Friday, 10 May 2013

Midlife Triad (Part 2 of 2)

Midlife Triad and other excellent stories by Hong Kong based writers can be found in the HK Writers Circle Anthology: Of Gods and Mobsters.

So, the first time Ah Wah served in TC, he was fifteen. It was 1983.
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 on a nice day, except not as lustrous. He was mentally and physically desiccated; no doubt a precocious junkie due to die anytime soon of any excuse. “I became that excuse. Shit karma,” he said, apparently still sore about the injustice of fate.
Anyway, the nitwit, high on something dirt cheap and many 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, imagine, 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 option.
He used only his bare fist. “It caught him solid, right below the sternum.” His right arm was still good, very strong in fact. Like his left, it rarely lost in arm wrestling. On his thirteenth birthday, 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 would win him his sobriquet at the fearsome age of fourteen. With a sobriquet, he was now recognised, fully immersed in jiang hu, no longer his own boy.
The wimp stooped forward, huffed and puked stinky dry air.
Ah Wah expertly pulled his greasy head down hard with both hands to meet his right knee, a trick he had learnt from Thai boxing. “Die you fuckhead,” he said with theatrical cool for his small audience, not meaning it. Perhaps he pulled too hard, and not watching. His flimsy victim tried to tilt his head back in the last moment, his last moment. Ah Wah’s knee missed the nose and crashed right into the throat instead. 
Something yielded with a crack, and collapsed against his knee. 
Pissed off at what his instinct told him might have just happened, he kneed it again, this time much harder, furiously, crushing the Adam’s apple, that strange little knob of cartilage. The one on his victim happened to be the most prominent feature on his pathetic body. 
“I could sense the moment he died. Something left him, and went through me like ghosty electricity. My hands went cold. Fucking spooky man. It freaked me no shit. So I gave him another one, and another one.” 
He had never imagined that life could be so fragile. “I don’t know he dies so easy,” he told the court later, pleading guilty as advised by legal aid, which advised him as a matter of formality. He was not lying. 

TC was a hell hole but he survived. “Okay if you can fight. Hell if you can’t,”  he said with nostalgic smugness. Obviously, he could.
He was discharged after three years. One month hence, he got sucked into a big gang warfare, again against Woo Kee, again in Tsim Tsa Tsui, and got sent back in again for another three years. He had not killed anyone this time but the jail term was similar. He found that strange. He turned twenty-one at TC but was not transferred to an adult prison because he only had a few weeks left.
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 which embraced multiple virtues tolerance, patience, endurance. He did not elaborate 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 hinted at it. 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 them praiseworthy attributes one found in Employment Ads — to be a happily employed and law abiding janitor.
Then the Government database got him. 
Being an old jailbird and long-time triad without firsthand knowledge of the adult jails of the 21st century was slightly awkward for him. Prisons had changed since he was a juvenile, he was sure, but wasn’t sure in what way. What he had heard from pals who had been regulars to the pokey all sounded like melodramatic bullshit. Because of the long break, he was now considered a “white hand” — first time convict. On one hand, he felt released to be among Category B and C criminals rather than hardcore As. On the other hand, he was embarrassed by the amateurish status. 

“Youngsters these days are not curious,” he complained like a disillusioned pedagogue. “I tried to tell them about TC. Not interested. ‘Time’s changed,’ they said, as if I don’t know; as if I’m fucking obsolete. When I was their age, we never dared speak to a Shu Fu like that.” 
Shu Fu was what elders in a clan or gang were reverently addressed, not long ago, in the olden days, before time had changed, when there was respect.
Ah Wah was more than ten years my junior, but seemed to be having greater issues with the disorderly changes a short period of time had brought about. “Nowadays, when they have a good opportunity, they discuss it with buddies. Doesn’t matter which gang. 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.
“Can’t see any,” I said. Then I tried to console him: “It’s the same in any business these days. Loyalty means nothing. Everyone’s driven by short-term profit.”
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 instead.

When he was young, 14K was by far the largest gang in town. Being triad was something to be proud of, at least to the members. 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 concoction, passed under an arch of swords, and incensed our oath to 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 was 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 started a day’s work, they first offered an incense to Guan Gong. So did robbers, crack runners and prostitutes. I never figured out which side Guan Gong’s on. Perhaps he was there simply to ensure fair fights among the underclass, regardless of their fate-assigned professions, separated by tenuous ambiguous lines.
“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?”
“No idea.”
“They chop 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 amused as I was. “A tradition since the Qing Dynasty, now the boys are making a mess of it. Too chicken to kill a chicken or slash fingers! They can’t stand pain, and worry about getting the bird flu.” He then aimed an eyebrow at Mooloo, adding with a touch of disgust: “And their pants are half way down.”

“Who are the Number Gang?” This name was often heard 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. 
Number is 14K. Same thing. Fourteen became inauspicious, what, ten fifteen years ago? Hong Kong suddenly decided 14 rhymes with sure death. Nobody wants 14 anymore so some of us started calling ourselves Number,” he pursed his hard thin lips. “I still prefer 14.”
“It has more history,” I said. 
In addition, Number as a gang name sounds 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 peace, resisting acceptance, arousing bitterness and reviving a burning sense of injustice. To hope was to make the future anxiously far away, unbearable. Not hoping, yet not feeling hopeless, seemed to be the optimal equilibrium as far as adaptation was concerned.
But as soon as I had succeeded in purging all hope of “bail pending appeal” from my mind, I received news that the Appeal Court would hear my application in three weeks. The mental quiescence attained through disciplined meditation and a constant overdose of philosophy 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 authoritative, unexpectedly trustful of a system not really 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 lay in bed, quiet, reading the Condor Heroes.
Earlier that day, I had given him my six AA batteries, 10 packs of Tempo tissues, a bottle of shampoo and half a bottle of liquid soap. I asked if he could do me a favour: “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 matured resignation. “Good luck,” he added, giving me a chummy slap on the arm.
“I’d leave you all the good luck,” I said, meaning every word. “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 that evening.
Ah Wah had a relatively stiff sentence. 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. Lawyers like to maintain a sense of humour about judicatory misfortunes. With good behaviour, he 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 existed in prison. Beyond bars, we belong to different worlds; worlds separated by impregnable barriers; worlds that were 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 are brought into prison by registered visitors only. 
Oh well, in the jiang hu of wu xias, people come, people go. You save a little of them in your heart, and move on, carried by the flow.
Ah Wah understands that. 
I do as well, perhaps much more now than before.
— end — 

James Tam @ Guo Du (10.5.2013)

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