Hong Kong, 1970—
HE LOVES THE Star Ferry. He often tells me that it’s earned its name, because if you look up, you see the stars. What he doesn’t say is that you should never look down. Never gaze into the murky water of Victoria Harbour, filled with broken crockery and human waste and sets of teeth giving off a glint of gold. Never imagine what might be hiding in that smoky deep, gilded white with foam, because you’ll start to wonder what might happen if you jumped in. If you let those waves close in over your head.
* * *
There won’t be any stars here. Some people say there is no sky. I have reached Tung Tau Cheun Road, the border of Kowloon Walled City. The wind blows hot and muted, in slow, sleepy waves. Idle young men slouch against the sides of the low-lit shops, some of them smoking, none of them speaking. Their faces are blank as soapstone.
The walled city is better known as Hak Nam, City of Darkness. Six-and-a-half acres of densely packed skyscrapers, in which tens of thousands of people live crammed together, insects in a colony. Nobody knows precisely how many because so few go in, or perhaps it’s that so few come out. The Walled City is ungoverned by laws, unconcerned with the British, separate from the rest of Hong Kong. It looks as if it is detached from the earth itself, like it hangs suspended in the blackness of night.
I can’t find the entry, and the youths stare right through me. Some people think there is no way in; that one has to be born inside.
Some people refuse to believe that the place even exists.
* * *
On a hazy, slickly damp morning, fog unrolls like a blanket over Hong Kong. From my bedroom window the mountain sides are blurred into grey. I have the childish thought that so, too, is my life. It is my birthday, and a Sunday, but there is nothing I want to do, nobody I want to be. There has never been. Not like Lily, who brushes her fringe back and forth for hours every afternoon trying to look like the actress Ching Li.
My parents are not here to see me turn seventeen. Amah keeps trying to shoo me out of the house; I mustn’t spoil my own birthday surprise. Dutifully I ride the tram down to the Garden Road. The sweeping views have been blotted out by low-hanging clouds. The city looks as if it is underwater.
There at the bottom, beneath the block-lettered PEAK TRAM sign, my birthday surprise is waiting.
He rolls back the fog. He makes everything clear. All at once.
* * *
Tonight i dare to approach the glass-eyed young men. Do you know—their jaws unhinge as they shake their heads. They reek of something shuddery-sweet, like melon. He explained, once, that the Walled City is a hotbed of opium use. He called it chasing the dragon. I remember a slithery feeling in my gut at the sound of those syllables on his lips. Chasing the dragon.
Am I chasing a dragon?
An old man, crouched in a squat, suddenly shakes his fist at me. “What does a little girl like you want in the Hak Nam?” he barks.
If Lily knew where I was, what I was doing, she’d start to flutter, and probably faint. People like us don’t go too far, she’d say. People like us stay in the shallows. People like us attend proper schools where we learn to speak proper English, even if we can’t quite wrap our tongues around every letter. Even if all we really learn is how to pretend that we are not Chinese at all.
People like us don’t fall in love with men like him.
* * *
The wind whips by as he and I meet beneath our paperbark tree. He tells me that he loves all boats, not just the Ferry; even the fishermen’s dinghies that barely catch the wind in their frayed sails. One day, he says, he’ll lure me away from my life, from that gated mansion on the Peak, from my bedroom view of the horizon over the South China Sea. He and I will buy our own junk and chase that horizon as far as we can. One day we’ll wake up on the edge of the world, clinging to one another so we don’t slip right off.
One day I’ll write a letter back to Lily, who’ll still be wading in her lavender-scented swimming pool with all her friends who have also forgotten how to speak their native tongues, and it’ll say: I’ve gone too far!
One day, he says.
I tell him it’ll have to be a Sunday.
He gives me these directions to the Walled City: take a taxi into Central, directly to the Pier. Step aboard the Ferry; mind the gap. Look up from the deck—and if your hat flies off, you’ll know you’re doing it right!—and drink in the sky. Alight on the Kowloon side. Glance back at the Island, at the misty lights. They will play on your senses; you will want to go home.
And if you do, then go, he says. But if you ever need me, then come.
* * *
The old man is hard to tell apart from the decrepit walls.
“Do you know the bun-maker?” I ask him. “I’ll pay you.”
His eyes widen into mooncakes.
