Lamma Island, 3:33PM – Overcast.
Man Kee, the diner on Main Street, main stay of my identity as a solitary figure who lives on a hill alone, who breakfasts alone in a marble and tile cavern, is now gone.
For the past week, since Chinese New Year, Man Kee has been shuttered. No cause for alarm except for the absence of a red or orange sheet of calligraphy, decorative as it is informative, used by most shops and restaurants to announce when they will reopen after Chinese New Year. I judge the character of the establishment based on their calligraphy. Ink, if they’re trying. Permanent marker, if they’re not. Gold ink, if they’re fancy. Seal script, if they’re run by someone with a lot of time on their hands. The fourth day of the Lunar New Year…. the fifth… the eighth…Man Kee is all shutters, no calligraphy.
Surely today is the day, I tell myself this morning as I make my way down the hill into town.
There is nothing worse than walking uphill hangry. Nothing, other than walking back uphill hangry. I do not do this. Not ever, not today.
Instead, I breeze past Man Kee as you do your exes on our little island, as if I have somewhere else to be at 7:30AM on an empty stomach. No other restaurants are open except for this place behind an estate agency, which is probably itself a front, and a shop that specializes in cleaning products.
Could I eat there?
It feels wrong. But not quite as wrong as it feels to walk fifteen minutes uphill and then stand another ten in my kitchen fixing pancakes that will only keep me full for an hour maximum.
This place behind the estate agency is called Au Kee. Kee essentially means shop. Au means “cow,” just as the Man of Man Kee means “literature” or even “civility.” Which name do you think I prefer?
Au Kee, or Cow Shop, is semi-outdoors. Round banquet tables. White tablecloths. Corrugated iron roof. A confused porch of sorts. A bride kicked out of her own reception.
Then I see him. The same waiter from Man Kee. Civility Shop. The one who serves me my order without me having said a word, making me feel at once a mafia boss or character in a movie or a mafia boss character in a movie. I walk over to Au Kee wondering, who exactly is the traitor here?
The answer is everyone. Everyone is there. All the usual suspects. All the people I have ever seen every morning for who knows how long. The well-dressed silverfox with the face of a movie star. The middle-aged woman who moonlights as a security guard at the library. The police officer who occasionally appears in uniform but otherwise dresses as if he is about to partake in some very high stakes sporting event. The mother with her fat baby who sends all the uncles reeling with affection, obliterating the stoic Asian father figure stereotype. The very same baby who has a real pair of lungs, who puts them to use with the force and regularity of a geyser.
Anyway, they’re all here. The whole cast. A different set. Nobody says anything, just as usual. They do all look at me though. Oh, there you are. We didn’t think you’d get the memo.
The waiter looks at me apologetically. He is actually going to speak to me today.
You can’t just have one topping on your noodles at this place, he says. You have to choose two toppings now.
Two toppings. A small price to pay for maintaining some semblance of myself.
“I’ll have the eggs too, then.”
It is now afternoon and I already know where I will be tomorrow morning.