To promote creative talent in Hong Kong, RTHK Radio 3 has 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 Junior category first prize winner.
Adult creative writing winner: Banana Rolls by Charlotte Mui
There’s a strain from behind the left ear to the stretch of muscle along your collarbone. An ache that couldn’t be twisted away no matter how many times you crack your neck. A light snap. You stretched it a little too far.
“Your body isn’t as it used to be,” your wife berated. That’s true. But that constant left-tilted strain was there long before you felt the throbbing sting in your knee-joints. Your bodyweight pressed down on them, grating as you steadily laid each foot down the stairs of your Tong Lau. You were grateful the notches were concrete. What harrowing lamentations would the creaking wooden panels beckon of your bones. Your wife always reminded you to bring your cane along with you. You knock the ground twice with it. The thuds masked your fragile steps, echoing through the corridor as though they belong to powerful strides — a weak mirage of you 30 years ago. Reminders were unnecessary. You would never think of leaving the cane at home. It’s your only weapon.
The grime and sweat of people who have been out a few hours too many hits you before you could even wince at the afternoon sun. Something was off. There’s a hum of the overlapping conversations in the background. Cantonese with scatterings of English words. Mandarin in various dialects that you barely recognise. There are a lot more tourists now. Your granddaughter called them ‘locusts’.The weight of shampoo bottles and cans of milk powder in wheeled suitcases rolling over the cracking sun-baked granite roads in low rumbles. They interweave with the moving dollies nipping at their heels. The muffled mindless chatter of the few hawkers setting up their foldable tables on the too narrow sidewalks, getting ready for the night’s worth of bullshit fortune telling. Is it quieter? You try not to gawk at the runaway teens with shorts that show off the under-curve of their backsides. Even with a milky saran wrap over the eyes you can still tell the difference between flesh and fabric. You look away a beat too slow. How vulgar, you think. Or was the vulgar one you? Never mind that. You have a quest to complete.
The bakery is to your right, about three blocks away from your door. You turn in the opposite direction. Your left side hovers just a few inches away from the neatly lined up building walls. The buzzing of Mong Kok dies down as you edge away from the crowd. Your fingertips brush along the rough stucco walls of your Tong Lau onto the cool glass of window displays. Engulfed in the mess of neon signs, digital billboards, and rows of indistinguishable chain stores, your Tong Lau had dissolved into the semi-skyscrapers that flank it.
There was this one time when your wife had forgotten where she lived. She asked a woman passing by if she could walk her home. The young lady took an hour, pacing your wife up and down the street, trying to find the worn building. How long would it have taken her if you hadn’t written down the address and directions on the laminated card hung around your wife’s neck? When she finally arrived home, she crawled into the bed and refused to leave it for days afterwards. Knees hurt, she’d say. There’s a show I need to catch tonight. I think I have heartburn. The bakery’s too far.
I can buy the banana rolls, you told her. Though I don’t know why you still want to eat them.
Her dentures are wobbly against her gums, rendering her jaw strength useless. She couldn’t even bite off a corner of the soft and chewy banana roll. But she loved the taste too much. She cut them up with the bright blue pair of children’s scissors. Place a small piece of the roll under her tongue and wait for it to melt instead. Sometimes she spat out a half dissolved piece because it had lost its flavour.
“What can you do? It’s your job to keep me happy.”
“Yes, yes, I was born to serve my Goddess,” you’d laugh, bowing. At least, attempt to. There’s a jabbing pain in your backbone whenever you bend down for more than 30 degrees. Your eye twitch. You hope she didn’t notice.
She laughed with you. “It’s good that you know, General.”
She liked it when you spun stories about your life together. She was the Silver Goddess of the East, descended from a line of dragons with two hearts. The Goddess was 16 when she explored the mortal realm. It was there when she met her general and her love for banana rolls. The Silver Goddess of the East only accepted banana rolls as offerings.
“We can go together, like the old days. We can walk around the wet market and barter with the meat-guy.”
She always paused at this bit.
“Can’t you see that I’m a bit busy?” She’d say as her twitching hands cracked open shelled peanuts into a tub of chilli and cucumber sauce. The spiced peanuts she made was your favourite dish. “Now leave so you can come home quickly!”
Your feet stop at the end of the block. Past this invisible boundary, you will leave the training grounds and face a moat of black and grey mutant lava which you have to cross while dodging a stampede of monsters coming towards you. They have the ability to manoeuvre across the road freely. But you have more than just one handicap. The yellow crosswalk lines are shaking pillars, about to crumble at the final beep of exactly a minute and thirty seconds. You can step only on them to cross. This is level one.
