Return to Cloud Mountain

Written after Kerry Ann Lee’s installation Return to Skyland (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2018), which begins: “One night in a dream, Kerry Ann Lee’s father journeyed from Wellington to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors …”

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In a dream Po Po takes me to visit the Terracotta Warriors at Te Papa. They’ve been flown here from China and put on display in an earthquake-proof case on an earthquake-proof stand, to be gazed at inside an earthquake-proof museum by the sea.

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In a dream I don’t just speak her language; I dream in it, too. In a dream we both call the same city home. We wait at the bus stop on Kowhai Street for the number 83 to town. Po Po flashes her Gold Card at the bus driver and her eyes sparkle.

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In a dream we sit by the window and zoom along the Hutt Road looking at the sea, which shimmers the colour of a blue iceblock beginning to melt. It’s warm for January; Po Po is wearing a cotton t-shirt Mum bought her from Uniqlo in Singapore last Christmas, white with a daisy pattern.

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In a dream Po Po pauses to watch with delight the teenagers cannonballing off the wharf into the harbour. She takes out her phone, which we are still teaching her how to use, and snaps a picture of the splashes.

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In a dream we are not the only Chinese people in the queue. We are not even the only half-Chinese-granddaughter-plus-Chinese-grandma pair in the queue, and we both register this without needing to say anything to each other about it, a small warmth blooming in our bellies.

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In a dream we walk through dark rooms with gold writing on the walls and stand together in front of the moving picture of Epang Palace with its jade rooftops and white herons and blue clouds drifting across the screen. The clouds and the birds look familiar. “They look just like the birds that used to visit your garden in K.K.,” I say to her and she nods, “mmm!” in agreement. “Are they still there?” I ask. She smiles.

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In a dream I have a real memory or a dream memory of visiting Xi’an with my parents and Po Po and Kung Kung and my cousins and Aunty Bin and Uncle Boon when I was twelve or thirteen, but I don’t remember much apart from rows upon rows of empty-eyed heads and horses arranged in formation in a massive pit of dirt. What I remember is the blinding heat—it was mid-July and 39 degrees by mid-morning, which sounded both dramatic and scientific, and which I repeated to my friends afterwards: it was 39 degrees by mid-morning. Our sneakers kicked up clouds of hot dust that settled on our damp skin. All we wanted was ice cream and air-conditioning and when we finally found it, Po Po came and sat with us while the other grown-ups went to explore yet another ancient emperor’s ancient tomb.

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In a dream Po Po leads me into a small room off to one side, filled with a soft purplish and red glow. The walls are covered in a bright pattern of objects and faces I recognise. I want to reach out and touch them: blue butterflies, a mooncake, a pink peony, a warrior queen, a monkey king, kung fu fighters floating on invisible treetops. I turn to show Po Po this wall covered in what seems to be a repeating pattern of some of my earliest childhood memories, but I find her sitting on a chair, her hands on her knees, her eyes fixed on the screen ahead, where an old-fashioned projector flips images of familiar objects onto the wall. They are objects from another time, things that Po Po might have owned when she was a little girl in Hong Kong, before her and her parents escaped to Malaysia: a faded teacup, a pink cheongsam, a chipped soup spoon, a child’s pair of blue silk slippers with pink petals embroidered on the toes.

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In a dream I ask, “well, what did you think?” over our bowls of roast duck rice noodles at KC Café, where we are sitting at a table by the window. Po Po normally orders off the secret menu but today we want roast duck. A dry, sweeping northerly wind whistles along the thin pane of glass on our left, causing it to vibrate. I understand that this dream is not earthquake-proof. “吃饭吧,吃饭,” she replies, not quite smiling but her eyes glinting, holding her chopsticks in one hand and spoon in the other. She dips her chopsticks into the bowl, swirls, lifts the translucent noodles onto her spoon to form a perfect bite-sized noodle mountain, and begins to eat.