Short Story by Phil Brown
A fish was looking up at me, gills pumping, mouth gaping.
“I think it’s trying to say something,” I said.
“Yes, like ….I’m dying here, help me,” Sandra said.
We were at what they call in Hong Kong a ‘wet market’. This is a place where you can get, if you’re in the mood, some raw stingray guts, a half dead fish, a bucket of live prawns or some fresh frogs for your dinner. There was a mesh bag of them nearby, all slithering away together like a vision of hell.
There’s fresh meat to be had too at places such as this and they will cut for you while you wait. I regarded, nearby, a butcher, his string singlet rolled up to his chest to reveal a fat, sweaty tummy. A cigarette dangled from his lower lip, ash dropping onto the chopping block as he worked away with his bloodied cleaver.
“Now there’s an ad for vegetarianism if I ever saw one,” I said.
This particular wet market in Wan Chai and we had come upon it quite by accident. I say that because I don’t really know my way around Wan Chai. When I was a boy this part of Hong Kong island was verboten. It was a red light district I heard mentioned sometimes in snatches of eavesdropped conversation lingering near the cocktail bar at home in Kowloon. My parents and their friends gathered at the bar at our home in Kowloon Tong in the evening sometimes, before going out for the night and I sometimes listened in on my way to the kitchen. Other times I just sat at the bottom of the stone staircase juts beyond the lounge room.
Here they would gather, men in suits with slips of white handkerchief showing in their breast pockets, all smoking and drinking, the women in spangled dresses, my father presiding behind the bar while the Amah fetched ice, olives and lemons from the kitchen to add to the drinks.
I heard Wan Chai mentioned occasionally and the nuances of the conversation always suggested it was a den of iniquity.
Naughty things happened in Wan Chai apparently - it was a rough, tough joint where members of the British garrison went to party and fight and get their collars felt by the Military police. The famed Scottish battalion The Black Watch were notorious for their Wan Chai antics.
I was too young in the 1960s to really understand much about it although its reputation has lasted even though I had rarely been there until stumbling upon it. Being a Kowlooner I have never felt that that familiar with Hong Kong side. It’s like living on the Northside of Brisbane and being completely bamboozled by the Southside, or dwelling on Sydney’s North Shore completely oblivious of the southern suburbs.
But we had been shopping in Causeway Bay and had wandered westwards to Wan Chai, coming across it almost inadvertently. We had stumbled into the wet market and enjoyed the colour and movement of it although after fifteen minutes or so I was getting a bit green around the gills watching the live produce slowly expiring in front of me. All that moribund marine life and raw meat, it was all a bit much no matter how fascinating it might have been.
So we pushed through the market – me with a moist towellete over my mouth and nose - and into a side street. I guess you could say we were meandering. Now I’m usually pretty ordered in my meanderings, which is a contradiction in terms, I know. But on this day I was a kind of flaneur, embracing meaningless wandering in one of Hong Kong’s most interesting areas.
Wan Chai was, at the time, in the process of becoming gentrified and nowadays there are funky boutique hotels and cafes springing up there in that densely populated strip between the harbour and the hills. We actually stayed there for a few day a few years ago and enjoyed it and the proximity to Causeway Bay, shopping heaven, is handy. There are still the cat houses and girlie bars too and I did see, one night, a car full of sailors bent on some sort of mischief piling into a cab out front of the hotel. But things aren’t as rowdy and there isn’t as great a need for the houses of ill repute as there was when the British Army was stationed here and the R and R troops from Vietnam escaped the horrors of jungle warfare in the arms of Chinese concubines. I like that word. It sounds better than prostitutes.
And so, as we wandered through Wan Chai, moving through the streets and lanes without knowing quite where we were or where we were going. It was kind of nice.
We stopped at a small café and I used my elemental Cantonese to order.
“Bei ngoh leungo ga fey, m’goi” I said. Two coffees, that is.
Now the sort of coffee you get in these little local cafes is a long way from your regular espresso or flat white. We’re talking about a black, gooey liquid in a glass and to that liquid is added a very generous dollop of condensed milk. I love the stuff. Sandra not so much.
“This is the life,” I said as I sipped mine and Sandra turned her nose up at hers. I regarded a streetscape with no other gwai los in sight. That always makes one feel superior, as if one has wandered off the beaten track where no other tourists are. That tends to convince you that you are having an authentic experience. That’s what can happen to you when you’re lost.
After our coffee break we wandered along another street and we were, I thought, moving in a westerly direction. But apart from that I think I had no real idea where we were. It was rather nice.
We looked round as we strolled - there were Chinese apothecaries with deer antlers and other dried animal bits displayed outside alongside Chinese mushrooms and various herbs. There were little grocery stores, some electrical shops and there was a workman fitting out an old shop, spraying welding sparks into the street and turning aside to spit as we went past.
