Beyond the Dream by Chiang Hiu-mei (Part 1 Ah Lok: 1-6)


Beyond the Dream is a beautiful love-story with a psychological twist. How refreshing to read about a romantic male “hero” who is modest, kind, and forever concerned about the welfare of others — one can only wish that there were more like him out there in the “real world” . . .

The writer 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei lives in Tuen Mun, in the western New Territories of Hong Kong. She has written three novels to date, the most recent of which is The Beaching of Autumn Whales 《秋鯨擱淺》published in 2020.

The following is a translation of the opening section (parts 1-6) of her second novel, a literary rendition of the film 《幻愛》. In it, we meet the character Ah Lok, a likeable young primary school teacher who is trying to get his like back on track after the death of his mother.

Chiang Hiu-mei herself once commented in a video:

最初開始創作嘅時候 | 其實我覺得係,係一個傷口裏面滲透住一啲東西出嚟嘅 | 噉我傷口係由於自己經歷啦 | 亦都有一部分源自於社會嘅變化啦 | 你面對住變化嘅時候 | 其實係好多焦慮呀、無助呀、無力感呀 | 噉但寫作想讓自己可以重新去正視 | 究竟自己嘅恐懼係嚟自啲乜嘢呀?| 點解對於一啲變化咁焦慮呀?

When I first began to create, it actually felt to me like a wound out of which things came seeping. The wound was due to what I had been through; it also partly originated from changes in society. When you confront the changes, then there are in fact many misgivings, helplessness, powerlessness. However, writing can give you the ability to face up to such things anew. What exactly what is the source of one’s terror? Why does one feel so anxious about certain changes?

This sensitivity to suffering is a hallmark of Chiang’s portrayal of Ah Lok, and one that helps the reader to see the world through her character’s eyes, at the same time hopeful and vulnerable to despair.

Other posts on 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei and Beyond the Dream:

Learning Cantonese: A Tuen Mun Love Story . . .

Learning Cantonese: 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei on Hongkongers — Leaving, Staying or Stranded?

Learning Cantonese: 周冠威 Kiwi Chow “How much are you willing to sacrifice for your home, Hong Kong?”

Learning Cantonese: 你究竟接唔接受你自己?or Can You Learn to Accept Yourself?

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Ah Lok / 1.

Night fell virtually unnoticed, putting the streets to a music quite different from the one heard during daylight hours. The main thoroughfares blazed with light, people moved in jumbled crowds, vehicles shuttled back and forth, and not far off in the distance came the clackety-clack made by the wheels of the light-rail train as its trundled along the tracks. It sounded very much like a musical instrument that had gone out of tune and, if you listened carefully, you might have realized that there was actually some kind of warning in its tone, but the people scurrying this way and that had no time to wonder about what it might be hinting at.

Through this crowd, a middle-aged woman walked with staccato steps, turning over something in her mind, abruptly stopping, then setting off again, only to stop once more not long after. She gazed up into the night sky — a mysterious-looking moonlight shining through a break in the clouds — as if she had glimpsed something ghastly up above, invisible to others. She too no notice of the traffic lights, crossing roads heedless of cars, and would come to a standstill on the footpath as people passed her by. Just as they always did every single day, the shops selling audio-visual equipment blared ear-splitting Mandarin pop songs into the bustling streets. And, as usual, in front of the sparkling neon signs of the foot-massage parlours, there was a prostitute hanging around waiting for a customer. The middle-aged woman passed by the frozen meat stalls, the cha chan teng restaurants, the stores selling mobile phones, looking around this way and that, disoriented, hugging herself tightly with her arms as she went.

She was in great anguish. There were tears on her face and her body twitched uncontrollably. Her dishevelled hair hung down around her shoulders and her lips trembled, as if she were telling herself about some terrible thing that was going to happen to her. All of a sudden, in a great burst of energy, she began to strip off her clothes, but then, just as quickly, she seemed to come to her senses and scrambled to dress herself again. Two opposing forces in her seemed to engaged in a kind of tug of war. After a few moments of further struggle, she could no longer withstand that demon’s promptings — yielding, surrendering, she took off her clothes, one item at a time, then huddled down on the ground in her panties and bra.

