My stomach growls as my feet shuffle through the streets adorned with red lampposts, on the hunt for a warm bowl of congee to soothe my stuffy sinuses and aching throat. Normally, my dad would cook a batch at our family restaurant, located on the familiar corner of Fraser and 49th in Vancouver but things are different now. No longer can I expect to have freshly made congee from Golden House after my family decided sell the restaurant a couple months ago. Ten years of hustling and bustling left my parents feeling weary to the bone, so it was finally time to pack up for good. And along with it stowed away the entangled layers of memory and emotion. Easier than being reminded of what was lost, I suppose.
Eventually, I make my way to the front counter of Goldstone Restaurant, situated in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown. It can’t possibly compare to my parents’ restaurant, but clearing my scratchy throat, I ask with great hope, can I order a bowl of congee?
The waitress is apologetic in her response. Sorry, we don’t serve congee after 11am. How about something else?
The emptiness of my stomach wins over, so I sigh in defeat and pick an item from the yellowed menu. Plopping down on the weathered vinyl booths, I scan the restaurant without purpose. Forks scrape eagerly across ceramic dishes and dirty chopsticks clatter inside the bins of rickety carts. Waitresses hover at the pass as they wait to bring dishes out to tables of gong-gongs and poh-pohs. My eyes fixate on the backs of the chefs, whose kitchen I observe from a distance. Slowly, my vision blurs and goes out of focus.
The clanging of metal against mental transports me to a completely different place and time. I feel a prickle inside but it’s too late: I’m caught in the web of memories that I’ve been dancing too carefully around.
The heat of the stove fans across my sweaty face as I watch a familiar set of hands work swiftly against time. I wait anxiously to the side, ready to whisk the dish out to bellies growing hungrier by the second. Here in the comfort of the kitchen, I get a glimpse of my dad, gracefully practicing the art that has sustained his family for decades.
Oil hisses and pops as a golden crust forms around the bite-sized strips of beef. Firm hands reach over to whack the strainer a couple of times and excess drops of oil plunge back into the hot abyss. The wok sizzles as the contents of the strainer tumble and become coated in a thin layer of sticky pay-pa sauce. A couple more tosses and the beef is scooped out, plated on a bed of translucent green celery and handed over to me. Standing on my tiptoes, I grab the jar of toasted sesame seeds from the shelf above and sprinkle delicate specks over the fragrant dish. My mouth waters but I grit my teeth and ignore the hungry growl like how my parents have taught me. Ringing the bell, my mom appears and quickly takes the dish out to the guests, leaving a trail of steam wafting behind her. We work well as a team, my parents and I.
After the sale, I still visited the restaurant from time to time. I watched as the red and green patterned carpet became replaced by sleek wooden floorboards. New lights were put in, glittering in anticipation for the grand opening. Yet, even though I stood amidst the renovations in a place that was formerly ours, the restaurant felt bare, devoid of the years of memories, of working and learning alongside my parents.
But here in my cushioned seat, the clashing of spatula against wok has knocked down my defenses and breathed my carefully bundled memories back to life. Here, I’m forced to embrace a simple truth: that Golden House really is gone, and that this place will never be the same as it once was. Now, I sit from the outside looking in.
Your takeout is ready, a waitress says as she bursts through my bubble of thoughts, fishing me out from the murky waters between past and present. Blinking, I mumble my thanks and wrap a tight grip around my takeout, hands warming from the heat of the soup noodles.
The cool fall breeze envelopes me, and the weight of what I’ve been avoiding settles in. A dull ache welcomes itself and spreads across my chest, heavy inside. A painful admission of all that has changed, but also a gentle reminder of what mustn’t be lost.
written for ubc creative writing 213 with jackie wong