Slightly edited version of "The Sins of Sin",
Originally anthologised by Hong Kong Writers Circle
Sin went through the morning’s news clippings for the fifth time, sucking desperately at a fibre of lunchtime chicken lodged between molars, making loud slippery tzits! He stuffed his half-finished lunchbox into the paper basket without closing the lid, then searched fruitlessly for a toothpick.
His secretary Flora was returning from lunch, shuffling past his open door to take position behind her desk for another two hundred and ten minutes before she was free to go. Though only a few metres from her, he summoned her with the intercom as a matter of principle: “Flora. Do you have a toothpick?”
“No Mr. Sin,” she replied in an intimidated voice that some suspected was a result of having worked for Sin all these years.
“Can you first look?”
“I know I don’t Mr. Sin but I can look anyway if you wish.”
“Forget it. Just come in.”
She entered, goggling him in silence, not wondering what he might want. She had given up on that long ago.
“Can you make a copy?” He eyed the news clippings on his desk, picking his teeth with a straightened paper clip. His “media contact” Winnie Poon had asked a few questions outside the courtroom yesterday, mentioning his new title, just as he had skillfully hinted. Her question on cross-border corruption had been a surprise, but he had handled it well. He was extremely pleased with the result: “No Territorial Boundary in the Battle against Corruption”, said Senior Assistant Director. Fantastic, he thought. Visionary, bold, and righteous. It would attract many “likes” if he could share it on Facebook.
Just as Flora was turning to leave, he changed his mind. “Uh, make it three.” Spare copies never hurt.
As Flora walked away, he stared at her phlegmatic fifty-year-old backside, and pitied himself for not having a young and slinky secretary, the kind that his colleagues in the private sector seemed always to have. “Can’t have it all,” he consoled himself, and shrugged.
When a young lawyer, he used to practise shrugging before a mirror. “The courtroom is a stage for drama. Body language is just as important as Latin,” his mentor had told him. “In words, you must remain civil. Always address other lawyers, however ignorant they may be, as your learned friends. But in body language, you can artfully show contempt.” Sin had since diligently applied this subtly disdainful gesture. With time, it had become a tic.
He caressed his leather name stand. It said “John Robert F Y Sin, SAD”. His wife had given it to him for his promotion. Beautiful. Classily leathery. But the acronym SAD vexed him. She should have placed it in brackets. Oh well, that’s Peony, he gave another shrug. Never does anything right.
His Chinese name was Sin Fook Yum. Sin being the ironic transliteration of his family name, given his profession as a lawyer and his father’s as a Baptist minister. Fook Yum meant good news, a pious touch. John was the English name on his birth certificate. He added Robert later himself, after discovering that real Westerners all had a middle name. His friends were invited to call him Johnny. So far, nobody did; not even his wife. She called him Ah Fook from childhood habit.
Flora reappeared to drop the copies on his IN-tray, and left just as stealthily as she had entered. He continued to play with his name stand. When she was gone, he read the story again, and underlined his name and title with a pencil.
He took out his phone and sent a message: “Tks for great article. Wish you lots of goodies from “informed sources” :) Happy hour later?”
A few minutes later, it rang.
“Be careful what you write Sin Sir. So you owe me one huh?” came the constantly sardonic and worn out voice of Winnie Poon.
“OK lah,” Sin sat up to arrange a charming face as if Winnie could see. He scratched his itchy scalp with the pinky of his free hand. He suffered from a stubborn case of eczema soon after graduation. It could have been the first cheap wig that he bought. “Got time for happy hour later?”
“I work for the newspaper, not government, Sin Sir. My happy hour starts at ten.”
“Then don’t complain that I don’t pay back lah.”
“Beer is not what I expect in return. What about six thirty?”
“If you promise not to be late Ms Poon.”
“Can I bring Edmund Wong? I’d be interviewing him nearby.”
“Edmund Wong of the TDP?”
“Yes, your old classmate.”
“I know him from the Bar. We had met at HKU but he was older and two years ahead —” Sin took a weighty and thoughtful pause, hoping that it would be felt at the other end “— It may not be good for me to be seen drinking with the Vice-Chairman of the True Democratic Party though.”
“Are there surveillance cameras all over Lan Kwai Fong?”
“Ahem,” Sin cleared his throat importantly. “I’m thinking of the paparazzi.”
“Sin Sir, you’re a professional elite, not a Canto Pop Singer. Very few of them know you.” Winnie Poon knew Sin couldn’t distinguish compliment from sarcasm. “Plus isn’t it part of your new job as a senior official to cultivate political contacts.”
Good point, Sin thought. “Okay okay. Six thirty then. The Irish Bar?”
“See ya!” She was gone.
