Dragon Arm Ah Wah spent most of his youth in custody
After staying away from prisons for decades, he’s back, all because of love
Jail is no longer what it used to be
Neither is the underworld which he once knew well
WHEN Dragon Arm Ah Wah entered Dorm L1 of the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, hugging a pile of blankets and a plastic bag of belongings, I was stretching in bed, breathing into my ageing knees.
Each evening, I’d do some gentle yoga to prepare my body for the damp hard bed, and to create a little mental space while young inmates built up an evening cacophony. The room, nearly full, could incarcerate up to twenty-eight in fourteen bunk beds.
He walked through the door with a calculated gait which demonstrated that he had stepped into more troubling situations before. He then paused briefly. Tiny round eyes, deep-set and vigilant, like those of an animal hiding in a cave, scanned the room. Mickey Mouse, he seemed to have concluded. His expression softened, looking cautiously friendly.
The de facto head inmate Fat Shing, a quiet Wo Kee Gangster in his thirties, greeted him. Fat Shing wasn’t fat anymore. The Wheel of Fortune on his back had wrinkled up, like the sunny pattern on a deflated beach ball. He pointed out which beds were available. Ah Wah took the one across the centre aisle from mine. The kids’ quarter, though only a few feet away, was nominally noisier. He had apparently taken note of that right away. Before settling down, he gave me a quick assessment glance, too quick for me to smile back a hello.
He expertly laid out the military blankets, then took off his shirt. A blue dragon wrapped around his upper right arm, entwined with streaks of bulging veins. Dragons, tigers and eagles used to be standard body adornments in gangland. Now they had become classic. Judging from the young ones in the room, tattoo fashion had diversified — Wheel of Fortune, Tree of Life, Mickey Mouse, Buddha, Popeye — nothing was deemed ridiculous on a modern gangster. One guy had a plum blossom bonsai across his back. His sobriquet was — as would be expected — Plum Blossom. A professional tough guy, not gay, not even effeminate, actually called himself Plum Blossom. I was surprised at first.
Time had evidently changed everything, sparing nothing, not even the underworld.
Ah Wah’s dragon looked weary, a little crinkled, not as confident as its host.
He was assigned to the janitorial team. I worked at the sewing workshop.
I would catch sight of him in the common room, the playground, or back in the dorm. He did not seem to share much with the youngsters, including the boys from his own gang. During the first week, he only exchanged scarce words with an inmate a few years his senior, in the late forties. They had both done time in Cape Collinson, a juvenile prison for boys under twenty-one, back in the 1980’s. It gave them a common topic in reminiscence. Everyone referred to Cape Collinson by the English acronym TC, but nobody knew what it stood for.
‘TC is Cape Collinson in English’ was Ah Wah’s best explanation when I eventually got to ask him.
Most evenings, he would lie in bed reading The Legend of the Condor Heroes. We had all read Jin Yong’s popular wuxia (swordsman is the most common and unsatisfactory translation) classics in our teenage, and watched at least one of the many cinematic renditions since the 1960s. Though good fun tales for any age, and well written in Jin Yong’s uniquely literary but user-friendly style, it was unusual to see someone Ah Wah’s age reading them.
One night, the kids were arm wrestling, having a boisterous time. In a burst of good spirit, Ah Wah left his Condor Heroes in bed to join the the party. ‘Try count to ten staying up,’ he challenged. ‘Left arm only.’
It created an uproar. He was not particularly muscular; and these kids were not exactly nerds. A small crowd formed around the table. One after another, they were downed by the ‘old man’ Ah Wah before they could count to three. When he was eventually defeated by a mainland farmer in a single breath, he took the chance to retire honourably from the tournament, claiming fatigue from having wrestled half the room in turn. He looked my way, beaming triumphantly. I smiled and gave him the thumb up.
He ambled over and we chatted for the first time.
We had name labels on the uniform and the plastic mug that we carried around all day. There was no need for formal introduction.
