Perhaps the same could be said of any living creature:
a caterpillar chewing on a leaf, unaware of the beak of an
approaching bird; an egret mesmerized by its reflection in a pond,
as if it were the master of the universe; or Hanfeng’s own
folly of repeating the same pattern of hope
and heartbreak, hoping despite heartbreak.”
– YIYUN LI
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Artwork: Chemin de la Fontaine des Tins at Céret, Chaïm Soutine
There’s a place on Sing Woo Road in Happy Valley where you can buy hairy-crabs from Yangcheng Lake. I bought six, I was going to have the amah stew it in hot Szechuan peppers for Sonny. But he never came home that weekend. It wasn’t the first time. I know something is going on. It’s always the same damn Chinese clients in Shanghai. Karaoke bar. Singing Raindrops Are Falling on My Head or some looney tune that only Sonny knows. They speak only Mandarin up there, right? Yeah, they’ll be singing that oldie, Shanghai Beach, something syrupy like that.
I didn’t end up cooking the crabs. I threw them out. What’s the point? I could easily eat six, I could eat twelve on my own, but what’s the point in dining alone on crabs?
Sonny’s a real tightwad, so when he called from Shanghai, I stuck it to him. “I spent a lot of money on those crabs. What a pity I had to feed them to the neighbors’ dog.”
As if on cue, the damn Lab started to bark. Sonny could probably hear him all the way in Shanghai. He sighed, “I hate to break it to you, babe, but that shop on Sing Woo Road is known for trying to pass off Hongze crab at Yangcheng crab prices. You’ve been stiffed.”
What Sonny was really saying: if I had been able to speak Cantonese, they wouldn’t have tried to pass off counterfeit crabs on me. This town was full of counterfeits. Fake Gucci purses. Fake Jimmy Choo shoes. Pirated DVDs. Fake gold. Whatever you’ve got, they could fake it for you. It’s the perfect town for me, really. I’m another version of counterfeit: yellow on the outside, but I can’t speak a lick of Cantonese.
Sonny’s French cut silk shirts hang like expensive ghosts in the closet. He seems quite the counterfeit himself – a counterfeit of his former self – when his sideburns began to turn salt-and-pepper, he came back with a platinum-blond dyed cut that makes him look younger by ten years. On the street, women flash him smiles or circle their midriffs with their palms. He’s also turned faux-European, courtesy of membership at The Hong Kong Jockey Club, often sporting a V-neck sweater tied around his shoulders, an Oxford shirt and skinny jeans. With his recent promotion to Head of Sales at Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, he travels a lot. I watch him put on his expensive brogues, scuff his shoe on the welcome mat at the doorway as if trying to rid himself of gum picked up on the soles, and I think to myself: even wild desert donkeys have to go to work.
The neighbor’s dog is baying. No matter the time of day, it bays as if it’s a call of duty, or deep in heat. Someone should neuter that dog. Someone should pay heed to his loneliness. But his owner is never home.
Outside Peninsula Villas where we live, a group of missionaries loiter. They look like a youth gathering, except one of the young men is Caucasian. He has longish hair in need of a barber, his hair is cornsilk yellow, and in the sun, it gleams like a swatch of silk. Getting close enough one day, I see that his eyes are strange --- one green one blue. His smile is lupine, as if hungry to save souls, hungry to recruit for God’s army. God has a booming voice, God is certainly liable to shout: how many have you saved today, and I would have to say I have not even managed to save myself.
The Caucasian young man approaches me, perhaps zeroing in on an aura I’ve unwittingly exuded, an aura of loneliness and accessibility. He opens his mouth and out flows a stream of Cantonese. The only word I understand is ‘sister’. His intonations are so perfect that I find myself halted in step listening to his jolting cadence.
“Where did you learn to speak Cantonese like that?” I can’t help blurting out.
The young man stops talking. “I’m sorry, I’d mistaken you for a local.”
I smile. “No offense taken. I’m already saved though. I went to a Catholic school. I know the seven cardinal sins, the sacraments, all of that.”
He breaks into stride alongside me. “But do you believe in Jesus? Being baptized alone isn’t enough unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior.”
Do I accept Jesus as my personal savior? A long time ago, I thought I did.
But to brush him away, I quote John 6:44 –No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day.
The young man nods. “I see you know your Scripture, sister. God bless you. Have a good day.”
