Shing Mun reservoir, from the top of Needle Hill
Shing Mun reservoir, from the top of Needle Hill
This next story was published back in 2014, my first to feature in a Hong Kong Writers Circle anthology. The title of this collection was ‘Another Hong Kong’… In this collection, the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s authors and poets show us Another Hong Kong. This is not the city we think we know. By posing questions that defy easy answers and convenient cliches, these writers show us the Hong Kong of the past, the present and the future, as lived through the lives of others…
My story featured in Part One of the book: Future Calling, and is set in a post-apocalyptic vision of Hong Kong. I may be in the far-off future, but history it seems just can’t help but repeat…
Ten-Moons Over Sea View
Ten-moons-eve, the final day of the 3400th ten-moon…
There’s an island. A stretched, chunky island with craggy hills in the middle. It’s one of many islands: big, small, curved, and sharp, all clustered off the coast of main-land. Before the end of the world these floating rocks were a place of great significance. But now they’re nothing. In crumbling towers, people live. They count time by the cycles of the moon, celebrating every tenth cycle: ten-moons-eve…
Leader stares out from atop Tower 1. Through dusty morning haze lies a flat slab of land, directly contrasting the peaks that rise behind. Upon it sit enormous, crumbling, bird-like structures beside huge, caved-in buildings. It has been many moons since a regular watch was held here, yet Leader still casts an eye over the land from time to time.
He’s never trusted these birds. Time has proven them unthreatening, yet they may still contain dormant powers. The old man climbs up to watch them when his mind weighs heavy. Who built these monuments? When? What do they signify? Legends have spread over many moons. They are the idols of a people who worshiped birds. They are flying machines that carried many yan. Who knows?
“Not I, Sir.” Startled, Leader realises that he has been speaking out loud.
Unlike the old man, who inhales deeply and strides around the platform, cloak billowing from side to side, the boy stands immobile. The only movement is from his tunic, flicking around bare knees.
“Everything is unknown; until we learn it.” Leader smiles indulgently. “In times gone by these rotting birds were my greatest worry. Now they appear as old friends.”
The boy is nervous. Leader very rarely speaks to waterboys, other than to make a request. “This past moon my fears lie elsewhere.” Leader sweeps his arm out upon the calm water, beyond the crumbling birds, pointing at what seems to the boy a huge, floating city. “And what they want.”
On the eve of the ninth moon they arrived, rocking gently on the waves in their white, gleaming ship. Rumours dashed around Sea View and inhabitants actually began peering outside. To do that showed the fear that gripped them. Eventually, a pack of men left the ship, floated towards land, and approached Tower 1. What men! Tall, shiny and black-skinned. Dressed in outlandish garments. The vivid colours, the glossy materials – Leader had shriveled inside as he approached them in his dull, worn cloak.
“They could speak our tongue, or a version of it.” He continues to his waterboy. “How is that possible? They want something we have. Do you know what?”
The boy is silent.
Leader continues in a bare whisper. “Our scrap-trash!”
The boy knows of the scrap-trash, stored deep inside Tower 2. No one goes in, through fear rather than any rule, but the few who have speak of it in hushed tones.
“Their chief held a piece in his hand. I denied having any. He laughed. They know we have it. But how? So many questions…” Leader pauses. “What do the ordinary yan make of this floating city?”
Hesitantly, the boy answers. “Most are scared, Sir. When it arrived my mother pulled the boards from our box opening to look outside. I can’t remember her doing that before. Never. She thinks it looks ill for the coming ten-moon.“
Leader is silent for a spell. He stretches as if just waking. “I shall make an announcement at tonight’s festivities. There is nothing to fear. We should enjoy ten-moons-eve with light hearts.” He places a hand on the waterboy’s shoulder. “What age are you?”
“This will be my fifteenth ten-moons-eve, Sir.”
“Then tomorrow you will…”
“…become a getter, Sir.” His chest swells.
“Tonight is a great night then. You become a man. Are you nervous?”
If only he could swap places with this young boy, Leader thought, on the edge of manhood with shoulders free of burden. Yet this ten-moon promises a test like no other. A getter slain on a neighbouring island; retributions required. A whole pack dead from heat-sicks following an expedition. The way their skin was peeling off… People are rightly scared. And now this.”
A cough. Turning abruptly, Leader realises that A-Yin, his assistant, has emerged on the roof.
“Leader, if I may, the dark-yan are expected this very moment.”
“Yes, sir.” A-Yin’s smile is not a warm one. “You requested that they arrive early, as you have the preparations…”
“I remember! Am I that old and loose-minded?”
Yin’s only response is a groveling bow. The boy shifts uncomfortably, seeing things he shouldn’t.
“Some time yet!” continues Leader. “They want an audience? They must wait for me to grant it.”
“Undoubtedly, Sir. Have you made a decision on the…?”
Leader interrupts with a violent stare. Yin shuffles slowly back, not turning around until he reaches the door. Silence resumes. The morning air is growing thick and warm.
The boy, boosted from having been taken in to Leader’s confidence, ventures a question.
“Sir, if I may, what will these dark-yan give us in exchange for scrap-trash?”
Leader hesitates, then delves into deep pockets. He produces two brown cubes, and offers one to his companion. Hesitating, the waterboy notices that it has stained the older man’s palm.
“Dark sweetness, they call it. It’s foodstuff. I’ve put off tasting it but I must, before I meet them again. Let us try together.”
Simultaneously they place the small, soft cubes in their mouths, and dark sweetness melts into their veins.
Sister is crying and ma is boiling and granpappy is smoking up the room. I gotta get out.
Making for the door, ma shouts me: “Where you goin’, Ting-Yat? Hey!”
“Needa see Kai-Saam.”
“No trouble, or pappy’s goin’ be mad.”
“And don’ go outside…”
Ma’s voice fades round the door. I in’t goin’ see Kai-Saam since he took my best throwin’ stick and I hate him. But I jus’ needs to get out the room. Ten-moons-eve’s always same: too many people hangin’ round an’ ma boilin’ all sorts foods that we can’t finish. T’night should be wow though – everyone gets outside (outside!) o’ T1 and there’s singin’ and dancin’ and eatin’ and Leader gives a speech. I jump down steps four a time. Don’t know where I’m goin’ but sometimes I jus’ like to run around. Along each lev’l I run past people sittin’, people chattin’, old folks fixin’ clothes, open doors with ma’s cookin’ or shoutin’, babes cryin’ and old granpappy’s sitting close-eyed smokin’. Jus’ like our rooms. All folks are the same. My rooms are on lev’l two one of T2 and for the next seven lev’l it’s all rooms and folks. Some floors’re cleaner than others, dependin’ who lives there I ‘spose, some have clothes strung up, some have colour hangings, but all’re dark ‘n’ dinge. I argue with Ma: “Getters can go out okay. So we can take off our cov’rs and get some light!” But she never liss’ns. Lev’l one three is for foods. Getters must have jus’ come in since there’s chopping and calling and some an’mals noisin’ and lots of folks. Soon I’m stuck behind some wantin’ to buy a monkey, which is good to eat on ten-moons-eve. I don’t wanna be stuck here cos I hate seein’ monkeys gettin’ chopped up so I try t’ push past. Old folks around me are chattin’ on the big dark folks who’ve turned up at T1 this past moon. They’re hopin’ Leader will tell whats happ’nin’ tonight, but they think it means trouble. My fav’rite shop sells the fish. I like it when they’re ’bout to get cut up and they fight and jump out the folk’s hands. Blood ‘n’ water meet an’ mix on the floor. An old granmammy’s peelin’ a big red ‘un, and I think she can’t see a crab that’s makin’ over the side of his tub. ‘Come on,’ I’m thinkin’ to the crab but granmammy gives a ‘Waiya!’ and bats it back in. I’m lyin’. My real fav’rite shop’s old Hei-Sei’s that sells sweet-stuffs.
