Chris de Stoop – When the Water Breaks
A ship moves slowly past the high reeds behind Hung’s garden. There used to be lots of industry around the river here, but now there’s just a brasserie in the old warehouses. When Hung came to Wichelen the bank was mainly used by eel fishermen. And there was the lovers’ path.
‘I’ve never felt lonelier,’ says Hung, who cooked Vietnamese food for me this afternoon. He allows a silence to fall. Then he smiles broadly: ‘I couldn’t find work anywhere, but fortunately as a Buddhist I was able to become an assistant sacristan in the Catholic church.’
The barge on the river is lost among the supertankers which sail one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, between Hong Kong and Singapore, but which did not deign to stop for Hung and his fellow travellers. Not even to give them some water or food. That’s what Hung emphasises most when he recounts his journey.
He might be wrong, but he thinks twenty-six ships passed by. Some may not have seen them, or pretended not to. But others were barely a hundred metres away from the drifting fishing boat. Sometimes he could even see people walking up and down on board. They didn’t bat an eyelid.
‘Help, help, come and save us, please,’ cried the refugees, whenever another ship came into view. And disappeared again.
They made as much of a commotion as they could, giving light signals, waving until their arms were almost falling off. No response.
They thought perhaps the sailors were afraid of pirates and left only women and children on the upper deck. Without result.
They thought perhaps the sailors were afraid of women and children too and everyone lay pretending to be dead on deck. All in vain.
They saw Australian, Japanese, South Korean and other ships coolly sail on by. They began wholeheartedly to hate all those countries they had so longed for. Every time they saw a ship they regained hope, and every time it sailed away they despaired. Not three times, not eight times, but twenty-six times. That might have been worse than the hunger and thirst: that people saw you dying and chose to let you die. Your life was worth nothing. You were less than nothing. A rotting leaf on the ocean.
Hung felt all eyes on him, the skipper. He saw the bodies in all their misery, with little left to distinguish between men and women, they had grown so thin and filthy. Some had been felled by sunstroke. Many had deep burns. Dried skin peeled from their bodies in sheets.
Hung also saw rags, filth, excrement in his boat. He stretched a rope around the prow and invited the people to immerse themselves in the water to cool off. Most went to hang from the rope, even the grandmother of sixty-four, despite the sharks which could be found in the region. Meanwhile he cleaned the deck as best he could, as a filthy, stinking boat full of dirt and vomit only brought bad luck and was a curse on the goddess of the sea.
All that water around them, and not a drop to slake their thirst.
There was no longer even urine to drink, they were so parched.
Even for an experienced fisherman like Hung it was an unbearable, maddening idea. He took a bowl and leapt into the waves. Like a water devil he climbed back into the boat, put the bowl on his head and danced up and down. He spoke: ‘The Goddess of Mercy, patroness of the sea, has given me healthy water. You should all take a sip. It’s guaranteed safe.’
Almost everyone was willing to believe him and drank from the bowl. It was the end anyway, what did it matter anymore? It was predestined, all they could do was accept it.
In the evening there were the lights from the ships again. Hung was still trying to burn clothes as a distress signal. A cargo ship came so close. It didn’t slow down. It accelerated. He shook his head in disbelief.
Then Hung saw a spot in the sky light up with surreal brightness. Many of the others saw the flash too, as if a great star had split open. The soul of a dead man, they thought. Hung was very touched and asked his fellow travellers to pray. Even Phong with his big mouth, who didn’t believe in God or commandments and had declared himself the leader on the boat, prayed along with them…
‘Come on, have another spring roll,’ Hung decides, again with a smile which starts from the corners of his mouth, quickly spreads to his eyes and then lights up his entire face.
‘What was that celestial light?’ I ask.
‘The spirit of my dead mother,’ says Hung, who gives me another two bags of food to take with me, enough to feed a family of refugees for nearly a week. ‘An omen of what was to come.’
Placenta and umbilical cord
- Waters broken
In any case, it’s always best to start at the beginning. Only, he wouldn’t know what the beginning was. ‘I don’t even know when I was born,’ says Hung, and he looks at me doubtfully, suddenly gripped with uncertainty.
‘On paper you were born in 1944, but really you’re a bit younger,’ says his daughter Quyen. ‘Because according to the family you were born in the year of the Rat.’
‘There were no birth certificates. We were in the middle of a war.’
‘Tell it the way it is, Ba,’ says Quyen emphatically, poking a crab claw in his direction. ‘Just tell us how things went.’
Let’s say he’s approaching seventy by now. We’re sitting on the beach of Quy Nhơn, close to the spot where he lived and worked as a fisherman, around a long table with lots of family. There are a dozen dishes on the table, with steamed seabass, grilled squid, stir-fried vegetables, noodles, rice, fish sauce and lots of fresh herbs. We crack the crab’s back, scrape the flesh from it, suck out the pulp. Quyen tastes everything, taking small bites each time. Hung empties his bowl to the last morsel. Manoeuvring dextrously to avoid staining his satin shirt and gold chain.
In Wichelen, where he landed as the first coloured person and still scrubs the church floors in overall and cap, his appearance is quite different. I got to know the Truong family coincidentally long ago, through a neighbour, and have often visited Hung in Wichelen. In his view the village has almost nothing in common with Quy Nhơn, other than the fact that it is situated by the water, at a large bend in the Schelde. The people generally shiver with cold around the stove, eat cheese or paté sandwiches for breakfast and rabbit with prunes and mash for special occasions. Hung knows everyone and all of Wichelen knows Hung. But who really knows him?
