• James Tam

Midlife Triad


Midlife Triad and other excellent stories

by Hong Kong based writers

can be found in the HK Writers Circle

Anthology: Of Gods and Mobsters

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 xiasdo, 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 ren which 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.

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