He put the phone back into his pocket, then absentmindedly examined his pinky. Just a small piece of oily dandruff. No hair attached; nothing too worrying. He wiped it on his pants. His mind drifted to Edmund Wong.
He was a case of natural development in Sin’s eye: star campus activist cum lawyer cum politician. Sin admired his passion and vigour in their student days. But things had changed with time hadn’t they? Quite drastically in many areas, leaving Edmund stuck with a dated ideology that had become irrelevant. Luckily for him, his faithful remained just as anchored in his jaded radicalism, now being expressed in increasingly higher volume.
On the other hand, Sin leaned back, contemplative with self-assessment. He, John Robert Sin, to be fair, had aged remarkably well.
His earlier days had been undeniably mediocre, categorically marginal. After getting admitted to law school on third attempt, he barely squeezed by all the courses. Upon graduation, he joined the government without hesitation. It hurt his pride slightly back then.
In some sport tournaments, the early losers drop out to compete on the side among themselves for the “plate”. That’s what the civil service was likened to by law school graduates. In the end, joining the losers’ league turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Sin queued in the right place, at the right time, with the right crowd. After shuffling along for thirty years, he was now Senior Assistant Director by default. The smart asses from his class of 85’ would be sucking up to him. He might even be invited to give talks at Alumni dinners. Sweet. In retrospect, life is a marathon. What’s the point of sprinting the first half, and run out of steam towards the finishing line, huh?
Now, the Fortuneteller case had been satisfactorily concluded yesterday. His critics might say that Fortuneteller was convicted by the media, and the case was won by the London silk on fiat, not to mention the fact that Sin had taken over the case only a few months ago. “So?” he dismissed the anticipated jealousy with another shrug — more philosophical than contemptuous this time.
But what next?
The Fortuneteller case had put his name on headlines, and face on TV, regularly for weeks now. In his victorious mood, Sin felt the painful symptoms of withdrawal. He was suddenly tired of his low profile. Time for a breakthrough, he told himself. One that is prudent, of course.
He absentmindedly pulled the Vergel file from the overflowing PENDING-tray.
Vergel. Big international bluechip. Spotless reputation. Thoroughly unsensational. The evidence was weak, nearly non-existent; only the inconsistent words of a bitter convict come accomplice witness Paolo Rodrigues against Vergel’s.
Macau, Sin gave a mental sigh. What a place. The Woo scandal implicated every business entity in the tiny Vegas of Asia. For a while, anyone not under investigation would pretend that they were, just to save face. In the end, everyone implicated had miraculously left town before shit hit the fan.
Except Paolo Rodrigues, Vergel’s local partner.
The Rodrigues had been prominent compradores in Macau since the 17th century. But its wealth had long been drained, and the complacent mind of its latest headsman best illustrated by his own baffling “defence” — if that’s what it was intended to be — during the Macau trial: “This place’s been like this for centuries! What’s the big deal?” In the end, it wasn’t. For a corruption scandal involving a noticeable percentage of Macau’s GDP, only one Minister — Michelangelo Woo — and a single supporting actor — Paolo Rodrigues — were jailed.
After two years behind bars, Rodrigues had suddenly reported to the ICAC — the anti-graft agency in Hong Kong — that Vergel had been an accomplice, reversing his previous admissions. Sin wondered what it was. Money, no doubt. Rodrigues had demanded money from Vergel, “or there’ll be trouble!” he promised, amazingly, in writing, using prison stationery. When refused, he contacted the ICAC. Oh well, he wasn’t the first one to make good personal threats through them. ICAC agents warmly welcomed allegations of any shade or colour; their contracts depended on them. Rats were served free coffee in report centres, made to feel at home, even given professional coaching.
Two Vergel executives had indeed been troubled by investigation, as Rodrigues promised, for nine months now, but there was nothing to investigate. Oh well, perhaps it’s time to drop it, now that the ICAC boys had renewed their contracts, he sniggered cynically.
Not today though. He needed a break today. He tossed the dusty file back to its tray.
He felt like surfing the net for something juicy. Must have been the residual testosterone from yesterday’s victory. He first opened a work screen that he could hop to in one quick click, in case his unruly boss, the Deputy Director, code-named Peter Pan, barged in. Prudence never hurts.
At five-thirty, Johnny Sin was already ambling up Lan Kwai Fong, heading toward the Irish bar tucked away in a quiet alley. Regarding this appointment as kinda work related, he had left office slightly earlier than usual. The area wouldn’t come alive for another hour or so.
He liked his two beers after work — buy one get one free, no service charge. He often went there alone. A prosecutor’s life was a lonely one. His colleagues kept a professional distance from each other by tradition and personal despise. Meeting up with lawyers from the private sector was sensitive. His church friends did not drink in public. His wife Peony drank only lukewarm distilled water to prevent cancer.
