There’s a veneer of antiquity over the small mining town that makes me doubt it runs on our time, if it runs on time at all. The buildings, the surfaces and the very air have the faded quality of an old manuscript unearthed in a dusty archive. This sepia-toned ambience is thickest in the mess room, where the old men gather every dawn like clockwork. This has been their practice for close to 40 years now since they were swarthy young miners rising before dawn for breakfast. Those days are long over, but I can see it wouldn’t be prudent to suggest as much. While the men appear at ease at first glance, there is a tautness to their bearing, a rapt anticipation for some signal unbeknownst to me.
Then the old church bells peal their haunting notes to the morning, a sure sign that the day has begun. The men look up from their bowls of noodles or the papers, wearing identical looks of reverence. Cheong, a man well in the grip of dementia, rises and bellows in Cantonese, “Let’s go, boys. Time for the mines!” Two of his compatriots stand up and place their hands on his shoulders. At their touch, the light that burned bright in his eyes extinguishes when he remembers. They lovingly guide him back to his seat, handling him not with the condescension you would a confused invalid, but with the respect due to a man experiencing a brush with the divine.