“Typhoon,” New Era, Feb. 1990, 46
Chan Yung Fai stopped furtively at the corner of the building to flick away his cigarette in the darkness. The wind howling off the South China Sea flung the red sparks down narrow Macau Street.
Yung Fai hesitated at the church door. It’s been three years, he thought. I can’t go in now. But the ominous sound of the approaching typhoon warned otherwise. Inside the church were his mother and sister. He had to warn them.
Already the street markets were shutting down in panic. Yung Fai had hurriedly sold the last of his squawking chickens, keeping a plump red hen for the family’s dinner. Now the hen writhed in a pink plastic bag clenched firmly in his hand.
Yung Fai could vaguely hear singing inside the church. His sister, Chan Wai Fung, had talked all week about the music festival here tonight. Above the door, he read the Chinese characters for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Reluctantly, Yung Fai stepped through the doorway. The last time he had been inside this church was two weeks after he and his sister had been baptized. It was also the same day he had started smoking again. He had not dared go back—not to face broken promises and rules he could not keep.
The clear, melodic voice of his sister singing an old Chinese love song wafted through the church. Her voice is as perfect as she is, thought Yung Fai. Then he sighed. She’s always kept every rule in the book—probably even a few that aren’t there.
He edged around the corner to watch. Instantly, Wai Fung’s eyes greeted him. Her song smiled to him. Shyly, Yung Fai smiled back.
Then she sang her favorite, “How Firm a Foundation.” The audience was so enraptured they seemed oblivious to the rising wind outside.
Yung Fai watched her frail body quiver as she was named winner of the music competition. Propped in her chair, she was extraordinarily small for age 19. She lifted her crippled arms to limply clasp the hands of people crowding around to congratulate her.
Yung Fai had almost forgotten why he had come. Suddenly, he pushed forward to the pulpit and nervously cleared his throat. “There’s a big typhoon brewing outside. You need to get home.”
Stunned, the congregation for the first time heard the gushing wind. Wai Fung’s mother scooped up her daughter. The fragile, smiling girl with the lifeless legs and big, beautiful voice looked like a tiny child tucked in her mother’s arms.
Yung Fai followed them out. Rain was plopping on the rough-stoned street. Halfway down the street already, his mother was trying to shelter Wai Fung from the splashing drops.
Yung Fai had always looked upon his mother’s devotion to his sister with a mixture of guilt and amazement. On Sundays, while he was off gambling at the racetrack, his mother carried Wai Fung to church—a church his mother did not even like. Yet, every Sunday, she took Wai Fung to this Christian church and then went to her own Chinese temple to burn incense.
His mother’s irritated voice broke into his thoughts. “Yung Fai, are you coming? If we don’t hurry, the buses will stop running and we’ll be stranded on this side of the bridge.”
As he caught up with them, Wai Fung reached out to him. “That was brave of you to warn us. I would have been frightened to speak out in front of so many people I didn’t know.”
Yung Fai only shrugged and tried to keep up with his mother’s fast clip. When they reached the bus stop, people were pushing at each other to squeeze on the Taipa Island bus. A passenger immediately gave up his seat to Wai Fung and her mother. Yung Fai grabbed the overhead rail and wiggled close to them. Crammed against another passenger, his red hen began screeching loudly. His mother gazed at the squirming sack.
“What else have you got in that sack?” she snapped.
Yung Fai shrugged again. “Oh, only a pack of cigarettes.
Her black eyes flashed. “How much longer are you going to waste our money on those worthless things? You seem to forget there are seven of us to feed in our house. With you gambling and smoking, we’ll never be able to save enough money to go back and visit your father in China. You know that’s all Wai Fung has ever dreamed of.”
The bus lurched forward and picked up speed. The wind and rain whipped through the open windows, drowning out their voices and the sound of the irate chicken. Across the long bridge, above the tumultuous sea, the bus reeled with the wind and weight of its passengers.
When they finally jostled off the bus in front of the path leading to their plot of land, Wai Fung touched her brother’s sack. “I think you picked a good chicken for dinner, Yung Fai.”
After dinner, Yung Fai watched his mother clear the rice bowls off the table and roll the chicken bones up in the newspaper tablecloth. He uneasily paced the floor in their small tin/wood house. It was too quiet outside. He knew the storm would come back. Everyone in the house was waiting for the typhoon to exhale like a dragon. In the corner, his eldest sister, who preferred the English name of Lily, was listlessly threading plastic petals on a spindle. Her flower making brought a little extra money for the family.
Lily’s husband was fidgeting with the television.
“All you’re getting is static. Why don’t you turn that thing off!” Yung Fai said in exasperation.
“I’m just trying to get the Hong Kong station. They’re predicting this storm to be one of the worst ever.”
Yung Fai noticed Wai Fung shudder tensely. Wai Fung was usually so calm. Now her uncoordinated hands were fumbling aimlessly through the Book of Mormon which she read so diligently. She was always reading the Bible or Book of Mormon or one of those other scriptures.
Everyone was nervous. Only Lily’s toddler girls slept peacefully in the bunk against the far wall.
The typhoon crept back gradually as they all finally dozed in their beds. Yung Fai woke with a jerk to the wailing of the wind and whimpering of Lily’s youngest daughter. The window near her bed was rattling crazily.