Winnie Poon was an exception.
In her late thirties, she was associate editor of the Durian Daily — a local tabloid. Every newspaper in Hong Kong was a tabloid, or bankrupt. Her speciality was sensational court cases. Gory details were the hottest, followed by cases involving celebrities. Scandals were popular if the plot was not too complicated. Otherwise, it was her job to simplify it.
Johnny Sin had known her for years, but their symbiotic relationship only flourished recently with his promotion. Journalists needed informed sources. Prosecutors needed favourable media coverage. High profile suspects who had been trashed by the media and loathed by the public were more likely to go to jail.
Like a professional sportsman, Sin’s self-esteem and career rating depended on performance statistics. Each conviction was a goal.
As he entered the bar, the manager gave a tepid nod. Sin was an unhurried drinker who rarely spent more than the price of one beer for two, and never tipped. He picked a corner table, ordered a pint, and opened his king-sized attache case, the kind favoured by airplane pilots and lawyers. It contained two items: the morning paper and his keys. He took out the paper. The keys clinked, and echoed faintly in the empty darkness.
He started rereading the paper. He had nearly an hour to kill the first beer.
Winnie Poon arrived half an hour late with Edmund Wong. Sin had only a thin layer of room temperature froth in his mug. “You’re late Missy!”
“Sorry Sin Sir,” she said, out of breath. “You know the Honourable Edmund Wong right?”
“Of course. We’ve met at the other Bar many times.” Sin extended his hand halfway, sitting down. Edmund Wong barely touched it with his cold soft fingers, then sat down with Winnie Poon on the other side of the table.
“My fault. Never easy to leave Legco you know. The pro-government members were playing cunning games to get the budget passed.”
Sin gave a faint and polite smile, not forgetting that he was now an after-hour senior government official, and Edmund Wong was against everything the government did, or did not do. Anyways, no politics here.
“I admire the energy of you guys,” he replied with self-conscious slyness. “How do you find time for your lovely family?”
“Edmund’s divorced and childless,” Winnie interjected jocularly. “You don’t read our entertainment pages do you?”
“Oh not often. A government job is not as leisurely as you think these days,” he said, then turned to Edmund. “Sorry about that.”
“About what?” Edmund snapped.
After barely five minutes of disagreeable small talks, Edmund Wong bluntly changed topic with a “let’s cut the crap” wave of hand. “This government has become more corrupt than ever. Your so-called Rule of Law is a charade.” He directed his remark at Sin, then took a big gulp of beer.
“Ha ha. We try our best,” Sin said, switching on his civil service ambiguity, then took a tiny sip of the newly arrived cold beer, his second one, the free one.
“But you do nothing about cross-border corruption,” Winnie added. Sin regarded her, suspecting that she and Edmund had rehearsed this.
“Well, we’d love to, but jurisdiction. . .”
“Excuses, excuses, excuses,” Edmund Wong cut him off. “What about morals? What about principles? What about our core values?” Experienced Legco members knew civil servants were like high-tech play-dough. They could be squeezed and pinched and moulded into anything you want. But as soon as you let go, they’d bounce right back to the original shapeless form. He was an expert in their pliability, reputedly the most vicious in testing its limit. Nothing personal.
Sin laughed, as if Edmund had just told a good joke, then turned to Winnie, trying to change topic: “So, any big story lately Missy?”
Winnie Poon yawned from exhaustion as much as boredom, but refused to be distracted. “Edmund’s right. This government is sacrificing our core values to appease Beijing.”
“Which core values?” Sin asked, then yawned as well.
“Democracy! Freedom! Clean government! Human rights! Justice! Everything!” Edmund raised his voice, adjusting his posture as if facing a TV cameras.
“But we never had democracy before, and the government is still clean,” Sin mumbled, lowering his voice to bring the conversation back to the booth. “Plus you guys can say whatever you like without consequence, unlike in colonial days.”
“You talk bullshit like a government official you know,” Edmund sneered.
“Sin Sir’s a senior government official,” Winnie corrected.
“Ha ha, thank you thank you. Not so senior lah. Just more work for a tiny bit more money. And much more headache.” Sin leaned back and took a bigger than usual mouthful of beer, attempting to look completely relaxed.
“How’s the Vergel case going?” Winnie asked, straight to the point.
Sin felt attacked by her directness, and expertly put on his bland civil servant face. “It’s under investigation. There’s nothing more I can say.”
“It’s been under investigation for a long time.”
