Breathing as Politics

This summer evening in 1943 in Wanchai district, British Hong Kong, my grandfather lies on the bed, his racked body still atop the finely woven matting. He has tuberculosis, even though he is a doctor of tuberculosis. He is smoking opium to dull the painful contortions caused by his bloody cough, his fever, flushed cheeks, the ache of his sunken, too-brilliant eyes, his bones. There is no cure, opium smoking is his doctor’s prescription. My mother, a child, prepares his pipes. She heats the pin over the lamp’s flame, rolls opium onto the pin, and heat and rolls it alternately on the bowl to coax it into readiness for smoking. She approaches her reclining father, his head on the small headrest for smoking, pushes the hot black resin into the pipe which he holds in both hands, his right hand cradling the resting bowl and his left raising the long end to his mouth. She watches, and cares, as he inhales the vaporising smoke in short and long bursts, deeply, until every last tendril is pulled into all corners of his lungs and holds onto the precious smoke and his desire for oblivion before exhaling. After three preparations he is sufficiently distant and removed from his fading body which will not survive long, from the pain of knowing he will die young, leave his wife and six children, his lover and their child who live upstairs, and the bombs and relentless war which the British have done nothing to alleviate. My mother knows that the comfort of smoking is temporary, but makes the pipes so she can be near her father.

This evening all the family are home. My grandmother rocks the baby at the stove where she cooks, my infant uncle plays on the floor. My grandfather’s lover is upstairs with her child and her mother, who is also my mother’s grandmother. The evening is interrupted by a fracas on the street. Two Japanese soldiers shout after a young woman. They enter the staircase of the building, turn their way upwards and beat the door. My grandmother opens, they burst in. In fright she drops the baby. The woman the men are looking for is a prostitute they shout. They insist she is hidden here, in this flat. Furious at the unyielding homely scene, they instead turn their boots on my grandfather, smash his face and body, leave him unmoving. Afterwards my grandmother will tenderly clean and try to repair him, but he will die days later, 26 August. For my mother, his death, and the death soon after of her mother in the same building, will mark the end of all hope and the beginning of survival.

My mother sought forgetting in a refusal to remember until she became old, unlike her father who died at thirty-three, leaving us now to recreate a factual heritage from her fragmented and reluctant memory—although her imparted, inhalatory, and affective history is an ancient, familiar one. The connection of breathing and urgent unmet needs is one learnt in infancy; crying and breathing are so interlinked sometimes so entwined an infant cannot stop crying because to stop crying is to stop breathing. I wonder if grieving is as natural as breathing too, and if to stop grieving is to stop being alive.

Two years after Yuen Sing Chi died, just short months from the war’s end, U.S. planes bombed Hong Kong’s North coast, and the whole street they lived on was bombed. My mother recounted, the children sheltered by huddling together on the staircase, while their mother hid inside the apartment. Because of fears the building would collapse, her aunt gathered the children and they fled across the street. From the vantage-point of looking back across the road, my mother saw pieces of bodies, arms, legs, a torso without legs that was still moving. Her mother was eventually pulled from beneath the wreckage, alive but badly injured in her legs and taken to hospital. Her aunt took my mother to visit her only once, a tumulus shape beneath the sheet. The smell of bloated, decaying, suppurating holes in her flesh-stripped wounds was suffocating; they did not return. Years later she realised her mother had died of untreated bedsores, not her injuries.

The memory of my grandmother’s death surfaced in my mother’s fears of drowning, her vivid imagining of death by asphyxiation, being buried alive. Now in her eighties, living in England with her English husband, she no longer went swimming because she feared she would drown if she swam too far from the pool-sides, sink like a stone, and her body remain there decomposing and undiscovered. Even if she swam out with courage, there remained the possibility she would lose direction and breath, and her lungs fill with water and drag her downwards. Though I inherited her swallowed grief, and her asthma, transmission is not a finite phenomenon but insinuated continuously into the enduring impression of other family violences. My father silenced my childish defiance with innumerable punishments. I developed “symptoms”: sore throats, stabbing pains, panic attacks, asthma. Hence breathlessness became a shared heritage between mother and daughter in the oppressive atmosphere of home—our suffering rendered silent and unworthy in its subordination to my father’s needs. In Chinese and English patriarchy, men’s breathing difficulties are tended to by women, as with my grandfather’s tuberculosis, and men do not “naturally” care for women. 

In old age God became my mother’s opium (being no Marxist). Having moved across oceanic divides from China to England, from Taoism to Christianity, her prayers transcend the nationalist and territorial divisions of war and religion. For her, prayer, like the dream of free breathing, resembles the wind of the soul. As regulated rhythm, prayer offers a way to align scattered consciousness with the self, to enter the abode of God residing in the body, and to transport consciousness into a more primeval, primal state of time that transcends suffering and the world.

Now Covid-19 has confined us at home like prisoners of war, new thoughts about breathing, suffocation, and oppression cross-hatch the return of family history. Amidst this new epidemic which trapped many elderly people in domestic prisons with memories of war and the everyday violence of maddening spouses, my father circles the domestic space menacingly. My mother’s response is tempered, habituated—and from a distance we pace and attune our breathing to a new mutuality and time.

Read Nichola Khan’s article Breathing as Politics and Generational Transmission: Respiratory Legacies of War, Empire and Chinese Patriarchy in Colonial Hong Kong.

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