Once upon a time...
Updated: Jan 3
I’d been clearing out my attic and came across a boxful of photographs. One of the photographs brought back a time some years ago when Shu -Ching and her husband Bo came to stay with me. I had recently moved into a small red brick, terraced cottage. It had three rooms on the first floor and four on the ground floor and although the front door opened directly onto the street, the back door lead to a small overgrown garden, but I’m getting away from the subject here.
“From the University of Brighton MA sequential design/illustration, after the first term I was still living in Lenny’s flat, where I had been working at the Chinese shop where the girl asked if I needed a weekend job. She gives me a little note with a handwritten address and telephone number of a restaurant. I called the phone number and someone told me we had met somewhere in Brighton. Jenni drove me in her car to her restaurant (Jade Lotus) Lenny, her husband told me he had a flat near Brighton University, just a three-minute walk away.”
I met Shu-Ching in the late nineties, I was looking for someone to teach me about Chinese painting and calligraphy (I still have the complete set of, ‘Teach yourself Chinese in Three Months’, cassette set ). I was interested not only in the technical aspects of Chinese painting but also Chinese culture, and as painting seemed to be the most accessible language for me, I thought, maybe it would allow me to experience at least this part of the rhyme and rhythm of that culture. Whenever I was able to see an exhibition of Chinese painting it seemed that there was so much more of a focus upon the individual as a part of something, rather than the subject. The way they were designed seemed to encompass a broader perspective not only immediately, but generally, than traditional western paintings. The elegance and simplicity of ink paintings that stripped away all superfluous detail was so calming and satisfying to look at.
That summer I put an advertisement in the local paper asking for tuition, on an hourly basis, in Chinese painting.
“I have been working at Chinese shop, I find this shop by myself. The Boss is kind to me there are two staff, who are Phillipines and myself. One day the Boss found a newspaper that is looking for a person who can teach Chinese painting. At the time I was still living at home near the Chinese shop and the University of Brighton Library. So, I appreciated that I can read books in the library it is very convenient. One problem is my room has become a meeting place for south area students. On the second floor a Taiwanese student and three Japanese girls also invited their friends to go to my room to enjoy their food. I do not have a private room where I can study. I don’t come to the UK University to meet these people who come from China and Taiwan. If I am still with them I will not learn anything not even English language. So I will leave them alone, I can only concentrate on studying and printing. That time I still work at the Chinese shop.”
At the time my unknown friend to be, Schu-Ching was studying art at Brighton University and my daughter, an earnest painter was ten.
Schu-Ching arrived at the house neatly dressed, and calmly introduced herself. This was worrying, the inhabitants and visitors to the house in those days were often unruly; calm and orderliness was aspired to, rather than commonly experienced, and I was beginning to wonder whether she would find it a bit overwhelming. There was a warmth and openness about her that was very welcome.
“20th June 1997 I graduated from University of Brighton I called my husband Bo that I am going to prepare MA course. I thought I could make prints my way. I have to go to English class at another department of the University of Brighton. I then applied for MA sequential design/illustration, surprisingly I am accepted for that course and at the same time I am teaching Chinese painting and calligraphy once a week.”
The house that I lived in then had a basement room that opened onto the garden at the back of the house. This was our space and at the back of the room there were five tall bookcases and desk that I had set out for my classes with Schu-Ching, there was also a television, a sofa and a coffee table where my daughter worked at her painting. Schu-Ching had given me a list of equipment that I would need. I had three brushes, a stick of ink, a stone, paper and a black felt pad. There was also a book that contained pictograms and exercises that showed you how to form the characters. Another book laid out the forms for trees, mountains, waterfalls and rocks, with exercises that helped the student to understand where to exert pressure and where it should be released when creating a brushstroke.