“Nine months to be exact,” Sin gave a sly smile, pleased that he happened to have the information at fingertip. “That’s average. We’re busier than you think Missy.” Winnie recognised his subtle challenge: Try again. See if you guys can provoke me into getting excited. It won’t work buddy.
She switched to a girlish tone which sounded surreally incongruous coming out of her face: “Ahh Sin Sir, what about the informed sources you promised?”
“Come on, I never promised anything. How could I promise anything like that? Ha ha.” Sin laughed. Edmund rolled his eyes.
Winnie intensified her girlishness and gave a protracted whine: “Ahhh! Sin Sir! You’re playing clever tricks with me now!”
Edmund Wong was about to say something. Winnie Poon stopped him by putting her hand on his thigh, and whispered across the table: “Sin Sir, what about me being your informed source instead?”
“I’ll listen to anything you say as usual.” Sin smiled, enjoying his artful self like an idolising fan.
“We’re preparing a big story on cross-border bribery. Let’s say it’s a project rather than a story. A number of things will come together with a focus, a bang: Chinese corruption and how it’s ruining Hong Kong. Anything that fits will be given, let’s say, due exposure. It will create a wave of consciousness.”
“Ah, I see,” Sin gave an enlightened sigh. He noticed that her hand was still on Edmund’s thigh under the table, and felt slightly wounded. Winnie Poon was indubitably not pretty by any standard, but relatively young. Plus he always felt intimidated rather than enchanted by anyone truly attractive. He would not admit even to himself that he fancied Winnie. He probably didn’t; but did wonder, since his promotion, if Winnie had a crush on him.
“Hong Kong people are sick of their core values being destroyed by the Chinese,” Edmund Wong said. “We must organise a shock wave of awakening to show the communists!”
“But Hong Kong corruption was much worse, blatant in fact, in the old days,” Sin said.
“You speak like you’ve been brainwashed Sin Sir!” Edmund raised his voice, and right away got a tranquillizing squeeze on the thigh. Sin remained impassive. He was a professional — a senior one — in toying with facts; but he was not going to debate with the legislator over a topic which he wholeheartedly did not care one way or the other. He set his mouth into an imperturbable whatever-you-say-mate grin, and kept quiet.
Winnie gently reprimanded Edmund: “Edmund! Sin Sir’s probably the most independent thinker in this government, not your typical brainwashed civil servant at all!”
Sin loosened his grin. He was genuinely pleased with her remark: “This is just His Honourable Edmund Wong’s way. I knew him since he was a student leader at HKU. I was a young fan you know.”
To Sin’s surprise, his untruthful reminiscence calmed Edmund. “Oh those were the days,” he beamed. “I have to admit I can’t recall having met you back then though.”
Winnie took the opportunity: “Great! Now, God has brought us together here for a reason, don’t you think?”
“I must say God’s been guiding me all my life, and never been wrong.” Sin was glad to be back on familiar turf. He briefly wondered how Edmund Wong was going to grab political capital through this “project”, but like a Zen master, he let the thought come and go without engaging.
“So, Sin Sir,” Winnie retrieved the discussion from its spiritual dimension: “The Vergel case might fit very well, and get plenty of attention.”
“But the Woo scandal is old old news! Most people have forgotten it by now.”
“Well, leave that to us,” Winnie said, then gave an impish smile.
“Ha! Now I see why you asked me the question on cross-border bribery yesterday,” Sin said.
“Can never fool you, huh?” she said, then winked so hard one could nearly hear it.
“But it’s a Macau case, only indirectly linked to Vergel through their joint venture partner there. It has nothing to do Hong Kong or the mainland,” Sin said thoughtfully. “Furthermore, off the record, my initial impression is that the evidence is rather weak.”
“What does it matter? Isn’t Macau part of China?” Edmund Wong chimed in.
“All I need is a cross-border bribery story taken to court here in Hong Kong,” Winnie continued. “Conviction is immaterial. And who knows? The District Courts are tougher than North Korea’s aren’t they? List it there and avoid the jury!”
Sin appeared thoughtful for a moment, then raised his glass at Edmund and Winnie, who had let go of Edmund’s thigh. “Well, my friends, interesting discussions. My job is to preserve justice and the rule of law. I prosecute only on the merits of each case — nothing else.” He spoke as if in court, then beamed to Winnie.
Winnie returned a big smile, raising her glass: “Of course! We all know your reputation and integrity. Perhaps we should do a profile on you one day, come to think of it.”
Sin hitched his free hand up as if to block a punch, protesting with animated vigour: “No no no no no! Nothing personal lah. I’m only a humble civil servant, doing my job to preserve Hong Kong’s core values.”
“That’s exactly the kind of government official we need to highlight!”
Then they toasted.
- END -
James Tam, 28 April 2014