We looked in windows and dodged a mangy dog and passed men with bicycles mounted with rattan baskets and vegetables. Then we stopped in front of a rather interesting little shopfront window with figurines and other curios displayed behind the murky glass. We were interested because we tend to collect such things. The shelves at home are groaning with Buddhas and other booty from our Asian adventures. We even have one made of yak bone which we bought in Kathmandu. That’s a prized possession but, just quietly, I don’t think it’s actually yak bone at all.
Beyond the grime of this little shop’s front window we could make out carved ivory, ceramics, jade and other oriental artefacts that caught our eye and warranted further attention, even though, and perhaps even because, the shop seemed old and forgotten. It was like a remnant of the old Hong Kong, the sort of shop we used to see on visits to Macau or on Lion Rock Road in Kowloon where my mother took us shopping sometimes. Stinky Avenue she called it.
“Egad, it’s The Old Curiosity Shop,” I said, thinking of Dickens.
“Is it even open?” Sandra said.
“I think it is,” I said leaning forward into dark interior. There was no door as such, just a metal grill that had been rolled up but not quite all the way up. It had the appearance of either just having been opened or about to close. We went inside, a tad gingerly.
Once in there one had to adjust one’s eyes to the light. The smell was, well musty to say the least and there seemed to be a thin layer of dust on most surfaces. It was like walking into a mausoleum. It soon became apparent that there was inside -not a mummified corpse surrounded by stuff needed in the afterlife - but, rather, a small, wizened, old lady with a nut brown face and exaggerated crow’s feet in the corners of her eyes. She wore traditional garb … kind of like black pyjamas that is – and little black slippers. There was a jade bangle on one of her wrists. She half smiled, half bowed as we sidled in and started browsing. We felt like intruders really but she was happy enough to see us I think.
“You have some very interesting things in here,” Sandra said and she nodded and smiled but it was pretty obvious she did not speak English. Despite the air of decrepitude she had what looked like some very nice pieces. I looked over a fine ceramic dragon, admired some jade carvings and amulets displayed in a felt lined tray, and then something else caught my eye. It was sitting behind the fuzzy glass on a low shelf.
It was a ceramic figurine of a Chinese scholar, a Mandarin. It was blue and white in the traditional manner but the face was glazed a flesh colour and this elegant man was wearing a rather natty hat pointed at the top. He had a learned look and sported a little Fu Manchu beard too. He was holding a scroll and had a dragon emblazoned on the front of the long gown he wore to the ground where it draped over his slippers. It was a lovely item and I asked to see it and the little old lady slid back the glass, which wasn’t easy for her, and she passed it to me. I turned it over in my hands and inspected the glaze and, well, I’m no expert but it was a pretty solid piece, the sort of thing you see on Antiques Roadshow with some expert on Chinoiserie going on and on and on about it . Sometimes unexpected items were worth a fortune.
I’m sure I would have been charged a lot for this piece in one of the flash antiques stores up on Hollywood Road where they follow you down the street pleading with you to buy something if you make the mistake of browsing without purchasing. I asked the price – in Cantonese because I knew how to (gay do chin?) and the old woman dragged an old abacus out from behind the counter, did some lightning quick calculations, rattling away with the wooden beads. She then transferred them onto a beaten little battery-powered calculator. She came up with a price that equated to around $30 Australian. I looked at Sandra and she nodded.
“I’ll take it,” I said to the little old lady. “Hai. Can you wrap?” I made a wrapping gesture.
She nodded and fetched some old newspaper and proceeded to bind it, quite tightly, and then she tied some string around it. Classy. But we weren’t done yet. Sandra bought some Buddha beads too and we also bought an oval ceramic vase with some courtly scenes painted on the sides. This too was wrapped in newspaper tied with string.
That was enough, we thought, mindful of our already bulging suitcase. I put them in my backpack and they appeared to fit so I thought I might carry them on the plane back to Brisbane.
With our booty secured we farewelled the little old lady and walked and kind of backed out into the daylight. It was kind of like coming out of a cave. I tapped my backpack, satisfied with the contents and our find – the shop that time forgot.
“Bargain,” I said. “What a crazy little joint that was.”
“Pretty weird,” Sandra said. “Maybe we should have bought more?”
“There’s always next time,” I said and I realised as soon as I had said it that I had cursed myself. So many times in Hong Kong we have walked past a shop and thought – we must come back - never to find it again. Next time often never eventuated.
We had left the old shop behind but soon we stumbled upon another treasure trove – a rather swish shop by comparison dealing in Buddhist devotional items - everything from joss sticks to scrolls, screens and the most exquisite bronze Buddhas.
