Wake to the sight of a completely empty room. The beds are untidy, the lights are off, and the only thing I can hear is the distant rumble of traffic as it runs past the hostel. It looks as if the Rapture has occurred and taken Betsy and Amy, but in fact they’re off to Canberra on a long day trip. I, on the other hand, have people to meet.
Sydney is home to a huge Cantonese diaspora: worried about their future in Hong Kong after the handover, loads of people moved to Australia (and Sydney in particular) in the 1990s. Some of the people in my church also made the move and established a sister church here; and even though the church itself no longer exists, my friends from church have kept in touch with the people down under. And so it is that I find myself at Auburn station, at 8:30 in the morning (yet another early morning for me), waiting to see an auntie from church that I haven’t seen for almost ten years. (Foreign readers: calling elders not related to us “uncle/auntie” is a thing we HKers do. Get used to it, I know it’s cringey.)
Winding my way along the dimly-lit concourse, I worry about whether we’ll still recognize each other: the last time I saw her, I was more than half a metre shorter and didn’t even have glasses. No worries: Auntie Jael is still the same — glasses, bob haircut, a kind but slightly jaded smile. She welcomes me to Sydney, leads me along the streets as we catch up on what has happened. Auntie Jael seems very interested in how I’ve suddenly found myself in Sydney: wasn’t I in Melbourne? How have I found Australia? Am I used to life over here? She seems so intent on finding out all about me that it’s only when we’ve almost arrived at church that I remember my manners and ask how they’ve been in the past couple of years. For them, it’s been a bumpy ride: they’ve changed churches twice, and their family’s gone from a Cantonese-speaking church to an English-speaking one because their daughters don’t really get Cantonese sermons. Changing churches twice in five years is a shift of epic proportions, not seen since the last time I went to a shopping mall with girls, so I can’t help but be slightly worried.
The first thing I notice when I sit down is just how much I’m significantly dragging down the average age of this service. Maybe it’s cause I have my eyes closed for quite some time, but I cannot find a single face in the congregation that looks as if it could credibly be below 50. Then again, perhaps the young have a different service: it’s noticeably more subdued than any of the services I’ve been to in Melbourne. Church services here in Australia have been radically different from what I’m used to: instead of the fervent praying and loud acclamations that my Hong Kong church delights in, here people’s eyes seem to be open for much longer and the energy boils over only occasionally. This morning, though, the energy is down to a very slow simmer: everyone is quiet, and I can hear every creak of the chairs, every silently murmured “amen” that echoes around the vast brick building. Then the pastor arrives, and begins delivering a sermon from the list of names at the end of Colossians. This runs ten verses in the Bible but, being a pastor of deadpan delivery, he stretches it to an agonizing hour. I suppose it’s on me for expecting too much out of a simple sermon — after all, substance is and should be more important than presentation — but sadly this place only amplifies to me how it can be hard to connect with the Almighty at times.
All said, though, service is over by half past ten, and we’re out in the morning sun again sooner than expected. Uncle Paul (hush) arrives, fresh from having just coordinated a Mandarin Bible study, and we engage in some warm shaking of hands: he’s always taller than I remember him to be, and a rare example of cuddly older men who turn out to be almost infinitely magnanimous. We engage in the same old ritual: how are you, I’ve missed you, you’ve grown so much. I enquire about Jemima and Jessica: why aren’t they at church? Their father simply shakes his head. “They’re still not ready to come back yet. It’s just too easy to stay in on Sunday morning.” It’s been a while since the two of them have been back, but they remain hopeful, and — to my surprise — infectiously so.
Lunch at 11:30 — this trip is wreaking havoc with my biological clock. We’re at one of those shopping malls up in Ryde, a place that looks well-off, clean, and flat — the epitome of suburbia. At first it’s just me and the parents in that second-floor restaurant, but when I come back from a trip to the washroom, the seats in front of me have been filled with two more silhouettes: the Lee sisters, making their long-awaited appearance at last.
Last time I saw Jemima and Jessica, they were considerably shorter and much less tan. Beyond that, however, my memories of them are a haze: they used to be my favourite visitors from Down Under and I’d look forward to seeing them every winter, but eight years of growth spent continents apart has blurred most of the memories I have of the sisters. Were they always this chatty, were they always this tanned? In any case, the only image I now have of them is what’s in front of me: Jemima, a few years older than me, breezily saying hi and studying the menu; her younger sister, rambunctious and talkative as ever, firing away like her life depended on it. Most of these are to her sister, though, and over lunch (burgers and fries) it’s the parents who do most of the talking: life over there, church issues, and the like. At last, talk shifts toward the future. “So where’d you like to go for the afternoon? Where haven’t you been?” they say, beaming.
Being a fan of the Australian band Men at Work I instantly think of the Cronulla sand dunes, a prominent setting in their video for “Down Under”, but I can already imagine the faces that they might pull after I suggest this: it’s at least an hour’s drive south, and their house is only a few blocks away. They’re looking at me now, expecting an answer — quick, blurt the first thing that comes to mind. “The Olympic Park? I heard it’s a brilliant place”.