I was astounded at this; it was so contrary to everything that I had been taught during the four years that I was at art college. The foundational classes, in painting and drawing that I had attended at art school were based primarily upon observation and self expression,” make a statement” was a frequent demand by the tutors at every level, the idea that you would learn how to paint by rote, or a time honoured pattern, seemed the equivalent of fraud. After all, ‘Art’ was about ‘Truth’. Although who knew what sort of statement a sixteen-year-old (as I was when I first went to Art College) might make of any interest to man or beast, but there you go, that was the refrain. The books that Schu-Ching brought with her, appeared to present pre-determined formulae that an art student had to memorise. This was going to be interesting.
Schu-Ching had travelled from Taiwan to learn about western art and its traditions. She had travelled thousands of miles and arrived on her own in a cold, wet, grey country and I was just seeing the tiniest hint of its strangeness, to her, while I was also beginning to discover the strangeness of her.
Her calm and peaceful presence in my life hid great challenges that we knew nothing about. What later happened, and what I later learned about her, contradicted the image I have of her as a young woman with dark glossy hair and an open smile who could easily have passed for a schoolgirl with no concerns.
“During graduation of University of Brighton I was still working at Lenny’s restaurant, The Jade Lotus. There were many people from Beijing University to study Masters Degree in Business some of these people were working with me. One of them said to me that my IQ just like a five year old and said she won’t ever tell people we are studying at the same University of Brighton. There are two Japanese, working at the Jade Lotus, one is working in a travel agency the other one is married to an English man.
The Japanese lady who worked in a travel agency was living with Lenny’s family. She wants to live with me.. Again I knew I could not concentrate to study . When Lenny said she would like to live with me, I disagreed with him and I said to Lenny “ok” I move out this flat. I found a new place and new job for some time I was teaching Chinese brush painting and Chinese Calligraphy in Adult Education at Northbrook College. When I decided to move Lenny said that I can sell my Mountain Bike, computer, printer scanner ect. to pay for rent.”
Between painting classes, conversations, and much laughter we exchanged views on music, food and art. Schu-Ching discovered Italian opera and we went to see La Traviata at the London Colosseum. We both enjoyed the music, the performance, and the very sad story. For Schu-Ching this was obviously not enough, so she followed up her first opera experience with a visit to see Miss Saigon later that year. Another cheery story, it was based upon Puccini’s Madame Butterfly but set during the Vietnam war. From then on, Schu-Ching searched out and collected European opera recordings. Unfortunately, I did not feel quite as enthusiastic about the Chinese National Opera.
“The lady working at the Chinese shop from Nanking University became Jim’s (the boss) girlfriend. She worked on the counter at the store. Jim visited the Jade Lotus by himself and sat down with a quiet face in the corner of the restaurant.
I left Lenny’s flat and the Jade Lotus. I also found an Italian boss who is running the restaurant for lunchtime and a tea or coffee, the other waitresses and I are so happy working with each other and serving the customers and we share tips. After the MA first term completed, I am so looking forward to the year 2000. Soon after I call Marie that this year of Christmas I would stay with you.
Unfortunately, Lenny helped me to move my stuff into my rent house. So he already knew where I live. Lenny comes in my room one day! Then Lenny so often get into my room without my permission and his face look like fateful.
I have had still to keep a quiet face about this event. After all I felt so sad and hopeless.
I fell ill then and vomit blood. I tell myself; Shu-Chen you must come down! Take the telephone book and make contact with friends and family. Secondly call an ambulance to Brighton Hospital.”
One year we invited Schu-Ching to celebrate Christmas with us. She often worked over Christmas, it didn’t have the same significance for her, but she agreed to come and seemed to be looking forward to spending the day with us. I was distracted by the preparations and cooking but was surprised when Schu-Ching didn't arrive. She didn’t have a mobile phone nor landline, but she had always been utterly reliable, I assumed that she had accepted another invitation, and I didn’t have time to find out.
In January of that year, I received a phone call. It was hard to understand what was being said, the person speaking to me stuttered and had difficulty finding the right words. It finally became clear that he was asking me if I knew where it would be possible to find someone to conduct a Buddhist funeral in Brighton? I asked, “who is this, where did you get my phone number from, why do you want this information.”