“Ho, if it ain’t young Ting-Yat. Happy ten-moons-eve! T’day’s big day for you, no? How old?”
His hands are scary old and stretched when he gives me a bag. “Twelve eves.”
“You don’ look like it’s a big day! Many’d say havin’ been born on ten-moons-eve’s were an auspic’us thing!”
I dunno what that means, but if it means no folk pay you any attenshun cos more import’nt stuff’s goin’ on, he’s right.
I’m on lev’l one two ‘fore I know it. Ooops. Sick folks. I can’t turn back cos a bone-thin ma’s seen me and smiled. I keep my head lookin’ down and walk fast. Smells like ol’ foods. Someone’s cryin’. I walk a lil’ faster. I don’t wanna look but I know I will. I do. An old, old granpappy whose face is fallin’ into his mouth. Jus’ starin’. Lev’l one one. Scrap-trash. I shouldn’t come here, but I do som’times. Mountains and hills of stuff. Some shiny, some dull. Some square, some flat. Some tiny, some giant. Lots have li’l squares with funny writin’ on ‘em. Inb’tween the stuff there’s millins of little snakes (but not really) that’re red, blue, yellow, green, white and black, curlin’ and tanglin’ up. No folks know what it is. That amazin’? I know it’s real old, but also seems real from the future, too. I just stand and look. Some’re big black squares, and if you go up close you c’n see your face starin’ back. After watchin’ the scrap-trash, I decide to go outside. I do sometimes but don’ tell ma. I dance down the back steps. Checkin’ no folks’re there, I push the door. It’s dark ‘n’ waa, the air’s fresh. You don’ realise how bad the smells’re in T2 ’til you get outside. I suck Hei-Sei’s sweets. I see T3, tall and dark but lil’ bits of light are sneakin’ out. Behin’ it mountains and hills and then black, black nothin’. ‘Bove me I hear a noise, then see a shape, wings flappin’ then SCREAM! What’s that!? I dash back in t’ safe safe T2, sweatin’ an’ shakin’.
Ten-moons-eve, the final day of the 3405th ten-moon…
Deep inside the belly of T1, a mad dash of preparation is underway for the night’s celebrations. Waterboys scurry, hoisting rolls of fabric, women yell across the hall while wiping their hands on sauce-stained jerkins, and cage upon cage of monkeys chatter obliviously…
Separated from the hall by a single wall, yet a world away from the human maelstrom, is Leader’s chamber. Charts and documents cover the floor by the chair, yet his attention is elsewhere. A wah-wah scuttles across the wall, darting forward quickly yet stopping ever so precisely. Its tongue flicks out and catches an insect. It disappears between cracks in the wall. Outside. Just like that.
Reaching for the stick that has become his constant companion this past ten-moon, rays of pain shoot up from swollen ankles. Reaching for the covering, he slowly draws it back. He hears his mother crowing: “Stare too long and y’r eyes’ll melt!” Yet he climbs to the roof several times each moon and feels no guilt. The mind is strange. Some days Leader wants to announce: “People! Go outside! Don’t be afraid. It’s safe!” Other days, though, he’s thankful that the people of Sea View are afraid.
Beyond the tower the sky is bright yet hazy. It’s still too early to tell if tonight they will see the moon. The dark-yans’ craft cannot be seen from this angle. He can almost still remember a simpler time, before they arrived. Time hangs like a heavy shawl.
A cough. A-Yin has entered silently. As Leader maneuvers slowly around his assistant stares at the floor.
“Sir, I have brought the man and his sons. Those caught with…” Some words don’t need to be said.
“Bring them in.”
A-Yin turns, then pauses. “Sir, as inappropriate as my opinion may be at this time, since it is ten-moons-eve, perhaps a lighter punishment…”
Leader raises a hand. “You are right. Your opinion is inappropriate. Bring them in.”
The man is disheveled and stained. There is genuine fear in his eyes. His elder son has been crying. The younger one appears more uncertain than afraid. Leader can tell from their faces that they are of the same family.
“Twenty blocks of dark sweetness.” Leader’s voice is suddenly stern and bold. “Is enough to warrant death.” The father flinches. “What justification do you offer?”
A well-rehearsed plea floods out. “I…I… didn’ know what it was, really. I jus’ picked it up off the groun’”
“I’ve heard that excuse so often, I’m beginning to believe that Sea View must be paved with it.”
The older boy starts sobbing again.
“My assistant argues your case. It’s a happy day. I should be lenient.”
The man looks up, vague hope dancing in his eyes.
“But today I’m not disposed towards leniency. Your youngest son will return to your compartment. He is banned from serving as a getter when he comes of age. Your elder son, who I hear was due to pass through as a getter tonight, will instead remain imprisoned for five ten-moons-eves. You, sir, are imprisoned indefinitely. I will consider it further but am inclined to use you as an example. Leave.”
A-Yin jumps and ushers the now broken man and his sons from the room. Leader catches an apologetic glance between his assistant and the culprit. He is even more determined to use this man as an example. But not tonight. The two men are left alone.
Thoughts, and potential arguments, collide in Leader’s mind. The notion of retreading the same ground, yet again, forces him to sit down.
“Sir, we need to discuss the dark-yans’ role tonight.”
Surprised by A-Yin’s sudden change in subject, he hesitates. “What role?”
“We decided, Sir…”
“We decided, Sir, that as a gesture of appreciation, for following the terms of the first treaty, a select group would join us.”
He can remember a time when he and A-Yin would have been amidst all the preparations, working in tandem, reveling in the anticipation. Many moons ago, now.
“I wonder, Yin, that you refer to it as the ‘first treaty’, as if expecting a second.”
The assistant’s face molds into a bland expression, designed to give nothing away yet revealing all.
“This is what I want. The chief, Goul, and the two directly below him will attend the feast. They will not sit in our circle, but I will afford them a status equal to the tower-yan. Sit them there, one in each circle. No mention of them will be made in my address. Present them with gifts appropriate to their status.” Leader enjoys the flash of anger that fills A-Yin’s eyes. His assistant bows and retires.
“And, Yin, I feel that, after all, I am rather less disposed to make an example of our new prisoners.”
Another low bow and A-Yin is gone.
Spread out on the floor lies a sheet of paper. Older than time and almost worn away. Leader crouches tenderly and places both palms on it. Only he and his predecessors have studied this paper. Only they know that it’s a map of this very land. A decision was taken, a long time ago, to suppress it, as it might have encouraged people to venture outside. Every leader uses it once, at the very start of their time, to undertake the journey. High upon the mountains behind Sea View and the other crumbling ruins stands an unearthly bronze statue of a seated man. Leader can still recall his own visit so very clearly.