When they happened to notice the extraordinary things this middle-aged woman was doing, passers-by cast sidelong glances in her direction. Some of the men stood there boorishly gawping, while mothers shielded their children’s eyes with their hands and hurried them away. When Ah Lok, who was on his way home, saw the large gathering of on-lookers, his curiosity got the better of him. There were just too many people, however, which meant that all he could see was a dense mass of heads — he had no idea what was going on.

Suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice call out in agitation: “What the hell do you think you’re taking pictures of?”

As it turned out, a man in the crowd dressed in a Western-style suit was filming the incident on his mobile phone. Outraged by his behaviour and alert to the injustice it involved, a young woman with long hair ordered him to stop. It was only then that Ah Lok managed to catch a glimpse of the woman in the middle of the crowd squatting on the ground in her underwear. Her eyes had a glazed look in them, as if she had fallen into a trance, and seemed deeply disturbed by something as she stared up at the sky, muttering. When Ah Lok realized it was Ah Ling, he forced a way through the mass of bodies and draped his windcheater over her shoulders.

“Ah Ling, there’s no need to be frightened,” he said.

“Listen! He says he’s going to kill my mother!”

“You’re hearing things. It’s not real!” Ah Lok repeated several times.

When the woman with the long hair noticed that Ah Ling was shivering all over, she took off her shawl and wrapped it around her.

“Is she someone you know?” the long-haired woman asked.

Ah Lok nodded.

Right at that moment, he became aware of a beam of light shining at them — another male passer-by was holding up his phone and filming them. At once, Ah Lok stood up, blocking the lens on the phone with one hand, and said loudly, “Get out of here!”

Ah Ling still looked panic-stricken as if she felt she were under attack from an evil spirit and held on tightly to the hands of the long-haired woman, her body shuddering all the while. She kept her teeth tightly clenched, as if she could see countless malevolent creatures all wanting to hurt her mother, and she could find no way to break through this ring of hostile people. After an interval of pandemonium, an ambulance arrived on the scene. Ah Ling was escorted into the vehicle by a paramedic, with Ah Lok climbing in after them.

As he watched out through the window of the stationary ambulance, Ah Lok saw a police officer questioning the long-haired woman there in the street about what had taken place. Lit up by the street-lights, he finally became aware of the quiet-coloured clothing she had on — an azure-blue denim jacket and a trailing, fine-gauze fabric skirt which accentuated her slender figure. She had an attractive face with very white skin and, beneath a pair of delicate, prettily curved eyebrows, her eyes shone. Ah Lok thought she was extremely beautiful and couldn’t help staring at her in awe.

It was only when the ambulance doors slammed shut that Ah Lok came to his senses. By this time, Ah Ling seemed to have calmed down and had fallen asleep on the stretcher. He suddenly realized that he was still holding the shawl in his hands, left behind by the woman with the long hair, but by this time the ambulance was in motion. He looked out the window but could no longer see any sign of her.

2.

After the ordeals of the evening, it was very late by the time Ah Lok got back home. He carefully pulled open the screen-door before gently closing it behind him, doing his utmost to make sure there was no noise. Yes, that was his nature, conscientious and cautious, concerned that his late return might wake up his neighbours. Even inside his flat, he continued to tread quietly. As he put his backpack down, he still held on to the shawl. He took out a coat-hangar from his wardrobe and hung the shawl up against a window so that it wouldn’t crumple. He looked at the long light-blue garment and thought once again of that woman’s angelic face. That night, things lingered in his mind that were impossible to put into words.

All of a sudden, his phone began to vibrate without ringing. His aunt’s number showed on the screen.

“Auntie?”

“I’ve been ringing all night! Why haven’t you answered the phone?”

“I turned it off ring mode.”

It occurred to Ah Lok that whenever he watched a match between Manchester United and Chelsea he also kept the sound turned down.

