Ring Ring. Ring Ring. The phone shrieks.
“Don’t pick up the phone.” Dad calls out.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s grandma. She is going to ask us why we are not there yet and tell us to hurry up. If we don’t pick up, she will think that we are already on our way.” Dad replies with his eyes downcast, looking uncomfortable.
My father is a teacher. He is always telling us about the importance of telling the truth. He likes to preach to us about morals. He advocates for Confucius to be embraced and laments on how the behavioural standards have dropped in modern times.
He is now a hypocrite and he knows it. He frantically tries to find whatever he is looking for with his head down, and does not look at anyone.
I look across to mum to see her reaction. She also has her head down. She is busy gathering things around her in an effort to get us all ready to leave the apartment. We are getting ourselves ready to have Yum Cha with grandma and all the relatives. We are running late.
We do this every Sunday, including the running late part. This ritual is from Dad’s side of the family throughout the 1970’s. Grandma is the matriarch of the extended family. She is the third and last wife of my grandfather. My grandfather can stop there because grandma finally gave him the sons that his first two wives could not produce.
Many consider our grandma a beautiful woman. She is the favoured wife. My father and aunts still talk about how grandma is one of the first women to own a pair of stockings in China. Western stockings were rare and considered a luxury in those days. Her descendants revere her. She is right even when she is wrong. She cannot be challenged. This is forbidden. So all criticisms and complaints take place behind her back. In front of her, it is all bows and smiles.
Grandma suffers from asthma. When we walk to the shops together, she would sometimes have to stop suddenly to catch her breath. She will say “Asthma” as she hangs on to a handrail to stop and rest. We can resume our walk after a short break.
I have never seen Grandma wear anything other than a dark coloured suit. Her suit jacket has the classic Chinese button line that runs diagonally from the throat to the armpit and then down the waist. Even her under garment runs the same way. The matching pants are a wide fit straight leg that stops just short of the ankle. Her shoes are black and flat. No heels. She has many different colours, patterns and materials to her suit collection but they are all cut the same way. She does look rather regal when she wears the more formal ones.
Her hairstyle, like her suits, is also always the same. Her shiny jet-black hair is brushed straight back and hangs behind her ears. She has short hair and it stops behind her neck. There is only one grandma look. Even many years later when her hair has turned a silver grey and she no longer remember anyone, she maintains the same haircut and wears the same style suit.
When we are finally organized enough to leave the apartment, we walk the two blocks to Grandma’s apartment. She will be standing and waiting for us. We can then all head down to the restaurant to meet with the rest of the clan.
The best part of Sunday Yum Cha is the newspaper stand right outside the restaurant. There is a newspaper stand outside every restaurant. It is customary for people to buy their papers and bring them into the restaurant to read. We are no different. Dad will get his usual newspaper. Mum will buy her magazine. We, the children, will pick out our comics. We will hand them over to mum to pay the stall owner. New issues come out on Sundays. It is always so exciting to see a new cover on my favourite comic every Sunday.
When we are taken to our table in the restaurant, it is always a spectacle. The restaurant is incredibly busy. The noise is deafening. There are people everywhere. Queueing is only introduced later on. Prior to the practice of queueing, people will place one hand on the back of a chair that someone else is occupying to claim their place as the next occupant once the current group leaves.
When we sit down at a table just being vacated by the last group, their plates and dishes are still sitting on the table. The waiters will come around with a plastic storage container where all the dirty dishes are then tossed. The spilled foods, bones and napkins are wrapped up by the tablecloth underneath and taken away as a bundle.
A new fresh white tablecloth will be laid over the table. You can smell the freshly laundered smell as the waiter shakes it a few times in the air to unfold it. New plates and cups for teas are then tossed onto the table in front of each person. They land with a loud clang and you have to steady them with your hands from the rocky landing. The whole operation takes place in perfect sequence. It is intense and it is all over in a minute. I often let out a sigh of relief when the waiter leaves the table, when my ears can stop hurting from the loud banging.
Once the waiter is gone, my Dad and one of the uncles immediately stand up to pour tea into the tiny tea cups for everyone. They are so bad at it that most of the tea will end up on the tablecloth. It is as if their goal is to finish as quickly as possible. I don’t think that they even try to aim. The fresh while tablecloth will be stained and wet before the first bit of food arrives.
Everybody also likes his or her tea a little differently. The default tea from the restaurant is Pu-Erh. It’s a dark and bitter tea. Horrible stuff. Dad would ask for his Sao Meh tea, which tastes a little metallic. Mum likes her Jasmine tea. Then there is always an extra pot of hot water for diluting the tea over the course of the meal. As the tea leaves have to stay in the pot, the brew will inevitably become too dark and bitter to drink as is. It has to be diluted for it to be drinkable. You know the meal has gone on too long when the tea becomes sheer awful and no dilution can make it better.
After the manic setup, the adults start talking to each other. I will bury myself in my comic book. The only interaction that I have with others is saying yes or no to the various bits of food that come around. We always have the same dishes. It starts religiously with the classic prawn dumplings (Har Gao) and the pork dumplings (Siu Mai). Everyone has to eat those first. After that, the rest can come in any order. There will be steamed barbecue pork buns (dad’s favourite), pork ribs, rice noodle wrap with barbecue pork, rice noodle wrap with prawns, rice noodle wrap with beef, fried turnip cake (mum’s favourite), fried mochi pork dumpling (my favourite), chicken feet, beef tripe, steamed sponge cake and fried vegetarian wrap. As each dish is only small and there are so many of us, it takes a while to get through all the items. In between bites, the group will look out for the trolley that will bear their personal or another person’s favourites, and flag the trolley down.
It is worth mentioning that Chinese tables are round. There is no marked head of the table where the most important person of the group, like Grandma, can be placed. In a public place, the choicest seat in a round table needs to be determined at the time. In a Yum Cha restaurant, that will be the seat furthest away from draft of the air conditioner. Arms will go up to feel the air and once the most comfortable seat has been determined, it will be announced and that is where Grandma is placed. Grandma is then surrounded by all the womenfolk and they will engage in lively conversations.
Unfortunately, it does not take long to finish the comic. I am now bored. There is nothing else for me to do. I reach out for Mum’s magazine and go through it. I will put my face to the tablecloth to smell the fresh laundered smell now mixed in with tea and grease. I sit and wait. It will feel like forever until the egg tart trolley comes out.
When the egg tart trolley comes by, the uplifting aroma of butter, pastry, egg and milk fills the air. Not only does the smell excite my palate, it is also a positive sign that the long lunch is going to come to an end soon. The egg tarts are so delicious. They are sweet, fragrant and fluffy. As I bite into the little piece of heaven, I breathe out onto the pastry so that the flakes get all over my face. I let the custard run down my teeth so that I can savour their sweetness slowly. I may be a messy egg tart eater, but this act fits in perfectly with the whole chaotic culture of Yum Cha.
As we leave the restaurant, I look at Dad and he will have pastry flakes in both corners of his mouth. He will continue to talk with them stuck on his face all the way back to Grandma’s apartment where we drop Grandma off.
My grandma has long left us but the association between her and Yum Cha on Sundays will stay forever.