The Justice of Sin
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Anthologised by Hong Kong Writers Circle in Another Hong Kong
A prosecutor, a politician, and a journalist
seek commonalities over happy hours
Each with his own agenda
SIN stuffed his half-finished lunchbox into the waste basket under his desk without bothering to close the lid. Chicken sauce spilled onto the carpet underneath, but he didn’t notice. His eyes were fixed on the morning’s news clipping, reading it for the fifth time.
His media contact Winnie Poon had asked a few questions outside the courtroom yesterday, mentioning his new title, just as he had artfully suggested. Her question on cross-border corruption had been a surprise, but he handled it well, brilliantly in fact. He was especially pleased with the resulting caption. Senior Assistant Director Sin Fook Yum: ‘No Territorial Boundary in the Battle against Corruption’. Fantastic, he thought. Visionary, bold, righteous, to the point, kind of philosophical too. It would attract many likes if he could share it on Facebook.
While re-reading, he sucked desperately at a stubborn fibre lodged between his molars. It was driving him mad. He tried to get at it with his fingers, but found nothing. Finally, he closed his eyes and gave it the mother of all sucks, making a loud slippery tzit!
‘Aiya!’ he gave up, exasperated, then searched once more for a toothpick.
At this moment, his secretary Flora returned from lunch, and shuffled past his open door to take position behind her desk for another two hundred and ten minutes before going home. Though only a few metres away, he summoned her with the intercom as a matter of principle and style: ‘Flora, do you have a toothpick?’
‘Uh, no, Mr. Sin.’ She sounded intimidated, in utter despair, a chronic condition which some suspected was a consequence of working for Sin all these years.
‘Can you first look?’
‘I know I don’t, Mr. Sin, but I’ll look anyway if you wish.’
‘Forget it then. Just come in.’
She entered, goggling him in silence, not wondering what he might want. She had given up on that long ago.
‘Can you make a copy?’ He pointed out the news clipping with his nose, picking his teeth with a straightened paper clip.
Just as Flora turned to leave, he changed his mind. ‘Uh, make it three.’ Spare copies never hurt. Only government paper.
As Flora shuffled away, he stared at her droopy fifty-year-old backside, and pitied himself for not having a young and slinky secretary, the kind his colleagues in the private sector seemed always to have. ‘Can’t have it all,’ he consoled himself, shrugged, and focused on working on that damned fibre with the paper clip.
To Sin, shrugging is a tic which he once practised before the mirror.
‘The courtroom is a drama stage. Body language is more important than Latin, especially for gentlemen like yourself not blessed with a natural talent for the language,’ his mentor had told him when he was about to graduate. ‘Remember, in words, you must remain civil in court. Always address other lawyers, however ignorant they may be, as your learned friends. But in body language, you can artfully show contempt to upset their composure, and to put psychological pressure on them, if you can manage subtlety.’ He then stared at Sin for a few quiet seconds, before shrugging and sniggering lightly, as if to conclude that he had just wasted his time. Sin had in fact fully grasped the significance of the instruction, and started to practise the art of crafty disdain diligently. With time, it became a tic.
He shrugged again, pursed his lips, and caressed his new name stand, still smelling of quality leather. It said ‘John Robert F Y Sin, SAD’.
His Chinese name was Sin Fook Yum. Sin is the transliteration of his family name, unintentionally ironic, given his profession as a lawyer and his father’s as a Baptist minister. Fook Yum meant good news, a pious touch. John was the English name on his birth certificate. Robert was added much later, after he discovered that real Englishmen have a middle name as well, also in English. His friends were invited to call him Johnny, but none did. His colleagues called him Sin Sir in front of him. Families, including his wife Peony, called him Ah Fook — which sounded like a dunce in Cantonese — from childhood habit. Only his superiors at work called him John.
Peony had given him the name stand for his promotion. Beautiful. Classily leathery. Too bad it’s from her, the dumb thing, he thought sadly — mostly due to self-pity. He sighed, and shrugged. The acronym SAD should have been put in parentheses, come to think of it. She never does anything right, never!
They knew each other since they were toddlers. Their fathers were colleagues and buddies, working for the same God, serving the same congregation, tending the same flock. Since Grade Three, he had felt stuck with her. In the past five years, perhaps more, he had on and off fantasised her murder. Being a senior criminal prosecutor, he surely must be capable of designing the perfect murder, a watertight way to get rid of a dumb wife. But so far, every plot he’d come up with ended with unacceptable flaws in the final analysis. Perhaps I’m too good in finding critical flaws, he thought. Oh well.