“Your mother’s will has been settled. The people at the public housing association have already transferred the flat so that it’s listed under your name. Don’t forget to go to the Housing Authority to fill out the paperwork.”

“Right. You know, about the banquet my cousin is giving, I think I’d rather give it a miss.”

“Now look, I promised your mother I’d keep an eye on you! That girl in Canton works as a nurse. She knows all about looking after people.”

“I’m quite capable of looking after myself! My mother wouldn’t hold it against you.”

“You listen to me. You need someone to take good care of you for the rest of your life. It’s too good a chance . . .”

His aunt kept on at him with her well-intentioned advice. Ah Lok grunted half-heartedly, more out of politeness than agreement, walking as he did so over to where he kept a photograph of his mother together with the urn that held her ashes. He looked at them both blankly. Beside him was the door to her bedroom — although it was left ajar, he had never once gone inside since her death. He was afraid it would stir up the terror still lurking deep down in his heart and if his mood were triggered it might affect his day-to-day life, something he just couldn’t afford to have happen.

“Ah Lok, are you listening to me?”

“Hmm.”

“Then that’s settled. I’ll send you over some information I have about her later. She really is a good girl! You mustn’t disappoint your mother’s wishes for you — nor mine for that matter. And don’t forget the paperwork for the flat! It’s getting on, so try and get an early night. You have to go to work tomorrow!”

After his aunt had poured out everything she wanted to say, she hung up. Ah Lok could feel peace and quiet returning to the world.

Ah Lok lived in a two-bedroom flat provided by public housing and had only ever lived there with his mother. The décor was old-fashioned, and completely out of keeping with someone of Ah Lok’s age. In the living room there was a two-seater sofa in front of which was arranged a wooden shelving unit with the television set on it. Next to the unit was the dining table, also made of wood, and if his mother were still alive today there probably would have been a plate of steamed fish laid out on it. His mother had often said that fish was rich in protein and so good for the brain. The flat was very simple and, apart from the wall-calendar and some photographs, there was virtually no decoration of any kind. Not that Ah Lok minded: he was quite happy being on his own and though he would go on living there alone for the rest of his life.

That night, after he’d washed and brushed his teeth, he got into bed. He couldn’t sleep, though — he just lay there looking at the shawl as it rippled in the breeze while his thoughts whirled round and round till he began to feel uneasy. In the end, he got out of bed, removed the shawl, folded it up with great care, and put it back in his backpack. It occurred to him that if a strong wind blew up during the night, it might blow the shawl down into the street; he also thought that if he happened to run into the woman again, he could return it to her. At this point, his phone began to vibrate again. Ah Lok thought it must be his aunt sending through that information about the nurse in Canton, but when he picked it up he saw that it was a video of Ah Ling taking of her clothes sent through by his WhatApp community [群組], with comments on it constantly coming through like stray bullets.

“This is going viral out there!”

“God knows what will happen if Ah Ling sees this!”

“This is just too much!”

“Whatever you do, don’t show this to Ah Ling!”

Ah Lok clicked on the video and saw her stripped of her clothes, shivering there with her bare arms wrapped around her. The more he watched the more his outrage grew, until he jumped out of bed, turned on his laptop and, on a Facebook page with the title “Mental Health Alliance”, typed in the headline “Stop Inflicting a Second Level Pain — Mental Illness is Only an Illness!”. He then proceeded to key in the contents of his post: “Those who suffer from mental illness are just like you and me. It’s just that sometimes something goes wrong with them, and is no different from when ordinary people like you and me catch a cold, become diabetics or contract some form of heart disease. Their sickness is not something they have any control over. The key thing is, as with most other forms of disease, people can recover from mental illness given the right treatment. Perhaps to most of us, the things people do when they have an episode of mental illness can seem pretty weird, but in actual fact only a very small number of sufferers behave in such ways. And even if they do sometimes act a bit differently from the rest of us, such behaviour is only a symptom of their sickness and is totally beyond their control . . .”

