Thursday, October 06, 2005

Old Man
``It seems someone last night saw him fall, but I saw him still going around slowly today.''
The speaker was a Chinese Trappist monk named Father Clement who was calling from a monastery on Lantau island here. The falling man in question was another monk, Father Nicolaus Kao. At 108 Kao is the world's oldest Catholic priest and probably (no official records are supposedly available) Hong Kong's oldest man. I was trying to arrange an in-person interview at the monastery.
``Shit,'' I thought. ``I hope he doesn't kick before I get there.''
Then I spoke. ``Well, Father Clement, I'm very sorry to hear that but I am very glad to hear that Father Nicolaus is still walking. So, when do you think can I see him? Umm, like tomorrow?''
The lord or a reasonable facsimilie was apparently with me. I was up the next morning at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in order to catch an 8am ferry to an island village of Peng Chau.
Then, according to Father Clement's somewhat vague instructions: ``Get off the pier, then look right. There's a smaller pier with a small boat to the monastary. It stops in two places sometimes. Sometimes not. Anyway, if you look across the sea from Peng Chau you can see our monastery.''
I had imagined some wizened, leathery skinned, rail-thin bare-chested guy in ragged shorts and a straw hat with a pole or oars in an enlongated boat who would ferry me gently across a small bay to a small, sort of Southwest American mission-style monastery nudging the Lantau shore.
What I actually found after disembarking from the deluxe Hong Kong ferry and looking to my right was a lot of small unoccupied motor and row boats bobbing in the bay and another pier with a smaller shabby ferry boat. Unlike the HK ferry this one had no blue plush leather seats, but a few hard red plastic small seats and wooden benches nailed to the walls. A handpainted sign said ``Trappist Monastery ferry'' on the pier entrance. Across the wide bay I saw no bucolic Santa Fe mission, but a large, white modern building topped with a enormous cross about a gadzillion feet above the shoreline on a heavily forested mountain.
``How the hell am I ever going to get up there when I get there?'' I thought.
At the dock the lord provided a van driven by ``William,'' an wizened, leathery skinned rail-thin guy in a white T-shirt, khaki shorts and a floppy straw hat.
``Welcome. You are our visitor? From the newspaper?''
Thass me. I climbed in the back with four other middle aged Chinese worker-types and William got in the driver's seat, gunned the motor and we scooted up a steep, winding paved road cut through a lush, tangled semi-tropical forest. The air was much cleaner and cooler here and I smelled real foliage for the first time since my visit to the States several months ago.
Along the roadside the only things marring the view were numbered wooden pictures of a tortured, weary Christ nailed to trees along the way _ apparently a Stations of the Cross. They quickly erased a brief, witless fantasy of converting to Catholicism to live out my days as a Trappist monk cocooned in greenery and clean air.
We arrived after a 4-minute ride and I was quickly transferred to another faithful laymen handler who cautioned me to talk quietly and told me twice that I was ``very, very lucky to be in this area. (The monk's quarters). Outsiders are almost never allowed.''
Father Kao was in a black and white cassock and sitting at his desk in his tiny, cramped cell when we knocked on the door.
I was immediately charmed -- and shamed. I have more lines and wrinkles at 52 then his 108-year-old smooth, virtually unlined face. Born in January 1897 in China, he's a thin, gentle and good humored guy with a full, flowing white beard who walks with the aid of a three-legged cane and peers at the world through large tortise shell rimmed spectacles, A large amature-painted portrait of him on white tapestry cloth hangs on a wall beside his tiny bed. The rest of the room is jammed chockablock with boxes, books, newspapers, magazines, tracts, photos, religious pictures of beatific Mary and pain-wracked Jeebus, 100-year birthday greetings from Pope John Paul and a collection ceramic cats.
``Cats are my favorite animal,'' he said through the translator. ``We have eight here and caring for them gives me determination to carry on. Some people play mah jong. Cats are like my mah jong.''
He showed me a sepia photograph of him and his mother, father and three brothers all in formal, traditional Chinese dress taken in 1922 and told me to guess which one he was him.
I studied the photo carefully and then scrutinized his face. The nose knows, I decided, as one of the brothers had a long thin nose like Kao.
``This one,'' I pointed to my pick.
He nodded and smiled widely and spoke to the translator.
``You're right,'' the translator said. ``He said to congratulate you. Most visitors cannot guess or guess wrong.''
In a life that has spanned three centuries, Kao said he has lived through ten popes, two Chinese emperors and proud to have voted for Sun Yat Sen as president of China in 1912.
The biggest change he has seen in mankind? ``People are becoming more violent,'' he said rather sadly. ``But the technology is wonderful,'' he added, though he doesn't use a computer and rarely watches television except for ``major events'' such as the funeral of Pope John Paul.
His years, which have taken from from the mainland to Taiwan, Malaysia and finally Hong Kong, have not been without peril. In a photo-copied summary of his life he wrote: ``Six times I have been rescued from fatal accidents: sea, land, knife, rock and mountain.''
He credits the Virgin Mary for saving his life each time and as such Kao has erected six shrines in her honor, three in Taiwan, one in Fuzhou, China (later destroyed by the communists), one in Malaysia and the shrine in Lantau.
Kao also has a slight flair for the dramatic. When pressed on what ``knife'' attack he escaped, he said the blade referred to a successful operation he underwent at 107 for colon cancer.
His siblings are long dead and seven fellow priests are in graves previously reserved for him, he said. ``But four generations of my family live in Hong Kong and visit regularly,'' he added. ``And now I reserve the eighth tomb for myself.''
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