laughter from the television sprinkled through the speakers as though the notes might linger over the sounds at the dinner table as the chopsticks peck at the porcelain bowls, dinner at 7 pm when the apartment would seem like a pearled center of the world as if nothing more rare could come in the silence of our dinners an unending drone of home as distant as those images on television with the children refraining after their parents when hearing an everyday phrase, about to learn some important truism that everyone would know and would keep to deploy at some significant moment. i only light some incense for the small shrine of my great grandparents whom i scarcely remembered apart from stories my mother told about them coming up from nothing hoping to impart to us the same efforts toward these nights studying to conjure up this better tomorrow we had all been looking for. what i did remember was just being held by an arm with a loose grip but never feeling like i would slip off their laps.
it was saturday and the afternoon moldered along as i spent most of the day playing computer first person shooters as a break from studying. it was one of the games that took place in world war ii with the soldiers running through swollen terrain with dirt textures under a grey sky leaving a well spent agitation with the sounds of gunfire breaking across the speakers between monologues about fighting for a nation. my parents returned after an ordeal of buying fancier clothes for all of us for the banquet tonight. i had no qualms about going thinking it would be a decent excuse to go to sheung wan walking among the glassy boutiques and high banks where our cousins once treated us to deserts in one of those places with all the lavish furniture and wiry chairs.
the reason for this banquet was that one of my cousins tsui was getting married to some ui designer in central who would make cursory attempts to talk with us about sports and games i hadn’t watched. generally, the shengs were quite a well to do family becoming industrialists in various jungles out in southeast asia to bankers and doctors out in hong kong island or shenzhen, the children particularly raised in a proper manner stressing on etiquette upon interacting with family and others. my father seemed to distance himself from all of it with my mother seemingly living the free lives offered to them in cabriolet convertibles off mountain landscapes with a once wild passion that petered out, leaving only flails toward the order of their past upbringings, acting with a sense of being dignified away from sales people running after crowds in mong kok. they were quite strict upon any pleasentries given by other family members as they were always afraid of being taken advantage of. my mother would have the habit of assuring that they would not allot us this fate saying we were free to study whatever we wanted and that we could confide in them for anything which with time seemed less like a genuine placement of trust than a tactic to allay us from perhaps sneaking out to others without their knowledge. i suppose it would be touching as most of this seems much like those ideas of family that would seemingly appear on television dramas where they would confer intimate secrets in well arranged living rooms.
the restaurant was above a small shopping mall already closing for the day, the glass panes and geometric corridors were then whisked into damasked tables with glass discs of teapots as family members greeted my mom and dad with boisterous pats on the shoulder and we returned the greeting with a small nod. my parents sat at another table while i was put at a table with the relatives about my age. tsui had a line-up of people giving congratulations while an uncle, who was starting a business according to my mother, was walking with the groom chatting in a lowered voice while walking across the halls. i overheard my parents talking about how i had become one of the school prefects much to the approval of my other relatives nodding at how that would lead to good morals. i only listened for a moment before a relative at my table asked if i had watched some famous american movie with all the special effects. the groupers in the fish tank only undulated in their glass prisms already abutting the verticies, floating in unending blue. i moved to the farther tables to try and say hello to my grandparents who quickly invited me to their table wantinh to know what i had been doing in high school with an ease that trusted in where i might go no matter if it seemed wayward and i thought so too thinking that there may be somewhere waiting for me where i could fulfill all those hopes that they placed in me without needing to appear as poised as my parents would remind me. they talked for a moment about one of their friends who came back from san francisco and one of the aunts worried if their cantonese was going to have an accent only to have my grandmother interject that entertainment loves these ‘abc’ kids. i had seen some starlets on tv from vancouver who would speak english on the rare occasion with the sounds warping into smoothened consonants pouring into vowels in a manner that would completely elude me, only perfecting it in english classes which called me to recite in an overly dramatic way with the other students expecting an example of elocution. i went for a break to go outside, letting the front attendant know i’m one of the guests. the mall only had a couple people walking around, parents taking their kids out on small walks looking at the dim posters of health shop panes or glimpsing lone products on empty aisles. Down the escalators, the air conditioning roared into the sounds of traffic, the klek koax of stop lights as pedestrians gurgled over the sidewalk as steps and half-caught conversations recede into the thrum of light fixtures above us, the framed entrances of cafes and funeral homes dimmed underneath the apartments above them. an individual about my age next to me leaned at the entrance smoking, delaying the drag leaves a cloud of smoke around him as if viewing him through a photograph. the black overcoat and dress-shirt made me presume he was from the restaurant upstairs.
‘you came down from the banquet?’ i ask
‘yeah,’ he answered taking another drag, light speckled in his eyes of the languid departures of car headlights in the ebony air as the remaining flame at the crumbling end of his cigarette, a slight breeze buffeted from the traffic. ‘i think i saw you actually, weren’t you at one of the tables with uncle roland?
‘oh, he’s my grandfather’
‘is he? then you must be one of the shengs, is that right?’
‘yes. oh, my name is sheng tze-ho’
‘mine’s lau ka-yan.’
‘pleased to meet you’
‘well, we’re starting off quite formal aren’t we?’ yan chuckled before tilting his cigarette carton. ‘you smoke?’
‘good for you,’ he takes a last drag before tossing it, disappearing into the damp pavement. ‘this stuff’s cheap here at least.’
‘you wouldn’t happen to be the ones who came from california?’
‘that’s right, guess you really keep your ear on things. the people up there must go to you for gossip’
‘trust me, if i wanted to do that, i’d either be in a surveillance unit, reporter or just a voyeur’
‘there’s a difference?’
‘one of them keeps you off the tabloid magazine stalls’
‘shame, i thought i was going to see the making of a star’
yan only smirked leaning his head towards the real estate office window plastered with ads of empty lofts and glassy skyscrapers beside us, apartment towers in the distance corrugated at the end of the street, concrete softens into tv aerials scrawled across the rooftops opening to an evening sky hoping wihin the activities of the stars appearing out of the faint clouds that the images of colourful family dinners may conjure out of the warm night air. we only wait on those now empty window panes and bedrooms above, waiting on peering into the private lives of residents, our very own miniature rooms that would appear behind the glass as those images of tycoons walking through entrances glittering in camera flashes.
back at the banquet, the dishes were near empty as cousins spent the late evening talking, some still maintaining that turbulent banter as tsui and her fiancee struggled to listen. yan went to a distant table with who i believe were his parents before returning to their conversations with an uncle who works insurance. filing out, my parents slunk on the mtr train back with a heavy silence that resisted any conversation limbering towards sleep while my mother shook her head about one of our relatives being too uncouth at one of the tables saying they should’ve been more mindful that it was tsui’s wedding celebration while she asks me about the people i was with. my mention of yan brought a slight grimace as she mentioned that he looks a bit like a street kid before saying that living in america does that but all of it fades into the train car almost floating over the rails as the glowing boards in the underground tunnel darts past into a weightless void.