The monsters in level one will occasionally shove you out of the way or roll one of their heavy suitcases over your feet but they will keep their noise to a minimum. Those in level two were of a different class altogether. These were women dressed scantily in fishnet tights and laced up burlesque bodices that can barely hide the drooping breasts and hanging skin that comes with ageing past 70. Crowding around them are usually men your age, who these devils shake their sagging buttocks at, asking them to dance, and then to pay up when they go to bed with them. The boomboxes on the floor play muted tunes you distinctly remember from the time you still lived in the Mainland. You shake away the memory of your brother’s sunken face as you dragged him from door to door begging for scraps of food. They were always playing that particular song in the houses. You spit at the boombox and miss. Level two often posed a challenge for both your ears and eyes.
But none of these monstrosities could be seen today. The Mongkok pedestrian zone is for once cleared of the boisterous street performers. Good riddance.
Someone taps on your shoulder. A pale-faced bespectacled girl in her mid-20s dressed in a generic black suit skirt was clutching a white tablet. Her dyed hair is fading into a mustard yellow haystack. Her face was caked in makeup. She says something. What — Oh, she’s on your right. You squint at the movements of her mouth. She’s shouting. The susurration of the district is enough to drown her out.
Sir, hello. Do you have time?
What does she want with an old man like you? Those mainland dancers haven’t evolved into office ladies, have they? The hair and drooping mascara-heavy lashes were suspicious. You nod anyway.
I’d like to ask you a few questions — about your money-saving habits.
“No thank you, I’m busy.” You walk away but the girl follows.
You walk faster, turning at the corner. Her speed is unchanged.
Your breathless pants burn your insides as the ache in your joints steam in overwork. She doesn’t give up but your body desperately wants to. She’s merely brisk-walking.
The angry stomps of your cane can’t disguise your wheezing. You adjust the device attached to your right ear but her voice pierces through and your breaths get louder and louder. You did not expect this much of a fight against a girl.
“Sir, it’s really just going to take five minutes!” She shoves her tablet in your face. Just a few more metres. Your chest is burning. Your ankles crack and twist like they’re going to fall off any moment. Why are the sounds getting so much louder?
“Our insurance plan is aimed at the older generation, exactly at old men living alone like you, it’s to ensure that you’ll —”
The device hits the ground with a clang. You’re bent over, gasping for air, your fingers clawing at your chest as though you can somehow reach into it and stop it from its haywire pounding. The girl is also doubled over, her hands wrapped around her abdomen. In the process of falling, tripping from exhaustion, your flailing hand had knocked the tablet out of her hands and elbowed her in the stomach.
“I’m sorr – huff – but – huff – I don’t – huff– need your insurance and – huff – I’m definitely – huff – not alo —”
“—Did you see that? That old guy pushed a girl to the ground —”
People are starting to accumulate.
“—Miss! Are you okay, do you need —”
“Oi! Old thing! What’s the fucking matter with you, you old fuck!” A younger man walked up to you. He has a cap on sideways, t-shirt and jeans. Was he one of those ‘MK boys’? His phone’s camera is aimed at your face.
What’s the matter with you? It wasn’t on purpose.
“Youngsters are – huff – so rude these days for – huff – assuming — ”
“Please, you fai-lo are just as rude as the rest of us, get off your high horse,” the girl coughs. The MK boy helps her stand. The girl picks up the tablet and blows the dust off. The screen is cracked. “You look like you don’t have much time left anyway. I’ll be the nice person this time and let you off.”
“Nice? I nearly – huff – had a stroke – huff – because of you – huff – ”
“I was being nice. All those coins you have in the mooncake tins under your bed? They’re not worth a thing unless you invest, sir. One of these days you will have a stroke and you’ll be stuck in a hospital with no money to pay for —”
You can hear.
“ — Drain that motherfucker of his money if that’s the last —”
“ — Bitch actually fucked my boyfriend —”
“ — Move! I was here first! — ”
“ — Do your business elsewhere, this is a no pedestrian —”
“ — What are you looking at —”
“ — Stop shouting! Can’t you just follow me?” A boy yelled as he crossed the road behind you. An old woman was standing on the other end, looking around her anxiously at the rushing cars but not moving, her feet planted firmly on the sidewalk, shouting at her phone and at the grandson in Hakka dialect. The grandson kept walking.
You snap off the bone conduction hearing aid from behind your scrunched-up deformed right ear, put the metal device in the pocket of your slacks, and walk on towards the bakery.
“Is there nothing I can do to get you to go outside again?” You asked your wife once at dinner.
“No,” she said simply. “The world’s moved on without me.”
She left the house one last time two years ago, wheeled out on a stretcher. She came back in a white porcelain urn accompanied with unpaid hospital bills a month later.
You don’t hear the truck coming behind you.
Judge’s comment: It’s a story full of beautiful turns of phrase, really original evocations of life in Mong Kok, and telling details – like the banana rolls cut up with children’s scissors. It creates in the mind a vivid picture of the pleasures and pains of street life without piling up too many adjectives and adverbs.
Junior creative writing winner: We Shall Strive, by Yu Hang Hui
“From this day on, the name of your new leader will be sacred. His word and command are equal to the word of the highest deity. He will bring our beloved city and us prosperity. We shall strive!”