A bitter morning. Shivering through cold and the fear of being outside. Atop a rough flight of steps. The statue’s back has completely fallen away. The features almost eroded smooth. Yet the power that seems to flow from that raised hand. It soothes Leader, even now. He wonders if the makers of this map, all those heats and moons in the past, felt the same when they saw this man. He wonders if they lived an easier life than him; or if all lives are trials that we are doomed to fail. Did they live under the same moon that he now, for the first time in days, can see from his window?
“Boys, I look at you lined up here now and I feel pride.” Lung-Yat does his us’l pause for effect. “And I feel safe. Safe knowin’ that you are the future of Sea View 1, 2, and 3. Our newest generation of getters.”
I glance down the line and see thirty seven boys, at least half I’ve known since we was babes. I truly do feel kinda sad.
“Ten-moons-eves are mem’rable for all us folks; but you boys will never forget this ‘un. Trust me. Don’t worry ’bout the next part, it comes natural. And later, in front of all the folks, your mas and paps, Leader hisself, stand up tall and chest out.”
Aiya, I even feel sad lookin’ at Lung-Yat, thinkin’ of the way he’s trained us all this past ten-moon, even though he is an angry ol’ crutchjabber.
“Bein’ a getter these days is even more important than back when I was your age. Diff’rent times. More worries.”
He don’t needa say much more – we all c’n tell he’s talkin’ ‘bout the dark-yan.
“But I’ve seen enough in your training t’ be able t’ rest easy knowin’ that you’ll do your best for Sea View. You will.”
“Boys… and this is the last time I’ll be able t’ say that cos you’ll be men soon enough… Boys, walk on!”
Kai-Saam turns and winks at me. He’s been windin’ me for weeks. “Not long now, Ting-Yat, and your two bigges’ scares come to meet you. Goin’ outside and touchin’ a girl.”
“Least I ain’t been practisin’ on my ma.”
Jab him, though, he’s kinda right. I never been with a girl, though lots of these boys prob’ly have, and I ain’t been out since that night I got frighted by the bird five eves ago. First I was scared o’ gettin’ another beatin’ off pappy so didn’t dare; but when that wore off I found I was still scared, for diff’rent reasons. Practice in the yard with Lung-Yat was okay. Goin’ to main-land as a getter…
“I know it, I do. Chan-Yi is lyin’ waitin’ for me.” That’s Wing-Saam behind me. All boys have pretend chosen what girl they want behind the curt’n, and ‘least half want Chan-Yi.
“Nah,” says Kai-Saam, “Big Sing-Yat is waitin’, dentin’ her bed, callin’ ‘Wing, Wing, I’ll make you a man!'” Sing-Yat’s a girl from T3 with face like a pig’s pack-pack. All pappys wanna put their girls up for tonight, it’s real auspic’us and after it they’re ready t’ marry an all, but even Sing-Yat’s pappy won’ have the sauce to volunteer her.
“I jus’ feel sorry for Ting, here, cos there definit’ won’t be a boy waitin’ for him behind the curt’n.” Wing-Saam gets my elbow in his tum, as Kai-Saam laughs. Lung-Yat frowns as we pass him. His frown makes me realise I’m no kid no more. Not soon as I step through the curt’n.
I think ’bout bein’ a getter. It’s a dangerous job: neighb’rin folks attackin’, places with heat-sicks, snakes bitin’ in the long grass… Outside’s tough. Tougher these moons with the black-yan around, tryin’ to work a deal to set up perm’nent and get the scrap-trash. Some days it’s friendly ‘nough; others seems like fightin’ ain’t far off. Yet, all boys wanna be getters, if they can. Only boy I know who ain’t this year is on lev’l two six. He’s always c’llapsin’ and shakin’. His pa’s right angered recently. I think ’bout ma cryin’ earlier, and how she’ll be cryin’ at the cer’mony later. She’s proud, but right scared.
I realize somethin’. “Kai-Saam. You seen Lee-Sei? He ain’t in line.”
Lee-Sei should’ve been passin’ through with us tonight. Kai-Saam lowers his voice. “No, but I heard, secret like, that he’d been caught with… with dark sweetness.”
I shiver. Sur’ly not! Getting’ caught with that gets you a whippin’. More if you got ‘nough in your pock’t.
Kai-Saam’s next through the curt’n. I’m surprised when he goes cos he don’t turn round or make a silly face or nothin’.
All those problems lie waitin’. Now, though, I gotta be with a girl. All getters gotta do this or… I wanna, course, but I got no clue. Folks say stuff, but you dunno if it’s just talk or real ‘sperience. My chest feels tight but tingly, like nervous and ‘cited are fightin’ each other in there. The dusty curtain opens.
It’s dark, but there’re soft lights all down the line. I realise they’re lil’ rooms. Summun’s beside me, though I can’t really see, and I remem’er I gotta take off my tunic. Now’m naked. A strong hand on my back pushes me down the line. Most rooms have drawn curt’ns, but I hear noises like when folks’ve just woke up. The room next t’ mine hasn’t shut their curt’n. I look in and can’t straight work out what I’m seein’: legs, arms… Then I realise it’s Kai-Saam, and his white pack-pack’s goin’ up and down right speedy and I’m glad cos now I know what I need t’ do.
Ten-moons Eve, the final day of the 3410th ten-moon…
For the first time that even the oldest yan can remember, the ten-moons-eve celebrations are cancelled. Instead, in front of Tower 1, gather an army of dark-yan and defected getters. When the dark-yan were refused, for a third and final time, floors on T1 from which to trade in dark-sweetness they invaded. They met with little resistance.
The air is thick and sweet. Leader wonders, from atop Tower 3, was it always this sweet? Or is he noticing new sensations? Noticing too late, just moments before the end, is that what happens.
Death is not discussed in Sea View. It happens, the body is removed by getters and burnt in a pit. Yet death is always there. Leader realises that death has always been there, lurking behind all he has done, just waiting for this moment.
Looking out over the receding day, over Tower 1 and Tower 2, out to the sea, pink and orange from the dying sun, Leader recalls the first ten-moons-eve after the invaders arrived. That gleaming white city on the waves has since been joined by two more. The flat slab of land is now dark-yan territory, granted to them in a second treaty thirty moons ago. They cleared, casually, the rusting birds that had been so feared, almost revered, by Sea View for so long. From that day onwards the dark-yan changed in Leader’s mind – like a cloud passing over the sun. He began to truly fear them.
The invaders did not just bring dark sweetness. As soon as they had land, they began to impart ‘knowledge’. Leader avoided the dark-yan when he could, but A-Yin would keep him informed in his fevered, reverential tones. He now ‘knows’ about people in the past. He knows that Sea View was part of a very important settlement, once. A place that grew out of nothing in a matter of moons. The dark-yan use words that he cannot comprehend: world, city, year, port, china are a few he can remember. Not that he wants to comprehend them. They laughed when they discovered that Sea View folk don’t go outside, and cover the openings in their rooms. They say they understand, although it’s useless, and that it all comes from the endday, when a terrible wind tore across the land. This is the cause of heat-sicks, and is the reason why, if you go far enough into main-land, you’ll find empty, crumbling towers, ten times taller than Sea View 123. Many of the people here enjoyed discovering these facts. Leader didn’t. He didn’t enjoy discovering that the land and life he thought he knew, and had a responsibility to protect; he didn’t know at all.