Things were a little more expensive here but we lashed out and bought a Buddha with a studded cap, its hand is a meaningful gesture which was explained to us but immediately forgotten. We collect such things. On my bedroom chest of drawers I have a Buddha sitting beside a largish crucifix which came from my grandmothers’ coffin, a gift to me from a cousin who I guess must have prised it off. I once got a Feng shui guy around to check our house and he freaked when he saw the Buddha next to the Christian symbol. “No good! No good!” he cried. The two were incompatible and caused a problem with the house’s chi apparently.
We were happy with our new Buddha and thrilled with our ceramics and pledged to return to Wan Chai next time we were in Hong Kong.
That turned out to be about two years later. And we did go back searching for our little shop again. We started at the wet market, which I sued as a marker. Sandra was convinced that we wouldn’t find the shop but somehow we did which proved that it hadn’t been some sort of mirage. Amazingly the little old lady was there rustling behind the counter in the gloom and we went through the same ritual of browsing until I found another lovely ceramic piece …. a kind of Chinese Madonna and child, also blue and white. The Madonna was wearing a long cloak decorated with lotus flowers.
I am looking at her now as I wrote this. She is sitting serene on a shelf with her scholar friend nearby, standing in front of a photo of my grandparents taken in Shanghai in the 1930s. It’s like a little shrine to the family’s life in China. My grandparents lived in Shanghai in the 1930s after moving from London. My grandfather was in the construction business there at the time having worked his way east through Africa, India, Penang and then China. I have a little antiquarian print on my desk too picturing the old harbour front of Shanghai before it had become the Paris of The Orient.
In the photo of my grandparents they look which and Shanghai was pretty fashionable in those days although a cloud hung over it. The Japanese were already making incursions in Manchuria and war would facture the family eventually. But in that photo the shadow had not been cast over their lives yet.
I often look up at that picture and at my little statues.
On our second foray to that street in wan Chai I was tickled to have made another good find and chuffed that we had even found the place again and just a bit surprised that the lady was still there. She wrapped the Madonna and child in newspaper and tied it with string and I wondered if we were her only customers that day, that month
I’m a creature of habit and I had it in mind that visiting this shop this might become our thing, our little touchstone with the past, these visits to what I called The Old Curiosity Shop in Wan Chai which may or may not have been attended by a ghostly apparition that appeared in the temporal form of an old lady. Maybe she was a ghost haunting a shop that she used to run? But she appeared real and the proof is sitting there on my study shelf.
We go to Hong Kong regularly so it wasn’t that long until we were back again and I thought, well, third time lucky. So back we went to Wan Chai. It felt like something out of Groundhog Day, replicating the same walk, beginning at the wet market again, grimacing over the grim sight of dying seafood and fish gasping as they slowly expired in front of the shoppers. The same butcher hacked at raw meat with his cleaver, a cigarette still attached to his lower lip, the singlet now rolled down though, bloodied and stained. We stopped for a condensed milk coffee and strolling on to our little shop, pleased with ourselves.
“Here’s the street,” I said when we found it again. I mean I suppose I could have marked it down on a map or made some sort of record but it was more fun searching for it and finding again this way. We wandered up and down and soon realised we weren’t as sure of our location as we thought.
“This was the street, wasn’t it? I said to Sandra.
“I think so,” she said. “Or maybe not.” Well there were two distinct possibilities here after all.
We tried streets parallel to that one with still no luck. There were plenty of shops boarded up and hoarding in front of others so it was hard to tell. There was a lot of work going on. I stopped and asked someone but that’s always a mistake because so much is lost in translation or one gets those blank looks. I tried some basic Cantonese but the looks remained blank.
“They know what I’m saying,” I said. “They’re just screwing with my head.”
Eventually one man with a face like the full moon nodded knowingly and pointed frantically to a location down the street. He even walked us part of the way there and seemed pleased when we reached it. It was a 7-Eleven.
“Ni bin,” he said. Here.
“Oh thank you so much,” I said with a little Basil Fawlty sarcasm. We wandered some more but it was obvious that we not going to find it. It obviously wasn’t there any more we figured. And the little old lady, if she wasn’t a ghost, has almost certainly died.
Was it like the mystical Scottish village of Brigadoon that only appears once in every 100 years before disappearing into the Scotch mist again? I like that idea.
Maybe we had stumbled into a little portal into the past, a wormhole that was a dingy little shop in Wan Chai.
And I have no idea if the pieces we purchased there have any value or not. Should I get an expert to appraise them? I don’t want to. I don’t need to. Each is a talisman, even though one is a woman. To me they are symbols of Old Cathay and they speak to me of the past, of the grace and beauty of the orient, or the orient as I like to imagine it. I look at them and they make me smile. And that’s enough.
by Phil Brown
Copyright © Phil Brown