There may not be proper doors, but there are crevices, cracks through which a person can slink inside the Walled City. Hobbling ahead of me, the old man heads down a hutong, a passage that twists and turns like an intestine. A clicking noise rattles the walls, through the sprawl of cables and wires. Rats, perhaps. Or mah jong tiles. Or just my pulse, beating silly.
The darkness is hungry. It nibbles at my coat, swallows my shoes. The old man has vanished. His footsteps have been replaced by other sounds: that infernal clicking. Muffled shouting. Before I can decide which way is forwards, a door swings open only yards away spewing manmade light into the hutong. I lurch towards it. Somebody steps forward carrying a box on his shoulders; he sees me and stops. He is covered in a pale, powdery substance.
“You’re lost,” he says. He’s wrong. I have found the bun-maker.
“I need to speak with…” I taste a sprinkle of flour dust on my tongue. “A woman called Mabel.”
“Ma-bel,” he repeats, breaking it in two. “I see. But no, she cannot see you tonight. Tomorrow, lah.”
I almost inhale the dust before remembering his instructions not to eat or drink anything in the Walled City.
My chalky new guide helps me find my way out again. He moves faster than the old man, but this time I know better than to drift away on the current of darkness, and keep at his heels.
I reach the outside world once more. In such open air, I feel transparent, and pull at my sleeves. Flour dust shakes off in every direction. It has sunk into my hair, mingled with my sweat. I may end up bleeding dust all the way home, right onto the benches of the Star Ferry, onto the taxi seats, all the way back up the Peak. Perhaps dust will fill that enormous house, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the perfumed pool, Lily’s mouth. People like us don’t… she’ll try to say, and come up coughing; and then she’ll finally know.
The only us is me and him.
* * *
Another humid Sunday, one of those midsummer days that wobble, that can tip over easily into a monsoon. Heat simmers off the harbour water and makes it steam. Lily has gone to take tea at the Pen. Papa’s going to introduce me to my future husband today, she informed me this morning. She’s taken Amah with her, and afterwards she’ll want to fawn over jewelery and handbags in Tsim Sha Tsui, the only tolerable slice of Kowloon for people like us. They’ll be back late.
I go to meet him.
I hover like a blow-fly beneath the paperbark tree, my palms
sweating by the time he arrives. The sun hisses on my bare skin as we walk by the Harbour. He is in an unusually sombre mood. The warring gangs of the Triads control every square foot of the Walled City. Their vendettas spill out of the drug dens and brothels, washing away everything in their path. He has already lost friends. Family.
We stop at a street-side stall for noodles. He knows how he’s going to die, he says. He makes the motion of it with his chopsticks, across the jugular.
* * *
On and on we go, plunging deeper and deeper into the heart of the Walled City. I stay a step behind the bun-maker.
“Ma-bel,” says my guide.
The velvety darkness gives way, enough for me to see into a square courtyard occupied by a small temple. It resembles the kind dedicated to Tin Hau, the Empress of Heaven; its curved green roofs are supported by glittering gold-leaf pillars, and hanging lanterns flank the entryway.
I’m alone again. They are slippery, these residents of the City. They know how to fade.
A hint of incense lingers in the air. I edge closer to the temple, and then, licking the dust off my lips, I enter. The interior is chilly, despite several jars full of smouldering joss-sticks laid out on a stone table. A young woman in a yellow cheongsam is bent over by the altar; she turns slowly at my approach. I’d expected Mabel to be withered, elderly, to look like Amah. To have been here in the centre of the Walled City since its very inception; to have watched the Darkness build up around her.
“I’m sorry,” I hear myself say. “I’m looking for Mabel—”
“I am Mabel,” she replies, in a child’s voice. My toes curl like the incense-smoke. “But who are you really looking for?”
“I had a friend. He’s—gone. He told me that you—you possess the ability to—”
“Yes, I can bring him back.”
“He said that you brought his mother back, once—”
“Yes, it can only be once.”
“But that afterwards, she was…” I search Mabel’s face for the right word. I don’t want the one he used: lifeless. Though his mother did live another five years, and might have outlived him if it hadn’t rained hard enough one day that the Walled City flooded. The gullies backed up and the sewers overflowed and she let herself float away.