‘You’re amazingly strong for your size,’ I complimented.
‘I was much bigger.’ Was he being defensive?
I did not mean it that way. Though not Herculean, he was compactly muscular with a leathery texture, appearing more industrial than organic.
‘But this,’ he squeezed his historically ‘much bigger’ left biceps with delicate pride, ‘is more than enough for them.’ He grinned smugly, then threw a sidelong glance at the youngsters. They were screaming and laughing hysterically by now to hide their embarrassment, as the mainlander downed them one after another before they could even start counting.
My attention shifted to his right arm. Dragon looked dejected, as if wishing to be left alone. It wanted no part in this moment of impetuous glory.
‘You left-handed?’ I asked.
‘No. My right was even stronger,’ he explained, still massaging his left arm. ‘Got broken real bad once.’ He turned to face dragon, and cursed impassively. ‘Fucking cunt.’
I wasn’t sure if it was directed at his arm, or the person or incident that emasculated it, but did not seek to clarify. In jail, I tried not to ask too many questions.
‘You like Jin Yong?’ I steered the conversation to safer territory.
‘Condor Heroes?’ He looked across the aisle at his copy, spread open in bed, facing down. ‘Have read it a hundred times.’
A hundred times? Okay, many times, but still. I waited. If he wished to explain, he would. He did. ‘Great book. More like real life than anything else I’ve read.’ He paused, then added with a self-mocking smirk: ‘Don’t read much of anything else though.’
I knew what he meant, so I told him: ‘I know what you mean.’
The mainlander had just finished defeating all Dorm L1 representatives from Hong Kong’s three major gangs, and hopped back to his chess game. His buddy, a fellow illegal worker from the northeastern city of Changchun, a full head taller than him, bigger no-nonsense biceps pulsating, smiled cheekily at him. He sniggered, then muttered at double-speed in a northern accent which nobody could decipher, undoubtedly telling jokes on cute little Hong Kong thugs with funny tattoos. Mainland inmates did not normally participate in the locals’ rowdy games. He might have found Ah Wah’s confident challenge too cocky to ignore — the farmer boy had to show these urban toughs what real muscles are like.
Ah Wah blinked reflectively a few times. ‘Jin Yong understands life’s a jiang hu. A man in jiang hu is no longer his own. Is that how the saying goes?’
‘I think so.’
I never argue with aphorisms; trying to change accepted wisdom is pointless. Plus I actually like this one, though jiang hu had given me considerable headache trying to translate into English. Some words are not meant to cross the language barrier.
Literally, jiang hu means ‘River and Lake’, it’s the social vortex in which we live and struggle, occasionally getting sucked under and drowned. It’s the confluence of office politics, job and peer pressure, social perception, trade practice, conduct of the competition, opinion of loathsome neighbours and disgruntled in-laws. It’s the background flux of human communities, defining and restricting one’s options in life.
The underworld is governed by its own set of fringe traditions and code of ethics — often more straightforward and ruthless than the mainstream ones which it defies. In any jiang hu, one needs to act against one’s wish at times. But in the underworld, that could mean having to slit open someone’s guts or hack off his legs to demonstrate brotherhood loyalty and courage.
‘Once in jiang hu, the big flow takes over,’ I echoed in different words. ‘And we all live in some kind of jiang hu — always.’
It suddenly occurred to me why Ah Wah read the Condor Heroes with such tireless dedication.
Wu xias are superhuman martial artists living in unsettling times. China is threatened by invasion from outside barbarians, or a dysfunctional and unjust government from the inside, or both. Someone needs to maintain justice at street level. Unlike Japanese samurais, wu xias never serve the government or feudal lords. They neither rob nor steal except to punish the greedy and wicked. They are gorgeous, righteous, brave, generous, and cultured. They write love poems between duels which they invariably win. Most important of all, they never run out of legitimate money or credit. They are remarkable swimmers frolicking joyously in the deadly currents of a maelstrom jiang hu.
