The humidity of the weather made everything a dream. Within a week, how had I come from being a minimum-wage waiter in Canada, to being a teacher in Hong Kong with a paid apartment; generous salary and benefits; and given endless compliments whenever I spoke a word of English? I was the specks of sand in an hourglass, slowly sliding into something new, palpitating at what might come next with playful tinges of anxiety.
I took the MTR blue line from Wan Chai to Admiralty station, where I transferred to the red line and continued to the Prince Edward stop. A rigid logic permeated the city; people shuffled past each other without abandon to get to their destinations. Halting did not exist – only arriving and departing.
Riding the MTR was convenient and quick, but it had its downsides. The trains were modern and clean; air-conditioned; and displays with blinking lights showed passengers which direction they were traveling, what station they had just left, and what the next station would be, but people never bothered to acknowledge each other’s existences. As I sat onboard, growing hypnotized by clickety-clack sounds while the pounding heat temporarily relented, announcements for the present station and the ‘Next Stop’ were given sequentially in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. In any language, I wanted desperately to ask someone: how can a person survive in Hong Kong and successfully swim amongst the people drowning in this city’s madness?
Before the subway doors opened to let passengers off at each station, the last announcement spoken was: “Please mind the gap!” Following those orders, I took a big step – along with a deep breath – to get from the train to the platform at Prince Edward station. I subsequently walked up to street level via exit B1.
Steam rose from the sidewalk gratings, and throngs of people walked through the nearby intersection, which looked like ten roads weaved together, with a plethora of streetlights and signals telling one mob of cars and pedestrians to go, while the rest waited. The sound of revving engines was almost deafening, as were the honks of the cars aggressively trying to reach the next massive intersection of all things traffic.
Time was precious. To reach my apartment I had to go past the Flower Market and the Bird Market, so I spoke with someone to learn where those landmark locations were. Luckily, they were nearby sites: around ten minutes on foot. I started walking towards them, bobbing my head while I glanced at everything from the rooftops to the alleys below.
As I passed by the ‘Mong Kok Police Station’ and ventured up Prince Edward Road, I became drawn to a girl across the way speaking on her cellphone. It wasn’t just her beauty that caught my eyes, but her purse that had a Canadian flag on it. I stopped and awkwardly circled back, pretending that I had dropped something to look more closely at her. An urge came over me to approach her. However, I hesitated. My heart fluttered as I watched her hands hail a taxi, which swooped her away. If fate brought us together again, I vowed I’d be courageous and open the door to the future.
Forced to move on, I walked past a church, several restaurants, a coffee shop, taxi stands, a hotel, and various newspaper and magazine vendors. I felt like I was in limbo. After wandering around many strangely-similar streets, I suddenly found myself in my first interesting place within Hong Kong: the Goldfish Market.
I was on Tung Choi street, which was full of stores selling goldfish. Fish were lucky in Chinese culture; they were thought to bring wealth, health, and all good things swiftly, just like fish swimming or water flowing in a stream. I was amazed that so many stores were lined up selling aquatic life of all kinds. I looked within several stores’ windows and aquariums to appreciate the limitless lovely fish. I felt tranquility enter my body; it was a nice change of pace after the hectic time I had experienced coming to the Fragrant Harbour.
“You like goldfish? You can buy five good goldfish for ten Hong Kong dollars,” said a store’s owner to me.
“No thanks, I was just browsing,” I replied, smiling.
Walking up Prince Edward Road anew, I came to an area where countless stalls sold copious flowers. I had found the Flower Market. Lots of shoppers looked at the bounteous flowers, and many workers prepared them for sale by cutting, rinsing, potting, or watering numerous kinds of gorgeous blooms.
I browsed and smelled the plethora of flowers around me. They were divine and made me feel reborn. I knew that whenever I had time, it would be worthwhile to come to the Flower Market and enjoy the sights – and the scents.
