“There once was a boy who lived in an infinitely tall tower. We shall call him Higgs Boson. It was always balmy in that citadel, yes indeed, the weather was perfect since there was no weather at all, but even the best forecast cannot cure loneliness unless it includes a princess. Well, as it happens, one day a princess scaled the infinitely high tower and rescued Higgs. Her name was China Red:” That’s me, and the voice behind the story was my father’s pressing odd ideas into a young brain.
At 17, I left Hong Kong for the first time to pursue my studies at Princeton or rather my Dad’s. I wanted to be an architect; he was dead set on me getting a “real” science degree meaning chemistry or physics. I chose physics; that at least has some bearing on architecture. When it was over; when my summa cum laude was neatly rolled up, I insisted on following my own dreams. To Eugene, Oregon I went, to pursue a degree in tall buildings.
Architecture lead me to the Rock Gym. Here the frayed edges of a once voracious lumber industry showed in a building repurposed: The Rock Gym had taken over the planing mill or rather one of its warehouses. I was armed with photos printed from the University of Oregon Digital Collection and a camera with which I strolled up and down the avenue in an attempt to capture 20th century remains finally coming to a standstill to stare at the words: EUGENE PLANING MILL and the year: 1943, both carved into the structure’s grey, concrete block wall.
The 80’s era Door 1, Warehouse II sign had been replaced with Rock Gym; at least, that’s what the sign over a gigantic garage door claimed. The door was open. There were people inside literally climbing the walls. Clearly they weren’t there for the marvelous architecture rather I should say it was the height of the ceiling.
For a while I stood there contemplating the eyesore and reviewing my decision making process: “This is my reward for driving 3000 miles? Only an idiot would show up in a short city looking for skyscrapers. Haven’t you ever heard of research, Red?” Nevertheless, all grumblings were soon overpowered by a gathering smile that transported me home to Hong Kong, the Hopewell Centre—my idea of an infinitely tall tower—where I floated 64 stories above the madness of streets and sidewalks on an air mattress while Daddy chatted with the pool’s owner and sipped memories in a tall chilled glass garnished with mint, contemplating the New Jersey veranda of his youth where his mother sipped memories of her parents sipping memories of their parents sipping memories. My American grandmother—I’ve only met her in imagination—imported the mint julep prescription from a South Carolina veranda that looked out over a great sweep of summer steeping in heat and humidity and populated with oaks dripping moss from ancient arms. As the sun dipped low, the moss would yield up its residents: Seminole bats flying low over the lawn strafing insects with ultrasound just before devouring them.
My Chinese grandparents were lost even before they could step across the threshold of my imagination, lost in the breakup of an unworthy craft, swallowed whole by the roiling waters of the South China Sea. A miraculous rescue landed my three-year-old mother in a Hong Kong orphanage clutching two items. The first was a box, handmade by her father and inlaid with a spray of delicate peach blossoms overflowing the lid, spilling down the sides. Box making was a family tradition passed from grandfather to father to son to grandson. The second item, held deep in the region of her brain often known as the heart, was but a word: Oregon. Like a tiny morsel of grit, it chafed and chafed until a pearly religion formed around it, a faith that her parents had made it to Oregon and would someday rescue her from orphan-hood. For all the years expended on this belief, fate was apparently unimpressed, making a fool of the child by dangling meager coincidences to maintain her self-imprisonment in a muted life of expecting little from Hong Kong, of expecting everything from a mythical paradise. From the child’s perspective and later the adult’s, everyone of importance seemed to be in Oregon including the couple who donated monthly to her upkeep. Her thank you letters always ended with: “May you be well, and do you know my parents? They are Tang.” And when her sponsors visited from the other side of the world, she spontaneously yielded up her heirloom. Thus she sent the ancestral box in search of her parents, and she sent me in search of the box. Mother never made it out of Hong Kong; at least her daughter did.
Yes, my ancestors had their backwards infinities of wanting to live in the past and their forwards infinities of trying to live in the future, but mine was the infinity of present tense, paddling around in a timeless pool under the sweep of a sky populated with fluffy childhood dreams and stars of the night after a gently setting sun. Once, a stinking nightmare invaded my high sanctuary and blotted out the sunset from spawning moon and stars alike. Daddy explained that it was a man-made evil called smog resulting from immense numbers of cars spewing poisons into a finite atmosphere: “It is the price we pay for tall buildings,” he smiled apologetically. Although I didn’t understand what he meant then; now, standing with an Oregonian sky overhead, I suddenly realized that my decision process had never been flawed.