Jin Yong offers an alternative reality in his novels, one in which the talents of the marginalised are appreciated and graciously rewarded. If I were treading water in Ah Wah’s raging jiang hu, struggling to keep my nose above water, I might also hallucinate parallels between the hostile forces in real life and wu xia stories. Seeking hope and escape from literature is not a middle-class prerogative.
Ah Wah gradually became curious rather than suspicious of me — someone who read, wrote and stretched in bed. He appeared to enjoy chatting with me in his taciturn way, but was never unduly enthusiastic or overly inquisitive about personal details. In spite of his characteristic insouciance which seemed deliberate at times, he never lowered his guard completely, or forgot where we were.
In fragmented bits, he told me about himself, as if handing over random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle one at a time, leaving me to speculate the complete picture — a picture which was probably a mystery to him as well. But whenever we exchanged stories, it would soon become obvious that my jiang hu was relatively uneventful, like Lake Geneva, while his was the tumultuous Lower Congo. I cannot pretend that it was a fair exchange.
Ah Wah soon proved himself much more than a strong left-armed wrestler. He could drop to the floor from standing, body straight like a plank, into single-arm push-ups at a rapid pace. He had learnt these impressive stunts during two three-year stretches in TC decades ago, and had kept them up. Though he could not write poems like wu xias do, he had a repertoire of amusing limericks. Most of them were quite intelligent, thoughtfully satirical with a melancholic touch of helplessness rather than being mindlessly vulgar. Within a couple of weeks at Tong Fuk, he had also gained starlike status by beating everyone in chess. There was evidently a brain somewhere inside his modest looking head.
Similar to his wu xias, he had a heartbreaking romance — a heartache that throbbed silently deep down. But unlike his romantic heroes, he lived in a capitalistic society without cash or credit. To make a better living, he had explored the limits of the law on multiple occasions. Since twenty-one, however, he’d learnt to be smart about it. He had not been charged with any illicit income supplementation for a quarter of a century, until now.
‘What did you do?’ I asked, referring to his offence. The generic descriptions on his prison ID didn’t tell much. Fraud could have been a number of interesting things.
‘Five marriages. The agent was an asshole. Disappeared without paying the balance. Instead of catching him, the fucking cops got us. Cunts.’
Sham marriage with mainland women was responsible for a few inmates at Dorm L1. Most of them, like Ah Wah, were unaware that computers had made their polygamous sideline unviable.
‘Were you married? I mean, for real?’
‘No!’ he said, sounding nearly irritated by my stupid question. ‘How do you marry without a flat? I wanted to buy one in Shenzhen to marry my girl.’
He had married five times in a month for money, in order to get married for love.
‘Where’s she now?’ I poked gently; I knew him well enough by now.
‘Went home to Hebei. Almost a year now.’ He sighed imperceptibly at length, allowing a melancholy side to show for the first time. He mumbled softly, nearly to himself: ‘She sat next to me in every mahjong game for more than two years.’ He looked at me, as if to check whether I understood what it meant, how it must have felt, the lightness of her tender breath behind his shoulders, a loose strand of hair tickling his neck. His mousey eyes melted, lost in reminiscence.
One evening, a diminutive young man Mooloo had a hormonal attack. With underwear fashionably dropped half way down the bum crack, and an erection leading the way, he strode up and down the centre aisle, pretending to be a giant exhibitionist. Mooloo was prone to grand gestures disproportional to his presence, probably the most aggressive and thug-like roommate we had.
He was determined to entertain everyone with his raucous singing that evening.
Inside a big hotel in Hollywood
Three fat dames with six big boobs . . .
A few of his pals cheered him on. Us older guys were all indifferent, not showing the slightest hint of interest or irritation.
Ah Wah ambled over my side, smirking. ‘When I served TC, he wasn’t even a foetus.’ He said it in a low and even voice; neither an undignified whisper nor a declaration of trouble.
