the CPC sanctioned constitution of Hong Kong, they are also safeguarding their way of life. They may not think about this consciously, but by demanding their rights, they are also protecting the punctum of their culture, which is not so different from mine.
Thinking back now, “RuShi” is more ominous in light of the current situation. I am anxious about the future of Hong Kong and Taiwan as the shadow of the Middle Kingdom is expanding its reach. Though I am powerless to stop it, I can bear witness, document, and share my stories.
 Roland Barthes discusses his thoughts about punctum in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London, UK: Vintage, 2000).
 To read Yang and Hu’s study on the level of superstition in Taiwan and China: “Mapping Chinese Folk Religion in Mainland China and Taiwan,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 3 (2012).
Kayo Chang Black is a Taiwanese Canadian writer who explores hybrid identities, global citizenship, and the intersection of cultures. Her career as an academic librarian brought her to the U.A.E, Bahrain, and Hong Kong. After an eight-year stint in Hong Kong, she packed up her books and cat and moved to Colombo, Sri Lanka. She currently teaches research and writing at the Academy of Design (AoD). Her work has been published in Sunspot Literary Journal, Photography of Art, and others. To read her work, visit http://kayochangblack.com Follow her on Instagram: @kayo.chang.black or Facebook: @kayochangblack
Sunday, Day 16 of the curfew. The Woman pulls out a bottle from the wine fridge and declares to The Man. “Well, Punk, it looks like this is our last one.”
The Woman pops the cork and pours two generous glasses. They head out of the door for their daily ritual of watching the sunset from our rooftop.
When they come back into the flat, The Woman looks around in the freezer and pulls out the mullet roe, also known as the Taiwanese caviar. I’ve heard The Man claim that it tastes a bit like cheese, but meatier and more complex than the dairy variety. While that doesn’t sound very appealing to a peacock like me, it’s The Man’s favorite snack–he had discovered it during his first Chinese New Year in Taiwan. Since then, his mother-in-law packs a few vacuum-sealed pieces into their suitcases after their new year visit. That’s nice of her!
“Let’s have this with our last bottle of wine,” The Woman says holding up the leaf-shaped caviar.
As The Man fries the caviar with Taiwanese rice wine, The Woman watches and sips on her wine. She looks thoughtful. “I think drying out for a few weeks, maybe even a month–it will be good for us,” she says. (I’m not convinced.) While they’ll adapt to a dry lockdown, I hope a semblance of normality returns to our home soon–and that includes a steady, non-rationed flow of wine.
Once the caviar is ready, The Man brings it to the coffee table. They relish it with their last glass of wine while binge-watching Ozark.
Monday, Day 17 of the curfew. The Woman is doing grocery shopping via WhatsApp messages and phone calls. They’ve been receiving shipments of cured meats and cheeses, but fresh produce has been harder to find. I catch snippets of her conversation as The Cat struts off to the balcony.
“Yes, 2 chickens and 20 eggs please.”
“Do you have any garlic? 500 grams please.”
Throughout the day, she goes downstairs and brings bags of groceries into the flat. Finally, the chicken and egg delivery arrives in the evening. She squeals as she tenderly puts down a bag of 20 eggs. “Look, Punk, we finally have eggs! Isn’t it funny that it’s easier to get chorizo these days than eggs?”
The Man unwraps the chicken from its bag. “Wow, that chicken looks weird without skin,” The Woman says, watching The Man cut up the skinless pink carcass with two legs and wings.
“Yeah, I think it’s common for the butcher in this part of the world to do this. It’s easier to skin the chicken than to pluck out all the feathers.” The Man says.
“Well, I guess we are not having roast chicken for a while, huh.”
“I am going to make a stew,” The Man says.
Once the stew is ready, I watch as The Man and The Woman have multiple helpings. It is tomato-based with chicken, British-style sausages, okra, and Italian rice. It’s seasoned with Old Bay and red pepper powder. I’ve learned that Old Bay is a staple in our household. The Man had brought it from his hometown, Madison, IN (in the U.S.) to Wan Chai, Hong Kong. When they moved here, they brought it with them to Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka.
Tuesday, Day 18 of the curfew. The Woman wakes up with a scratchy throat. Her nose is stuffed-up and she’s lethargic. “Hey, Punk,” she says to The Man. “Do you think it’s possible to catch the Coronavirus just from interacting with the people who have been delivering food to us?”
“Probably not, Punk Bunny. But you should wear a mask when you meet them next time.”
