When I Try To Piece Together The More Invisible And Detached Parts Of Mei Fang’s Life

Creative Non-Fiction, Poetry

This is a piece about the domestic worker (my a-yi) who worked for my family when we moved to Shenzhen. This piece was absorbed into a creative/academic piece I wrote for Una Chung’s class called the Ethnological Temptation– find it here

For a while after she stopped working for my family, Mei Fang smuggled baby formula in/across the border, two tins at a time, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It was relatively well paid, apparently, for what she had to do—take two tins on the Hong Kong side from the van parked two streets away, go through the automatic glass doors into the pale beige monstrosity that is Huanggang port, wait, in snaked lines, for her turn through customs. Somewhere in the middle of this large borderland is a line on the floor.

Mei Fang’s childhood consisted of fish and salty water. She played among mangroves, helped her father with the day’s catch, ran around the wet market with her older sister. She wore sandals or went shoeless. Shekou was a village that lay in her palm like a worn, familiar pebble. The coastline was a toe’s touch away. The sea smelled like a fish warming under the sun. At night, her father fixed nets under a single, smoky bulb.

“I hired her because she had worked at McDonalds, so I knew she would be very clean.” — My Mother. Note how cleanliness is identified by new, cosmopolitan, western, industrialized.


Diluted, empty milk. Melamine in milk. Powdered milk melamine posing as protein. Baby gallstones in babies. Melamine gallstones in milk babies. Powdered melamine milk fed to baby gallstones. A baby panic. 300,000 babies in hospitals; 6 babies dead. Chinese flock to Hong Kong pharmacies; empty the aisles of their clean milk tins.

Questions to myself: What happened to Mei Fang’s father after Reform and Opening Up, when, in a span of thirty years, the bay became smaller and smaller? What happened when the prosperity of the sea disappeared into land? What happened when the land disappeared into steel, concrete, and asphalt?

March 2013

Hong Kong locals start to grumble; complain. Locusts are driving up their formula prices and leaving their babies hungry; locusts are even flying to Australia, New Zealand, Canada. In Hong Kong, a new law is passed: No Taking More Than 2 Tins of Baby Formula Over The Border to China. Within this border are Mei Fang and others. Mei Fang and others, others, others, others others, Mei Fang. Her hair in a loose ponytail at the nape of her ringed neck, escaped tendrils vignetting her view; her left hand that once held squirming fish now clutching two tins of her livelihood, her right holding her identification card. Patiently, she waits in line. Patiently, she does not fly.

Yesterday I phoned my mother. I asked her where, exactly, Mei Fang lived when she was young. She told me she lived on an island near Shekou. The government moved her family off the island when Reform and Opening Up happened.

“It was fine though,” she said. They gave her family some land.”

I imagine Mei Fang’s father packing up his nets. Hauling them into his boat, maybe for the last time. Turning off the lone lightbulb for good.

I wonder why they didn’t give her family some sea.

Bloomberg, May 2, 2013. China’s Parents Crave Illegally Imported Baby Formula

… As of April 23, border officials say they’d seized nearly 20,000 pounds of powdered milk and arrested 879 people, many of whom were part of a smuggling syndicate. In 2012, 420-plus people were arrested for smuggling illegal drugs through Hong Kong.

MY MOTHER: “I’ll send you some photos of the old Shekou. It might prompt something different for you.To us of an older generation, we think, “Ah, how desolate, how backward and wild.” But perhaps you will find it beautiful.”

There is a landlocked passenger ship ten minutes walk from my home. China bought her from the French. After arriving to Shekou in ’83 the government started to reclaim the land around her. It now contains bars, a Brazilian barbecue restaurant, a cigar shop, and a four-star hotel. Footnote: Minghua (Ship), Wikipedia.

Note: Mei Fang’s father died around a year ago.

She sends me black and white photos of the water. Men fishing on bamboo structures. A thin sandy path through scraggly grass, mountains that you barely ever see in the background. A heap of oyster shells, mottled grey and white. A dangling fishing net laden with thousands of fish.


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