I was tempted to say ‘he still isn’t much of one’, but refrained from responding. If Mooloo had pretended not to hear Ah Wah, he would not grant me similar courteousy. Instead, I grasped the opportunity to find out a little bit more about Ah Wah.
‘Actually,’ I asked casually — oh by the way — ‘what were you in TC for?’
‘Man slaughter,’ he said, drawing his right index finger across his throat, shrugging at the same time, slanting the fatal slash diagonally. He also tried to sound casual — oh well, only manslaughter.
It was 1983. He was only fifteen.
The man he slaughtered was a scrawny Wo Kee kid a couple of years his junior. Thin like a matchstick, his dull yellowish complexion reminded Ah Wah of the greasy preserved ducks his mum used to hang out the window to air out on a nice day, except not as lustrous. He was mentally and physically desiccated, a precocious junkie going through the motion of life in a dangerous circle. He was due to die anytime soon; all he needed was an excuse. ‘I became his fucking excuse. Shit karma,’ he said, apparently still sore about the injustice of fate.
Anyway, the nitwit, high on something dirt cheap and a few beer too many, was begging for it. He yapped about Wo Kee wiping 14K off the map of Tsim Tsa Tsui to one of Ah Wah’s chicks, in a disco in Tsim Tsa Tsui, back then hardcore 14K turf under the protection of Ah Wah’s Big Brother. He left Ah Wah with no choice.
‘I caught him solid, right below the sternum with my bare fist.’ His right arm was still good, very strong in fact. Like his left, it rarely lost in arm wrestling. On his thirteenth birthday two years ago, Big Brother had bought it a dragon. Ah Wah spent days looking at it when alone, caressing and admiring the texture of the tinted skin incredulously. The tattoo eventually won him his sobriquet at the fearsome age of fourteen. He was now fully immersed in jiang hu, becoming known and feared, no longer his own boy.
The wimp stooped forward, a puff of bad breath escaped.
Ah Wah expertly gripped his greasy hair, and pulled it down hard with both hands to meet his right knee, a trick he had learnt from Thai boxing. ‘Die, motherfucker!’ he commanded with theatrical cool for his small audience, not meaning it. Perhaps he pulled too hard, and did not aim good enough. Perhaps his flimsy victim tilted his head back in the last moment — his last moment. Perhaps it was meant to be. Ah Wah’s knee missed the nose and crashed right into the Adam’s apple, that strange little knob of cartilage which happened to be the most prominent feature on his victim’s pathetic body.
Something yielded against his knee with a crack.
Pissed off at what he instinctively sensed might have happened, he kneed it again, much harder, furiously, and again.
‘I could sense the moment he died. Something left him, and went through me like electricity. My hands went cold. Fucking spooky man. It freaked me right out, no shit, and pissed me off big time. So I gave him another one, and another one.’
‘I don’t know he could die so easily,’ he told the court later, pleading guilty as advised by legal aid. He honestly didn’t know.
TC was a hell hole, but he survived.
‘It’s okay if you can fight, hell if you can’t. Worse than hell actually, I’m sure.’ He smirked nostalgically. It was a complex nostalgia, a mix of pride, sadness, faded anger, regrets, resignation. Obviously, he was an excellent fighter, so it was okay.
He was discharged after three years. Barely a month later, he got sucked into a big gang warfare. Again, it was Woo Kee. Again, in Tsim Tsa Tsui, and again, back to TC for another three years. He had not killed anyone that time, but the jail term was the same. He found that ‘fucking ridiculous’. He turned twenty-one at TC but was not transferred to an adult prison because he only had a few weeks left to serve.
All that was more than twenty years ago.
