故事 | a story
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 4:30pm on 24th October 2018
1. - 5. 天台塾策劃的亞洲種子泰國研學之旅，2018年8月 Rooftop Institute''s ''Asia Seed'' trip to Thailand in August 2018
攝影：約翰百德 Photographs: John Batten
Below is a simple story that was included in an exhibition at ACO in Wan Chai about Rooftop Institute''s ''Asia Seed'' trip to Thailand in August 2018, which I joined with 4 secondary students and 4 artists = in total there were 9 of us. A letter (in English and Chinese) was put in a box with about thirty photographs, with descriptions explaining each photograph. Below is the story and a selection of photographs that were in the box. On the box was this note to visitors of the exhibition:
Before looking at My Uncle’s Box of Photographs – please read the story, in Chinese or English (Please scroll down).
離家之前，他常常說笑自己要成為外科醫生。他說：「但首先我要當個紋身師，這樣可以訓練手定！」也許與當醫生這想法最接近的，就是在外公創辦的家族藥油生意中工作。他常納悶於店裡的工作，不喜歡要向顧客笑臉迎人， 還得和那些在永樂街推著手推車跑上跑落、要向舅父拿煙抽的送貨工人稱兄道弟。他們永遠都赤膊上陣，並在下腹位置縛上一條毛巾，以防止在抬起重重的鹹魚箱子（又或諷刺地，我們以龍紋標記聞名的藥油箱子）時出現疝氣。 我們家賣的藥油是外用的，可以紓緩頭痛，但功效大概僅此而已。
「……這些是我拍下的一些照片；我沒有被拍進任何照片內。這群香港訪客在清邁留了4天，我帶他們到了 Pun Pun有機農莊，我每年在那裡幫手種米的地方。你看到的美妙風景，正是由我睡覺的共居廳看出去，遠望山谷的景色。我們也探訪了一個以失敗告終的藝術家社區，名叫Land Foundation。社區在等待重生；現在只是一堆空置建築物，但卻是建築師過去的夢想。我們到過新的當代藝術博物館，一個連香港也沒有的地方！我帶他們到爵士吧，然後漫步街上。其中一名藝術家向同學展示偶然相遇如何可以帶來更深入的瞭解……嗯，我想是瞭解生命吧。主辦單位向學生介紹觀察、瞭解和欣賞世界與其他文化的創意方法。其他照片則是在曼谷拍的。我沒有前往––他們都是由組織送來找我的。你該認得出唐人街的街道和Jim Thompson House，那些多年以前，我們年輕時候，全家一起渡假時，媽媽和爸爸帶我們到訪過的地方。那些地方沒有太大改變。」
中文譯本： Aulina Chan
by John Batten
My Uncle’s Box of Photographs
1 September 2018
Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
This box of photographs is tucked under my uncle''s old football gear in a wardrobe with a calendar-girl calendar from a ginseng shop posted on the inside wardrobe door. My uncle had abandoned his bedroom in our old family-owned Sheung Wan flat, that doubles as a warehouse, when he left Hong Kong two years ago.
We received a letter with a key in it a few weeks ago, asking my mother, my uncle''s sister, to collect a parcel from P.O. Box 33-713 at the Sheung Wan Post Office. It was a place I regularly visit doing the company’s errands after university, earning some pocket money. I take my carefully wrapped parcels, usually containing packed bottles, to be weighed and forms checked and chopped, and, postage stamps stuck to the parcel, always politely requesting, "the latest stamp issue, please."
Our customers, especially Mr Tsang in Houston (Texas, USA), always appreciate the latest Hong Kong stamps. He liked the recent weather signal issue and the numbers issue (yes, a designed numbers set of ''1'' to ''9'' except number ''8'', which was understandably sold-out). These, he told me, would be carefully steamed-off and given to a favoured grand-child. I thought the child would prefer a new video game or a credit to access Spotify. But possibly, Mr Tsang had a strategy: the stamps would be appreciated as a reminder of Grandpa when the child was older.
I opened the post office box and a parcel was sitting inside. It was not stamped or post-marked. It had not been sent through the mail, but placed inside the mail-box.