His eyes glued to the screen, and with his fingers flying across the keyboard, in no time Ah Lok had written a long post in which he took netizens to task for rubbing salt into the wounds of people suffering from mental illness. The more he wrote, the angrier Ah Lok grew — if there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was criticism of people with a mental illness by outsiders with no experience of the issues, criticism which only added to their pain. In conclusion, he appealed to readers to adopt a positive attitude with regard to people with mental illness to help them make the transition back into social life. If no extra pressures were put on them, their chances of recovery would only be enhanced.

When he was finished, he looked up at the garage-kit figurine of the Incredible Hulk he kept on the windowsill, a film character he was very fond of. He then added his sign-off at the end of the post — Angry Hulk — and then slammed his computer shut in disgust.

That night, he seemed doomed to sleeplessness, a ball of fire blazing angrily in his chest which scorched, it seemed, both his body and his mind.

3.

When he heard the alarm ring on his phone, Ah Lok scrambled upright and switched it off. He rubbed his chest — that searing anger he had felt the previous evening was still smouldering away in his heart, it seemed. He got up and went into the living room, where he poured himself a cup of boiled water from the thermos. After gulping it down, he began to feel a bit better.

Ah Lok was not the kind of person who like lazing around in bed. He set himself high standards and disliked imposing on other people in any way. Although you couldn’t say he was particularly quick off the mark, he was never late for work and always arrived a quarter of an hour before the appointed time. After taking a shower, he looked at his watch and thought that he could probably make the light-rail service that left at forty-eight minutes past. Before heading out, he unzipped his backpack just to make sure the shawl was safely packed inside, then, closing the screen-door quietly, he set off for the station.

Ah Lok worked as a Phys. Ed. teacher in a primary school. He liked his job and, even though most of the children disliked going to class, they were always happy doing P.E. Some ran around, others jumped all over the place, fooling around and having a good time, and from every part of playground you could hear the sound of their laughter, as if that vague wish for “eternal happiness” could actually come true. Of course, if Ah Lok happened to be walking past, he would become a target for their attacks and things would get completely chaotic, with no semblance of order whatsoever.

Ah Lok made a start on his lesson. The subject of today’s class was soccer and he began by demonstrating the skills required to shoot for goal. After the demonstration, he asked the students to copy his movements and to practice kicking the ball at the goal. Unfortunately, a soccer ball was to these kids a lethal weapon and, as soon as they got one between their feet, they would start kicking it left and right as hard as they could, instant warfare breaking out on the playground. Ah Lok stood in front of goal as keeper, while the children tried to score, kicking the ball in all sorts of different ways. Countless soccer balls went flying around the playground and Ah Lok would deftly throw himself on his side saving any number of certain goals. The children, however, were undeterred, and several of them would shoot at goal in unison, kicking as if their feet were fitted with springs. The more they kicked, the more excited they became, and the more frenetic their shots on goal became until Ah Lok could withstand them no more and lay down on the ground, gasping for breath. He gestured to them, indicating that he wanted a ceasefire and pretending to plead for mercy, something that made the children roar with laughter. No one at that moment noticed the pair of eyes watching them intently from above.

When the class came to an end, he dismissed his pupils and, having a short break before his next class, went off and gathered up all the soccer balls, then returned them to the store room. On his way back to the staff room, he passed a male teacher showing another colleague something on his phone, but paid no attention to them. He wanted to give his give his face a wash in preparation for the next session.

As he moved past the pair, however, the man with the phone handed it to Ah Lok and said: “Have you seen this, Mr Lee?”

At once Ah Lok saw that it was clip of Ah Ling taking off her clothes. Then, by chance, a secretary from the school’s admin. office happened to come by and joined their group.

“The number of crazy people in Hong Kong is growing by the day!”

“A mad woman like that shouldn’t be allowed to run around at will!”

“She’s a mature, grown-up woman! That’s a bit rich, isn’t it!”

“She’s not mad. It’s probably a psychosis that gives her hallucinations and makes her hear voices that aren’t really there. She can’t help it.” Ah Lok explained earnestly.