Since then, he had managed to avoid jail. He had learnt a thing or two at an early age, and added a tattoo to the inside of his left wrist at his own cost, a tiny character ren — tolerance, patience, endurance. He did not elaborate on what he had learned, or what he had been doing since for a living. ‘All sorts of things. Difficult. What’s there to do in Hong Kong?’ was all he said when I enquired gently. True. What was there for someone like him to do in Hong Kong? There were no factory jobs, and he wasn’t the investment banker type. He could have worked as a janitor I suppose, if he could find a job near home; janitorial jobs didn’t pay enough to take the subway and also buy a lunch-box. But I suspect Ah Wah was too ambitious, motivated, confident, and enterprising — all the praiseworthy attributes one pays to cultivate in leadership workshops — to be a happily employed and law abiding janitor.
Then love, or the Government database, got the better of him.
Being a vintage jailbird and long-time triad without firsthand knowledge of the adult prisons of the twenty-first century was slightly awkward for him. Prisons had changed since he was a juvenile delinquent, he was sure, but how? What he had heard from pals who were regulars to the pokey all sounded like sensational bullshit. Because of the long break, he was now considered a white hand — first time convict. He felt released to be among Category B and C criminals rather than hardcore As, but was embarrassed by the amateurish status.
‘Youngsters these days are not curious,’ he complained like a disappointed pedagogue. ‘I tried to tell them about TC. Not fucking interested. And no fucking respect. Time’s changed, they told me — me! — as if I didn’t know, as if I had fucking expired. When I was their age, we never dared speak to a Shu Fu that way.’
Shu Fu was what elders in a clan or gang were reverently addressed in the olden days — not that long ago — when respect was fundamental to Triad etiquette, not something laughable.
Ah Wah was more than ten years my junior, but seemed to be having bigger problems with the way time had changed the order of things. ‘Nowadays, when they have a good opportunity, they discuss it with buddies. The gang doesn’t matter. Some don’t even belong to any gang. They bond through money and bashes and internet games, not brotherhood. What’s the point of being a gangster if gangs don’t matter no more, huh?’ he asked with rhetorical indignation.
‘No point,’ I agreed. I then tried to console him: ‘It’s the same in any business these days. Loyalty means nothing. Everyone’s driven by short-term profits.’
Ah Wah looked at me as if assessing my truthfulness, then shook his head involuntarily. I think I had deepened his incredulity with the collapsing world order.
When he was young, 14K was by far the largest gang in town. Members were proud of being Triads. His elaborate initiation involved taking a blood oath in a ceremony headed by a senior, dressed like a Daoist monk.
‘Serious stuff. About ten of us. We chopped the head off a live chicken, slashed our fingers, mixed the blood in alcohol, drank the damned thing, passed under an arch of swords, then lit three incense each to take our oath before Guan Gong.’ He winked cheekily, as if teasing a kid with a glimpse of the grown-ups’ world.
Guan Gong was a general from the Three Kingdom Period. A popular novel subsequently elevated him to deity status, turning him into a protector of the marginalised. There’s a Guan Gong shrine in every police station, brothel, gambling den, prison — any establishment associated with either side of the vice in Hong Kong. Before the cops start a day’s work, they first offer an incense to Guan Gong. So do robbers, crack runners and prostitutes. It’s hard to figure out which side Guan Gong’s on. Perhaps he simply ensures fair fights among the underclass, regardless of their professions assigned by fate?
‘I’d read a little about it,’ I said. ‘It’s an old rite from the 18th century. Triads were a cabal trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty then.’
‘There you go. 18th century. So long tradition!’ he exclaimed. ‘You know what they do now?’
‘They chop open a raw egg and draw a red line across the fingers with a felt-tip pen.’
‘No!’ I laughed in disbelief. ‘Virtual blood oath?’
He let out a nasal humph, evidently not as amused as I was. ‘A tradition since the Qing Dynasty, now the boys are fucking it up. Too fucking chicken to kill a chicken or slash fingers! They can’t stand the pain, and worry about the bird flu.’ He then aimed an eyebrow at Mooloo, adding, with a touch of disgust: ‘Don’t even know how to put on his underwear.’
