Looking for White Rabbits

Where were the unofficial officials of my Chinese self?

My once leisurely strolls have become manhunts. I can spot the orange, white, and green of a 7/11, no matter how tucked away, a mile off. I know the precise location of the confectionary aisles within the major supermarkets I roam.

It’s the summer of 2019, and I have recently realised that I have not seen White Rabbits since I arrived in Hong Kong three years ago.

* * *

hen I was a child, I knew my Chinese family only through gifts. We had seen our aunties and uncles a few times, but the physical and cultural space between us didn’t allow for anything close to familiarity. We remembered to remember them via the gifts they sent my father home with. After ten or so days in Hong Kong, he would return with a suitcase bursting with things. As he carefully laid the case flat on the carpet in the living room and pulled the zip round, a musty, mothball scent would rush out, flooding our faces and spiraling up our nostrils. The instant association would kick in: this is from Hong Kong; this is our Chinese family.

Some of the things in the case were his — rolled up items of clothing, a washbag, new or passed-down gadgets — although they were barely perceptible to our roving eyes. We saw only unidentifiable items wrapped in unfamiliar shop-branded plastic bags, the sole discernible thing about them their shape — a mysterious rectangle wedged between t-shirts, an enigmatic sphere calling for help under the weight of a trainer. We had been here enough times to know that these were presents. Me kneeling on the carpet next to my dad, my sister perched on the edge of the sofa, my brother hovering further away; all of us eager to see what treasures would soon be in our mouths, on our bodies, in our bedrooms, but not wanting to seem greedy or uncouth.

Dad would try and remember what was what, reaching for each item slowly and then speeding up as his hand got closer, the moment of confirmation propelling his arm muscles. Then he would unpack and unravel. A tin of famous Jenny Bakery cookies, with its charming yet lifeless teddy bears and chintzy patterns printed on the sides. Toy-gadget hybrids such as counterfeit Baby G watches (white, with a special button that, when pressed, revealed a dolphin on the face). Papery rolls of haw flakes, familiar discs of fruity sweetness. And always, always at least one packet of White Rabbit sweets.

I don’t know that they were even that nice, but they were the sweet du jour in China and had been since 1943 when they were invented in Shanghai. Dressed in a white wrapper that was decorated with blue and red stripes and a cartoon rabbit, the milk sweets were firm and white, and cased in transparent, edible rice paper. Reaching a state beyond rigidity required a Herculean feat of the jaw and the mind; a good chewing speed, the determination to succeed. The reward was a sweet, creamy kind of gum, the taste of which seemed to benefit from the excess saliva that had pooled in your mouth during all of that masticating. For me, the very presence of the sweets was the reward. The White Rabbits, magic coursing through their rice paper skins, both enabled me to be Chinese and rewardedme for being Chinese.

* * *

Growing up as half-Chinese in the U.K. involved gorging on endless helpings of British culture and sampling, with a timidity and reluctance that would later haunt me, mere teaspoons of Chinese culture. I couldn’t speak Cantonese and initially sidestepped dim sum, and so my failure to be my father’s daughter and, by tacit implication, Hong Kong’s daughter, was a knife repeatedly stabbing me in whichever side of my body claimed to be Chinese. I was constantly aware that I wasn’t a very good Chinese person. That is, until the White Rabbits arrived. And then, for a short period of time, the puncture wounds healed over.

It was the White Rabbits, in a bowl on the coffee table and eagerly gestured to, that enabled me to tick the ‘Other’ box on forms. It was the White Rabbits, plucked out of the melee of gifts from my dad’s suitcase, that made me feel legitimate. In registering the packet as familiar, eating the sweets ‘authentically’ (with the rice paper on), and name-dropping them only with my siblings like they were a secret code, I was Chinese. The rabbit, equally as at home in a magician’s hat as on the front of a sweet packet, seemed to be imbued with some kind of sorcery: transforming my identity from empty to full. Those sweets were my justification, my guilt relief, my homecoming to a home I didn’t even know.

nce I realized that I hadn’t seen, let alone eaten, a White Rabbit since I was a teenager, I decided to find them. It’ll be a blast from the past, I told myself. It’ll be a fun, nostalgic present to give to my siblings when I visit them in a few months’ time, I decided. So, the search began.