At this moment, a female secretary went by holding a newspaper in her hand. Seeing them talking there together, she walked over and began leafing through the pages. In it there was a story on Ah Ling taking off her clothes. Next to the report was a photograph of her.

“That’s you in the photo. I thought the face looked familiar!” said the female secretary.

“Oh, so you were there, on the spot!”

“Is she a friend of yours?”

“No, she’s not. I just happened to be passing by,” said Ah Lok, denying any connection.

“You’re a saint. If I’d been in your shoes, I would have cleared out as fast as I could.”

“Of course, you would have! Who knows what dreadful things she might have done! It’s all very well to say that a mental illness is only an illness, but it perfectly natural to feel alarmed if you happened to be passing by.”

After completing a circuit of the school, the principal descended from the fourth floor. When he reached the door of the administrative office, he caught sight of the group in animated discussion, and a look of disapproval appeared on his face. He pretended to cough a couple of times, just like the typical stern boss in some television soap opera. When the members of the group caught sight of him, they all went back to work, not daring to continue their discussion.

Suddenly, the headmaster spoke, his tone icy: “Mr Lee, please come and see me after work! I would like you to do a bit of critical reflection on your class-management practices.”

Before he had time to make a response, the principal had already disappeared into the administrative office, the door closing behind him. He had no idea what it was that the principal wanted him to reflect on, but he seemed to remember the man’s brow having the colour and texture of a charred walnut.

4.

Whether coming or going, Ah Lok’s daily travel was all done on the light rail, the largest transport network connecting up all of Tuen Mun, and he couldn’t help thinking that the place must be a rather forsaken corner — otherwise why would they have built a transport system here that the rest of the world regards as a dismal failure? At a time when everyone was talking about creating a “one hour living circle” for the whole Greater Bay Area, it still took a bone-rattling one-hour journey all up to get from Tuen Mun Pier to Fu Tin MTR station — and if you didn’t get on at the terminus, you wouldn’t even dream of finding a vacant seat. At peak hour — going to, or coming from, work — people jammed the carriages like sardines in a tin, and with every breath you breathed in the hot sweat of others. Life being difficult enough already, Ah Lok wanted to spare himself any additional annoyance, and so always chose to avoid the crowds, waiting until the evening rush-hour was over before catching the light rail home. In any case, there was nowhere else he had to be. And in any case, he was on his own.

As he walked at a leisurely pace to the light-rail platform, Ah Lok thought over what the headmaster had said to him, how he wasn’t to join in too freely with the children’s games; how, after long observation, he had noted that the children didn’t stick to the proper discipline during their Phys. Ed. classes; and how this could be dangerous. Ah Lok explained to the headmaster that he joined in with the children to make the classes more enjoyable for them and, as a result, could help them deal with the pressures of study better. The principal, however, did not accept Ah Lok’s explanations, and insisted that a clear boundary be maintained between teachers and students — any transgression of this boundary benefited neither party. Naturally, Ah Lok was reluctant to accept such instructions. To take his mind off the issue took one of Haruki Murakami’s books down from the book-desk in the staff room and started to read — only Murakami seemed to understand the world of the lonely.

With a ding ding of the bell, the light rail pulled in very slowly to the platform. There were two carriages on this service and, when the doors opened, he entered the rear one. There weren’t many passengers on board, and he found a place to stand near the window where he immersed himself in his book. As the light rail slowly pulled out from the station, gliding slowly along the rails, it put all that hubbub and confusion behind it, leaving only the clickety-clack it made to reverberate around the housing estates. After a while, the light rail had to make a turn — happening to look out the window, Ah Lok caught sight of a familiar face in the carriage up in front. Putting his book away, he immediately made his way to the head of the carriage in the hope of getting a clearer view. It was her, the woman with the long hair he had met the previous night, sitting in the front carriage! He felt a rush of excitement and all the smouldering resentment he felt about his interview with the headmaster before leaving work evaporated instantly. He watched her intently, not letting her out of his sight for a moment.

