19th-century Tamil inscription in Hong Kong

“Aṅkām” was the Tamil word for Hong Kong on a 1899 tombstone in the Hindu Cemetery in Happy Valley.

This was a nice little project I had when I had to return to HK from UK at the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago. I have always been fascinated by the history of the Indians in HK and was curious why there was a Hindu cemetery in HK (Hindus usually cremate their deceased). The investigation brought me to many interesting people and their stories — the “Madras Lascars” in the 1860s and the experiences of the Indians who decided to settle among the Chinese in a foreign land under British rule.

I was told that my paper titled “THE HINDU TEMPLE IN HONG KONG AND ITS NINETEENTH-CENTURY CEMETERY” would likely be published in 2023. This will be my second contribution to the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society HK after my previous paper on the Japanese monk Utsuki in HK during WWII.

Going through Prof. Jao’s “Indological library” I found a very nice book on Indian scripts. Having learned to read Tamil script, I shall try to learn Gujarati next. Those inscriptions in the Parsee Cemetery right next to the Hindu Cemetery need to be read by someone!

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想起音樂和舞蹈擁有震撼人心的力量,馬上記起2016年在紐約看紐約城市舞蹈團Glass Pieces的演出。不說二話,轉了屏幕,Youtube搜了一下,竟然找到同芭蕾舞團的演出,而且拍攝和音響都一流。

Glass Pieces

作品一開幕就十分震撼,舞蹈員從舞台四角湧出,一時間眼前一片五彩衣和白球鞋,在凌亂和秩序之間穿插。當中一對特出的男女展開奇特的舞姿,密麻麻的背景,把他們呈現得更有詩意和線條感。堅決的音樂抓緊脈搏,一對又一對的奇特男女相繼出現,而其他舞蹈員從四角湧出的情境再多次重複。每次重複都增添一點小創意,彷彿在打比方:五彩衣行人代表大眾,他們逐漸被那些小眾的另類人所感染了,最後大家也變成藝術家,讓墨守成規的都市生活變得有趣。最後一刻,所有舞蹈員又再次融入開幕那個隨意的場面,以定鏡結束。編舞家Jerome Robbins彷彿給觀眾一個小提示,叫大家在生活中發掘靈感,去感動身邊的人。


In memory of Fran McArthur (1933-2022)


With deep sadness I learned about Fran’s passing a few weeks ago. Mrs. McArthur, as she was known to thousands of students, was an inspiring teacher and supporter of arts and musical communities in Owen Sound. I was very fortunate to have Fran as my teacher for some years before her retirement from OSCVI in 1991, and as a lifelong friend and mentor for nearly three decades long after I graduated.

My family moved from Hong Kong to Canada in 1988. My parents made a somewhat unorthodox decision to bring the family to rural Ontario with the belief that I and my sister would grow up as better Canadians, away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. Our connection to Owen Sound was a childhood friend of my mother, whose husband worked for an industrial company there. There were only a handful of Asian families in this town of 20,000. When I started my first day of school as a grade ten-er at the OSCVI, I was the only Chinese student in my class. There were a few other Asian students in the school, all born locally. I felt as if I was the only foreigner, and probably was.

I had the good fortune of having incredibly wonderful teachers during my four years at the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI), something that I fondly remember and always tell my friends and later my own students. In many ways, the teachers there are exemplary. Not only are they kind and big-hearted in the most Canadian way, their care for students is both touching and inspiring. Coming from Hong Kong, from a society where education is greatly valued but creates also tremendous stress for the young students, I was accustomed to hard works. What I did not expect was the bond I would develop with the teachers and how they would nurture and transform me.