Flora reappeared, dropped the copies in his IN-tray, and left just as stealthily as she had entered. He ignored her, and continued to caress his name stand as if in deep meaningful thoughts. The perfect idea will come one day, but not now. Right now, his mind was elsewhere, somewhere foggy. A beer would be nice. He put down the name stand, looked at his watch — too early, alas. He read the newspaper story again, and underlined his name and title with a pencil.
He took out his phone and sent a message: ‘Tks for great article. Wish you lots of goodies from ‘informed sources’ haha. Happy hour?’
A few minutes later, it rang.
‘Be careful what you write, Sin Sir. So you owe me one, huh?’ came the permanently sardonic and weary voice of Winnie Poon.
‘Okay lah,’ Sin sat up to arrange a charming face as if Winnie could see. He scratched his itchy scalp with the pinky of his free hand. He suffered from a stubborn case of eczema soon after graduation. It could have been the first cheap second-hand wig that he bought. ‘Got time for happy hour later?’
‘I work for the newspaper, not government, Sin Sir. My happy hour starts at ten.’
‘Then don’t complain that I don’t pay back lah.’
‘Beer is not what I expect in return. What about six thirty?’
‘If you promise not to be late, Ms Poon.’
‘Can I bring Edmund Wong? I’d be interviewing him nearby.’
‘Edmund Wong of the TDP?’
‘Yes, your old classmate.’
‘I know him from the Bar. We had met at HKU but he was older and two years ahead —’ Sin took a weighty and thoughtful pause, hoping that it would be felt at the other end ‘— It may not be good for me to be seen drinking with the Vice-Chairman of the True Democratic Party though.’
‘Are there surveillance cameras all over Lan Kwai Fong?’
‘Ahem,’ Sin cleared his throat importantly. ‘I’m thinking of the paparazzis.’
‘Sin Sir, you’re not a Canto Pop Singer. Paparazzis don’t know our professional elites.’ Winnie Poon knew Sin couldn’t distinguish compliment from sarcasm. ‘Plus isn’t it part of your new job as a senior official to cultivate political contacts.’
Good point, Sin thought. Good point. ‘Okay, okay. Six thirty then. The Irish Bar?’
‘See…’ She was gone.
He put the phone back into his pocket, then absentmindedly examined his pinky nail. He grew it longer than the rest for good luck. It had worked. A small piece of oily dandruff was stuck to the underside. No hair attached though; nothing too worrying. He wiped it on his pants. His mind drifted to Edmund Wong.
Sin had mildly idolised Wong in the old days: star campus activist cum lawyer cum politician. Sin admired his passion and vigour in their student days. But things had changed with time, quite drastically in many ways, leaving Edmund stuck with a dated attitude. Luckily for him, his followers remained just as committed, maybe more so in the face of collective obsolescence, becoming desperately angrier and louder with age.
On the other hand, Sin leaned back, contemplative with self-assessment. He, John Robert Sin, to be fair, had aged remarkably well.
His earlier days had been undeniably mediocre, categorically marginal. After getting admitted to law school on third attempt, he barely squeezed by. Upon graduation, he joined the government without hesitation. It hurt his pride at the time.
In some sports tournaments, early losers drop out to compete on the side among themselves for the plate. That’s what the civil service was likened to among law school graduates. In the end, joining the losers’ league turned out to be a wise choice. Sin queued in the right place, at the right time, with the right crowd. After shuffling along for thirty years, he was now Senior Assistant Director by default. The smart arses from his class of 85’ would be sucking up to him soon. He might even be invited to make speeches at Alumni dinners. Well, life’s a marathon. What’s the point of sprinting the first half, and limp towards the finishing line, huh?
The Fortuneteller case had been satisfactorily concluded yesterday. Critics might claim he was convicted by the media, and the case was won by the London silk on fiat, not to mention the fact that Sin had taken it over as a do-nothing overseer only a few months ago from his retiring predecessor. ‘So?’ he dismissed the anticipated jealousy with another shrug — more sage-like than contemptuous this time — ‘Say what they want. The glory’s mine.’
But what next?