“That is why it only works once,” says Mabel. “The mind is harder to resurrect than the body. Strange things can happen. You think it over, siu jeh. I cannot do it tonight anyway. I must first prepare.”
* * *
I wake up one morning with a fever that is almost sultry. I wring the sweat from my own sheets. Amah tells me to stay in bed, that my face is as green as jade. When she’s not looking, I steal outside and onto the tram. My vision swims along the Garden Road; the scenery looks tilted. Everything is just a little off. Everything is slightly wrong. Nobody is waiting for me by the paperbark tree. I sway on my feet until his kid sister comes, instead of him. She reminds me a
little of Lily. She speaks with a tremor: He was walking with friends
yesterday, in the wee hours, in a back alley of the Walled City—the Walled City is nothing but back alleys, nothing but wee hours—and they were jumped. A quick slash; a spray of blood across the sewers.
I want to interrupt, to tell her he was right, but my throat has closed.
Gang violence, she adds, in case I think his death might have been senseless, arbitrary
* * *
“Your friend’s body was not destroyed?” Mabel confirms.
“We must do it tomorrow night, or it will be a long wait. It can only be done beneath this moon.”
As I look up, she meets my gaze; and then I see.
This is the City of Darkness. I have entered, or else it has entered me.
He did warn me.
He did say that I didn’t belong here and never would. He said that we were not right for one another, in the end; that we were too different, him coming from a place as low as this, me coming from a place as high as that. I begged him to change his mind. I even tried to explain: I’m not who you think I am. I’m only one of the live-in maids in that house! He didn’t believe me. Why do you think I can only meet you on Sundays? He eyed Lily’s heirloom pin, askew in my hair. I steal from them as they steal from the rest of us! Don’t you see? I’m just like you. Let’s sail away as we’ve always planned, let’s be all alone— He didn’t want to be all alone. He already had somebody else.
“Then I can bring him back into the body,” says Mabel. “That leaves only the payment. Very expensive.” This is ironic, because everything else in Hong Kong comes cheap. His friends, the ones that lured him down that alley; his sister, who came to let me know the deed was done. My parents, whoever they were, who sold me into servitude; Amah, who happily paid. Lily, who is obsessed with actors and actresses; me, because I am always acting.
If there was ever anything that couldn’t be bought, that wasn’t for sale, it was what I felt for him.
“No,” I say, “bring him back into the Star Ferry.”
Her ruddy mouth gapes at me.
“He loved the Star Ferry,” I say.
* * *
I see the years leaving me. As they melt away, they form a small, filmy cloud that Mabel breathes in through her mouth. But what would I need with that many more years? I’ve already had seventeen, and only ever wanted the past one, with him. Or maybe not quite seventeen. I can’t be sure. Amah made up my birthday and it changes every year to land on a Sunday.
“You will feel funny for a while,” says Mabel. “It’s normal.”
If I have shed three decades like a snakeskin, I will die relatively young. Does she know how it will happen? Can she foresee?
When she speaks, visible puffs of air escape her lips. She has to swallow hard to keep everything in. She sighs, her pupils dilating, her skin ripening. Chasing the dragon. I do feel strange. Distant and dreamy. I had not noticed until now that Mabel has lotus feet, cotton-bound beneath the hem of her cheongsam, as if she is standing on table-legs. I wonder how long she’s lived. I wonder what she lives for.
* * *
He must have become nocturnal, over the years. Of course he was out walking, meeting friends, being killed, in the middle of the night. Normal daylight must have felt like staring into the sun.
Of course he always wanted to meet beneath heavily flowering trees; he must have felt he needed cover. Of course he dreamed of the sea. He was living in a trench.
Tonight the clouds are bloated, a promise of rain. That will not stop the Star Ferry, which glides back and forth over the milky water of Victoria Harbour as it does every Sunday, when I come to see him. Things are just as they used to be. But now he can look up at the stars every night, forever, because I have helped him escape the Walled City. Now there are no walls around him at all.
I take a moment to remind myself that he saved me too. I no longer look down at the waves. I no longer think about jumping in.
Kristen Loesch’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Mslexia, SmokeLong Quarterly, Barren Magazine, Retreat West, Reflex Press, FlashBack Fiction, and more. She is currently working on her first novel and is represented by the Zeitgeist Agency. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children.
© 2020 Kristen Loesch