It was Schu-Chings’ husband Bo on the phone, he had arrived in the UK some days previously having been told that Schu-Ching had been taken to hospital in a critical condition and was told that she could have only days to live. Bo was now doing his best to prepare for her death, and he told me that her family would shortly be arriving to see her.
Schu-Ching had only revealed to me that she was married after I’d known her for some years and explained that her husband Bo had been away in the navy and that they had agreed that she should study in the UK until his retirement. I had never met him.
The first time I met Bo was when he and a few of Schu-Ching’s friends were clearing her flat of all her possessions and taking them to charity shops and the dump. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Bo had brought me to Schu-Ching’s flat and asked me where people got rid of things they didn’t want anymore, it took a while and many gestures and false starts before I understood that they were throwing all her belongings away, including her clothes. I was stunned by this and asked Bo why they throwing her clothes away, when there was still hope of Schu-Ching’s recovery? He told me that she would have new clothes and belongings and that the bad luck was being thrown out.
I met Schu-Ching’s family when they arrived at the hospital. They were not apparently in distress but though they presented themselves formally in a small well-groomed and very polite group, it was plain from the awkwardness of the meeting that they were having difficulty controlling their understandable fear and grief. Schu-Ching’s mother was reserved and our ability to communicate was limited by our lack of a common language. I tried to be supportive to Bo who told me that Shu-chings family felt he was responsible for her situation and that he should not have allowed her to come and study in the UK on her own. They had brought a tank of blessed water with them for Bo to wash her with every day.
Schu-Ching survived – just-. She went from one intensive care unit to another. When I visited her at times, she was unable to communicate, at other times, she was angry and wanted me to go away, at all times, she had become unrecognisable. The drugs that she was being given had made her formerly slim and small body appear bloated and the days and months without sun had stolen it’s light from her face. For many of the early months in hospital she was not always aware of her surroundings. Bedridden, and inward looking, there were times when she would simply turn her head away in silence.
The wards were hot and airless, the corridors that lead to her ward, lined with overflowing skips of soiled bedlinen. On one occasion when I visited her, she had a bad cut on her forehead. I later learned that a piece of equipment had fallen on her.
She was unable to talk because of the ventilator that had been stuck in her throat to keep her breathing. She often looked angry, sometimes sad, and would gesture me to leave. On one occasion I walked into her room and saw that she had a dressing on her forehead. She didn’t want me to tell anyone, or complain about anything, and was afraid of some unspoken punishment that might come her way if she did.
“In Hospital, my Mom and older sister were very careful to wash my body and tidy up my face and comb my hair. Why has my hair fallen out? I asked my Mom and sister.
What has happened to my body?” Bo said it was because of the treatment.
Day by day my Mom dropped Buddhas’ water on my lips to slowly enter my body. My Mom prays in Buddhist faith for help to get me better and better. My Mom takes great care of me and she is on her own because Bo must go to Taiwan and then come back to Brighton to extend his visa, in order to take care of me.”
Bo began to understand more English, although it was still a struggle for both of us to communicate effectively with each other. We would meet in shelters and rooms where the Nicotine addicted would congregate, many of them members of staff and Bo would do his best to communicate Shu-Ching’s current state of progress as he stood and smoked, in communion with the other, mostly silent smokers.
“My Mom very carefully look after me, when I slowly get better and better, Mom feeds me like a baby with boiled rice water, cherries and apples.
In times of stress I only feel that there is Heaven and Hell, several times I try to fall down on the floor. Whenever I try again my Mom seems to know it and surrounds me to protect me.”
Schu-Ching was in hospital for nearly two years. Her mother had to go back to Taiwan, but Schu Ching’s husband Bo stayed with her.
“I am so scared of being alone at night , Mom told Bo to let me drink Buddhas’ water.
I remembered that Bo always touches my hands and legs to do physical exercise and to hold me in his arms to help me stand. When my body got stronger Tom asked me to walk a short distance, then a longer distance, to walk back and forth on the hospital sidewalk.