The trial had put his name on headlines, face on TV, regularly, for weeks. It’s now over. In his victorious mood, Sin felt the painful symptoms of attention withdrawal. He was suddenly tired of being low profile. Time for a breakthrough, he told himself. One which is prudent, of course. Prudence never hurts, even in ‘breakthroughs’.
He instinctively pulled the Vergel file from the overflowing PENDING-tray.
Vergel, big international bluechip, spotless reputation, thoroughly unsensational, boring even by government standards. The evidence was weak, nearly non-existent; only the inconsistent words of a bitter convict cum extortionist cum accomplice witness Paolo Rodrigues against Vergel’s.
Macau, Sin gave a mental sigh. What a place! The Woo scandal implicated every business entity in the tiny Vegas of Asia. For a while, anyone not under investigation would pretend that they were, just to save face. In the end, everyone implicated had miraculously left town before shit hit the fan.
Except Paolo Rodrigues, Vergel’s local partner.
The Rodrigues had been prominent compradores in Macau since the 17th century. But its wealth was long spent, and the complacent mind of its latest headsman best illustrated by his own baffling ‘defence’ — if that’s what it was intended to be — in court: ‘Macau’s been like this for centuries! What’s the big deal?’ In the end, it wasn’t a big deal. For a corruption scandal involving a noticeable percentage of Macau’s GDP and population, only one Minister, George Woo, and a single supporting actor, Paolo Rodrigues, were jailed. Case closed.
After two years behind bars, Rodrigues had suddenly reported to the ICAC — the anti-graft agency in Hong Kong — that Vergel had been an accomplice, reversing his previous admissions. Sin wondered what it was. Money, no doubt. Rodrigues had demanded money from Vergel, ‘or there’ll be trouble!’ he ‘promised’ in writing, using prison stationery. When refused, he contacted the ICAC the next day. Oh well, he wasn’t the first one to make good personal threats through the agency. ICAC agents warmly welcomed allegations of any shade or colour; their employment contracts depended on them. Rats were served free coffee in report centres, made to feel at home, even given professional coaching from time to time.
Two Vergel executives had indeed been troubled by investigation, as Rodrigues promised, for nine months now. But there was nothing to investigate. Perhaps it’s time to drop it, now that the ICAC boys have renewed their contracts, he sniggered cynically at the thought.
Not today though. He needed a break today. He tossed the dusty file back to the PENDING-tray.
He felt like surfing the net for something juicy. Must have been the residual testosterone from yesterday’s victory. He first opened a work screen that he could hop to in one quick click in case his unruly boss, the Deputy Director, code-named Peter Pan, barged in.
Barely five, Johnny Sin was already ambling up Lan Kwai Fong, heading towards the Irish bar tucked away in a quiet alley. Since he considered this appointment kind of work related, he had left office early as a fair and equitable compensation to himself. The area wouldn’t come alive for another hour or so.
He often went there alone. He liked his two beers after work — buy one get one free, no service charge. A prosecutor’s life was a lonely one. His colleagues kept a professional distance from each other by tradition and personal despise. Meeting up with lawyers from the private sector was sensitive. His church friends did not drink in public. His wife Peony drank only lukewarm distilled water to prevent cancer, and would have made terrible company anyway had she not been teetotal.
Winnie Poon was an exception.
In her late thirties, she was associate editor of the Durian Daily — a local tabloid. Every newspaper in Hong Kong was a tabloid, or bankrupt. Her speciality was sensational court cases. Gory details were the hottest, followed by cases involving celebrities. Reader-friendly scandals were popular if the plots were simple and devious, easily understood by the average guy. Otherwise, it was her job to streamline the details.
Sin had known her for years, but their symbiotic relationship only flourished recently with his promotion. Journalists needed informed sources. Prosecutors needed favourable media coverage. High profile suspects trashed by the media and loathed by the public were more likely to go to jail. The Fortuneteller was a case in point. Similar to professional sportsmen, Sin’s self-esteem and career rating depended on performance statistics. Each conviction was a goal on the scoreboard.
As he entered the bar, the manager recognised him, and gave a tepid nod. Sin was an unhurried drinker who rarely spent more than the price of one beer for two, and never tipped. He picked a corner table, ordered a pint, and opened his king-sized attache case, the kind favoured by airplane pilots and lawyers. It contained two items: the morning paper, and his keys. He took out the paper. The keys clinked feebly.
