Telling Stories (Part 3)

Read: Telling Stories (Part 2)

Flora described how Mr T stayed with her family for a while, before he and Mom got married. My youngest uncle surrendered his mattress so Mr T could crash in their living room. Flora’s job paid well. After her boss got locked up, she bought his BMW from his wife. “Its engine always switched off at random, but your dad managed to sell the car, turn a profit, and gave me back the amount I paid.” Soon after, Mr T got a job as a driver for a former member of the Legislative Council. His employer was an influential man who held many honours. Mr T gradually became more than a driver when he helped his boss with real estate. “Your dad had a way with mainland Chinese clients. His excellent Mandarin was a plus”, explained Flora. Mr T’s ancestral home is Ningbo. He grew up in Hong Kong with six half-siblings. His family was so impoverished, Mr T never made it to secondary school. “I worked with mechanics and carpenters. See this scar?” He pointed to a small dent above his right eye. “One night, I was alone in the shop when two thieves tried to steal a very valuable antique chair my shi fu was fixing. I fought them off, and walked away with nothing more than this tiny cut.” He never saw eye to eye with his brothers, who, by the time Mom and Mr T got married, had moved to Toronto. One of their wives gave me an illustrated book on Disney princesses. “I heard you like reading, Stevie, and that you have very good English”, she said, beaming. I thanked her and accepted the pink book, but knew I was not going to give up the The Da Vinci Code for that.

Mr T borrowed a lot of money from his brothers when he started his own company producing 3D images. “Watch this fish disappear.” Mr T tilted a 3D card with an aquarium printed on it. I was three. I took the card and held it parallel to the ground. “There’s the fish!” Mr T borrowed a lot of money from the wrong people, promising them returns when he completed his “projects”. Among his grand schemes were the Tsing Ma Bridge and the Chek Lap Kok Airport. “My men built this bridge with their bare hands,” he said one time when he took Mom and me on a ride on Tsing Ma Bridge. “Wow.” I was impressed, but Mom always remained silent. He sold cars, and always took more than his cut. That was how he paid for our apartment on the mid-levels in North Point when I was two. “Sea view, sunsets, every day”. Mom summed up our apartment. Not long after Mr T bought the North Point apartment, my parents sold it to buy property in Singapore. It was during the time in the 90s when people in Hong Kong worried about what would become of the city after the British handover. Mom never told me why Mr T stayed in Hong Kong, but somewhere down the road, I understood. Halfway through our eight-year stay, trouble tracked us down. Mom and I had to move so we would appear not to exist.

Over the years, Mr T and Flora’s husband, George grew close. George was the first to learn about Mr T’s son when he told him he had to bring diapers and other baby supplies back to Shenzhen, where he lived with his mistress and their child. Mr T should consider himself lucky that it was long before the government imposed the two-can export limit on infant formula. Mom stayed single. Her singleness did not matter to me until my godfather told me how close my parents were. He knew them before they had me. “Back then, your mom was different. She was very happy with your dad.” When I grew older, I wanted Mom to be happy again, but she seemed to have spent her youth taking care of me. Her happiness was elsewhere.

Telling Stories (Part 2)

Read: Telling Stories (Part 1)

I’m only twentysomething, so there really isn’t much I can go on, especially when it comes to grown-up stuff like writing about growing up. Anyway, I’ll take a stab at it and start with unfamiliar territory: Mr T. I got back in touch with Mr T on Facebook at the advice of an Indian astrologer. “You must contact your father. He might have some heart problems within the next five years. Your father is very important to you,” Dr. Theja insisted. Searching for Mr T after almost a decade of lost contact wasn’t difficult, but believing his stories was. He invited me to an elderly home he claimed he was running. “I’ve also been investing in private columbarium niches. It’s a lucrative market, since there isn’t much room for the dead here,” he wrote me.

