Hong Kong Is My Dream, Not Yours!
Mina had gotten up early to make the noodles. She stood at the sink looking out the window at a slice of alleyway which could have been any city in China for the sounds and smells coming from out there. She smoked a long brown cigarette she had taken from Tsui's coat pocket. He was sleeping off a hangover in the other room and wouldn't smell the smoke, nor would he awake if the Chinese army came rumbling down this alley right now with tanks crushing the food vendors and troops climbing the fire escapes to gun down the crowds. She could throw a party for the soldiers and dance with them here in the tiny kitchen while they ran their hands all over her body and she pretended to rejoice that Hong Kong was back where it belonged, and Tsui would keep on sleeping his drunken sleep, dreaming of a smoky jazz club in Soho where he was playing an endless improvisation on a Coltrane theme. He would wake to find her raped dead, the city in ruins, China all around. And that would perhaps be better, she reflected, than if he just woke up like normal, everything the same, and shuffled into the kitchen to grimly slurp his noodles at the table while she washed out the pot. She smiled. Even a horrifying fantasy could be a nice diversion on a grey morning. Because when it ends, you're right back where you started, only maybe a little smarter than before. The problem being that the same thing happened when the fantasies were good: you ended up right where you started, everything the same, only a little sadder than before. The thing was to put yourself in a place that you didn't mind coming back to. That took some doing.
When the noodles were done she plucked half of them out of the pot to nest in her bowl and left the remainder cooking. She sprinkled chopped green onions and peppers onto her breakfast and sat at the table to eat, shoving aside sheet music and CD cases and dirty dishes. She had just poked the first bite into her mouth when someone started pounding on the front door. She sat a moment, trying to recognize the knock, remaining silent in case whoever it was would go away. But they kept knocking. The Chinese Army perhaps? Finally she moved to answer if only to keep Tsui from waking up.
"Smells like breakfast," said Harry, leaning against the wall in the concrete stairwell. She stepped aside to let him in, holding her finger to her lips.
"Good. I'll eat his breakfast then."
Harry was the drummer in the band. He had named himself after Harry S Truman, who had bombed the Japanese and who had worn the same little round glasses that Harry the drummer did. It was better, he thought, than naming yourself after Gandhi or John Lennon, the other round glasses guys.
They went into the kitchen and Mina served him the remaining noodles with onions and peppers. She was a little ashamed, as she handed him the bowl, that the noodles were overcooked, but he slurped them down without seeming to notice. The thing she liked about Harry: he could sit in silence indefinitely. He didn't need to hear himself talk. People like that allowed her to spiral off in her own head without having to worry about what expression was on her face or whether she was responding with the right nods and smiles to the conversation. They sat at the table while the sounds of the alleyway vendors and bicycle horns and trashtrucks filled the room and they didn't even look at each other but only slurped the noodles. She twirled her chopsticks around and watched the glistening noodles curl over each other like snakes and she concentrated on the sound they made, a wet shiny sound that took her so far back she felt like a baby. Harry was idly pushing around the CD cases, reading the liner notes and splattering them with broth. A little dollop hung from his chin and Mina had the urge to reach over with her thumb and wipe it off. Then she would hold her thumb to his lips so he could lick it. She surprised herself. A great smile came over her face which went totally unnoticed. He had the sparsest stubble on his chin, and one tiny whisker was magnified in that dollop of broth. She touched her cheek and imagined the feeling of that stubble grazing her skin. Suddenly she needed a cigarette very badly.
"Harry, you eat like a drummer. Do you have any cigarettes?"
He smiled at her, raising his eyebrows. "You smoke now?"
"I'm working on my voice."
He was holding both hands up to her face across the table to shelter the lighter flame even though there was no draft to put it out. She sucked the heat in and blew a streamer of smoke over the table. "Don't tell him," she said, nodding towards the other room where Tsui was breathing through his mouth. She ashed in her empty bowl and gave a thought to winking at Harry but he was lighting up his own cigarette. Right here on the table, she thought. Before he knows it she could be there, in front of his face, throwing his cigarette away, licking that drop off his chin. She could push her tongue into his mouth and he would come alive in an instant. They're riding the chair, peeling away only the necessary bits of clothing, just enough to get it inside and keep it there, pushing, the way that lasts for an hour. They're on the floor, she's underneath, faster now. The noodles spill on top of them and writhe in the space between their bodies. Slithering. She can see the peeling paint on the ceiling, the cockroaches skittering along the floorboards, and the stubble of his chin is scratching her cheek so that she'll look like she's blushing for the rest of the day. Finally she closes her eyes and just pushes. Breath and noodles the only sound.