The woman had no idea that Ah Lok was watching her. She leant against the window intently watching the streetscape, her look gentle, refined. It seemed as if, to her, these perfectly ordinary streets and housing estates were a rare sight. Her attire this evening was slightly different to that of the previous night — she wore her hair pulled back in a pony-tail and was dressed in sporting gear, relaxed and yet animated, giving her a certain freshness. Sometimes the two carriages seemed close together, sometimes far apart, stopping and starting in the course of the short journey. When the carriages were in a straight line, the view of where the long-haired woman was sitting would be blocked by other passengers standing in the way and at those moments when he couldn’t see her, Ah Lok’s heart seemed to hang in mid-air, as he moved this way and then in the effort to catch a glimpse. But when the carriages had to make a turn and he caught sight of her through the window, his heart would grow vivid again. To him, the distance between the two carriages was tantalising, somehow both near and yet remote, keeping him at arm’s length. Turbulent waves rose up in his thoughts and, although there were sometimes lulls, those thoughts could never be calmed.

Finally, after the light-rail train had pulled up at the platform, and after a rush of passengers got on and off, the doors slowly closed again, he discovered that the young woman with the long hair was no longer on board. This second encounter, then, concluded abruptly to the clang of the warning bell as the train set off. Any hope — the hope that was so near that you could reach out and touch it — vanished silently in an instant, leaving him anxious and dejected, and at a complete loss as to what to do next.

5.

In the dim lamp-light, the long streets stilled, Ah Lok felt that he had lost out by missing the chance to get to know the girl with the long hair. He trudged on holding a copy of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and made his way home in a daze.

Ah Lok lived in a public housing estate built in the well pattern, its four identical sides enclosing an open space in the centre. All you had to do was look up and you could see the sky. The corridors on each floor were like public thoroughfares — lean against the railings and you could see inhabitants of all the various storeys. Back in the old days, neighbours would play mahjong in those corridors, dry cotton-wadded quilts and fruit-peel in the sun, while children would boil wax in the stair-wells or play blind man’s buff. Ever since the introduction of the Marking Scheme for Estate Management Enforcement, however, such features of the human landscape could no longer be seen.

Ah Lok entered the estate and walked across the open sky-well, but when he looked up, all he could see was a thick covering of cloud — neither moonlight not starlight was visible. He thought to himself that in many ways he resembled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, not only not having any friends but also shunned by the stars! He plodded over to the elevator were lobby and before long a lift arrived. He pressed the button for the eighteenth floor, then the doors began to close slowly. Just then, Ah Lok heard someone asking him to open the lift doors again and, of course, he did so at once. Once fully opened he came face to face the young woman he had met the previous evening.

He was so stunned he did not know how to react. He just stared as she pressed the button for the nineteenth floor, after which she smiled politely in his direction.

Ah Lok felt tense all over, and his heart thumped in his chest. From time to time, he looked furtively at the girl, but she kept her eyes fixed on the floor display screen, lips pursed with a hint of a smile.

The two of them stood there side by side, neither daring to move, let alone speak. An atmosphere of embarrassment — together with something indefinable — filled the air.

After a protracted silence, the lift arrived at the eighteenth floor and the doors slid apart. Ah Lok finally plucked up the courage to ask: “Do you remember me?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d remember me,” the long-haired young woman said with a smile on her face.

They look at one another, smiling. Ah Lok felt his face flush red and was unable to say another word, so he took a step back out through the elevator doors, waving his goodbyes to her. However, his gaze never left her smiling face until the lift doors closed up again.

Ah Lok stood there dumbfounded, unable to believe what had just happened — it was if the world had regained all the colour it was supposed to have had. He grinned, pleased with himself and walked to the door of his flat humming a song. It was only when he got there that he realized he had forgotten something very important. He ran back to the sky-well corridor and looked up at the next level. There he saw the long-haired young woman walking along.

He called to her in a loud voice: “Hey, there!” At once he realized he was making too much noise and looked around, concerned that he had disturbed the other residents.

