The narrator in Pik-Shuen Fung’s debut novel, Ghost Forest, is a child in an “astronaut” family. As anyone who has ever orbited Hong Kong knows, this term was coined there to describe families that emigrated—usually to Canada, Australia or the United States—while the fathers stay back to work, “flying here, flying there”. It’s a resulting father-daughter relationship that provides the backbone of Fung’s novel, arranged as a collection of related vignettes, mostly one or two pages, but sometimes consisting of only several words.
My dad had seen news stories of Hong Kongers who couldn’t find jobs in their new countries, stories of managers who became dishwashers because they couldn’t speak the new language. Like many other fathers, my dad decided he didn’t want to leave his job in manufacturing behind.
She was only a toddler when her father returned to Hong Kong after settling the family in Vancouver in the 1990s, a perceived safe haven a few years before the Handover in ’97. Her grandparents flew back and forth between Vancouver and Hong Kong until her sister was born and, to help her mother, decided to stay for good in Canada.
The grandmother’s stories from World War II provide both a second story line and a counterpoint: her parents were separated during the war because her father was a police detective in neutral Macau. Times were tough in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation, so she was sent to live with her father in Macau to wait out the war. And at least life went on there:
What I remember best is going to see Cantonese operas with my father. Back then the leading actress was plump and beautiful, and she wore a jade bangle so precious she covered it with a silk handkerchief before she walked on the street.
Yet her grandmother learned that her father had another wife and children in Macau. As her grandmother recounted these stories of the war, she mentioned that it was the first time she had talked about the war years. None of her own children—including the narrator’s mother—had ever bothered to ask.
Inter-generational communication and the distance that impedes it, becomes increasingly central, especially as illness and mortality intervene.
As we entered the room, each of us was handed a stick of incense, and we were directed to stand next to each other, row by row… The coffin sat on a conveyor belt on the left side of the room. Each of us bowed and placed our stick of incense into the burner. Then the advisor called … Put your hand lightly on this button, he said. We each placed a finger on the small white button on the wall. One, two, three, he said. We pressed the button, and the conveyor belt took the coffin… through the hole in the wall and out of the room. There were no flames and no smoke.
Ghost Forest is a compassionate story about family, regret, and forgiveness. Fung is deft with Hong Kong settings and customs and those who know the city may find it particularly touching, but the themes of father-daughter-relationships and the grief that often accompanies them are universal. The minimalist style of small vignettes serves to illuminate these heavy topics in ways that highlight their importance.