“Famine” by Wayne Mok16 min read

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Photo by Joel Fulgencio

Not long after we found out that we couldn’t have children, we found the flat. We were visiting our friends’ place one night, and on our way out, a young couple entered the lift on the second floor. It looked like they’d just walked out of the latest fall catalogue in neatly hemmed trousers, oxfords, wool coats and cashmere scarves. The girl laughed as she held onto the guy’s arm and spoke softly in English with a faint British accent. We caught a glimpse of their front door—an olive-wood door with matte black hardware—as the lift door closed. Standing on opposite sides of the lift, my husband and I glanced at the young couple, and then at each other. I had on a pair of old cargo pants, a floral blouse, and a pilling wool sweater. My husband wore a bright blue windbreaker too big for him over a polo shirt, a pair of baggy jeans, and a pair of running shoes he used for hiking. The couple exited the lift, almost oblivious to our presence. We walked out of the building into the faint glow illuminating the night sky as a thin haze draped itself over Hong Kong Island. My husband pulled out a crumpled tissue from his pocket and sneezed into it.

A few weeks later, we were having morning dim sum at our local teahouse when our friends called. The young couple in the lift were artists—the guy a photographer and director, the girl a producer—they’d just moved to Eastern Europe to work on a long-term conservation project and put their flat on the market, furniture included.

We were first greeted by a foreign scent when we opened the door. It might’ve been the handcrafted teak furniture or the scented candles—we sniffed and were instantly allured. We stepped inside. It had the same floor plan as our friends’ flat, but it felt as if we were in someplace exotic—Bali, Tahiti. Long planks of white oak lined the floors. A set of full-glass bi-fold doors opened up to the large balcony with patio chairs, a grill, and a few baskets of begonias and petunias hanging from the ceiling. Instead of a harbour view, the couple’s flat faced south, overlooking a lush collection of tropical shrubbery and trees. There were even a few papaya trees scattered amidst the woods—we imagined seeing a few monkeys hanging from the branches. A set of teak mid-century sofas with leather-covered cushions accompanied a glass coffee table topped with a few of the husband’s photography books. There was no television. Instead, there were a pair of bookshelf speakers, a vacuum tube amplifier, a turntable, and a collection of records neatly arranged on a long hi-fi cabinet. The pale-yellow walls inside warmed us up.

The living room opened to the kitchen. Three lamps with shades hung from the ceiling. A matte-black refrigerator rested next to a set of matching ovens. No microwave. A wine fridge was tucked away underneath next to the dishwasher. Large cabinets spanned two walls with a marble-topped island in the center of the kitchen. An induction stove was encased on one side, while two bar stools accompanied on the other, facing a large single-paned window looking out to the greenery. I had always wanted to cook more.

There was a king-sized bed with white sheets and a fluffy duvet in the middle of the bedroom. A pair of windows to the side opened to more shrubbery. The second room was an office with a standalone glass desk and bookshelves that lined an entire wall, reaching the ceiling. My husband grinned like a five-year-old kid in a candy shop. He was an accountant. The bathroom was too spacious. An antique bathtub with clawed feet sat on the side. Matte black steel fixtures accented the porcelain appropriately. The cold marble floor tickled our feet.

We went home enticed.

We thought of how we would live. We’d host Sunday brunches and dinner parties—cooking would be heaven. We’d have wine and cheese nights—how could we not? On weeknights we’d sprawl out on the sofas, read Ezra Pound to each other, listening to John Coltrane on the phonograph. Don’t worry, the real estate agent said, I am sure we can work something out if you are interested. Yes, we were interested.

We sat down together and gathered our savings, investment, and retirement fund statements and went through them one by one. We visited our banks to see how much we could borrow. We called around to see how much we’d get for our car, our electronics, our furniture, our jewelry, and our current flat. The real estate agent called back a week later. Doable, we said. We’ll be in touch, she said.

We first let our parents know. You’re moving where? They asked. It’s not too far—there’s a bus. A bus? You’re selling your car too? They sighed. It was once in a lifetime opportunity. They would understand later. We listed our car, furniture, and electronics in the classifieds. We sold off all our jewelry, except our wedding rings. We put our mid-levels flat on the market. We sold off our investments and applied for a larger mortgage.

We went through our stuff. Catalogues—we threw out a stack we saved from IKEA. Books—we threw out Dan Brown and kept James Joyce. CDs—we threw out the Backstreet Boys and kept Miles Davis. Souvenirs, ornaments, photos—we stuffed them all into cardboard boxes and sealed them, only for future reference. Finally, clothes—we tossed Adidas, Nike, Gap, into a box for clothes to wear when we needed to clean. We needed to go shopping.

