novels  小说 

2011 PROVERSE PRIZE FINALIST

Man's Last Song

To the post-modern savages, the future is not science fiction, but a lonely journey of self-discovery for themselves and mankind...

“笙歌” 是文韵特别奖得主MAN’S LAST SONG 的中文姐妹作,由《中和出版社》出版,各大書局有售

笙 歌

對故事中文明過後的“原始人”來說 未來一點也不科幻。時間無多了,他們面對一場寂寞的鬥爭,為自己,為人類,盡最後一分努力找尋自我 。 。 。

buy the book   买书 

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 short stories  短篇小说 

 
 

Man's Last Song - Synopsis

笙歌 - 故事简介

Man’s Last Song is about the human race facing imminent extinction in the future, but is not science fiction or apocalyptic thriller. The story is set in Hong Kong, with many international characters and events. 

 

In 2090, the global population is less than half a million; median age is about sixty. After forty years of universal sterility, humanity is vanishing while the rest of the planet makes a happy comeback. A small group of survivors in Hong Kong face the challenge of adjusting to life as post-modern savages, rediscovering instincts that had long been suppressed by civilisation.  Their relationships with nature, each other, and themselves have fundamentally changed. The dilemmas, pains and pleasures of love, friendship, compassion, ageing, and loneliness are heightened by pragmatic concerns.

 

The unknowable: God, Dao, death, even reality, have all assumed new and shifting dimensions in man’s dying world.

“笙歌” 的故事發生在未來,但絕不科幻。

 

在 2090 年,人類經過四十年的不育,只剩下五十萬左右殘餘份子,他們的平均年齡大概六十歲吧;反正已經無人考究。在香港,幾個來自不同背景的 “文明過後原始人” ,生活在大都會的遺骸,身心都要作出調整來應付一個新的“洪荒世界”。

 

長期被文明抑制了的本能都要重新啓動,來應付自然環境的挑戰。人與人的關係,甚至與自己的關係,均隨著客觀環境而改變。愛情,友情,親情,在現實的支配下變得更深刻真摯,也更無奈。生老病死的自然規律,在文明凋謝之後,更呈冷酷,毫不妥協。有些落了單的人,抓不住淒涼孤寂的現實,被推進心底的迷幻世界,另覓恍惚。莫測的神靈,全能的上帝,不可道的常道,在這情況之下,能否發揮作用呢?

人最頑強的力量,在絕望的環境里居然毫不畏縮。那股力量就是 “希望”。

THIS IS HOW YOU WALK ON THE MOON Ethos Books, Singapore 2016

Gollum's Demon

咕噜的心魔

Gollum will soon be discharged from jail after 13 years. Life’s been hard, but starting a new one is much harder. Will demon survive?

 

十三年的牢狱生活十分难受,不过重新做人似乎更难。咕噜快出狱了,心魔会同时被释放吗? 

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HONG KONG NOIR Akashic Books, New York 2018

Phoenix Moon

凤月姐

Collected in “Hong Kong Noir” part of an award-winning series by Akashic Books. Phoenix, a broken-hearted prostitute, desexes her boyfriend, and gets philosophical

“凤月姐” 英文版由纽约 Akashic Books 收纳于国际得奖系列 Hong Kong Noir — “香港黑故事” 文集。故事发生在1970年代的香港,妓女凤月姐阉割了警察男友,因而得道?

HONG KONG FUTURE PERFECT, anthology  2017

Dreams of Utopia

梦遗乌托邦

William Wadsworth writes in the SCMP: "James Tam’s Dreams of Utopia…Tightly written and with snappy dialogue, his colourful story portrays Cupid, a bored lawyer in a sexless marriage who befriends protesters to impress his dream lover..." 

William Wadsworth 在南华早报的书评:“谭炳昌的【梦遗乌托邦】故事结构紧密,对白精彩。在这多姿多彩的故事中,一个工作沉闷,婚姻虚假的律师为了讨好“梦中情人”,投身占中漩涡

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Beyond reasonable

doubt

Asha is facing manslaughter charges, racial prejudice, systemic hypocrisy, and mass insanity. 