Half an hour later, I’m in the car heading for said precinct with the girls, their father, and a dog that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. It’s a bright sunny afternoon, the air’s slightly cool, but it’s refreshing rather than paralytic. Multiple references to a boyfriend are made, though they play the pronoun game so much I’m not entirely sure whose boyfriend it is. A Bonnie Tyler song comes on the radio, and the girls sing along — hesitant and subtle, which is never the way to sing “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, but they’re doing a good enough job with their soft vocals. I sit at the front, humming “Mr. Blue Sky”, off in a world of my own. It’s a beautiful new day, indeed.
The park itself is not terribly exciting: I was expecting something on the scale of Munich’s Olympiapark, but there’s not much here except building after concrete building. An apartment block here, a stadium there. Of course, there are some hidden delights — like the Brickpit Ring Walk, tucked away in the fringes of the parkland. Originally slated as a site for a stadium, plans were thwarted when they discovered an endangered frog in the marshy grounds. Today there’s only a colourful steel bridge towering above the place, a ring of metal allowing you to gaze at the swamp far below, as well as have a pleasant 15-minute stroll along its rim. Less exciting is the Newington Armory, on the other side of the Park. It’s normally not open to the public as it’s a nature reserve, but on a Sunday like today there are scores of people swarming around the grounds, shouting and laughing as they run around and enjoy the sun. There’s not much that appeals to the bookish nerd, though, except maybe a railway runs from the former arsenal to the riverside, and a café just beyond the tracks. (Judging by how familiar the girls are with the barista, I’m guessing that they’re frequent visitors.)
Still, the Armory’s a beautiful spot with plenty of scenery and places to relax. Jemima lets her dog off and it dances around the water feature outside, yapping excitedly at the jets that seem to spring out of the ground. Sitting at the tables, listening to the lapping of the waters around me, I idly flip open my phone and notice that it’s 1°C in Canberra. A brief image of Betsy and Amy freezing their arses off on Capital Hill comes to mind, and I sit back contentedly and sigh, for once pleased with my life choices.
Four in the afternoon, and we’re back at their house. I was here on my last visit to Australia, but 14 years on it still seems like the most humongous place on Earth to me. In the living room, Jessica is watching a very weird home remodelling show where the homeowner points a sword at the presenter for doing a good job. Luckily Jemima soon walks in with board games (“let’s do this one instead!”) and we eagerly rise to the challenge. As it turns out I’m terrible at charades, which speaks well for my potential acting career: the trivia game that comes up next is more my jam. Over time we loosen up a little more: our gestures become more exaggerated, the OMGs more frequent. A lacklustre afternoon becomes a laugh-filled evening, as we struggle to communicate in both languages and our competitive sides are reawakened. Eventually, just as we’re getting into the spirit of things, Betsy and Amy text me to say that they’ve just left Canberra: my cue to leave. We say our awkward goodbyes — to think that we were just beginning to know each other! — and promise to keep in touch. It’s the best we can hope for when we’re so far apart.
Uncle Paul drops me off at Eastwood station, which gives me an idea. I’m supposed to be taking the quickest train back to the city, but as none of my friends have been to Eastwood or know how long it takes to get there, I’m trying another of my train-related shenanigans. Race up the line one stop to Epping, then down the escalators to the subsurface platforms. Thank God, I’m just in time for the eastbound train: miss that and I’d have been set back at least ten minutes. The train hums along the tunnel, taking ages to traverse stations. At last we pop out into the open, and I keep my eye on the window as the North Shore stations hurtle by. Rush to the door as we pull into Milsons Point: the freezing night air greets me as I step onto the platform and run towards the front end of the train. By now, Betsy and Amy are back in Sydney: I’m only a couple of miles away myself, but there’s something between me and them that I just have to stop and visit. For just south of the station — literally a train-length away from the end of the platform — is the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
A couple of entries ago, I talked about how seeing the Sydney Opera House from Circular Quay station blew my mind when I was young. But forgive me, Opera House aficionados: that wasn’t even the best train-related thing that happened to me in Sydney. No, it was when the train we were on passed through Milsons Point and the Harbour Bridge on its way back to the city. And can you imagine what it felt like for a young boy to look out the window, and realize that he was surrounded by one of the most famous bridges in the world? It was quite frankly the most magical thing of my entire life up to then, right alongside chocolate ice-cream.
Up till then, I didn’t know that public transport and scenery could mix: weren’t they all just tunnel interiors, weren’t all trains ugly? But this place existed — this place literally opened up a whole new world for me. Not only had Sydney built a railway on a bridge, they had built it on a beautiful bridge. And seriously, you don’t get trains and beauty anywhere better: this station has so much to offer, like the little Victorian lamps perched on the side like sentinels on the approachway, or the Bridge itself, curving away from the station as if inviting you to see it in its full glory. Fourteen years have passed since I first fell in love with trains, right there at Milsons Point, and all revisiting has done is give me another shot of the drug, and sink me deeper into that obsession.