"What's this?" It's Tsui, standing in the door to the kitchen, bleary eyed.
"I tried to stop her," said Harry, "but she insisted."
Mina, blushing, killed the cigarette in her bowl and blew out the last of the smoke. Harry was smiling to himself, lifting his bowl to drink the last of the broth while Tsui wandered over to the stove to see if there were any more noodles in the pot.
"Harry ate your breakfast," said Mina, "and he made me smoke his cigarettes."
"She's right," said Harry. "It's all my fault."
"I'm hungry," was all Tsui said. He turned and went back into the other room.
"You should come for breakfast more often," she said quietly.
Harry looked up from the liner notes he was still reading. "Of course. But, you know, the noodles were a little overcooked."
* * *
Mina had perfectly assumed the posture and attitude of the obeisant girlfriend: sitting forward on her chair, holding her pocketbook on her knees, staring into the tabletop and nodding at intervals at whatever Tsui was talking about. He sat reclined in his chair, legs crossed, smoking deeply and flicking ashes into the wet ashtray, periodically swigging from his beer bottle and talking all the while. He was talking about his uncle, who refused to sell his sheetmetal shop and insisted on remaining in Hong Kong after the handover even though it was certain the new Chinese factories would undercut him, and despite the possibility that Tsui could get papers for the whole family. Mina nodded. Tsui knew she wasn't listening, or else she just didn't care about papers. She had no ambition, she was just perfectly content to croon her jazz songs until the flags came down--and then where would she be? Did she think the Chinese authorities would have any use for jazz bands playing American music? about love and romance? and in English!
In fact, Mina wasn't hearing a word. To be sure, she was very interested in papers, though not because she thought it might save her jazz career. If there was one thing she didn't give a damn about it was jazz, except as a way to make spending money and get free drinks. She took a sip of her apricot juice through the straw and refolded her hands in her lap.
The cafe interior was brassy and cluttered, with American rock music blasting over the speakers loud enough to make them crackle. Tiny spotlights were beamed on every table, and neon beer signs buzzed everywhere. Out the window lay a teeming public plaza where people milled about browsing at handmade jewelry on blankets, cartloads of plastic toys, sunglasses, ballcaps, hotdog wagons, ice cream stands and a truckload of Persian rugs stacked like a cord of wood. Money flew between hands everywhere you looked and the stream of people was steady. Mina was watching all this past Tsui's shoulder. She would pick out one person in the crowd and follow him or her with her eyes all the way through the market, straining to catch every detail.
A long-haired white man with a big backpack moved slowly through the crowd, observing everything. He spent some time watching an old woman scoop out cups full of boiled silkwormlarvae from a brimming pot. Mina willed him to try a cup (they're delicious!) but he moved away, puzzled and perhaps a little disgusted. This was his first day in Hong Kong, she decided, and he was entirely overwhelmed. He had come here expecting Asian mystique and ancient wisdom and European chic but what he found was a city of infinite twists and turns where all was abuzz and nothing made sense. He had brought his guitar to play on the streetcorners where he imagined he would attract little groups of laughing children who would sing along and clap in time to his jangly, familiar tunes. In fact, he had even learned a few traditional Chinese melodies though not the words, and thought these would be especially delightful for the passersby. But even now, as he was scouting the streets and losing confidence in his ability to play here, even now the manager of his youth hostel in the seedy part of the Kowloon district was opening the door to his rented room with the master key and a team of shady trolls was rifling through his bags, stealing his camera and hiking boots and, from under the bed, his guitar in its softshell case, taking everything down to a storeroom in the basement where the police would come and take first pick of the loot. Robbed of his livelihood, the man would leave Hong Kong by ferry for Macau where, like justice, he would meet a beautiful Portuguese woman in a bistro and he would make love to her in a spacious hotel room with French doors open to the breezes from the South China Sea. But then, because he had been imprudent, too quick to seize on good luck, he would discover that the woman was a prostitute. There would be an argument. Her pimp would appear and there would be a terrible fight, ending with our unlucky man cut to ribbons on the bloody carpet, barely breathing. He would spend the next year and a half working in a sheetmetal factory in Macau, paying off his debt to the hospital and the hotel, and he would come to love the city despite his bad episode and the final cruelty would be that he would be made to leave when his debt was settled and having absolutely nowhere to go at all. Fade out on the image of the man, trudging through the airport with his backpack and nothing else, the sound of jet engines shrieking over everything.