除了误杀控罪之外,阿萨还要面对歧视偏见,法制虚伪,和集体思觉失调

天 堂 

Heaven

对虔诚的李牧师来说,天堂虽然真的如圣经中的描述,却绝非安享永生的好归宿

Rev. Lee is unexpectedly distressed by eternal life in Heaven, though it’s just as described in the Bible

AS WE SEE IT, HONG KONG STORIES 2011

Heaven 天堂

by GuoDu alias James Tam

Rev. Lee is unexpectedly distressed by eternal life in Heaven, though it’s just as described in the Bible

对虔诚的李牧师来说,天堂虽然真的如圣经中的描述,却绝非安享永生的好归宿

OF GODS AND MOBSTERS, anthology 2013

Midlife Triad 

古惑仔的中年危机

Dragon Arm Ah Wah has walked into more troubling situations than Tong Fuk Prison before. But time has changed everything, including the underworld

监狱对阿华来说虽然不陌生,但时间改变了一切,黑帮也不例外

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HK24, anthology 2018

Between Lives

生死之间

A speechless farewell, fragments of regrets, slivers of remembrances. The dust of life, swept away, lost to the flurry of time

一场无言的告别,只错过了几分钟。悔恨与回忆互相冲击。人生的碎片,随着时间流逝

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ANOTHER HONG KONG, anthology 2014

The Sins of Sin

冼蛇的公義

A prosecutor, journalist, and a legislator conspire to defend Hong Kong's "core values" over a glass of warm beer

检控官“冼蛇” 与一个记者和立法会议员各怀鬼胎,合谋 “捍卫” 香港的“核心价值”

Comfort Woman Eleanor

慰安妇艾莲娜

In 1941, Hong Kong St. Stephen’s College is a field hospital. Before dawn on Christmas Eve, Nurse Eleanor’s nightmare coalesces into reality

1941年,香港圣士提反书院是临时军医院。在圣诞前夕,护士艾莲娜的恶梦在黎明前的黑暗中变成现实

flash fictions  闪灵短篇

Apologies 2012

道歉

Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister discuss the need to apologise for war crimes

美国总统和日本首相讨论有关为二战罪行道歉的问题

Lucky Hong Kong Birds 2013

幸福的港鸟

A few urban pigeons eat lunch from the rubbish bin, feeling sorry for wild birds up north who reportedly swallow life fish for meals

几只城市白鸽在垃圾箱享受午餐,对北方野鸟要辛劳觅食,生吞活鱼的“悲惨生活” 深感同情

Democracy Debate and Chinaman's House 2012

民主辩论与中国佬的豪宅

Now, what has democracy got to do with the Chinaman's House?

究竟民主辩论与中国佬的豪宅有什么关系呢?

End of The World 2012  

世界末日2012 

There must be a reason why so many are afraid to die, yet rapturous about the Big Ending. .

為什麼那麼多人都怕死怕得要死,卻暗中期望世界末日呢?

reviews and events  书评与活动

  • takungpao,beijing

    2020年11月9日 星期一  谈文论艺/《笙歌》\嘉 妍:

     read full book review

  • 黃宇翔,亞洲周刊

    2020.10.12 - 10.18

  • commercial press, hongkong

    Book launch of 笙歌:

  • hk open page, hongkong

    新書 | 清醒孤寂的笙歌:

     read full review

  • akin jeje, cha

    Hong Kong Noir reviewed:

    "For classic hardboiled noir, James Tam’s “Phoenix Moon” and Charles Philipp Martin’s “Ticket Home” top the list...

    Sometimes, a writer captures an era radiantly, as in “Phoenix Moon”...” read full review

  • ken smith, asian review of books

    Hong Kong Noir reviewed:

    "Arguably the biggest spirit looming over the collection is that of Suzie Wong, whose professional sorority here ranges from the hooker-in-training of Feng Chi-shun’s “Expensive Tissue Paper” to the (literally) emasculating whore of James Tam’s “Phoenix Moon”. " read full review

  • carmen suen, vogue, hong kong

    Hong Kong Noir featured in the inaugural issue of Vogue Hong Kong by Carmen Suen!

     

    Carmen Suen 在 Hong Kong Vogue 的创刊号介绍 “香港黑故事”(Hong Kong Noir.

  • writer's bone, us

    Hong Kong Noir was mentioned in Writer’s Bone as one of the best books to read this month [January 2019]!  

    view list 

  • don mak, hong kong

    Artist Don Mak illustrated Portland St, the red light district of HK - for the cover story of the book Hong Kong Noir [Phoenix Moon]. The ORIGINAL painting is displayed at @bleakhousebookshk . Art print will be released soon!