He lopes off in a crooked gait, and I watch him make a beeline for another woman emerging from Peninsula Villas. This time, a woman who speaks dignified upper-crust Cantonese. I listen to his rapid conjugations, and once again, I’m thinking that here’s another counterfeit – a boy who is the embodiment of the foreign devil but speaks such fine yellow earth. Or perhaps I’ve got it all wrong: I’m the counterfeit and he’s the genuine article. Tell me, how does one discern real from fake in this topsy-turvy world?
On a tram heading towards Causeway Bay another afternoon, the Caucasian young missionary has climbed on as well, and behind my blue-tinted pilot Gucci shades, I watch him wend his way down the gangway, looking for victims. This tint of blue suits me. I do not remove my glasses. I’d like to think the world is as off-color as I am.
He sits down beside me and accosts me in English. “Sister, do you believe in God?”
“You’ve already tried to convert me once, don’t you remember? I’m Catholic.”
He frowns slightly. “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bother you.”
“No, please sit. You never did tell me how you learned to speak Cantonese so fluently.”
His eyes maintain a sly translucence; the disparate color pupils mesmerize me. The young man has an ability to gaze without blinking, without revealing any emotion or flicker of life within. “I grew up with missionary parents in Kowloon. They were Jesuits.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m Lillian. Nice to meet you Douglas.”
I turn into your average busybody aunt; I quiz him about his family background. The government housing where he grew up was in Shatin, and he played soccer with a group of boys from the same block every afternoon after school. His best friend was a diabetic Chinese boy, self-named Peanuts. Completely without irony, Douglas tells me Peanuts was crazy about Snoopy cartoons. He loved red bean buns, except of course he couldn’t eat any. He died a sudden death from insulin shock. He wasn’t even sixteen. Douglas had a hard time accepting the death of his friend. That was when he started turning to God. He grew up saying his mealtime and bedtime prayers, went to Jesuit prayer meetings with his parents, but it wasn’t until Peanuts died that he really began to pray for the first time. “Truth hides in the most peculiar places, my friend.” Douglas rubs the corner of his lips with his fingers as if he’s eaten something gelatinous. He uses such antiquated phraseology, as if he’s training to be a priest. “There’s no truth bigger than death. But it hides itself in the illness of my best friend. He died so I could find life. His life though short had purpose. If I hadn’t lost him, I would never have known the beneficence and wonderful love of our Father in Heaven.”
I find his words self-obsessed, delusional. I stare at the calm unmoving pupils in his face. They are completely unruffled, devoid of any expression. For something to say, I start telling him about my baptism by water, how the priest at Assumption Catholic Church dunked my head for five seconds too long, a thick, callused palm pressed hard against the crown of my head, how bubbles of air escaped my lips in a mild panic, and I thought I would drown.
Douglas finds this amusing. “You thought you were going to get killed being baptized?”
“It sounds really lame, doesn’t it?”
He smiles. “Not so lame. I once thought I would die if I was bitten by three mosquitoes in succession.”
“Didn’t you say sometimes truth hides in the most peculiar places? Well, maybe it hides in every third mosquito.”
His strange emotionless eyes are depthless. “You’re funny.”
He makes a blessing gesture of the cross, gets up and seats himself in the row behind me, in search of the next potential convert. “You are not alone,” he says to me, solemn and blank-eyed, “Our Father in Heaven is looking at you.” I know he meant ‘after’, not ‘at’, but it sounds just right.
This is what Sonny accuses me of – melodrama, histrionism, unreasonableness, which in Sonny’s book, is an even bigger cardinal sin than the other seven. He accuses me of fraudulent behavior. I’m acting shrewish for no good reason. There is no other woman. He is not avoiding coming home. Our marriage is fine.
I think Sonny has stumbled upon an unkind cosmic truth about much of loneliness – loneliness is something your doppelganger takes on. She’s the one speaking when you’re lonely, standing there in her tight qipao and looking suspiciously like your querulous mother. Loneliness is itself and its opposite simultaneously, just as Hong Kong, as you stand on a promontory gazing down, is a fishbowl and also a sea of people; you can escape neither it nor yourself.
Over the last two years living in Hong Kong, I’ve lost a lot of friends. I don’t keep up with people. I don’t return phone calls. I hardly respond to invites. The ones I did like had children, and it’s true, there’s a deep divide between people with children and people without. That divide is deep and vascular. Truth is, I don’t mind hearing another competitive school story. I don’t mind hearing about another child prodigy. But these women break off embarrassed, as if someone like me without children would never understand that need to brag.
