“Before Cities Come Then Go” by Alvin Wong10 min read

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Illustration by Christine Wei

The laundry draped above me. The wires crossed the gap between one building and the next in the starless night. Air conditioning units sat fuming on sills, and my arms swam through the muggy air at every step, laden with grocery bags and the Hong Kong damp.

As far as I knew, we could have been the talk of many, our identities reduced to that one door on the tenth floor of our apartment block that remained a mystery to everyone outside: a Chinese-Canadian and a white girl or gwei mui—which translated literally to ghost girl. The elevator doors slid open and pink tiles pixelated the dim corridor, metal gates pressed in uniform spaces, some decorated with red calendars—a cheap gold sparkle font preserving the ostensible prosperity of the past Chinese New Year. I knocked on the metal gate of room 1005. Elise opened the door; the gate bars striped her unamused look in a living room glowing like sunlight.

“I brought chocolate ice cream.” I shook the bag.

The bribe was enough. She slid open the gate and paced back to her room in the little sanctuary of our apartment. Inside stood simple IKEA furniture in flat matte colours. Yet we were still audience members from our open windows, listening to the faint screeches of buses and the refractions of the warm life going through the shops in the streets below, their distant conversations and doings stir into the orange afterglow that colours the wind at our sill, reaching us with soft echoes. Elise dropped something on the table. A jingle and a crash with an attached lanyard pooled on the tabletop.

“Bring your keys with you, man,” she sighed casually, as if we were back in Toronto.

“Well, doors are what bring us together.”

Her eyes slackened; a lean smile creased her face. Although we lived together we were just friends—two people with their essential separations.

“You think you’re so smooth?”

“I try to be,” I shrugged, before awkwardly placing the seasoning in the pantry above. “I got oysters.” It became a careless remark, sounding as if I went into the ocean. The plastic padding quickly dissolved the fantasy.

“Let’s just go out to eat,” she insisted, peering out of the window which opened onto the evening void.

I was already wearing my “going out” clothes: a t-shirt and beige jeans. Elise merely zipped up into a grey sweater with grey Pikachu jumping amok all over her torso. Out on the street, the after-work hours manifested themselves in the traffic lights and beads of neon from animated overhead signage. Rectangular vans with side sliding doors parked along streets with the stuffed rock of concrete steps juxtaposed against the shiny diamond stores. Slums cheek-to-cheek with the gaudy.

Elise and I walked with little to say, and she blew neon-colored clouds of cigarette smoke into creation, as if breathing the language of watercolors. She only replied with “hmm’s” and soft nods, lowering her shoulders once the talking stopped, trying to keep the voices of the pedestrians, the whistles of cars passing by, and the ringing telephones out.

“Bring your keys with you, man,” she sighed casually, as if we were back in Toronto.

We decided to go to a small noodle place that also sold BBQ pork and unreasonably expensive cuttlefish hooked on a metal rack, dried out in a red-lit glass display. Beyond the glass door, walls in thick coats of seafoam green studded with emerald tiles sweated from the heat while waiters and waitresses wearing aprons over casual clothes tip-toed past folding tables.

“Two seats please,” I said in Cantonese, the words a distant memory. My English replies to conversations with my parents became stunted by an ever-growing silence, our respective words understood only in fragments.

“Oh yeah, just wait a little bit,” the short bun-haired waitress kicked in, her voice a jackhammer of consonants.

“Here is your table,” she pronounced in English for Elise. The waitress turned to me and asked, “Would you and your girlfriend like any drinks?” Elise opened and closed her lips to think, half-approximating what she was asked from a phrase book, and I couldn’t help but blush, hoping it was hidden by the red lights.

“Just a Sprite,” Elise chimed in.

“Cold Lemon Tea,” I ordered once I stopped blushing.

“We actually have a deal on two sprites, one half off,” the waitress suggested, a knowing grin spreading on her face, like she was about to see one of those TV dramas unfold.

“Okay. Two sprites,” I answered. After writing it down on a notepad in squiggles, she marched to a Coca-Cola soft drink fridge behind the long steel counter. Elise held her head up with her hand; the sweater sleeve showed off her slender wrist. Looking at her, I would always notice that her body curved gently. She blinked—the thought dashed away and she narrowed her lips, eyes caught in headlights and looking back at them with the same intensity.


“Oh. Nothing really,” I dodged and she went on to check her phone. The chibi Umaru-chan key chain jumped up before hovering by its string like an actor flying in a stage musical. In the conversations around us, I caught tosses about sports, financial figures, terse fragments of sounds describing a story with a familiar echo to which I could perhaps shout back a reply, but they would hear nothing.

“Why are we here?”

Elise blinked and backed up.

“To get food,” she said over the clinks of bowls onto plastic trays.

“I know, but what are we even doing here? In Hong Kong, I mean.”