    Hong Kong Noir 繪畫的砵蘭街插畫,原畫正在 @bleakhousebookshk 展覽中。印畫即將發售! 

    view more 

  • albert wan, ritz carlton magazine, hk

    The Ritz-Carlton Magazine has listed HK Noir as a must-read, thanks to Albert Wan of Bleak House Books, Hong Kong.   read the magazine 

  • joyce lau, book, scmp, hong kong

    "Some of the stories in Hong Kong Noir are downright gory. Phoenix Moon by James Tam would not be out of place in a tabloid or horror film. The romantic-sounding title refers to the working name of a hooker who seeks revenge on a corrupt police officer – with an extra-sharp pair of shearing scissors."

  • jane ciabattari, bbc culture

    The BBC has listed HK Noir as one of the top ten books to read in December."The history of Hong Kong, once a fishing village, encompasses piracy, the opium trade, prostitution, corruption, espionage and revolutionary plots; grist for the 14 dark tales in Hong Kong Noir."   read full list 

  • crimereads.com , usa

    " From ghost stories, to historical thrills, to underworld brutality, Hong Kong Noir, like the city it captures, is as endlessly fascinating as it is impossible to define."  read full review 

  • kirkus review, usa

    "Ng and Blumberg-Kason defy the fates by presenting a collection of 14 stories—by Chinese tradition, an ominous number—illustrating their city’s dark side...Readers can feel lucky to have such a collection."  read full review 

  • william wadsworth, scmp, hong kong

    "James Tam’s Dreams of Utopia would have made a better opening story. Tightly written and with snappy dialogue, his colourful story portrays Cupid, a bored lawyer in a sexless marriage who befriends protesters to impress his dream lover..." read full review 

  • laura besley, timeout hong kong

    "It's Hong Kong - but not as we know it. The year is 2090...This superbly written dystopian novel is appealing on many levels: for its dramatic use of Hong Kong, for the intriguing characters, for the questions raised, and more importantly, for those which are left unanswered..." read full review

  • simon overton, hong kong writers circle

    "James Tam introduces his philosophical "post-apocalyptic" novel, Man's Last Song. He discusses with Simon the themes of the novel,as well as the issues of writing in a second language and the dangers of genre labels, and how it was nearly a very different type of book altogether."

    download podcast

  • phil whelan, rthk, radio hong kong

    "James Tam talks about his latest novel Man's Last Song, which speculates about a Hong Kong in the year 2090." 19 Feb 2016    download podcast

  • martin alexander, phillip kim, hong kong

    "James Tam tells a harrowing tale of sexual slavery in World War II, [Comfort Woman Eleanor], the larger truths of which are denied by many even today."    read more

  • interview by daniel bloom, taiwan

    "Cli-Fi Books explores climate change themes found in novels, prose, short stories, and other fiction. Cli-fi is a genre of literature, film, and other media that involves climate change fiction, which may be merely speculative, literary, or full-out futuristic science fiction. "

    read interview 

  • james tam, hku library club, hong kong

    Talk at HKU Library Club: "Tuning into Man's Last Song" My conjecture on what's wrong with the world today..

    這是我在港大討論“Man's Last Song“ 的中文譯本。

    read writeup    talk-on-youtube   继续阅读 

 

today's story  今天的故事

midlife triad

S H O R T   S T O R Y

As Dragon Arm Ah Wah enters Dorm L1 of the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, one could tell from his unhurried gait that he had walked into more troubling situations before. But time had changed everything, including the underworld. Young thugs nowadays take virtual blood-oaths by drawing a red line across the palm to avoid unnecessary pain, and the prospect of bird flu. Triad membership is purely profit-driven. Loyalty is transferrable, dictated by risk and return. Ah Wah can’t help feeling anachronistic as he reminisces about the romantic horrors, injustice, and glories in his gangland of the past.

Published: Wednesday, 10 May 2013

Tags: Stories

WHEN Dragon Arm Ah Wah arrived at Dorm L1 of the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, I was stretching in bed, breathing into my knee tendons.  

   Each evening, I’d do some gentle yoga to prepare my body for the damp hard bed, and to create a little mental space while young inmates built up an evening cacophony. The room, nearly full, could incarcerate up to twenty-eight in fourteen bunk beds.

   One could tell from his calculated gait — unhurried and confident — that Ah Wah had walked into more troubling situations before. His tiny round eyes, deep-set and intense, scanned the room as he came through the door, taking snapshots. They were cool and alert, but not hostile, even cautiously friendly.