The diverse crowd of businessmen, housewives, school children crammed into the spacious hall began whispering and murmuring.
“Let the name of the traitorous sinner who formerly governed this city be forgotten, let his teachings be forgotten. Hearing it said will mean treason. Seeing it written will mean treason. Disobeying our glorious leader will be treason. Let this day be forever remembered as a start of a new age.”
Their combined voices rose as one. What is happening? What is going on? What happened to our previous leader? Who is this new leader? They tried pushing past the guards, pushing past the double-locked doors.
The crowd fell silent at the realisation of loaded guns pointed at them. Cheeks turned pale, the weak whimpered. Actions said more than words.
“Do I make myself clear?”
The words echoed through the hall.
“Our glorious leader has demanded a picture of his superior visage be erected in every household. He wishes the face of a living legend to become an inspiration to us all. You will be expected to utter prayers and oaths under his wise gaze. Consider this a privilege, a gift from our kind leader.”
The ‘gifts’ were duly handed out, with each family handing over a hefty sum which they surely cannot afford in exchange. The past few months have not been kind to them. The crowd was now a collection of hardened workers in plain clothes.
A few brave individuals protested, murmuring their pleas, saying the price was too expensive. We are already struggling to provide for our family’s dinner. Please, the price is too high. “Are you saying you will not sacrifice a few days’ privileges to honour your leader?” The gun was trained on their chests.
The intelligent ones lowered their heads, making their distress and hatred with exaggerated shame. Of course, of course, we will make do with fewer luxuries. Of course, we will. Please forgive us for our ignorance.
The stubborn or the desperate refused to back down. Please, my children, they are hungry. They are already working 15 hours a day without breaks. They are exhausted. They could barely stand. I can’t send them to bed hungry as well.
“Then don’t send them to bed at all.” Multiple gunshots rang through the hall, every bullet hitting its target.
The other families cowered in horror at the public display. “This, my dear people is what happens to the disloyal traitors. Look at them with disdain! These people would be groveling on your doorsteps in the next few days, begging for a few dinner scraps because they were too lazy to work. These were the beggars that prevented the society from moving forward. Take a good look at them!”
If the sight of blood on the floor made the people see red, their pale faces certainly wouldn’t show it. They only clutched their newly bought ‘gift’ in shaking hands as if it would protect them.
“Many of you know our leader’s plan for your country to become the greatest in the world. But success demands sacrifice, and we must stand together as a united nation to reach our common goal.”
The diminished crowd stayed silent. They were now people used to witnessing acts to cruelty and horror. Their resistance and will had been quenched too harshly, too many times.
“Men were not created equal. Our leader knows it; we know it; you know it too. There are people pulling us down, preventing us from making progress. We must extinguish these thirsty mouths; terminate these drains on our nation’s resources.”
A few young children grasped for their mother’s hands. They know better than to speak. What’s coming next can’t be any worse, can it?
“I hereby declare, in name of our glorious leader, that all citizens will be evaluated by our esteemed official. Those who excel the examination will be offered privileges. Those who don’t will suffer from consequences. In the name of our glorious leader, let this country strive!”
Utter silence. For a people who have just been given an almost certain death sentence, they were strangely calm. No whispers of surprise or dejectedness. There is no point. Every complaint and whisper, every murmur and secret: nothing their ears. Only thoughts remain secret, and those have been oppressed for months and months.
There was no doubt on what ‘consequences’ would be. They would have fallen sooner or later anyway. What are a few fewer months of starvation and tears and labor? They almost pity the few lucky individuals who will still be present for the next announcement.
“You have disappointed our beloved leader. We should have made progress. We should be a great country. We should be living the time of our lives! His heart weeps for you fragile souls. We are doomed. Why? Because you have failed him.”
By this time, there were barely any people to listen to him. The small group of people left clustered in the centre of the hall, furthest away from the soldiers and their loaded guns around the room. Their undernourished bodies hardly took up any space at all.
“Our leader’s careful planning, his hours of relentless effort wasted in hope of improving your lives, all for nothing. You are lazy, you are idle, and you are unfaithful.”
The contrast between the well-fed soldiers and the hollow-cheeked citizens could not have been greater. You could count every rib underneath their clothes. Their clothes were little more than rags.
“We want more from you!”
Is there any left to give? You have already stolen our poor, our weak, and our will.
“We want your sweat, your tears, and your blood!”
Haven’t we given it all? We never asked for yours in return.
“We want your faith, your support, and your soul!”
We have nothing but our voices left, and even that you will take.
“We want your lives!”
Take it. Take it all.
Judge’s comment: A country’s new leader asked their citizens to be silent while the people wanted their voice to be heard. A very interesting and sarcastic way to interpret this year’s theme with a political sense. The writer was very skilful in their use of words, such “You have already stolen our poor, our weak, and our will.” and “We want your faith, your support, and your soul!”