Soon, I found the Bird Market. It was in the middle of a park, with ancient trees and stone carvings all around. Hundreds of birds sat in tiny cages or sweetly flew around and rested on branches and the edges of walls. The songs the birds sang were delightful. I felt like I was living in an age before the Internet or television was invented. Being here was soothing to my soul. I sat still in the Bird Market, listening to the songs. To a passerby, I likely seemed to be a native Hongkonger enjoying the wonders of the city we all called home.
Groups of elderly people did Tai Chi, and scores of folks fed and played with the birds. Several tables that appeared to be Chinese chess boards were situated throughout the park, and people gathered around them playing games. At one table, four old men played a game of Mahjong, and excitedly laid down Hong Kong dollars with each play. When one man had a good turn, the other three players all swore at the same time in Cantonese.
“Life’s like a game,” said a man, sitting down next to me. “You do the best with what you’re dealt.”
“Thanks for the advice. Hopefully I can win my life’s game.”
I asked him where the street I sought was; he kindly gave me directions. I soon found my new apartment. It was locked behind an outer gate, for which I had the key. After opening that gate, I walked towards a hall that had the door to my new home. Using the other key from the set given to me by Sandy, I opened that green-gold door with a dusky doorknob.
I smiled upon seeing my new digs. My apartment was small, but it was clean and cozy. It felt like home. I put my luggage down and went to the bathroom to get refreshed. I changed into new clothes and plopped myself on top of my bed, which already had clean linen laid on it. I was exhausted and fell asleep for a short time. I suddenly woke up when a car horn honked.
My apartment had an air conditioner, which was a godsend. I turned it on and enjoyed the breeze. This device would surely save me from the heat, especially at night during sleep. Remembering what Cynthia told me, I boiled water using the apartment’s automatic kettle.
After unpacking a few things and tidying up my new home, it was time to complete more business. I drank some of the cooled boiled water with one of the few cups in the kitchen. I locked my apartment door and then left the gate, which secured itself once shut.
I located a Seven-Eleven convenience store and immediately went to the store’s rear to the refrigerators. I opened one of the glass doors and simply stood there to enjoy the coolness, having walked in the Hong Kong heat. I then grabbed two bottles of honey chrysanthemum tea and went to check out.
“Sup Yee Muhn,” said the cashier.
My Cantonese was good enough that I knew what he said to me, which was the total cost of the drinks: twelve Hong Kong dollars. Plus, the register showed the amount I owed anyways. I gave the employee twenty Hong Kong dollars and, in turn, received as change my first Hong Kong currency coins. These coins were much thicker and heavier than Canadian ones.
I opened one of the iced tea bottles and drank it right away. The honey chrysanthemum tea tasted delicious! Perhaps it was sheer loneliness, or dire emptiness, but I suddenly wished I could share this tea with someone special.
After collecting myself, I went to a pharmacy store and bought soap and sundries. I found a grocery store too and bought fruits and basic foods that would get me by for a day or two. I also got towels and toilet paper. I threw all of my finds into my backpack, which I also called a schoolbag because I was essentially a student for life.
Being an adventurer, I chose not to go home first to unload my pack; I just kept going. I walked around the area, soon discovering a multi-level shopping centre. I scoped out the stores and the sights. Eventually, I exited the mall and came upon several small restaurants and cafés. I entered one called Café de Coral, sat at a table, and perused the menu. Unfortunately, I could not read many Chinese characters, but I could speak fairly well in Cantonese, so I ordered a bowl of
‘Won Ton Mein’ (soup noodles with pork and shrimp dumplings). I also ordered three ‘Dan Tarts’ (egg tart pastries).
My food arrived fast. The steam made me sweat again, but the won tons and noodles tasted so good I didn’t care. I savoured the soup, enjoying its aroma and flavours. The egg tarts were the best part. They were flaky and sweet like candy.
Then, I saw her walk into the café – and into my life: she was the one. Fate surely worked in mysterious ways; I couldn’t contain my smile as I saw the red maple leaf aloft over her shoulder. Like twinkling stars, her eyes danced a ballet in my own. Like a summer’s day, her smile made me cherish it while it lasted. She was beyond dazzling. I belonged to her.