The sun has nearly gone. The moon must be somewhere, but Leader can’t find it. The remaining, loyal getters are gathered behind him. Is it right that he should lead them to their deaths? Should they not have a chance at the new life? He counts fifty or so. Below, in T3, several hundred yan, who too prefer the old ways of ignorance and peace, prepare for a final stand.
Leader hobbles painfully towards them and picks out the tallest, proudest getter in the front row. That he should die tonight is a tragedy.
“What’s your name, my son?”
“And for how long have you served me?”
“Tonight marks my fifth ten-moons-eve as a getter.”
Leader meets the young man’s eye square on; in a manner he cannot remember doing for some time. “And do you regret that time?”
Leader needs no more than that. He rests a thankful hand on the getter’s broad shoulders. He steps back to address the whole troop.
I jus’ can’t describe it any better. I ain’t never seen nothin’ so inspirin’ as how Leader was jus’ now. I’m convinced, totally an’ truly, that some men are born ‘bove others. I’m ready to die for him. I am.
He’s talkin’. Thankin’ us for our loyalty. For standin’ by him. But I’m not really listenin’. I don’t have to. I’m already convinced.
Instead, I look beyond Leader, in to the darkening night. No matter I’ve done fifty moons as a getter, it still don’t feel right, deep down, to be outside. Ma could never quite ‘cept it an’ I think it was the worries ‘bout me that killed her in the end. I never watched the sun goin’ down before. It’s strange ‘cos you know it’s sinkin’ but you can’t quite see it move. Like what’s happened here at Sea View. Thinkin’ back a hundred moons ago, to now, it’s all change. But if you tried to watch it change, day by day, moon by moon, heat by heat, it’d be real tricky.
I’ve seen a lot in my fifty moons as a getter. Some good. A lot bad. Then there’s tonight. Leader’s stopped speakin’. The loudest silence I ever heard buzzes roun’ us. We’re gonna head down through T3 and meet the dark-yan and the traitors out front of T1.
It’s comin’ from under. Then another. And more and more. Sudden like there’s a battle ‘neath our feet. Dirty, cheatin’, low-down scummers have sprang on us. No surprise. Folks in T3 will be no match for ‘em. The noises are getting closer. Screams and clang and bang. I look at Leader and see his face change, just for a second, into somethin’ like what ma used to pull before I went on getter duty. Then he stiffens, straightens, and moves towards the door.
‘Fore we know, it bursts open and dark-yan spill out yellin’ and swingin’ swords. Leader’s disappeared under them. I know I’ll only get one chance to make a hit. I gotta pick it wise. It’s dull an’ dinge, but I jus’ make out, skullin’ in the backgroun’, the dirtiest, son-of-the-shithouse traitor, A-Yin, and I throw back my spear-arm and I yell like I wanna use up all my shouts and I…
This is a slightly edited version of the story that first appeared in ‘Another Hong Kong’. You can find the original anthology, and all other HKWC anthologies in physical and Kindle format, here.
The latest Hong Kong Writers’ Circle anthology, ‘Hong Kong Highs and Lows’ is out now at Bookazine and through our website at hkwriterscircle.com. It’ll soon be up on Amazon and the Kindle Store.
It’s the fourth anthology that I’ve contributed towards since moving to Hong Kong almost seven years ago. And since I’ve struggled for blogging inspiration recently, I thought I’d share some of these short stories that I’ve written during my time here. All set in this city; all inspired by the bustle of her streets and the honk of her horns.
Starting with my story from the anthology above, released just last week…
A village. Wesley was feeling inspired today. A village! His pen scratched across the opening page of a tatty old notebook.
Hong Kong is a village. You hear about kids that grew up in tiny little places with one street and a few hundred people and one bar – like how my dad always goes on about his butt-hole hometown in Arizona – and how they dreamt of living in the big city. In a city as big, vibrant, whatever, as Hong Kong, Pearl of the Orient, where you can be one of seven million and nobody knows who you are. Well, Hong Kong might look big and busy but that’s just a front. It’s a village.
Behind him the cafe was getting busier, new voices adding to the hubbub minute by minute. Most were indeterminate; two weren’t. They were speaking English, which always stood out more to Wesley’s ears than Cantonese.
‘So it’s Cecelia you’ve got?’ A man’s voice, deep and full of itself. Wesley clicked his pen shut.
‘Um, yeah.’ A woman’s voice, young and timid. ‘Why’re you looking like that?’
‘Nah, it’s just – she’s got a bit of a reputation.’
‘A bad one?’
‘Look, some people really like her…’
‘… but some people think you’re difficult to work with.’
Cecelia sniffed and pulled the bed sheet up over her breasts. ‘How do you know they were talking about me?’
Wesley shrugged and turned to lie on his back. ‘She looked like a student. I’m sure they mentioned Chinese Literature.’
Cecelia turned her head on the pillow and raised an eyebrow. ‘And somehow you knew it was me they were talking about.’
‘How many Chinese Lit professors are called Cecelia? And it was, like, spooky because I had just been writing about how Hong Kong is actually a village. You know? Like it’s a huge city; but it’s also a village where everybody knows everybody else.’
Cecelia laughed and reached for her glass of water. Wesley reached for his phone which had slipped in between the bedside clock and a pile of books. Books about business, management, and one about some invasion in Normandy. One WhatsApp, from Jasmine. He’d reply in a day or two.
‘I would rather be first in a small village than second in command in Rome.’ Cecelia was gazing at the ceiling. Lying together in the gloom, their breathing back to normal now, Wesley looked around the bedroom and counted how many items he could identify before finding one that belonged to Cecelia’s husband. Mirror, wardrobe, man-size dressing gown… Books, jewellery holder like a disembodied head in the darkness, stack of weights in the corner… Should it make him feel bad, he wondered, seeing these reminders of him?
‘So are you?’ he asked, reaching over to lay a hand on Cecelia’s stomach. She lifted it away, gently but firmly.
‘Am I what?’
‘Difficult to work with?’
‘Only to incompetent colleagues.’ The bedside light clicked off. ‘I have to sleep. Don’t make too much noise.’
As he opened the bedroom door, Cecelia called out again.
‘Remember, Regina. Tomorrow evening. At the W. I’ll send you all the details.
The clock on the oven blinked 23:27 as Wesley felt for the switch. The lights flashed bright then settled into a mellow blue. It was pretty neat: the blue running around the surface edges made the kitchen look like the control-deck of a spacecraft. He took a bottle of beer from the fridge and walked through to the living room. The huge windows were streaked with rain, and the lights of Happy Valley below, then Causeway Bay and Kowloon in the distance, all bled into the drops. It felt like this was the highest place in Hong Kong. He looked across at the ICC tower standing proudly across the water. It was taller than Cecelia’s apartment – of course it was – but somehow he felt sure that this couldn’t be. Not tonight. Wesley wondered which raindrop on the window was covering his Jordan walk-up. He stood up against the cold glass – forehead, fingers, chest and dick. He liked to do this after leaving Cecelia’s bed. Here I am, Hong Kong. They could all see him – framed and naked in the window sixty-eight floors above their heads – and yet nobody thought to look. He realised that he was still sticky from sex. He went to the kitchen to find a towel, or a dishcloth, to wipe himself off.
