by Chellis Ying
Tak-Wah, twelve, was nine years younger than his youngest sibling, Second Sister, who had recently moved out to marry an older man that his parents complained, “was not even wealthy.” It was 1976 in Hong Kong and Tak-Wah had a room to himself for the first time. He had his pick of the top bunk next to a tiny slit of a window where he could almost see his neighbor’s kitchen, or the bottom bunk where a tall dresser sheltered him from the hallway light. But, no, he slept on the mattress he was most used to—in the middle of the room, his heels grazing the floor.
One morning, Tak-Wah’s father abruptly poked him in the shoulder. “Get dressed,” he said in Cantonese.
Tak-Wah gasped. “Where are we going?”
His father worked seven days a week in a store on the first floor of the Kowloon Walled City. Weeks often passed when Tak-Wah never saw him.
His father hovered in the doorway. “To the Island.”
Tak-Wah’s mother had prepared breakfast—rice porridge and tea. She was quiet, but what she lacked in sound, she made up for with smells. Every night, after the shop closed, she massaged the joints of her fingers with a minty oil. She rubbed each knuckle in small circles until the skin was pink and raw. The smell of medicine reached every crack of their small two-bedroom apartment, so strong that even when she wasn’t there, he could smell her.
She tapped Tak-Wah on the top of his head with her minty hands. “Do not cause trouble.”
Tak-Wah and his father left their apartment, squeezed their bodies between a narrow passageway, descended four flights of stairs, skipped the last step, which was loose, and at the bottom, jumped over a puddle of mysterious liquid. They moved as if in a choreographed dance. The Kowloon Walled City was shielded by the sun from towering buildings. Thirty thousand residents lived on one block. Electric cords dipped from the ceiling like tangled serpents. A maze full of alleyways where secrets went to hide.
Tak-Wah and his father emerged into the sunlight. The streets bustled with double-decker busses, vendors selling fruit, people in a hurry.
His father said, “Stay close.”
They walked until the sun was high overhead, and the streets ended, meeting the ocean. They rode the ferry to Hong Kong Island. They reached land, and they walked some more until Tak-Wah’s shirt clung to his skin. The air smelled of sweat and barbecue pork. The afternoon heat was now unbearable, but Tak-Wah dared not complain or ask where they were going. He knew, without speaking, that today was special.
His father said, “We are here.”
Tak-Wah looked up and saw a red and white sign, sparkling with polished newness, lit by an artificial glow. Spread across the sign in large white print was the English word: “Wellcome.”
“What is this place?”
Tak-Wah’s father pushed open the door. “Your future.”
When they entered, Tak-Wah’s whole body sighed, as a wave of cool air caressed his body. The chill tingled his exposed skin. “What is that?”
His father closed his eyes, savoring the indoor breeze. “Air conditioning. ”
Tak-Wah looked around the spacious room with high ceilings and gleaming lights. He walked closer to the first row, which had shelves of bottles and boxes, and suddenly realized that this place was a store full of food. It was nothing like the dark, wet markets that smelled of sour vegetables and rotting fish. Here, there were 33 different kinds of noodles—fat noodles; skinny noodles; brown wheat noodles; white rice noodles; yellow shrimp egg noodles; long creamy noodles from Europe. The butcher’s counter offered the same meats as in the Walled City—barbecue pork, roast duck, soy sauce chicken, pig’s feet—except everything here looked and smelled more delicious. The cutting boards were clean. The meats shone, dripping with grease. The lights featured the food in a way that made them almost too beautiful to eat, like art or expensive jewelry.
His father said, “You may pick one gift.”
Tak-Wah’s eyes grew wide. How would he pick one thing in a store full of treasures? Should he pick a sweet treat or a savory bun? A Chinese or British delicacy? If he picked an item that was too expensive, would his father scold him? Or if it were too cheap, would his father judge him for having a peasant’s taste?
Tak-Wah said, “I do not know what I want.”
His father said, “Ask yourself: what will make me happy?”
Happiness was not a topic his parents talked about. Obedience. Duty. Accepting one’s fate. These were the lessons he was used to hearing about. How was he supposed to answer a question about a subject he knew nothing about?
Tak-Wah’s father grabbed a glass bottle out of the chilled closet. Condensation slid down the bottle’s contoured surface. Tak-Wah looked at the price and could not believe this tiny bottle of brown liquid cost as much as two dinners for the three of them. He quickly grabbed a bottle, too.
His father looked down approvingly.
Later, after it had become dark, they sat in a food stall in a narrow alleyway, slurping down noodles and drinking their Coca-Colas. Sweet bubbles tickled the back of his throat. He had never been this happy.
Then his father spoke: “Youngest Son, I did not expect you to be born so late in my life. I have spent all my days at the shop. I do not know you. But I have saved my money. When it is time, I will send you to America to study. You will use your brain to achieve success. Your brothers and sisters will envy you. They are selfish and greedy people. But do not give them money. I will be gone before you have a chance to prove your worth, but that is why I bring you here today. You must understand: I have struggled my whole life so that you will not.”
Image: Kowloon Walled City by Amber Case via Flickr