   The de facto head inmate Fat Shing, a quiet 30-year-old Wo Kee Gangster bearing an image of the Wheel of Fortune on his back, told him which beds were available. He took the one across the central aisle from mine. The kids’ quarter, though only a few feet away, was nominally noisier. He must have had taken note of that in just a few short minutes. Before settling down, he gave me an assessing glance so quickly that I did not have time to offer a smile back. 

   After expertly laying out the military blankets, he took off his shirt, revealing a blue dragon caught in a web of bulging veins, entwining his right upper arm. Dragons, tigers and eagles used to be standard body adornments in gangland. Now they have become classic. Judging from the young ones in the room, nearly anything goes these days: Wheel of Fortune, Tree of Life, Mickey Mouse, Buddha, Popeye. One guy had a plum blossom bonsai across his back. His sobriquet was — as would be expected — Plum Blossom. I was at first surprised that a thug by profession, not gay, not even effeminate in manner, would call himself Plum Blossom; but what did I know. 

   Time had changed everything, sparing nothing, not even the underworld.

   Ah Wah’s dragon looked weary, slightly crinkled, not as assured as its host.

   He was assigned to the janitorial team. I worked at the sewing workshop. 

   I would catch sight of him in the common room, the playground, or back in the dorm. He was usually quiet, and did not seem to share much with the youngsters, including the boys from his own gang. During the first week, he only exchanged scarce words with an inmate a few years his senior, in the late forties. They had both done time in Cape Collinson, a juvenile prison for boys under twenty-one, back in the 80’s. It gave them a common topic in reminiscence. Everyone referred to Cape Collinson by the English acronym TC but nobody knew what it stood for.

   “TC is Cape Collinson in English” was Ah Wah’s best explanation. 

   Most evenings, he would lie in bed reading The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Nearly every Hong Kong teenager had read and watched at least one of the many cinematic renditions of Jin Yong’s popular wuxia (swordsman is the most common and unsatisfactory translation) classics from the 1950s. Though good fun tales for any age, and well written in Jin Yong’s uniquely literary yet easy and popular style, it was unusual to see someone Ah Wah’s age reading them.

One night, the kids were arm wrestling, having a boisterous time. In a burst of good spirit, Ah Wah left his Condor Heroes in bed to join the the party. “Anyone who can count to ten staying up wins,” he declared a surprising challenge. “Left arm only.”

   It created an uproar. He was not particularly muscular; and these kids were not exactly nerds. A small crowd formed around the table. One after another, they were downed by the “old man” Ah Wah before they could count to three. When he was eventually defeated by a mainland farmer in a single breath, he took the chance to retire honourably from the tournament, claiming fatigue from having wrestled half the room in turn. He looked my way, beaming triumphantly. I smiled and gave him the thumb up. 

   He ambled over and we chatted for the first time. 

   We had name labels on the uniform and the plastic mug that we carried around all day; formal introductions were unnecessary.

   “You’re amazingly strong for your size,” I complimented.

   “I was much bigger.” He sounded slightly defensive. 

   I did not mean it that way. Though not Herculean, he was compactly muscular, with a leathery texture that appeared more industrial than organic. 

   “But this,” he squeezed his historically much bigger left biceps with delicate pride, “is enough.” He threw a sidelong glance at the youngsters, grinning smugly. 

   My attention shifted to his right arm. Dragon looked dejected, as if wishing to be left alone. It wanted no part in this moment of impetuous glory.

   “You left-handed?”  I asked. 

   “No. My right was even stronger,” he explained, still massaging his left. “Got broken real bad.” He turned his head to dragon and cursed impassively. “Fucking cunt.”  

   I wasn’t sure if it was directed at his arm, or the person or incident that emasculated it, but did not seek to clarify. Since entering prison, I had got into the habit of waiting for information rather than asking too much.

   “You like Jin Yong?” I changed the topic.

   “Condor Heroes?” He looked across the aisle at his copy, spread open in bed. “Have read a hundred times.” 

   I waited. If he wished to say more, he would. He did. “Great book. More like real life than anything else I’ve read.” He paused, then added with a self-mocking smirk: “Don’t read much though.”

   His explanation made no sense but I somehow knew what he meant so I told him so. “I know what you mean.” 