Admittedly, it’s a long time since he’s known many people here in central Vietnam. But look, the lush green mountains in the background, the bay with colourful fishing boats below, the sultry city behind us, who wouldn’t miss that? That’s also why, since he retired, he would really like to return to the country where people speak his mother tongue and look like him. Perhaps also because there they give him the feeling that he’s someone. Doesn’t everyone want to be someone of significance? He has no diploma, no career, was a fisherman in Vietnam and assistant sacristan in Flanders, but he dared to dedicate his life to something higher, something bigger than himself. He was a boat refugee and really he’s still on that boat. Sometimes he wonders where and when he will reach moorings.
Quyen, too, the popular chef of the top restaurant Little Asia in Brussels, where she charms her grateful clients (‘just call me Gwen’), on passing forty, suddenly feels she can only really be herself here, although she’s no longer precisely sure who she is herself. She wants to know where she comes from, how it was, how things worked out the way they worked out, and why. She wants to go in search, along with me. Meanwhile I’ve found a load of collected photos and documents and have talked with various passengers from Hung’s boat. I’d really like to track them all down.
Only when I saw the images of boat refugees on the Mediterranean in the news over the last few years – those dark, anonymous masses of people – did I begin to see Hung differently. I suddenly realised that he had never told me the story of his journey by boat for himself, as if he had simply been beamed across. As if he had made a cleaned-up version of it.
‘I only knew three people on his boat,’ says Quyen. ‘Loc, my father’s assistant. Phap, a fisherman from the neighbourhood. And Wang, Aunt Du’s little son.’
‘How old were you precisely then?’ I ask.
‘I’m a Pig,’ she says hesitantly. ‘But we’re not sure of my precise birthdate either. It was shortly before Tét, Vietnamese New Year.’
She’s picking at her teeth with a toothpick in her right hand, holding her left hand in front of her mouth. She mumbles on.
‘In any case it was during the stormy season, so certainly in autumn…’
Her mother Tot, a warm woman who fills my bowl bidding me ‘Eat! Eat!’ in broken Dutch, recounts a storm tide that evening. She had been watching fearfully. Large white waves broke over the fishermen’s houses, upturned the boats, left the coast under water. A fisherman drowned when his sloop was overturned. The rain gushed down onto the beach, which was covered in uprooted trees and collapsed walls.
Tot then felt severe abdominal pain. ‘And then her waters broke,’ Quyen laughs, ‘in the middle of a storm, in the middle of a war.’
Hung took her through the rain to the provincial hospital two streets away, where American nurses and New Zealand doctors cared for wounded soldiers. The moon almost fell from the sky with misery that night when Quyen entered the world, in autumn 1971. A little girl with brown skin and black curly hair, whom Hung would affectionately call ‘curlyhead’.
He wanted to officially name her Huyen, which means something like gentle, but the registrar wrote down Quyen, which means power; a mistake which left her with bad karma and set her character on the wrong track, she has always felt. Her birth certificate was only drawn up after the war, and then they made a stab at the right date. In Vietnam people do not celebrate the anniversary of your birth but the anniversary of your death. And they do it in style.
Oh yes, Hung means hero.
Come, he gestures, and he draws me over to a few young palm trees with whitewashed bark. They sway gently in the wind, their thin trunks pointing upright towards the sky, their canopies of leaves spread out like a parasol to offer shade in the afternoon sun.
Hung has to hunt around before he finds the right place, as he has almost no reference points anymore. Around here was the little stone house with its zinc roof, belonging to his father. There was the workshop where the nets were stored and repaired. The boat was simply placed in front of the house on the beach.
‘This is the place,’ Hung says dramatically, pointing at a house that is no longer there, ‘where my umbilical cord was cut and the placenta buried.’
I understand that it is an old Vietnamese custom to bury the umbilical cord and placenta near the house, so that your blood is mixed with the earth of your birthplace from the beginning. Along with the blood of your brothers and sisters. Bound with the earth and one another.
‘And Quyen’s umbilical cord?’ I ask.
‘That too,’ Hung smiles.
‘Only say something if it’s right,’ calls Quyen. ‘Otherwise the professor will write another letter against us.’
Hung is almost always accommodating. He likes to please people, not to contradict them, and sometimes Quyen can’t stand that obliging nature, which she calls ‘typically Vietnamese’.
The former fishermen’s quarter used to be a network of narrow alleyways leading down to the beach, but ten years ago hundreds of houses were knocked down to make way for a paved boulevard and a promenade with a Mediterranean feel. The communist government wants to promote Quy Nhơn as a beach resort, so far with little success. Where his father’s house stood, there is now just hard elephant grass. A great shame, Hung feels; he would find it easier to come to terms with a hotel in its place. The family received minimal compensation for the expropriation. After his escape Hung in fact never saw his father again, as he died shortly afterwards. Hung had not said good-bye to him, and it hit him hard when he received the news by telegram in Wichelen. The Catholic priest permitted him to set up a small Buddhist altar in the rectory, which gave him some comfort and something to hold onto.
Hung draws on his cigarette and gazes motionless at the bay, the islands off the coast, the South China Sea beyond. It does him good to be able to look so far out to sea and smoke so peacefully on the land where his umbilical cord was buried. He doesn’t need any more excitement in his existence. It is as if he is looking out over not just the sea but his entire life.
Translated by Anna Asbury