The Smell of Memory

smell of camphor
Nabu’s napkin. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Last month, when I was home in Los Angeles, my mother gave me a set of place mats and napkins. She thought she had bought them, though she couldn’t remember when. I thought they would look nice with my table runner. So I took the set home, washed them and laid them out for ironing. As the hot steam hit the fabric, I suddenly caught a whiff of memory.

We humans are gifted with five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Visual cues come in the form of flashing lights or moving arrows. For sound, think of sirens, a knock on the door or the ping of your phone. To the four categories of taste – sweet, sour, bitter, and salty – foodies add a fifth category of umami. And then there is the sense of smell.

Noses are the unsung feature of the face, sunscreened or surgically fixed, but rarely exalted. And the sense they enable, smelling, is likewise uncelebrated. Regularly voted the “sense I’d be most willing to lose”

Alexandra Horowitz, “Learn To Sniff Like A Dog And Experience The World In A New Way”, NPR, 8 Jun 2017 (accessed 19 Mar 2019)

And yet. Smell is one of our strongest memory receptors. To recognize a smell is to revisit the past in all its sensory glory.

The scent of cedar mixed with tobacco that floods me with memories of my father’s desk; a whiff of pencil shavings, zipping me back to learning cursive in my third grade classroom.


The smell I recognized when my iron hit those napkins was camphor. That was when I knew this table linen didn’t come from a store. It had once belonged to Nabu, my maternal grandmother, a long time ago.


Camphor had many uses in the ancient world. In Europe, it was an ingredient in sweets. In the Arabic world, it was included in perfume. The Egyptians used it to embalm.

Camphor can be derived from the camphor laurel, the kapur tree or a chemistry lab. In Asia, you can burn camphor incense to ward away mosquitoes. My Nabu used camphor as an alternative to mothballs. She had a large wooden chest that she used to store her best clothing. Whenever she opened that chest, the smell of camphor would fill the room.

camphor smell
Campho-Phenique. Image source:

To be honest, I don’t have fond memories of camphor. I associate it with the medicinal product Campho-Phenique. Apparently it’s good for cold sores but I don’t remember having those. I had eczema, heat rashes, hives, intense reactions to insect bites. For most of my childhood, I was a blistering mess. And so I will forever associate the smell of camphor with itching.


smell of formaldehyde
Exhibition The Moon Was Down: 1942-1945. Image source: National Steinbeck Center

About five years ago, a member of my critique group was working on a collection of short stories inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down. This writer was collecting the novel’s many translations and adaptations that had appeared during World War II. One of those editions was a Chinese translation.

Our critique group member was eager to show it off. As soon as the plastic wrapping was opened, the book released a strong medicinal smell. And that smell, in turn, reminded me vividly of my paternal grandfather.

In China, paper smells of chemicals. From time immemorial

paper was dyed and treated with chemicals to prevent deterioration and to protect from insects, mostly bookworms. Dyeing the paper yellow with liquid from the seeds of the Amur cork tree protected the paper from insects as the seeds have a toxic quality.

Candace Ming, “Written on Bamboo and Silk: Chinese Preservation Techniques”, NYU student work, 1 Dec 2009 (accessed 18 Mar 2019)

Today, formaldehyde is a chemical commonly found in Chinese books. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Apparently, too much formaldehyde can kill you.

Whatever that chemical was coming off my friend’s Chinese book, I associated it immediately with my grandfather. Maybe I was remembering his book collection, his home or perhaps the way his clothes would have smelled to a child. The odd thing is that I’m not sure I ever visited my grandparents when they lived in San Francisco. In fact, I have no active memory at all of my grandfather other than this pungent scent.

Asphalt and Bricks

smell of asphalt
Waigong at Taroko Gorge, date unknown. From his own photos.

The first and only time I visited my maternal grandfather was the summer of 1969 in Taipei. I remember the disgusting little bottles of goat milk my mother made us drink. The watermelon we ate every night for dessert, spitting our seeds all over the room. And, of course, the knife-throwing incident.

My brothers and I took Chinese lessons that summer, though they don’t appear to have stuck. My youngest brother got sick and went home to Los Angeles. That left me and my other brother, Mike. We would stand on top of the toilet seat and yell out the only Chinese phrase I still know today: big disgusting pig, how are you? (tǎoyàn dà zhū nĭ hǎo ma) ( 讨厌 大猪你好吗)

Aside from this mild form of juvenile delinquency, it’s the rain I remember. Sudden violent bursts pooling in the streets. The machine-gun rattle battering the trees. Then, as quickly as it had started, the rain would end, the sun would come out, and the streets would steam. To me, Taipei will always be the smell of hot asphalt drenched by a summer storm.

All of these memories are good ones to me. But you don’t always get to choose which memory gets attached to which smell. My mother-in-law used to hate the smell of pulverized bricks. To her, it was the smell of war, aerial strikes, and bomb shelters.

Every one of the memories I’ve just shared belongs to the dead.

Cigars and Cigarettes

But there are also memories of smells that attach to the living, even if the occasions they recall may belong to the far past. When I was a kid, both my parents smoked. Usually cigarettes, some of which I cadged and smoked in the backyard as any teenager would. But my father would occasionally smoke a cigar as well. I used to stand inside our hallway closet to breathe in the scent. Fifty odd years later and slightly tweaked, that childhood memory makes its way into my short story.

While you slept, Ma talked of her courting days. The flowers and the dances and the moonlight drives. When she slept, too, I’d stand in her closet and let her dresses brush my cheek. Breathe in the dust.

Karen Kao, “Frogs” in Nunum, Issue 3, 3 Sept 2018

Every now and again, I need to dive into my old lady lawyer files. And when I do, the smell of cigarettes rises from the pages. It reminds me of my chain-smoking, coke-drinking, adrenaline-rush days. I was skinnier back then but far from happy.

I prefer the smell of chestnut trees in blossom to remind me of the Paris Writers Workshop. The way my vegetable garden smells after a spring rain. The smell of new ink seeping from the pages of my towering books-to-read. It’s an intoxicating scent to me. A reminder of past books and a promise of more to come.