   The mainlander had just finished defeating all Dorm L1 representatives from Hong Kong’s three major gangs. He hopped back to his chess game with a fellow II from the Northeast city of Changchun who was a full head taller, with bigger non-nonsense biceps. They sniggered, muttering double-speed in a northern accent that they knew nobody could decipher, no doubt exchanging jokes on cute little Hong Kong thugs with funny tattoos. Mainlanders did not normally participate in the locals’ rowdy matches. He must have found Ah Wah’s confident challenge too cocky to ignore — the farmer boy had to show these urban toughs what real muscles are like.

   Ah Wah blinked reflectively a few times. “Jin Yong understands life’s a jiang hu. A man in jiang hu is no longer his own. Is that how the saying goes?” 

   “Of course.”

   I never argued with aphorisms; trying to change accepted wisdom is pointless. I actually liked this one, though jiang hu had given me considerable headache trying to translate into English before. Some words are not meant to be translated, I finally conceded.

   Literally, jiang hu means “River and Lake”. But the term holds a lot more in Chinese. It’s the social vortex that everyone follows, submits to, or gets sucked under. It’s the turbulent confluence of office politics, job and peer pressure, social perception, trade practice, conduct of the competition, opinion of loathsome neighbours and disgruntled in-laws. It’s the background flux of a closely knit community that defines and limits one’s options. 

   The underworld is governed by its own set of fringe tradition, with a strict and defiant code of ethics. The thrust of jiang hu is more palpable if not always more ruthless in gangland. In any jiang hu, one needs to act against one’s wish at times. But in the underworld, it could mean slitting open someone’s tummy or hacking off his legs so, be respectful, pay attention, or get drowned. 

   “Once in jiang hu, the big flow takes over,” I echoed in different words. 

   It suddenly occurred to me why Ah Wah read the Condor Heroes with untiring dedication.

   Wu xias are superhuman martial artists living in unsettling times. China faces invasion from the outside, or a dysfunctional and unjust government from the inside, or both. Unlike Japanese samurais, wu xias never serve the government or feudal lords. They neither rob nor steal except to punish the greedy and wicked. They are gorgeous, righteous, brave, generous, and cultured. Some write love poems between duels which they invariably win. Most important of all, they never run out of legitimate money or credit. In short, they are remarkable swimmers frolicking joyously in the frustrating currents of a turbulent jiang hu.

   Wu xia fantasies satisfy a yearning for an alternative reality in which the talents of the marginalised are appreciated and romanticised. If I were treading water in Ah Wah’s tempestuous jiang hu, trying to keep my nose above water, I might also hallucinate parallels between the hostile forces in real life and those in Jin Yong’s stories. Seeking hope and escape from literature is not a middle-class prerogative.

   Ah Wah gradually became curious rather than suspicious of me — someone who read, wrote and stretched in bed. He appeared to enjoy chatting with me in his taciturn way, but was never unduly enthusiastic or overly inquisitive about personal details. In spite of a characteristic insouciance that seemed almost professional at times, he never lowered his guard completely, or forget where we were. 

   In fragmented bits, he told me about himself, as if handing over random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle one at a time, leaving me to speculate the complete picture — a picture which was probably a mystery to him as well. But whenever we exchanged stories, it would soon become obvious that my jiang hu was like Lake Geneva to his Lower Congo. I could not pretend that it was a fair exchange.

   Ah Wah quickly proved himself much more than a strong left-armed wrestler. He could drop to the floor from standing, body straight like a plank, into push-ups. He could also swap hands in mid-air when doing single-arm push-ups. He had learnt these impressive stunts during two three-year stretches in TC decades ago, and would show off once in a while at Tong Fuk. Although he could not write poems like some wu xias do, he had a repertoire of amusing limericks. Most of them were actually quite intelligent, and more thoughtfully satirical rather than mindlessly vulgar. Within a couple of weeks at Tong Fuk, he also gained starlike status by beating everyone in chess. There was evidently a brain somewhere inside his modest looking head. 

   Similar to his wu xias, he had a heartbreaking romance — a heartache that throbbed silently, deep down. But unlike his romantic heroes, he lived in a capitalistic real world, outside the credit rating system unless he won a lottery or successfully robbed a bank. To make a better living, he had to explore the limits of the law every now and then. Since twenty-one, however, he’d learnt to be smart about it. He had not been charged with any illicit “income supplementation” for a quarter of a century, until this time.

   “What did you do?” I asked, referring to his offence. The generic descriptions on his prison ID didn’t tell much. “Fraud” could have been anything.

