Pregnant cats always remind me of Aunt Ng.
When we were still getting to know each other, I found it hard to know how to talk to her. Her voice is very loud, and if she shouts from one end of the street, you can hear what she says at the other end. When the people she hangs round with start discussing political issues, she is liable to suddenly go off on a tangent and start talking about a cat on Yau Ma Tei Street or dog kennels in the northern New Territories, about cats and dogs that were fortunate and those who were unlucky, about volunteers who were poor and others who were very wealthy, long and short stories, one after another. But issues such as policies, rights, pressure groups, social activities… these she knows next to nothing about.
Yet once in a while she calls me to have a chat—no not a chat: in her case she would talk “official business” when she spoke of her days looking after cats and dogs out on the street day after day, about feeding them and taking them to the vet. Sometimes in a single night she would catch seven or eight cats from the neighbourhood and call a van the driver of which she knew and she would pay for transport herself. She would take them to the SPCA to be neutered and then return them to where they came from. That was Aunt Ng’s main job for many years, but besides that she had another profession—she was a casual cleaner.
Just like all affairs of the world, along the way there are bound to be obstacles. Aunt Ng said to me:
“Last night when I caught a street cat, a couple of Nepalese asked: ‘Why are you catching those cats? Are you doing something against the law?’ I told them I was taking them to the vet to get neutered. They said ‘Oh,’ and walked away. But there were some local people instead who made some sarcastic comments. For crying out loud!”
That is why I say that she and I live in two different worlds. While I sit at home sipping hot tea in front of my computer writing essays criticizing the policies of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Aunt Ng is outside on the cold street, hoping to bump into a cat. One winter in the middle of the night, some of the night stores on main street were still open. There was one that had a steaming hotpot on the table where guests were playing the drinking game Chai Mui, they were shouting numbers and drinking. In the dim kerosene lamplight at dawn Aunt Ng transformed into a dark figure at the entrance of the lane. With a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, line of vision sneaking off far into the deep lightless alley. The dark figure flew past with a swish, then the cage snapped shut with a click. A sad and shrill cry of a cat was heard. The spark in the dark night that flew mid-air was Aunt Ng’s cigarette stub tossed accurately in the bin nearby. Unhurriedly she walked over, crouched down, tapped the top of the cage with her fingers and laughed saying:
“Dear cat, be good now. You’ll be back in two days.”
That scene is based on my imagination after watching too many martial art movies. In the way I imagined it, there is none of the actual fatigue and frustration. That night, between 12 midnight and four, Aunt Ng caught six cats. Whereas I as the writer, who is good at making things up but hopeless when it comes to taking any real action, was already sleeping like a log.
But Aunt Ng isn’t bothered by that. She only wants to have someone to listen to her. Many of her stories she told me either over the phone or in text messages—she has no idea about the internet. As a result she also doesn’t have any web-friends. She only has real life friends, volunteers, people who listen to her troubles, and in turn she listens to theirs. Everyone feels a bit better after that and returns to the street to continue being busy feeding cats, trapping cats, neutering cats and returning them again … after the torment, cats and humans live on and occasionally bump into some luck and kindness after the fatigue and disappointment. There was a man who would walk his dog every night and he would help Aunt Ng throw dry cat food on top of a high eaves, so that the cats could eat their fill straight away. “He is tall and I am short so when he turns up I don’t need to go looking around for help.”
The other day Aunt Ng received another call for help. “There’s an old lady who keeps a dozen cats. Five of them had feline ringworm (a common type of skin disease) and she didn’t have money to cure them. She said she wanted to commit suicide with the cats in her arms. I said, ‘Don’t even think about it. Ringworm is easy to fix,’ so I went to the pharmacy to buy some ointment, I showed her how to apply it and later all the cats got better. I even had to call her every day just so that she could get a few things off her chest.” I said: “So, Aunt Ng, you care for human beings as well as animals.” It seems that she expected that remark for she chuckled, “Sometimes when you care for cats, you also have to care for their owners.”
Later I finally understood why Aunt Ng would make such a statement: one afternoon many years ago, when she was on her way home, she saw a pregnant mother cat on the side of the road. Only her belly was big—the rest was a bag of bones. Her eyes were closed up because of infection. She was curled up in a ball and shivering in the flowers. When Aunt Ng saw her, it reminded her of something that happened to her many years ago: pregnant, single, no one to take care of her, no money. So then she went out and started to feed stray cats.
That day I arranged to see Aunt Ng, having bought some extra cat medicine and food for her. When I saw her cross the street, she was limping with her left foot, so I asked about her health, and she said that she suffered from joint strain, as a result of all those years lugging the vacuum cleaner back and forth. And staying up late to roam the streets at night to catch cats. I handed over the goods, and she thanked me. Then she told me that she had got three fines from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department—each of them for $1,000. I know it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. Nor is she the only volunteer who gets them. Later I saw her limping into a vet clinic. I know the clinic is kind. It gives 30% discount on the treatment of stray cats. I saw Aunt Ng pull out of her pocket a wad of $500 bills held together with a rubber band.
Officials once proclaimed: “The Trap-Neuter-Return Plan is not ideal.” I wonder what their interpretation of “ideal” is. But I think the view of those honourable senior officials must be very different from that of Aunt Ng’s. Sometimes I run across a mother cat in the street. While next to her a few kids get carried away playing a game, the mother cat looks around carefully and makes sure she protects her kittens. Her demands are voiceless. Yet her dignity is innate. Yes, I see Aunt Ng in every mother cat.
● 母貓 / 張婉雯
● Cheung Yuen Man likes writing and is concerned with animals. She won the 25th United Daily News Award for fiction debut (short story) in 2011. Her publications include You Are Here 《你在》 (2020), Those were the Cats 《那些貓們》 (2019), Daily of Dust《微塵記》 (2017), Sweeties 《甜蜜蜜》 (2004), and The Pole《極點》 (with Mok Wing Hung). In 2019, Cheung won the Recommendation Award in the Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature, the Hong Kong Bookprize and the Hong Kong Publishing Biennial Award for Daily of Dust.
● Audrey Heijns, based in Hong Kong, is working at Shenzhen University. Her translations of Chinese literature have been published in literary magazines, including Het Trage Vuur, Twee Ronde, KortVerhaal, Terras, Renditions, Exchanges and Poetry International.