We hailed a taxi to Causeway Bay, maneuvered through the crowds of tourists, teenagers, and families, around the large shopping malls and commercial buildings, and headed to the north side of the area. Old low-rise residential buildings gave way to the sky above, and the frantic roar of the crowds faded into a soft drone a distance away. Minimalistic boutiques and shops lined the quiet streets. The demographic noticeably changed—foreigners, horn-rimmed glasses, cashmere scarves, Chelsea boots. They probably knew the couple. The area was quiet, reminiscent of an older, more beautiful version of Hong Kong in Ann Hui and Wong Kar-wai films.

We looked into the first store we saw. It was empty, with two salespeople chatting behind the counter. A small selection of pieces hung on two sides. A few pairs of jeans hung from their belt loops in the middle section. We stepped in. The salespeople stopped chatting and smiled at us. We smiled back. Is there anything we can help you with? One of them asked. We shook our heads. We’re just looking around. The clothes were beautifully made, each piece looking as if it was waiting for its owner to retrieve it. I felt out of place in my mass-produced attire. I passed over a few pieces before coming across an off-white eyelet embroidered blouse with a scoop neck and side patch pockets. The cotton was incredibly soft. I showed my husband and he smiled at the touch. We looked for the price tag, but there was none. My husband decided on a pair of jeans. The stiff raw denim and the button fly bothered him, but he looked good. We took the two pieces to the counter. It took us a second to register the total. The salespeople didn’t seem too surprised, waiting for our response. Is everything okay? My husband nodded, pulled out his credit card, and signed away.

What’s going on with you two? A few friends asked during dinner. Nothing, we said, it’s just time we moved on to better things. They laughed. Things began to fall into place. We sold the rest of our stuff and got a good price for our car. There was a buyer lined up for our old flat and the bank approved our mortgage. We bought more things—more outfits, new shoes, vintage accessories, Apple products, books for our coffee table, and jazz LPs for the phonograph.

The move was easy—we didn’t have much stuff left anyways—and we were done in a day. We invited family, friends, colleagues, old classmates, anyone we could, over to our new flat. We had no time to cook, so we ordered in from various local restaurants. Everyone admired our flat. Friends thought they’d been transported to Rio, Phuket—we had never been to Rio or Phuket. Even our parents, who were initially opposed, couldn’t help but compliment the flat. The feng shui is good, they said, looking out from the balcony into the green. Water, mountain, wind, you have it all. They strolled around the flat admiring the spacious kitchen, the bathroom fittings and the hardware, noticing the subtle touches.

We decided to stay in for the first few weeks. We’d put on a record, sip on some wine, and relax on the couch, gazing into the woods. We tried at first, but we gave up on cooking, so we ordered in every night—we soon knew the delivery people by their names. All in all, it was all we thought it would be, we said.

Three months after moving in, we received an email from a friend. He asked how we were doing and how we enjoyed the new flat. He then congratulated us on getting our flat featured on the cover of a design magazine. What was he talking about? He emailed back with photos of the front cover and the article.

The cover was a large photo of our living room before we moved in. Large letters spanned the bottom half of the page. The Green Wave: why designers are switching to reprocessed, cost-efficient materials. Interview with innovative Hong Kong designer: are synthetic Chinese materials just as good? A model home—put to the test. The article showed various shots of our flat, detailing the materials used and the cost of each. From cabinet handles to the hardwood floor, from the teak furniture to the marble counters. The writer explained that all materials in the flat were simulated and produced to look and feel exactly like their foreign counterparts at just one-tenth of the price. In the bottom corner was a photo of the young couple.

We began to examine and inspect our apartment—for cracks in the tiling, impurities in the wood, and faults in the hardware. We began knocking on the counters, listening to their reverberations, opening and closing doors swiftly, checking for creaks in the hinges, turning faucets on and off, and watching for stutters in the flow of water. We stopped inviting people over. We spent more time in the neighbourhood, eating out and taking walks. We said yes to more engagements and parties, and stayed later in the office. People would ask how our new flat was. It’s fine, we’d say.

Problems began to appear. Since it was on a low floor, the flat would get incredibly humid and damp. Mould began to appear in our food, in the bathroom, and on the walls. The trees and shrubbery were nice, but kept the flat in perpetual gloom, blocking off what little sunlight would’ve reached the balcony. The school nearby had started the new term since we moved in, projecting school announcements and period bells reverberating throughout. The only road that reached our area, once quiet, now underwent a multi-year expansion project. Drilling went on throughout the day, including on weekends. Traffic was backed up until late at night, directing an unending stream of exhaust at our windows.

A few months later, my husband began to feel sick. It was, at first, mild. We thought it was just a cold. The doctor gave him some medicine, but it got worse. He’d wake up in the middle of the night, dizzy and out of breath, having to sit up and take a number of deep breaths before he could settle down. He took more medicine but to no avail. We went to the doctor again and explained the situation. Do you smoke or drink? We didn’t smoke and didn’t drink often. Have you been eating healthy? We could eat a bit healthier. Any history of major illnesses? Nope. When do you feel it at its worst? At home. Has this happened before? No. Did you move recently?

