Cardboard Women This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 3, 2017
Custom User Avatar
More by this author

“Siu Bou, is that you? Siu Bou, turn around, look at me. Where have you been?”, the woman’s eyes wetted.
I stood there shocked, confused. People around me were looking, wondering why a private school boy was stopped by an unkempt woman.

“Madam, I think you are mistaken.” I replied. She grabbed my hand as I walked away. Her hand, like sand paper, grinded my wrist.


Just above the equator, Hong Kong has a typical tropical climate: reaching almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit on certain days in the summer and only 45 degrees in the winter. But the unique winter breeze cannot be easily blocked by just an extra layer of jacket. The humidity combined with the wind chill can pierce through any clothing straight into your bones. Dwellers in Hong Kong kindly call it “bone-biting wind”. This type of wind chill, to be honest, is more merciless than New Jersey’s. My apartment, 78 floors high up in the clouds, only makes the wind chill worse. 78 floors below my apartment, gales of winds sweep through the streets, and makes it even worse. There is nowhere to hide when winter comes. On certain days, I can hear the howling of wind gusts pounding on the glass panes. The cross ventilation in the elevator section of the building allows strong wind to travel upward and make a simple task of opening the door difficult. On my way to school every day, I must pass through a market district where vendors sell fruit, vegetables, seafood, and meat of freshly butchered livestock. The stench of pig hearts, cow livers, and goat stomachs lingers in the air from dawn to dusk.

It was in this environment and weather that I commuted back to my apartment after school one day in 8th grade. The day before, my mother left for Italy, “for work” she said. She had only been home for about a week after her previous business trip. Jealous of other kids’ week with their parents, I pretended like I didn’t care when she left, but I knew I would miss her like every time in the past. Like usual, I passed through the market district. I was already accustomed to the set scenery after two years in Hong Kong. It was routine to first see a huge sculpture of a naked man standing in front of a shopping mall, a crossroad where the red-light illuminates for two minutes and the green for 45 seconds, a pork shop, a fish store, some vegetable vendors, and an old woman on the other side of the fence picking up cardboard boxes the vendors discarded. Picking up cardboard boxes wasn’t a lucrative business, but I guess that was probably the only thing she was capable of doing. I heard numerous times from people gossiping, while passing through, that the old woman, in her 60’s, lost her son when she was young; it was said that her son never came back from school and was never found after. The police searched for months before they gave up. The Cardboard Women, people called her, started collecting cardboard boxes one day, hoping that she would earn enough money for a private detective to find her child.

Sometimes, I would look at her while waiting for the green light. She wasn’t tall, about 4 feet 11. Her hair partially grey and had leaves of spinach, and bits and pieces of broccoli in it. She was humpbacked, almost at a 90-degree angle. It was probably a result of her picking of the cardboard boxes, which required her to be constantly bent over. From my previous observations of her, she probably had 4 pieces of clothing: a pair of black, loose pants, a pair of shorts that reached her knees, a T-shirt that said “Hong Kong Charity”, and a hoodie that said “ROCK”. That day, to combat the cold, she wore all four of them. It was in the “bone-biting wind” she worked. She searched for cardboard boxes, flattened them with her feet, and stacked them up on her rusty trolley, a repetitive and hardly profitable job that would support her survival.

The green light illuminated, and I started crossing the road. Looking at her working, I thought of my mother, thought about how hard my mom’s life would’ve been if picking cardboard in the wind was her work. The Cardboard Woman made me realize how negligent I was of my parents’ love and sacrifice. When I looked back at the Cardboard Woman, I saw her anxiously playing with her cracked fingers that had huge cuts all over them, but I guessed they were already numb from the cold. She looked around making sure no one had noticed her as if she was about to commit a crime. Probably debating something in her mind, she sighed at the road. I was already feet away from her before I realized how close I was, but that also gave me the chance to observe her more closely. Her hands were weathered like rocks, the surface looked coarse and rugged. In her hand, she held a scoop full of water. She sprayed evenly on an unusually small stack of cardboard. It was probably to increase the weight of the stack so she could sell it for a better price. Afterwards, she quickly hid the scoop and made sure nobody saw it. But I did, though I knew it wasn’t right to trick people by pouring water on cardboard, it was understandable. She needed food on her plate, she needed to survive. Her one hand clenched on the fence, she struggled to sit on the curb. As she was sitting down, she glanced at the crowd again, and my gaze met hers. She was shocked, her eyes widened and she abruptly stood up, staring at me. I saw uncertainty and shame in her eyes. I quickly dodged her stare, fearful that I might’ve offended her.

“Siu Bou, is that you? Siu Bou, turn around, look at me. Where have you been?”, the woman’s eyes wetted.
I stood there shocked and confused. The swarm of people and vendors around me, too, were confused. For a split second, probably everyone stopped in tableau. I was nervous, suddenly the glaze of a dozen dropped on me like a great mystery had been solved. I wore my striped private school uniform and she her four shirts. It wouldn’t take long for people to realize two people with such a big difference in social status could possibly be remotely related. But they couldn’t allow such a trivial event to stop the motion of their busy lives, so they resumed walking. For another second we stood there, speechless: I, because I did not know what to say; she, because she was overwhelmed by discovering me. I tried to draw clues to explain why she stopped me or even talked to me. I thought she might have been mentally-ill from losing her son, but I didn’t remember hearing about her illness. 
“Where have you been? Mother has been looking for you for so many years!”, she cried out.

“Madam, I think you are mistaken, I am not your son”, I turned back to keep walking, still shocked. She grabbed my hand. I could feel her hand like sand paper grinding my wrist. I looked back.

“No, can you please just talk to me as a son, Siu Bou? I know I could not provide you with safety and shelter, but please forgive me. I tried my best. In the years when you were gone, I told myself ‘as a girl I might not be strong, but as a mother I am invincible’”.

There was regret in her watery eyes. She looked into my heart asking for something. I stood there for a moment and thought of my own mother. That day my mother was on a plane, flying all over the world, working, and providing a better life for me. The warmth of the woman’s eyes on that cold winter day reminded me of her. I missed my mother, longed for her embrace.

“Mother, I miss you”, I said.
“Say that again”, she replied.
“Mother, I miss you”. She smiled as if her son returned to her after so many years. She loosened her hand.
“Thank you”, she said. “Thank you.” She turned away. And I kept walking.
After I came to Peddie, I returned to Hong Kong during vacation. I went back to that district. I held my mother’s hand tight and told her the story.
“She was a good mother”, my mother said, tears lingered around her lower lashes.

We tried looking for the Cardboard Woman. The sculpture, the pork shop, the fish store, and the vegetable vendors were there, but she wasn’t. All that was left was a huge stack of cardboard that no one wanted.

Join the Discussion

This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

SpidersAcrossStars This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 9 at 1:14 am
Wow. This was heartbreaking. You told the story so well; your writing is nearly hypnotic.
kevinkong.hkkchina replied...
Mar. 9 at 6:02 pm
You are very kind! Thank you very much for your support!
Site Feedback