The woman looked down and, when she saw that it was Ah Lok calling to her from the sky-well, she looked astonished. Ah Lok then opened his backpack and took out the shawl, giving it a light shake with his hands. When the woman saw what it was, she laughed with delight at the surprise. Without giving the matter a second thought, Ah Lok turned and ran up to the nineteenth floor.

Ah Lok needed no more than a moment to cover the distance to her but, perhaps because of his excitement, this man who could run a long-distance race of three thousand metres without any obvious effort found himself panting a little for breath. He did everything he could, however, to maintain his smiling appearance and handed the shawl over to her. The young woman with the long hair took it from him and thanked him, a sweet expression on her face.

The two of them stood there without saying anything more for a long while, each of them smiling at the smile on the other’s face, as the atmosphere of embarrassment made its presence felt once more.

“You, ah, live in No. 26 on the nineteenth floor while I’m in No. 26 on the eighteenth,” Ah Lok said, pointing at the door plate with his right hand while trying to figure out what to do with his left.

“Really?” she said, laughing again, a faint red tinge suddenly appearing on her pale face.

“Uh-huh,” replied Ah Lok, staring at her blankly. How beautiful she was, he thought, oblivious of the fact that he too was blushing.

“Well, next time we meet, don’t go calling me ‘hey, there’ at the top of your voice. My name is Yan Yan.” As she spoke, she carefully unlocked her metal screen door.

“My name is Lee Chi-lok, the chi character is the one used in chi-hei (meaning “ambition”), while the lok is like the one in chi-lok.”

What Ah Lok meant to say was that the lok was like the one in faai-lok (“happy”), but he was so flustered it came out all wrong.

Yan Yan laughed and blushed out of shyness, then went inside, lightly closing the screen-door behind her. Ah Lok stayed there at the front door watching her go, a sweet smile on his face. Until he fell asleep that night, the sweetness of this smile did not leave the corners of his mouth. In his heart he felt sure he would see Yan Yan again.

6.

Ah Lok sat on the light-rail platform, constantly scanning the entrances and exits, consumed by a whirl of agitated emotions. This time, he did not bring his book with him, having only one aim in mind: to meet with Yan Yan again, and walk with her over the pedestrian overpass and then back along the road to where they both lived.

them intently, muscles taut with anticipation. There were people in the crowd chatting in putonghua laced with snatches of Cantonese; men dressed in perfectly ironed Western-style suits; a woman carrying the children’s school bags on her back and speaking in her own language with an Indonesian husband about some video; there were individuals so tired they appeared to be on the verge of collapse; some scolded their children as they got off the train, their eyes glued to the screen of their mobile phones the whole time; and not a few had shopping trolleys, tottering unsteadily with every step they took. As it happened, there was a sizeable population of old people living alone in the estate, and most of them would rather take the light rail to do their shopping at the San Hui Market than visit the more expensive Link Reit market in the place they lived, feeling it necessary to go to that extra bit of trouble if it meant saving a few cents here or there. When Ah Lok saw the trouble these elderly residents were having with their trolleys, he couldn’t bear it, and would go to their aid, lifting the trolley onto the pedestrian footbridge for them. But as soon as another light-rail train came along, he would dash back to the platform.

As night began to fall, it gradually grew darker and the platform gradually became deserted without Ah Lok have seen any trace of Yan Yan. He sat there thinking to himself that it was no easy thing meeting up with someone — timeliness, location and compatibility all had to be right. It was no wonder some people claimed that you couldn’t go out and find love; you had to bide your time until fate was good and ready. Ah Lok was well aware of this wise adage, but still he was unable to reconcile himself to it. As he made his way over the pedestrian footbridge, he kept turning around to look behind him, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Yan Yan somewhere in the vicinity.

After a walk of over ten minutes, he arrived back at the housing estate. When he reached the open sky-well, he stopped and gazed upwards at flat no. 26 on the nineteenth floor, the place where Yan Yan dwelled and lived out her life. There were still lights on in the flat, he noticed, which meant that Yan Yan had already made it home again — there was little chance of him seeing her tonight, it would seem.