Wesley was woken by the rain strafing against the windows. He was in his boxers, his back stuck to the soft-leather sofa. It was 9:33.
He loved being able to spend mornings here, alone. He used the waffle maker to make a bacon, cheese and syrup waffle that came out raw in the middle but still tasted epic. There was half a bottle of wine in the fridge too, which he finished. Cecelia wouldn’t mind: there was a full-on wine cupboard next to the fridge. A flash of lightning lit the room and a crack of thunder followed almost immediately.
He flopped back down to watch TV. Cecelia never had it on. She didn’t seem like someone who ever watched TV, or used a waffle maker, or lifted those weights in the bedroom. It was like this wasn’t really her house. All this stuff must have been her husband’s. Geoffrey. Wesley had seen his name on an old credit card in a drawer. He didn’t know what he looked like – was he Western, Chinese, or mixed like himself? His name didn’t sound Chinese; but who knew? Was he forty, fifty or sixty? Was he a banker, a pilot? Geoffrey. All Wesley knew was that he was away until October. He liked to imagine him coming back, unexpectedly, one day. The door would open and they’d stare at each other. And you are…? And they’d fight. Or maybe just laugh. Or maybe Wesley would hear him coming, hear the keys jangle in the lock, and he’d hide in the shower with the curtain pulled, like in a lame TVB drama. Wesley lay back and looked down over his chest and stomach. He was getting hard again. The downpour continued outside.
The rain had stopped by the time he stepped out of the MTR exit, but the clouds still hung low and threatening. It felt more like late evening than early afternoon. There was a smell of wet dust in the air. He pushed through the market where the awnings dripped fat drops onto his shoulders, and around dim-sum joints whose customers were starting to spill out onto the pavement. Jordan always reminded him of a visit he’d made to New York with his dad back when he was thirteen. There were all these apartments below street level, with tiny windows from which you could only have seen people’s feet as they hurried past. He remembered thinking that the people who lived in them must have been really poor, how he would have hated to live down there compared to their home in the Mid-Levels. But Jordan was just the same, really. Loads of places in Hong Kong were. Even at street level there was always something towering over you: billboards, awnings, apartment blocks, until the sky was a little strip pinched in right above your head. Wesley wondered if people ever got claustrophobic while walking the streets here. Maybe he could include a scene about that in his novel: A claustrophobic village.
As he turned the corner, he stopped to check that Cecelia’s envelope was still in his back pocket. She had left it on the kitchen counter as usual. Outside his building two figures stood framed by the building walls beside them, the overhanging signs above them and the glistening wet road below. Wesley pushed past them silently, ignoring their half-heartedly offered flyers. One of the women touched his arm as he brushed past. Leng jai, massagee? Wesley saw pink eye-shadow gathered in clumps around her eyes. He looked away, then down, and reached out for the door. There was a homeless man slumped next to the front step, a can of Blue Ice dribbling onto his trousers. The door to his block swung open – unlocked, as usual.
Wesley spent the afternoon trying to write, but ended up getting high and napping. When he woke, the sun had dipped low enough to be blocked by buildings rather than clouds. As dusk began to settle, Wesley set off along Canton Road to the Star Ferry. He no longer took the MTR if he could help it. It was stifling down there, soul-crushing to have to share the cramped carriages with all the drones.
There were thick crowds outside Gucci, Prada, Longines and the rest, each shop with lights more blinding than the last. He remembered that his father had given him a Longines watch for his eighteenth birthday, and he wondered what he had done with it. Once Island-side, he started uphill on walkways and escalators, never touching street-level until he stepped down onto on a steep, curved road. The Mid-levels. Neither the highest; nor the lowest. The height of Hong Kong’s middling middle-class.
‘You’re not eating enough,’ his mother announced as he walked in.
Wesley pulled out a stool at the table, opposite his younger brother, William, who didn’t look up from the spread of textbooks in front of him.
‘You’re thin,’ she added.
‘You saw me, like, three days ago.’
‘And you look thinner.’
Gloria, the helper, smiled to herself over some washing up. ‘Take some soup.’
‘Good idea’, agreed his mother. ‘I made it this morning.’
‘You made it?’
His mother didn’t respond. ‘Take it. Who knows what you’re eating up there in that dormitory.’
Wesley shook his head on his way over to the fridge. Her eldest son choosing to live in university dorms rather than staying at home had been his mother’s second biggest disappointment of the previous summer, after the same son had failed in getting into Hong Kong University. His father, a Cornell alumnus, had thought the dorms a great idea. He had no idea that the keg parties, the debauched fraternities and the cheerleaders, that any kind of disorganised, reckless fun, were banned from Hong Kong dorms. The only thing likely to keep you up all night were the churchy kids practising their hymns. And that was why Wesley had dropped out. One of the reasons. He wondered, as he opened a bottle of Tsing Tao, how much more pissed off his mom would be when she discovered he now lived next door to hookers in Kowloon.
‘Well,’ she continued, reaching for her tea, ‘your brother’s much more sensible. He’ll be living here next year. We’ve decided.’
William looked up from his books for the first time, smiling blankly.
‘You’ve decided?’ Wesley asked.
‘We’ve decided. Your father, brother, and I. So he can focus properly. Medicine isn’t like literature.’
Down the hallway came the sound of a toilet flushing.
‘So I’ve heard,’ said Wesley, taking a sip of beer. ‘Who else is here?’
Aunt Patricia strode into the kitchen, a Queen entering her ballroom.
‘Wesley. How are you?’
‘Don’t you think he looks thin?’ asked his mum.
‘I’ve always said he’s too thin, Jane. And what’s this?’ She was pointing at the beer bottle.
‘Beer.’ His mother again.
‘You’re too young.’
Aunt Patricia waved her hand dismissively. ‘You need to be working before you drink beer. What do you do all day?’
‘And drink beer? How do you remember anything?’
Wesley couldn’t think of a smart answer in time before his aunt called out, ‘Gloria! Get me some tea.’
Get it yourself, Wesley imagined her replying.
His mother had picked up a magazine. ‘Inside!’ The cover announced. ’10 Top Tips to Keeping a Happy House and a Happy Husband!’ He turned to his phone and started flicking through Instagram. The first post that came up was William and his girlfriend Candy – or was it Mandy? – at Disneyland. He was holding a huge bundle of stuffed toys; she had pink Minnie ears on. Wesley held the phone up.
His mother and brother looked up; his aunt’s head now buried in a newspaper.
‘Yeah,’ his bother replied. ‘Yesterday.’
‘Such a nice girl, Mandy. So polite.’ Wesley rolled his eyes. He’d been banking on his mother not knowing they’d been to Disneyland. ‘She’s going to be a vet. A vet and a doctor!’
‘Are they getting married? Congratulations!’
For the first time that afternoon his brother responded with something other than a blank smile. ‘No! We’re not!’
‘Of course not,’ his mother scoffed. ‘Not until after University.’
Wesley watched the top of his brother’s head, looking down once again at his books. William-mode. Was it pity that he felt towards his brother? He had to live here and put up with this shit all day long. Frustration? He never answered back, never challenged his mother over anything. He was such an obedient little dick. Studying medicine, going to Disneyland with Mandy, getting straight As. Wesley wanted his brother to fail his final exams this summer. Except, he didn’t. Not really. He drained his beer bottle and went to get another from the fridge. Beside him his aunt cracked the newspaper open.