One day Bo tells me to take away the hospital clothes and change into my clothes that Bo has brought me – he smiles and tells me that we leave the hospital. We move to live on the second floor in the house in Hove. One day I am going to the bathroom, there’s a mirror and when I see myself, I am frightened.”
While Schu-Ching was recovering, my life had changed. I had suddenly developed severe back pain, walking was difficult and so was driving. The slightest jarring of my back would leave me fighting to stay conscious as the bite of it would take my breath away.
On one occasion I went swimming with my daughter as I had tried everything else. When I touched the edge of the pool and attempted to turn at the end of a length, I could see the circle of light slowly closing like the iris on a camera shutter as I watched my daughters anxious face fade out above me while she sat on the edge of the pool. Resisting the urge to float out of consciousness, I managed to leave the pool and walk to the changing room.
I had been told that they could find nothing wrong with my back, by this time I was taking two different painkillers, had x rays, had consulted consultants and been manipulated by Osteopaths. I sat in the changing room listening to a woman telling me that she had lived with chronic pain for thirty years.
Still trying to find a cure, or at least an explanation for my condition, someone recommended a Sports Physiotherapist. By now, I could barely walk and was unable to sit for long enough to drive a car. Nevertheless, I would have done almost anything to get rid of the pain and thought it would be worth trying. On a hot sunny day that summer, I was feeling optimistic, so I booked a cab and managed to get in and lie on the back seat. Rolling gently out of the cab on arrival, I looked at the Clinic and was not hopeful.
Its dusty glass shop front was covered in adverts for all sorts of appliances and medicaments, not exactly shabby, but not exactly modern or hi tech either. The proprietor came out to greet me and laughed at my obvious discomfort. A Chinese man in his fifties of medium height in a white coat with an unfortunate sense of humour, he held out his hand, smiled at me and guided me into his clinic. Cautiously crouching, I shuffled toward the door; before entering, I turned to see if the cab was still there, but it had gone.
“Please sit here.” Here, was a hip high, pale blue, quilted plastic bench with leather straps at either end, that separated in the middle. As I tentatively leaned back to sit, the bench opened, and I squealed in pain. “Oh I am very sorry, please sit and then lie on your back.” He was still smiling with his hand on the wheel that had separated the two parts of the bench ever so slightly. I lay down and he fastened and tightened the straps on the upper and lower part of my back. I realised what the treatment was going to be as he cranked the two parts of the bench apart.
“This will stretch your spine a little and we will see if that helps everything to find its place.”
Fifteen minutes later I stood outside the clinic, my back was still sore but felt completely different, it no longer expressed itself through knockout bouts of pain, but was still sore. For whatever reason, I was sure that I could walk the three miles home through the city and over the hill.
“In the room with Bo where we live together, sometimes there’s a nurse who comes to check my body and one day she teaches Bo how to do it for me. I am still feeling very upset and useless. I feel so bad and deep regret to make so many troubles and negative thinking. I didn’t like to see visitors upset. Jane’s eyes were red, where is she going, and will she come back again? Marie’s hands holding Lily Flowers, then putting white Lily’s down on the chair.
Lenny squats pointing to the small televisions black and white line and Jenni…
After Jane goes home, Bo shouts at me, calling my name and said ‘How hard is it to save your life?’ Miraculously that night my mind is speaking English. The next day I wake up and ask Bo, ‘Can I call Jane and Marie?”
The first time I visited Bo and Schu-Ching outside the hospital, at their flat, I was shocked at her appearance. Her head and her long dark hair drooped over her lap, as she sat in a wheelchair. She had lost so much weight, and when she raised her head, I was not sure that she recognised me, she looked angry and her eyes didn’t seem able to focus on anything in particular. I had brought her some Lilly’s, I wasn’t sure if she would like them, but I loved their perfume and hoped that they would bring some memory of a garden into her home. When I left, I was very worried about Schu-Ching. Bo looked concerned, but also determined. He seemed to have limitless amounts of energy and faith that everything would work out. I never saw him appear defeated by Schu-Ching’s condition, even though it looked hopeless to me.
