To promote creative talent in Hong Kong, RTHK Radio 3 joined hands with Hong Kong Free Press and PEN Hong Kong for the second year in a row to co-organise the English writing competition Hong Kong’s Top Story 2018. Judges selected eight prize-winners in the Junior and Adult Categories, with two granted the Most Creative Award. An award presentation ceremony was held on Tuesday, December 11 at RTHK.
The awards were presented by RTHK’s Acting Deputy Director of Broadcasting (Programmes) Kirindi Chan Man-kuen, Managing Editor of Hong Kong Free Press Sarah Karacs and President of PEN Hong Kong Jason Ng. Chan mentioned that the competition has again attracted a lot of talented writers, and that almost 400 entries from the community were received. She also hoped that, in promoting literary activities, Hong Kong’s cultural and artistic scene will grow and benefit all English speakers, young listeners and readers.
This year’s theme was “Sounds of Hong Kong.” Participants were invited to find inspiration from familiar tunes, chatter, beeps, clangs and clatter that remind us of a moment, evoke a memory of a person or prompt an echo. Winners were presented with books from Pan Macmillan and dining vouchers from the Lan Kwai Fong Group.
Today, HKFP shares the story of the contest winner of the adult category.
As I was returning home from work one day, and fumbling for the keys within my pocket, I was unsettled by a low, murmuring sound coming from one of the apartments on our floor. This sound had a pulse – a rhythm – and so I assumed that it must have been one of our neighbours playing music, but as we were sandwiched between a timid Korean flight attendant and a polite gweilo family, this felt out of place. I considered writing a note to leave on one of their doors, although this would forever brand me as a grouchy old lady, in my own mind, at least.
But as soon as I pushed open the door to my apartment, it was apparent to me the offending song was coming from my own home, my own record player. It was the only record I still owned: Teresa Teng’s Who Will Come To Love Me?
It was such a violating feeling! And although I was scared that an intruder had broken in, I entered, closing the door as quickly as I could.
The song’s bassline grumbled within my feet and chest and it made my daughter’s trophy display rattle. I decided I needed to pick up a weapon before proceeding any further, and grabbed a battered 7-11 umbrella from the coat rack and wielded it like it were a samurai sword. I even unsheathed it from its little bag, as if that would somehow make it more deadly. I sneaked along the hallway to the living room door and I paused to worry about what I might find there. But then, peeking through the ajar door, I found that the apartment hadn’t been ransacked. I returned my umbrella-sword safely to its sheath and pushed the door open. Only as I committed to entering the room fully could I see that huddled in the corner was my daughter Serena. She was draped over one of the large cuboid speakers, almost hugging it, sobbing. I knew that any second Ms Teng’s voice would surge up again, so I approached the record player and I eased the volume down.
I kneeled before Serena but found that she refused to meet my eye. It has to be mentioned at this point – due to complications during her birth, Serena is profoundly deaf – She is also proudly deaf; She’s an excellent writer and says that she owes this success to the fact that she cannot be distracted by the noise of Hong Kong. She has never, at least in her adult life, expressed any desire to hear.
So, of course, I was shocked to find her in this state. But whenever a mother finds her daughter in a state of distress it doesn’t take them long to realise that a boy is involved and I was surprised how open she was about the situation:
‘Music’s a big part of his life.’ She signed to me, glumly.
She began telling me how she’d even been studying song lyrics and music theory, but then she smeared the tears from her face and gave a tragic little flutter with both hands – ‘hopeless’
I hadn’t thought about this at the time, but as I write about Serena and the speaker, I’m also reminded of when she was a baby and I would sing to her, even though that also seemed ‘hopeless’ to me too.
I would sing to her because it was too sad not to. I would hold her close to my chest, hoping that the vibration would travel from my body into hers. Maybe it was just seeing me sing that made her little mouth curl into a smile. But, as the years went on I consciously stripped sound and music from the house and my life because I didn’t want anything that would separate the two of us. I wanted to live in the same silence she was experiencing, so I threw away my CD collection, my guitar – Everything except the chunky record player my dad had spent a fortune on in the seventies and that one Teresa Teng record.
I had a long complicated relationship to that one song – Who Will Come To Love Me? There are so many layers and colours to it that its meaning changed for me as I grew, as I needed it to. I remember how the horn section would sound warm and crackly in the days of vinyl when I was a child. I spoke very little Mandarin then, and only understood the main hook of the chorus – Shei Lai Ai Wo? – Who Will Come To Love Me? – I took it as an invitation; That Ms Teng was asking her audience to come and love her, and I knew that if I too, sang along, I would one day have an audience of my own. So when my parents were out, I would put it on and mime in front of a mirror until they came home. Over the years my miming became whispering and I would sing it to myself in my room – but not before I had stuffed blankets into the cracks under my door so nobody could hear me.
I sang my shy little song for years, but my audience never came.
By the time the Walkman came around, I admit that I was unfaithful to Teresa. But, if I’m honest, it was more to do with album covers than the actual music.