He started rereading the news. He had more than an hour to kill the first beer.
Winnie Poon arrived half an hour late with Edmund Wong. Sin had only a thin layer of room temperature foam left in his mug. ‘You’re late, Missy!’
‘Sorry, Sin Sir,’ she said, out of breath. ‘You know the Honourable Edmund Wong, right?’
‘Of course. We’ve met at the other Bar many times.’ Sin extended his hand halfway from his chair. Edmund Wong barely touched it with his cold soft fingers, then sat down with Winnie Poon at the other side of the table.
‘My fault. Never easy to leave Legco you know. The pro-government members were playing cunning games to get the budget passed.’
Sin gave a faint and polite smile, not forgetting that he was now an after-hour senior government official, and Edmund Wong was against everything the government did, or did not do. Anyway, no politics here.
‘I admire the energy of you guys,’ he replied with self-conscious slyness. ‘How do you find time for your lovely family?’
‘Edmund’s divorced and childless,’ Winnie interjected jocularly. ‘You don’t read our entertainment pages, do you?’
‘Oh, not often. A government job is not as leisurely as you think these days,’ he said, then turned to Edmund. ‘Sorry about that.’
‘About what?’ Edmund snapped.
After five minutes of disagreeable small talks, Edmund Wong bluntly changed topic with a ‘let’s cut the crap’ wave of the hand. ‘This government has become more corrupt than ever. Your so-called rule-of-law is a charade.’ He directed his remark at Sin, then took a big gulp of beer.
‘Ha ha, we try our best,’ Sin said, switching on his civil service ambiguity, then took a tiny sip of the newly arrived cold beer, his second one, the free one.
‘But you do nothing about cross-border corruption,’ Winnie added. Sin regarded her, suspecting that she and Edmund had rehearsed this.
‘Well, we’d love to, but jurisdiction…’
‘Excuses, excuses, excuses,’ Edmund Wong cut him off. ‘What about morals? What about principles? What about our core values?’ Legco was Hong Kong’s unruly mini-parliament. Experienced Legco members knew civil servants were like high-tech play-dough. They could be squeezed and pinched and moulded into any shape you wished. But as soon as you let go, they’d bounce right back to the original shapeless form. He was an expert in their pliability, and reputedly the most vicious in testing its limit.
Sin laughed, as if Edmund had just told a good joke, then turned to Winnie, trying to change the topic: ‘So, any big story lately, Missy?’
Winnie Poon yawned from exhaustion as much as boredom, but refused to be distracted. ‘Edmund’s right. This government is sacrificing our core values to appease Beijing.’
‘What core values?’ Sin asked, then yawned as well.
‘Democracy! Freedom! Clean government! Human rights! Justice! Everything!’ Edmund raised his voice, adjusting his posture as if facing a TV camera.
‘But we never had democracy before, and the government is still clean,’ Sin mumbled, lowering his voice to bring the conversation back to the booth. ‘Plus you guys can say whatever you like without consequence, unlike in colonial days.’
‘Know what, you talk bullshit like a government official,’ Edmund sneered.
‘Sin Sir is a senior government official now,’ Winnie corrected with unmistakable sarcasm in her voice. Sin failed to register.
‘Ha ha, thank you, thank you. Not so senior lah. Just more work for a tiny bit more money. And much more headache.’ Sin responded with due humility, then leaned back and took a bigger than usual mouthful of beer, attempting to look completely relaxed.
‘How’s the Vergel case going?’ Winnie asked, straight to the point.
Sin was puzzled by the question and her directness. He expertly put on his bland civil servant face. ‘It’s under investigation. Nothing more I can say.’
‘It’s been under investigation for a long time.’
‘Nine months to be exact,’ Sin gave a sly smile, pleased that he happened to have the information at fingertip. ‘That’s average. We’re busier than you think, Missy.’ Winnie recognised his subtle challenge: try if you wish, see if you guys could upset me with your provocations, haha.
She switched to a girlish tone. It sounded surreal coming out of her face: ‘Ahh, Sin Sir, what about the informed sources you promised?’
‘Come on, I never promised anything. How could I promise anything like that?’ Sin laughed. Edmund rolled his eyes.
Winnie intensified her coquettish attack and gave a protracted whine: ‘Ahhh! Sin Sir! You’re playing clever tricks with me now!’
