2000s Archive

Getting to Know Him

Originally Published December 2008
This author loved the boyhood summers he spent visiting his grandfather in Hong Kong. Yet on a recent visit, he started to wonder if he’s just afflicted with a bout of romantic nostalgia for a place he never really knew.
Francis Lam's family in Hong Kong

The author’s grandfather, cousin, uncles, and grandmother shop between meals in Hong Kong’s Lei Yue Moon neighborhood in 1978.

My grandfather died in a place that doesn’t exist. He died in a place in my memory, a Hong Kong that was, for a boy from the New Jersey suburbs, a pinball machine of noises, colors, and flavors. I loved my childhood summers there. I remember walking through honey-thick humidity to my favorite noodle shops, where the steaming pots and the steamy air gave resonance to the wontons, dumplings whose name literally means “swallowing clouds.” I remember my grandfather taking me to the landmark restaurant Fook Lam Moon, where waiters would greet him by name, where there was never a menu but instead conversation and a negotiation about freshness, where he would squeeze my arm and ask what I wanted to eat.

When people ask me how I got so into food, I think of those summers. I think of my grandfather, about how he came up so poor he couldn’t afford to have his children live with him, but when he finally made his fortune, he dedicated it to eating and sharing food. My parents used to put me on his bony knee and tell him about my good grades in school, but it was at the table where I most felt his pride, as he watched my small, clumsy hands aiming chopsticks at the particularly prized morsels, the things he could once only dream of being able to provide. “This one,” he would declare, “knows how to eat.” It sounded like nothing could be more important.

He died almost 15 years ago, well before he could see his hungriest grandson turn his appetite into something approaching a respectable career. So, these many years later, I find myself in Hong Kong and mainland China, going to places I remember him taking me to, going to places I only remember hearing about, looking to find something about him, about his love of food that came down to me. Great-Uncle Nine, the last of my grandfather’s brothers, offered to be a guide. He holds a place of respect in my family, not just because of his seniority, but also because he has an almost supernatural palate. “I’ve seen him eat a piece of fish and tell how long it was out of the water,” my father whispered to me while glancing surreptitiously at him, tiny and unassuming, at the other end of the table. “He can tell if a chicken’s ever been in a refrigerator.”

Great-Uncle Nine and his wife carry their own bottle of soy sauce around town. I learned this while having dim sum with them at the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel, when she pulled out scissors from her purse to trim rice-noodle rolls that hadn’t been cut to the appropriate size. “How can you enjoy them if they crowd your mouth?” Great-Uncle Nine asked as he uncapped his sauce. The night before, he had asked our waiter to scoop our rice from a particular place in the pot. This is who I’m descended from.

His amazing sensitivity and memory for flavors mean that, in our world of compromise, Great-Uncle Nine frowns through most of his meals and treats the declining quality of chicken as an existential crisis. But one morning during my visit, even he had occasion to smile at a dish of pepper-crusted smoked beef tongue. We spun the lazy Susan around at an alarming speed, throwing the kick-ass scent of Texas barbecue into the otherwise refined air of the room. My mother-20 years and counting of vegetarianism under her belt-turned to me and said, “Son, get a piece of that and wave it under my nose.” This is who raised me.

Despite the elation brought on by a truly good smoked tongue, Great-Uncle Nine frowned when I suggested we go to Fook Lam Moon. “Your grandfather isn’t here,” he said. “They don’t know us there anymore.” But I protested that a good restaurant should be a good restaurant no matter who you are, and he relented.

Although it has undergone a sleek, angular makeover, I instantly recognized the elevator banks where hostesses used to lead us, radioing upstairs that Mr. Lam was here. I remembered how tall they seemed, how beautiful in their silk, elegant and gracious as they held the doors open, tipping their heads slightly.

A woman behind a host stand pointed to the elevators and told us which button to press. Upstairs, we walked past shelves of extraordinary wines labeled with the names of regulars, a roll call of the Hong Kong elite. We ordered some of the classics by memory, and I was amazed at the crackling, paper-thin skinned suckling pig: sweet fat dripping down pencil-width ribs. But when the chicken came out abused by the fryer and the lotus-infused rice tasted of little other than rice, I couldn’t help but wear the disappointed face Great-Uncle Nine was too polite to make. I watched servers dote over a nearby table of men in suits and wondered: Was it the place that had changed or our place in it? Was the culture of this city still fixated on food, or had I inherited an obsession that was now merely personal?

“Maybe you should see an old street market, to see how things used to be,” my father suggested, in part to be helpful, and in part, I think, just to cheer me up. I had always thought of my grandfather as being old, and even before he passed I regretted not spending enough time with him, not getting to know him and the world he lived in. Now, trying to do that a decade and a half too late, I realize that my father is an old man, too. I love walking around this city with him, having him guide me. I love how he knows the place and when to turn, curbing my tendency to find and lead. I feel like a kid, led by a grown-up. I feel like his son. I feel like the name my parents have called me my entire life, “Jai Jai,” which means “little boy.”

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