‘Who are the Number Gang?’ This name popped up frequently among the inmates. It seemed interchangeable with 14K but I wasn’t sure. I had heard of the 14K in my secondary school days. Everyone had. A well known gang indeed. But Number Gang? I was curious. ‘Since we’re on the topic…’
‘Number is 14K. Same fucking thing. Fourteen became inauspicious, what, ten fifteen years ago? It rhymes with sure death. Nobody wants fourteen anymore so we started calling ourselves Number,’ he pursed his hard thin lips. ‘I still prefer fourteen.’
‘It has more history,’ I said.
In addition, Number as a gang name sounds absolutely ludicrous; but I kept that opinion to myself.
Conventional wisdom says hope is one of the most important things in life. I discovered that to be not true in jail. To entertain hope would raise expectations and unsettle my mind, shattering calm, overturning acceptance, regenerating bitterness. Hope makes the future anxiously remote, unbearable distant. Not hoping, yet not feeling hopeless, seemed to be the optimal equilibrium, at least for the purpose of adjustment.
As soon as I had succeeded in purging all hopes of ‘bail pending appeal’ from mind, I received news that the Appeal Court would hear my application in three weeks. My mental quiescence, attained through disciplined meditation, promptly shattered.
I told Ah Wah.
‘Three weeks’ very fast. You’d be out in no time.’
‘It’s only a hearing. Having experienced the District Court, I dare not harbour any expectation.’
‘High court’s better.’ He sounded confident, unexpectedly trustful of a system not designed to his favour.
The evening before court appearance, I meditated longer than usual. My mind kept wandering off. I did not feel like chatting. I didn’t know what to say, so I hid in my private routine. Ah Wah read the Condor Heroes in bed.
Earlier that day, I had given him my six AA batteries, ten packs of Tempo tissues, a bottle of shampoo and half a bottle of liquid soap. ‘Please keep them for me while I’m away. If I don’t come back, they’re yours.’
‘Then they’re mine.’
‘I wish I could be optimistic like you.’
‘Don’t need optimism, just money,’ he smiled, eyes twinkling with friendly energy. There was no bitterness in his voice, just a matter of mature opinion. ‘Good luck,’ he added, and gave me a chummy slap on the arm.
‘I’d leave you all the good luck,’ I said, meaning it. ‘I’m retired, have no use of good luck. Just wish to avoid bad ones. You need it more than I do.’
He smiled warmly, and took my authorised chattels to his cubbyhole.
The supreme court granted me bail pending appeal. I did not return to Tong Fuk.
Ah Wah had a relatively stiff sentence for his crime. According to courtroom gossips, the magistrate who convicted him was going through an ugly divorce. ‘He was struggling with a bad hangover,’ Ah Wah’s lawyer told him after the sentencing, either as an attempt to make him feel better, or to cheer him up with a little wisecrack about judicatory misfortunes. Like croupiers of a roulette table, lawyers are detached operators who don’t care where the ball lands — all according to chance, and luck, and money, in the case of justice. Assuming good behaviour, Ah Wah had about a year left.
In any event, we did not exchange contact details.
We had become friends, but were both realistic enough to know that once outside, we would no longer have the same freedom to mix the way we did. Such freedom only exists in prison. Beyond bars, we belong to different worlds — worlds separated by unsurmountable barriers and prejudice, worlds that are deeply suspicious of each other.
I have thought of sending him a letter, but as a convict on bail, I’m not supposed to be in touch with inmates. I have also thought of sending him a full set of Jin Yong’s wu xia classics anonymously, but books had to be delivered by registered visitors only.
Oh well, in the jiang hu of life, people come, people go. Each would take something away, and leave something behind. Then we move on, carried by the flow. Ah Wah understands that, so do I. He has left with me an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, many question marks, and memories of a world I have never been.
I wonder what have I left him.
James Tam @ Guo Du (10.5.2013) updated 9.2021