There is little space for the living, let alone the dead. Apparently, you wait an average four years for an urn space. That’s longer than waiting for a public housing flat, which, I guess is fair, because you’re dead anyway. For weeks, licensing and regulations for private columbaria was the topic that hung from every reporter’s tongue. We all wanted to know what sort of guidelines the government was planning to impose on businessmen like Mr T, for offering accommodation the authorities failed to provide. While that, as I write, remains to be answered, I’ve got questions of my own.

Elderly Home Builder and Landlord of the Dead are only two of the many roles Mr T has played. He is Father to a teenage son with chameleon hair, hipster glasses and an Instagram pout, and a mysterious thirtysomething woman who is married to a gweilo; Husband to a woman with overdrawn lips who wears leopard print on leopard print and strawberry-tinted shades. He was also White-Collar Criminal, Businessman, Salesman, Driver, and, a long time ago, my father. “You know how I used to tell you your father loved you very much? Forget that. If he loved you, he wouldn’t have chosen his bastard son over you.”

Mom reminded me that I didn’t need to give Mr T a second chance. She had had enough of his stories and was adamant that I kept them where they belonged: the grave. Mr T bragged about being BFFs with President Xi Jinping. “We used to play after school. His dad moved to Shenzhen for retirement. That’s where we met.” He also claimed to be close to a former People’s Liberation Army leader. My aunt, Flora, said the Chinese leader was Mr T’s first father-in-law. When she first met him, he’d appeared to have left the political circle, opting instead to be a commoner with a white Saab. “He had a sexy moustache, and was half his size now. He was tall, too.” Mr T has had a large belly as far as I can remember, but his pooch in his recent Facebook photos rival that of a pregnant woman in her third trimester. I had invited my aunt to coffee at the Excelsior, hoping in vain to learn the truth in one sitting. Flora took the lid off of her iced cappuccino and stirred vigorously. “Your mother and I went to the disco upstairs a lot when we were in our late teens. She was a lot of fun.” I looked at Flora dubiously. “Your dad, though”, continued Flora, “was a troublemaker. He promised to get my boss out of prison in Guangzhou. My boss was arrested for importing leaves and rocks from India instead of tobacco. Your dad cheated my boss’ wife of, maybe $100,000 to $200,000, for the ‘operation’.”

“So did he get your boss out of jail?”

“Of course not. My boss’ wife thought I was in on it, too, although she had no proof.”

Telling Stories (Part 1)

In Hong Kong, there isn’t much to go on. I realised this during my last days working as a reporter at a local TV station. I’d missed the staff bus that took us from the MTR station to our headquarters in the Tseung Kwan O industrial area. Reluctantly, I boarded the public bus, which always reeked of sweaty construction workers. That’s when I saw Nala for the last time. She was my Chinese-language reporter colleague who was born non-Chinese. Years before I started working at the station, whenever we saw Nala speak impeccable Cantonese on TV, Mom would encourage me, “If she can do it, so can you”.

My Chinese is good enough for me to translate it into English, but I struggle to put a “So-and-so will be speaking at our seminar tonight” into comprehensible Chinese. Nala, however, did not equate success with language skills. “People will always see me as the brown girl who speaks perfect Cantonese before they regard me as a journalist. Do you know what my beat is?”

Politics? She’s been to a number of rallies. Housing, maybe? Or Guangzhou—Nala was always stationed in Guangzhou. “Of course you’re good at something…” I beamed unconvincingly. I’ll admitI was guilty of seeing her as the brown girl who spoke perfect Cantonese, but that’s only because I admired how she’d nailed a language I was born to master but somewhat failed. Nala was also one of the few colleagues who stopped to break things down for me when I shook my head dumbly after spending 15 minutes pretending to understand what exactly was wrong with the government. When she asked me what was next for me, I told her I wanted to be a writer. “That’s wonderful!” Nala looked so impressed I was certain I would disappoint. “In a place where we’re constantly expected to evolve, people need to be reminded of how they got from Point A to Point B. People need to hear stories about themselves.”

Thanks, Nala. No pressure at all.