As a science student, I enjoyed greatly all the science classes, in particular Mr. Cioran’s physics classes. But the most memorable teachers from this highschool whom I grew most fond of are those from the non-science subjects: Mr. Taylor (history), Mr. Gleiser (fine Art), and Mr. Azzanno (music). Mrs. Ford and Mrs. McArthur were my English teachers. When I first arrived in their class, I was quite alarmed to discover that I could hardly understand anything that was said. The students were already reading The Merchant of Venice and Thomas Harding’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Nine years of English education in Hong Kong did not prepare for that and seemed utterly futile. Not only did I have problem in comprehension, I could hardly make a complete sentence to express myself. My pronunciation was horrendous. At the age of 14 I felt that I had passed the window of language acquisition and would forever suffer from the curse of a non-native speaker. For many months my English teachers and tutors patiently guided me and corrected my weekly journal, page after page. I was too embarrassed to submit my homework, realising that they must have been an affront to the eyes. But every time I received my corrected journals and papers, expectedly covered in red, I would marvel not only at the correction in tidy handwriting, but also all the very thoughtful and encouraging comments and remarks. The patience of the teachers was unbelievable, despite my obstinate misjudgement in tense, number, agreement, or just a general lack of common sense.

Mrs. McArthur, or Fran, as she later would insist to be called, went beyond correcting my grammar. She saw beyond my failings, my miscomprehension, and the all blunders a stuttering young Chinese boy made. I was challenged to read T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. I even ended up writing a small novel as a final assignment in her creative writing class — The Meditation of Betelgeuse, an audacious attempt though embarrassing in retrospect. At the commencement ceremony, I was given a handful of awards, mostly in science subjects, but also three awards that I was particularly proud of: English, Fine Arts, and Music(Composition). There was this photo in the Sun Times, the local newspaper, with me, the top graduating student in my class and “Ontario Scholar,” flanked by Sam and Natasha, Head Boy and Head Girl who were in fact both a head taller than me! In retrospect, this was quite an extraordinary achievement for someone with no aspiration in the arts at the beginning. Fran was part of this incredible journey.

Coming from Hong Kong I was two years more advanced than my Canadian peers in most maths and science subjects. I could have applied to university at the age of 16 but the counsellor Mr. MacLeran discouraged me to do so. He thought that instead of skipping grades, I should take the time to improve my English, learn French, learn about Canada, its history and the new world that I was immersed in. Jokingly he thought that I needed to grow bigger to not to be bullied by the big boys, which was in fact quite true. The only regret I have is that I did not do more sport or did more social stuffs like other teenagers did. Instead I joined the orchestra, spent all my time outside school doing art, making music, practising yoga, becoming an activist in environmental protection, vegetarianism, and animal right. At any rate, my timetable at school was filled with all the extra classes that I didn’t really need for my original, typically Asian academic pursuit. I was learning creative writing, art, music, French, and even social studies. I broke the Asian smart cookie stereotype.

Fran would later tell me that she and other teachers and counsellors often talked about my study and how they “conspired” to delay my departure from this wonderful highschool. My love for art, music, and literature was all due to them and their attempt to create a more balanced education for me. Fran never coerced me to do anything, but encouraged and challenged me in the most gentle way to explore. Timid as I was, I never dared to make any bold choices until much later in life, but the seeds were planted then. After highschool, I took the graduation award to enter into chemical engineering program at McGill, only hating it and switched my major to linguistics and Sanskrit, while taking many music history classes in the second year. Montreal was as far as I could get, but it turned out to be a springboard for me to explore the world. It was the sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity which continued to drive me. They were all kindled in my highschool years with Fran.

I wrote many experimental short stories and poetry under Fran’s guidance. When I argued that there were ideas that I could not express in English, or in any language, she suggested to me to explore the world of dreams and symbols, and introduced me to the works of Jung and Kandinsky. I ended up creating my own language of symbols and to this day I am still obsessed with mystical symbols and exotic scripts. A handful of my drawings and paintings carry this unusual theme, and were likely precursors to my later arcane interest in Sanskrit calligraphy and Esperanto.

Fran noted my insecurity not only in my English, but also my own growth as a person. She reminded me often that I could not let my shortcomings be a crutch. To “liberate” me, she proposed voice-opening sessions to me, that is, shouting in the wilderness, something I dared not to try more than a few times on the beautiful Bruce Trail and at the Inglis Fall where I hiked often. With the encouragement of my two other wonderful art teachers, Mr. Gleiser and Mr. Sebesta, I created a substantial body of curious artwork including outdoor sketches inspired by the unique landscape of rural Ontario, the lake and the escarpment of the Grey Bruce county.

