This isn’t unusual, of course: we’re white, two of us are shockingly blonde, and one of us is shockingly big.
It’s different tonight, though, because one of the blondies is dressed in black and carrying a skull on a stick. Thick red dots blotch her otherwise clear face. The other blondie is dressed in gauzy black robe, the bones of the human anatomy stretching down his back. We’ve painted circles under his eyes with black grease, so that he looks like he’s suffering from a sleepless night cue to indigestion caused by eating vaguely rotten human flesh.
Then there’s Will. Will is . . . well, I don’t know—Satan maybe? He’s wearing a black cape over a black shirt over black shorts over bare legs and sandals. And his face is hidden behind a glow-in-the-dark skull mask. With one gold tooth.
So, to summarize: white, blonde, big, blotchy, robed, with at least two skulls.
No wonder they’re staring.
The thing is, we expected the train to be full of people like us. When we were at Ocean Park the week before, we were surprised to see people pouring in at closing time dressed in every imaginable variation of ghoul and goblin and flesh-eating zombie. Dang, we thought: these Hongkongers know how to do Halloween.
We hadn’t been too sure, you understand. After all, until the emergence of Harry Potter, Halloween was a distinctly American event. I mean, what other country would come up with a ritual that involved hazing, begging, children eating candy until they vomited orange and black rainbows, and the unabashed celebration of all things evil?
Well, okay, the Aussies, but that’s to be expected.
Anyhow, we hadn’t planned on celebrating Halloween at all, but then we saw these huge crowds pouring into Ocean Park for a late-night fete and we figured what the heck. So Ellen spent the week combing the tiny shops in Old Tai Po for suitably death-related clothing for our sweet children and I made a late-Saturday run to buy grease paint. After a early dinner we take the taxi that gets us to the train that takes us to the big party advertised down by the harbor: “Be prepared to be scared to death!” the brochures warn. “May not be appropriate for small children!”
Cool. What more could you ask for?
Well, to not be the only ones on the train dressed like morons, for one.
“Don’t worry,” I say to my eight-year-old son, who looks like he wants to crawl into a hole and rot. “When we get to Kowloon, it’ll be a blast.”
Ellen nods, grinning and leaning down to stroke his bony, glow-in-the-dark forehead. “We haven’t been disappointed yet,” she says.
I look around for wood to knock on, but we’re on a train, of course, and there isn’t any. “Oh well,” I think. “No biggie.”
But it is kind of big, really. I’m not one to wax poetic about a place where Confederate history is the thing you trip over on your way to work, but the fact of the matter is, Lexington Virginia does many things right—moonshine being one of them, and Halloween being another. Come sundown on the 31st, the streets around Jordan and Jackson are filled with kids in every imaginable costume, homemade, store bought, superheroes, princesses, drag queens, and killer zombie drag queen superheroes (much more common than you might think).
But that’s nothing compared to the adults. I swear some Lexington folk start getting ready for Halloween just after Easter. Yards are filled with creepy looking gravestones and artificial spider webs and monsters crawling out of flowerbeds. A few homes have speakers hidden in the shrubs playing creepy music, and more than one place has a smoke machine blowing dry ice mist across the grass. Porches are cluttered with adults dressed like Witchiepoo and Frankenstein’s monster and Spiderman’s slutty sister. They’re sipping orange-colored daiquiris and making kids show off their costumes and tell what they are before getting their candy. Compared to the trick-or-treating I remember when I was a kid—3 to 5 on a Sunday afternoon, my cardboard Batman mask making it hard to breath—Lexington kids get to live a fantasy of what Halloween should be like.
When we get to the Tsim Shau Tsui station, it’s filled with ordinary people in ordinary clothes staring at the white people dressed like idiots. “Don’t worry,” we say to the kids. “Once we get up to the street, there’ll be others.”