My parents had been childhood sweethearts and didn’t seem to understand what a rare luxury this was becoming. Gradually I began to associate Teresa’s round face and her frilly dresses with their conservative values and found something liberating in the angular features of Anita Mui; Her Big Bad Girl was new, exciting. It helped me make-believe that my horrific first attempts at romantic love were intentional and painless.
But there were adult repercussions to our teenage games. We all made mistakes; It’s entirely possible mine cost my daughter her hearing. I gave up on the Big Bad Girl character. I came crawling back to Teresa. Her melancholic basslines kept me company on the tram as I watched the world drift by, and with her in my ears – by my side- I found the strength to become a small, good woman.
When Teresa died in the mid-nineties I suddenly understood the need for all of my parent’s silly rituals. I felt I should light incense somewhere – but instead, I just walked aimlessly through streets listening to her voice as if it were a dying echo. I lived in a wasteland; The population had grown, but humanity was nowhere to be found.
Noticing my mood, a friend at my office introduced me to the man who would become Serena’s father. He had an endearing, wonky nose and the air of a man who needed saving. He was in a crumbling marriage, but -strangely- by the time I told him that I was pregnant, it suddenly found a second-wind.
He was adamant that he had been straight with me from the beginning. He couldn’t have been clearer, he said.
I expected him to do the right thing. I was shocked when – as we watched the handover on television together – he said that it seemed musically right to also end our relationship there and then. We sat in silence and I had this feeling that he was desperate for me to say something – but I still have no idea what it might have been. My mind was blank with static. I didn’t even think about what the handover would mean for the future of our country. All I remember thinking was about how funny it was that the people on the stage, meeting one-another from other sides of the planet, were able to reach a consensus about something so complicated, whilst the man sat on the sofa with me, who spoke my language, and was even born in the same hospital as myself, was so completely inaccessible.
This all meant that I was alone throughout the pregnancy. As my tummy ballooned I would assist myself up the stairs each day and massage my own swollen feet at the end of each night. I listened to Teresa a million times. It put me into a trance. It put all my worries off to the side for the time being just so I could continue. I listened to it so many times I worried the record would be worn away beneath the weight of the needle.
I should have worried about myself; I was racing towards total collapse. But the day came and finally, with my little baby in my arms, I no longer needed a man. And I didn’t need the song; The question it had been asking for decades had finally been answered: Serena had come to love me.
And, so, on that night, just like I had done when she was a baby, I took Serena’s head against my shoulder, and although my voice was no longer as bright and elastic as it had been, I began to sing along with the music. I couldn’t quite find the note at first, but once I had found it, following the melody was as easy navigating as a familiar street.
Ni ceng jing dui wo shuo guo
Yong yuan de ai wo
She gave me a brave smile. As I sang, I found myself pinching at her earlobe. I shouldn’t have brought attention to Serena’s ears, but to me, they’re beautiful; cruelly beautiful. They’re discrete; curved at the top and straight at the side, almost like a pair of question marks. I only stopped when I thought to ask her something –
“Can he sign?” I asked her
“A little.” She replied, “He’s learning.”
As she said this, the song looped and with its intro, I felt a swelling of hope and optimism rising in my chest.
That’s what I wanted more than anything; I wanted to reach into my chest, yank out this feeling, and give it to her. At first, I wanted to resist this feeling – It had come from a music I could never share with her – but then I thought – maybe if I really focused, I could translate for her the optimism that music gave me.
I tried :
‘I think that we’re lucky in Hong Kong. We know that we are lost, so we invent our own ways. We know that we are alone, so we invent our own love. If you’re putting in the effort to reach someone and he’s putting in the effort to reach you, that’s all that matters. A lot of people never find that bravery – The bravery to meet another soul half-way.’
I don’t know how good my little speech was, but when Serena wiped her tears away, no new ones took their place. As the night wore on, I asked her to tell me about this boy she liked, and she did. She was even smiling, laughing until she was so exhausted that she couldn’t even make it to her bedroom. She fell asleep on the sofa where I spread a blanket over her. Finally, I lifted the needle from the record and took some small satisfaction in watching it spin silently, then slow to a complete stop.
The place was quiet again, except for Serena’s whistling nose.
I left her to go to bed, pausing for a second in the hallway with my finger on the light switch. I realise now; Serena had been crying because she thought that she would never find love, but as I stood there I was tearing up for the inverse reason. I knew with absolute certainty that one day some good, lucky man would take Serena away from me.
But as I turned out the light, I was comforted by the thought, that whenever that day came, I would just put on my favourite song.
And everything might work out OK.
Judges’ comment: This is an emotionally powerful story which engages the sympathies of the reader while steering clear of sentimentality, through focused, economic use of language. It is a life story told in retrospect through the context of a famous song by Teresa Teng, which will be familiar to most people in Hong Kong and entirely relevant to the theme of this year’s competition. For added poignancy, the writer adds a memorable observation, relating the personal condition of her characters to the political reality of the SAR, and also shows a nice turn of irony when explaining a failed relationship.