Mina had to cough to suppress her smile. Down below, the man with the backpack was buying a corndog and fumbling with a handful of change. He walked off then, disappearing around a corner where his future, whatever it would be, was rushing right at him.
* * *
Why doesnt Mina fantasize about her own life? Surely sometimes the things we don't want to think about are the most interesting of all. Maybe she just thinks that daydreams are more interesting than where she's already been. If she were to make a movie of her own life instead of some stranger's, it would open on a grey morning like this one, on the banks of a river she hopes never to see again. Who could blame her?
No one know the fishermans name. Mina and three other girls have already paid him nearly a year's wage; all the money fit into a coffee can which he carried into his shack while they waited outside in the rain. Through the window they could see him sipping tea at his table, then dressing in layers of sweaters and a rubberized poncho. Seeing them peering through the glass he angrily waved them down to the dock. The four girls, none more than twenty, moved down the muddy embankment to the sole boat tied to a post in the muddy shallows. Mina and the others waded out to it and climbed aboard, huddling on the two facing benches. She had never seen the others before, and no one spoke. Wait awaited them in Hong Kong? Were they going to meet family? or only to find work? One of the girls wore high heels and a long skirt; was she expecting a cruise on the Star Ferry and a gala reception at the terminal?
When the fisherman finally arrived he barked at them to get down out of view. The girls lay across the bottom of the boat in a muddy puddle and were covered with a tarp. An outboard
motor sputtered to life with the tang of exhaust. Soon they were bobbing on the choppy water.
Mina could see a sliver of sky through a ringlet in the tarp, but her view revealed nothing but grey. Her fingers and toes grew numb, and her head spun with the slapping of the waves. She could hear the fisherman tinkering with his equipment: he was actually fishing.
The motor was killed and they bobbed stagnant in the water for what seemed a very long time. One of the girls was quietly moaning. Fish flopped on the tarp over them as catches were reeled in. Mina tired to sleep, the only way she knew to escape anything. The next time she peered through the ringlet she was amazed to find blackness. The fisherman hadn't turned on his huge night lights, and they were drifting on the sea in darkness. He began to row.
She thought of all this the way she thought of her job in the shoe factory: tremendous boredom, which would inevitably pass. If she just concentrated she could feel that it was already over. She knew she would again be on shore, but this time in a different world, and she would be dry and warm and this boat ride would be a completed experience in her long day. And instead of a stack of vinyl shoes with rubber soles to show for her labors, she would have nothing--but she would be standing on the soil of England, China would be behind her, and her new family would be waiting.
Of course the boat ride did end, but not for many hours. Long enough for Mina to actually fall asleep and be awakened again and again by the fisherman hollering at whoever was moaning to be quiet. The girl couldn't control herself; she sounded like she was dying. Abruptly, the boat struck land. The fisherman leapt into the water to drag the boat ashore, hollering for the girls to get out. When all four were on shore the fisherman shoved the boat back into the water, jumped in and began rowing without looking back. Mina yelled to him, not at all sure what she wanted from him. Was goodbye too much? He didn't even leave them with the tarp. She watched him row into the night and, after he had slipped out of view, heard the outboard motor sputter to life and carry him away. She had earned this little ride by sleeping repeatedly with her factory supervisor, hiking twenty miles over mud flats with no possessions and giving a year's wage to an angry fisherman. Now here she was on the muddy shore of a dark island with three terrified strangers and the sun was coming up.