Edmund was about to say something. Winnie stopped him by putting her hand on his thigh, and whispered across the table: ‘Sin Sir, what about me being your informed source instead?’
‘I’ll listen to anything you have to say, as usual,’ Sin smiled, enjoying his artful self like an idolising fan.
‘We’re preparing a big story on cross-border bribery. Let’s say it’s a project rather than a story. A number of things will come together with a focus, a bang: Chinese corruption and how it’s ruining Hong Kong. Anything that fits will be given, let’s say, due exposure. It will create a wave of consciousness.’
‘Ah, I see,’ Sin gave an enlightened sigh. He noticed that her hand was still on Edmund’s thigh under the table, and felt slightly wounded. Winnie Poon was indubitably not pretty by any standard, but relatively young. Plus he always felt intimidated rather than enchanted by anyone truly attractive. He would not admit even to himself that he fancied Winnie. He probably didn’t; but did wonder hopefully, since his promotion, if Winnie had a crush on him.
‘Hong Kong people are sick of their core values being destroyed by the Chinese,’ Edmund Wong said. ‘We must organise a shock wave of awakening to show the commies!’
‘But Hong Kong corruption was much worse, blatant in fact, in the old days,’ Sin said.
‘You speak like you’ve been brainwashed!’ Edmund raised his voice, and right away got a tranquillising squeeze on the thigh. Sin remained impassive. He was not going to debate with the legislator over a topic which he wholeheartedly did not care one way or the other. He set his mouth into a whatever-you-say-mate grin, and kept quiet.
Winnie gently reprimanded Edmund: ‘Edmund! Sin Sir’s probably the most independent thinker in this government, not your typical brainwashed civil servant at all!’
Sin loosened his grin. He was genuinely pleased with her remark: ‘This is just His Honourable Edmund Wong in action. I knew him since he was a student leader at HKU. I was a young fan, you know.’
To Sin’s surprise, his untruthful reminiscence calmed Edmund. ‘Oh, those were the days,’ he beamed. ‘I have to admit I can’t recall having met you back then though.’
Winnie took the opportunity: ‘Great! Now, God has brought us together here for a reason, don’t you think?’
‘I must say God’s been guiding me along all my life, and never been wrong.’ Sin was glad to be back on familiar turf. He briefly wondered how Edmund Wong was going to grab political capital through this project. Like a Zen master, he let the thought come and go without engaging.
‘So, Sin Sir,’ Winnie retrieved the discussion from its spiritual dimension: ‘The Vergel case might fit very well, and get plenty of attention.’
‘But the Woo scandal is old old news! Most people have forgotten it by now.’
‘Well, leave that to us,’ Winnie gave an impish smile.
‘Ha! Now I see why you asked me the question on cross-border bribery yesterday,’ Sin said.
‘Can never fool you, huh?’ she said, then winked so hard one could nearly hear her skin move.
‘But it’s a Macau case, only indirectly linked to Vergel through their joint venture partner there. It has nothing to do Hong Kong or the mainland,’ Sin said thoughtfully. ‘Furthermore, off the record, my initial impression is that the evidence is rather weak.’
‘What does it matter? Isn’t Macau part of China?’ Edmund Wong chimed in.
‘All I need is a cross-border bribery story taken to court here in Hong Kong,’ Winnie continued. ‘Conviction is immaterial. And who knows? The District Courts have one of the highest conviction rates in the world. List it there and see what happens. It might just make you famous — the attorney who upholds justice, undaunted by authority, like in movies!’
Sin appeared thoughtful for a moment, then raised his glass at Edmund and Winnie, who had finally let go of Edmund’s thigh. ‘Well, my friends, interesting discussions. My job is to preserve justice and the rule of law. I prosecute only on the merits of each case — nothing else.’ He spoke as if in court, then beamed to Winnie.
Winnie returned a big smile, raising her glass: ‘Of course! We all know your reputation and integrity. Perhaps we should do a profile on you one day, come to think of it.’
Sin hitched his free hand up as if to block a punch, protesting with animated vigour: ‘No no no no no! Nothing personal lah. I’m only a humble civil servant, doing my job to preserve Hong Kong’s core values.’
‘That’s exactly the kind of government official we need to highlight!’
Sin smiled with understanding.
Edmund nodded approvingly. He didn’t like Sin, but saw the potential in him.
Then they toasted.
- END -
James Tam, 28 April 2014