   “Five marriages. The agent was an asshole. Disappeared without paying the balance. Instead of catching him, the fucking cops got us. Cunts.” 

   Sham marriage with mainland women was responsible for a few inmates at Dorm L1. Most of them, like Ah Wah, were unaware that computers had made their polygamous sideline unviable.

   “Were you married? I mean, for real?” I asked.

   “No,” he said, sounding nearly irritated by my stupid question. “How do you marry without a flat? I wanted to buy one in Shenzhen to marry my girl.” 

   He had married five times in a month for money, in order to get married for love.

   “Where’s she now?” I poked gently; we knew each other better by then.

   “Went home to Hebei. Almost a year now.” He sighed imperceptibly at length, allowing a melancholy side to show for the first time. He mumbled softly, nearly to himself: “She sat next to me in every mahjong game for more than two years.” He looked at me, as if to check whether I understood what it meant, how it must have felt, the lightness of her tender breath behind his shoulders, a loose strand of hair tickling his neck. His mousey eyes had softened, clouded in reminiscence.

   One evening, a diminutive young man nicknamed Mooloo, adrenaline overflowing, shorts fashionably dropped half way down the bum crack, walked up and down the centre aisle in strides stretched to their natural limit. Had there been nobody else around for reference, he could have been mistaken for a giant. Mooloo was prone to disproportionately grand gestures, probably the most aggressive and thug-like roommate we had. 

   He was determined to entertain everyone with his raucous singing that evening.

           Inside a big hotel in Hollywood

           Three fat dames with six big boobs  . . .

   Us older guys were all indifferent, not showing the slightest hint of interest or irritation.

   Ah Wah ambled over my side, smirking. “When I served TC, he wasn’t even a foetus.” He said it in a low and even voice; neither an undignified whisper nor a declaration of trouble.

   I was tempted to say “he still isn’t”, but refrained from responding. If Mooloo had pretended not to have heard Ah Wah, he might not grant me similar courtesy. Instead, I grasped the opportunity to ask a little more about him. 

“Actually what were you in TC for?” I asked innocently — oh, by the way — making sure that my innocuous curiosity would not be taken wrongly. 

   “Man slaughter,” he said, drawing his right index finger across his throat, shrugging at the same time, slanting the fatal slash diagonally. I thought the shrug was inappropriately casual, appearing affected like an ostentatious understatement; but it could have just been me taking man slaughter too seriously. 

   So, the first time Ah Wah served in TC, he was fifteen. It was 1983.

   The “man” he “slaughtered” was a scrawny Wo Kee kid a couple of years his junior. Thin like a matchstick, his dull yellowish complexion reminded Ah Wah of the greasy preserved ducks his mum used to hang out the window to air on a nice day, except not as lustrous. He was mentally and physically desiccated; no doubt a precocious junkie due to die anytime soon of any excuse. “I became that excuse. Shit karma,” he said, apparently still sore about the injustice of fate.

Anyway, the nitwit, high on something dirt cheap and many beer too many, was begging for it. He yapped about Wo Kee wiping 14K off the map of Tsim Tsa Tsui to one of Ah Wah’s chicks, imagine, in a disco in Tsim Tsa Tsui, back then hardcore 14K turf under the protection of Ah Wah’s Big Brother. He left Ah Wah with no option.

   He used only his bare fist. “It caught him solid, right below the sternum.” His right arm was still good, very strong in fact. Like his left, it rarely lost in arm wrestling. On his thirteenth birthday, Big Brother had bought it a dragon. Ah Wah spent days looking at it when alone, caressing and admiring the texture of the tinted skin incredulously. The tattoo would win him his sobriquet at the fearsome age of fourteen. With a sobriquet, he was now recognised, fully immersed in jiang hu, no longer his own boy.

   The wimp stooped forward, huffed and puked stinky dry air.

   Ah Wah expertly pulled his greasy head down hard with both hands to meet his right knee, a trick he had learnt from Thai boxing. “Die you fuckhead,” he said with theatrical cool for his small audience, not meaning it. Perhaps he pulled too hard, and not watching. His flimsy victim tried to tilt his head back in the last moment, his last moment. Ah Wah’s knee missed the nose and crashed right into the throat instead. 

   Something yielded with a crack, and collapsed against his knee. 

   Pissed off at what his instinct told him might have just happened, he kneed it again, this time much harder, furiously, crushing the Adam’s apple, that strange little knob of cartilage. The one on his victim happened to be the most prominent feature on his pathetic body. 