‘Stupid children. Protesting again. What have they got to protest about?’ The question was to nobody in particular. ‘Finish your studies, get jobs, get married, get families. Then decide what’s worth protesting about.’ She tossed the paper to the edge of the table. Wesley closed his eyes. Not this again.
‘And what about you, Wesley? Do you have a girlfriend yet?’
Wesley turned to look at his aunt. ‘Just the one?’
It didn’t sound as funny out loud as it had done in his head. His mother sighed. ‘Wesley’s never brought a girlfriend home.’
‘Maybe girls think you drink too much.’ Aunt Patricia eyed his freshly-opened bottle as if it were about to explode. ‘They won’t want to marry a man that’s going to drink away his savings.’
‘It’s only my second.’
‘And it’s barely six o’clock.’
Wesley closed his eyes. He heard his aunt clumsily fold the newspaper back up.
‘Did I tell you, Jane? Agatha, from church, thinks her son is gay…’
Something snapped. Wesley wasn’t sure why. Why it had to happen right then. Was it the look in his aunt’s eyes as she mentioned her friend’s ‘gay’ son? He didn’t have time to really consider why, because he was up and yelling before he knew it.
Why do you give a shit about everything? Stuff that’s nothing to do with you. Who didn’t go to church last week. Whose son’s gay. Who’s protesting when they should be at home studying, obeying their elders. Just… Shut… Up!
A beer bottle toppled and gushed brown fizz out across the table. She stared him down, without rising from her chair. He stormed out.
The following afternoon had settled into a humid funk. Dust rose and a workman’s drill thudded into Wesley’s skull as he walked quickly up the flyover ramp towards Elements, the high-end shopping mall which propped up soaring, glassy blocks filled with luxury hotels and apartments. He was late for his meeting with Regina, and he felt awful.
He had barely slept. Jason, a school friend, had come to his apartment the night before. They had smoked and stayed up until four-thirty. Chatting about nothing, at first, and then about everything: family, university, jobs, and the bullshit village that is Hong Kong. It had helped Wesley to feel better, in a way.
It had been his aunt’s fault. Absolutely. She just never shut up. On and on and on. So hanging out with Jason had made him feel better but, at the same time, had forced him into a realisation. Whenever Jason asked about why Wesley had chosen to live in a Jordan shithole, about how he had so much free time, about why he never replied to Jasmine’s messages… What could he say? His life was a mesh of secrets.
Was that what this hard ball deep in his gut was? This feeling that he either had to run through the mall shouting, or screaming, or maybe even singing – anything to ensure that every single person noticed him – or he had to run back home and hide under his bedcovers. The way he had yelled in his aunt’s face, looking for a reaction that never came? Or was it when Jason had staggered to his feet in the small hours of the morning and told him that he was starting an internship at his father’s company next week. Wesley had stood resting his forehead against the cool surface of the front door. Was he disappointed? Angry? It’s not like they’d ever spoken about it, made an agreement or anything. But he’d thought that Jason was like him. Against all that bullshit. Paid internships. Whatever.
He entered the mall, and the cool air began to revive him. The car horns and the drilling were swallowed up by the calm of the shiny, chrome corridors. Eventually, after getting lost in a never ending maze of high-end shops and mood music, he found the elevator to the hotel lobby. The feeling of rising up at speed helped Wesley’s head to clear; leaving the bullshit far below. Follow today’s instructions. He entered the lobby and saw her immediately. Short, much older than Cecelia. Angrier looking too. She watched Wesley find the large plant, then continued to watch him flick aimlessly through his phone. Wesley glanced up once, twice. Did she look disappointed? Eventually she turned towards the elevator. Room 331. Twenty-fifth floor. Wait at least five minutes. Knock three times. The door opened slowly.
Close up she didn’t look quite as daunting. She might only have been a year or two older than Cecelia; but with none of Cecelia’s allure. Her skin was pale and lined, her lips drawn together in a permanent pinch, her hair flat and limp. Usually the women that Cecelia paired him with were pretty wild. They put on their best clothes and make-up, had some wine, got nice and mellow, and were up for anything. An afternoon with him was the craziest, most reckless act in thirty-odd years of being perfect wives, mothers, committee members, church goers…
‘How old are you?’
Wesley slowly shut the door behind him. Regina took a step back. ‘Um… didn’t Cecelia tell you all that?’
‘You look young.’
Isn’t that the point? Wesley thought.
He got undressed in the bathroom, and hung all his clothes on the one peg. Two minutes later he stepped out, glad that the mirror had steamed-up. He didn’t really want to see himself. While showering, his T-shirt had slipped off the hook and now lay soaking in a puddle. He wrapped a thick towel tightly around his waist. Regina was still standing by the bed, fully-clothed, picking at her thumbnail. She stared at him as if he were already naked. He instinctively covered his crotch.
Regina didn’t smile, or respond. Slowly she shuffled past him and into the bathroom. The lock clicked. Wesley sat on the bed. Where did Cecelia know this woman from again? How were they even friends? The sound of the shower and the rhythmic throbbing of his head lulled him into a trance. He called room service and ordered a bottle of champagne. It might, he thought, help to relax her.
Five minutes later a young guy arrived with the bottle and two glasses on a tray. He smiled as he entered, then winked at Wesley when he realised that someone was in the shower. As the man prepared the champagne, Wesley parted the curtains and looked out. There was the ICC, arrogantly blocking the view, safe in the knowledge that nobody would ask it to move. On either side of its gleaming glass lay the harbour. Then the Island. He could just make out Cecelia block rising above the blur of offices and towers. It was like a mirror image of the view from her apartment. He sighed.
A scream ripped the scene in half. Wesley spun around. Regina had emerged from the bathroom, two towels wrapped like a straitjacket around her midriff plus one over her head. She was pointing.
‘Sorry. Room service…’ The man looked at Wesley for help.
‘Get out! Out! Out! Out!’
The man grabbed his tray and hurried out, bowing in apology along the way. Wesley walked towards Regina.
‘I can’t do it. I knew I couldn’t. I don’t know why I… Someone might see me. Someone has seen me! This is… wrong.’
‘Just go!’ Regina, with much more strength than she looked capable of, forced Wesley out in the hallway. There was no sign of the room service. A family were emerging from the room opposite. Japanese, maybe. Or Korean. The mother saw Wesley standing in his towel and guided her young daughter quickly back into the room. He was left alone. His head thumped even more ferociously. The door opened behind him and a hand dropped his clothes to the floor. The wet T-shirt slapped onto the thick carpet.
He counted every foot, every centimetre, of the descent. His stomach lurched as the elevator slowed before spitting him out into a melee of shoppers and selfie-takers. He ran – he felt he had to run – through the shops and restaurants until, several wrong turns later, he made it out and on to the overpass, down the steps to street level and finally scurried into the warren of streets north of Austin Road. The sun had set but it was still stiflingly warm in the narrow, dark spaces. The wet-market was still open, more noise and bodies, the smell of fish and raw meat. The hookers pushed their flyers towards him. The homeless man at the foot of the stairs looked at him with his empty eyes. Wesley slumped onto his bed.
