Today I’m very excited to be posting a guest-blog by the immensely talented Nike Sulway. Nike is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. The award, founded in 1991 by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, is an annual award for a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. She blogs at Perilous Adventures.
I’ve been a fan of Nike’s work long before I had the pleasure of getting to know her. Her writing is evocative and poetic, beautiful on a sentence-to-sentence level, thoughtful and immersive. I’d highly recommend checking out her award winning novel Rupetta, which is heartbreakingly beautiful, and then working your way backwards through the rest of her work. You can find Nike’s publications here.
This morning, someone played Rod Stewart’s cover of ‘I am sailing’ and I found myself, like the kind of idiot you can only be in the safety of your home, enthusiastically singing along. I could smell the ocean, and feel the sunburn of that summer when my family cruised the Pacific Ocean aboard the Ming Hua.
As we sailed out of Sydney Harbour, Rod sang his heartfelt farewell. The paper ribbons we were holding snapped and fluttered in our hands. At every port we visited, Rod’s voice would croon over the loudspeakers: arriving and departing. For years afterwards, particularly in summer, my parents would put Rod on the turntable to bring back that time.
I was young enough that I had never been kissed by anyone other than my relatives. My mother still bought all my underwear, and I found the advice about sex and sexuality in Dolly magazine shocking enough not to be able to discuss it with anyone. I had breasts. Well, I had small, tender nubbins that made the amount of coverage provided by my crocheted bikini-top of enormous conern. I was at that awkward age: no longer a child (I though), but certainly not a teenager or–heaven forbid–an adult.
The SS Ming Hua bore only a passing resemblance to the Love Boat I had imagined I would be boarding. I was disappointed not to meet the inspiringly glamorous Julie McCoy (cruise director), or captain’s daughter, Vicki Stubing (with whom I was sure I would have been fast friends).
Instead, the crew were all of Chinese or South-East Asian heritage. Their English was thickly accented: disarmingly exotic. There were mah-jong classes to attend, and dumplings for breakfast. Much of the signage on the ship was in Chinese characters, with awkward English translations underneath.
I don’t remember much about the ports we visited (Vila, Suva, Vanuatu …); for me, the focus of the holiday was our shipboard adventures. My two younger sisters (and our smuggled-aboard niece) shared a cabin: our parents’ cabin was somewhere nearby, but we saw them only intermittently.
My mother suffered terribly with sea-sickness. I remember her mostly being pale and fragile. She drank coffee and lay on a sun-lounge on the Promenade Deck with a wet flannel over her face. Or lay in her darkened cabin, as she did sometimes when the migraines overcame her at home.
We children were left to our own devices. We flocked together with the other children on-board, roaming freely around the ship. There was a cinema on-board, with films screened regardless of who attended. I first saw Alien aboard the Ming Hua, with Chinese sub-titles. In the afternoons, we gathered in the ‘disco’ to dance to the latest tunes mixed with contemporary Chinese music, and to play games on the cocktail table Video Game console. The boys dominated play, but us girls had a good go. By the end of our cruise I was the Frogger champion.
We ate and drank like princes and princesses. There was a bar where we could fill up on strangely-sweet nuts, and lemonade. And instant coffee machines that spat our hot chocolates made with powdered milk.
One night, there were horse races in the bar. Small, woven horses with brightly-coloured manes were set up at the starting line and my parents, along with others, rolled dice to ensure their mounts charged forward to the finish line.
At one port, a bevy of beautiful women came aboard. Petite, white-toothed, big-haired, they put on a show while we floated at the pier. Singing and dancing. Only after they had disembarked did I learn (from who?) that they were transvestites.
There are very few photographs of our trip. My mother, perhaps unsettled by sea-sickness, reached the end of her roll of film. As we sailed from port to port, she kept holding up her camera, telling us to smile, clicking and then winding on the film. But there was no film. There were no more photographs. Instead, we have Rod Stewart, crooning us back in time.
*The SS Ming Hua last set sail from Sydney Harbour in May, 1983. She has since become a land-locked hotel, shopping centre and ‘entertainment venue’ at Shekou Sea World, in China’s Quangdong province.