   “I could sense the moment he died. Something left him, and went through me like ghosty electricity. My hands went cold. Fucking spooky man. It freaked me no shit. So I gave him another one, and another one.” 

   He had never imagined that life could be so fragile. “I don’t know he dies so easy,” he told the court later, pleading guilty as advised by legal aid, which advised him as a matter of formality. He was not lying.

   TC was a hell hole but he survived. “Okay if you can fight. Hell if you can’t,”  he said with nostalgic smugness. Obviously, he could.

   He was discharged after three years. One month hence, he got sucked into a big gang warfare, again against Woo Kee, again in Tsim Tsa Tsui, and got sent back in again for another three years. He had not killed anyone this time but the jail term was similar. He found that strange. He turned twenty-one at TC but was not transferred to an adult prison because he only had a few weeks left.

   All that was more than twenty years ago. 

   Since then, he had managed to avoid jail. He had learnt a thing or two at an early age, and added a tattoo to the inside of his left wrist at his own cost, a tiny character renwhich embraced multiple virtues — tolerance, patience, endurance. He did not elaborate what he had learned, or what he had been doing since for a living. “All sorts of things. Difficult. What’s there to do in Hong Kong?” was all he said when I hinted at it. True. What was there for someone like him to do in Hong Kong? There were no factory jobs, and he wasn’t the investment banker type. He could have worked as a janitor I suppose, if he could find a job near home; janitorial jobs didn’t pay enough to take the subway and also buy a lunch-box. But I suspect Ah Wah was too ambitious, motivated, confident and enterprising — all them praiseworthy attributes one found in Employment Ads — to be a happily employed and law abiding janitor.

Then the Government database got him. 

   Being an old jailbird and long-time triad without firsthand knowledge of the adult jails of the 21st century was slightly awkward for him. Prisons had changed since he was a juvenile, he was sure, but wasn’t sure in what way. What he had heard from pals who had been regulars to the pokey all sounded like melodramatic bullshit. Because of the long break, he was now considered a “white hand” — first time convict. On one hand, he felt released to be among Category B and C criminals rather than hardcore As. On the other hand, he was embarrassed by the amateurish status.

   “Youngsters these days are not curious,” he complained like a disillusioned pedagogue. “I tried to tell them about TC. Not interested. ‘Time’s changed,’ they said, as if I don’t know; as if I’m fucking obsolete. When I was their age, we never dared speak to a Shu Fu like that.” 

   Shu Fu was what elders in a clan or gang were reverently addressed, not long ago, in the olden days, before time had changed, when there was respect.

   Ah Wah was more than ten years my junior, but seemed to be having greater issues with the disorderly changes a short period of time had brought about. “Nowadays, when they have a good opportunity, they discuss it with buddies. Doesn’t matter which gang. Some don’t even belong to any gang. They bond through money and bashes and internet games, not brotherhood. What’s the point of being a gangster if gangs don’t matter no more huh?” he asked with rhetorical indignation.

   “Can’t see any,” I said. Then I tried to console him: “It’s the same in any business these days. Loyalty means nothing. Everyone’s driven by short-term profit.”

   Ah Wah looked at me as if assessing my truthfulness, then shook his head involuntarily. I think I had deepened his incredulity with the collapsing world order instead.

   When he was young, 14K was by far the largest gang in town. Being triad was something to be proud of, at least to the members. His elaborate initiation involved taking a blood oath in a ceremony headed by a senior, dressed like a Daoist monk. 

   “Serious stuff. About ten of us. We chopped the head off a live chicken, slashed our fingers, mixed the blood in alcohol, drank the concoction, passed under an arch of swords, and incensed our oath to Guan Gong.” He winked cheekily, as if teasing a kid with a glimpse of the grown-ups’ world. Guan Gong was a general from the Three Kingdom Period. A popular novel subsequently elevated him to deity status, turning him into a protector of the marginalised. There was a Guan Gong shrine in every police station, brothel, gambling den, prison — any establishment associated with either side of the vice in Hong Kong. Before the cops started a day’s work, they first offered an incense to Guan Gong. So did robbers, crack runners and prostitutes. I never figured out which side Guan Gong’s on. Perhaps he was there simply to ensure fair fights among the underclass, regardless of their fate-assigned professions, separated by tenuous ambiguous lines.

