Catch Me You Can

By nature I am a city dweller; I like crowded streets. As introverted as I am, I find crowded streets comforting – you can reap the benefits of togetherness without actually socializing. One of my favorite cities in China was Hong Kong, where the cliché “people mountain people sea” was originated, a perfect place for people watching.

To do that, you can take a tram, the old-fashioned two-story kind with no air-conditioning but wide-open windows. Make sure you have the front seat of the upper deck. If the seat is not available, wait for the next tram. With a paper-sack of roasted chestnuts in hand, you can spend a Sunday morning riding high up, overlooking the busiest streets, while the tram slowly staggering from one end of the Island to the other end.

There’re all kinds of business going on along both sides of the thoroughfare, and netlike bystreets extending from the main road into back alleys, as if a lifelong dream got sidetracked to every other direction.

People from all walks of life were on the streets. Real estate agents in suits on a Sunday, hurrying around to showcase tiny apartments. High-strung parents escorting sleepy kids to extracurricular activities. Construction or delivery workers streaming into Jockey Clubs to place their bets on a horse.

Career women shopping for high fashion to sharpen their competitive edges for corporate ladder climb. Middle-aged men queuing outside toy stores for limited edition of comic hero figures. Retirees on their way to attend direct sales seminar for newly discovered formula that cures all disease. And domestic helpers from Southeast Asia gathering around city squares to exchange tidbits and gossips …

Now I don’t have the proximity to crowded streets. Except for occasional dog walkers, no one goes outdoors in town. People mountain people sea are to be found online only.

It’s been 80 days since I started on WordPress for people watching. I thought blogging was dead but it is not yet. Plenty of people are still performing the act. There are poets, musicians, photographers, travelers, cartoonists, foodies, preachers, comedians, fashion designers, network developers, art collectors, dream weavers, animal lovers, spiritual gurus …

Everybody plays a character or two. You could be Snow White or Prince Charming, Cinderella or Unicorn, the Beauty or the Beast. Virtual friends practice acupuncture or chiropractic on each other, to help reduce hidden stress or relieve that chronic pain from real lives. Every corner you turn, there is Don Quixote, who recalls the old saying of “You can be anything you want to be”, and decides to start anew and live that dream.

A select few really dream big – a bestseller is in the making; a blockbuster will come on the heels; a Nobel Prize would not be something entirely unimaginable on the horizon … You are no longer just people on Hong Kong streets, going about their mundane courses running of the mill.

I heard someone at the height of his escapade say, “The best part of blogging is, when I die, my digital profile will live on. Is there a better way to achieve immortality?”

I was about to reply, “The minute you’re dead, instantly your Web site would look like your headstone.” Fortunately I got hold of myself. Sometimes the best we could do for someone, is to help them live in their dreams.

The notion of death comes up naturally, with coronavirus looming every minute in the news. Before this, death was at the far end of worries. Now watching people fighting over toilet papers, suddenly you realize we are animals facing imminent slaughter, fish gasping for air in the net, fugitives getting caught and thrown back into a primitive state of being. The sense of impermanence has never been so acute, although it feels somewhat surreal.

Despite all the dramas in the news, I haven’t actually done anything to prepare. All my stock is running low. The innate tendency to be a watcher makes me procrastinate about everything until it’s too late. Would it eventually cost my life?

As I contemplate the reality of my nonentity, the Chinese idiom story 滥竽充数 comes to mind –

Once upon a time, there was a king who enjoyed having a large group of musicians playing a wind instrument called Yu. And there was a guy named Nanguo who didn’t know how to play, but somehow he managed to have a position in the group. Every time the orchestra performed, Nanguo would put on an act, making believe he’s playing, without producing a real sound. After the king died, the prince inherited the throne. But the new king loved listening to solo. So Nanguo had to flee the palace overnight.

I can relate to him! Before coronavirus made its fame, life used to be like a group play. Where one could do all the empty talks without making a real sound. Where we put up endless flotillas of bubbles to create the illusion we’re game. Where you rushed to fill up every nanosecond pause with activities, making believe you live a full life. It could be so convincing until death comes. You then suddenly feel like being washed ashore all alone to a foreign land. All things familiar and well invested would appear to be just irrelevant on that other shore. The hopes and dreams you held on with such single-minded fervor would be hot-air balloons deflated.

Once all the makeshift identities are stripped away at the time of death – the greatest judge of all time I am destined to face, how would I do the solo play, with no knowledge of who I truly am?  With or without coronavirus, there’s no place on earth where death could not catch me so unprepared.

(Written in March 2020, when the pandemic became an undeniable reality)