Cecelia called him three time that night. He ignored each one. In the morning he sent her a message.
He had written one explaining what had happened with Regina; but deleted it. She would know all about that by now. He had written one simply apologising for what had happened with Regina, but deleted that too. In the end the message he sent read: ‘Can we meet?’
She replied late in the afternoon, though Wesley could see that she had received and read the message hours earlier. ‘Sunday. As usual.’
Wesley lay there for a long time, watching the cursor blink. Waiting for him to reply. It blinked faster and faster. More and more impatiently. ‘I meant for dinner. Or something’. He hesitated over the ‘or something’. What was the ‘something’? He sent it anyway.
Her reply woke him up. It was completely dark by now, inside and out. He fished his phone from under the duvet.
‘Let’s stick to Sunday. As usual.’
On Friday morning, however, she called.
Wesley had woken early, having slept so much over the previous two days that he physically couldn’t have slept any more. He hadn’t smoked, or drank, and felt better than he had done in months.
The vibrations interrupted a poem he had been writing, about a caretaker who worked on the top floor of a 5-star hotel, and the things he saw as he moved from room to room. The corridors, the streets / The village hidden amongst the suites. It sounded good.
‘Hi. It’s me.’
‘Listen. Short notice, I know. But I have a job for you. Tonight.’
Wesley paused. Then sighed. ‘Mm-hmm?’
‘Look…’ Cecelia continued. ‘She’s willing to pay a lot. Three times what you normally…’
She sounded strangely uncertain, Wesley thought. ‘Who is she?’ he asked.
‘Friend of a friend. Of a friend. She’s a big name in… in certain circles. Her husband’s pretty high up in the police.’
Wesley began to imagine a night with this woman. The policeman’s wife.
‘And I’m told that she’s extremely willing. Someone put her in touch with our… our circle just yesterday, and she called me straight away. This won’t be like…’
Wesley felt a sense of power. She wasn’t begging. Not quite. But she had never spoken like this to him before. ‘Like Regina?’
‘I am sorry about that. I should have known that she wasn’t ready. Wasn’t the right type.’
Wesley sighed again, and waited.
‘So… Can you?’
Cecelia sounded relieved. ‘Thanks, Wesley. OK. Have you got something to note this down? Her instructions are quite specific.’
Wesley abandoned his poem to spend the afternoon getting ready. He went for a haircut, and bought a new shirt. Back home he showered, and clipped his pubic hair. He ate a large plate of chicken pasta, then took the Star Ferry across to The Four Seasons in Central.
Go to the bar. Order a drink. Charge it to room 4503.
He sat at a table and ordered a Tom Collins. He’d never had one before and thought it sounded stylish. The harbour stretched out behind him and the handful of other drinkers like a moving fresco. When the drink arrived, a key-card had been placed discreetly atop the napkin. Wesley knew that this latest mystery woman might pass by while he was drinking, at a distance. It turned him on, to think that she was watching him, perhaps from behind a pillar. Seven o’clock arrived. No call from Cecelia. The coast was clear.
Elevator. Forty-fifth floor. Knock three times.
He stood alone in the elevator, and felt the familiar lurch as it began its rapid ascent through the hotel floors. He pictured them flicking by as if the elevator was made of glass. All luxurious, all exactly the same. His phone vibrated. A message. From his mother.
‘Wesley. Please apologise to your aunt. For me. For family.’
He swore under his breath and replaced his phone in his pocket.
The corridor stretched out from the lift doors. 4503 was at the far end. He imagined the corridor in darkness – the thick carpet and the pot-plants had disappeared and only one light remained. Shining softly on Room 4503.
His phone vibrated. Jesus Christ, my mum is... But this time it was a message from Jasmine.
‘Hey U. No reply? How’s things? xxx’
She never gives up, Wesley thought, as he paused midway up the corridor. From the rooms on either side there came not a sound. Nobody entered, nobody exited. The air-conditioning hummed. He began walking again, and reached 4503.
The door was heavy and opened with what seemed like reluctance. Inside all was black: not pitch-black, but dark enough to obscure whoever was in there. He couldn’t help but remember Regina wrapped tightly in her towels, screaming at him to get out. He stepped inside.
‘On the bed.’
The voice was commanding, and deep for a woman. Wesley obeyed. The door clicked shut behind him.
‘Get undressed first.’
A thought suddenly passed across his mind. It was Cecelia. The voice could well be Cecelia’s. This was her way of making it up to him. He quickly unbuttoned his shirt and let it drop to the floor. He made out the silhouette of a desk, and leaned on it as he removed his shoes and socks, his jeans and his underwear. He stood and waited.
He wasn’t so sure that the voice was Cecelia now. Yet it did sound familiar.
A click, and a light. Dim and orange. A figure reclining on a wide, marshmallow bed. Short, in a pink silk nightgown. A shocked expression on her face. Scrabbling upright. Pulling the gown tighter and tighter. ‘Oh!’
And not her usual hair.
It was still…
Wesley jumped back as if electrocuted, hands over his crotch.
Married to a policeman. High up. Certain circles. FUCK!
His Aunt Patricia scrambled off the bed, slipping and grabbing at a standing lamp. She moved towards her nephew, then stopped.
Wesley knew that she needed to get past him but he was frozen. She forced her way around him, still bent-double, elbowing him in the stomach.
Able to move once again, Wesley ran for the door, grabbing his scattered clothes as he went.
Jasmine squealed as he brought the phone closer to their faces.
‘Not so close. Turn it a little. Other way. I look so ugly…’
‘Aw thanks hon. So sweet. Ok, that’s perfect.’
Wesley smiled and Jasmine pouted. Then she turned and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Around them people milled, children screamed and huge bubbles floated by while the spires of the Hong Kong Disneyland castle poked up towards a sky of slate.
‘Look. It’s Sean and Daisy.’
Wesley watched the pair, who had been a couple since they were all in eighth grade together, walk by. Yet another example…
‘Did you ever think,’ he began, as Jasmine leaned in for another selfie, ‘that Hong Kong’s like a village?’
His girlfriend looked up at him, her big eyes sparkling, the pink ears wobbling on top of her head.
There was a story doing the rounds a few weeks ago about a newly-married couple in China. While going through old photographs, the woman found one taken fifteen years earlier of her posing next to a statue. This being China, the statue was a gaudy, red monstrosity, but that’s another story entirely. In the background of this photo there was one other person: a man, also posing with the statue. This man, it turns out, was the man that the woman would go on to marry over a decade later. He went back through his family’s snaps and found the ‘matching’ photo of him at the statue. The angle at which his photo had been taken meant that his future wife wasn’t in shot, so the story is missing that perfect resolution, but still.
It got me thinking that, while that was a lovely story and all, perhaps it happens more often than we think it might. This couple just happen to have photographic evidence of it. Last night, in Guilin, China, I met someone who had grown up in the same town as me. He was seven years younger, and we had gone to different schools, but what were the chances that our paths hadn’t crossed before? Our home town isn’t such a big place. When I was, say, fourteen, and he was seven, did we ever pass each other in the street? Did we ever sit at the next table over in McDonald’s? Ever sit behind one another at the Odeon? Ever stand next to one another at the Bonfire Night fireworks display? I’d like to know the odds.