   “I’d read a little about it,” I said. “It’s an old rite from the 18th century. Triads were a cabal trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty then.”

   “There you go. 18th century. So long tradition!” he exclaimed. “You know what they do now?”

   “No idea.”

   “They chop a raw egg and draw a red line across the fingers with a felt-tip pen.”

   “No!” I laughed in disbelief. “Virtual blood oath?” 

   He let out a nasal humph, evidently not amused as I was. “A tradition since the Qing Dynasty, now the boys are making a mess of it. Too chicken to kill a chicken or slash fingers! They can’t stand pain, and worry about getting the bird flu.” He then aimed an eyebrow at Mooloo, adding with a touch of disgust: “And their pants are half way down.”

   “Who are the Number Gang?” This name was often heard among the inmates. It seemed interchangeable with 14K but I wasn’t sure. I had heard of the 14K in my secondary school days; everyone had, a well known gang indeed. But Number Gang? I was curious. 

   “Number is 14K. Same thing. Fourteen became inauspicious, what, ten fifteen years ago? Hong Kong suddenly decided 14 rhymes with sure death. Nobody wants 14 anymore so some of us started calling ourselves Number,” he pursed his hard thin lips. “I still prefer 14.”

   “It has more history,” I said. 

   In addition, Number as a gang name sounds ludicrous; but I kept that opinion to myself.

   Conventional wisdom says hope is one of the most important things in life. I discovered that to be not true in jail. To entertain hope would raise expectations and unsettle my mind, shattering peace, resisting acceptance, arousing bitterness and reviving a burning sense of injustice. To hope was to make the future anxiously far away, unbearable. Not hoping, yet not feeling hopeless, seemed to be the optimal equilibrium as far as adaptation was concerned.

But as soon as I had succeeded in purging all hope of “bail pending appeal” from my mind, I received news that the Appeal Court would hear my application in three weeks. The mental quiescence attained through disciplined meditation and a constant overdose of philosophy promptly shattered.

   I told Ah Wah.

   “Three weeks’ very fast. You’d be out in no time.”

   “It’s only a hearing. Having experienced the District Court, I dare not harbour any expectation.”

   “High court’s better.” He sounded authoritative, unexpectedly trustful of a system not really designed to his favour.

   The evening before court appearance, I meditated longer than usual. My mind kept wandering off. I did not feel like chatting. I didn’t know what to say so I hid in my private routine. Ah Wah lay in bed, quiet, reading the Condor Heroes.

Earlier that day, I had given him my six AA batteries, 10 packs of Tempo tissues, a bottle of shampoo and half a bottle of liquid soap. I asked if he could do me a favour: “Please keep them for me while I’m away. If I don’t come back, they’re yours.”

   “Then they’re mine.”

   “I wish I could be optimistic like you.” 

   “Don’t need optimism, just money.” He smiled, eyes twinkling with friendly energy. There was no bitterness in his voice, just matured resignation. “Good luck,” he added, giving me a chummy slap on the arm.

   “I’d leave you all the good luck,” I said, meaning every word. “I’m retired, have no use of good luck. Just wish to avoid bad ones. You need it more than I do.”

   He smiled warmly, and took my authorised chattels to his cubbyhole.

   The supreme court granted me bail pending appeal. I did not return to Tong Fuk that evening.

   Ah Wah had a relatively stiff sentence. According to courtroom gossips, the magistrate who convicted him was going through an ugly divorce. “He was struggling with a bad hangover,” Ah Wah’s lawyer told him after the sentencing either as an attempt to make him feel better, or to cheer him up with a little wisecrack. Lawyers like to maintain a sense of humour about judicatory misfortunes. With good behaviour, he had about a year left. 

   In any event, we did not exchange contact details. 

   We had become friends; but were both realistic enough to know that once outside, we would no longer have the same freedom to mix the way we did. Such freedom only existed in prison. Beyond bars, we belong to different worlds; worlds separated by impregnable barriers; worlds that were deeply suspicious of each other. 

   I have thought of sending him a letter, but as a convict on bail, I’m not supposed to be in touch with inmates. I have also thought of sending him a full set of Jin Yong’s wu xia classics anonymously, but books are brought into prison by registered visitors only. 

   Oh well, in the jiang hu of wu xias, people come, people go. You save a little of them in your heart, and move on, carried by the flow.

   Ah Wah understands that. 

   I do as well, perhaps much more now than before.

- The End -

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