I was certain that they would be nestled comfortably among their more contemporary peers, resplendent in the kind of easy confidence you only get when you’ve lived a publicly spectacular life. But they were nowhere. I couldn’t find them in supermarkets, newsagents, or snack shops. Instead, the aisles were shiny, colourful, loud, disappointing. In every shop, I would follow the same two steps: 1. scan the rows of sweets the way one skims a paragraph to find the word they’re looking for; 2. exit the shop like a Tetris block, skillfully dodging and maneuvering at a reasonable speed, in order to continue the search elsewhere. All of a sudden, what was a very casual idea about a present and the past had morphed into an Extremely Important Mission.

Of course, it wasn’t really White Rabbits I was looking for. I was looking to feel Chinese again.

* * *

I had moved to Hong Kong to embody my culture, identity, and heritage. It sounds abstract, but it was real to me and, for a while, it worked. I started to understand Hong Kong and my being Chinese and my being Chinese in Hong Kong. It seemed that my dramatic move from London three years prior was payment enough; it had bought me a ticket that seemed to be valid forever.

But for a half-Chinese person who is really just half-Chinese, it’s hard to become a genuine part of the community. Learning the language — a mountain that often feels peak-less — and frequenting local haunts isn’t enough. You need to know the language and adopt the local psyche, especially if you are not clearly a Chinese person. At 5’10 with a strange face and BBC British accent, I am not clearly a Chinese person.

Suddenly remembering the White Rabbits was not a random event. It was an urgent call for help. It yelped, ‘you are straining under the weight of a burgeoning identity crisis that cannot be quelled by other temporary means of validation’. The ticket had expired. Reality had returned. I was tired from trying and failing to scramble up as many garden fences as possible to get a look at how I should be; after years of immunity, the ache was now setting in. I found myself in that old familiar position: desperate to be able to justify the surname I was toting and the skin I was wearing. I needed the White Rabbits.

Yet, my optimism had waned. White Rabbits seemed to have vanished. Stepping into yet another shop felt like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Except I didn’t get my non-Groundhog Day. The White Rabbits didn’t appear once I had stopped disrespecting my co-workers and doubting love.

Their disappearance was a surprisingly devastating blow. Realising that White Rabbit sweets were no longer relevant in Hong Kong induced within me a sad surge of kinship. During my brief search, the only time I saw any kind of reference to them was at a trendy ice-cream stall which displayed an oversized, plastic White Rabbit sweet replica on the counter (and later, White Rabbit flavour ice-cream which, in my eyes, was not the same). I fell into a state of melancholy. I was living in Hong Kong, experiencing ‘being Chinese’ in real time and real life, not through confectionary from a suitcase. But White Rabbits had a proven track record of giving me the thing I believed I should innately have. They plugged the cracks for a while, made me believe that I didn’t have to work for my ethnicity, that I didn’t need to earn it — that it was mine.

* * *

Gliding over Russia that August, I equated my failure to find White Rabbits with my failure as a Chinese person. I was learning the language horribly slow, still feeling like I was on the outside, and aware that my family out here weren’t particularly interested in me (a fair reaction considering my flighty, at best, existence in their lives). Unlike my father, when I disembarked a Hong Kong-London flight, I was empty-handed. Over hot pot at his house a few nights later, I offered some broken Cantonese, hoping to prove my dedication and thus lure back the elusive White Rabbits and all of their magic. In London, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply in the centre of Chinatown, hoping to conjure up some kind of mystical miracle. No rabbits, no magic.

Back in Hong Kong, the desperation to find the sweets had subsided, my resignation mostly solidified. There was still a small part that was wobbly and fluid, so I found myself browsing a forum, pretending to be casual in my curiosity. Had anyone seen them in this supermarket? No, okay cool, maybe they’re just not sold anymore, whatever. Google told me that I could order them online, but I never needed to buy them, let alone have them shipped. I just needed to remember how it felt to feel Chinese — and believe it.

A few months later, I could not escape the red, white, and blue. White Rabbits seemed to be everywhere. It was as if I had been so mad for them that I had been totally blinded. The sight of them evoked nostalgia, but nothing more. I knew then. There was never any magic. It was all self-deception — and trickery isn’t the same as magic. As I dug deeper, the ruse fell apart and the conmen fled, leaving me with nothing but a fragmented sense of self. The rest of the pieces aren’t in a suitcase or a supermarket; they’re somewhere inside this body. The search continues.

British-Chinese writer exploring culture, identity, wellness, language, and travel. Based in Hong Kong. www.sarahkwong.net

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