Ah Lok had originally planned to phone his aunt once he got back in to say he wasn’t coming to his cousin’s banquet but suddenly a door above slammed with a tremendous bang, which made Ah Lok hurry back outside into the corridor to see what was going on. When he looked up, he saw that Yan Yan had been driven out of her flat and was leaning against the railing holding an iron bar in both hands. She looked scared out of her wits and at times her face turned a ghastly shade of white.

At that moment, she happened to look down, and when she caught sight of Ah Lok looking up at her, she was overcome with embarrassment since she wasn’t wearing anything on her feet. Ah Lok gestured to her, inviting her to come down to the eighteenth floor. When she came face to face with him on the stairs between floors, she seemed uncomfortable. It was getting late, Ah Lok thought, and it wouldn’t do for a young woman to be seen hanging around in the corridor — she was sure to get a few looks from the other residents. He suggested she come over to his place for a moment, just to calm her nerves.

Ah Lok’s flat was still in darkness, but there was a faint light coming in from outside over the window ledges, and Yan Yan walked around, appraising everything. Suddenly, they heard the loud crash of hard objects being throw around in the flat above.

“My dad gets into a drunken rage every time he drinks,” Yan Yan quietly explained.

Ah Lok was listening carefully to what was going on overhead. He was caught off guard when Yan Yan suddenly turned and fired a question at him: “You don’t drink, do you?”

“No, no way,” Ah Lok replied.

At once she replied, “Whatever you do, don’t drink!”

She walked slowly over to the shelving unit and swept a hand over the pitch-black television screen, murmuring as she did so: “You don’t put the sound up too loud, do you?”

“I can’t stand loud noise.”

“Loud television noise makes people irritable.

Ah Lok nodded in agreement.

Yan Yan squatted down, finding an EP in the shelving unit — a CD with just the one song on it, Faye Wang’s “Eyes on Me”. She picked it up and looked at it carefully, discovering on the back an image taken from the video game Final Fantasy VIII.

“I didn’t know Faye Wong sang in English as well.”

“Oh yes. I really love that song.”

Yan Yan looked at the CD again, then smiled at Ah Lok before putting it back on the shelf. Ah Lok had no idea what that smile meant, although he sensed it had something to do with the words “eyes on me”, a thought that made him feel slightly uncomfortable.

Yan Yan turned her gaze to the white walls. Hanging on them, there were many photographs of Ah Lok together with his mother, taken when he was small. There was one of them drinking Vitasoy together, and one in which he sat on his mother’s lap on a swing, beside himself with glee.

“So you live here with your mother?”

“She died last month,” replied Ah Lok, his voice quavering with a hint of emotion.

Sensing she had said the wrong thing, Yan Yan couldn’t think of anything else to keep the conversation going. She looked at him apologetically and then with a surprising simplicity sat herself down on the floor right next to his bed, patting the ground as an invitation to Ah Lok to come and join her. Out of shyness, he was reluctant at first, but he did as he was told. It was dark in the room, and the street light coming in from outside only sufficient to show the young woman in silhouette — she was bare-footed and sat with her knees bent up. Lost for words, Ah Lok kept his eyes glued to the wall-clock, not daring to look directly at Yan Yan.

“Was your mother very fond of you?”

“She used to say that no one in this world could love me as much as she did.”

When he glimpsed the look of pity in her face, Ah Lok felt a burst of warmth. Sitting there in silence, they again heard a series of loud banging noises coming from the flat above which made Yan Yan cringe involuntarily like a white rabbit cowering in its burrow, terrified that it would be seized. Picking up on her terror, Ah Lok inched a little closer to her but there never any physical contact between them. These two fellow-sufferers huddled up against night’s onslaught, wordlessly keeping one another company. Ah Lok thought to himself that no matter how bad things got, there would be some moments of sweetness, and two people who were originally completely unconnected could bear the burden of each other’s pain through the course of a long night.

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