Finally join Betsy and Amy in Chinatown, where we’re having Malay food tonight —the Asian heritage tour continues. Ask them about Canberra, but maybe it’s because they’ve had a long journey today, they don’t have much to say. There is, however, an incident in a garden that seems to promise huge rewards. File that away to grill the girls on when they’re alone, but in the meantime: satay kebabs, fried noodles, and the full greasy works.
Dinner over, we walk a bit to get the satay out of our systems. Stumble into Tumbalong Park, a wide green space that contains a “Chinese Garden of Friendship” and some stepping stones. It’s a quiet Sunday night, and few people are venturing into this brightly-lit park: we’re practically the only people tripping around the water features, feebly trickling past our feet. The sound of water makes me want to relieve myself, and luckily there’s a building at the far end of the park. As we draw close, however, we discover that it’s the International Convention Centre — and it’s hosting a gathering of adult entertainers. Not the kind of after-dinner show we’re looking for, so we turn around and strike for Darling Harbour.
By virtue of honeyed words I manage to get them all the way to Pyrmont and to the bridge that Kathy and I walked down not 36 hours earlier. It’s also here we run into yet another person we know. By an astonishing twist of events, our Hong Kong-born friend Emmanuel is also here in Sydney visiting family, and Amy — never one to shy away from a meet-up — has asked him to come over. Emmanuel (or Emu as Amy affectionately calls him) is an extremely sincere and polite character: the day we first met, I once bowed to him in mock deference and he responded by bowing back even deeper than I did. (Just shows that we HKers can polite the shit out of anyone.)
So it is that the forces of fate (or maybe Amy) have brought us together, on a windswept pedestrian bridge deep into the night. Having met up, though, we realize that we don’t really have anywhere to go. A transport buff himself, Emu knows how to go anywhere and everywhere, but it being nine on a Sunday evening most of the places we can go to are closed anyway. Briefly consider having pancakes again, but then Betsy finds that the Max Brenner chocolate store is open for another hour, and since none of us can come up with anything better we decide to visit this fabled chocolate café (a chocafé?). Before we leave, however, there’s just time for a couple of photos.
And now onto the chocolate store, which we discover is in a shopping mall right underneath the Sydney Tower. Specifically, it’s on the highest floor of the mall — the farthest you can go without having to pay extra — so it takes a while for us to find our way up several escalators, treading through almost empty corridors with dimly-lit shopfronts casting shadows everywhere. It’s more than slightly creepy, but I try not to mention this to the others as we climb up to the top floor. Despite his politeness Emu is easily the funniest of the four of us: the jokes and banter flow steadily, and he’s a instant hit with everyone in the group. He keeps it up even as we finally reach the chocafé and spend a long time deliberating over the things on offer — it’s our last night in Sydney, we want something special. Something like chocolate pizza.
I know it looks like somebody just pooped and barfed on some pizza dough, but I assure you: it tasted a LOT better actually going down our stomachs.
On the way down to the station, though, I can’t help but notice how Emu has been even more polite than usual today: not only is he bowing with clockwork regularity, but he is going out of his way to defer to all of us and make conversation with Amy. As we walk through the underbelly of the Queen Victoria Building, on our way to the Trains, it clicks.
“Don’t you think Emu’s slightly attracted to Amy?” I whisper to Betsy.
She looks at me as if I’ve accused her of cannibalism. “No, not really… it’s just being friendly, isn’t it?”
Perhaps I am reading too much into things: after all, he’s this polite to almost everyone. Emu then announces (mostly to Amy) that he will be escorting us all the way to Kings Cross, in the opposite direction of his own home — because “I’ve always wanted to go that way”. Behind the two of them, I raise my eyebrows at Betsy, who only rolls her eyes.
It’s been a long day, full of wonderful reunions and meet-ups and love and discovery, and I’m glad to see so many familiar faces even when I’m so far from home. I’ve heard the view that we travel to get away from our own people, and I do feel like that at times: the second you see a HKer, your life becomes a thousand times more intense. It’s the last thing I need. But today’s proved an exception to the rule: surrounded by friends and with a stomach full of chocolate pizza and laughter, I cannot imagine for myself a happier scenario, where I am alone in this big city, with nobody to look forward to meeting, the sights all I have for company. With everything that’s happened today, I can’t help but feel a little grateful for all the people from my hometown — always willing to extend a hand, always eager to make you feel welcome. We finally part at Kings Cross, still chuckling but all ready for a good night’s sleep.
However, sleep does not come so easily to those who wish it. The World Cup in Russia has just begun, and as I’m wrapping up my work for the night the Germany-Mexico match is hotting up. Just as I’m teetering on the edge of oblivion Hirving Lozano scores, setting off a loud cheer from the Mexicans downstairs that charges straight through the window and into my eardrums. Drift off again after inwardly swearing at the Mexican football team.