When I think of my friends, it’s curious to note that each one of them is a Chinese woman like me, with the diaspora behind them or who have spent some years abroad, but they’ve all married a Caucasian, like Douglas. Maybe they know something I don’t. I imagine them sitting in a school auditorium with their husbands and their mixed children – a breed unto their own – and I think to myself: individually they might have married for love, but collectively they married for power. Wasn’t it Gertrude Stein who said all relationship was power?
I find receipts in Sonny’s trouser pockets. Receipts from karaoke bars for two of everything: two snifters of Armagnac, two chicken fricassees, two goat cheese salads, one baked Alaska, two mineral waters. Sonny doesn’t eat desserts.
It is too hot to remain indoors. A million ants are gnawing at me. So I take the tram to Causeway Bay, letting the hot silty wind ruffle my hair and plaster my face. I used to be shocked at the film of black that comes away from my pores after an afernoon out, but now, I’ve come to embrace even the dirt and filth.
Wandering around Causeway Bay, where the crowd is three-deep on every street, a man pushing a loading trolley of boxes forces me to step out of the way into a dark hallway. It’s a gray, decrepit building, but glancing at the metal directory, I see that the third floor hosts a karaoke bar. It’s dark and vacant, most of its chairs up-ended on tables, and it reeks of stale mustiness and beer. The darkness feels lik e a welcome relief. Here I can take off my blue-tinted Gucci glasses and allow the world to resume normal colors again. Not that the obscure darkness within really lets light in. But that’s also for the best.
The attendant that shows me to a karaoke room is a young adolescent girl with bad acne but beautiful lashes. The girl wears a white long-sleeved shirt, a skinny black tie, and black knickerbockers. It’s an odd choice of fashion, but I’ve grown used to these oddball Hong Kong teenagers with their guileless innocence and desire to be hip. She tells me her name is Shadow; she babbles at me in Cantonese, and I try to make out what she’s blabbing about, and then sudden understanding dawns, as if often does for me even though I resist. She can’t believe I’ve paid but I’m not going to avail myself of the songs. Just drink Johnny Walker in the dark? That offends her Chinese sensibilities of getting a good bargain. After all, what other point is there to life but to sing bawdy karaoke?
A thick laminated folder is thrust into my hands, its plastic making crinkling sounds like smoking ice-cubes. The list of songs on offer is endless. Mandarin, Cantonese, even Indonesian songs, and of course, a long list of oldies. The names bring electric jolts of memory – Michelle by the Beatles, Eternal Flame, Wind Beneath My Wings, Dancing Queen, I Should Be So Lucky, Like A Virgin. My high school best friend Hannah. I suddenly see her in all her teenage glory – hoop earrings, leg warmers, giggling, snuggling in my bed, mooning over Doogie Howser, M.D.
What has happened to me that I’m content to be as fake as Sonny? What have I become? A trophy expatriate wife lazying away her days with lacquered nails and shopping for semi-precious stones? I look up at the thin corrugated pipes snaking along the ceiling, the air-conditioner dripping water and making a humming noise, the dark and dank and cold of the room I’m in. Shadow pokes her head back in.
“You choose song yet?”
I shake my head.
She comes in and slumps down on the greasy vinyl couch. “I help.”
She flips through the laminated folder. Her finger peruses down the list quickly. She jabs at a song she’s chosen. Over her shoulder, I try to read. It’s some Canto pop song. “From Faye Wong. You know Faye Wong?”
Everybody knows Faye Wong if they live in Hong Kong. She claps her hands. She pushes the button on the remote. The video blinks on. A picture of a thin sheba-like creature snaking along a wall painted like a chess set. The music begins. Shadow clears her voice. When the words come on, she cues herself perfectly. Her voice is young, sweet, if a bit off-key. She’s too unabashed and guileless to be self-conscious of her lack of tonal range.
When she finishes, I applaud. She blushes like a winsome bride. “Your turn.”
Why not? I can make it through if I close my eyes and remember Hannah. I clear my throat. I try a note. It comes out reedy, wobbly. Shadow has chosen a song for me at random. Belinda Carlisle’s Mad About You. “You know this one?”
I do know this one. Oh, how I know this one. I begin slow, tentative. And then, there’s no help for it. The beat demands it. The corny pictures of a couple strolling on a beach to a tropical sunset demand that I belt out Mad About You with everything I’ve got, all that my lungs can deliver, even if feeling is lacking. Once again, I am a teenager. A held-up fist as a functioning microphone. One knee thumping up, thumping down. The hair flick. The snazzy elbows cinched close, the knees bumping together, the feet splayed.