My uncle was the youngest and quite different from his siblings, my mother - the eldest - and two other brothers. He was thoughtful, quiet and loved music and art. He was three years older than me, more like an older brother than an uncle: we happily shared cigarettes (illicit for a few years, in my case) and played Metallica on the deep-bass-stereo in his car. My friends, admiring his thick long hair and taut athletic legs, said he was "hot", a comment I always ignored; they should, I hissed, look elsewhere!
Until he left us, he often joked he would become a surgeon, "But first I want to be a tattoo artist, to train my hand to be steady!" The closest he’s got to being a doctor was working in our family''s medicinal oil company - founded by our grand-father. He was bored by shop work and the fake smiles needed for customers and the buddy-camaraderie demanded by the delivery guys that trundle trolleys up and down Wing Lok Street and smoked his cigarettes. They were always bare-chested, and tied a towel around their midriff to fend off a possible hernia while lifting heavy boxes of dried fish, or, ironically, of our own oil famous for its dragon curlicue logo. Ours was a rubbing oil that relieved a headache but not much else.
When I returned home I gave the unopened box to my mother. She looked at it, felt its lightness. Eyeing me, "Is this it, nothing else?"
"Yes, that''s it." I handed back the envelope with the post office box key inside.
"There''s no stamps on it!"
"I know, someone must have placed it inside the post office box."
She carefully cut around the package and an assortment of photographs were inside and a carefully folded letter. Addressed to my mother, she read it without expression and passed it to me.
"I am well. I am living between Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand now. I work odd jobs and do volunteer work on an organic rice farm for three months of the year. I am also a tour guide for people visiting Thailand. They come from Hong Kong, Malaysia and increasingly, in droves, from Guangdong. That gives me money to live. I am doing what I always wanted, painting and making videos; little stop-animations using similar strange drawings that you were always scared of - despite you being older than me - when we were younger! I know you think being an artist is hopeless, but spending my life in the shop was a death sentence. You know that. You are the only one who knows that. I met a group of school students and artists recently from Hong Kong and I showed them around Chiang Mai....
"Mum, he''s an artist!" I looked up in amazement.
She flicked the ash of her cigarette and brushed an imaginary hair off her face.
"...these are some photographs I took; I’m not in any of the photos. The group was in Chiang Mai for four days and I took them to Pun Pun Organic Farm, where I help with the rice crop every year. You can see the wonderful view from the community hall where I sleep overlooking the valley. We also visited a failed artists'' community called the Land Foundation. It is waiting for a second life; it''s now only a collection of buildings, all sitting vacant: architects'' past fantasies. We went to the new contemporary art museum, a place even Hong Kong doesn''t have! I took them to a jazz bar and we walked the streets. One of the artists showed the students how chance encounters can bring a better understanding of...well, I suppose, life. Those students are being introduced to a creative way of seeing, understanding and appreciating the world and other cultures. The other photos are in Bangkok. I wasn''t there – they were sent to me by the group. You will recognise the streets of Chinatown and Jim Thompson House, places Mum and Dad took us to as kids when we had that family holiday years ago in Bangkok. It hasn''t much changed."
Mum was leafing through the photographs as I read.
"I am having some time away from Hong Kong. Sorry not to contact you; but, you know, after all the troubles and arguments and politics in Hong Kong, I had seen and heard enough. I just needed to get out for awhile. Growing rice and painting is good for the soul. I am calmer now. I sent this box to the Hong Kong artists, they’re an organisation called Rooftop Institute, to put in my old post office box for you to collect. I just wanted to let you know that all is well and my life is bigger than the family shop can ever provide. But, to paraphrase the Umbrella kids on that last day in Admiralty....I''ll be back."
Mum took the letter. Folded it carefully and placed it back inside the box, and asked me to put the box in my uncle''s wardrobe in the old flat.
That is where I left it. Waiting for my uncle to return.
He left a note on the bottom of his letter: “I have noted some of the places that the Rooftop Institute artists visited. Think of me there, as well.”
Our family is happy to temporarily lend the box of photographs for the duration of this exhibition organized by Rooftop Institute.