I was invited to Fran’s beautiful stone schoolhouse in Annan a few times where I met also her artist husband Jim, from whom I always wanted to have watercolour lessons. They were extremely kind to me and we often shared interesting conversation and music. Fran was a great lover of nature. I once had the chance of camping on their land. It was a cold winter day and I woke up finding all the food I brought with me frozen in the morning!

Fran and I met each other often in the library, where I often find her and Mr. McClusky recommending books to students. Even when I did not have classes with Fran, I would still see her from time to time there. As time passes, I am less able to recall the content of our conversation. Instead it was her voice that stays with me. Whenever I bring over a question or a problem, Fran would first gently reflected and only after a slight pause, replied often smilingly with a “Well, Bill,” followed more often by a question than an answer. There is always a “what do you think?” somewhere. To my young self, this gave me the confidence to believe that what I think matters, and that there is wondrous beauty in everything if you are patient and look hard enough. Perhaps more importantly and most touchingly, is to know that there is someone in this world who always has your best interest in her heart, and that nothing pleases her more than to see you finding joy in the discovery of the beauty and knowledge that we all share in this world of ours. It is this Fran who always stay in my heart and the Fran whom I from time to time invoke in my mind.

Our exchange of letters began after I left for university. It was the early days of emails in the early 1990s. Fran never shied away from new things. I had the impression that she was always very eager to try everything, from the old ascii email from the old BBS system connected with terminals through noisy modems to the email and FaceBook installed on her iPad through which we sometimes communicated. She later developed an interest in alchemy and Buddhism and shared often with me her latest thoughts. She was very excited to find out that I pursued my doctoral studies in Buddhism in China and later Japan. Due to my work overseas, I returned to Canada often only once a year. Whenever I was back in Canada, Fran and I would meet and our meeting was always the highlight of my trip home.

The last time we saw each other in person was September 2019. Jim passed away some months earlier in April after suffering from illness for some time. But her interests in many things kept her in good spirit. Fran was quite amazed that I had pursued a career in academia and that I had taught Buddhism for many years already — after all, I am a middle-aged man already. I shared with her that she was one of the reasons why and how I became a teacher. In the most self-effacing manner, she suggested that the tree was always in the seed. At this point, I wondered how many students she had nurtured and how she dedicated herself as a selfless educator for so many years, even after her retirement.

A common friend of Fran asked me, on the occasion of Fran’s passing, how I see death with my Buddhist experience. The loss of a dear friend is painful, and all the more a selfless soul with so many virtues, an ally and an exemplary teacher such as Fran. For the Buddhists there is no true death. Life itself is a phenomenon, the result of many conditions accumulated through ages. When these conditions change and dissolve, so does life. How precious it is to have this gift of life in this world. How fleeting it is. The wise ones would make this life an opportunity to do good things, to make the world a better place, to inspire others to do so, and to understand the interconnectedness of all the things and living beings in this universe. I suppose we do not hear often words such as beauty and joy from the Buddhists, or even the word “love.” These ideas are however very important in Buddhism; they are just expressed differently. Beauty is true only if it is lasting. Buddhists recognise beauty without clinging and attachment. Joy is driving factor for any kind of growth. A bodhisattva’s spiritual journey begins always with joy and genuine meditative experience is always characterised by joy, or prīti in Sanskrit. Instead of “love” Buddhists speak of compassion because it is an unconditional and selfless kind of love, always for the benefit of others. In these senses, Fran strikes me as someone who exemplifies many Buddhist virtues, with her kindness, generosity, gentle curiosity, and a calmness that is full of wisdom.

On one hand I will continue to mourn the loss of friend and a mentor. On the other hand I am glad that her voice will forever remain in my heart, speaking to me whenever kind and wise words are needed.