And what would the reaction have been, had I been able to tell my fourteen-year-old self that I would meet that kid over there, the one chomping on his Big Mac, seventeen years later in Guilin, China, where I was spending a week travelling and he was just entering his second year as a teacher? Admittedly, us both growing up in the same medium-sized Scottish town boosts the chances of us having met pretty drastically. The Chinese couple from the story had taken their pictures at the statue while on holiday. They then went back to their hometowns, many miles apart, and got on with their lives for many years before meeting again properly. That’s much more remarkable than my theoretical McDonald’s scenario.
So let’s take it a step further. As I’m writing this, in a bar in Yangshuo (China again), there is a couple sitting in front of me. They’re French, I think. In their early sixties? I’ve been to France several times stretching back to when I was six or seven. Imagine seven-year-old me going to a restaurant with my family – we’re in 1993, now, or thereabouts – and at the next table are this couple, back in their mid-thirties. Maybe they’re with their own little seven-year-old enfant? Pierre, or Claudette (or any other suitably French name)? The chances are wildly remote, I know. But I like wondering. I enjoy not knowing. It’s fun to imagine us all as drops in a huge pot, constantly swirling against one another then away, away, away, until one day, for a brief five minutes in a cafe in south-east China, we are reunited without ever knowing it.
The French couple have gone, now, and have been replaced in their window seat by a younger, English girl. I’ve been to England many times – lived there for three years, in fact – and so I wonder…
Hong Kong is a small place, and you can get from anywhere to anywhere in an hour or two. But living here skews the way you perceive distance. It’s like how the US is huge, so Americans think nothing of driving hundreds of miles to the nearest drive-thru. Or how the UK is medium-sized, and you could drive the length of it in a day if you really wanted to, but nobody really admits that you can. Well, I know some people in Hong Kong (*cough Island people*) who think 4 stops on the MTR to Mong Kok is an expedition. So trekking all the way out to Lantau Island is something you save for the most special of occasions.
Such as Chinese New Year! For the 5th edition of our annual CNY Hike, we conquered Lantau Peak – Hong Kong’s 2nd highest summit. We cheated, as you will probably want to do too, by taking the bus from Tung Chung to Pak Kung Au (as seen in the sign below).
The cloud was so thick and the wind so relentless on that day that we might have been halfway up any hill, anywhere in the world. All you could see was the path and a couple of feet of shrubbery on either side. It made the hike seem easier, I think, what with the howling wind and intermittent rain distracting us from the long trudge up the slope. We did see a very regal looking mutt, though, making its slow way down the path. An auspicious omen in the Year of the Dog, I’m sure.
The views from the top are supposed to be among the finest in Hong Kong: the Big Buddha and the airport on on side, Hong Kong Island and the South China Sea on the other. Our views were a little more limited. We didn’t linger long, what with the hammering rain and the stinging wind in our faces.
But, the very second that we started our descent towards Ngong Ping, the mist began to break. A glimpse of ocean here, and speck of distant mountain there. And then, suddenly, we were on top of the clouds. It made the hour and a half spent in a sodden grey bubble worth it.
By the time we were halfway down the other side, the weather had changed completely. The sun was out, and there was the Big Buddha in the distance. You can, of course, do the hike in reverse, starting from the Buddha or even Tung Chung. I think the climb is even more severe coming from the south, though. You have been warned.
And there it is, Lantau Peak later that same afternoon, having cast off its cloudy shroud, gazing benevolently down on the tourists milling around the temple at Ngong Ping. There’s an interesting vegetarian restaurant nearby, serving things that look like meat but aren’t, or there’s a traditional Chinese Starbucks on the way to the cable car. From Ngong Ping, you can either tread the additional few kilometres further down to Tung Chung or, if you happen to be a little numb from all the rain and wind, like us, you can get the bus.
I have just spent the best part of a year editing the latest Hong Kong Writers Circle anthology, ‘HK24’. Available at the Prince’s Building branch of Bookazine (for those of you in Hong Kong) and on Amazon Kindle (for those not), this collection will take you through 24 hours in the city. And I quote…
“Delivery drivers living double lives, street-sweepers with dark secrets and teachers teetering on the edge all meet and mingle on the sweaty streets, along crowded MTR lines and in rowdy cha chaan tengs. Behind doors and windows, in taxis and on the ding-ding, below dark underpasses and on breezy Sai Kung verandas, lives are being lived. Some of the characters within these tales see their past in this present; others look to an uncertain future. Others still are reminded why they remain in such a beguiling and bewildering city.”
It’s a very good read – if I do say so myself – and the perfect taste of Hong Kong for those who live here, have visited, or who dream of coming one day. You’ll also be supporting local writers and grass-roots creative fiction at a time when they need you most. So, thank you. And do jeh.
It’s Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Dog! May you live long and be prosperous!
Last night, I had a poon choi – literally a ‘feast in a big bowl’. It’s kind of like a hot-pot, of which I have espoused the virtues in earlier posts, but with all the ingredients pre-added. You heat it up for a bit, then transfer it to a table-top gas hob, and tuck in.
It’s a type of cuisine unique to Hong Kong, and is eaten mainly at festivals: marriages, birthdays, New Year… It’s origins are lost in the mists – one theory is that it was invented by 12th century villagers who wanted to welcome a Chinese Emperor at short notice (he was fleeing the Mongol hordes and hadn’t called in advance) and so shoved all their best foodstuffs in a washbowl.
Modern poon choi is pretty far removed from this – no washbowl, thankfully – but the premise remains the same. Now, though, and especially at New Year, the ingredients are specially chosen for their symbolism, and for the way their Chinese names sound like good things. Kind of like eating lots of McVities Rich Tea biscuits because it might make you rich.
The poon choi in the picture has, let me see… abalone (for fortune), scallops (for new opportunities and luck)… don’t ask me what the actual Chinese words are… dried oysters (for luck in business), a kind of vegetable that looks like black hair (for prosperity), lotus (for having money all year round). The chicken and duck, or any other winged creatures, symbolise family returning to the nest. There are also scallops, mushrooms, fish stomach, sea cucumber, prawns, pork… I’m not sure of the symbolism of all these items – if I were a betting man I’d say they’d have something to do with prosperity and fortune. Chinese people are generally quite concerned with prosperity and fortune.
Under all the big-ticket items lie vegetables, taro and turnips that, by the end are the tastiest part of the poon choi, having absorbed all the sauce from several hours of slow-boil. Legend has it that the vegetables in a poon choi are limited or hidden at the bottom because the original villagers thought they weren’t fit for the emperor that they had had foisted on them. For an especially auspicious feast, people should apparently make sure that the bowl contains eight items (or a multiple of eight) because 8 is very lucky in Chinese culture. DON’T, whatever you do, have 44 items in your poon choi…
Chinese New Year food symbolism goes way beyond poon choi. Over the next week or so you could eat lettuce (for prosperity, again), noodles (for a long life – kinda obvious that one), sticky rice (to ensure a better year than the last one), and dumplings because… I’m not sure why dumplings are in there. People just love their dumplings.
Whatever you happen to eat over CNY, may the Year of the Dog bring you prosperity, luck, new opportunities, fortune, health and happiness. Kung Hei Fat Choi!