Out on the sea lights from the fishing boats and freighters moved slowly across the horizon. When the sky lightened Mina could see the grey shapes of dozens of boats inching across the edge of the world. She sat huddled beside a boulder listening to the waves lap at the shore, waiting for one of those shapes to move toward the island.
Cut to montage of pleasant things, extreme close up: cups of hot tea, plates of dumplings, a naked body warm and close. Soft kisses. Superimpose on the grey expanse of the sea, the distant hills of China at the horizon. Pan over four girls huddled alone on the naked shore of the island; the one in the heels and skirt is sprawled out in exhaustion, her illusions shattered.
It's late in the day when a small motorboat buzzes the shore, circles back and idles out in the water. Mina watches to see if it's police, but there are no markings. The boat trolls to shore, a man is waving. Farther out, a freighter is drifting by.
Cut to freighter interior, a filthy kitchen, the girls swallowing cookies and water, shivering in blankets. The sailors speak to them in Russian. Later Mina stands on deck as the city comes into view through a labyrinth of islands, misty hilltops hanging in the sky. Hong Kong seems to be made out of colored glass.
When night falls again, Mina and two of the girls climb back into the motorboat with a pilot. The girl in the heels and skirt has remained on the freighter, no one knows why. The motorboat takes them noisily across a choppy expanse of sea, and Mina has the terrifying impression that they're headed straight back to China.
But they come ashore on a rocky beach a little ways from a village with lights burning in every window. Lighted signs stand over the buildings, and cars race past on a nearby highway. The girls wade ashore and the motorboat buzzes away. Mina leans against a tree and pulls her blanket around her shoulders. Having been carried this far, she can no longer move on her own. The other two walk down the beach towards the town.
Perhaps she sleeps some more. The next thing she notices is a figure coming along the beach, stepping over the rocks, cigarette in hand. Mina moves out from the trees, holds up her arm, waving. The man approaches. He's wearing a white suit and shiny shoes, his hair slicked back like a movie star's. He comes toward her. "Mina?"
"This isn't China," she says, and the man laughs.
"Thank God," he says. Then she takes his long brown cigarette and smokes it right down to the filter.
* * *
Tsui was still talking. He had another beer now, and a fresh cigarette. He was talking about Thelonious Monk, how no one thought he could play when he first hit the scene, how many still didn't get it. But Tsui got it. He understood. It was all about the spaces between the notes. That's what Monk was about. Just like van Gogh was about the space between you and the picture, not what was in the frame. It was hard enough for Westerners to see such things--van Gogh died broke and insane--but the Chinese? What would happen to artistic visionaries once the Chinese took over? Tsui ran his fingers across the tabletop, playing an imaginary riff, perhaps a Monk-style accompaniment to the Bon Jovi on the speakers.
Despite herself, Mina had heard Tsui's speech. She asked herself, What is Tsui about? Is he about the space between us, this pseudo-conversation? or is he just about what's inside his own frame? And what does he have to do with artistic visionaries?
She couldn't help but smile a little, placidly stirring her apricot juice with the straw. Fortunately, Tsui didn't look at her. He was aloof as a movie star in his white suit and slicked-back hair, waiting for his part to be called. He reclined in his chair, elbow thrown rakishly over the back, blowing smoke into the air and surveying the cafe. Most of the clientele were ethnic Chinese, like Mina and Tsui, and many were couples, at various stages of involvement. Here and there Mina glimpsed an identical dynamic, the passive girlfriend and the jabbering boyfriend. To be sure, Tsui was not her boyfriend--at least, she wouldn't call it that. He was her second cousin and her father, back in Guangdong, had made him her guardian. That meant that she was never out of the apartment without Tsui knowing where she was going, and who with. He could be just as tyrannical and irrational as her father, but worse, because he was jealous. He wanted her as his fiancée, and though she knew her father would one day approve, it wouldn't happen while they were living together as cousins. It would happen only if Mina failed to find a more suitable husband in Hong Kong, and Tsui was doing his best to ensure that she had no opportunities to escape him. And so she made a concerted effort to display unwifely behavior: overcooking his noodles, sleeping in, sneaking drinks between sets, and never once listening to his rambling conversation. He was bound to meet someone more appealing, in some bar, and then he would shed Mina as a lost cause. Then, for a real man, she would take cooking classes.