I watched her as she sat down, hearing her place her order with perfectly fluent Cantonese. I was about to fulfill my vow, when a man in a fancy suit met her, breaking my heart. I stood up, intending to pay my bill and exit, when she shook hands with him and he left. She had received from him a brochure about a Hong Kong school’s creative writing courses. I wiped my mouth and approached.
“May I join you?” I asked, feeling my heart beating like a drum.
She opened her eyes widely, but she did not reply.
Smiling, I slowly sat down at the booth’s other seat. I was about to converse in Cantonese, but then I said in English, “I’m Liam. What’s your name?”
“That’s not really any of your business.” She spoke with a slight hint of Queen’s English.
“I want to marry you,” I somehow uttered before I could stop myself.
She blushed as red as a rose and spilled her Chinese tea. She struggled to gather her belongings and then stood up to leave.
“Please don’t go,” I implored, fearing I may lose her forever. “I’m sorry if I said something wrong.”
“Liam, I don’t know who you are,” she replied, turning to look at me. “Besides, what if I won’t want to marry you?”
“I’m willing to take that chance.”
Her eyes softened and, like a true blessing, found my gaze. For a moment, she remained silent. She then smiled.
“A single step can lead to a lifelong journey,” she spoke, settling back into her seat. “I’m Annie. It’s nice to meet you.” She held out her hand, which I happily shook.
“I’m glad you’re giving me a chance: I’m a good guy.”
She giggled. “Do you speak Cantonese?”
“Siu Siu,” I replied, which meant ‘a little’, gesturing with my thumb and index finger. “But I’d prefer to speak in English – for my own comfort, and to hear your lovely accent. Is that ok?”
“Sure,” she answered, nodding. “Liam, how old are you?”
“Me too! That means we were both born in the Year of the Monkey.”
“No wonder we’re getting along so well!”
Laughing, Annie informed me, “This is a ‘Cha Chan Tang’: a restaurant where people can get noodles and simple dishes for cheap prices – like a Chinese fast-food place. It’s my favourite one in all of Hong Kong.”
She scanned the menu and told me what she was reading. She said the Won Ton Mein was excellent, but today she would be having the roast duck and rice. To enjoy a meal with her, I ordered a second bowl of Won Ton Mein.
“So, you aren’t from Hong Kong I take it,” said Annie, looking at me inquisitively. “Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I replied. “But my parents are Chinese. My dad’s from Hong Kong, and my mom’s from Macau.”
“I love Macau. Many people go there for its casinos, but I adore its history. Old churches, temples, and statues are everywhere.”
“Have you seen the big ‘Kuan Yin’ statue in the water? Or the ‘A-Ma’ statue on the mountain?” I asked. “My family showed me photos of them.”
“Of course, they’re two of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re not as beautiful as you,” I said.
“Shh!” she spoke, blushing anew. “Kuan Yin and A-Ma won’t like you saying that!”
“You’re from Hong Kong?” I asked, changing the topic.
“Born and raised,” said Annie, nodding. “I’ve often wished to visit other places, such as Canada, but I’ve never been able to.”
“Maybe we can go there together someday,” I spoke, longing to make it happen
“How about we get to know each other here first, ok? I’m not even sure we’ll go out on a first date…”
“You mean a second one, right? After all, this is our first date!”
Annie smiled. Our food arrived. It was the best meal of my life, because of her. Could this be the girl I was meant to marry?
Even though we had just met, I felt like I had known her my whole life. Perhaps we knew each other in a past life and were now finally reunited. Perhaps our destiny was true love. Or perhaps our fate was heartbreak. From this day onwards, I had to find out.
Kevin Wah Kin Wong is of Chinese descent and born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. His lifelong dream is to have his many books become published and known around the world. He has earned two Degrees, BCSc and BScN, from Dalhousie University. He is also a Registered Nurse (RN). This story is an excerpt from his novel manuscript Hong Kong Hearts.
Zixi Mu is a freelance illustrator from China. She is living in Hangzhou. She hopes that one day her illustrations could warm you up and support herself as well.
Na Wang is a part-time illustrator from China. She is interested in illustrating and photographing. You can find her at her personal website: http://www.zcool.com.cn/u/