Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Green Face Bar

My grandfather was a very funny guy. "Ham goo mah!" he would greet us, throwing his arms out to catch a small girl in a bear hug. "Akung!" I would fling the response to his greeting (Call me, what you call me? was what we were told he was saying), wriggling to escape. In his day, my grandfather would be today's rapper, "Say my name. Say my name! Wear it out!" And we would dance around, "Akung! Akung! Akung!" to his joy. His conversations in gatling gun Chinese must have been amusing too, accompanied always by laughter and punctuated by his "Eh? Eh!"

We didn't understand his language, but we understood his jokes. "Gate," he called me Gate, the nearest his Cantonese tongue could get to Gail. My sister was Helling, and in case anyone mistook his meaning, he would clarify "Se-moke Helling," with bellows of laughter, smoked herring! Clearly, "r" was not to be found on his Chinese tongue. My other sister was "Macket!" or more specifically "Feesh Macket!" He understood more than enough to make puns of our names.

How or why he chose to come halfway around the world from Canton province (today's Guangdong) in southeast China, to Chinidad, will remain a mystery. We presume that he was leaving a place that was becoming more difficult to raise a family. In Trinidad, he raised two families. By the time his Chinese family was settled in one part of Belmont, the Trinidad family was catching up just streets away. He made no secret of either, and all the children - seven by each wife - carried his name.

I must have been less than a year old when he disappeared with me for a day. My mother said when she asked what I had eaten, he was dismissive, "Clix (crackers) and swee' drink. Gate belly full." He said he would take me to China. And I believe if she had even slightly agreed, he would have done just that. I had to be content instead with the bracelet he brought me. H.A.P.P.Y. were the letters on a circlet of Chinese gold disks.

One of the last memories I have of Akung was at a place called the Green Face Bar in Point Cumana. Continuing his free spirited lifestyle, Akung didn't settle in any of the homes he had made. Instead he was running yet another shop, this time with a bar on the side where he sold rum and whisky by the shot, cigarettes by the stick. We were to have lunch with him - did I say he cooked lavish feasts?

On the Sunday, around noon, the shop was closed and we entered through one of the big shop doors painted green. Inside, the long counter was converted to a buffet table. Bowls and chopsticks at one end. A steamer of rice. Bird's nest soup. Vegetables cubed and stir fried in a chow. Giant black mushrooms in a salty "oyster sauce". Roasted pork belly with a crispy skin, chopped with a sharp chopper into bite sized pieces. Jumbo shrimp cooked in their shells. He was a social generous man still wanting to be loved by his family. His "Ham goo mah" received our chorus of "Akung!"

When he died, I understood he had passed away from the effects of too much alcohol and cigarettes. His favorite was the harsh unfiltered Anchor Special in the yellow pack. He always had a lighted cigarette dangling from his lips. Long after, sometimes on the farm, I would catch a whiff of Anchor and sure enough, I hear again, his throaty laugh, "Ham goo mah!" Say my name! Akung!

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