The Woman finds some cold medicine and swallows a pill with water. She feels sluggish and sick all day yet she manages to work in front of her laptop and do her exercises too. I wish I could help her feel better. At night, she takes a different pill, a pink one. “Well, I can’t get drunk but at least I can have cold medicine with Codeine…”
The Woman goes to bed, leaving The Man with me in the living room. He watches YouTube clips on cooking and motorcycles. Before midnight, he turns off the lights and joins The Woman in the bedroom.
I feel a little abandoned, especially since The Cat hasn’t been coming around for visits. She has been social distancing with her family since waybefore this COVID-19 curfew. To my dismay, I have been left alone on my loyal perch. Since she has discovered the great balcony, she’d rather spend time with her new friends, such as the yappy squirrels and the obnoxious crows who live on the mango tree next to our balcony. At night, she hangs out with the fruit bats, who flap around their mighty wings around our home. Such is my life during these hard-ish times. This is Sivan, reporting from Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka.
It’s Friday and The Man is sitting at the dining table giving a class online. Earlier in the day, The Man and The Woman had a discussion about the curfew that will start at 6 p.m. and end at 6 a.m. At around 4:30 p.m., The Woman comes out of the study. She takes a piece of paper and scrawls in large letters “The curfew starts at 6 p.m. tonight and ends at 6 a.m. on MONDAY MORNING.”
The Man looks away from the screen and shrugs as if saying, “What do you want me to do about it?”
The Woman scribbles again and holds up the paper for The Man to see. “Stop teaching. We need to go to the grocery store NOW.”
They grab a few shopping bags and head out the door. I hope that they will accomplish what they ventured out to do. Shortly after they leave, they’re back. Empty-handed. Apparently the shop had already closed.
It’s Saturday. The Woman goes into the kitchen to see how much liquor is left. There was only 1/3 of a bottle of gin. Meanwhile, The Man is falling asleep on the couch. “You drank all our gin,” she scowls. “The curfew has been extended until Tuesday and when it gets lifted, the liquor stores won’t be open.”
The Man doesn’t say anything. He is asleep on the couch.
It’s Tuesday morning and the curfew is lifted. At 7:30 a.m., their friends Rebecca and Conrad come by the flat to go grocery shopping with The Man and The Woman. Rebecca and Conrad are their new friends that live down the street. Due to social distancing, they don’t greet each other with a hug and a kiss like they normally do. They just smile at each other. “I can’t believe I am excited to go grocery shopping,” The Woman says.
Less than an hour later, The Man comes home with Conrad to fill up water bottles. Based on their conversation, it seems that the queue at the grocery store snaked around the whole block and down the street. In order to prepare to stand in line under the hot sun for the whole morning, they came back to get more water.
Then, a couple of hours later, The Woman comes home. She leads a large, bald, white man into the flat. He is carrying a box. Before he leaves, he opens the box to show The Woman the content: 12 bottles of wine. She leaves the house shortly again.
Two hours later, The Man and The Woman come home with their groceries. The Woman showed The Man the box. “We should be okay for a while,” she says. “Perhaps when the curfew lifts again on Friday, we can order some of the cheaper stuff so we don’t drink all the good stuff,” she chuckles.
But then they find out that the curfew will not be lifted on Friday after all. There is no word on when the curfew will be lifted again. The 12 bottles of wine will have to last indefinitely. Good thing I don’t drink!
The lack of alcohol indefinitely is a bleak thought that disturbs them. But they decide to make the best of it. They fill two glasses with wine and head up to the rooftop to enjoy the sunset over the Indian Ocean. They have enough groceries and wine to last them for a while, and at least they have each other. And to top it off, they are stuck in the beautiful Mount Lavinia with the best guard peacock in the world. And The Cat’s here too.
My name is Sivan. Some of you may know me already–I belong to The Man, The Woman, and The Cat, pictured below. This portrait was our family’s New Year’s greeting, and as you can see, The Cat hadn’t quite warmed up to me, yet.
I came from a Hindu temple in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka. When the temple was renovating several years ago, they sold me to a dealer. I ended up in an antique store in Galle, which is a fort that was built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later expanded and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century. Nowadays, it’s recognized as one of the remarkable cultural and architectural wonders of Sri Lanka. It is a tourist hotspot that attracts a constant flow of people from all over the world.
The Man and The Woman had moved to Sri Lanka in December. They treated themselves to a trip to Galle right after Christmas as a quick getaway from the city. They stepped into the antique store close to their hotel before they returned to Colombo. It was The Woman who found me first. Even though The Man was interested in a different peacock, he gave in to his wife’s choice (smart man). While I might be seemingly invaluable, The Man made a deal with the shopkeeper and paid the rupees to take me home with them.
