Saturday 27 September 1997
As the Mid-Autumn Festival approached, we received countless letters from organizations requesting cash donations. Given the disastrous room occupancy (32%) since the handover, we are no longer able to donate cash. So when I received a request from an old folks home three blocks away for some money to purchase Moon Cakes (Moon Cakes to the Chinese at this time of the year, are like Pumpkin Pie to North Americans at Thanksgiving) for their elderly residents, I called the organization and said that our hotel was willing to donate the Moon Cakes instead. I wanted to help this group. The elderly at this home are generally pitied by the community because their children don't have them to live in their homes or have not paid for them to stay in a deluxe retirement home. The officials agreed and asked if I would attend the Mid Autumn Festival celebration they were having to present the donation. The celebration would be games involving the elderly and tea afterwards.
I was a little hesitant. Having recently moved to a very Chinese part of Hong Kong (Sheung Wan) from the rather "expat-y" area of Mid-Levels, I have been really noticing how gweilos (meaning expatriates, but the literal translation is "foreign devil") aren't too popular. For example, every morning when I take the tram to catch the bus to work, the seat next to me is always the last to go. In addition, pictures and stories always depict Chinese elders as stoic, not jolly and rarely displaying affection or laughing, unless it is during some mystical Chinese game or cackling at someone else's expense. Finally, 99% of these people would be Cantonese speaking, not English speaking. I didn’t know how much fun this would be.
The day arrived and the hotel car took the hotel's six foot Panda mascot, the 400 Moon Cakes and myself to the social centre where the celebrations were to be held. The panda was hustled to the back where he would appear when the Moon Cake presentation was held (for the benefit of the Chinese press in attendance).
The minute the panda appeared, the audience, who had been pretty noisy, simply erupted. One fellow grabbed a social workers hand and pointed to the panda while he asked a question. The social worker came to me and asked if the panda could pose for pictures with a few of the residents. I agreed and the fellow jumped out of his seat and beelined it for the panda. The panda suit, typical of most those suits, is unwieldy and hard to see out of. When the gentleman reached the panda he skidded on the shined floor, bumped into the panda and then screamed with laughter as the panda fell to the floor. So did everyone else. And then it seemed everyone wanted to have their picture taken with the panda.
When it became apparent I was the one responsible for the Moon Cakes’ appearance, everyone made a real effort to include me. This included touching me, smiling and speaking their gratitude. Then they started playing organized games, where four social workers stood in the rows and a fifth at the beginning of the room would call out in Cantonese, "The first ten cent piece that has the queens face on it!" and then the room would erupt as these excited elders would try to prevent their neighbours from finding the coin while digging up their own, handing it to the social worker who would then dash up to the front of the room and exchange the coin for a small prize. The hysteria was high and the happiness overflowing.
Even though it was now 7:00pm, there was no way I was leaving.
Another lesson for me. No wonder I am treated like an observer if I am only going to observe. Getting involved, pouring tea, ripping off the plastic from the Moon Cakes, I was part of it, and including myself resulted in a feeling of belonging that eradicated any language void and transcended any cultural barrier that may have existed.
A truly wonderful day. Of course, I cant expect the tram behaviour to change, but I can remember the faces and the laughter and the touching. And I can volunteer there, soup kitchen detail, twice a month.
Have a great day.