At first everyone lay rigidly in the darkness, listening to the swelling storm. The dragon had returned. Its lashing tail sounded as if it would rip right through the house. They heard a thundering crack and the rushing thud of a tree falling. More trees creaked and splintered. The pitter-patter of rain had become a spewing torrent.
Yung Fai could hear the foreboding sound of rain beginning to trickle through the roof. Then the splattering of glass brought them all rolling to their feet. The wind hurled itself in one window and crashed out through another window on the opposite wall. Glass and splintered boards lay scattered on the floor.
Yung Fai was soon sweeping up water faster than glass. Water poured under the door. An unrelenting stream came through the ceiling and broken windows.
“We’ve got to save our things!” shrieked his mother, yanking open the door. She began scooping buckets of water and throwing them into the yard. The yard looked more like a river.
Suddenly, Wai Fung’s scream resounded above everything else. “Hear it! The power pole is falling. The house will cave in!”
“We must escape!” gasped Lily.
Momentarily, everyone groped in confusion. The ensuing crash seemed to come down in slow motion. Wood and tin hurtled against them. In panic, they pushed each other through the door.
Yung Fai looked back to see the entire roof collapsing under the weight of the giant pole. He could feel warm blood seeping down his face. But the rain sloshed it away, and Yung Fai imagined he was standing in a river of red. Dazed, he looked around to see that all his family had miraculously escaped.
“The animal shed!” shouted his brother-in-law. “There might be more shelter against the hillside.”
Bracing against the wind, everyone struggled through the swirling waters toward the hill. They slithered through mud and climbed over fallen trees. Once Yung Fai saw his mother fall, and he hurried to help her. She was still holding Wai Fung above the water.
When they reached the animal shed, mud and water were oozing through it. But no one cared. The storm was less violent there.
The chickens cackled noisily, and the pigs grunted in annoyance. Lily’s husband tried to kick the pigs away, but they were not about to be rousted from their secure spot.
Exhausted, everyone sank down. The pigs and people rested against each other, waiting out the typhoon.
Yung Fai dreamily kept pace with the rhythmic breathing of the pig next to him. After a while, his glazed eyes focused on his sister, Wai Fung. In her hands she gripped the satchel holding her scriptures. Even a typhoon threatening her life could not make her give them up.
Yung Fai looked slowly around. Each person was clutching something. His mother held Wai Fung closely. Lily and her husband were each cradling a daughter. Strangely, each tiny girl had managed to stay clinging to her doll.
Then Yung Fai realized he had also carried something out. He looked down to see what it was. The pink plastic bag was wound tightly around his hand. In it was his pack of cigarettes. In a sudden surge of disgust, he flung them outside into the mud.
Yung Fai leaned back in the bus seat and closed his eyes. He tried to picture what his father might look like after all these years. In a few minutes he would see him face to face. When Yung Fai had left China as a young boy with his mother and two sisters, his father had stayed behind to care for his own ailing parents.
Yung Fai opened his eyes again and gazed at the landscape, flowing with the green rice fields of spring. Almost two years ago, wallowing with the muddy pigs in the onslaught of the big typhoon, a trip to China had seemed a remote possibility.
Since that night, Yung Fai had not smoked one cigarette. Staying away from the racetrack would have been tough if it hadn’t been for the rebuilding of their house, which took every spare minute and dollar. Members of his sister’s church had showed up every day to help them. At first, Yung Fai had balked at staying with a church member while their house was being reconstructed. But the bed was so dry and the rice so moist that he soon forgot his apprehensions.
The donkeys and carts were becoming more numerous along the roadside now as the bus approached their ancient family village. Yung Fai looked across the aisle at Wai Fung sitting in her mother’s lap next to the window. In her excitement, she was squeezing the window railing with her bony fingers.
Yung Fai pondered to himself, I’ve never been inside her church again since that night of the typhoon. But it’s not because she hasn’t tried. She’s even taught me some of her songs. Why does she think more of me than I think of myself?
When Lily knocked at the low brick building Yung Fai vaguely remembered as his home, a gray-haired man opened the door. His mouth opened in a toothless grin. He greeted each family member in the usual reserved Chinese manner, taking their hands warmly in his. But, when Wai Fung was placed in his arms, he held her tight and tears came to his eyes.
“Do you remember the songs you used to sing for me?” he asked.
“Oh yes, Papa,” exclaimed Wai Fung.
After she had sung many of his favorite Chinese melodies, her father was silent. Yung Fai watched him fumble under the bed and pull out a big book. “I’ve been reading the Bible. You wrote and told me you had joined a Christian church, so I decided to find out what was in their book. Are there Christian songs you can sing?”
Wai Fung smiled exuberantly. Then Yung Fai saw her motioning to him with her eyes. “Papa,” she said, “I also taught Yung Fai to sing with me. Maybe we could both sing for you.”
At first, Yung Fai looked down shyly. Then the words of the song came more strongly to his lips, “O my Father, thou that dwellest …”
When the last note had faded, their father was nodding serenely. Yung Fai felt himself nodding too. The words the old man now spoke seemed to be coming from his own mouth. “Your words are good. They are true.”
Suddenly, Yung Fai felt as if he and his father were someplace else. Dressed in white, they were standing in a pool of water.
Yung Fai’s mind returned to the little room where his gray-haired father sat on a stool before him and Wai Fung sat close beside him. He groped for his sister’s hand, wanting to open her eyes to his experience. But, when he gazed down at her dark, tranquil eyes, he sensed she had seen his vision long ago and was now only sharing it with him.