Since then, The Man placed me on top of a tall blue bookcase, which is the highest point in the flat. Perfect for a royal peacock like me. The Woman spent the whole afternoon looking up “popular Sri Lankan boy names” to come up with one that suited me best. During the first week, The Cat sulked from the corner and gave me weird looks. But eventually, she succumbed to my charms and visited me often.
Since I perch facing the front door, no one can enter or leave the flat without my detection. In a way, I am a guard peacock to ensure that no unsavory characters come into my home. I don’t approve of some of the delivery people who bring The Man and The Woman furniture for our home–they sometimes walk into the flat with their shoes on. Very. Uncool. The Cat also seems to detest all delivery people–she would run and hide as soon as she heard or smelled them.
Besides the delivery people, The Man and The Woman keep a fascinating company. They’ve made some wonderful local friends. There are Saeeda and Eranda, a couple of young, local creatives in Colombo.
Saeeda runs two jewelry brands. Sour Metal repurposes vintage jewelry and Sri Lankan heirlooms. Samsara specializes in silver and rough stone jewelry. If that wasn’t enticing enough, both companies practice sustainability all the while embracing Sri Lankan roots and natural resources. I feel like I’d make for a perfect ambassador for Saeeda’s two brands.
Eranda works in management/HR but has other pursuits such as selling beard oil and helping his wife expand her businesses. The Man had fixed them beef tacos. They were delicious. Throughout the night, they drank cocktails and talked about jewelry, culture, and the future of design in Sri Lanka. I quietly observed from the top of the bookcase.
Fabienne Francotte, a Belgium-born artist and her husband, Tung Lai, the former EU Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, also visited our home. The Man fixed our guests dinner, starting with cured meats, cheese, and bread, followed by a thick pumpkin soup. For the entrée, The Man served his world-famous Bolognese, made with the recipe he got from his Italian-American uncle. Throughout the night, they laughed and discussed everything from their travels to literature to art. The two women spoke about collaborating on a project. I also couldn’t help but notice that between the four of them, they drank five bottles of wine. This is something they can’t do anymore during the COVID-19 curfew, but that’s a story for a different time.
Up until recently, The Man and The Woman went out during the day–leaving me and The Cat to our own devices. However, for the last couple of weeks, they’ve been at home all day watching the news. I have been hearing about this COVID-19 business, which sounds terrible and is bringing the world to a halt. Now it seems that they will be home all day, all night, for the foreseeable future. I suppose it is up to me, their guard peacock, Sivan, to document all that’s happening in the flat during this difficult time.
In an attempt to control the spread of the COVID 19, the Sri Lankan government imposed a strict island-wide curfew on Friday, March 20th from 6 pm until 6 am on Tuesday, March 24. Though the official curfew only started two days ago, Derek and I been working from home since Monday. During the workweek, our jobs are keeping us busy. This weekend, we have been productive with creative projects. Derek has started Aod MasterChat Podcast series. I have been working on several short stories and developing a business plan for a jewellery business. Reach out to me if you are interested in hearing about my projects.
Since we have been spending a lot of time on our phones, I found some pictures I took during our day trip to Colombo last weekend when we visited the Colombo National Museum and the National Museum of Natural History. Here are some highlights.
As a part of the research for my jewellery brand, I’ve always wanted to visit the National Museum of Colombo for its collection of Kandyan jewellery from the 18th and 19th centuries. Kandy was the last remaining Ceylon kingdom that finally succumbed to British control in 1815. Kandyan jewellery is renowned for its intricate craftsmanship–the most iconic pieces consist of curvy filigree motifs made of gold plated silver.
I enjoyed looking at the jewellery but I wish there was more information about the actual pieces (besides the small label that says ’18th-19th century jewellery from Kandy’). I also would have liked to know about the craftsmen who made the jewellery and the people who wore them. Despite my disappointment, Derek and I were pleasantly surprised that the museum has substantial holdings on other artifacts, such as religious sculptures, remnants of buildings and plaques, weapons dating back thousands of years (they had clubs, arrows, etc.), and daily objects such as vases and glassware. Though we were delighted with our visit, we had to leave after a couple of hours– the charming colonial-style building had no air conditioning and we were soaked through.
As we were exiting the compound, we walked by the National Museum of Natural History. An enthusiastic Sri Lankan man stopped us in our tracks and cajoled us to visit his museum. Derek and I shrugged and followed him inside.
It was another old building with no air-conditioning. The man explained that the Natual History Museum opened in 1986–and from the looks of it, it has not been updated since. The walls have not been painted and the badly taxidermied animals of birds, rodents, and mammals looked like they could be put to rest for the second time. We would have dismissed the whole museum if it weren’t for its original hand-painted signs scattered throughout the building. Walking through the space was like going through a time capsule–I guess that’s one of the perks for under-funded museums.