But there aren’t. There aren’t even policemen or hookers or guys dressed like Chinese chefs because they work in Chinese restaurants wandering around, so that we could at least pretend there are folks in costumes. Just normal people in blue jeans and sweaters and those frilly frock-thingies women in Hong Kong like so much these days.
“Don’t worry,” we say to the kids again. “Once we get down to the harbor . . . “ But by now we’re throwing each other worried glances.
On top of everything else is the fact that, frankly, the kids are exhausted. For the last three weeks we’ve spent Saturdays taking day-trips out and about Hong Kong, riding junks, visiting dolphins, searching for shells on the beach. Inevitably, we’ve returned from these trips closer to 10 than to the kids’ usual 8 o’clock bedtime. The lack of sleep, I think, is starting to catch up with them. Exacerbating this, Will spent the last three days at school camp. “Don’t worry,” he told us when he came back. “We went to bed at 10:00 every night.”
“Really?” Ellen said.
“Uh-huh,” he said again, then repeated it carefully, almost as though he’d been coached. “10:00. Every night.”
Maybe so, but now, on Saturday, at 7 in the evening, he keeps tripping over his own feet, and seems to have no muscles in the back his neck. And people are still staring.
“Don’t worry—“ I start to say, but Lucy cuts in.
“Daddy? Isn’t it bad to lie?”
I shut up. We proceed glumly to the harbor, cutting through a mall to use the bathroom. When we get down by the water, it’s beautiful as usual: all of the buildings on both sides are lit up with multi-colored neon that flickers and shifts, sending patterns up and down buildings and back and forth across the water. The harbor is filled with traffic—Star Ferries, glistening white yachts, double-decker cruises lit up like paddle boats, the occasional junk or small fishing pan. Crowds fill the Avenue of the Stars, standing in line to have their picture taken, holding hands and watching the lights, just sitting on the railing by the water and chatting. Drunken Australian lads pose in front of the Bruce Lee statue, their shirts off, their bellies hairy. Here, at least, the stares are multilingual, coming not just from Asians but from white folk of every persuasion. Oh sure, here and there there’s another little kid wearing a costume, staring dumbly as though abandoned by his parents. But most people are dressed in jeans, and t-shirts and polos.
Scared out of my wits? Nope.
Worried my kids won’t sleep tonight? Not hardly.
I’d like to tell you there’s a silver lining here—that eventually we turned a corner and stumbled across the greatest haunted house ever, or met an old lady dressed like Morticia Addams who gave us the best damn red bean buns ever. Or that that night, as we rode the train back to Tai Po, our blood sugar low but our fiber high, we discovered the true meaning of Halloween.
But it isn’t to be. The kids are just tired, we are just bored. At one point, Lucy and Will look so low, hats off, shoulders slumped as they stumble along the Avenue looking for something, anything, to entertain them, that Ellen and I just burst out laughing. It’s pathetic, no other way to say it.
There are some nice bits, of course. Ellen and I buy a couple traditional prints from an water colorist huddled beneath a walkway. We let the kids talk us into getting them light-up devil horns. A junk comes in and picks up a bunch of fancy-looking folk in party dress, and we have a good laugh imagining them heaving into their Gucci bags on the rough harbor. Will discovers it’s kind of cool to wear a mask, which will inevitably come in handy at those family sessions we’re going to need when we return to the States. Lots of people want to have their pictures taken with our little monsters, but that’s really nothing new. And a couple kids come up to Will and Lucy, trick-or-treat buckets in their hands, and give them candy. Neat trick, that: children actually giving candy away on Halloween. Hongkongers will never cease to amaze me.
But as we ride the train back that night (swell the violins), older, tirederer, and more wiserlyish, we know in our hearts of hearts that, when it comes to that holiest of unholy nights celebrating all things semi-decayed and pukey smelling, there really is no place like the place you live when you’re at home in the country that’s really your home as opposed to the home you’re in in the country when you’re not at home, even though you have a home and it’s generally a homey sort of place and you do feel at home.
Or something like that.