My back, although sore, was soon able and willing to work. I moved into a small, terraced house. There was hardly any furniture; a double bed, a table and a rug. It had been let to people who were temporarily working in the area, and they had not been kind to it. Having thrown out most of what was left in the house and cleaned everything thoroughly, I painted the door orange, took up all the dark brown fitted carpets and replaced them with pale, bright wood laminate and Kelim rugs. Over a short time, the rooms were filled with plants and bright bargain furniture buys. In the late summer afternoons, the sun warmed the living room and lit up the leaves of the plants so that they appeared as incandescent, as green stained glass.
“Bo please see your sleeping Beauty is awake.’ Bo always called me his Sleeping beauty. Jane is coming to see us. She suggested that we go out for a picnic in a wheelchair. At that moment I am afraid of seeing people and them seeing me like this. Bo tried to encourage me to go outside and shop for clothes. I can only express a few words
Jane suggested we go out for a picnic in a wheelchair. At that moment I am afraid of seeing people and them seeing me like this. Bo tried to encourage me to go outside and shop for clothes. I can only express a few words. Day by day Bo wants me to leave the wheelchair, stand up and take a walk for a short time and distance. I got used to walk with Bo on the foot path.”
Although I had been running a small business, the income didn’t cover the bills, so I looked for other work and applied for several jobs, whilst also trying to expand the business. During this time, I hadn’t heard much from Bo or Schu-Ching and assumed that they were taking time to allow Schu-Ching to recover and make arrangements to return to Taiwan.
“I got stronger in the company of my Adult Education friends. I awoke one day to find myself nearly back to normal. This was a period of time to improve my body from the illness caused by worries. Jane always comes to see me and Bo. (Jane rides her bicycle backwards and forwards to see us). She especially kept Bo company during Christmas time and New Year in 2000. Bo was so sad and deeply worried about me. Thanks to those friends who
encouraged me to move forward.”
I found a part time job in a café in the local town. It was a chain and the pay wasn’t good, but the camaraderie combined with a good breakfast went a long way to making it worthwhile.
Annie was closest to my age, Pawel and Lucy were students. Going to work and seeing Annie open and light up the café in the morning was a welcome break from chasing suppliers and keeping up to date with accounts and other domestic responsibilities. Pawel and Lucy arriving separately, brought other worlds of different dealings with them. Pawel brought a hangover from a long political argument in the pub the night before, that was only relieved by a double Espresso. Lucy chattering like a host of tiny birds in spring, told us that her boyfriend had talked to her about the possibility of sharing a flat.
Annie was cheery in a business-like way, having organised her household, two at high school and one husband – so that they were clean, fed and out of the house by eight fifteen, no ifs. but’s nor maybes, which was pretty much how she ran the café.
Over the years I had continued to paint and exhibit my work, but if you want to make a living, the rewards are unpredictable. The exhibitions barely covered their costs, and when they did, that was a real achievement.
Vasari said that the Florentines were so good because they were hungry and that competition drove them to excel themselves. In Vasari’s day an artist would set out to astonish with a display of technical and manual virtuosity that combined to create another plausible reality, the more plausible and subtle, the more work.
Within two dimensions in pigment and canvas they set out to recreate heaven and hell and all places in between, but we don’t believe in those things anymore, do we?.
“After mother got back to Taiwan, Bo and Jane encouraged me to keep going and make progress. Jane always keeps in touch with Bo and gives support and confidence. I cannot talk much, I keep quiet or speak a few words to them. Bo inspired me to keep going and to make progress by walking every day. Gradually, I increased the walking to several times a day with Bo.
Christmas and New year were approaching. The landlord of the house wants to re-build his house, so everyone has to move out.