Sri Lanka has three official languages: Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Some of the signs include all three:
For many other signs, however, there are only in Sinhalese and English, plus the Binomial Nomenclature derived from Latin:
Derek and I are totally in awe as we hadn’t visited a museum that still has handpainted illustrations and labels. After looking at every exhibit in the building, we tipped our over-eager guide and went in search of lunch.
We found a Korean restaurant that served authentic bibimbap and kimchi soup. They were delicious and we were so happy. We haven’t had Korean food since leaving Hong Kong in mid-December of 2019. It was such a treat to our already fantastic Saturday.
Well, folks, it will be a while before Derek and I will enjoy another excursion in Sri Lanka. It’s a strange world we are living in these days. Take care of yourself and each other–we will have some tough times ahead.
Fabienne Francotte cut out pages of her notebooks and shared it with the world. The result is I Don’t Know But I Remember at Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo (February 21-March 20, 2020). Inside the gallery, images of women lined the white walls. Some peered back at me straight on while others refused to acknowledge me. They are pretty and mysterious, and they are all real–women Fabienne had met in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world. As an artist, as a woman, Fabienne stripped herself bare–like “the creatures in [her] notebooks, [she is] vulnerable, bearing the scars of life with dignity.” A stunning 60 year-old-woman, Fabienne lives unapologetically. When I am 60, I want to be full of joy and life, just like her.
At 37, I am crippled with fear and anxiety. I can’t commit to my writing career full-time, worried that without “legitimate” work, I could not afford to have a room or money of my own. I stubbornly refused to quit my job–it brings me an illusion of independence while using it as an excuse for not writing. Fabienne is an inspiration to me, as a woman, as a writer and as a creative. This is my tribute to her. I am 60 in 2020: I don’t know, but I remember.
I am 60, and I am the product of our global village. Before the age of 11, I had lived in Japan, Taiwan, and Canada. As a young adult, I moved to the U.A.E., Bahrain, and Hong Kong to pursue my career as an academic librarian. Then I moved to Sri Lanka with my husband to expand my horizon as a writer. In my 30’s, the global village started to close in as its citizens erected walls. The physical walls weren’t nearly as effective as the psychological and mental ones. Invisible, albeit nationalistic borders were created to separate those who are different, those who don’t belong. As a woman, as an Asian, as an expatriate who calls wherever she is home, I shifted from one stereotype to the next, fighting one bigotry after another. I did not fit into any boxes as a young person, and now, as a 60-year-old, I have long ago given up on the idea of boxes and borders. Like my cat, I nap on top of cardboard boxes and ignore all boundaries, visible or not.
I am 60 and a woman writer. I do not live in the shadow of my own self-doubt; I do not question my creative abilities. I have money to buy pens, notebooks, and antique jewellery. I have a room of my own, with my favourite writing desk and teak shelves filled with inspiring books. I start projects without worrying whether or not I will finish them. When anxiety strikes, instead of succumbing to it as it did in my youth, I kill it and feed it to my work. I am 60 and I work fast–I don’t have time to procrastinate. When I was 30, I felt I had at least 50 years ahead of me–the work could wait. Now at 60, I am lucky to have 30 more. I need to finish my work now so I can make more.
I am 60 and I love myself. Though my youthful looks have faded, I embrace a new beauty that has emerged. I wear black, which flatters my figure. I put on the most outlandish and beautiful earrings I can find to offset the black. I don’t care about what other people think of me; I approach anyone as a potential collaborator and a friend. I have boundless energy. I am not afraid to give parts of myself away. I offer my love and support unconditionally to those who benefit from my attention. I am 60, and I am living my best life.
Thank you, Fabienne, for showing me how to live my best life.
Dear Hong Kong, February 2020 (#2) I have been scrolling through photos of you my friends have posted on social media. For the past month, an eerie silence has engulfed you, suffocating your usual boisterous ways. Your lonely sidewalks, deserted public spaces, and shuttered storefronts are stark reminders of the COVID-19 virus. Your skyline is as magnificent as ever, but I can’t help but notice the absence of smog–a run on the Central Promenade would be pleasant. When I left you, I thought I was done with you. I never thought I’d feel the tightening of my chest seeing you on social media. I mourn the city of my memories, your seedy streets where I have lost and found myself. You’re a shell of your former self, quiet and still. I hope you’re simply hiding under the abandoned masks and will come out to play soon. I miss you. Love, Kayo