She moved back in her seat, hoping to find some comfort in the rolls of cushion behind her. The conversation reminded me of an absurdist play: two people sitting at a table like this one asking why they were there and it would slowly repeat as they babbled on.

“You aren’t getting hot feet are you?” She made a joke at the expense of the humid weather with a little smile.

“No,” I chuckled.

Our drinks arrived in glass bottles. Straws dangled from the top and we both sipped. The bottles half-empty, we were finally able to feel the air conditioning unit’s bliss over the stove-heat inferno.

“Things just kind of feel far away,” I looked to my arm on the table, fingers grasping the marble finish. The family behind us began to pack up, leaving the bench row with me and Elise unsettled, even desolate, perhaps.

“We are in a city we don’t know.” Her finger spiraled around the bottleneck.

“Yeah, but we’re supposed to feel at home here, right? I don’t think it should feel like a camping trip we never leave.”

“I guess so, but it’s not like we’re here to mess around. Tours later.”

Her bringing up tours made me think she was clearly missing the point. We ordered a large plate of rice with Yu Choy and some BBQ pork, cut but clumped together. Putting helpings into small bowls, we chatted mainly of things back home: a life we didn’t quite leave, but became silent watchers of; people in our lives thriving without our knowing it, continuing on in form only through photographs and online status updates. Elise finished eating first and I ended up just eating straight from the plate. She groaned a bit at this—I could never tolerate the senseless wastage of food.
We went home from the shakings of the city, and all the jazz of car horns and traffic light rings settled into the low rhythm and blues of our breaths and cold wind. Before she slept, she sat on the bed, her legs in her arms, swaying just a bit as if listening to music. I just wanted to hold her, wondering what she was thinking about, sharing that silence together.

But I couldn’t.

Our bodies compulsively recaptured the intensities of our aborted connections; always punctuated, defused, negated with a reluctant “oh it’s nothing.” It was like watching her through a window where she continued a distant life that I would catch a glimpse of before she moved out of that frame. Despite my flirtations back in Toronto in frozen yogurt bars and fields, she seemed to forgive me. By living with complications, we were to become adults. Wasn’t it these separations that composed our relationship? We always seemed to evade each other’s advances and would never become the people we remembered each other to be from our habits, her liking of nicknames and the same cartoons that I watched. Before we left she asked me what it was I even wanted in the end. She thought of Hong Kong as a good place to go because people said it was like Europe, thanks to British colonization and their left-behind marble mausoleums. I had only taught her a few words in Cantonese and she was able to get by with English. Yet she sometimes listened to impassioned conversations that she could only approximate from their sounds yet follow as she walked down Nathan Road with its luminescent lettering and neon caricatures.

By living with complications, we were to become adults. Wasn’t it these separations that composed our relationship?

The apartment had two separate beds, but I sometimes found it more comfortable on the couch because the pleather was colder than the mattress. Some nights, it kept me awake with the thoughts of whether there was any more to this room. My eyes couldn’t relax, searching through the spaces between books and the reflection in the old Sanyo CRT. Putting on a pair of cargo pants and taking my keys, I headed out to the empty street hearing the drums of my footsteps and the beat of my heart unmediated by car horns and foot traffic.

Trees blooming in planter boxes of a lonely park provided ample shade. I sat on a swing in a deserted playground to have a smoke. Thankfully, there was an ashtray nearby so I could feel less guilty. The city stretched over the foliage, some apartment windows turned on for late-night snacks or drinks. I remained detached at the fact that the city was a different place, a concrete space without partitions. But its fragments would reach me unsolicited, floating in the stories I wrote about the marine wind of a port city or about small electronic shacks in malls and the glittering symbols of karaoke bars in Mong Kok.

My cigarette was half burned-out and dull, my fingers stained with ash and tar. I scribbled out some quotes for my next column, remembering someone telling me that leaving for a different country was a creative endeavor. What on earth had I created that hadn’t already always existed?

“I figured I would find you here,” Elise came over to the swing next to mine, her legs dangling over the ground. She took a small drag of my cigarette.

We were together. The simple act of sharing a cigarette without any yearnings or hopes that something new would appear past the smoke she exhaled, conjured through the retracted desires we kept inside us.

Taking another drag, I couldn’t help but stifle a yawn. I wanted nothing more than to stay suspended with her over the grounds of this unfamiliar city as it expanded away from us. Our little cigarette-light could never fade into the midnight streets, the desert of television static. And something up in that sky, squirming for darkness, would finally allow a small pinch of starlight through.

Alvin Wong is a Chinese Canadian (Cantonese) writer from Richmond Hill. He goes to York University for Theatre Studies, Creative Writing and Urban Studies where he leads the on-campus literary event, Crossroads Literary Festival. He is currently the senior editor of the publishing press, Inspiritus Press and practices Tai Chi on his spare time.

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