Friday, 10 May 2013

Midlife Triad (Part 1 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.

WHEN Dragon Arm Ah Wah arrived at Dorm L1 of the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, I was stretching in bed, breathing into my knee tendons.  
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.
One could tell from his calculated gait — unhurried and confident — that Ah Wah had walked into more troubling situations before. His tiny round eyes, deep-set and intense, scanned the room as he came through the door, taking snapshots. They were cool and alert, but not hostile, even cautiously friendly.
The de facto head inmate Fat Shing, a quiet 30-year-old Wo Kee Gangster bearing an image of the Wheel of Fortune on his back, told him which beds were available. He took the one across the central aisle from mine. The kids’ quarter, though only a few feet away, was nominally noisier. He must have had taken note of that in just a few short minutes. Before settling down, he gave me an assessing glance so quickly that I did not have time to offer a smile back. 
After expertly laying out the military blankets, he took off his shirt, revealing a blue dragon caught in a web of bulging veins, entwining his right upper arm. Dragons, tigers and eagles used to be standard body adornments in gangland. Now they have become classic. Judging from the young ones in the room, nearly anything goes these days: Wheel of Fortune, Tree of Life, Mickey Mouse, Buddha, Popeye. One guy had a plum blossom bonsai across his back. His sobriquet was — as would be expected — Plum Blossom. I was at first surprised that a thug by profession, not gay, not even effeminate in manner, would call himself Plum Blossom; but what did I know. 
Time had changed everything, sparing nothing, not even the underworld.
Ah Wah’s dragon looked weary, slightly crinkled, not as assured 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 was usually quiet, and 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 80’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. 

Most evenings, he would lie in bed reading The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Nearly every Hong Kong teenager had read and watched at least one of the many cinematic renditions of Jin Yong’s popular wuxia (swordsman is the most common and unsatisfactory translation) classics from the 1950s. Though good fun tales for any age, and well written in Jin Yong’s uniquely literary yet easy and popular 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. “Anyone who can count to ten staying up wins,” he declared a surprising challenge. “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; formal introductions were unnecessary.
“You’re amazingly strong for your size,” I complimented.
“I was much bigger.” He sounded slightly defensive. 
I did not mean it that way. Though not Herculean, he was compactly muscular, with a leathery texture that appeared more industrial than organic. 
“But this,” he squeezed his historically much bigger left biceps with delicate pride, “is enough.” He threw a sidelong glance at the youngsters, grinning smugly. 
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. “Got broken real bad.” He turned his head to 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. Since entering prison, I had got into the habit of waiting for information rather than asking too much.
“You like Jin Yong?” I changed the topic.
“Condor Heroes?” He looked across the aisle at his copy, spread open in bed. “Have read a hundred times.” 
I waited. If he wished to say more, 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 though.”
His explanation made no sense but I somehow knew what he meant so I told him so. “I know what you mean.” 
The mainlander had just finished defeating all Dorm L1 representatives from Hong Kong’s three major gangs. He hopped back to his chess game with a fellow II from the Northeast city of Changchun who was a full head taller, with bigger non-nonsense biceps. They sniggered, muttering double-speed in a northern accent that they knew nobody could decipher, no doubt exchanging jokes on cute little Hong Kong thugs with funny tattoos. Mainlanders did not normally participate in the locals’ rowdy matches. He must 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?” 
“Of course.”
I never argued with aphorisms; trying to change accepted wisdom is pointless. I actually liked this one, though jiang hu had given me considerable headache trying to translate into English before. Some words are not meant to be translated, I finally conceded.
Literally, jiang hu means “River and Lake”. But the term holds a lot more in Chinese. It’s the social vortex that everyone follows, submits to, or gets sucked under. It’s the turbulent 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 a closely knit community that defines and limits one’s options. 
The underworld is governed by its own set of fringe tradition, with a strict and defiant code of ethics. The thrust of jiang hu is more palpable if not always more ruthless in gangland. In any jiang hu, one needs to act against one’s wish at times. But in the underworld, it could mean slitting open someone’s tummy or hacking off his legs so, be respectful, pay attention, or get drowned. 
“Once in jiang hu, the big flow takes over,” I echoed in different words. 

It suddenly occurred to me why Ah Wah read the Condor Heroes with untiring dedication.
Wu xias are superhuman martial artists living in unsettling times. China faces invasion from the outside, or a dysfunctional and unjust government from the inside, or both. 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. Some write love poems between duels which they invariably win. Most important of all, they never run out of legitimate money or credit. In short, they are remarkable swimmers frolicking joyously in the frustrating currents of a turbulent jiang hu.
Wu xia fantasies satisfy a yearning for an alternative reality in which the talents of the marginalised are appreciated and romanticised. If I were treading water in Ah Wah’s tempestuous jiang hu, trying to keep my nose above water, I might also hallucinate parallels between the hostile forces in real life and those in Jin Yong’s 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 a characteristic insouciance that seemed almost professional at times, he never lowered his guard completely, or forget 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 like Lake Geneva to his Lower Congo. I could not pretend that it was a fair exchange.

Ah Wah quickly proved himself much more than a strong left-armed wrestler. He could drop to the floor from standing, body straight like a plank, into push-ups. He could also swap hands in mid-air when doing single-arm push-ups. He had learnt these impressive stunts during two three-year stretches in TC decades ago, and would show off once in a while at Tong Fuk. Although he could not write poems like some wu xias do, he had a repertoire of amusing limericks. Most of them were actually quite intelligent, and more thoughtfully satirical rather than mindlessly vulgar. Within a couple of weeks at Tong Fuk, he 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 real world, outside the credit rating system unless he won a lottery or successfully robbed a bank. To make a better living, he had to explore the limits of the law every now and then. 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 this time.
“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 anything.
“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?” I asked.
“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; we knew each other better by then.
“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 had softened, clouded in reminiscence.


One evening, a diminutive young man nicknamed Mooloo, adrenaline overflowing, shorts fashionably dropped half way down the bum crack, walked up and down the centre aisle in strides stretched to their natural limit. Had there been nobody else around for reference, he could have been mistaken for a giant. Mooloo was prone to disproportionately grand gestures, 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  . . .
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”, but refrained from responding. If Mooloo had pretended not to have heard Ah Wah, he might not grant me similar courtesy. Instead, I grasped the opportunity to ask a little more about him. 
“Actually what were you in TC for?” I asked innocently — oh, by the way — making sure that my innocuous curiosity would not be taken wrongly. 
“Man slaughter,” he said, drawing his right index finger across his throat, shrugging at the same time, slanting the fatal slash diagonally. I thought the shrug was inappropriately casual, appearing affected like an ostentatious understatement; but it could have just been me taking man slaughter too seriously. 

So, the first time Ah Wah served in TC, he was fifteen. It was 1983.

James Tam @ Guo Du (10.5.2013)

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