An Unusual Post-Card from Hong Kong

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Almost ascertained that there was no way I was going to find a story here, what with the language barrier and the reluctance to divulge anything to a foreigner that every local possesses, I was contemplating returning to the main street and calling for my hotel cab. But just as I was traversing the length of the last lane, I passed by what seemed to be an old antique shop and a pale yet firm hand caught hold of my arm accompanied by a trenchant voice and I was looking into the face of what I almost immediately knew was going to be my story.

The old woman’s rheumy eyes hinted at the many events they’d witnessed and places they’d seen, the etched lines wrinkling across her forehead showed years of experience and even though her lips were painted a scarlet shade, they were set in a thin slit just below her nose. From the moment she’d grabbed my arm, I knew I was a captive. She had a tale to tell, and deemed me the most befitting listener. On an assignment from Lonely Planet, a UK Magazine, I was in search of a story about the enamoring red light areas of Hong Kong. My wandering steps took me deep into the narrow lanes of the much larger Mongkok market.

The China I’d read about in Pearl S. Buck novels and encyclopedias was a far cry from the modern technological and cultural hub that it’s become today. Hong Kong was also just a subjugated island in those books and what I saw myself encompassed by was a city! A city perhaps more modernized than some parts of my own country, India. The scintillating semblance of the women who waited for customers, or just stood nonchalantly in a group chattering was more akin to the western world than I’d thought they’d be. Their glittery apparel was not very different from the city’s lights and they merged like a well-crafted painting.

“Fire, only fire everywhere,” she began in her somewhat comprehensible English. From there on, her tale was slow, rickety and yet fascinating. Do keep in mind; this woman wasn’t as articulate as she could have been had she been using her own tongue to.. I had to strain my hearing as well as inference in order to comprehend her scarce speech. However, she spoke better English than the average locals of my generation.

She’d lived in the Kap Shek Mi area of New Kowloon where one of the greatest catastrophes ever endured by this country occurred in 1953. It was a fire, a fire so pervasive and so deadly that it left more than fifty-three thousand people homeless, some orphaned and nine dead.

This much was true, I  was aware of the ill-fated day of 25th January 1953 when an extensive fire had broken out in one of the major residential areas of Kowloon district of Hong Kong, I also knew who Governor Alexander Grantham was from whatever I’d read on the history of Hong Kong. In fact I’d even been there on my visit but it showed no trace of the suffrage it had witnessed decades ago. “Governor Alexander Grantham, good man! Make cheap apartments for us. We only immigrants, you know.” I completely understood what she meant when she said “only” immigrants. Drifters from mainland China who settled in the British colonized Hong Kong were a foreign to their surroundings as a citizen of another country, yet they treaded water, buoyant in the chaotic streets of British Hong Kong.

“He live in apartment 12 in my building. Very young, we like each other a lot,” she continued as she stared into space as if almost remembering every event that she recounted. It was in a neighboring apartment of her building where she’d met him for the first time. Him, I supposed at the time, must have been the love of her life. She went on to explain to me that in an inexorable way, they’d felt drawn to each other. I saw her expression soften, the red lips curved ever so slightly to form the faintest hint of a smile. “His name, Hao, Hao Wang,” the old woman continued, as if she had been rehearsing this story for years, in anticipation of my arrival.

Hao believed himself to be a writer but all she every saw him do was read. Although she admitted she did quite enjoy the smell of old books in his room and the sound of his voice when he read something to her. She shrugged in a matter-of-fact way and said something to the effect of, “I won’t bore you with details that you can very well imagine, or even experience, seeing as you’re quite young yourself—” I smiled at her and poured some tea into a cup for me. “I always remember, he come one day…”

Hao came home one evening and announced to her that he had been offered a government job. He would be chauffeuring Governor Alexander’s wife Maurine! The well-travelled, sophisticated Maurine Samson, whom, almost every young girl in Hong Kong admired and covertly hoped to be in the shoes of. She was more than thrilled and on the day he received his first wage, they got themselves married in a near-by temple. Hao didn’t believe in marital laws or signing papers, all he needed was god as a witness to their love and commitment.

As I sat there across from her sipping my tea, endeavoring to read her face, I couldn’t really judge if this was all senseless banter coming from senility or an actual account of a life that was one among millions in this over populated city and yet so uniquely interesting that I found myself longing for her to continue. In any case, it would be feckless to make an attempt of interrupting this story now, I thought to myself.

Her shop showed no signs of a man, which confirmed she was alone. The culture in Hong Kong, or even China, I have observed in my travels, is for a couple to run a store together. Husbands and wives work together on their joint business rather than having two different jobs. I now saw a wave of sepulchral melancholy wash over her face as I took a sip of the offered tea gingerly. It being the Chinese New Year’s Eve, I heard all kinds of cacophonous noises in the market as people got ready to welcome the New Year with lights, food and music. But all I wanted to hear was this old woman’s narrative which had my complete attention now. “What happened?” I whispered. “Two years, we so happy. No children. But still happy…but,” she shook her head lightly and circled the rim of her cup.