The song ends. Shadow stares at me as if I’m a particularly delicious Yangcheng crab. “Wow, you so good. More song?” She drums her feet, left, right, left, right, a rapid staccato. And I too am alive to a curious beat. I’ve just realized that when singing the chorus an image has slipped into my head of cornsilk hair and a stranger’s mismatched eyes. My mind has opened itself like a drawer full of knives.
Every afternoon, I ride the tram. Every afternoon, I sing karaoke with Shadow. Every afternoon on the tram, I run into Douglas. He says hello and then leaves me alone.
“Do you mind if I ask you something, Douglas?” It’s an afternoon with few passengers. He sits behind me, hands beating a strange drumbeat on his Bible.
“How many people have you managed to save on this tram?”
He closes his bible with a snap and tucks it under his arm. “This afternoon, zero. But the afternoon is still young.” He laughs, twitches a little. Even his laugh has an anodyne, unruffled sheen to it, as if he’s not really laughing, merely imitating the sounds. “My job is to plant seeds. I have hope that many of my seeds will bloom.”
“Have you ever considered that God may not exist?” A side of me whispers: it is evil to do this. Stop.
Douglas smirks. “How do you explain creation then if God doesn’t exist?”
I shrug. “The big bang?”
“That’s just a scientific theory. No one has proven it yet.”
“You mean you don’t believe in dinosaurs, and that we’re descended from monkeys?”
“It doesn’t matter whether I believe in evolution, because I believe God created us all. Monkey and its descendants.”
I can do damage, I see that, but I’m needled through with irritation. “Are you really so naïve as to believe there is an Adam and Eve?”
“I believe that every word in the Bible is inspired by God. It is holy. It is God’s instruction to us.”
“Douglas, have you ever considered that it is possible that there’s nothing after this? There is no heaven. We become nothing. Our bodies crumble to dust. And that’s all.”
Finally, an emotion registers behind his opalescent irises – an emotion that contains within itself a flicker of annoyance. “There is a heaven, Lillian. And there is a hell too.”
“You can’t prove it, though, can you?”
He touches his hair, flicks it back, loops it behind his ear in a curiously effeminate gesture. “No. But neither can you prove they don’t exist.” The minute he says this, I realize of course there's a heaven and hell.
My breath lodges, kinks itself. The pain I feel is slamming and sudden, and yet, I don't want him to see this intimate glimpse of me. “So why do you choose to believe in something you can’t prove?”
Douglas bares his teeth. He means it as a smile, but there’s a scintilla of animosity he couldn’t hide. “Faith. God tells us to have faith.”
We look at each other from opposite sides of an impregnable gulf: he is bristling, and I feel deserted, alone, as if I've never before accosted such craggy depth with blue-tinted glasses. I push my Gucci shades up on top of my head so that he can finally see and read my eyes. “Tell me, Douglas, do you have faith in your singing?”
It takes a lot to convince Douglas. I am ashamed to admit I used Shadow as a ruse. I tell him there’s someone longing to be saved at this karaoke bar.
Shadow is surprised to see me with a young man. Her mouth opens slightly, her eyes widen. But she’s even more surprised when she takes in his race, his disparate color eyes, the Bible under his arm. When Douglas begins to talk to her in Cantonese though, she’s easily won over. Finally, through Douglas, I learn much more about Shadow than I have done in the last couple of weeks here.
She too grew up in a housing estate in Shatin. She has two brothers but she is the youngest. She failed her O levels. Her father still drives cargo trucks back and forth from the mainland and her mother is a seamstress. In a four-room apartment about four hundred square feet, she lives with her parents, her elderly grandmother, and her two strapping brothers. Dimly, with my childhood growing up in Berkeley, I am aware that there are many lives of penury, people whose lives are limned with a survival prerogative that I do not know. Shadow is oblivious to the extent that she has no ambitions where money is concerned; she accepts her destiny to be poor. She wants to find a boy to marry, a boy to have a family with, a boy who earns enough that she can stop working at this decrepit karaoke bar.
Douglas has stopped translating. He’s conducting now an urgent conversation with Shadow, opening his bible, which I see now is a Chinese-English bible, and the runic characters on the left page look so dense and crawling to me, an unfamiliar place, a place that does not wish to be known, a place not unlike this town. A whiff of strangeness touches me as I watch Douglas’ face – so unperturbed, so calm, so serene, and this whiff contains within it a terrible whisper – the whisper of ineffable sadness.