How tremendously bored she was! Everyone thought this place was romantic, the Western Bar, because there were pool tables and American beers and trendy movie posters. This was the only place Tsui ever wanted to come, because, ultimately, he wanted to go to the West. Who didn't? But he had no ideas, he just wanted to play in his jazz band--and what a terrible jazz band! Didn't he know people made fun of them? But he saw nothing beyond himself. He couldn't even see her, sitting right before him. She was glad for that.
Perfectly still, her eyes roamed about. There was an East Indian waitress wiping down the tables whom Mina thought to be quite beautiful. She was lanky, which made her look tall, and wore a long black skirt, which made her look taller. Her black hair was in a loose bun and her enormous eyes flashed out from her dark face like a vision. She was closely concentrated on wiping down every empty table, carrying trays of bottles and ashtrays back to the waitstation. She interacted with no one, and walked quickly with her eyes on the floor. None of the men seemed to notice her, but Mina saw that many of the women slyly observed this girl as she moved about. Who among them wouldn't have died to have those astonishing eyes?
She was, Mina decided, completely unaware of her beauty. Her name was something like Amrit, and in her native Bombay she was considered among the most beautiful women of her generation. But she was of low caste, and her future was bleak. That was why the British sailor in his Navy blues had been irresistible when he had smiled at her on the market street by the docks. She couldn't help but look at him, so clean and pretty he was, and, of course, she had those eyes. There were a few days of increasingly dangerous rendez-vous, culminating in his proposal. She was completely shocked. He asked her to marry him as they were saying goodbye, fingers enlaced through the chainlink fence that separated them. The ship was leaving port. She couldn't respond. She said nothing but for the epic that her eyes spoke.
Cut to Amrit arriving at the Hong Kong airport. (How did she manage to get the money for the flight? How did she leave her family? Best, perhaps, to leave that part out.) She's wandering through the airport in her sari, dragging a bulging sack. Is the sailor supposed to be there to meet her? Does he even know she's coming? We don't know. But sadness radiates from her. She's desperate.
Cut to Amrit dragging her bag along the trashy sidewalk of some neon sidestreet. She meets other Indians but they are unsympathetic. This is Hong Kong! Who cares about anyone else?
She's eating fried chicken in a brightly lighted fast-food hell, staring into the tabletop.
Later she finds the British naval base and goes to the gate, requesting to see Private So-and-so. The soldier in the guardhouse checks and tells her her sailor isn't stationed here anymore. He's already been discharged. But she returns again and again, as if she might catch her sailor lingering by the gate.
But he's gone. The soldier in the guardhouse, however, is no fool. He invites her out for a drink. Who on earth is more vulnerable than she? And has she ever been anything but? The camera--for all this surely is a movie in the making--pans in a dizzying sweep across the cityscape, galaxies of windows, surging traffic, buzzing neon, glistening pavement, all superimposed on the great ocean of Amrit's eye...
Mina forced herself to stop. She was making herself sad, and she could cry easily. The busgirl was wiping the table next to theirs so vigorously that the glass was squeaking against the wet rag and the girl was staring into it like a mirror. Tsui was waving his hand to illustrate some point he was making and Mina watched the smoke trail in streamers from his cigarette. How, he wanted to know, would he be able to pay off So-and-so at the Immigration office if his uncle wouldn't front the cash? Without the cash, how could they get the papers? Mina was nodding. She was very interested in papers, certainly, but not to go to London with Tsui and the band. She had someplace else in mind. All the framed photos and posters of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe that crowded the walls practically whispered the word: Hollywood!
* * *
A. C. Koch has lived in southern Europe and eastern Asia, and presently resides in central Mexico on the highplains desert, subsisting as a jazz guitarist in the group Clean & Sexy (www.cleanandsexy.com). Kochs short stories and novel excerpts have appeared in Thieves Press, Rocky Mountain Arsenal of the Arts, Nexus and River City, and can be reached at email@example.com.