It was their second anniversary, he’d asked her to dress up. They were going to catch the ferry to go to Macau for a weekend and their visas would be taken care of. She had a bright orange dress on and her hair done up with a beautiful hair pin embellished with stones. She had a myriad of thoughts swirling in the depths of her mind, thoughts of starting a family, thoughts of refurnishing their home with the little money she’d been saving, but when she heard a knock on her door, she knew it wasn’t him. Something in her told her she I wasn’t going to like whatever was on the other side of the door.

She wetted her lips and I motioned towards the tea which she refused by shaking her head. Her voice trembled as she continued, “They tall men. Wear uniform and hat. So serious!”

They asked where Hao was and she told them she’d been waiting for him to return from work and the next thing she felt was a piercing pain across her left cheek and in moments she was staring at the floor, hunched and still shaking from the slap. Her tone became bitter and her expression revealed a vehemence that didn’t need volume or gesturing to convey its force. “Hao not writer, not driver. He Jiàndié!”

I immediately rummaged through my bag for my Chinese dictionary and asked her to point out the word she’d used. When I saw the meaning my heart leapt and I thought, for what was the first time, that this had been perhaps one of the luckiest days for me as a writer, for I had stumbled across a real-life true espionage love story! I sat back in my chair, partly questioning the verity of this account and partly so riveted that I was transfixed by this old frail woman’s words.

You see, Hao was no writer, reader, or chauffeur. He was a spy, a bug, implanted by the Japanese. He was to ingratiate himself with the governor’s guards and other security in order to find the right time for them to strike. The job wasn’t offered to him out of the blue, it was all pre-ordained. He had been so adroit at his job that even his wife, knew nothing of this part of his life.

All of a sudden, she paused and looked straight into my eyes; her stabbing gaze sought my very soul. And then said something (slightly incomprehensible, thus paraphrased), that made me more sympathetic to something that she must have gone through decades ago, than I’d be to a present feeling. “Have you ever wished for something so badly that you were ready to barter for it with your life?” She had. All she’d wanted was for him to emerge out of nowhere and hold her and reassure her that everything would be all right. I felt tears sting the back of my eyes and I stifled a sniffle.

The torture she had to go through for next few months was not fractionally as painful as the fact that he’d abandoned her; left her at their hands to save his skin. She felt like she was a pawn in his game, a minor fragment of a larger more consequential piece. She incessantly pled but nobody believed her. A spy’s wife was automatically a spy.

“Then what happened?” I croaked.

It was the seventh month of her imprisonment when someone came to her cell and announced that the governor himself had summoned her. She wondered what kind of infernal punishment was in store for her. In the governor’s office, she felt like a lamb in a slaughter house shivering in anticipation of that final lethal blow.

However, all he did was reveal to her that Hao’s dead body had been found and on his person was nothing but a post-card and few documents. It read – “I will have passed the gates of heaven or hell when you read this, but all I want to say is that my wife did not partake in any of my affairs. She is completely and utterly innocent. Please place this post-card in her possession and keep the rest of the documents for yourselves. Hao Wang’.

These words do keep in mind; have been used from Collins dictionary which I used to translate the actual pinyin Chinese symbols on the post card.  Known for his benignity towards women and children, the Governor had kept her alive, even if imprisoned, and against the wishes of almost all officials, decided to free her. She sucked in a deep breath, fatigued from all the talking and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. And then like a magic trick she pulled a post-card out of thin air and placed it on the little table she sat behind, across from me.

My eyes widened in fascination and I realized it must have been the same post-card Hao had left her. She rubbed her thumb across it and looked at it endearingly. “All items here, I sell. This no sale.” I smiled at her and took the post card from her hands. It was yellowy and old. But the Chinese writing unfurled a profound message. I started translating with her help and my excitement mounted with each translated word.

Hao hadn’t betrayed her after all. He may have taken his time, but he did release her from her suffering. Why he had disappeared without a trace, she still didn’t know. But at least she didn’t have the image of a heartless cheat in her mind when she thought of her one most true love.

The post card also represented the most painful of all facts. Hao had committed suicide. Fearing what the Japanese would do if they realized he’d smuggled information to the British. I fished out a few bills from my bag and put them on one of the ornate corner tables and took her leave wordlessly, a suddenly I found myself tongue-tied. Back in the effulgent and noisy streets of main Mongkok market, I headed towards Tsim Sha Tsui junction where my cab awaited. My gaze fell on a postcard stand near the subway and the vendor asked which one I wanted.

I shook my head and moved on, only to stop a few steps away. I turned, walked back to the stand, picked one out and asked for a pen. Hastily scrawling the words down, I paid the vendor and rushed back to the old antique shop, maneuvering my way through the throngs of crowd. The old lady’s chair was unoccupied and the post-card was no longer on the table. I quietly placed on it the one I’d just bought and rushed back to my cab.

My post-card read—“Yours and Hao’s story will not remain in this old antique shop. It’s my promise.”

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