Shadow opens up like a flower; I don’t think she’s ever heard a Caucasian speak such mellifluous Cantonese back at her. It brings back a memory of Sonny and me in Venice, during our early days together. He serenades me with Italian, something I hadn’t known he could speak. He serenades me in a gondola, and I was bowled over by this dapper Chinese guy with his romantic incantations, and it was only when the gondolier laughed, that I began to suspect that really, Sonny was babbling nonsense.
In plain daylight, I see Sonny. He is walking away from me. His hand is resting on the back of a woman with shoulder-length hair, hair-salon curled type of hair. Her skirt is pencil-thin, her legs limber and long in cork wedges. When she turns towards him, I catch sight of a cheek. She is young. Irredeemably young as I am irredeemably middle-aged. I’m wearing tennis shoes. I can catch them. I can shout obscenities. I have good lungs. I can really belt them out. Bastard. Asshole. Goddamn you. But I’ve hesitated a second too long. He has already turned a corner in Happy Valley. The last I see of her is when she picks up her foot to scrape off some gum that’s accidentally stuck to the sole of her wedges. She laughs and swings a plastic bag. Perhaps containing Yangcheng crabs.
Shadow invites both Douglas and I over for dinner with her parents. I demur.
But Shadow insists. “I think my parents will really like you.”
“I can’t. I have to cook dinner for my husband.”
“But you tell me he travels a lot.”
“Well, maybe some other time I can come.”
“Is he travelling this week?”
“Well, yes, but I really shouldn’t. I won’t know how to get out to Shatin.” (this part is true).
“I get off work on Wednesday at six. I’ll take you. I can even come to your house to pick you up.”
This does not sound like a good idea to me. I don’t want Shadow to see the palatial apartment I live in at Peninsula Villas. “No, no. I can come here. I’m here till five o’clock a lot of afternoons anyway.”
“Please come. My mother makes a killer shark fin soup. She puts red mehjool dates in them. No one else makes it that way. If you like her soup, she might even give you her recipe.”
It’s the smile that makes me crumble. Shadow, despite her namesake, does not yet know of dark corners and eclipses of the soul. And when Douglas is done saving her soul, I wonder if the cobwebs will finally invade.
Douglas, on the other hand, is enthused. More souls to save. Hallelujah.
A Wednesday afternoon, we ride the tram together to Causeway Bay. Shadow comes off work, skipping down the steps. Youthful, exuberant. The two of them converse excitedly in the MTR.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“We’re talking about the soccer game last night. Hong Kong versus Korea. One nil.”
“Hmm…I didn’t know she’s a big soccer fan.”
Douglas rolls his head around his shoulders as if he’s a soccer athlete. “She’s got two older brothers, remember?”
“Will we meet them too?”
He turns to ask Shadow in Cantonese, and it’s then that I see it. The sudden down flicker of her lids, the upturn of her lips, the fading blush down her neck. Shadow has a crush on Douglas.
This unimpeded knowledge feels like a blow to the chest. It leaves me suddenly desirous of more than the stale air of the MTR. I must have gone pale, because Douglas suddenly looks at me with concern. “Are you okay, Lillian?”
“I don’t feel too good.”
There’s no place to sit; no one seems willing to give up his seat either. Typical Chinese. Douglas puts an arm around me. “You can lean on me, Lillian. Lean on me until you feel better.”
And I do. I lean on his young muscular strength. I lean on his faith in the world oh-so-hopeful and benign, his heart that knows only of distant heartbreak and the munificence of a grander being.
The Season For Hairy Crabs was published in The View From Here.
Elaine Chiew is based in Singapore and London and is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She won The Bridport Prize in 2008 and Elbow Room Prize (2015). She’s been named Wigleaf Top 50 Microfiction, nominated for Best of Small Fictions 2016 and shortlisted and long listed in other competitions and awards, including Baltic Residencies, Pushcart, Short Fiction, Mslexia, BBC Opening Lines, Fish International Short Stories, among others. Her most recent stories can be found in Potomac Review and Singapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, 2016) which has been shortlisted for the Singapore Readers’ Popular Choice Awards. She has recently completed an M.A. in Asian Art History from Lasalle College of the Arts (Goldsmiths accr.) and a writer’s residency at School of the Arts, Singapore.