Last Tango

Buenos Aires, Argentina
July 31, 2003

Chiang’s San Telmo curio shop is sandwiched between a traditional parrilla restaurant and a café that are, to me, quintessentially Argentine. A portrait of Carlos Gardel, patron saint of the tango, hangs on the wall inside the parrilla. In the café next door, we find lonely old men sipping espressos over the soccer game on television. I’m not sure if this is a refuge for these men with self-imposed solitude or are they just simply lonely old men seeking a fleeting moment of love in a tango with a stranger with no strings attached.

Shooting Chiang at Bar Sur
Shooting Chiang at Bar Sur

I end up having coffee with Wang, a frail little Hakka uncle who manages the store for Chiang. They’ve been buddies since the beginning of time. Wang is the quintessential “Gold Mountain Man”. Like those uncles of the bygone “bachelor society”, he’s been abandoned here by eternal time… suspended between the culture he left behind and the one he has entered.

The rain outside has lightened up momentarily; we grabbed a cab back. On the way, Chiang gets melancholic about identity, loneliness, departure and loss incarnate while the rain drizzle against the windowpane, filtering the moving streetlights that bathe his face. As I approach the end of this journey, I’m getting closer to making peace with my own identity issues… but all this rain and problematic identity is still depressing the hell outta me.

As we were setting up an interview with Chiang’s daughter Jiayin, I snuck a peep at Chiang’s living quarters. It was a sad reminder of the bygone days of bachelor societies… full of musty old furniture, unkempt piles of old newspapers, that pungent smell of Chinese herbal medicine that conjures up images of sick elderly Chinamen holding on to their last breath of life. The last time I visited this scene was thirty-seven years ago when my Great Grandfather took me to visit some of his less fortunate relic buddies living out their final days without family at the Dat Koon Benevolent Society. As a ten-year old, it frightened me then and it still frightens me now.

Tonight Chiang treats us to another fine Argentine tradition, “beeferama” at a local parrilla. But it’s good to see Chiang finally warm up to our crew. After six days of massaging, he’s finally making jokes and having fun with us. We walk off the heart-attack meal by strolling down to Bar Sur with Chiang.

Wong Kar-Wai had staged “Happy Together at Bar Sur”. We pay homage to him tonight with Chiang, an “old man suspended in his own melancholic tango”, cigarette smoke caressing his weathered face, gazing into the distant, holding on to his stoic ideals, abandoned by the passage of time, exiled without a homeland to return to. Cheuk tells me to pull wide so I become a human-dolly and back-step my way across the cobbled-stone street.

It was a perfect closing shot. As Chiang’s taxi disappeared into the misty night down the glistening cobblestone streets, I’m once again overcome with that familiar but inexplainable melancholic sadness of leaving another uncle behind… uncles that I’ve only spent a few days with… but those few days felt like a precious lifetime.