Bo cannot find another place to move to and he cannot look after me at the same time. Marie told Bo that we can move into her place. She kindly gave us a big room to sleep in and Bo and I are so happy to live in Marie’s house. I recovered my body and became more healthy and I can remember many things and speaking more sentences. I remember seeing Marie holding an earthenware jar and talk about her fathers remains. At the time I get a shock to see it.
I remember she took a jewellery box and asked me to choose what jewellery I would like. I chose a diamante necklace and earrings. When Bo has time he goes into the back garden and plants many potatoes. Marie puts lots of fruit in a porcelain jar.
One day in the living room I have a strong desire to paint, to remember the house and the things in the living room and the dining room.”
Shu-Ching gave me a painting that she had made while living with me. It was a group of three Lemons on a piece of cloth. It was a watercolour in western style. Their fine plump fruit bodies float on fabric that softly ripples beneath them .Two of them float side by side, a third just to their left.
“ Time is flying, these few months Bo is searching for ways that we can get back to Taiwan. First he asked the doctor for permits to take an aeroplane Doctor told Tom that there was only a 50% chance of my survival if we take the aeroplane.
It is now nearly autumn; winter is coming again and it is really cold weather. Marie is worried about my health and finds me some warm clothes. Bo and I are so excited to go out in the back garden to watch the snow falling. Snow covered the roofs of the houses; the street and the Garden were all snow white. The house is full of warmth and kindness – we told the Doctor that we were prepared to take the risk of a flight back to Taiwan. The Doctor said no.
Bo said that we could try to take a train from England to France, Germany, East Europe, Russia, Siberia and China Beijing, China in Fortune and Kumen to Taiwan.
But in Siberia it might be snowing for months, by that time I could be dead. So Bo gave up on this plan. Luckily Bo found a cargo ship that can take two people. We are expected to board the cargo ship to Taiwan. It should take from the middle of April until Mother’s Day in May”
Bo insisted that we all go to Wing Yips for a celebratory meal. He suggested that he and Schu- Ching choose the dishes, which was fine by me, as I had no idea what anything on the menu was. Endless little dishes appeared, tiny plates of prinked dumplings, colourful vegetable dishes, fish, shellfish and bowls of noodles festooned the circular table in front of us and it was both a scattering of wonders and sad. For a short time Schu-Ching and Bo had been a part of my family. I had tried to teach Bo English with Thomas the Tank Engine books and introduce Schu-Ching to English culinary delights such as sausage and mash (very successful) and they had shown me, resilience, faith and a sort of calm steadfastness through their relationship which made me question my occasionally disorderly life. They thought that I was helping them, but the truth is, that they became an anchor, in a time of change for me. It was only after Schu-Ching had begun to recover, that I began to discover how the surface calm of her appearance had covered up so much that she had dealt with, mostly alone, and in silence.
Occasionally, and hesitantly, she related her experiences, sometimes after dinner in the evenings, when we were relaxed and at home in each other’s company, often she astounded me with her strength, courage, and honesty. Bo’s quiet determination to bring her back to herself, in a country many miles from their home, without a common language or culture, is something I still remember, together with his ever-present smile.
When Bo and Schu Ching’s cab, packed tight with them and their belongings drove away, I expected to luxuriate in the space and silence they left behind.
Everywhere however, there were reminders of their stay, the neatly repaired garden chairs, the orderliness of everything in it’s place, including the washed, dried, and folded bedlinen in their empty bedroom.
Schu-Ching had left me her painting of the three lemons on their bed of cloth, in my room.
About six weeks later Bo rang to say that they had arrived in Singapore. I could hear Schu -Ching in the background. I’d been very worried that she would get seasick. Shu-Ching had lost so much weight during her illness, that she didn’t seem to have much more to lose. Bo told me that the journey had been fine, except for the pirates.
Apparently, the cargo ship was boarded somewhere southeast of Sri Lanka. They were told to go to their cabins and lock their door. The ship and the crew must have persuaded the pirates to leave, as the rest of the journey went as planned.
The cargo ship had a German Captain, sausages were on the menu every day and Schu- Ching gained weight.