My grandfather had a knack for disappearing. Never for more than a day. Mostly at night. Grandma would wake up at 3 in the morning next to an empty bed. No, he was not an amnesiac, alcoholic, or gambler, and as much as I would like to imagine him as a 1970’s Hong Kong version of Walter White, I doubt he ever ran a profitable drug cartel in secret.
He wanted to go to America real bad. He loved his family. He stayed and sent two daughters to study in Canada instead.
In 1994, Grandpa and Grandma immigrated to Richmond, to live with Daughters No.1 and No.3 (my mum). Vancouver was close enough to America.
Later in life, the reason for his mysterious disappearances was finally disclosed: social dancing—ballroom to be exact. My grandfather, who knew not one word of “American,” could Cha Cha, Jive, and Waltz to the Archies, the Platters, the Carpenters. Cardboard factory worker by day, Elvis Presley by night, he would dance the night away. Dancing was his escape, to America.
Richmond in the early 1990’s had lots of social dancing. There was the Grand Ballroom, community classes at Minoru Park, seniors programs, to name a few. Grandpa signed up for all of them.
But he kept on disappearing.
What Richmond did not have in 1994 was a “real” Chinese food market. Nor did it have a proper dim sum restaurant. If you wanted “authentic” ha gao, siu mai, and he did, you had to go to Chinatown. If you wanted to play mah-jong on the streets, and he did, you had to go to Chinatown. Grandpa, who by now knew enough “Engrish” to navigate Translink, would make the 1.5 hour long commute from Steveston Village to Main and Pender every day. Chinatown was his escape, back to Hong Kong. Dim sum was the taste of home.
When Grandma found out, she made Son-in-Law No.1 drive her out to Chinatown every week. Grandpa would join her dutifully. Actually, the whole Chan clan was expected to come along. By the time I was old enough to remember Dim Sum Saturdays, however, decent Chinese restaurants had started opening in Richmond, and Uncle didn’t need to make the long drive anymore. That didn’t stop Grandpa from disappearing back to Chinatown.
In 2006, Grandpa disappeared permanently. Dim Sum Saturdays did not.
Dim sum was our reward after Saturday morning Chinese classes. Our cultural education. Our family bonding time. Our space to share old memories and make new ones. Za leung. My brother’s first Cantonese words were a fried donut dish. Dim sum was our way of understanding “home.”
Last month, I took a wrong turn and ended up in Chinatown. Driving through the neighborhood, the streets looked a lot tidier than I remembered. To my surprise, I could actually read half the banners on the store fronts. Starbucks! Mom pointed to some boarded up windows on the second floor of an older building. Grandpa’s favourite dim sum restaurant and where they served the best pineapple buns. Competition had been brutal wherewith all the new restaurants springing up in Metro Vancouver—most of all, ironically, in Richmond.
I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve been to Chinatown, yet this place is still precious to me. Its sidewalks are criss-crossed by the unseen footprints of my grandfather. The pedestrian crossing button at Hastings and Main bears his fingerprint among a thousand others. His shadow lingers at the bus stop. He may have disappeared, but I know where to find him.