The test left columns of marks on his arm. A number of spots flared up like welts. It was called multiple chemical sensitivity. It happens when people have adverse reactions to low levels of toxic chemicals in synthetic materials. It’s not life-threatening, the doctor said and gave us a few suggestions.

We washed and scrubbed the floors, counters, cabinets, and every surface we could. We replaced the “wooden” furniture with steel and glass designs. We installed an air purification and ionization system and replaced all the filters in our air conditioning units. We diffused aromatherapy oil throughout the day. We did all we could think of.

The flat began to reach further into our lives. We’d try to find excuses not to go home. Sometimes I’d spend an hour or two in the park waiting for my husband to get off work. Other times we’d go to the cinema for late-night showings just to get some rest. We’d be careful to keep the flat as neat as possible. Before we sleep, we’d take time to arrange whatever had been moved out of place. We’d say as little as possible about the flat as if it could hear us. Sometimes we’d whisper.

It then began to affect my husband’s work. Sometimes he’d be sitting at his desk, and it’d just hit him. He’d feel sick to his stomach and would have to rush to the bathroom. He became more lethargic. Dark circles outlined his eyes and his walk slowed as if needed to measure his ability to take the next step. He continued to have regular checkups, but there were no other problems.

I called the real estate agent and explained the situation. What do you want me to do? she asked. I told her about the magazine article. You should’ve known: this isn’t British Hong Kong anymore. She hung up. We thought about renting the place out—what if the tenants have allergic reactions too? We thought about renovating the flat, but we were just sick of it altogether. We talked to our parents. We told you and you didn’t listen, they said.

A month later, we signed the contract, finalizing the deal. The buyers didn’t care about the interior—they were going to tear it apart anyways. We stood in the living room on the day of settlement. The real estate agent shook her head, that’s a big loss. You could’ve gotten more if you waited. We handed her the keys, walked out, and shut the door behind us.

We walked down the road that had become familiar to us, past the restaurants where we ordered countless meals, past the shops, the market, the stalls, and into the city. It was rush hour. We stood on the sidewalk and watched men and women in suits and dresses crawling their way to the MTR, crowding around the bus stops, and hopping into taxis. My husband looked at me, eyes glazed over. I forced a smile and reached out to straighten his collar.

We crossed the street and entered a place once familiar to us. I ordered a number one meal, he ordered a number four meal, supersized. Two Cokes and two McFlurries. It was noisy. There were students in their uniforms studying, people in gym clothes sweaty from their post-work run, a group of elderly in the corner chatting over cups of tea and stacks of newspapers, and domestic helpers on their phones. A line of workers assembled the products with a robotic pulse—bun, patty, lettuce, ketchup, pickle, bun, and wrapper. The conveyor belt squeaked as it dropped a neatly wrapped burger into its respective receptacle. We placed our Octopus card on the reader. Beep. Thank you. How may I help you? the cashier said in one breath, to us, and to the man standing behind us.

We shared a large table with a couple and their kids. We unwrapped the burgers—it had been a long time. I took a bite and washed the rubbery meat down with Coke. I picked up a few fries and dropped them into my mouth. I wiped the glossy varnish off my fingertips with a napkin. My husband took a large bite out of his burger, splattering ketchup over his white Merino polo—the shirt was new. He got up and headed to the bathroom. It’d probably stain.

The two kids next to me began squirming in their seats. The mom put her index finger over her lips. Shhh. Be quiet. Everyone’s looking. They began to complain. She put her food down and glared at her two children. The dad looked at the three of them, sighed, shook his head, and continued eating. She began to raise her voice. Can you not hear me? The kids paid no attention. Stop it right now. They began throwing their food onto the ground. A few fries landed next to my plimsolls. There was suddenly a sharp smacking sound, then, another. Heads turned. Their faint whines escalated into full-out roars. I watched as the couple grabbed their children by their wrists, yanked them out of their seats, and dragged them out the door.

My husband sat down. What happened he asked, noticing the food strewn all over the table, and debris on the ground. I don’t know, I responded. I took another bite out of my burger and he did the same. But in fact, I did know, and so did he. And we wondered, as we munched on our synthetic burgers, simulated fries, and imitation ice cream, if what just happened, and what we knew, made a difference, at all.



Wayne Mok was born in Hong Kong and frequented the flight paths between Perth, Houston, Chicago, New York and Vancouver. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Hong Kong and is currently based in Sydney, Australia.

1 comment

Ephra 5 May, 2023 - 4:27 am

This piece transported me to another life, another time. 👏


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